Christmas in Georgian East Yorkshire
Tuesday, 22nd December 2020
Many aspects of how we celebrate Christmas are said to have been introduced in the Victorian period, some thanks to Prince Albert, but how was Christmas celebrated in Georgian East Yorkshire? Little is revealed in the few possible sources available. Any mentions of Christmas in newspapers are usually to extol the generosity of the landed gentry and others during the festive season. For example the Hull Advertiser of 6 January 1810 reported that “On Christmas-day R. Watt, Esq. gave to the poor of Bishop Burton, a whole ox, which, with bread was distributed to every poor family; and on New Year’s-day he gave sixpence to every poor person who applied for it.” [There is, of course, no mention of any Christmas cheer that Richard Watt might have bestowed on over 300 slaves that then worked on his plantation in Jamaica, over 120 of whom had been born in Africa.]
The diaries of John Courtney of Beverley, 1758-69 and 1789-1805, indicate that Christmas was not treated by him or his family as a time for lavish festivities. Most of the many entries for Christmas Day in this wealthy gentleman’s diaries record going to church once or twice on that day, and supper with a couple of guests. Robert Sharp, the schoolmaster-diarist of South Cave at the end of the Georgian period, provides much fuller accounts of Christmas in an East Yorkshire village, albeit rather Scrooge-like. On 25 December 1826 he wrote:
‘Christmas Day ushered in by the Waits about one or two O’clock in the morning, what they call singing a Christmas Carrol, but in reality disturbing the good easy people who have a mind to enjoy sleep at the proper season; then these same disturbers have the impudence to beg of the Inhabitants to reward them, for undertaking to keep them awake; I promised them I would not give any thing and I stood to my promise. Then about five or six O’clock in the morning all the impudent lads and lasses in the Town running about for Christmas Boxes. I know a Box on the ears would have been the best reward. At Church in the forenoon, in the afternoon I staid at home, getting ready the Balance of my Stamp account, which is to be sent tomorrow … I do not think so much of the sacredness of Christmas day as many people do, for what command is there to set it above the Sabbath? Robt. Marshall and Mr. Bellard came in the Evening and smoked a pipe.’
A similar curmudgeonly account appears in the diary in 1831: ‘This is Christmas day, all the young Gangrills in the Town, running and shouting a merry Christmas: but they are not contented with all the noise they make, except they be paid for it, how they get supplied , I cannot tell, as Money is a scarce Article now a days.’ (A gangrill was ‘a person going about as pedlar’.)
That year Robert Sharp recorded that he and his wife ‘had some Furmity as usual on Christmas eve, aye and we have had a Youle Clog, burnt in the best manner’. A similar entry on 24 December 1833 notes: ‘This being Christmas eve most people according to Custom, have got a Yule Clog and are preparing Furmety for Supper, which with a bit of Cheese and Apple Pie, for those who can get it, is a common set out.’ Furmety or frummety was a dish made from wheat soaked in water for a day, then beaten to remove the outer-coat or shell. The ‘pure’ corn was placed in an oven for two to three hours before it was boiled in milk with the addition of sugar and nutmeg and other spices. It was only eaten at Christmas.
Clog, as used in Yule clog, is the name of any substantial or roughly shaped piece of wood rather than footwear. John Cole in his History and Antiquities of Filey, published 1828, noted that at Christmas ‘An immense block of wood called a Yule clog is placed upon the fire, and the yule candle, a tall mould half a yard in length, is lighted. The candles are in general presented by the chandlers to their customers…. Sometimes a piece of the clog is saved and put below the bed, to remain till the following Christmas when it is used to light the new clog: it is thought that it has the charm to secure the house from fire; … a fragment of it thrown into the fire is said to quell the raging storm! ‘ Three wishes for the next year were made over the burning clog.
Robert Sharp provides more information on Christmas fare when listing the contents of the box sent in 1821 to his son William, who had just begun working as a clerk in the offices of Longman’s the publishers in London. “One Goose Pie with a few Slices of Old Ham in it. And another Pork and Beef. Here are likewise some Sausages & Black puddings of your Mothers own making, with Mince tarts made on purpose for Christmas. We hope you will receive all in good order and Condition, which you may either enjoy in a Solitary or social manner as you think the most conducive to your own interest. Only I think you must get your kind Landlady to boil your Sausages, and invite her to Sup with you, and if either or both of the young men Clerks in your department are kind to you, you may let them taste of a Yorkshire pie.” The box was sent off on Tuesday, 25 December, and Robert Sharp remarked ‘I expect you will receive this Box on Thursday evening so be sure to write on Friday, which will in come in due course on Sunday morning.’
Extracts from Robert Sharp’s diary from J.E. Crowther and P.A. Crowther (eds), The Diary of Robert Sharp of South Cave: Life in a Yorkshire Village 1812-1837, British Academy (1997).
Enjoy your furmety on Christmas Eve, and make your wish over the yule clog for a much better year in 2021.
David Neave, December 2020