South Riding Folk Arts Network logo
SRFN: Miscellany:
The Sheffield Christmas of Bygone Days

The following piece appeared in The Sheffield and Rotherham Independent for Saturday 21st December 1872; it had also been printed some years previously. Some of the material appears in Robert Eadon Leader's Reminiscences of Old Sheffield, Its Streets and Its People (1875; revised 1876), which was the result of a series of articles and correspondence in the Independent involving Leader, William Wragg and others. Leader may perhaps have compiled this article. A transcription of his book, and part of his later Reminiscences of Sheffield in the Eighteenth Century (1905) can be seen at Sheffield Local History: References and On-line Information.

Preparations for Christmas: the Waits         Bull Week and Christmas Eve
Christmas Day and Week     Public-House Conviviality

The Sheffield Christmas of Bygone Days

The following account of local customs connected with the observance of Christmas at Sheffield, which are fast dying out, has been published before; but to most of our readers it will be new, and any who may have seen it before will be glad to read it again:-

Preparations for Christmas — The Waits

It used to be the custom, soon after the Winter Fair, for the Waits to begin perambulating the streets with two fiddles and a bass. The persons appointed to this office were often excellent musicians. Mr. John Taylor, Mr. William Taylor, and Mr. Wilcock were the waits for a number of years. They commenced playing upon twelve o'clock, and at intervals announced the time of the morning. They generally brought out some new and popular tunes at this time of the year. The blind fiddlers also had their circuits, chiefly at the outskirts of the town. There were at one time six of them, several of whom were excellent performers on the violin. Their names were James Knight, Samuel Hawke, Thomas Booth, Alexander Clayton, J. Brumley, and George Smith. They went in pairs, playing firsts and seconds, and divided the town into three parts, each party keeping to its own district. At Christmas they were entitled to go a Christmas-boxing with a better grace. They likewise at intervals announced the hour.

The bellman, though his instrument had but little music in it, rang his bell through the streets of the town in the night a little before Christmas. He rang his bell every fifty or sixty yards, and then gave the time of the morning.

The watchmen at this time were more than usually on the alert in expectation of obtaining Christmas boxes, and for a time at least they gave up their regular nap in their watch-boxes, as was their usual custom. The busy time of the bull-week coming on, those persons who were desirous of obtaining the means of enjoying a good holiday at Christmas, employed the watchman to call them up. At other times the washer-women were constant customers, and depended upon their call. If they were not at their place in time the fault was certain to be laid upon the watchmen, who forgot to call them up, "an oi o'erlaid me sen." At the time alluded to there was not a very efficient police force, and it would not have passed muster by Mr. Raynor. There was one watchman, Tommy Hotbread, whose beat was Castle street, Angel street, and that neighbourhood, and whose watch-box was near the Castle Inn, and facing up Angel street. Tommy occupied this box in the intervals of going his rounds; and upon one occasion, while taking a small nap snug in his watch-box, some unlucky grinders came that way and saw Tommy asleep. They soon came to a frolicsome determination to steal both the watch-man and his box, and immediately took up the box and its contents, and went at a quick pace down Snig hill. Tommy roaring out all the time, "If you doan't set me down o'le tak yo all up." The grinders went right ahead, however, and placed the box in the middle of the horse dyke, Millsands. Tommy finding himself nearly up to the middle in water, called out "Thieves, Murder, Fire," &c., and was a considerable time before he could ascertain where he was, but at last succeeded in opening the watch-box and extricating himself. [ * note ] The watchmen formerly announced the time, and what kind of weather it was. The whole posse of watchmen did not exceed above half a score for the whole town, and they were generally old men such as "Tommy Hotbread," "Sammy Suck-Thumb," "Neddy Jennings," &c.

All ranks of society seemed to anticipate with pleasure the coming festival, and preparations were made for its celebration by first cleaning the house down from the garret to the cellar. Particular attention was paid to the pewter case; all the dishes and plates in it were scoured as bright as silver; the coppers and brasses, with the irons, got a complete rubbing with good, fine quality "smithy slack" — particularly the fire irons and the candlesticks; and the trenchers and bowls were made as white as the milkmaid's pail in any part of Derbyshire, where a good-coloured milk pail is their pride and admiration.

Christmas Eve at length comes, and there is a plentiful supply of evergreen provided to decorate the windows and all other conspicuous parts of the house and kitchen, but the clock, and the pewter case, and looking glass, are the most adorned. The wheat is generally creed for the frumenty to be ready for the following morning. Christmas was, and still is, a season when persons of all trades engaged in providing good cheer vied with each other who could make the best show, and produce the most superior article.

* It will be remembered that our correspondent, Mr. Wm. Wragg, recently gave a better and somewhat different version of this story.

Bull Week and Christmas Eve

It has sometimes been stated that the workmen used to join their money together for the purpose of purchasing a bull, and that it was killed for Christmas cheer; and the week before Christmas they worked hard in order to pay for the bull by their extra labour. When it was killed it was divided amongst them according to the money they had subscribed, and then a division took place on Christmas Eve. When Christmas Day happened on Tuesday or Wednesday it made a good long bull week, for there was no reckoning for work done until Christmas Eve, so that they had eight, ten, or twelve days' work to reckon for — if they had not "kick't arr mester a Setterday neet for a two or three shillin' to carry in wee." It was no uncommon thing for men to work sixteen, eighteen, or twenty hours a day in the bull week; and the blade-makers have been known to have the heat ready to pull out of the fire as soon as the clock had struck twelve on Sunday night. But Mr. —, who lived at the bottom of Broad lane, Bailey lane, put a restriction upon his men, and gave orders that no man should be permitted to go into the shop before four o'clock in the morning, nor should work later than ten o'clock at night, in order that the premises might be closed by eleven. This was thought by some to be a hardship. The 'prentice lads entered into the spirit of the times with as much earnestness as their masters; and it frequently happened that two or three lads were laid fast asleep before or near the smithy fire on the floor, whilst their masters were laid with their hands upon their arms at the workboard in the same state — nature requiring a little renovation from the excess of labour. When the work was finished it was called "getten t'bull by t'tail." The respectable manufacturers generally reckoned with their men in the early part of the day, and the "little mesters" when they had "'liver'd" at the factor's warehouse, which was generally in the evening, they having to undergo the screw before they got paid for their goods. When Christmas Day happened on the Wednesday, it made the Market place and thereabout very busy, Tuesday being the market day, and the night appearing something like a double Saturday night to many persons. Suppose we take a view of the principal parts and notice a few circumstances, beginning with the lobby nook (the old Town Hall near the Church gates). There you would find stalls set out to the best advantage, with Lord Mayor boots and shoes well dubbined up and made as pliable as the price, varying according to quality and size. At the bottom of High street you might have been accommodated with a pair of "leather dicks" (breeches) for either yourself or 'prentice lad, at Davenport's; or have gone to Ellis Grant's stall at the top of the market within the chains. You could have found old Milly Lowther's fish stall at the top of Pudding lane (King street), and Molly Rawson's fish stall, facing Change alley end; Old-book John selling "Week's Preparation," &c., facing up High street; and Billy Wright mending old buckles, or matching the one that was left after one was lost, facing Hartshead; the old women with their meal tubs, with their great coats and leather pockets, selling meal by the peck; and now and then a lad saying, "Dame, will yo gie me a bit o' meal if yo pleasen?" — "Aye, lad, tak thee a bit." Meal was 5d. per peck. New shoe stalls were plentifully arranged facing the front shops at the top of the Shambles, the dealers crying, "Now, can I suit you with a pair, they are home-made uns — come, try these on, oi think they'll about fit you; they looken yore size." The gaol was thronged with visitors until nine o'clock. There was one prisoner in each room above and below who solicited the passers-by to "remember the poor prisoners." The one above had a tin box supported by a string; and the other in the lower room, with his hand through the window, held a similar box for the low court prisoners. The reader will not suppose that the streets were brilliantly lighted; and it was with difficulty a passenger could see his road from one lamp to another. When off market day, and the shops were closed, and the stalls taken away, the little "pinkning" light of the oil lamps was disgraceful. At Christmas Eve the pawnbrokers were cried to get extra hands to assist in taking out the pledges; none were taken in.

We will now pay a visit to the fireside of a decent working man. The beef is purchased; the wheat for the frumenty is already creed; the yule log is laid on the fire and reaches a good way up the chimney; the spice is bought for the plum pudding, and the grocer has given his yule candles according to the worth of his customer; the mistletoe bough is hung up in the middle of the house (or if that cannot be obtained, a holly bush is suspended): the Christmas ale barrel is tapped, and when the husband comes home a "frizzle i't frying pan," and an extra pint of ale and a pipe of tobacco are allowed, and perhaps the children are favoured with a taste of frumenty to their suppers, by way of trying how good it will be in the morning, when "they've gotten t' Jamaica pepper," which has been forgotten. The children sing "Christians Awake," in anticipation of hearing the singers in the night; but they were probably so much tired when put to bed that nothing disturbed them until their usual time of rising, when enquiry was soon made for the frumenty, and the father and children prepared themselves for divine service at the church or chapel, whilst the mother remained at home to make the spice pudding and to cook the dinner. Cards were generally permitted to be used in most of the public-houses in town; and then the propensity for gambling presented itself. Swiscoe was the most popular game; but you might be accommodated with a game at whist or cribbage in a more social corner. Perhaps at another table were a party at brag or loo; and the bagatelle-table had plenty of customers. Dominoes were played at "just for an odd quart amang us sens;" but the guinea club must be paid, or you will have no chance of a draw coming off, and those who are so fortunate as to get their "chonce" think themselves in good trim for Christmas holidays.

The mummers on this night began performing, and the characters of St. George, the Prince of Morocco, Slasher, the Doctor, and the Fool or Merryman, are taken by boys from twelve to sixteen years. There were other parties of smaller boys who assumed the same characters, and were dressed in the same manner as the elder ones — namely, with shirts outside, decorated over with ribbons of various colours, and swords in their hands, except the doctor (who had a cane), and the fool (whose face was blackened, and he carried the stump of a besom), who enters the room with
Open the door as I come in,
I hope your favour I shall win;
But whether I rise or whether I fall,
I'll do my endeavour to please you all.
The poor old horse was exhibited and the song was sung: the "Derby Tup" was also sung and performed in character. The public houses generally were filled. The blind fiddler enters, and asks if "Any of you gentlemen are disposed for a tune?" "Aye, sit thee down, and let's have one." When he had played a little time he says, "Gentlemen, if you please to let me at liberty as soon as you can: yo know it's Christmas E'en." "Cum, then, Sam lad; here's moi penny to begin wi." He goes round, and at last one says, "Here, Sam, here's tenpence hopenny for thee." "Thank yo, gentlemen."

It is now nine o'clock, when the mourning coaches (men's wives) begin to arrive, with the youngest in their arms, saying "Cum, lad, art't ommest ready for cummin hooam; oi think it's ommost time." "Prothee sit thee down a bit, on oi'll goa with thee. Here, oud lass, tae this chair. Here, cum, sup. Now, will yo hay a bit a bacca?" "Way, oi ne'er mind havin a bit while e stop. Thou'll happen not be long, wit a?" "Sit thee down, lass, an oi'll goa wi thee." One mourning coach comes after another till all the vacant seats are occupied in the room (this is not the card room, but the club room). At last it is proposed that as the women are there they ought to have something better than common ale, and a tankard of "huddle me buff" (hot ale and rum) is ordered, which comes in a quart pitcher, and a glass with it. It is pronounced very good, and another is ordered, and perhaps another, till it gets near twelve o'clock, when they seem anxious to depart; but the landlord says, "Nay, concarn it, you moant go whoile you've hed moi quart. Christmas comes but once a year." "Come, then, we're like to sit us down ageean a bit," until
"Grace's cheeks were like the rising sun,
And Ann felt warm within."
But the mourning coaches return pretty well loaded, and the owner of the coach accompanied it, well satisfied with its appearance and behaviour.

Christmas Day and Week

In the morning parties of singers were formed by two or three o'clock, some at the public-houses — others by the different manufactories — some by the Sunday scholars — some in different localities of the town. They generally go to sing to their friends, or their masters, clerks, and warehousemen; the Sunday scholars to their superintendents; and the others to the most respectable inhabitants in their neighbourhood, singing "Christians Awake," "Hark, hark, what news the Angels bring," &c., &c. Some of them accompanied by a bass, fiddle, or other musical instruments. What with the singers, the waits, the bellman, the watchmen, and the drunken rows in the streets (which there was no possibility, from the inefficiency of the watchmen, of quelling) there was no rest to be had for those persons who wished to enjoy it after a heavy week's fatigue.

At an early hour the apprentice lads, whose parents lived in the country, were upon the road to spend their holiday time with them, having leave of absence till New Year's Day given to them. Many a mother embraces her son, inquires how he goes on in his trade, and perchance the lad has a knife in his pocket which he has made, which is presented to his mother, and she looks at it and receives it with pleasure. She then inquires if he has a good "mester and dame," if he has his belly well filled, examines his linen and clothes, not forgetting his head. When the lad has passed his examination, he goes out amongst his old companions, and tells them what wonderful doings there are in Sheffield; shows them his "o'erwark brass," and then seems the most happy being imaginable. Early in the morning boys from six to ten years of age start off a "Merry Christmassing," by going to the neighbours' or friends' houses, or any other house where they could see a light, wishing them
"A merry Christmas and a happy new year,
A pocket full of money, and a cellar full of beer.
An apple and a pear, a plum and a cherry,
And a cup of good ale which makes a man merry."
In the afternoon those who had been so provident went to receive the dividends of their threepenny club money, at the public-house where they had made their deposit, some of 3d., 6d., 9d., or 1s. per week the year round. Some persons have a respectable sum of money to receive, which is of benefit to them and their families; others it enables to try their luck at swiscoe, hazard, whist, dominoes, bagatelle, &c., &c., when it soon goes into the hands and pockets of those who beforehand came to the place to entrap the unwary or to catch a flat, if he will stand it. This generally winds up Christmas-Day-night, where we will let those who can make it convenient go home and rest. In some part of the next day you may make yourself certain of having for their Christmas boxes the colliers, the ringers, the singers, the waits, the bellman, the watchman, the coal leader, the milk lad, the scavenger, or any person who is a servant of the public, except the pinder, whose office was never held in much respect by those persons who were in the habit of keeping pigs, and letting them run at large in the streets without some person having the charge of them; for if he saw them he was sure to put them in the pinfold, where they could not be liberated without paying a fine of 4d. per head for all swine, and more if any damage were done to any property by them. Pigs were fed at the owner's door in the street, and were accustomed to come there by the sound of the rattling of the bucket or pig trough; and many a time when the pinder was driving them away to the pinfold the bucket was rattled and the pig came running home faster than old Clarke, the pinder, could run, and got stowed away in the hull, much to his chagrin. In this week, and the week before, there generally was a great slaughter among the pigs, for most parties who had families and were sufficiently provident endeavoured to have a good fat pig ready for killing at Christmas. Many working men were pig-proud as well as garden-proud, although at the same time, while the pig was feeding it materially straightened them in their family circumstances. Two lads, who it seems were more thoughtful than many are, were once talking family matters over, when one said, "Thau sees ween kill'd aur pig, and that keeps us aut et market rarely." The other replied, "Wa lad, but aur pig's livin, en it keeps us aut et market rarely — for't pig taks ole't meat brass to keep it wi'." If the weather was suitable, the skaters took their exercise and recreation. Little London dam was generally the chief place of resort on that occasion; there you would see them cutting their figures, from a cipher to any S or 9, besides all the letters in the alphabet. At one time there was a cricket match in skates upon this ice, which was an interesting sight to some thousands of persons on the occasion.

The hunters, if the weather permitted, were enjoying their sport at the holiday-time. The Sheffield pack, the Hallam hounds, the Ecclesfield hounds (harriers) had all of them plenty of followers. Many of them had the requisite qualifications for hunting, namely, a good halloo, and good swallow.

When the day's sport was over, they went to the respective public-houses in their own localities, where they discussed over the merits of their dogs — Trueman and Blueman, Doxy and Foxy, Trimbush and Lightfoot, Tinker and Towser, Dido and Flora, Rockwood and Jowler, Ranter, Cæsar, and Wonder — and how well they were satisfied with them. When they had got well refreshed, then they commenced with noisy conviviality, when the song suited to their sentiment was sung at Harry Needham's, the huntsman, at the Hare and Hounds, Wicker —
"No joys can compare to the hunting of the hare,
In the morning, in the morning, when it's fine and pleasant weather."
This song was followed by —
"Bright Phœbus has mounted the chariot of day,
While the hounds and the horn call each sportsman away;
Thropugh woods and through valleys with speed now they bound,
And health, rosy health, is in exercise found."
Then comes —
"Poor Bill Brown, of Brightside town,
A lad of well-known fame then,
That took delight, both day and night,
To chase the timid hair then."
Old Jacky Harris then gave them the "Hallam Hunt," and all was then concluded with three view halloos.

The shooters took their recreation in the neighbouring country, where there was any game which might have a chance of bagging; and if a gun could be procured the young aspirants went into the fields to have a shot at small birds or crows, or anything else that were of the feathered tribe, and sometimes accidents occurred for want of a proper knowledge of the use of fire arms. The regular professed shooters were fond of displaying the success they had had amongst each other where they knew they were safe from informers, and their place of rendezvous was at Pinchacroft lane, which, from the quantity of dogs that were generally in the house, got termed the Dog Kennel. There might have been heard where the best market was for game. They had their hours of conviviality, and the songs sung in their company were suitable to the circumstances connected with their association. We will say nothing of the night poachers, theirs being more a private than a public concern: but they knew where to dispose of the produce of their labour pretty well; if not, they could have taken it to the cook's shop in the Hartshead, and have left it to "Old Generosity" as to what he would give them apiece for hares, or a brace for birds. This was said to be done through a trap door.

The "Mummers," "Derby Tup," and the "Poor Old Horse" were generally performed at nights all Christmas week; and the missal box was exhibited by women. It is a waxwork figure, generally laid down in a wooden box, which opens with two lids — said to be a representation of the infant Jesus. The figure is ornamented round with artificial flowers, sea shells, &c., and the woman sings a Christmas carol, concluding her nominy as follows:—
God bless the master of this house,
The mistress also;
And all the pretty children
That round the table go.
By this means the women collect money; but this is more common in country places than in towns.

Morris dancing, or more properly, Moorish dancing — being learned from the Moors — was formerly done by jingling of bells; but at this time it is performed by two taking hold each of the end of a string, which is wrapped over with artificial flowers, with which they perform many pretty evolutions and figures. There are generally ten or twelve of them, besides the superindendent or master.

The sword dance is done in a similar manner — and when the dance is concluded, the superintendent gives the order to the performer to lock swords, when they bring up to him each his sword, and by crossing them to carry the whole number round in either a perpendicular or horizontal direction. They are dressed with fine shirts outside, and decorated with ribbons. They each perform at the corner of the streets, or in some private situation. They have each a band of music with them (not very extensive), and when the dance is finished collect from the bystanders.

The deserving poor were not neglected. We will not here take notice of the acts of charity that are done by those persons who are in the higher stations of life merely. Perhaps there is not a place in the kingdom where, in all ranks, charity is more universally predominant than in Sheffield. On the Christmas festival they are never neglected, as far as the working man's ability reaches; and when a person has been in the habit of frequenting a public-house for his pint of ale, and he should be in sickness, or decrepid from old age and debility, small subscriptions are generally raised in the following manner:— "Oi say, Oi think we out to do summut for poor Oud Johnny this Christmas; 't poor oud lad's not able to cum aat o't hause — wot say yo?" "Why, Oim willing;" "And so am Oi; cum, let's see what we can do for him." The landlord says, "Cum, here's moi sixpence to begin wi';" "Woi, an' here's moi tuppence," &c.; and so they go round the company until it is announced that there is five or six shillings collected, and this is afterwards repeated at different times, which gives assistance to the object of distress whom it is collected for; or perhaps it might be done for the widow and family of a pot companion. It is likewise at times extended to objects of distress in the neighbourhood, when trade is in such a state as will allow its being done.

Business is entirely suspended from Christmas Day to New Year's Day, except in cases of urgent necessity; all the manufactories are closed, and not the sound of a hammer or file is to be heard; none of the grinding wheels are at work; the forge and tilt hammers are silent; one day passes on after another, and the money that was in the pocket of the most careful is in a galloping consumption. But during this time the "poor 'prentice lads" had something found for them to be doing by the "little mesters;" but they had "halliday" on Christmas Day, and the youngest 'prentice my dame always "fun' a job" for, and she thought it a favour bestowed upon the lad when he had completed the following directions which she gave him: "Thou mun goa and droive t'hen aat o't assnook, an' tak't scummer an' fetch some doblins to't foire aat o't koilhoil, an' put t'potter i't grindle kowk-hoil, an' then thou mun fetch t'racken sleck; then thou mun tak t'aas to't middenstead, an' riddle t'ass an' bung t' kowks i't basket into't hause, an' then wash thysen an' get thy supper, an' then thou may goa att an' play the whoile it's toime to goa to bed."

Public-House Conviviality

We will now take a view of a social company that have met at the sign of the Cross Daggers, West-bar green, whether by accident or appointment is immaterial; but there a dozen or more old friends have met together on the last day of the old year; they had at that time known each other for the space of forty or fifty years, and this is forty or fifty years ago, so that you will not expect that in their convivial meeting they will be discussing over the Reform Bill, the corn laws, or the advantages and disadvantages of free-trade; nor are they weighing over the repeal of the corn laws nor trades unions. No, theirs is a convivial meeting. where they seem anxious to spend a pleasant evening, and for once think themselves young men again. When comfortably seated, after having inquired concerning each other's health and welfare, and how "'toud lass" is, and if they live in the same place that they did, the next inquiry is, "Well, has't raised a pig this year?" "Aye, tha knaws I shouldn't feel reight without one; has thou gotten one?" "Aye, I have, and a pratty one it wor; we killed it day after Christmas Day." "And, pray thee, what did it weigh?" "Woy, it weighed five-and-twenty stone, and wore nobbut nine months oud; it had twenty pound o' midgeon fat in it; hast thou killed thine?" "Noa, we'st not kill it till't day after New Year's Day; it hadn't eaten all't stuff up, soa I thout it had better eat it than let it be left; it'd nobbut wasted." "Woy, thou wor allus fond on a pig: what thinks ta if thou sings us that oud song about Tommy Perry's pig?" "Woy, O'll try." It was agreed upon in the company that it "wor a varry good oud song," and that it was true, and — says, "Cum, friends, Oi'll gie yo a tooast: here's wishing every poor man i't town 'at deserves it had a good fat pig," which was drunk unanimously.

"Oi say, Billy, does thou work at Butlers yit?"Aye, lad, Oi were 'prentice there, an' me fatther worked there whoile he deed; Oi were 'prentice wi' me fatther, an' Oi've ne'er worked noawhere else. We've plenty a work, if we had but moor for dooin' it." "Haw monny dun yo mak to't dozen?" "Woy, sum soarts thirteen an' sum fourteen to't dozen." "Woy, but Rodgers ne'r has aboon twelve made to't dozen. Oi wish thou'd sing us t' Cutlers' Heroes; thou used to sing it." "Woy, Oi'll try, but it's a long toime sin' Oi sung it; Oive happen forgotten it." "Woy, pray thee try. Solience!" "Woy, then, here goas."

Other cross references went forward, until the last singer was desired to make a call, when he pitched upon Billy, and asked him to give 'em "Mr. Batty's Mule." He agreed; silence was soon obtained, and he made no further apology than saying, "It's rayther a longish 'un, but it's a rare good 'un."

"Well done, lad; Oi never heeard thee sing that song better i' my loife; Oi think i' my heart thour't getting young ageean." "Woy, but cum, Oi mun be thinking a goaing hoam, and seeing our oud lass; it begins a being late, and shool wonder where Oi've gotten to." "Nay, lad, thou needn't think a goain' hoam to see yore oud lass; thou'll see her befoar, for there's heaf a dozen on 'em set wi't mistress, sucking their pipes i't kitchen, an' their reight enough." The party broke up about half-past eleven, every one satisfied with their evening's social company, and all parted with good humour and a cordial wag of the fist, wishing each other a happy new year.

[ Top of Page ]   [ Miscellany ]   [ Home ]  

Copyright © 2003 All Rights Reserved. Built for South Riding Folk Network by Malcolm Douglas.