The Penwith Papers

Christmas Cheer, 1878

Boxing Day. It’s the Cornishman’s first Christmas, and now – with the cards displayed, the meat gone cold and the brandy and puddings at least started – comes the usual Thursday edition, with news from Afghanistan, praise for the forthcoming Australian National Exhibition, and the trial of a man charged with writing to the Queen and threatening to shoot her "with my spiritual gun and battery".

Nearer to home, there is praise for the Head of the Grammar School, Rev. Trimer Bennett, who has done "much useful work among the poorer classes" in addition to his day job with the scholars. A lucky and venturesome man from Botallack has fallen 90 foot down an old mineshaft ladder, and walked away well enough to be out "chasing birds" the following day. But the local press – then as now – is largely about local businesses, current and potential advertisers. And this commercial impulse has brought into being two dense columns detailing the festive shop windows of Penzance - reminding home readers of what most would already have seen for themselves; and reminding emigrants of midwinter in the old country.

See them now, these gaslit windows full – except for the booksellers’ and drapers’ – of oranges. Grandparents will look back to the days of Napoleon and King George, and remember believing that fairies had filled their stockings with the sweet fruits; will remember providing the same treat for their own children in the days before railways and photographs. But now we are moving towards the twentieth century, and the big new plate glass windows are full of up-to-the minute merchandise – although the wine and spirit trade keeps a low profile, with readers warned of the strength of Scotch whisky (which may or may not be available in a certain shop), and as yet there is no Father Christmas.

At the top of Chapel Street, you may call on Mr Jewell for a mask or a false moustache, perhaps for guising: if dissatisfied with the "immensity" of their own facial hair, young men can equip themselves with "imperial, Dundreary, military, or any style they choose". Mr Israel Levin at 102 Market Jew Street has jewellery, rubies and diamonds catching the rich light, and at the bottom of town, the French milliners at Paris House have are all the "nic-nacs" – fans, gloves and ribbons - the heart could desire.

At 5 Market Place, Mr George has crammed his windows with pastry, sweets…. and apparently pigs’ heads, enticingly intertwined with holly. Mrs Hicks at 37 Market Jew Street has so many sugar cakes that the glass seems about to burst and spill them out onto the paving. Down at number 28, the usual, "democratic" cabbages and turnips have been put aside in favour of oranges, apples, grapes and "exotic" products that the customers cannot even name: "those red thingum-bobs"; "those green-looking thingumajigs". And those who venture up to number 56 Causewayhead can see "Merry Christmas" spelled out in white ginger on a background of black currants.

Mr Rodda in Market Place – one of eight Roddas trading in the town - has "shelves groaning" with Christmas cards (a difficult thing to imagine) – this commodity is growing in popularity and the cards themselves are "Every year…. attaining a greater perfection"; where will it end? Why, if the market for these little cards continues to grow, Christmas in the 20th century may bring as much misery to the postman as Valentines Day. In the window there seems to be an "unending variety… intended to cheer the hearts and gladden the eyes of distant friends to whom we can now only speak through such media as these mute yet expressive little messengers".

But Christmas isn’t all about food, personal adornment and new media. A couple of doors further on, readers are reminded, they can pick up their copy of the Cornishman while they stock up on tobacco "in all the various forms of the seductive weed" and perhaps browse the array of walking sticks, or even the penny weeklies "fuller of ghost stories and illustrations than they ever were before". And when shoppers return to Market Place and see the silk handkerchiefs at Clarke’s, they will surely be grateful that they have noses. At Mr Jarvis’ elegant Greenmarket shop, with its pillared Regency frontage, you can complete your purchases with a pottery Gladstone or - if your prefer - a pottery pig.
May the cash flow freely! May the "bad times" not trouble the festive trade! A Merry Christmas to One and All.

Refs: Cornishman 26th December 1878 pp 4-5; Harrod’s Directory 1878 pp 901 -909, both available at the Morrab Library

The Penwith Papers:

Penwith Local History Group
The Penwith Papers:

Growing Up in West Cornwall. A Publication by the Penwith Local History Group

"Growing Up in West Cornwall"

Edited by
Sally Corbet

price £10
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