By John Putley
The diaries of William Thomas Swift, schoolmaster & teacher, 1860-1915 are a remarkable series of documents with entries for every single day from 31 December 1859, when the diarist was eighteen years old, until 5 February 1915, just five days before his death at the age of 73. Early entries are brief, but as time goes on they become more and more comprehensive and none more so than the entries for the various Christmas holidays that he recorded. They reveal a Christmas that most of us would easily recognise today, despite the fact that they took place over a century ago.
The first Christmas in the diaries is for 1860 and was an entry of brevity. William was living in Cheltenham at the time and it appears that – like many people do today – his family simply went out for dinner, in this instance to The Crown Inn on the High Street, where it seems a relative had booked a room, ‘To the Crown and fetched Walter in the evening. We all went to the Crown where Aunt held the usual Christmas party – which we enjoyed as usual – the same persons present.’
As time passed, William’s diary entries expanded in detail and the one for Christmas Day 1889 is typical. By this time, William had married and his family – consisting of wife Rosena and sons Reginald, Arthur, Harry & William – were living in Churchdown;
A most beautiful day with bright sun especially from 10am to sunset with haze on the hills. To church at 11 – decorations as usual – save the font which had nothing, the altar with its reredos with its flowers & evergreens & cross. The boys tried their best & the singing was very creditable. The hymns were 58-59-57, Anglican chants with Tallis responses. 28 communicants. Mr & Mrs Joseph Smithe were present – Harry being absent (he went to Marle Hill parade yesterday). I carried the books and the communion plate etc. We waited dinner until near 3pm – as Arthur & Leonard had gone to Elmstone. Leah met them at the Cross Hands and returned with them. Arthur of course played the harmonium. At 4, Arthur and I went out – my usual walk Purton-Parton – a new moon showing in a clear sky, a slight hoar frost & a beautiful evening. Through the evening we sat around the fire and talked. I did a little reading between, chiefly in the “Spectator”. Supper at 9pm, grog afterwards. Carol singers in the neighbourhood – some minstrels – so passed Christmas Day of 1889. Of course, we had the common fare: roast beef, horseradish & vegetables, including some artichokes, plum pudding & mince pies.
Leah was the family’s parlour maid so presumably she’d been released for the day to spend some time with her family, as was often the custom. She hailed from Lower Stone near Berkeley but may have been related to the family as her surname was Pick, the same as William’s mother. Regarding the Christmas food, the artichokes are perhaps unusual today – but it seems they were then as they are not recorded again in the diaries. The Swift family never seem to have bothered with turkey, which was common by this date, but nearly always ate roast beef; Christmas 1900 being typical, ‘Our dinner – R.beef & veg, Horse Radish sauce – Plum pud & rum sauce – mince pie’. On occasion however, the family switched togoose, as recorded at Christmas 1887, ‘We had a goose for dinner – which Reginald purchased, very good’. Despite its diary stamp of approval, it wasn’t until Christmas 1897, a full 10 years later, when goose returned to the Swift’s dinner table, ‘Our dinner was Roast Goose from Lower Stone – 7s – veg & plum pudding.’ It is possible that this bird came from the Leah the parlour maid’s family’s farm at Lower Stone.
Other Christmases followed in a similar pattern to the one above; mornings being occupied by food preparation and a visit to church, followed by dinner, another visit to church and then visits by guests and or family. Evenings were full of reading, music plus some drinking and smoking. Carol singing is often mentioned, notably Christmas 1897, when William wrote ‘So the day wore on diversified by carol singers, one of whom was an old man signing “While Shepherds watch their flocks by night.”
Occasionally more unusual things took place. On Christmas Day 1893 Swift recorded the assigning of an apprenticeship, although it had faced opposition from one senior parishioner, as Swift recalls; ‘Mr Jones, Mrs Perkins & Miss Smith wished me the compliments of the season at the close. Mr Jones said he had just received £5 from Canon Bell – for the apprenticing of Will Roberts to a shoemaker. This is from the charity for the purpose – this annoys Dr S., who is like a dog in the manger ‘. Christmas 1893 witnessed another internal parish dispute; ‘To church at 10.30 – Dr S seemed in a morose temper – not pleasing on this day – he called while waiting, talking about the curate – whom he dislikes owing to the latter’s conduct on the holidays last autumn & his letters to him (the Doctor), which he considered impertinent and so he is civil to him but anything but cordial. I took charge of putting out the candles (to save the curate).
Another interesting aspect of the dairies is the Christmas weather that Swift recorded. One might expect lots more snowy Christmases but Swift only rarely mentions snow, notably at Christmas 1887 when, while walking down Chosen Hill, ‘a slight fall of snow came on, then a little rain about 5pm’. More common were clear cold Christmases as in 1889 (above) and Christmas 1897, ‘A beautiful morn – without a cloud & a white frost prevails ‘. Christmas 1882 was more like the Christmases we experience today; wet! ‘We went to church – the roads in a frightful state of mud from the rain in the month. Raining a regular green Christmas – the church on the hill enveloped in cloud & inside it was so dark it was difficult to see the music notes ’. The church here was St. Bartholomew’s’ Church on top of Chosen Hill. Christmas 1893 was different as it was notably warm for ‘In the afternoon, we put on a Yule log – though the weather is very mild & we really did not want it.’
However without doubt the saddest Christmas in the set of diaries was the year 1900, for as William writes; ’No sooner dinner over than we had to clear for our guests: Mr & Mrs & Ms David J Brown. They told how “Rover” had been taken this afternoon to Noke by DB & shot by Mr Jackson’s nephew – “Rover” had of late shown symptoms of snapping at Mr DB & of being altogether unmanageable – so he was doomed.’ The place where Rover met his sad Christmas day end was The Noake on the southern side of Chosen Hill.
Luckily there was no further festive sadness and Christmas Days continued in the previous happy vein. William’s last Christmas was to be Christmas 1914. The entry was fairly typical of previous Christmases and nothing majorly unusual took place – William was obviously feeling festive as in the evening he read from the Pickwick Papers choosing ‘the Pickwickian visit to Dingley Dell at Christmas’ as his subject. The only sign perhaps that age was catching up with him was that his writing was starting to become a little bit more spidery. After Christmas his health deteriorated and he had several seizures (probably strokes) in late January. William Swift died on 10 February 1915 and his funeral took place at Churchdown on 14 February, a Sunday afternoon. As well as his diaries (under the collection reference D3981) copies of his will and of that of his wife are held with us at Gloucestershire Archives.