Respected local journalist and historian Colin Grainger begins the second part of his look at Christmas traditions around the Royal Docks as the excitement began to reach fever pitch on Christmas Eve.
Midnight mass was a tradition for many local families. David Conroy remembers being an altar server.
On Christmas Eve then – and nowadays – carrots, a drop of brandy or whisky and a mince pie is left out for Father Christmas and his reindeer to come down the chimney and consume
Fireplaces in many homes were boarded up in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. Years later, decades of notes squeezed through the cracks to Santa, were found as the homes were redeveloped.
The pillow cases, or stockings for some children, hung on the end of the bed, were filled with all kinds of delights.
One local recalled: “At Christmas time, the ships would come in and you’d see little Christmas trees attached to the masts. Then when the New Year came in they would blow their whistles and toot their horns.”
Quite a few families spoke of the morning pilgrimage on either Christmas Day to “the grounds” – the cemeteries where loved ones who has passed away were laid to rest.
Present opening time generally seemed to be first thing in the morning, getting up as early as 6am. In our house, since the late 70s it has always been bacon sarnies and then present openting time. For some it was cornflakes or crumpets for Christmas Day brekkie.
As selection boxes were introduced in the late 60s many became a staple in the childrens’ pillowcases. In earlier years, many boxes of sweets and choccy were made up by the women of the household. Boxes of bon bons were a favourites.
Stan said: “Many gifts were simply things like fruit or nuts wrapped up. You would keep an eye open for a visitor in the night, dreaming it was Father Christmas, but secretly knowing it was your dad! But we were lucky enough to get toys as well.”
Yvonne Worthington, who lived in Upton Park for many years, recalled how her family used to wrap up almost anything – an apple, an orange – in Christmas paper to hang it from the tree to ensure everyone had something on Chriistmas Day.
Children happily played with the smallest of presents because it was to become a family day of celebration, big dinners, and evening games and parties.
Of course, many people still had to still work on Christmas Day. Audrey remembered how “auntie” Annie Sharpley worked in the toilets outside Royal Victoria Gardens on Christmas Day. There were about 20 pubs open in North Woolwich and Silvertown on Christmas Day in the 60s and 70s. The loos also remained open as there was a bus service on Christmas Day. One of the family was dispatched to take her Christmas lunch to her so she did not miss out. She had an office inside the toilets, where she ate her meal.
Lorraine’s father Jack Atkinson also used to work in the mens’ toilets for a while outside Royal Victoria Gardens, she recalled. “He still had to work on Christmas Day.”
And if you need a particular record for your evening party, you could travel to Sellmans Record Store in Plaistow as the people who ran it were Jewish and so opened on that day. A great boon for the evening parties!
The pub was a big feature of Christmas day. In some homes, entire families were off down the local pub. Again, it was time to put on your best, or newest, clothes. Children would have to sit outside. The women stay for a short time and leave two hours before the men to make the final preparations for the dinner.
But for most, the women stayed at home preparing the special dinner and the children played happily with their toys and helped. Christas Dinner time was after the pubs closed, usually at 2.30 or 3pm. My own memory is of my mother Lily letting me drink the apple juice left over from making an apple pie. Perhaps that’s where my taste for cider came from!
“It was a day to dress up nicely, hopefully in clothes you had bought especially for Christmas in the weeks before, “ said Sheila,
An important part of the dinner was cracker pulling with the novelties inside saved by children and often of excellent quality, said Audrey, and of course, the paper hats had to be worn.
The usual menu was Turkey and/or chicken, and pork, brussel sprouts (often over-cooked until they were mush), roast potatoes, home made Yorkshire puds, carrots, sage and onion stuffing, according to many.
Lesley said the Yorkshire pudding was made in one big dish in meat fat. “Mum used to make her own batter, there were no ready mixes then.They tasted delicious. This was the favourite part of dinner, with the roast potatoes.”
Bicarbonate of soda was used in cooking the green veg to keep their colour, something unheard of in today’s cooking. Giblet soup was also on the menu in some homes, said David Conroy.
Many of those interviewed said it was quite common for anyone found to be on their own in a pub on Christmas Day to be invited back for dinner, as the men became more benevolent with each beer (or brandy or whisky).
The usual drinks of beer and whisky or gin were drunk, but Yuletide favourites were a Snowball or Babycham. Newcastle brown ale, barley wine , port and lemon and sherry were also popular. Wine had “not been invented” for our communities back then, said Sheila.
“Later, in the 70s,” said Lesley, Blue Nun wine and Wedding Veil Liebfraumilch gave us our first real taste of wine at Christmas, “making us feel quite sophisticated.”
In the 50s and 60s for dessert, it was Christmas pudding (often home made), and the hunt for the lucky threepenny bit inside was always a highlight,” said Valerie Gutteridge, who lived in Albert Road. In later years, it became the hunt for the first person to find the silver sixpence inside, hopefully not cracking someone’s teeth when they took a bite.
Evening meals – teatime to us locals – were usually made up of Turkey in some form or another . “Cold meat and turkey sarnies with picalilli and mince pies”, said Audrey, got ready while the men slept off the effects of their lunchtime drink.
Games for the children, dominoes, cards, charades were a big feature. It was party time at home in the evening. The pubs were closed.
Sometimes the home-made ouija board came out, with letters painted on a mirror in candle-wax. I used to sit in wonderment.
People remembered Christmas Day dramas with a humorous side.
Anne Bowden recalled: “One Christmas lunchtime, my dad came back a little worse for wear from the lunchtime drink. As he staggered in, my mum Joan, who was a fairly small lady, saw him about to fall over and hurt himself. We all thought she was trying to save him, but she just pushed him in a different direction so he did not damage the Christmas tree we had all spent so long preparing. Dad ended up a bit bloodied but we all had a laugh about it.”
Lorraine recalled: “One year when we were living in a prefab we heard noises outside, – the walls were thin- and we thought we were about to be robbed. We got brave enough to go outside and chase the person we saw, armed with shovels and spade. We chased him for what seemed like ages until we realised was our Uncle David who had just come round to wish up a Merry Christmas!”
Terry said: “But the things I remember the most were the parties. Singing Knees-Up Mother Brown and all kinds of songs that remain with me today. My Auntie Ann, who lived with us, was a big lady and she danced and enjoyed herself so much. But she was so heavy she fell through the floorboards on one occasion!”
Playing a piano in the front room – sometimes this was only time in the year that the room got opened – was common if you had one. There was usually one person in the house who could plonk out a tune.
Stan recalled: “We played a variety of games. Hanging an apple on a string from the ceiling and trying to find it blindfolded to take a bite out of it was a favourite.” But Radio was king in the Dyson household.
Valerie said: “Those were tough days, but we never considered ourselves deprived. It was a tough upbringing but we all survived and for the most part we were very happy.”
There was no TV for most families until the 60s, it became every more popular in the 70s when Morecambe and Wise and Top of the Pops were among the highlights.
The radio playing Forces favourites would have been on earlier in the day.
In the 50s, 60s and even 70s it was time for the old Dansette record player, radiogram of gramophone. to come out and the 45s or 78s to be loaded up.
Tommy Steele, Billy Fury and the stars of the day would make every party one to remember.
Bubble and squeak was the favourite lunch with the left overs on Boxing Day, said Lesley, and still is today.
In some memories penned by Julia Myers, who passed away two years ago, she said that in the 40s: ”We spent some of pre-Christmas period under the Silvertown viaduct in a place where entertainment was being staged. We were fortunate to once have the German actor Conrad Veidt visit us.”
Locals always knew the festive period was coming to an end with the sound of all the ships in the Royal Docks blaring their horns to signal the arrival of a new year at midnight on New Year’s Eve.
Though the 12 days of Christmas weren’t finished, it signalled a new year, new hope and people were outside in the street banging their dustbin lids and carrying a traditional piece of coal over the threshold to mark a new year.
Read Part One of the Forgotten Stories of Christmas here.