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Historian Keith Haines looks at what life was really like in Belfast, Christmas 1918

The Great War had just ended, the Spanish flu pandemic had taken its toll and the latest Charlie Chaplin film was packing them in at the Picture House in Royal Avenue.

Christmas 2018 will find most family entertainment centred in the home. A century ago this was replicated with the purchase of records, "including all the Season's Songs", from the Anglo-American Gramophone Co and HMV stockists Smyth & Co, both based in Rosemary Street.

As the world began to shed the shroud of the Great War, however, the citizens of Belfast would have ventured into the thrum of the city for amusement and diversion. What they witnessed would not have disgraced an episode of Britain's Got Talent.

In Christmas week 1918 the Royal Hippodrome, which stood adjacent to the Grand Opera House, offered a varied programme which included blind pianist Violet McKinnon and Paul Stephens, a one-legged performer on the slack wire and balancing pole. Even his unique talent was eclipsed, however, by Le Max ("the modern Hercules") who "with equal ease and certitude balances toys weighing a half-hundredweight each, top hats and other trifles, supports with his teeth a chair on which is seated a lady assistant, the while he manipulates with hands and legs spinning dishes, rings and balls".

Since its foundation in 1895, the Hippodrome's next-door neighbour had boasted a pantomime, described in 1914 by 16-year-old C S Lewis as an "annual monstrosity". At Christmas 1918 the Grand Opera House offered Old King Cole, with "an all-star cast" which included Dorothy Vaughan as the principal boy who "sings with exceptional sweetness and taste". Comical rogues were played by Naughton and Cole (whose partnership lasted until 1962). The local press lauded the production as "fantastic humour and gorgeous spectacle … in abundance" featuring "a sensational race between a train and a motor car". A plethora of cinemas included the Picture House in Royal Avenue, which pandered to popularism by showing the latest Charlie Chaplin - "thoroughly irresistible entertainment"- a wartime skit entitled Shoulder Arms, accompanied by the repertoire of the international Jacques Jacobs and his orchestra. The film played simultaneously at the Willowfield cinema in east Belfast alongside Fairyland, "a Christmas story for children".

For all the exuberance which this offered, the continuing impact of wartime restrictions was never entirely absent. A soldiers' boxing feature in the Opera House on December 16 had to start at "6.45pm sharp" as a result of lighting restrictions. The next day, the Carlton Restaurant in Donegall Place cancelled a dance evening "owing to the action of the Coal Controller".

Whereas in 2018 shops and stores stay open seemingly endlessly to attract custom, a century ago opening times were strictly regulated and individual outlets had to notify the authorities of their choice of hours.

Nevertheless, a week before Christmas 1918, it was announced "the Early Closing Order will not be enforced on 20th, 21st, 23rd and 24th December so that the public will have facilities for Christmas shopping".

The seasonal ambience of the final weeks of 1918 was subdued by two factors. There was universal relief that the conflict had ended, but as an editorial of The Belfast Telegraph wrote in relation to 7,000 Belfast men: "Although hostilities have ceased sorrow is still widespread throughout the land. There are aching hearts, for it is a time of memories in many homes where vacant chairs bring thoughts of the absent ones who are sleeping their last sleep somewhere in France or Flanders … or on the bottom of the ocean.”

The Belfast Telegraph and other Press published details of the official demobilisation process, including the fanciful aspiration that, upon discharge, all servicemen should have employment, with long-service and married personnel receiving preference.

More tangible and probably unwelcome reminders of the recent past were evident in the continued publication of photographs of deceased soldiers, and also the placement of five captured German field guns standing sentinel in the grounds of City Hall, later distributed to such locations as the Square in Comber and Campbell College.

Additionally, the end of the war had coincided with the pandemic of so-called Spanish influenza, which during the last three months of 1918 had accounted for an estimated six million deaths worldwide, proving five times more virulent than guns and gas.

Acknowledging that the declaration of the Armistice would encourage thousands of celebrating bodies on to the city’s streets, HW Bailie, Belfast’s medical officer, banned large gatherings and crowds, and from 11 November closed all schools (including Sunday schools) and places of entertainment for 10 days. 

Such restrictions had been eased as Christmas approached and the epidemic abated, but there were those who are willing to seek to exploit any advantage. Highlighting the fears caused by the pandemic, Gallaher’s claimed that their High Toast Snuff could prevent colds and influenza. Most improbably, Mrs Duggan of Commercial Court (now better known for The Duke of York, venue of the first Belfast performance of Snow Patrol) enquired: “Have you tried Snaed (influenza wine)? Guaranteed preventative; a certain Restorative. Positively no influenza can exist where Snaed is used.” This miracle bottle sold at 3/6d (now 18p).

A century ago the citizenry was fortunate to have available a wide range of wonder potions and panaceas that promised to cure almost any ailment and discomfort. The contemporary newspapers readily accepted advertisements which today would be laughed to scorn by the Advertising Standards Authority.

The most comprehensively miraculous was the ubiquitous Phosferine. It was, the advertisements said, “a proven remedy for nervous debility, influenza, indigestion, sleeplessness, exhaustion, neuralgia, maternity weakness, premature decay, mental exhaustion, loss of appetite, lassitude, neuritis, faintness, brain-fag, anaemia, backache, rheumatism, headache, hysteria, and sciatica”.

The product proved remarkably enduring despite the fact that, sited next to the title banner of the Belfast News Letter, its advertisement boasted that “When a Ship is British Built it is Solid, Safe, and Reliable” on the very day that the paper announced the sinking of the Titanic. Accompanying such extravagant claims were countless classified and commercial advertisements from respectable businesses and products, some of which survive to the present day. Among innumerable single-line notices in the classified ‘lost’ section, entangled with all the appeals for lost purses and jewellery, can be found a plaintive cry for “2 Horned Sheep marked red H on back and 2 lambs from Mossvale, Dunmurry”.

Some entries have lost their original meaning, such as that of Mr Roy of University Road who placed a request for a “nutter for Frying and Baking”, and the resident of Cyprus Gardens who offered “Swedish Massage for Rheumatism, Sciatica and Stiff Joints”.

The more established businesses included the still-extant optometrist Harris Rundle, who in 1918 was promoting “Two-Light Glasses”, nowadays known as bifocals. Sawers, then in High Street and Cornmarket, offered “Choicest and Best Turkeys, Geese, Ducks, Chickens and Fowls”. The most emotive change on the retail therapy scene from 100 years ago has been the sudden loss of the Bank Buildings emporium (right) which then proudly vaunted, confidently and simply, “UNUSUAL – ARTISTIC – USEFUL”.

Many of the other leading commercial enterprises have long since disappeared. The department stores of Anderson & McAuley, J Robb & Co (offering “a Christmas Exhibition of Novelties”), Arnott’s and Robinson & Cleaver (claiming that, with regard to Christmas gifts, “never was the selection so varied or the choice of gifts so great”) found it difficult to survive and have disappeared from the high street.

Lowry’s of Cornmarket displayed children’s overcoats and tunics between 14/11d and 29/11d, and Maguire’s offered “winter underwear and fleeced knickers” at 4/11 and 5/11. If you were confounded for a gift, W&G Baird, who owned the Belfast Telegraph, promoted a “Map of Belfast showing the Parliamentary and Municipal Divisions”, which at a bargain 6d was, with a General Election in sight, “of practical use at the present time”.

Other popular products which have withstood the vagaries of time and commercial capriciousness since 1918 include Bovril (particularly prized for its body-building and restorative power), Bisto, Veno’s Cough Cure (as it was then known), Veda bread and Cadbury’s. The latter took advantage of milk shortages to recommend its Bournville Cocoa as “a fragrant and refreshing beverage, rich in strength-giving properties for nerve and body”. Quoting a statement from the Ministry of Food, it also publicised the qualities of its chocolate: “The value of chocolate as a food for men who are undergoing exceptional fatigue is so fully recognised that it would be undesirable to diminish the present issue of chocolate to His Majesty’s Forces.”

Although the local Press would have been totally ignorant of the fact, such publicity was very advantageous to William Edward Greeves, of the Belfast linen dynasty who had been raised and educated in east Belfast, as on February 14, 1918 he took comfort in chocolate when he married, in Bournville, Marion Cadbury, heiress to the entire food empire.

The captains of industry and commercial barons did not have to struggle to enjoy an indulgent Christmas but, as remains prevalent in 2018, for all the wealth which the working classes generated, they remained enduringly poverty-stricken.

In 1910 Belfast had been visited by Andrew Carnegie, widely regarded as the world’s second richest man; his personal fortune exceeded the combined wealth of the entire working class population of the city many times over.

In 1914, Carson had claimed that “all classes of citizen were … bound together in a great communion of sentiment and interest. Professional men and merchant princes walked side by side with humble artisans”. These words would have rung hollow to the thousands of utterly destitute at Christmas 1918.

Even before the war, Sir Robert Anderson (of Anderson & McAuley) had argued in the city council that “some of the houses that were to be destroyed were not fit for dogs to live in, let alone human beings.”

Wages were pitiful, and virtually none of the working class could afford any of the items mentioned above.

A multitude of charitable enterprises endeavoured to alleviate the desperation and humiliation, but one wonders whether the Lord Mayor recognised a lack of sensitivity when at the close of 1915, having distributed sandwiches and buns to 1,300 of the city’s predominantly female indigents, he wished them “a happy and prosperous New Year”.

Many may well have taken the remedy into their own hands by taking advantage of the many advertisements which lined the columns of the local Press from such as the Private Loan & Discount Company, which boasted of “Thousands to Loan from £5 upwards at reasonable interest”, or the London Finance & Discount Company which offered £3 to £500 “without any security or bail”.

Plus ça change. It seems that the individual who gave his name to Christmas was correct: “The poor you will always have with you.”

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

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