Ghosts of Christmas past

Living Magazines Father Christmas distributing gifts to the evacuees in Albert Street Tring in 1939

This Christmas may be a little different for all of us, but what was Christmas like for Tringalings in the past?

As a hotel, Pendley Manor hosts Christmas for many guests each year, and when it was opened as a Centre for Adult Education by Dorian Williams in 1947, it also played host to a variety of visitors, as this extract from A Perspective on Pendley: A history of Pendley Manor describes:

During these years, when it came to Christmas, the Centre offered its customers an ‘old fashioned Christmas’, reserving a number of places for people from overseas who would, otherwise, in all probability, have been on their own for Christmas.

According to Dorian Williams, ‘Originally we had advertised our Christmas at Pendley “for those who would otherwise be on their own” but, after a few hours of the first Christmas, we realised only too clearly why they would have been on their own! Subsequently, we encouraged people of every sort and every age.

Living Magazines Bob Little in the panelled hall at Pendley Manor‘Pendley is an ideal setting for Christmas with its panelling, its great open fires, its Victorian atmosphere. Christmas Eve, when we have a fireside reading round a great log fire in the panelled hall, with nothing but candlelight and holly and the great kissing bough hanging from the central chandelier is unforgettable – especially when, at the end, carollers or handbell ringers entertain from the gallery.

‘There are always a number of guests from other countries and, on the occasion to which I refer, after lunch on Christmas day, while waiting for the Queen’s Speech – or the King’s, as it then was – we invited all from abroad to tell us, briefly, of “Christmas in my land”.’

‘Eventually it was the turn of an African.

‘He rose slowly, humbly and stood for a moment, bashful and silent. He was magnificent to look at – well over six feet. He smiled. His teeth were very white and his eyes twinkled. He fingered his little moustache.

‘“How shall I say this?” he started.

‘“You see, Christianity is something quite new to me and to my country. My father was the first man in our land ever to hear of Jesus Christ. He was fifty when he heard of him and he was very thrilled. He was still very thrilled when I was old enough for him to tell me about Jesus, only a few years ago. And now I am very thrilled – still very thrilled. But you perhaps are not so thrilled any more. You have known of Jesus for more than a thousand years and, perhaps, you take him now for granted. But in my land, he is new. For us, he is alive.”

‘And he sat down. He was Seretse Khama, the young King of Bechuanaland. Sitting by his side was a girl called Ruth. They had just met. His faith in Jesus supported him, I hope, in the troubles he was so soon to face. [the young King married a British woman called Ruth Williams and the outrage at the interracial marriage had a number of global ramifications that ended with the pair going into exile. He later became the first President of Botswana 1966-80]

‘It seemed worth it, that Christmas, to have opened Pendley and gone through all that it entailed, just to have had the experience of listening to that fine African’s simple statement of faith.

‘It made one humble. It made one think. Wasn’t that what Pendley was for?’

‘A Perspective on Pendley: A history of Pendley Manor’ by Bob Little (ISBN 978-1-908941- 35-0, published by The Endless Bookcase)”.

Christmas past, Christmas presents

Further back in Tring history, the Rothschild’s family generosity at Christmas was well known, especially during the time of the first Lord Rothschild (1840-1915).

Robert Timberlake, whose father ran Hastoe Farm on Tring Park Estate, wrote: ‘At Christmas, generous presents were sent not only to leading employees but to their children as well. Discreet enquiries were made as to what we should like. Sometimes the result was unexpected, as when I asked for a week-end bag, having in mind something to hold pyjamas and a toothbrush, and received an enormous leather suitcase, which I could hardly carry. At one time Lady Rothschild, a popular Lady Bountiful, used to send every child in Tring and the neighbourhood a Christmas hamper full of goodies and containing a brand new shilling piece.’

Mr Harrowell of New Mill recalls, meanwhile: ‘‘About September each year Rothschild’s clerks went to each house to know the ages and the sexes of the children. At Christmas each child had a hamper individually addressed. The standard things were: a new shilling, a box of Christmas crackers, tea cake about six inches across, a pocket knife for boys over 10 years old and my last hamper at the age of 13 contained a full fretwork set.’

Main Image: Father Christmas giving gifts to evacuees in Albert Street, Tring, 1939

Inset: Bob Little in the panelled hall at Pendley Manor