30th November 2023

Author: Geoff Rambler 
Extracts from Geoff's article.

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking past Christmas’s were as shown to Ebenezer Scrooge by the ghost of ‘Christmas Present’ in Dickens’s Christmas Carol (1843). But this visitation was imaginary as the ghost visited Scrooge the night before Christmas Day so was showing him what could be, not what will be. Although Charles Dickens is credited with ‘inventing Christmas’ it is clear from reports on the harsh lives of people accommodated in workhouses that there was recognition that Christmas should be a joyous time celebrated with family sitting around a fire and enjoying good food and luxuries.

Despite the extensive use of snow scenes on Christmas cards it is a very time ago that one could reliably expect a ‘White Christmas’ in Kent. In 1869 a journalist wrote that he had thought that the image of an “old fashion Christmas of bitter wintery weather” was out of date. But on Christmas Day that year the people of Medway woke to a “pretty thick mantle of snow”. The snow continued to fall throughout the day, and the thermometer fell a few degrees below freezing (Chatham News, 1 Jan. 1870).

Six Poor Travellers – High Street Rochester

I am sure that the 19th century trustees of the Richard Watts Charity would have ensured the travellers who spent a Christmas night in the house would have received a good meal. However it wasn’t until the story of the possibly imagined feast, that Charles Dickens provided for the travellers in 1854, that travellers staying in the house started to have a 4-Star Christmas.

Following the publication of Dickens’s Christmas Story The Seven Poor Travellers (1854) in which he cast himself as the seventh, he appears to have done nothing to correct the view that he had paid for his fellow travellers to have a sumptuous Christmas meal.

Dickens had indeed visited the traveller’s house but it was in May 1854 and not at Christmas. Further the matron told various reporters over the years that Dickens did not provide a meal for the travellers -“there had been no supper, no wassail, no hot coffee in the morning, no meeting at all between Dickens and the travellers at Christmas, or at any time” (Maidstone Journal, 30 Dec.1873). Perhaps mischievously a landlord (possibly the Kings Head at Rochester) submitted a bill to Dickens for providing the alleged meal (Maidstone Journal, 9 Jan. 1855). 

From the Seven Poor Travellers: 

“I [CD] was possessed by the desire to treat the Travellers to a supper and a temperate glass of hot Wassail; ….  It was settled that at nine o’clock that night a Turkey and a piece of Roast Beef should smoke upon the board; and that I, faint and unworthy minister for once of Master Richard Watts, should preside as the Christmas-supper host of the six Poor Travellers”.

At the appointed time Dickens wrote he processed from the inn to the Travellers’s House:

“Myself with the pitcher.
Ben with Beer.
Inattentive Boy with hot plates.  Inattentive Boy with hot plates.
Female carrying sauces to be heated on the spot.
Man with Tray on his head, containing Vegetables and Sundries.
Volunteer Hostler from Hotel, grinning,
And rendering no assistance.”

Christmas Shopping

As today shopkeepers went to some length to create festive displays as Christmas sales were good for their business. During the 19th century competition between traders along Rochester High Street would have been intense as there was often a choice of butchers, poulterers, grocers and bakers etc. They all, therefore, went all out to display their most choice items in their windows. Based on news reports one could perhaps assume that the inhabitants of Rochester and Chatham participated in ‘extreme window-shopping’ as they went around the city enjoying the efforts that the competing traders had made to out-via each other.

In 1846 it was noted that the shop of the butcher Benjamin Bassett of Eastgate had put on a spectacular display that nightly attracted the attention of the admirers of fine meat. He was though not without competition. Mr Balcomb of St Nicholas had killed two prize oxen, and two prize winning sheep that had only been fed on grass (West Kent Guardian, 26 Dec. 1846).

Perhaps today Christmas is more about toys and the giving of gifts – as well as food. In the past it seems the prime focus was on food – perhaps supplemented with a small luxury gift. But by early the early 20th century shops in Rochester were advertising “yuletide gifts for the fair sex” and “toys that children will cherish” (Chatham, Rochester & Gillingham Observer, 5 Dec. 1914). 

Church Services

Clearly there is nothing notable about churches holding services over Christmas – that is until war was declared in 1914. By Christmas 1914 the Medway Towns were packed with soldiers heading for the Front and civilian workers. The incomers would have mainly been young men and many away from home for the first time. It would have also been clear to the young men that many did return from the Front and those who did were badly injured. In these circumstances it’s not surprising that the churches around Medway were packed at Christmas.

In 1915 the Cathedral at Rochester held seven services on Christmas Day. To cope with the numbers wanting to take Communion it was administered in the Nave for the first time since the Reformation in the 1540s (Chatham Rochester & Gillingham Observer, 1 Jan. 1916). 

On Christmas Day 1918 the Cathedral bells started a joyous peal at 6:15am and continued to the start of the service at 7am; services though at the Cathedral were not well attended (Chatham, Rochester & Gillingham News, 28 December 1918).

It is clear that there was never a romanticised, sentimental, perfect Christmas. There were and always be, those who are more fortunate than others. But fortunately despite many adversities we continue to strive to ensure Dickens’s “Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come” remains within the covers of his book.

To read more on this topic and other articles by Geoff, click here.