The spirit of Christmas past

Andrew Swift searches through his archive to find images of Christmastide in previous eras. Chickens and turkeys and other birds of a feather feature especially large…

This Christmas, as always, there will be cries that it’s all grown too commercialised – that, instead of spending our time shopping, we should be seeking out simpler pleasures. The razzamatazz of Christmas shopping, however, is nothing new.

Way back in 1907, the Bath Chronicle was in no doubt where the spirit of Christmas was to be found. ‘You catch it,’ the paper assured its readers, ‘from the blaze of shop windows, full of the toys that youngsters love; from the rows of boxes of gay crackers, sparkling crystallised fruits, plums and raisins; from the poulterers, whose shops are transformed into a cave of turkeys and geese, from the drapers, whose windows contain a bewildering assortment of attire of a warmth of colour and thickness of material that belong only to Christmastide’.

Looking back at images from those times, there can be little doubt that the most spectacular displays were those mounted by the aforementioned poulterers, of whom there were no less than 25 in the city. Selling poultry back then – like selling any perishable commodity – was fraught with difficulties, due to lack of refrigeration. But while summer heatwaves posed almost insurmountable problems, the depths of winter held no such fears, and poulterers went to town, displaying their wares with artistry and aplomb, giving away postcards as records of the all too brief tableaux which enlivened the city streets.

The first postcard we see here (previous page, top) was produced by W.G. Rice of 3 & 4 Balustrade on the London Road. Today, it’s a convenience store, but back then William Rice sold fish, game, poultry and oysters there – as well as ice. Judging by this view, poultry were the stars of the show, with an astonishing array of plucked birds exposed to the elements.

That was nothing, though, compared to the display at 3 York Buildings (previous page, bottom left). Although the shop here was still trading under the name of Edwin Broadhurst, he had died – aged only 35 – in 1894, and his widow Rosa was running the business, although she doesn’t appear in the photograph. The façade of the two-storey building, nestling next to what was the city’s general post office (now Revolution), was deemed too small, so an awning was erected on the roof to protect the birds, mounted like a triumphal crest at the top. How they got them up there – and how they got them down, especially if some awkward punter wanted the one at the top – is anyone’s guess. It goes without saying, of course, that they weren’t so hot on health and safety back then.

Not all retailers faced such vertiginous problems. Then as now, Christmas was above all a time for children, and one of the things children most coveted in their Christmas stockings in those far off days was made right here in Bath. After setting up an art college in the city, William Harbutt, dissatisfied with the quality of the modelling clays available, decided to make his own. So pleased was he with the results that he set up a factory in an old mill at Bathampton to cash in on his invention. Harbutt was not only an inspired inventor; he was also an accomplished entrepreneur, and it was children rather than art students who were the most avid consumers of what he patented as Plasticine. The force and directness of advertisements such as the one shown here (previous page, bottom right), remain undiminished over a century later.

Christmas wasn’t just about shopping and presents in the early 20th century, of course, any more than it is now. We end this brief look back with a photograph (below) of children – and adults – walking on the frozen canal at Bathampton in December 1925, with Harbutt’s Plasticine factory in the background. Such intense cold spells were rare even then and it’s been many years since the ice on the canal has been thick enough to walk on. So far this year, there are no signs that scenes like this will be repeated any time soon. The days of trussed-up turkeys being displayed like site-specific art installations on the streets of the city, however, seem even less likely to return.

Much more about life – and retail therapy – in Bath in Edwardian times can be found in Andrew Swift and Kirsten Elliott’s The Year of the Pageant, published by Akeman Press, and available to buy on the publisher’s website: