We’re all witnessing a different kind of Christmas in 2020. One without the usual carol services, Christmas fairs, pantomime outings and no spending ‘real time’ with family and friends. As a diversion, we thought we’d take a brief look at some of the Christmas ‘goings-on’ of Islington past.
Read on with a cup of spiced tea and a mince pie!
Have Yourself an Aggie Little Christmas!
You can learn all about the Christmas fun fairs filled with pageants, fairground rides, music and wild animals at the Agricultural Hall or ‘Aggie’ in our presentation Meet Me at the Aggie. However, the Smithfield Club Show (first established in 1798) was the most enduring annual event at the Aggie. It took place between 1862 and 1938 and was usually held a week or two before Christmas. The first livestock fair held at the Aggie attracted almost 135,000 visitors. Members of the royal family frequently attended these showcases of Britain as a leading meat-producing nation. The Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) took a particular interest and regularly entered specimens from the royal farms.
There was no better place to see all the finest varieties of cattle, as well as pigs and sheep. In 1864, the Islington Gazette commented that “We would not want to exaggerate the effect of the Smithfield Show but we do regard it as a triumph of principles that has almost infinite outgoings” and observed that livestock shows were a fitting event for the lead-up to Christmas, traditionally a season of abundance. Press coverage also indicates a habit of complaints about the most recent show not being as good as those in previous years!
The Pleasure of Pantomime and Performance
Christmas really isn’t Christmas without theatre, and especially the tradition of pantomime. We can usually expect delightful and hilarious Christmas shows at Sadler’s Wells, the King’s Head, the Rosemary Branch, the Little Angel and others (do check out what’s available to watch online). Islingtonians of the past would have sought festive entertainments filled with uproarious dames, dashing principal boys and lines of dancing girls at venues including Collins Music Hall, the Finsbury Park Empire and the Grand Theatre, Islington High Street.
A notable figure in the world of Islington pantomime was Geoffrey Thorne, who by day was chief registrar of births and deaths (as Charles Townley) and a contributor to the Islington Gazette and other publications. Thorne was best known for his comic song Who Killed Cock Warren? (satirising the resignation of police chief Sir Charles Warren in 1888 when he failed to catch Jack the Ripper). He was also closely associated with pantomimes at the Grand Theatre (located where the Royal Bank of Scotland building now stands, adjacent to Angel Station). The 1904 production of The Babes in the Wood, penned by Thorne, was praised by the London Daily News for its “transformation scene in which no fewer than three tons of glass featured prominently […] a fitting climax to the performance, and praise is due to the management for its efforts in upholding the reputation for good pantomimes so long enjoyed by the ‘Adelphi of the Suburbs’”. Sounds spectacular indeed!
Christmas Day in Cornwallis Road Workhouse
The workhouse system was established in 1834 under the New Poor Law in order to centralise poverty relief, which was previously administered on a case-by-case basis by local parishes, in order to deter all but the most destitute from applying. The harrowing conditions featured in many works of Victorian art and fiction, most notably Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1837-9). The campaigning journalist George Robert Sims’ impassioned ballad Christmas Day in the Workhouse was first published in 1877 and became hugely popular and was frequently parodied.
A version of the workhouse system continued into the twentieth century. Cornwallis Road Workhouse, Upper Holloway was established in 1864-5 by the West London Union and by 1882 was taken over by the Board of Guardians of St Mary’s, Islington. The quantities in this recipe for Christmas pudding for the inmates (over 900 of them) of 1904, handwritten by workhouse cook Clara Dyer, certainly are extraordinary. The Islington Gazette depicted the Cornwallis Road Workhouse Christmas as a jolly affair with copious amounts of food and a dining hall decorated with “a fairylike appearance with its embellishment of flowers, greenery, various coloured rosettes and Chinese lanterns”. However, it’s unlikely that the rosy treatment in the press reflected the reality.
A Twixmas* Read
If you are a fan of vintage crime fiction, it’s almost certain that you’ll enjoy The Christmas Egg by Mary Kelly (1958), recently reissued as part of the British Library Crime classics series: Shortly before Christmas, White Russian émigré Princess Olga Karukhina is found dead in suspicious circumstances in her seedy bedsit off Islington High Street and her priceless Fabergé egg has been stolen… will the mystery be solved by Christmas Day? Kelly was an amateur opera singer who knew Islington through her visits to Sadler’s Wells and she bestowed her love of music on her sleuth, the aptly named Inspector Nightingale.
The book contains evocative descriptions of Islington High Street in the aftermath of the Second World War:
“[Nightingale] had only seen it before in daylight; by night it appeared to be even more a survival from the past. Its narrow curving course and pavements sloping to a central runnel recalled the village long engulfed by the city. The high, flat-faced buildings crowded on either side, their ground floors of tiny shops bedizened at this time with dusty Christmas decorations, belonged unmistakably to London; but to the last century.”
Quite different to today but the sense of economic depression strikes a chord.
[* Twixmas is the word given to the ‘relaxed’ days (27-30 December) between Christmas and New Year’s Eve]
As well as curling up with a good book, such as The Christmas Egg, one activity that we can still indulge in is a good walk. Admittedly, there hasn’t been much else that we can do outside the home since March but Islington has so much handsome architecture and walking around in wintry sunshine is one of the best ways in which to enjoy it. I especially like Canonbury House (built 1795), which must be full of the ghosts of the most gloriously Dickensian Christmas memories. I wish I could have attended a Christmas party there in days gone by!
What do you enjoy most about Christmas in Islington? Do you have any special traditions and what are you doing differently this year?
All at Islington Museum and Local History Centre wish you a safe and peaceful festive season and a happy (and better) New Year!
Researched and written by Julia Rank
Islington Museum | Islington Local History Centre (December 2020)
- View Julia’s accompanying Meet Me At The Aggie online presentation
The Christmas Egg by Mary Kelly (1958, reissued by British Library Publishing in 2019, with an introduction by Martin Edwards)