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Christmas Memories

Articles > Barking & Dagenham

My Childhood Memories of Christmas

Florence Tomalin

When I was young we always spent Christmas at my grandparents' house in Barking.

My father reared chickens in our garden at Belvedere, and the day before we went to Barking he killed two nice fat ones, which were our Christmas dinner. My mother had the unpleasant job of plucking and preparing them. The plucking was carried out in  our coal shed, which was a messy business with feathers flying everywhere.

All the relatives provided something for Christmas fare, and this was our contribution, together with the Christmas cake. I loved the icing and the marzipan, but the cake itself was always well done and burnt at the sides, owing to the fact that the ovens  had no thermostat in those days and it was all guesswork. Or perhaps it was because my mother was no cake maker!

After we had our midday dinner we set off on our journey, which was done by public transport as only well-off people had cars in those days. We walked through the park to catch the no.99 bus to Woolwich. It was always cold and in the early days the buses  had open tops, so if it was full up downstairs and raining you had to sit in the open. The seats had tarpaulin covers attached to the seat in front, and that and an umbrella kept you fairly dry. Woolwich was a military town and there were plenty of soldiers  walking about when they were off duty.

From the bus stop, we walked to the Woolwich ferry through a very poor part of Woolwich. There were two ferries that went backwards and forwards to North Woolwich across the River Thames, and this was all free. There was a tunnel for pedestrians only  that went under the river, which we used if the ferry wasn't running. Just before we got on the ferry there was always a man with a large basket of peanuts, and Dad always bought us children a bag each. We were so glad when we got onto the ferry and usually  made our way downstairs to the engine room. It was lovely to be in the warm munching peanuts and watching the engines working, but sometimes the smell of oil made me feel rather sick, and I was glad to join Mum upstairs who was sitting minding the luggage.

On arriving at North Woolwich we got onto another bus to East Ham. We had to go over some bridges, and when the big ships came up the river they rose in the air, opening up so the ships could go underneath. The traffic had to wait until they had passed  and sometimes we were held up for two hours. Having arrived at East Ham, we got onto a tram, which took us to Barking. By that time it was dark and foggy due to everybody burning coal on their fires. There was no central heating and this caused pollution.

It was a short walk to Grandma's house, and we made our way down a passage leading to the back garden, which was very small. She lived in a small terraced house with bay windows - although poor it was very respectable. In the early days I can remember  seeing children without shoes or stockings, and the women walking about with their husband's caps on, with plaid shawls around their shoulders for warmth. We were so glad to get there and enter a warm homely kitchen, Grandad sitting in his big Windsor  chair, and Grandma at a little upright chair at the table. They had a large coal range for cooking which heated the kitchen. My Grandma was a small, slim upright lady - very neat in her dress - and always wore a wrap-over pinafore. Grandad had a white  beard which tickled when you kissed him. He smoked a very tiny clay pipe, obviously so that he did not use too much tobacco, and listened to all the conversation but rarely said anything.

Uncle Frank and Auntie Lily Redfern lived with them, and Uncle Frank always sat in the middle room which was the dining room. The front room was always reserved for very special occasions, and I used to creep in and look under the horsehair couch where  the goodies were hidden - junkets, jellies and blancmanges for the parties. In those days there were no fridges and this was the coldest place until the fire was lit on the party evening. The house was decorated with paper chains of all kinds, but of  course no Christmas tree. Very few people had them, or coloured lights.

After tea, my Dad, Auntie Lily and us children all went shopping. This was at about 8 o'clock at night and the street was full of stalls all lit up by flares where people were buying their fruit, nuts and poultry or beef for their Christmas dinner. We  bought fruit and nuts and then went on to the off-license for whisky, gin and sherry etc. The beer and lemonade was delivered to the door in crates. Auntie Lily's rush bags were overflowing, and we all helped to carry them home. This trip was done on  a cold, damp foggy night and it was a great relief to get back to the warm, gas-lit kitchen.

On arriving back we were greeted by Auntie Lily Sonnerway and Uncle George. They took the boys (Reg and Stan) back with them to sleep, as there was not enough room at Grandma's. Before this we were invited to accompany Uncle Caleb to watch him wind up  the clock at the church. This was always a great event and the highlight of Christmas. We walked to the church and went in through the eerie churchyard, and the gravestones looked very sinister in the fog. We went up very narrow steps that went round  and round until we reached the top where the old clock was ticking away merrily, and had no doubt done so for several hundreds of years.

When we got back to Grandma's we saw several Aunties and Uncles who were already imbibing in a little tipple. Then I was taken up to Auntie Lily's room, where I slept on a makeshift bed. I was taken up by candlelight, which was left for me until I fell  asleep. My grandparents had no electricity and the house was lit by gas.

The next morning I found a stocking filled with nuts and fruit and a few odds and ends. My Auntie Lily took me downstairs where she washed me at the kitchen sink, as the house did not have a bathroom. I can always remember the smell of the soap, which  was Wrights Coal Tar, and smelt very strongly of disinfectant. I was then dressed in my blue or green velvet dress and patent leather black shoes. We then went up to church where Auntie took Holy Communion. On arriving back we found everybody up and breakfast  was sizzling away - bacon, eggs and sausages and plenty of bread and tea. The adults had theirs laced with whisky. Reg and Stan came later in the morning and we were given a few presents. I usually had a doll from Mum and Dad.

For Christmas dinner we had our two chickens with the usual trimmings followed by Christmas pudding and custard. In the afternoon we children were all sent to Barking Park, which had a lovely lake and was really very nice. Later the relations started  to arrive for the party. The house was full of paper chains and would be considered very common today, but we loved it! The Aunties and Uncles gave us Christmas presents, but Auntie Annie was very close and usually gave books that her daughter had out-grown.

After tea the evening was spent singing songs and reminiscing. As my cousins Edie and Gladys were both music teachers they took turns to play the piano. Everybody had their one special piece to sing which was the same every year. Uncle Frank sang a comic  song called 'The Parson's Nose' and my dad sang 'Medicine Jack'. The rest strained to sing various ballads and I said a piece of recitation. This was accompanied by plenty of beer, lemonade, fruit and nuts. My grandparents sat in the corner holding hands  and looked so happy.

It was then supper time and, as there were so many of us, the adults ate first while my cousin Gladys entertained us children playing games. After they had had their fill we were allowed in. My Auntie Annie cooked a big tongue, and somebody else cooked  a big ham, which was accompanied by lots of pickles and bread. This was followed by jellies etc. and Christmas cake. Then back to more singing and drinking, and so to bed.

On Boxing Day we always had roast sirloin of beef and Yorkshire pudding. The pudding was served first with rich gravy. No doubt it was to fill us up so that we did not eat too much meat! In the afternoon we went down to Auntie Alice and Uncle George's  who were my favourites - maybe because she was so jolly and always laughing. She used to have a cousin of Grandma's living with her, quite an old character with only one eye, which fascinated me, and I'm afraid I used to stare at her. After a bumper tea,  we all got round the piano and once again had a jolly evening and a good singsong.

So ended another Christmas. No doubt children of today would say it was dead boring, but on the whole we really enjoyed it. Life was so different on those days, children were seen but not heard, and it was time really only for adults.


Several years before her death Mrs. Florence Tomalin (nee Cottis) wrote a very entertaining account of her family Christmases in Barking  in the 1920s. Although she was born and raised in Belvedere, Kent Florence spent all her childhood Christmases in the 1920s at her Grandparents' house in George Street, Barking.

In January 2016 Peter Tomalin kindly considered our Society might be interested in his late mother’s fascinating reminiscences and thoughtfully emailed them to our Chairman John Blake. Peter has generously allowed us to put the account on the Society's website and also to be published in our annual newsletter. He has also interestingly informed us that his great Aunt Lily (Mum's Auntie Lily Redfern) was born in George Street and lived there until the houses were demolished in (he thinks) the 70s. She continued to live in Barking for the rest of her life and died there at the age of 100.

Editor’s notes. A quick search of shows that the Cottis Family lived at 17 George Street. Florence’s Cottis grandparents were William Cottis (1850-1939), an engine driver and Myra Avis  Cottis (1851-1949) who had married on 2nd December 1872 and she moved from Colchester to Barking to join her husband. Their children were Alice Jemima Cottis (1873-1958); William Henry  Cottis (1874-1946); Myra Annie Cottis (1877-1969); James Cottis (1880-1944); Ernest George Cottis (1882-1971) and Lily May Cottis (1890-1992). Lily May Cottis, a ledger clerk, married Joseph Frank Redfern on 14th  September 1918. The church clock winder was Robert Caleb Fenn (1879-1962) who married Myra Annie Cottis on 18th June 1904. They lived at 38 Coverdale Road, Barking and their children  were Edith Fenn (1905-1993) and Stanley Caleb Fenn who was born in 1910. The writer, Florence Ada Cottis, the daughter of James & Ada Cottis was born on 9th August 1920. Florence  married Alfred R. Tomalin in 1947 at Woolwich. Many Cottis, Fenn and Redfern family members are buried in Rippleside Cemetery, Ripple Road, Barking.

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