The last Great Christmas Dinner
After the outbreak of the Second World War, the Sheffield steel industry faced the prospect of heavy bombing raids. It was impossible to evacuate the foundries, furnaces, converters and rolling mills. The company for which my father worked decided they could at least move the offices and records, with all the staff and their families, to safety. They found a vacant country mansion in Derbyshire about fifteen miles from the works, and leased it to establish a new administration there. The nearby village was Eyam. This place became famous in 1665-6 when it was struck by the bubonic plague. Over half the population died. In 1939 it had a population of about six hundred.
About two hundred city folk descended on Eyam like a second plague. To some of the villagers that must have been exactly what they felt. There was great difficulty finding anywhere to live. My family, Mum and Dad, Audrey aged twelve and myself, nine years old, were very lucky. We found temporary accommodation with the family of a lead miner, George Thompson, his wife, Anita (usually called Nita), and his mother. They welcomed us to their home, a house called Hillcrest on the valley side above the village. We were treated as members of their large and influential local family, the Furnesses. Nita’s cousin and her husband lived in a very fine Elizabethan farmhouse, down in the village. Other relatives were scattered throughout the town, which straggled for a country mile along a winding, single main street.
On Christmas Day, 1939, we four had our own little present giving session in the early morning. I received a Spitfire aeroplane kit. For dinner we were invited to join the Furnesses, in the farmhouse. Everyone contributed to the feast and we were involved as if we had always belonged. There were no maids or servants. Without regard for age, status or wealth, all undertook tasks of some kind. Audrey and I helped the other kids with putting up decorations. Mum and Nita cooked one of several huge Turkeys. The men carried things from the scattered family houses along the street and from the pub just fifty yards from the beautiful, ancient house.
There was, as yet, no shortage of anything. Food rationing was only whispered about. Turkeys and beef and a goose and a ham, puddings and sauces and pies and bread and cakes and sausages and sausage rolls, bacon, roast potatoes and chestnut stuffing and sage stuffing and chocolate and fruits and sweets and every other thing, beer and wine and nuts and Christmas crackers with silly hats and mottoes, decorations and holly and mistletoe and flowers, all were prepared and arrived in good time.
At least twenty people, counting the Simons family, assembled round a huge refectory table in the dining room, with gnarled oak beams above our heads, leaded windows, gas lamps, candles and a roaring fire in the vast hearth.
There was a moment’s pause for the patriarch, old Grandpa Furness, to welcome us all. Dad said afterwards, which I only later came to understand, the scene and the atmosphere were truly Dickensian. Years later when I read Dickens, I knew what he had meant. It was as if we had been suddenly transported into the pages of The Pickwick Papers.
The food that followed the brief introduction was truly stupendous. It was not possible to deal adequately with all that was put before us. Everything I tried was delicious. There were things that I had never heard of, never had tasted and never would see again. All those present were in high spirits, the noise of conversation and celebration increased almost to an unbearable level, then gradually subsided into the afternoon as the crowd sated, exhausted, became sleepy.
No one snoozed for long. Now the village brass band marched into the farmyard and assembled at the front door with the entire choir from the church, to play and sing. The hymn, Silent Night, always moved Mum to tears. They remained half an hour, ending with the old chant:
Glad tidings we bring to you and your kin,
We wish you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year
Now we all like figgy pudding, we all like figgy pudding
And we won’t go until we’ve got some,
So bring some out here!
No one took anything out there; they were all welcomed in and took a little figgy pudding or anything else they fancied. Large contributions were made to charity.
Hardly had these singers and the band moved away, than the waits from the Town Head (Wesleyan) Chapel arrived. They had no band, but they sang well and they, too, went away satisfied. Dusk was approaching when the third choir, from the Town End (Wesleyan) Chapel, arrived and sang. They took away what was left of the pudding. Much else remained for supper.
Audrey and I were sent early up to Hillcrest and to sleep. The festivities continued long into the night. We heard, next day, that the old man had been helped at last to bed between two other men, all with their boots still on.
For our family, it was the first, and the last, greatest, traditional Christmas Day we had ever, or would ever, experience. It was never forgotten and never could be repeated.
The bombers came to Sheffield a little less than a year later. They missed the steelworks but entirely destroyed the city centre and many thousands of homes.
We stayed in Eyam until long after the war.