Christmas Day at the Workhouse

This article originally appeared in the Notts. Free Press of 31st December 1886,
and describes the Christmas festivities in Mansfield Workhouse during that year.


    Whenever the present method of celebrating the occurrence of Christmas by feasting and merry making may have arisen, it has, from time immemorial, been an unwritten law that the poorer members of the great human family should have some share in the general enjoyment. This being acknowledged it seems but right that those who through mental, physical, or financial adversity have been forced to seek asylum in some one of our many public institutions, should have a special share of attention. To the inmates of our workhouses, with their ever recurring bill of fare, as the weeks roll round, Christmas is particularly looked forward to as a brief season of festivity, and as a juvenile resident in a workhouse remarked, Christmas means "one good dinner" for the inmates. Happily the days of "Oliver Twist" are over, and now, even if the lot of our pauper population "is not a happy one", there is a greater desire to make their condition as comfortable as is consistently possible. To change the appearance of one's surroundings is a good way to ensure at least a temporary forgetfulness of one's troubles, and so a visitor to the Mansfield Workhouse at this season of the year finds that labour has not been spared in the way of ornamentation. Mr. & Mrs. Williams, Mr. Davey, and Miss Wilson, assisted by the inmates, have been busily engaged with the result that the entrance hall, passages, and kitchen have been decorated with evergreens, festoons, etc., mottoes expressive of seasonable wishes could be seen on every hand and visitors to the kitchen were assured that "Christmas comes but once a year, and when it comes it brings good cheer", and happily the proceedings on Saturday did not belie the intimation. Special pains were bestowed on the dining hall, the gaseliers, windows and every available spot being brightened with festoons, evergreens, etc. Prominent at each end of the room were the well-known words - Hark, the herald angels sing, Glory to the new-born king - in large church-text letters cut from cardboard and covered with gold leaf. This had been the especial work of the Master and Mr. Davey, and being mounted on a back ground of green baize, proved at once an attractive and ornamental addition to the general decorations. The boys will have special cause to remember Christmas 1886, for they have this year been supplied with overcoats in accordance with the recent decision of the Guardians and these were worn on Saturday for the first time. The garments, which are of a substantial character, and well calculated to serve the purpose of providing warmth, have been almost entirely made by the lads themselves in the tailors' shop connected with the house, and their workmanship is at once creditable to themselves and their instructor.
    Proceedings commenced at five o'clock, when the youngsters comprising the Drum and Fife Band turned out under Mr. Williams and Mr. Davy, and played and sang a selection of Christmas anthems and carols at various points in the grounds, and their bright and creditable performance struck a joyous keynote, which augured well for the day's enjoyment. Breakfast followed in due course and comprised the usual fare of porridge or bread and butter and tea, according to the age of inmates. At ten o'clock all who were able assembled in the dining hall, when the Rev. R. Keen officiated, and the service was fully choral, the anthem for the day being , "Behold I bring you good tidings", and it was well-rendered by the local choir.
    At half-past twelve, the dining-hall was again crowded on the occasion of what many of the participants probably considered to be the most important item in the day's proceedings, viz., the annual Christmas dinner. This comprised roast beef, mashed potatoes, and plum pudding, with a pint of ale for the men, and half-a-pint for the women, and was a considerable contrast to the bread and soup or suet pudding, one of which would otherwisehave formed the menu for the day. Tobacco and snuff were distributed with an open hand afterwards, and freely indulged in. Messrs. Nuttall, Parker, and Ward had each sent gifts of those articles, whilst Messrs. Allen and Swift sent sweets etc., and the Guardians, in addition to voting the funds for the dinner, contributed personally towards the procurement of luxuries. A number of ladies and gentlemen were present at dinner and assisted in various ways, amongst them being - Mrs. Birch, Mrs. Titley, the Misses Godfrey, Miss Wyeld, and the Misses White, Mr. Birks (representing the board of Guardians), and Messrs. A.J. Hibbert, Cash, H. Powell, Wyeld, Aves, J. Ward, Jackson, W. White, Westwood etc. At the conclusion of the feasting, the genial Master of the Union, (Mr D Williams) proposed a vote of thanks to the Board of Guardians and other donors for their kindness, and it is surely needless to say that no dissentient voice was raised. Mr Birks, in responding, said that the Guardians desired to promote the welfare and happiness of the poor at all times, but more especially at Christmas, and whatever they did was done with a very good will.
    Later in the afternoon there was a repetition of the happy scene which specially marked out the Christmas of 1885 to any of its predecessors. On that occasion, the Misses Lee of Berry-hill and their sister , Mrs W. H. Thomasson, conceived the scheme of providing a Christmas tree for the inmates of the Mansfield Workhouse, and it is doubtful whether, in the history of the many acts of charity and kindness performed by these ...

        (here a small part of the column has been lost - both in hard copy and film version)

... the age and requirements of the recipient, and the delight of all, both old and young, could be plainly read on their faces. A hearty vote of thanks was accorded to those who had in any way helped to produce the afternoon's pleasure.
At half-past five tea was provided, and this meal, which consisted of tea, bread and butter, and cake, seemed to be heartily enjoyed in spite of the substantial work which had already been effected.

Transcribed from the original 6th October 2002                 
All spellings and punctuation found in the original have been retained.

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