Christmas in Preston after the Great War

With the First World War finally over after four terrible years of bloodshed and loss, Christmas 100 years ago was a particularly special time for people in Preston and throughout the nation, as local historian Keith Johnson reports

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 20th December 2018, 11:51 am
Updated Thursday, 20th December 2018, 12:53 pm
Christmas card sent home from soldiers still  on the Western Front after teh end of the First World War in 1918
Christmas card sent home from soldiers still on the Western Front after teh end of the First World War in 1918

One hundred years ago following a night of sleet, followed by a keen frost, Christmas Day dawned bright and sharp, with rare rays of sunshine adding brightness to the scene and people alike.

The Christmas of 1918 had been looked forward to with great enthusiasm, coming as it did after four successive years of Christmas spent beneath the shadow of war.

The old time zest and abandon returned as Preston prepared to celebrate the greatest festival in the calendar. Throughout England it was recognised as the ‘Victory Christmas’, one to be observed in a spirit of thankfulness and due rejoicing, the nation having emerged from a tremendous ordeal which had tested the endurance of the fighting men and the determination of the people.

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Wounded soldiers at Moor Park Hospital assist in decorating the Christmas Tree

The empires which had forced the war on Europe were in the process of dissolution and a new day was dawning, promising liberty to the oppressed and reparation to the victims of aggression.

Unfortunately, although the fighting was at an end, the work of our soldiers and sailors was not yet complete. In consequence, Christmas leave was only feasible for a comparative few, although even those still serving abroad could view the festival with a new significance.

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Alas, after a war that had exacted a heavy toll on the lives of the best and bravest of our nation, many traditional family reunions would be incomplete. Many households throughout the country gathered to celebrate Christmas while stricken with grief for those whose lives had been lost. To ensure Christmas was enjoyed, the Government had seen fit to relax certain of the restrictions imposed under the stress of war, particularly those connected with foodstuffs.

Preston children waiting for their fathers to return from the war in 1918

As a result the Christmas fare was plentiful and varied, although by no means cheap. On the Preston covered market, Wades was offering prime country-fed turkeys and plump ducks for two shillings per pound. As for the traditional sprouts, you could have a pound for five pence, whilst carrots were twice the price.

In general the Yuletide spirit of pre-war days returned and Preston’s Christmas was one of ‘Peace on earth, and goodwill towards men’. Fortunately, an unexpected number of local soldiers and sailors were granted Christmas leave at the last minute and families were happy to be at home amid their customary surroundings.

Most of those returning home arrived early, and the traffic on Christmas Eve was much below normal. Much to the relief of the Preston Railway station staff the number of travellers on Christmas Day and Boxing Day was small in comparison with former years. Many workers had an extra couple of days’ holiday, including those in the cotton trade where there was a shortage of weft, while those in the munitions factories had earned a few days’ rest, as had the locals recruited for the Woman’s Land Army in June. Their work had ensured there was some fresh vegetables on the Christmas tables, although milk was in short supply.

An influenza epidemic in town meant visitors could not be received at the Preston Royal Infirmary. Nonetheless, matron and her staff made every effort to celebrate as bright and cheerful a Christmas as possible. The wards were attractively decorated and in the children’s ward there was a large Christmas tree. On Christmas Eve, the choir of St Paul’s Church were permitted to stand in the corridors and sing the customary Christmas carols, while the nurses could be heard singing carols early on Christmas morning.

Christmas 1918 greetings card from Preston, left, and a popular wartime song

Later in the day, those whose condition enabled were treated to a Christmas dinner of roast pork followed by plum pudding. Likewise, for the wounded and sick soldiers in the local hospitals it was a time of special rejoicing. Those in the Moor Park Hospital were treated to geese or turkeys reared on the hospital farm. A large Christmas tree was also provided, laden with gifts from the hospital comforts fund.

On the Saturday before Christmas a large crowd had gathered in the Market Square when the Mayor of Preston Alderman Catterall (pictured, inset), who had been Mayor throughout the war years, presented three more military medals. For Privates Lenon, Ascroft and Goodair, whose achievements included bravery at Passchendaele, there was a great outpouring of appreciation with the military men still stationed at Fulwood Barracks swelling the crowd.

Those great institutions of the town the Shepherd Street Mission, the Harris Orphanage and the old Workhouse at Fulwood played their part in ensuring Christmas was full of treats for young and old alike. The Poor Law Guardians made sure there was ample roast beef and vegetables on the table for a traditional Christmas dinner for more than 400 residents of the old Fulwood workhouse, while more than 500 children were treated to a free breakfast at the Shepherd Street Mission, that included meat pies, cakes, oranges and hot cocoa aplenty.

At the Harris Orphanage, despite the recent influenza epidemic, they carried on providing a pleasant Christmas time, besides the tasty treats each child received a gift from the gaily decorated Christmas tree. At the Temperance Hall on North Road on Christmas morning the needy children were treated to the 26th annual ‘Uncle Sam’s’ Christmas breakfast. More than 1,200 gathered to receive a bag containing biscuits, a cake, a meat pie, an apple and an orange.

As usual, the local churches were offering services galore, be it the Preston Parish Church where the Rev Hercules Scott Butler rejoiced in the new found peace with three Holy Communion services on Christmas morning, or at the more humble Railway Mission hall in Corporation Street where their choir sang forth with tradition carols. Even the captive audience at Preston prison had Christmas hymns and carols provided by visiting parsons, priests and preachers. For some, Christmas would be incomplete without a performance of ‘Messiah’ and the Preston Choral Society did not disappoint with a grand concert at the Public Hall.

As far as entertainment was concerned, The Empire had the pantomime Little Bo-Peep on offer, with a star cast on stage twice nightly, while the Palladium and the Theatre Royal plumped for the latest popular Charlie Chaplin film Shoulder Arms. Will Onda, the proprietor of the Princes Theatre, included among his holiday entertainment a mammoth boxing show. Besides a number of local boxers slugging it out, there was a bruising welterweight contest between Bert Dyke, of Manchester, and Jack Helme, of Preston, that was drawn after 15 punishing rounds.

There was no doubt that the popularity of football was on the increase again, although the clubs were still restricted to regional football. In the Northern Section Preston North End had a double header with Blackburn Rovers. On Christmas Day before a watching crowd of 2,500 the sides shared the points in a scoreless draw. The Preston side squandering a number of chances to earn a victory. On Boxing Day, more than 8,000 were attracted to the return fixture that was a brisk encounter. Ogden, a young soldier, making his first appearance for the Rovers gave an impressive performance.

He levelled the score just before the interval after Broome had put PNE ahead early. Clifton seemed to have settled matters late in the second half, but Ogden popped up again to equalise to secure a 2-2 draw. On Christmas Day at Deepdale a crowd of 8,000 witnessed a thrilling match when the ladies of Dick, Kerr’s, who had been doing sterling work on the munitions front, played a team from Bolton to a 2-2 draw. With gate receipts of £180, local charities were in for a pleasant windfall.

When the Preston Police Court sat after Christmas, the only case was a domestic dispute in Ribbleton between a young wife and her mother-in-law. Otherwise, the police were happy to report they had not cause to arrest a single person – peace on earth had come to town.