A lot of people have been commenting that this Christmas will be difficult what with the cost of living crisis and the fuel crisis and the wave of strikes sweeping the country, but there is also a determination to make the best of it in the circumstances. That made me think of the events of 80 years ago and for this month’s blog I thought I’d share a few snippets from the fourth Christmas of the war.
As strikes on the railways threaten to disrupt many people’s plans to return home or visit loved ones this Christmas the priority for war needs meant that there weren’t the trains and seats available to transport folk home for the festivities in 1942.
The government, anxious to save fuel for the war effort, encouraged families to share one fireside at Christmas 1942 – good advice for this year as fuel bills rocket. They also told people not to wash up in dribs & drabs as water is precious – good advice in Cornwall where a hosepipe ban in 2022 still stands as reservoir levels are at record lows.
With wartime shortages Christmas decorations were in short supply, so the nurses at the Evacuees’ Sick Bay at Tredethy House, Helland near Bodmin, improvised using all sorts of natural foliage which they hung from the ceiling.
Toys were also in short supply so the older students at St Paul’s School in Penzance used their woodwork and metalwork lessons to make 60 models of planes and ships and tanks for the boys in the two youngest classes and presented them with their gifts as part of the school’s Christmas festivities.
Although totals handled by Cornish post offices in the pre-Christmas rush were down on 1941, at Bodmin the County School Hall and a number of students were employed in sorting the mail with 120,970 letters & cards being franked in Bodmin in Christmas week. Cards, like this one of Princess Elizabeth, were the most common form of Christmas greeting although the number of telegrams delivered on Christmas Day rose. Every effort was made to get the Christmas post through to help boost the nation’s morale. If you didn't get my card in 2022 I suspect it was 'lost' in the postal strikes!
There was no shortage of Christmas trees in Cornwall and the evacuees at the Sick Bay at Tredethy House, Helland near Bodmin, enjoyed decorating this one with the help of the nurses. The Women’s Timber Corps had been established during 1942 with several units based in Cornwall helping to overcome the lack of imported timber. In 2022 war in Europe again reduces the availability of resources available to import, but how ready are the population to turn to home-grown alternatives to Putin’s gas?
Carol singers going round the streets were a common sight in many Cornish towns and villages in 1942, often raising money for various charities helping the victims of war. Sadly, such a tradition has all but passed from the streets in 2022, with just a handful of places maintaining community singing events like the Falmouth Dock Workers on Christmas Eve or the villagers in Gorran Haven. Definitely an idea worth reviving!
The newspapers of 1942 were full of culinary tips and food facts to help those preparing and cooking the Christmas fayre to overcome the shortages and provide edible substitutes. In 2022 we’re scanning social media for such tips to overcome a lack of eggs and turkeys from avian flu, a shortage of certain vegetables due to, it is claimed, a lack of British workers prepared to work the fields and energy saving cooking tips.
While in December 2022 football fans are watching the World Cup, in 1942 the traditional Boxing Day matches were usually made up of teams from the various armed services. Penzance took on a team from the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and drew 4-4. In St Austell the District Football League divided into East and West for its annual match. The teams playing at Poltair included servicemen from the Royal Artillery and the Royal Army Medical Corps. The West won 5-1. At Truro (pictured above) the Home Guard took on a team from the Air Training Corps.
While much of our entertainment at Christmas 2022 will come from the TV and the internet, in 1942 a dance with a good dance band was considered a good evening’s fun as well as raising funds for some aspect of the war effort. In St Columb the Home Guard had acquired the services of the Regimental band of the Bedfordshire & Hertfordshire Regiment (known as the Beds & Herts) who were stationed in the county. In Penzance the Winter Garden enjoyed an RAF Dance Band. In Saltash a New Year’s Day Dance enjoyed the full Dance Band of the Royal Artillery.
Cinema was the most popular activity and many even opened on Christmas Day to help occupy the thousands of servicemen and women in the county. Some Cornish cinemas even managed to show the big hit of the season – the blockbuster Gone With The Wind. Falmouth, Looe, St Austell and Penzance all ran with the American Civil War story which took three hours forty minutes before the end credits rolled!
The Boxing Day or New Year’s Day hunt was a common part of the festive traditions in many rural communities. While attitudes have changed to the sport since 1942, one thing that is certainly not done these days is the Four Burrows Hunt posing for a photograph in the middle of the A30. Roadworks are currently underway at this site to dual Cornwall’s main trunk road.
In Bodmin Madame Bassett’s Concert Party put on a week of performances in the Public Rooms of Aladdin raising money for DCLI charities. Misses Tank and England starred in the principal roles whilst a large number of children enjoyed minor roles as well as forming the chorus (shown above). Other Bodmin residents known to be in the cast included Maureen Bennett, Mary Blunt, Trevor Cable, Maureen Carne, Doreen Chapman, Jean Croscow & her sister, Pauline Dawe, Dennis and Leslie Johns, June Neale, Jean Netherton, Mrs O Summers and Hilary Truscott.
It used to be the tradition that schools held their carol services in the run up to Christmas and the churches held theirs in the 12 days after Christmas Day. This report features the private Lawn School at St Austell which was just off Truro Road (today only the name of the lane remains) holding their carol service at St Austell Congregational Church. Alas, this church, which could accommodate 350 people, is also no more being demolished during road widening in the 1970s. It stood on the site of the British Legion Club off Duke Street and South Street. This Christmas if you want an uplifting hour in a warm environment try your local carol service – your presence may just save another church or chapel being turned into holiday flats or apartments.
Every junior school and Sunday school seemed to produce their own nativity play in 1942 and played to a packed audience of parents and relatives. In some places a more ‘professional’ approach was taken by church drama groups or local amateur dramatic groups. In their church hall near Redruth the photo shows the New Treleigh Players performing their nativity play. In 2022 there are just a handful of infant schools still producing nativity plays as many opt for other non-Christian seasonal titles. The number of Sunday schools in the county has also dramatically fallen in the past 80 years as well.
This 1942 photo that appeared in a number of local newspapers shows children fascinated by the crib scene at Truro Cathedral. Congratulations to the cathedral who continue to display a crib which still attracts a large number of curious children peering through the windows of the Bethlehem inn to find the key characters around the manger in its rear outbuilding.
So in a year which had seen German bombers cause death and devastation across the county from St Breward to the Royal Cornwall Infirmary, from Torpoint to Falmouth and many places inbetween, a year when rationing and shortages were biting hard with the introduction of utility furniture and clothing, a year when much of the news contained loss and defeat from the loss of Singapore in the Far East to the Battle of the Atlantic with the dreaded telegrams that followed the death of a loved one, the people of Cornwall were heartened by the recent news from North Africa of Monty’s victory at El Alamein which was celebrated with the ringing of church bells for the first time since the summer of 1940. The county’s residents were determined to celebrate Christmas in whatever creative ways they could muster not wanting to lose sight of what the festivity is all about. As we face what will be for many a difficult Christmas without a lot of their usual extravagance and razzamatazz, maybe we could take a leaf out of the wartime generation’s book and celebrate with what we do have, sharing it freely with those around us so no one is left out or alone and remembering the Reason for the Season is the arrival of One who is good news of great joy for all people. May I wish you and yours a Happy Christmas and a blessed New Year.
If you want to take a more detailed look at Christmas 1942 in Cornwall then click on the link for my YouTube video that provides the sights and sounds of 1942 along with an A-Z guide of what happened across the county. The whole presentation comes in four parts - the link takes you to Part One.