As we approach another Christmas of uncertainty as the coronavirus still rages with its various mutations and restrictions start to be introduced in countries across the continent and at home, I am sure many of us long for a Christmas that allows us to engage in our usual festive customs, traditions and activities. “To have a normal Christmas” is top of many people’s wish list. So this month I have selected a photo from each Christmas of the war to show what kinds of festive events took place during those war years of uncertainty, fear, separation and loss.
1939 – The photograph shows the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) Party and Dance held in the gymnasium at Victoria Barracks in Bodmin on Tuesday 19th December. The gymnasium was near the West Gate of the Barracks and should not be confused with the later one on Normandy Way which is now the home of Bodmin Boxing Club. The crepe paper streamers that came in a roll and needed to be twisted as you unrolled them must have taken considerable effort to put up. (We were still decorating with them in my childhood in the 1960s and I remember the efforts required in school, church and home!) There is a good number of ATS girls with soldiers in uniform, plus a few women in civilian dress (possibly wives of the officers). The ATS was set up in September 1938 and Bodmin had its first recruits that year. It expanded greatly after the outbreak of war. It was attached to the Territorial Army with the women receiving two thirds the pay of the male soldiers. In my novel No Small Stir, Elizabeth explains to the Major that she is a new recruit in the ATS at the Depot in Bodmin, but as she only joined in June 1940 she wouldn’t have been around for the party and dance in the photograph.
1940 – A group of students from St Joseph’s School in Upper Norwood were evacuated to Cornwall and were gathered in the War Memorial Institute at Lanhydrock to be found billets. Among the locals attending was Miss Violet Agar-Robartes who ended up taking 17 evacuees back to live with her, her sister and brother at Lanhydrock House. Others were billeted with members of their staff dotted around the estate. At Christmas 1940 the evacuees put on an entertainment in the Institute to raise money for the Bodmin Red Cross. Part of the entertainment was a nativity scene. Playing baby Jesus was Alex Hodgkinson who recalled, “Miss Eva and Miss Violet let us use a hamper full of costumes and beards. The costumes were made of crepe paper. We had great fun putting them on.” Viscount Clifden, known by the evacuees as Lordy as they didn’t see him much owing to his duties as Lord in Waiting to the King, came and watched the performance and posed with the children for a photograph. The event raised £8.
1941 – Viscount Clifden turned up at the Bodmin YMCA Christmas Party which saw a tea and entertainment provided for 400 servicemen and women including a number of wounded personnel from the Bodmin Emergency Hospital along with nurses and a representative muster of the soldiers and ATS stationed in the town. They were waited on by a team of lady helpers under the leadership of Mrs G.H.J. Mercer and Miss H.K. Liddell. The event was held on Monday 22nd December and Viscount Clifden as President of the local YMCA Committee gave a few words of Christmas greeting and expressed his hope that victory would come in 1942 now that the Soviets and the Americans had joined the war on our side. The hall has been decorated with a few Christmas decorations, a Chinese lantern and plenty of greenery collected and displayed by Mr R. Maker. The Emergency Hospital was a military establishment housed in the Kendall Building of St Lawrence’s Hospital and treated wounded service personnel and civilians from all over Cornwall. In August 1942 it treated a number of the casualties from the bombing of Bodmin.
1942 – Thursday 31st December saw the Newquay Hospital hold its annual dance. The event was a big fundraiser in the days before the National Health Service when hospitals depended on such efforts and donations in order to continue their work. Staff and friends have turned out in their finery for the occasion to see in the New Year. There is also an airman in uniform in the photograph as well. With RAF bases at Perranporth, Trebelzue (it didn’t become RAF St Mawgan until February 24th 1943) and St Eval and the Chain Home Radar Station RAF Trerew on the hills overlooking the Gannel Estuary as well as some of the RAF’s Initial Training Wings being based in some of Newquay’s hotels, there was always a ready supply of airmen for a dance like this one.
1943 – On Tuesday 4th January 1944 the children of Port Isaac, both local and evacuee, had their annual Christmas party which took the form of a tea and kinema show (today we use the spelling cinema). The party had been paid for in part by donations from the councils in Brentford, London and Plymouth as the village had a contingent of evacuee children from both areas. The local Women’s Voluntary Service organised the tea held in the Temperance Hall (now the Village Hall in Trewetha Lane). A highlight of the tea was the moment each child was given some beautifully wrapped boiled sweets which had been made possible by the generosity of the USA War Relief Society. The party then moved for the evening up the hill to the kinema, known locally as the Rivoli, and run by Mr Lobb (projectionist) and Mr Roseveare (doorman), when a special programme was presented and much enjoyed. As each child left they were given a 6d Savings Stamp. Note the sprigs of holly used to decorate the tables – a time of simple pleasures.
1944 – Pantomimes were popular Christmas entertainment and one could be found in most villages or towns in Cornwall. They were usually staged by the local theatrical or operatic society or by the church youth group, or sometimes a combination of both. This particular example comes from the village of Bugle and the photograph shows the finale being posed for the press photographer on Friday 1st December 1944. The pantomime was Aladdin And His Lamp and was put on at the Bugle Methodist Church. Aladdin was played by Pamela Thomas and Joyce Truscott was Princess Sadie.
So may I wish you a Happy Christmas and I hope you get to enjoy your party, dance, pantomime or nativity play. As the war made that generation focus on the things that really mattered and reflect on the true meaning of the celebration, perhaps we too should pause and reflect and decide where our focus should lie in our world of so many distractions. As we celebrate Emmanuel – God with us – the Scripture aptly declares “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!” A grateful heart is a good place to start.
For more on a wartime Christmas in Cornwall check out my series of videos on YouTube:
For an uplifting Christmas tale about an evacuee family in Cornwall in 1940 try my short eBook ‘Vacuees Have Christmas Too!