Christmas in South Shields: Remembering celebrations from years gone by

A painting portraying a Christmas from the past. Inset, a plum pudding.
A painting portraying a Christmas from the past. Inset, a plum pudding.

As Christmas approaches, historian and regular contributor Dorothy Ramser, felt it would be “nice to take a brief glimpse back in time to see what our ancestors were doing during the festive period”.

Today, in the first part of her specially written portrayal of yuletides past, she shines a light on the seasonal highs and lows of life both here on South Tyneside and beyond.

The gates of a workhouse.

The gates of a workhouse.

She starts her journey on Boxing Day 1865, when the local newspaper described Christmas as “passing very quietly in South Shields”.

“There had been few people on the streets and the shops were all closed, with the bad weather cited as the reason for keeping people in front of their roaring coal fires.

“Nevertheless the annual Christmas dinner, given to the inmates of the South Shields Workhouse, took place in the large dining hall, which was described as being tastefully decorated with evergreen and flower arrangements.

“After a hearty dinner, toasts were given which were all drunk with great enthusiasm and undoubtedly with the hope of a generous refill or two!

“Alderman Williamson had given the men tobacco and pipes and the children oranges and nuts. No mention was given of any gift to the women but it’s hard to imagine they were left out.”

Meanwhile, a group of men, aged 70 years old and over, were treated to a Christmas dinner held in Mrs Jefferson’s of the Railway Inn, Mill Dam.

Their ages ranged from 74 to 91 years, “which was remarkable within the working class of the 19th century”.

Entertainment of the day was provided by Messrs Pinders who were staging their circus on the Station Bank, in South Shields.

“Lovers of all sorts of equestrian and hippodrome performances will be pleased to attend,” proclaimed the circus advertisement of the day.

Dorothy explained that the circus had been founded in 1854 by equestrian brothers George and William Pinder, and later was to be a regular feature of the Hoppings at Newcastle.

In North Shields, there was a production of the pantomime Ali Baba which had been so well attended it was “almost crowded to suffocation”.

“The curtain rose at 8pm,” says Dorothy, “with the children clapping enthusiastically at the exotic scene set in Baghdad.

“Three children of the North Shields Ragged School (an institution set up for destitute children) were given a big dinner of roast beef and plum pudding which had been paid for by Hugh Taylor, of Chipchase Castle.

“Mr Taylor, who was a Conservative Member of Parliament until 1861 and a colliery owner with interests in the shipping industry, had bought Chipchase Castle in 1862, which is still owned by his descendants.

“It would seem that treating the children of the Ragged School to a Christmas dinner was a regular affair for Mr Taylor because in 1859 it was reported that the children present for his meal, were described as being shoeless, stockingless, bonnetless, ragged and thinly clad ‘and the thankful looks and hearty enjoyment of the poor little creatures were a striking sight’.

“After a hymn had been sung and grace said, the dinner was served up. It consisted of 18 huge rich plum puddings and 200lbs of roast beef. The children had tea in the evening and were entertained by Magic Lantern.

“In the event of a tooth being broken on a silver sixpence buried in your portion of plum pudding, Mr Ephraim Mosely of 10 Eldon Square, was advertising painless tooth extraction by the aid of electricity, which he assured people, was carried out without the slightest pain or inconvenience.

“How many volts were used during the procedure is not indicated or how many patients survived the extraction.

“He also had on offer a denture palate made of India rubber which would provide an interesting experience chewing toffees.”

R. Watson, of Grey Street, Newcastle, was selling holly and mistletoe for the approaching festivities and had Christmas trees which had just arrived from Germany and a large stock of Christmas tree candles and tin holders and lamps for illumination.

“Plums, in handsome boxes, were also available as well as smoked tongues, polonies and hams from Germany and Russia.

“May’s, in Shields Market Place, was offering macaroni at 6d per lb, orange and lemon marmalade, jellies and bottled fruits, and as an agent for the China Tea Company, he had a large selection of rich, strong teas. Bullocks, on King Street, had British wines of the ‘very best quality’ and a large stock of excellent gingerbread for his customers.”

For those wanting to venture further afield, you could have taken a trip to London and back for 7s 6d, with only one night at sea on board the steam ships Wansbeck and Pioneer, which left Newcastle every Wednesday and Saturday.

What are your memories of the festive season when you were younger? Please get in touch with your stories.