From murder trials to feeding the poor, and from petitions calling to ban festivities to complaints of bad singing; LAURA DALE explores past Devon Christmases
Modern-day Christmas traditions include a decorated tree, Christmas pudding, carol singing, the occasional festive drink and the giving of gifts; but what made up an historical Christmas?
Thanks to historian Todd Gray, and the meticulous research of other hobby historians, we are able to take a look back through the centuries at Christmas traditions and events specific to our green and pleasant county.
The first Royal family to spend Christmas in Exeter were King Edward I, Queen Eleanor and their three daughters. On December 23 1285 they attended mass at Exeter Cathedral; but they were not in the City for the holidays. The King had travelled to Exeter at the request of the Bishop to investigate the bloody murder of a clergyman in 1283.
A group of men, who were employed by the Mayor, attacked Walter Lechlade with knives, swords and axes, dealing two fatal blows to the head. Lechlade had been at the centre of a medieval power struggle. The trial began on Christmas Eve and resulted in the hanging of the Mayor and four coconspirators. The actual killers escaped through South Gate, which had been unguarded. A fortified wall complete with gate houses was built around the entire Cathedral precinct, creating Cathedral Close. For hundreds of years, across the county, it has been the practise to provide Christmas meals for the vulnerable and less fortunate. In about 1610 John Willoughby from Combe in Gittisham, East Devon, provided a series of meals over six days during the Christmas period for his tenants
and workers. In the years before the Great Reforms of the 1830s, the ordinary Devon villager was reliant upon the wealthy to provide a Christmas meal from which he would “render obedience to his betters until Christmas came around again”. In the years following the Great Reforms, the standard of living had risen to allow workers to provide a meal for themselves in their own homes. But this did not put an end to the charitable Christmas practise, and in 1888 in Tavistock, 220 wives and the children of the navvies (labourers employed in the excavation and
‘Bad singing was reported at Bideford in 1866 and a German brass band was disapproved of at Sidmouth in 1865’
construction of a road, railway or canal) were given a Christmas tea together with gifts and entertainment.
A year later, and for the 21st year, Exeter craftsman Harry Hems, hosted a feast of beef, mutton, pork and goose for some 60 “broken down citizens and their wives” in his studio on Longbrook Street and on Boxing Day he and his family entertained children from a local orphanage.
But the festive spirit was not always prevalent. In the 1640s and 1650s Parliament went to great lengths to stop any festive celebrations. In 1644 Oliver Cromwell enforced an Act of Parliament banning Christmas celebrations (Christmas was regarded by Puritans as a wasteful festival which threatened core Christian beliefs). Christmas activities were banned and it was labelled as promoting drunkenness and promiscuity.
Bad singing was reported at Bideford in 1866 and a German brass band was disapproved of at Sidmouth in 1865. In Dartmouth in 1876, a group of drunken sailors sang vulgar songs and made rude jokes resulting in complaints from residents.
Fortunately, the politicians and nimbys seem to have been largely ignored and many people continued to celebrate Christmas, if necessary in secret.
In 1911 bunches of holly were attached to the mastheads of the warships at Devonport, whilst in Torquay the hospital had red, white and blue decorations in the Coronation Ward. It was around this time that Mummers performed plays in public houses. They wore exotic clothes and many accounts show there was a Father Christmas, a hero (generally St George), and a villain (originally a Turkish knight). It wasn’t until Victorian times that having a tree in the house became part of the Christmas tradition. It was the Queen’s German parents who were familiar with the custom, which was widely practised in their Rhineland home.
During the Second World War, around 1943, German prisoners of war (POWS) became a common sight on Exeter’s streets. Many of them were employed by local farmers to work the land.
On Christmas Eve at the Elim Church, one of the POWS asked the minister if he and his friends could perform a carol. Brian Slemming recalls: “Father, of course agreed, and the men/ boys left their seats walked to the front and sang Silent Night Holy Night in German. To me the sight is as clear now as it was at the time. The group of men held the congregation spellbound. Before they finished, sobs could be heard around the church. And at the end, truly, there was not a dry eye in the church. It was a moment when Christmas spirit ruled.” Special thanks to Todd Gray, author of Christmas in Devon and to David Cornforth at Exeter Memories.