In the first of this week’s seasonal offerings from the British Film Institute’s National Archives, we’re visiting an Edwardian cracker factory, probably somewhere in east London, where we see the process of making these now-traditional Christmas essentials by hand and with the aid of machines. Next, we are transported to a cheerful and festively decorated living room, where we meet a family in the process of celebrating Christmas. They pull a giant cracker and a very special guest arrives…
This is an interesting film for a number of reasons. Its production was sponsored by Clark, Nickolls & Coombs, the company who were responsible for making the crackers, and it shows that their workforce was almost entirely made up of women. These working class women stand in distinct contrast to the middle-class family shown enjoying the fruits of such factory labours around the Christmas tree – suggesting this was a form of advertising and possibly education, demonstrating both the processes of manufacture and that the company sold (or at least aimed to sell) their products to an aspirational middle-class market. The idea of consumerism and consumption at Christmas is clearly not a new one!
For more seasonal posts on Another Kind Of Mind, see here.
Eagle-eyed readers might recall that I wrote a World War Two Christmas Miscellany post some years ago, examining the experiences of Christmas on the home front during that conflict – and since I have also been writing a series of posts on the First World War, I thought it would be interesting to try the same for 1914-1918 too.
This post mainly focuses on the wartime Christmas experiences of Londoners (mostly because I am a Londoner and I have posted about this city, its history and my fascination with it on many previous occasions), but I am sure those resident in other British towns, cities, and even smaller settlements would have had similar festive seasons and felt similar emotions during the war years to those living and working in the capital – these were, as you will see, difficult times for everybody, both at home and on the front line. Indeed, I was particularly interested to note just how bleak and, quite frankly, how depressing wartime Christmases became as the conflict progressed.
For more information on the subject, see the ‘Further reading, listening and sources’ section at the end of the post – and I would also be interested to hear from you if you have any further details of World War One home front Christmases in London, or from elsewhere in the country. You can leave a comment here or get hold of me on Twitter.
By December 1914, the oft-voiced view that the war would be ‘over by Christmas’ had already proved to be sadly mistaken – although it was unlikely that anyone preparing for the festive season that year could have possibly imagined there would actually be another three wartime Christmases yet to come before the return of peace.
Now, here’s something rather intriguing and strange. This wartime (1943) short film encouraging the viewer to get their cards and presents in the post in plenty of time for Christmas has a deliciously surreal feel to it (particularly the distinctly odd final scene!). It’s one of a huge number of public information films made by and starring the wonderfully expressive and deliberately bumbling actor and director Richard Massingham (1898-1953), and can be found in the British Film Institute’s fascinating National Archive.
If you’d like to see more of the BFI’s holdings, visit their website or check out their excellent YouTube channel – I’ve been having a thoroughly enjoyable rummage through the latter and have found some fantastic vintage festive film treats for you, which I’ll be posting in the run up to Christmas…
And if you’re a bit disorganised and haven’t even started thinking about Christmas yet, you can find this year’s last posting dates for cards and parcels (sent from the UK) here.
I bet you didn’t know that there’s a piece* of the Berlin Wall in London.
You can see it in the photograph above, taken yesterday in the grounds of the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth, where it has been since 1991. This small section of the Wall was originally from the area around the famous Brandenburg Gate and, according to the plaque at the foot of it, the striking artwork is by the graffiti artist Indiano.
It’s strange seeing this piece of the Wall here in London – and as history, too. Like so many, I grew up seeing it on the TV news as an ever-present Cold War reality, symbolic of a divided city and a divided nation. Twenty-five years after those vivid, emotional images of Berliners from both sides of the border finally meeting on that dark November night as the Wall began to fall, it still stands as a powerful reminder of those times and of those who lost their lives attempting to cross it.
* In fact, there are actually several pieces in London – the National Army Museum in Chelsea holds a number of segments in its collection and there is also a section situated at the German School in Richmond. Other pieces of the Wall can be found at sites in the UK and around the world.
Ask anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with 20th century literature about the poets and poetry of the First World War, and I can guarantee that the names ‘Rupert Brooke’, ‘Wilfred Owen’ and ‘Siegfried Sassoon’ will be mentioned at some point. All three are rightly-reknowned poets (especially Owen), but they weren’t the only ones to be creatively inspired by their war experiences. In today’s World War One post, I’ll be looking at the life and death of another Great War poet – one who came from a very different background, and whose work is still perhaps not as well-known as it should be.
Born in Bristol on 25th November 1890, Isaac Rosenberg was the eldest son of a family of Jewish immigrants who had originally come over from Eastern Europe. When young Isaac was seven years old, his family moved to the East End of London in search of work. Settling on Cable Street, in the heart of the area’s large working-class Jewish community, the Rosenbergs found it difficult to make ends meet and Isaac, although intelligent and artistically talented, was forced to leave school at 14 in order to earn some money for the family.
He was apprenticed to an engraver, a job he apparently hated, but he was already beginning to write poetry and also started attending evening classes in art at Birkbeck College. He lost his job in 1911, but a lucky chance meeting led to his artistic talent being recognised by a patron, who agreed to fund his studies at the prestigious Slade School of Art. At the Slade, he studied alongside a number of young artists who went on to be very successful (and who also later reflected the impact of the war in their work), including Stanley Spencer and Mark Gertler.
Moving in the well-connected circles associated with this creatively charged atmosphere obviously had an impact on Isaac, as he was able to get a small book of his poetry privately published in 1912. A year later, he met Edward Marsh, the editor of the influential Georgian Poetry volumes and one of the most important people on the British poetry scene at the time. This meeting seems to have been very positive as the two men corresponded right up until Rosenberg’s death.
One sunny spring afternoon earlier this year, I found myself wandering round Isleworth Cemetery. This is a fascinating and peaceful place, opened in the 1880s when the graveyard at the nearby All Saints Church became full and was closed to new burials. Among the many memorials at Isleworth is one to a member of the well-known local Pears family (the soap manufacturers), who died in the Titanic disaster of 1912.
There are also a number of memorial stones relating to the two World Wars here. These headstones are easily identifiable, all conforming to the simple and elegant design laid down by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1917. Each lists the deceased serviceman’s name, rank, age, unit and date of death, along with his regimental badge, a religious symbol and a brief inscription often chosen by the family.
As you can see from the photograph (left), William Samworth’s headstone is no different in that respect. But it was the nature of some of the details on there that really struck me. The first and most important thing was his unit. Despite having studied both World Wars in great detail, I had never encountered the Army Cyclist Corps before. I admit I was intrigued by the concept, and determined to find out more about the ACC – and about Private Samworth too…
One hundred years ago today, Britain declared war on Germany – and thus began this country’s involvement in the First World War. This, what was assumed to be ‘the war to end all wars’, soon became a ‘total war'; a conflict that killed millions of soldiers and civilians and left millions more permenantly physically or mentally scarred. Even more people worldwide, but particularly from countries across Europe, lost family, friends, lovers and homes as a result of the fighting and destruction. A whole generation was virtually wiped out by what was quite simply industrial warfare.
World War One was unquestionably one of the most significant events of the 20th century. The fact that historians are still debating its exact causes one hundred years later says a great deal about its impact on our society and others – and the fact that we are all still paying the price of this conflict (in the Middle East, for example) shows how its effects have echoed down the decades since the Armistice in 1918. It is, therefore, important to remember.
So, to commemorate this important anniversary, I’ll be publishing a number of new posts on the subject of some of the lesser known or more unusual aspects of the conflict from the British perspective. Much will be written by others about military leaders and famous battles (and there is nothing wrong with that), but I prefer to focus mainly on the war on the Home Front and the people who lived through that, with particular reference to events in London. I have some fascinating and enlightening stories to tell about the experiences of this city at war – my small tribute to the men and women who served in numerous capacities, whether they survived or died, during the four years of this terrible conflict.
Watch out for the first of these new posts later this week and more to come over the next couple of months.
For many people, Christmas just isn’t Christmas without a bit of Charles Dickens. Indeed, there is a strong argument to be made that it was the popularity of his works (and the often sentimental descriptions of the festive season therein) that actually went a long way towards reinventing the festival and creating what we now see as a ‘traditional’ Christmas. But even if you’ve never read any of his novels, there is one of his stories that everyone knows because its characters and events have become an integral part of our culture of Christmas – and it is the story behind that particular story I’ll be looking at today, on this Christmas Eve…
Born in February 1812, Charles Dickens had a peripatetic childhood, his family frequently moving to where his father’s job as a pay clerk in the Royal Dockyards took them. In the 1820s, his spendthrift father was jailed for debt, and the young Charles went to work in a blacking factory making shoe polish to help the family’s often parlous finances. This experience of family disruption and what we would now call child labour must have left deep psychological scars on the young man at a formative time in his life – it was certainly something he drew on in his later writings, as the reader can see in his ‘Christmas Books’ amongst others.
All this upheaval during his youth meant that Dickens had little formal education (he was mostly self-taught having effectively left school by the time he was 15), but his childhood experiences had made him ambitious and determined to make a success of himself from an early age. Starting out in a solicitor’s office, he worked his way into journalism and was a parliamentary reporter by the early 1830s. But he was also writing fiction, and his first short story was published in 1833. Three years later, the initial installment of his still-popular novel The Pickwick Papers was published and he rapidly became a household name as a result of its immediate success.
I was in the library today. While flicking through the pages of a book on the 1832 Reform Act, I found this little story. You can imagine my reaction (and yes, I did get a dirty look from the librarian for laughing…):
[A] little girl asked her mother, ‘Mamma, are Tories born wicked, or do they grow wicked afterwards?’ To which the mother replied, ‘They are born wicked and grow worse.’
Whether this parental exchange really happened is immaterial – the story obviously struck a chord at the time. And, not far off two centuries later, absolutely nothing has changed…
I’ve written previously about strange and interesting seasonal traditions, but here’s one I don’t think I’ve ever covered before….
A Twitter discussion last week about the wonder of proper British puddings (seriously, they really are the best in the world when done right) reminded me that today is Stir-Up Sunday. In this age of ready meals and 24 hour supermarkets, that may not mean much to you, but for many families it has long been the traditional start of the preparations for the Christmas season.
Stir-Up Sunday falls on the last Sunday before the start of Advent (as calculated by the Anglican church), and although it began life as a tradition loosely associated with religion and the impact of the church calendar on the everyday lives of ordinary people, it soon developed to have both religious and secular aspects – much as Christmas itself does in our modern world. Despite this tradition only really stretching back a couple of hundred years in its best-known form, the name ‘Stir-Up Sunday’ itself is derived from a prayer that dates back to the 16th century Book Of Common Prayer. Still said in a modern form every year on the last Sunday before Advent, the original version reads:
Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
That’s all very well, but what exactly does Stir-Up Sunday involve in reality? It’s the day on which households would traditionally gather to make the Christmas pudding for the year, having been reminded by the prayer said in church that morning – with each member of the family taking it in turns to ‘stir up’ the mixture and make a private, secret wish. In some traditions, there is a distinctly religious element to this, as it is believed that the pudding mixture must be made with twelve or thirteen ingredients (to represent Jesus and his disciples) and stirred from East to West (right to left, or clockwise) to honour the Three Wise Men of the Nativity.