KEVIN GORDON - Christmas at Hailsham’s workhouse

Hailsham's workhouse
Hailsham's workhouse

Christmas brought some welcome relief for people who were inmates in the workhouse.

On Christmas Day in 1922, the inmates of Hailsham Workhouse (which had been built in 1836 in Upper Horsebridge) enjoyed a dinner of roast beef, roast pork, sprouts and potatoes followed by plum-pudding, oranges, and apples.

This was washed down with beer and mineral waters, followed by cake and tea. The men enjoyed gifts of tobacco and the women and children had sweets. Workhouse master and matron Mr and Mrs Birchall had decorated the dining room with ever-greens and miniature Christmas trees. Local people were keen to have their names listed as giving gifts to the workhouse; tobacco, jam, bon-bons, turkish delights, illustrated magazines and toys for the children.

I was quite surprised when I read this account from as recently as the 1920s. I had always assumed that workhouses were Victorian (I am sure most of us think of Dickens and Oliver Twist) however these often grim, institutions were in place until the passing of the National Insurance Act of 1948.

In 1929, the inmates of Hailsham Workhouse were treated to dinner (this time it was jelly and custard with the plum pudding) followed by a concert and ‘games of every description’ and an evening service given by the Dean of Battle.

The clergy would often visit the workhouse at Christmas and often bring gifts too. In Rye the workhouse chaplain, The Reverend Lewis, would bring gifts of snuff and sugar for the adults and nuts and oranges to the children. At Uckfield Workhouse the presents were tied to a large Christmas tree in the dining room and distributed after the meal.

The Lewes Workhouse in De Montford Road had been built in 1868 and was always highly decorated by the occupants. In 1897, there was a large ‘Welcome’ sign over the entrance decorated with red paper, moss and artificial flowers.

The dining hall was decorated with a large portrait of Queen Victoria and the coat-of-arms for Sussex and Lewes with festoons of evergreen. Virtually every room had been adorned with paper-chains and there were large Christmas mottoes including ‘Peace on Earth’ and ‘Health and Prosperity to the Guardians and Visitors” (best to keep them happy).

The Christmas Day meal was roast beef and roast mutton followed by ‘steaming hot plum-pudding’ and figs. The meal was served by the guardians in the presence of the Mayor and Mayoress (Councillor and Mrs Gates) and the Chairman of the Guardians, Mr Verrall, who later gave a speech

He said that it was fortunate for the inmates to be in the Lewes Workhouse (!) as they were in a house of comfort and cleanliness and they had regular meals.

He said that it was unfortunate that there were children in the building but they did not wear workhouse uniform and attended local schools and mixed with local children.

In 1905, the Cuckfield workhouse ‘jollity reigned supreme’ at Christmas and “every wall had been robbed of bareness” with decorations and during lunch there were copious amounts of beer and ginger-beer to “drive dull care away from the breasts of the inmates”.

Ninety six inmates sat down for a roast beef Christmas Dinner at Battle Workhouse in 1915. Afterwards there were sweets and fruit for the women and children and the seemingly obligatory pipes of tobacco for the men.

This was followed by tea and cake and a “gramophone concert”. No mention of the war here although in 1899, during the Boer War the front of the workhouse in Ticehurst was decorated by a large patriotic banner in red and white saying “The Nation’s loving and seasonable greeting to her brave, noble and loyal sons who have dared to do and die for England, home and beauty”.

I wish a Merry Christmas to you all and hope that, unlike the inmates of Sussex workhouses, you have all year round prosperity and happiness.