A Victorian Christmas

It seemed suitable, given the time of year, for me to write a blog entry relating to Christmas. For many of the Rylands, throughout the 200 years of records we have of their daily lives, Christmas is not much of an event. If it is acknowledged at all in their diaries or letters, it is often only as a religious event comparable to any Sunday service. One place where I did find an interesting account of Christmas to share with you is in the diaries of Thomas Glazebrook Rylands.

Thomas’s mother, Martha, often attended chapel at least four times on Christmas day, but beyond this, the day appears to be no different than any other. Her only mention of the term Christmas at all in her extensive diaries is to state that a person’s mind should be constantly on God at all times, not one day a year. His father, John, makes no mention at all of the day, but to state that the mill is closed.

In his earlier years T.G. Rylands seems to pay little attention to Christmas himself, as a child it is a chance for him to return home from school, but little more than that. It is when he marries his second wife, Elizabeth Dewhurst of Kenyon House, Culcheth, that T.G.R. gets a taste of Christmas as a celebration. In the early years of their marriage, Thomas and Elizabeth stay with the Dewhurst family each Christmas.

At the end of each year’s diary T.G. Rylands often gives a brief overview of the past year. The extract below is from this section of his diary for 1866.

 We had concerts at Croft and Newchurch Sunday Schools and a Christmas tree at Bury Lane. The walk home from the latter place through the dark lanes at near midnight was very refreshing! There is much enjoyment in these country occasions, the people gathered in numbers & the children were evidently stuffed to the full with currant bread, tea & fun!

While we stayed at Kenyon I had to go to Dobcross & when there to preside at their annual soiree. Here was another phase of country life and quite as refreshing as the concerts & the Xmas tree. A large school room well filled with attentive people, mainly of the rustic working class, good singing mixed with speeches, and the people cheerful and listening to the end.

(Note: Bury Lane is now known as Glazebury and Dobcross is a village in Saddleworth)

This shows many of the things we might still associate with Christmas today, singing, eating, treating children, visiting family, attending events. All quite different from the dour Christmases of his parents. The difference T.G.R. sees between town and country is fascinating, his idea of the Christmas events described is clearly that they are countryside events, and he, born and bred in town centre Warrington, is a bit of an amused onlooker. Yet, it is only a comparatively short time before that  T.G.R.’s grandfather, John Rylands, brought the family into town from Culcheth, looking to make his fortune.  So Thomas is not that far from the ‘rustics’ he finds so entertaining. Even with these Christmas celebrations however,  there is a striking difference. They all took place after Christmas day and many of them in early January. As such the Christmas celebrations described in Thomas’s 1866 diary, are in fact relating to Christmas 1865. On Christmas day the description in the diary shows that Thomas and Elizabeth sat in silence during the day, but that in the evening some of the younger Rylands visited, played music on the harmonium and then played “speculation” until suppertime, when they left.

So Thomas does find the ‘Christmas spirit’ for a few years and celebrates with the Dewhursts until old Mr. Dewhurst passes away and the family have to move out of Kenyon House. He even allows, to some extent, Christmas celebrations at Highfields in Thelwall, having a Christmas tree and a meal. But, gradually, he becomes less and less involved with the events of the day, and in old age shuts himself in his office all Christmas day and works on his study of Ptolemy’s maps, a book he spends many years writing.

This article was originally posted on Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014.