“ Paperback: 192 pages / Publisher: The History Press Ltd / Published: 1 Sep 2012 „
Going to work on dark cold wet mornings, returning home on dark cold wet evenings, warnings of snow, ice and sub-zero temperatures on the roads, fighting your way through crowded shopping centres while the retail and advertising worlds are hellbent on parting you from the money you badly need to pay the mortgage and utilities, friends and families determined to ram festive cheer down your throat, your other half rhapsodising about what a lovely time of year it is while insisting through gritted teeth that the house is a tip and must be tidied and cleaned from top to toe for impending visits of family who will trash it within thirty minutes flat or less when not arguing about what they want to watch on TV because (cue 'It's Chriiiiiiiist-maaaaaaaas!' in a Noddy Holder voice) ...well, for some people in the past, Yuletide could have been even worse. As this gruesomely entertaining volume reveals, sometimes it was.
'A Horrible History of Christmas' is a trawl through local newspapers, selecting some of the more gruesome things which happened to people in previous years. The entries are sub-divided into regional areas, beginning with the south-west and south east, covering all areas in turn, including Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Let us start with the first entry, which describes the joy of sisters Ella and Maud Fitzroy as they were getting ready to go to a ball on Christmas Eve 1885 in Devonport. Their happiness quickly turned to horror when Ella's dress came too close to a lighted candle and she was in flames within seconds. As she ran screaming onto the landing Maud ran to help her and tried to beat out the flames, catching her own dress alight in the process. The surgeon was unable to save them, Maud dying on Christmas Day while Ella lingered until 11 January. A similarly gruesome end befell little Renee Wineberg in Pimlico on Christmas Eve in 1928, when she was helping to decorate the tree and her nightdress was caught by the coal fire. She ran down the street in panic, a ball of flames, and a policeman enveloped her in his thick coat when he caught her, but two days later she died in hospital.
Even worse happened - and quite needlessly - at the Theatre Royal, Gateshead pantomime in the first week of January 1892. A woman in the audience screamed 'Fire!' and panic ensued, although the performers appealed for calm. A dropped match had fallen through the floor and set light to some sawdust but was extinguished within seconds. Even so, nine children and the ticket collector were crushed to death in the panic as crowds fought to get out, while another man was killed by his injuries when he jumped out of a window. The cast had gone outside in their costumes in an orderly fashion, and returned to find that their everyday clothes had been stolen.
The above might just have been something of an inside job. But sadly, Christmas all too often means ghastly accidents. In 1947 Richard Morris was spending the 24th, which was also his birthday, with his fiancée Sibyl and family at Stanfree, Derbyshire. He had recently been troubled by poultry thieves, and was showing them a gun that someone had lent him. He did not know it was loaded, let alone had such a light trigger, until Sibyl dropped dead, killed by a single shot.
On occasion, it means murder. When newsagent and tobacconist Albert Bateman did not return home from his premises in Falmouth on Christmas Eve 1942, his wife went to check up on him. He had been battered to death on the floor. A revolver lying on the counter was traced to a local man who already had a prison record for not maintaining his wife and five children, and he was arrested 24 hours later. The evidence soon mounted against him and he was hanged four months later.
There are also drownings in freezing cold water and ice, railway accidents, quarrels which led to murder or at least manslaughter, a food poisoning from infected and improperly cooked fish, and over-indulgence in the liquid refreshment department, such as the case of one Christmas Eve party-goer who did not survive a double whisky, four brown ales and a pint of bitter. In fact, after reading this, you might never look at the holiday season in the same way again. Your tree lights refused to function when you flicked the switch on Christmas morning, or the cooker blew up and you were unable to cook the turkey? For these hapless people of the 19th and 20th centuries, far more ghastly things could have happened - and certainly did.
Sometimes, it seems, Christmas can be just like any other day of the year - every bit as deadly. There is a part of us which relishes reading about true crime, or accidents and disasters, if not the while lot, otherwise newspapers would not report them with such relish. It might not be the most comforting volume to read as you sit by the fire pigging out on those mince pies and Bristol Cream, but if you like a bit of gritty realism at the same time, this will do more than nicely. Face it, folks, the festive 'Eastenders' storyline generally seems determined to depress the hell out of several million willing, even adoring viewers every year. I didn't see it, but I did see 'Downton Abbey' 24 hours after recording it. And I won't mention the fact that nearly everyone's fave Yuletide hit song these days is mainly about an angst-ridden encounter in New York between a drunk and a prostitute.
So if you want a little bit of misery, and if it's a toss-up between 60 minutes watching the quarrelsome domestics from Walford losing their collective rag at the Queen Vic as they wonder who is going to be the next to meet an untimely death a few yards from the tinsel and twinkling lights, or this beautifully researched and presented 220-page paperback, I'll cheerfully cast my vote for the latter. Oh, and may all your Christmases be happier than these!
[Slightly amended version of a review I first published on ciao]