A Victorian Christmas

Margaret Chamberlain was a prolific diarist, and it’s thanks to her diaries that we know quite a lot about her early life – especially what Christmas was like in 1890, when she was 19 years old. Margaret was at the heart of a large extended family, which included her Chamberlain and Nettlefold cousins, and at Christmas there was much socialising to be enjoyed.

That year she also had an enviable white Christmas, although it wasn’t quite as magical as you may think if her entry from 19 December is anything to go by: Dec 19 Friday: A deep fall of snow which spoilt the ice, rendered the roads almost impassable, & prevented my going to the School of Art.

Margaret Chamberlain
Margaret Chamberlain

Margaret had been attending cookery classes, and cooked a meal with her second cousin, Grace Nettlefold, sister of Margaret’s ardent admirer John Sutton Nettlefold: Dec 22 Mon: Spent the morning at Hallfield, cooking the lunch with Grace: Salmon Pie, potatoes, rissoles, Swiss Roll, & apricot compot. Nothing succeeded perfectly except the Salmon pie. Walked back after lunch.

Grace Nettlefold

Both girls were clearly keen to practise their culinary skills, although their families would have employed kitchen staff and expected them to do so too when they were married. Having said that, learning cookery would ensure that they knew what they were talking about when organising their own households. They do seem to have enjoyed getting their hands floury in the kitchen though. We don’t know whether the family cook helped them, or perhaps looked on in disgust as these two novices took over her domain.

Christmas Eve was spent decorating the church, again with Grace: Dec 24 Wed: Walked down to the Church at about half past twelve, & helped the decorations. Grace & I did twin wreaths, large & ugly. We had a stand up lunch there, & it was most amusing.

We can only imagine why Margaret described their wreaths as ‘ugly’! On Christmas Day, Margaret received a brooch, album, fan, and pen holder as presents, but the day’s focus was on rehearsing for a play, which a group of the cousins performed on Boxing Day: Dec 26: Cousin’s Party. We began with the play. It was a great success & the children did themselves great credit.

The play was called Carrottina the Gardener’s Daughter, a comedy by George Grossmith. The playwright was a popular writer of sketches, songs and plays, and worked closely with Gilbert and Sullivan on the development of characters for their operas. His most famous work was the comic novel The Diary of a Nobody, published in 1892.  Margaret copied out the dramatis personae for Carrottina in her diary. The cast included an evil duke, a pleasant peasant, and Carrottina herself, ‘the very model of what a good girl ought to be’.

Carrottina cast page 1
Carrottina cast page 2

Margaret’s description of the rest of the evening demonstrates how much effort the whole family put into entertaining each other: After the play, Blindman’s Buff. Then Supper. Then each guest did something for the General entertainment. Riddles & Recitations were preferred. Then came an examination that we had prepared – I & Papa. It was an examination for the order of Worthless Learning & was also successful. Quite a novelty too. Then waxworks. Then a blindfold game, & then ‘carriages’. Grace called me out into the hall to pay a debt, & to ask me to go over & skate the next day.

Margaret's diary 26 December 1890

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