What did the Nettlefolds do for Christmas?

Christmas at Winterbourne

Margaret Nettlefold’s household diary provides fascinating insights into middle class life in late-Victorian and early-Edwardian England.  She clearly gave careful thought to Christmas presents and cards, and listed everything in the diary.

For example in 1904, Margaret gave a camera (referred to as a ‘Kodak’) to her husband John, a shell cabinet to Evie, a paint box to Nina, tricycles to Ken and Beatrice, a doll to Lois, and toys or books to various nephews and nieces. Margaret’s sisters received gardening tools, and Arthur and Joseph Chamberlain cigars. Gifts included items for the servants and their children. The five male outside workers received 4lbs of beef, a pudding and a cardigan jacket. Maids got stockings or aprons, the cook, print material for a dress and the Nurse, a cape. The gardener’s children had a paint box, a tea set or a ball. Christmas tips of 2 shillings (10p in today’s money) were given to the postman, butcher, fishmonger, baker, lamplighter and paper boy. Cards and letters were sent to various members of the extended family and friends, and the Womens’ Hospital got two brace of pheasants.

In 1909 bricks, wooden animals, books and combs were on the list of presents, and the children, except for the little ones, were writing their own cards.  But in 1914 cards went ‘only from self to small nieces & nephews’ and the presents were more limited.

Margaret’s diary of 1890 gives the only full account for the Christmas period, but Christmases at Winterbourne were similar. She attended a variety of parties, dinners and balls, some private dances and theatricals. She shopped for ball dresses in London and went to the theatre, seeing Ellen Terry and Henry Irving. In Birmingham she went skating and tobogganing with John Nettlefold, who was courting her at the time. She attended rehearsals for an amateur production, performed on New Years Day. She also saw the Edgbaston High School play, and rehearsed her younger siblings for a performance of ‘Carrotinna’ at a ‘cousins party’, attended by the large extended family. ‘We began with the play. It was a great success & the children did themselves great credit. After the play, Blindman’s Buff, then Supper. Then each guest did something for the General entertainment. Riddles & Recitations were preferred’.


The tradition of amateur dramatics continued, with Margaret writing her own versions of ‘The Three Little Pigs’ and ‘Hearts and Tarts’ for her own children. Most of the time, Christmas Day seems to have been spent with the family at Winterbourne. The children were not always at home. Evie spent 1910 in Paris and wrote home in February 1911 to say that she had seen ‘Cousin Cecy, who told me all about your Christmas Party, & how everybody enjoyed themselves & how Val ran about, & the acting was a great success & Mother was to be much complimented on the work’.  In turn Nina spent Christmas 1912 and 1913 in Paris. She was not very happy about it, feeling homesick and she asked her mother ‘to write a long letter next week, for when all the girls go back to England & I am forced to remain here by a “hard hearted family” it won’t be nice’.

In 1903 John and Margaret Nettlefold left on 26th December, to travel to Switzerland without the family. They had a holiday skating, tobogganing and walking. Margaret tried skiing but found it ‘Not a success. Would require much practice’.  Margaret went travelling on 1st January 1907 for a two month cruise to the West Indies, this time with her father and her sister Mary.

In her last diary entry from Winterbourne in 1913, after Christmas, most of the family went to visit Margaret’s father at Cadhay in Devon. They spent time, with the girls riding, and John and Ken out on the tandem. The weather was very mild, but wet. ‘All the spring flowers coming out in ridiculous fashion – gathered handfuls of primroses & periwinkles in January!’

Sue Tungate

(Winterbourne Archive and Collections Volunteer)

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