Christmas, 1856, at Bournemouth: a monster tree

Christmas, 1856, at Bournemouth: a monster tree


Christmas, 1856, at Bournemouth drew press attention because of the Sanatorium’s monster tree. Eight years earlier, the Illustrated London News had depicted the Royal Family standing around their Christmas tree.  This festive practice, a part of German tradition, gained popularity in the British Isles. A tree at Bournemouth would have suited its image as a fashionable place. Its role as the centre piece of a charity bazaar, held to support the Sanatorium, fits usage elsewhere in this year.

Christmas trees and charity

Bournemouth, 1856

The Sanatorium, established during the previous year, had attracted support from affluent people. Bazaars and teas had raised money for this charitable institution, built for poorer convalescents. That Christmas, the bazaar’s location, windows darkened, glittered with ‘variegated lights’. Decorations consisted of greenery, flags, mottoes, and other items. Even though many people attended, much of the donated merchandise remained unsold, so the bazaar held over for a second day. First day’s receipts exceeded £50. ‘The monster Christmas-tree was brilliantly lighted and decorated with most elegant articles, which were speedily taken possession of by the numerous visitors, who were in attendance.’ This meaning of ‘monster’ may seem modern, but, according to the OED, Victorians did use it as ‘anything of vast or unwieldy proportions; an extraordinarily large example of something’. Dickens had so described Martin Chuzzlewit’s desk (1844). Thus, the Sanatorium’s supporters had supplied a tree as attractive as Bournemouth’s media image.

Elsewhere, 1856

Instances of large festive trees on public display occurred up and down the country during Christmas 1856. Most of the time, they belonged to charitable events, intended to provide treats for children or even the workhouse. According to London’s Daily News even ‘Every well-managed lunatic asylum now has its Christmas festival’. A local benefactor presented a tree for the children living in Long Ashton’s workhouse, near Bristol. Trees often featured at events given for students of the National Schools, from Glasgow to the Isle of Wight. As at Bournemouth, trees became attractive features for seasonal bazaars held to raise money. Instances occurred at Newcastle and Liverpool. Trees also played a role in taking money, shopkeepers placing them in their windows to gain shoppers’ attention. Confectioners saw opportunities to drive sales for usage in family decorations. Two shops, one confectionery, one toys, exhibited ‘very pretty trees’ in Ross, Herefordshire.

Charles Dickens


During the 1840s Dickens published a series of stories based around Christmas celebrations, of which A Christmas Carol perhaps has most popular awareness. These stories both fed and fed on the public’s interest in the seasonal festivities. Many advertisements placed in the press during Christmas 1856 listed ornaments, confectionery, ribbons and so on as items having a seasonal use. People wanted to spend money for the occasion. In 1850, he published a story entitled A Christmas Tree. ‘I have been looking on, this evening, at a merry company of children assembled round that pretty German toy, a Christmas Tree. The tree was planted in the middle of a great round table, and towered high above their heads. It was brilliantly lighted by a multitude of little tapers; and everywhere sparkled and glittered with bright objects.’ Some modern commentators have suggested that today’s Christmas celebrations still follow a Dickensian pattern.


Charles Dickens often used his novels to highlight society’s attitude and behaviour to working people and the poor. When London’s Brompton Hospital planned to construct an annex based on the south coast, intended for poorer convalescents, it seems to have attracted the author’s attention. At this time, together with his friend, novelist Wilkie Collins, Dickens produced amateur dramatics for charitable purposes. In 1855, the pair had produced “The Lighthouse” at Tavistock, where Dickens then lived. A second performance occurred at Campden House, family members participating. Colonel Waugh donated the building’s use for the purpose. He played a prominent role in raising money for the Sanatorium, allowing a fete to occur on his Brownsea Island property. Later, however, the press would unmask the Colonel as an embezzler of ‘Dickensian’ proportions. Thus, two of Dickens’s themes – poor support, Christmas celebrations – came together in the Sanatorium’s monster tree at Bournemouth in 1856.


Dickensian approval

In the 1840s seasonal balls to celebrate Christmas and the New Year began at Bournemouth. For a while, two events happened each year. The guests at one consisted of local traders, middling people. Those at the other belonged to the neighbourhood’s affluent people. The balls provided evidence of the resort’s embryonic social pyramid. Press accounts referred to the events as successes. Towards the end of Bournemouth’s first period, however, the Christmas ball for affluent people became a charity event on behalf of the Sanatorium. Thus, two important local landmarks, one social, one medical, combined at a key event on the resort’s calendar. The bazaar held at Christmas 1856, continued the process whereby the area’s affluent people provided charity support for poorer members of society. Seasonal support for such an institution which involved a monster Christmas tree and appropriate decorations would, it seems, have gained the approval of Charles Dickens. 

Monster progress

Twenty years earlier, according to the commercial directories, Bournemouth consisted of a few poor fishermen’s huts. Two decades, however, had witnessed substantial progress. A speculative venture to provide health tourists with a suitable venue had become the basis of a town. An extensive and, sometimes, chaotic built environment invaded the Bourne valley’s rural landscape. Residents settled to derive an income from the tourists and the growing settlement. Infrastructure, albeit incomplete, developed. The basis of central control appeared in the form of the Improvement Commission. A social structure appeared. Cultural events flourished. Health tourism extended into entertainment travel. Attempts to connect Bournemouth with travel routes began – omnibus, the Channel steamer system, the burgeoning railway network. Ambition helped win the Sanatorium against competing towns. An identity took root. Bournemouth had come far. Thus, the monster Christmas tree of 1856, in a way, symbolised the scale of the town’s progress.


In their own way, the posts carried by this site have come a long way in exploring aspects of Bournemouth’s early period. This, the fifty-second, concludes that process. Thereafter, next year’s posts will extend Victorian Bournemouth’s story into its second period.


For references and engagement, please get in touch. Main primary sources: here and here (subscriptions needed).

1 Comment

Leave a Reply