A century ago the world was at war but those on the homefront were determined to bring some Christmas cheer to Preston 1915. Local historian KEITH JOHNSON reports.
If ever a bleak Christmas was ahead it was surely so in 1915 – after all the world was at war and the prospects of a conclusion seemed far away.
A Lancashire Daily Post headline in the week before Christmas had summed up the sorry plight stating ‘528,227 – total British war losses’ – with many more to come unfortunately.
There were stories in the newspapers of the heroic bravery of Preston’s soldiers and sailors and inevitably reports of those who had died.
Private Geoffrey Taylor, an old Harris Orphanage boy, who had been shot dead, received this tribute from his commanding officer, “His death is a loss to us all, for he was plucky in the extreme, never shirked a task, and always cheery and willing.”
The December weather had been quite severe with snow falling and a continuous frost giving rise to the hope of a white Christmas.
Alas, it was not to be with a rise in the temperatures giving sway to wind and rain in Christmas week.
Certainly, the Preston trades folk had done their best to ensure the usual Christmas delights and necessities were in the shops in the days before Christmas.
The jewellery shops had their usual eye catching window displays with H Samuel on Friargate offering ‘Xmas Bargains’ with clocks, watches and a glittering array of jewels.
Hirst’s Novelty House, in Church Street, was proud to present the finest of perfumes and the very latest in neck ties.
The National Tea Company, in Friargate, was not only offering teapots and china cups, but wooden engines and horses for the little toddlers who accompanied their mother to the store.
The Preston Drug Company, at the top of Fox Street, besides claiming to stock the finest perfumes had all the latest cameras to take delightful portraits as gifts.
The Belfast Depot, in Miller Arcade, was happy to suggest the most popular presents for Preston folk. According to them, ladies loved silk pyjamas and cotton shirt blouses on sale for a £1, while gentlemen would be delighted to receive a trouser press or even woollen underwear.
For children there were few better places than the Hobby Centre, owned by Richard Marsden at the corner of Grimshaw Street where you could get the ‘best mechanical and instructive toys in town’ – motor cars, trains and planes all running like clockwork.
And if your purse was ‘fat or lean’ Middlebrooks, in Church Street, had all the Christmas novelties you could imagine on display.
Powell’s, the local biscuit company, had certainly gone to town to feed up locals with not only the best of biscuits, but mince puffs, fig rolls and their legendary plum puddings all at bargain prices.
Myerscough’s the butchers was offering local country fed pork and their MP Sausages were said to be just the thing for garnishing the turkey.
If you visited Eastham’s, in Lancaster Road, besides buying the choicest of blooms you could get such seasonable dainties as figs, mandarins, muscatels and almonds.
While Heaney’s, in Fishergate, had a great reputation and customers flocked there to get the best Christmas turkey, goose, duck, chicken, pheasant, grouse, hare and rabbit.
In truth, too many homes were shadowed by death or imminent danger for joyousness to find much of its traditional expression.
No romantic expanse of virgin snow, no touch of frost on a Christmas Eve of incessant rain adding to the gloom.
Fortunately, the rain cleared on Christmas Day and the sun briefly glimpsed through the clouds.
In keeping with a tradition begun in 1892 the annual ‘Uncle Sam’ breakfast was provided for more than 1,000 children who filed through the Temperance Hall to be handed their packets of food.
Each child receiving a meat pie, a mince pie, a ginger cake, a packet of biscuits, an apple and an orange.
The children of the Harris Orphanage, in Fulwood, had their usual Christmas festivities.
A huge Christmas tree in the new Recreation Hall was loaded with toys for each of the 100 youngsters who smiled contentedly as they received them.
At the Shepherd Street Mission no less than 1,250 children were provided with a Christmas morning breakfast.
Along with hot coffee, each child was provided with a lunch bun, currant bread, seed cake, fruit and a picture book.
At Preston Infirmary Christmas was observed in the usual fashion. Turkey and plum pudding was the fare for all able to enjoy it. In each of the children’s wards a Christmas tree was laden with baubles and gifts. Each child was handed a gift from the tree much to their delight. Piano and violin concerts took place throughout the Christmas period and touring carol singers were commonplace on all the wards.
At the newly-established Moor Park Military Hospital there were more than 90 wounded servicemen to be nursed through the festive period. The wards were tastefully decorated and the Mayoress Mrs Anna Marie Cartmell paid a visit to hand out gifts of sweets and tobacco. On Christmas morning each patient received a Christmas stocking from the children of St Matthew’s School containing a Christmas card, writing paper and envelopes, and a packet of cigarettes.
So far as circumstances could permit a cheerful Christmas was spent at Fulwood Barracks where a good number of the soldiers had gone out on leave.
Those who remained were released from drill for Christmas Day, and enjoyed a substantial Christmas dinner, cigarettes and pastries. Soldiers from the Barracks along with a number of female volunteers helped with the Christmas mail and parcels in the weeks before Christmas ensuring that letters, cards and parcels got to those serving on the foreign fields of war. Even on Christmas morning the ladies and the soldiers were out early delivering the last of the Christmas mail locally.
The churches of the town continued with business as usual with the church of St George’s leading the way for the Anglican congregations. They had an early morning service on Christmas Day and sang carols in the evening.
The Roman Catholic churches kept up the tradition of Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and large congregations gathered despite the inclement weather. Each church was busy on Christmas Day with masses every hour and High Mass at 11am, followed by benediction.
It was a similarly busy time for the Methodists, the Congregationalists and those of other faiths who gathered to pray for more peaceful times ahead.
Despite the gloom of war hanging over Lancashire the town was progressing in the world of entertainment.
Opened two days before Christmas the Palladium Cinema, in Church Street, was the main attraction. On Boxing Day they had a continuous picture show running from 2.30pm until 10.30pm and the cinema was filled throughout.
The main feature film was ‘The High Road’ starring Valli Valli appearing as Mary Page. A story of a girl driven from her country home by a brutal father who ends up tasting the glamour of city life.
At the Palace Theatre the silver screen attraction was a two-reel adaptation of Charles Dickens famous novel ‘Cricket On The Hearth’, backed up by the comedy ‘For Better or Worse’.
At the Princes Theatre in Tithebarn Street it was also the days of silent movies and ‘The Spider’s Castle’ was the main attraction, with a Charlie Chaplin film to follow. At the Theatre Royal on Fishergate crowds flocked to see a double bill of ‘The Woman Hater’ starring Pearl White and ‘Charlie The Perfect Lady’.
On Avenham Street at the Embee Hall Pictureland cinema they simply offered a ‘Grand Holiday Programme’ of the cinema’s finest for 6d in the best seats.
At the Hippodrome Theatre, in Friargate, Harry Grattan’s tartan revue ‘All Scotch’ was much acclaimed. Straight from a six month run at the Apollo Theatre in London, it thrilled the audience with exceptional music, and glamorous ladies suitably gowned. Leading lady Miss Jean Alywin was praised for her performance. The Empire Theatre on Church Street was by now well established and their Merry Christmas revue ‘Love Birds’ was well received. Matinee and twice nightly performances ensured a box office success.