Christmas and the Victorian poor

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While we rightly associate many Christmas customs with Victorian times, it was a festival that the poor could rarely afford to partake. They might save a little from their wages to pay for a Christmas goose or beef, but an agricultural labourer earning 5/- (25p) a week could never afford to save anything.

In 1834 things got even worse for the very poor with the introduction of the Poor Law Act, which rationalised the running of the workhouses, but also created such a harsh regime so that no-one would want to enter a workhouse, except as the last resort.

The new Poor Law Commissioners ordered that no extra food was to be given out at Christmas. In reality, the Guardians, who ran the workhouses, took a more humane view. The Times newspaper published a regular review of how the inmates were treated at Christmas in the workhouses around London, which included Brentford, for the years from 1840 to 1870, and found that a proper Christmas dinner was given in almost all the workhouses. The Richmond Herald in December 1896, in an article on Christmas in the Richmond workhouse, noted that the inmates received two hundredweight of beef (about 91 kilograms) and the same amount of plumb pudding on Christmas Day.

While the workhouse was for the very poor, many families were on the bread line. Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol might actually typify some attitudes towards the poor at Christmas time in early Victorian England. Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, which tells the story of an old miser Scrooge, whose only Christmas ’gift’ to his overworked, underpaid clerk, Bob Crachit, was to give him Christmas Day off with pay, which he considered “a poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every 25th of December!”

The book was very popular and encouraged many well-to-do people to give money and gifts to the poor at Christmas. The tradition of giving money gifts to the poor at this time of year was a much older custom, but it really took off in Victorian times.

The boxes were given on Boxing Day, which earned its name as the day that servants and working people were given these boxes of money. Another change for the better were the new railways, which  allowed people who had moved into the towns and cities in search of work to return home for a family Christmas. The railway companies offered special cheap rates over Christmas both in the national and local press, including the local Richmond papers.

(c) John Moses

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