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Belfast, Christmas 1919... a tale of two cities

Barely 12 months since the end of the First World War, the city was gearing up with gusto for the festive season 100 years ago. But behind the tinsel, there lay a darker side. Keith Haines reports

A different world: High Street in Belfast city centre 100 years ago
A different world: High Street in Belfast city centre 100 years ago

By Keith Haines

A quick perusal of the Belfast Press towards the end of 1919 may have convinced the reader that the only downside to the festive period was the fact that the trams would not run on Christmas Day. One headline seductively offered "Peace with Turkey", which, seasonally disappointing, proved to be a reference to the continuing Versailles peace conference.

The contemporary enduring Brexit issue was a revision of the 1914 Home Rule Act, which debated the exclusion of Ulster; the Belfast Telegraph commented that, as in recent times, "We do know that no party wants it". The equivalent of the Queen's Speech was the address by Sir Edward Carson, endeavouring to offer comfort and reassurance.

In its first issue after Christmas, one local newspaper enthused: "Very few houses were without sprigs of mistletoe and borders of evergreen and at night there was the glow of Christmas lanterns to give beauty and warmth to the surroundings ... The gifts have been bewildering in their variety and many of them have been very costly ... The children have been particularly lucky and some of them have received more presents than they can ever hope to make good use of. The business establishments were kept open until a late hour on Christmas Eve and up to the last moment they were besieged by customers."

The pantomime at the Grand Opera House was a sell-out. Impresario Fred Warden, the owner of the theatre, had produced Sinbad for his 25th season, which was declared as good as ever "musically and spectacularly". Christine Roy made "a handsome and vivacious principal boy" and Edward King "the king of laughter-makers ... provokes merriment by his clever singing of Shoe Strings, intensified by the gusto with which he renders Where Do the Flies Go in the Winter-time?" A young Little Marie Swanton also graced the stage; she "is quite a child, but she is a clever and graceful exponent of the terpsichorean art" - and her father just happened to be the show's musical director.

Showtime: the Grand Opera House in Belfast
Showtime: the Grand Opera House in Belfast

With tickets available from Crymble's of Wellington Place, other theatres and cinemas boasted a variety of offerings, including Charlie Chaplin in Sunnyside and Triple Trouble and Gloria Swanson inflaming a love triangle in Every Woman's Husband at the Royal Cinema (also owned by Fred Warden).

Such was the singular popularity of the contemporary film industry that one company advertised improbable postal courses in Cinema Acting for £2 10s (£2.50) - in the silent era, the calibre of one's voice presumably did not feature.

The Hippodrome continued to offer the mysteriously-named act: "Foster Kershaw, the entertainer without a piano, & Co".

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At Royal Avenue Bella Donna (set in Egypt) and A Still Small Voice were paired, both of them concerned with theft, deceit, transient love, betrayal and attempted murder, thus creating the template for Emmerdale.

The Ulster Hall was a regularly booked venue. With prices ranging from 1/3 to 3/6 (for reserved seats), the Belfast Philharmonic, featuring no fewer than 400 singers, presented its annual Messiah Concert on December 19 and 20. At the same venue, Mrs Whale's pupils offered "a very pretty pantomime"; the review suggested that it will have been much appreciated as "the care she bestows on the training of the youthful attests", although there is a hint of the Trunchbullesque in the revelation of "her passion for correctness and thoroughness in every detail".

The more discerning male sophisticate will have ventured, perhaps in a raincoat purchased from W J Marshall in High Street to the adjacent Panopticon cinema, where Fred Stewart sold his darkened seats for Queen of the Sea.

This featured the nubile Australian Venus and former swimming champion, Annette Kellermann, who in 1916 had been the first woman to appear naked on the screen. Stewart's advertising described her as "finely shown both as a mistress of natation and also as a beautifully-modelled woman".

If these patrons subsequently returned via Donegall Place, they may have been momentarily enticed by Thornton's Home of Rubber, although then been disappointed to discover that it actually sold motor car and cycle gear. Sauce for the gander was reflected to some extent by the goose. A few days before Christmas, the Belfast Telegraph's fashion column reported that close wraps and high six-inch collars were now in vogue.

It was a contrast to the last few seasons when "even with a heavy fur coat, the bare chest and low neck have been well exposed ... The non-decollete modes are certainly a welcome change, and much more healthy and suitable for the chills of winter".

This was, of course, directed at the wealthier classes, as was Lady Edith's household column in the Belfast News Letter. Whether or not this was really compiled by the recently elevated Marchioness of Londonderry is not made clear; it discriminated nevertheless in favour of the prosperous social spectrum.

Recipes - all using margarine instead of rationed butter - were presented for galantine of chicken ("serve on a block of aspic jelly") and spiced round of beef, which required 10 lbs of silverside and necessitated basting several times a day for at least a fortnight ("put in two silver ornamental forks to keep in place").

These could be garnished with veal or chestnut stuffing. She also offered a range of suggestions for the disposal of the post-Christmas turkey: inter alia, Breton, Burdwan or devilled style or as kromeskies.

Gloria Swanson
Gloria Swanson

The place to find such fare was St George's Market, which opened at 5.30am, although still partially occupied by the military authorities. The local papers admitted that the turkey or goose was a luxury, but most dealers and farmers were sold out by 10am.

You could purchase a bird alive or dead, the latter being marginally more expensive. Dead turkeys ranged from 30 to 50 shillings; geese from 15/6 to 17/6; and the rather infradig chicken from 6/6 to 12/6.

The contemporary Etiquette for Gentlemen: Rules for Perfect Conduct warned, however, that, "To offer to carve a dish, then to perform the office unskilfully is an unpardonable gaucherie. Every gentleman should carve, and carve well".

Such a nerve-wracking procedure would probably have been calmed by a few drinks. One of the most popular suppliers was the (still-extant) W&A Gilbey. They provided a claret at 2/6, a Beaune Superieur for three shillings, the confusingly-named Invalid Port (with "invigorating and tonic properties") at four shillings and a mis-spelled Grand Maderia (sic) at the same price. The principal inconvenience was that you had to return an empty bottle.

Any post-prandial after-effects could be challenged by purchasing the magical Osmos aperient water, which tackled constipation, dyspepsia, biliousness, torpid liver, haemorrhoids in addition to gout, rheumatism and obesity. It also claimed to purify the blood and clear the complexion - all for only two shillings per bottle.

The healthier, more active choice on Christmas Day was to head down to Grosvenor Park to watch the annual Steel & Sons' Cup final where Brantwood and Dunmurry played out a tedious scoreless draw. (The latter won the replay, 1-0, on New Year's Eve).

Whether Captain James McKee went to watch is unknown. Twenty years earlier, his brother, William, had been victorious at the same venue with Cliftonville. William had been a victim of the war and James, who had come within a replay of winning the Irish Cup in 1911 for the same club, had been severely wounded and lost a leg at Messines.

After the war, the principal problem faced by James, who had been engaged in the linen trade - like so many others - was finding employment.

The King's Speech in the House of Lords on December 23 acknowledged the difficulties following demobilisation: "The lot of the men who have served in my forces during the war, and especially of those who are disabled, has been the subject of anxious consideration."

Charlie Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin

Even the professionals were vexed; surgeon Thomas Davidson complained to his friend, Fred Crawford, the erstwhile gun-runner, that he had given up his Clifton Street practice for five years to serve in the conflict, yet was unable to find any medical post upon his return.

If Christmas 1918 had been a time of relief and reflection, one year later there was increasing anger and frustration. Inevitably, there were those determined to take advantage of the continuing poverty and distress: in the days running up to Christmas, to tempt those who could not afford the season, the local Press carried up to 10 front-page advertisements from loan companies offering £3 to £5,000.

Although Rev James Brown Armour, of Ballymoney, believed a 44-hour week would be the ruination of the commercial and industrial world, the working classes were beginning to demand shorter hours and better pay. Sharman D Neill, the Donegall Place jeweller, apologised to customers that he could not produce his annual catalogue because of "the unsettled condition of the labour and metal markets".

In the middle of December, judgment was given in the case of arbitration for a claim put forward by Belfast municipal employees. The cleaning staff had requested a 7.30am start instead of 4am, which was declined on the grounds that it would create too much public inconvenience; they had also demanded 12/6 per week. They were granted five shillings.

The continuing enactment of the Defence of the Realm Act regulated butter, bread (from December 15 a 1lb white loaf was fixed at 2 and a half d) and coal prices.

Coal was the principal form of power and heating and had to be imported. Among its "really useful and lasting presents", Young & Co, of High Street, promoted kerb sets and coal boxes. That the poor would have been appreciative simply of the coal is reflected in the fact that every winter a public coal fund was raised to help the indigent inhabitants - by Christmas 1919 it had reached £1,500.

The Belfast Council of Social Welfare wrote to the Press to appeal for funds to support "many cases of severe and unmerited hardship", because "the prevailing high cost of living has brought many deserving families to the point of total collapse".

Rev Hugh Montgomery, of the Shankill Road Mission, made his annual plea, requesting warm clothing and coal, Christmas parcels for 600 to 700 needy homes, a substantial meat supper for 1,500 of the poorest men and woman and a tea festival for 2,000 to 2,500 children.

The wealthier members of society certainly contributed. On Christmas Eve, the details of the will of Sir William Quartus Ewart of Glenmachan were published, revealing that he had left substantial donations to 33 charitable organisations and institutions.

Such generosity was, nevertheless, cosmetic; it rather ignored the fact that such issues were recurrent and deep-rooted.

There was a multitude of the poor in one of the wealthiest cities of the Empire.

The local newspapers were rather too alacritous to applaud the resort to the cheque-book. The Belfast News Letter reported that much seasonal preparation had been done for children, and "out of their wealth the rich will doubtless give a liberal hand and they will find reward in the happiness they confer on others".

The same editorial resorted to unhelpful, inconsequential platitudes, rejoicing that 2,000 years previously, the Magi had followed the star to "where the wonderful mystery was created which raised a fallen world and brought joy and hope to human hearts ... To the poor especially - and they are many - the consideration of these things should bring consolation".

Well, if you say so.

Despite the imminence of Christmas, even the priority of the Churches could be elsewhere, intellectual and esoteric.

At Belfast Cathedral, Rev Professor Alan McNeile, a prominent Dublin clergyman, imparted a high-brow lengthy monologue on immortality, assuring his congregation of the resurrection of the body.

The highlight of the occasion may well have been: "After the fleeting years of this earthly life ... each individual must continue to have intercourse with others."

On the same theme, on Christmas Eve, the Belfast News Letter decided to promote the latest volume by the long-term rector of St George's Church in High Street, Rev Dr Hugh Davis Murphy. As Brian Walker's history of the church reveals, in late 1898 when it was threatened by rioters, Murphy repelled them by bringing in "a number of footballers, racing cyclists and other athletes (and) told them to bring their friends and to bring cudgels".

The new book related to more spiritual material: The State of the Soul between Death and the Resurrection, being a collection of his sermons. The review argued it was a bargain at five shillings and "should be read with interest, and there are many people to whom it would make an acceptable Christmas gift".

For the majority of the population, attention to bodily needs rather than the soul was more pressing. In the personal columns of the Belfast Telegraph and other papers - the contemporary equivalent of Facebook - some made their own efforts to redress their situation: "Respectable man having £100 cash desires communication with lady of some means."

Some of these entries exhibited a degree of carelessness: mislaid items included five black-faced sheep in Ballymurphy; a pink pearl necklace; near Arthur Square, a dress wrapped in brown paper; a Yorkshire bitch; and cow with red and white markings.

The saddest entry of all came to be highlighted by a column in the Belfast Telegraph on Christmas Eve: "£50 reward. Lost by poor working girl, 19 December, vicinity of Old Lodge Road and North Street. Roll of Notes and Gold."

On that date, a young working girl from the Crumlin Road had left for her place of work in the town centre. She was carrying, as was her custom, a white handkerchief containing her lunch and her entire life-savings of £147 2s 6d, including £40 worth or gold, garnered over "twenty years of assiduous toil".

She had intended to use it to start her own business, or emigrate to New Zealand.

She carried it under her arm and travelled along the Old Lodge Road, North Street and Lombard Street, until she realised, in Rosemary Street, that it had gone.

Five successive days of personal notices failed to locate the package. Sadly, it was a century too soon for potential crowd-funding.

As the newspaper columnist concluded: "The young woman has lost her all at a time when she ought to have the common happiness of the season."

If that does not sadden your heart, you don't deserve Christmas 2019.

Keith Haines has written a number of books on Ulster history, including Belfast and the Great War (Amberley Military History)

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