Victorian Bournemouth (155)

Victorian Bournemouth (155): Workhouse Christmas

A dark pantomime


Victorian Bournemouth (155) explores press accounts depicting Christmas celebrations held in English workhouses during the 1870s. It finds articles followed a boiler-plate construction, most presenting events in suitable form for voyeuristic, respectable middling flies-on-the-wall. They ease consciences about the poverty relief system, while also validating it.

Victorian Bournemouth (155): survey

Editors’ calendars

Accounts of Christmas meals and celebrations held in the workhouse offered newspaper editors a regular, standard way to fill column space during December or early January. Stories of the event held in their local workhouse appeared each year in newspapers across the country. The headline ran along the lines of ‘Christmas in the workhouse’. It formed a type of media trope. Sometimes, newspapers included what reads like a press release provided about the event held in London’s workhouses. Thus, people in Bournemouth might browse through how London managed this process. They would have read an article as rich with quantitative detail as the plum puddings’ ingredients cooked for the paupers to consume. Pounds of this item, pounds of that, packets of tea, screws of tobacco, and so on. The amounts appeared to act as a salve on any public conscience or misgivings about how contemporary society addressed poor relief. 


The accounts published across the country’s newspapers make very similar reading. In part, this testified to a standardised version of contemporary Christmas Day celebrations, whether in the workhouse or outside. The stories appear to follow a shadowy checklist of points to include. Washed and well-presented paupers of all ages march in a regimented way into the room. Decorations abound. The paupers eat meals consisting of roast beef and vegetables, followed by helpings of Christmas pudding. Unless in a Temperance zone, adults receive beer. They also take away tobacco (men), snuff (old women), and tea. Children receive toys and oranges. The gifts reduce the paupers to extensive expressions of thanks. Sometimes a cheer rings out for the officials and Guardians. The presence of well-meaning, respectable visitors, sometimes the mayor and mayoress, adds further decoration and lustre to the event. All ends in harmony and joy. The paupers return to their cells.

Victorian Bournemouth (155): analysis


Most stories present the events as if the readers had become voyeurs. They become witnesses to the behaviour and attitudes exhibited by paupers as if they had visited a zoo to gaze at wild animals. The text often echoes with judgemental comments. “They were all the picture of cleanliness and there was no breach in the behaviour of either adults or juveniles”. ‘ … inmates had good cause to rejoice that they once more were permitted to enjoy the good things of this life …’ Readers watched the paupers as if they belonged to another species, resembling but different to (respectable) humans. Unwitting bathos leaches into the descriptions. Children ‘danced with rapture over cast-off toys’. ‘ … old women … [chat] … with glee over their “screws” of snuff’. Longer-term inmates, veterans of previous Christmas events, perhaps knew the value of displaying appropriate emotion to the watching gentry.

On parade

Victorian opinion divided on its national poor relief system. Some, like the Reverend Pretyman, a Guardian at Bournemouth’s local Union, painted almost all vagrant beggars as sturdy charlatans. Others, for example Dickens, emphasised misfortune as the road to the workhouse, where unfeeling brutality awaited those entering. The workhouse occupied the system’s focal point. At Christmas, the meals offered staff the opportunity to parade their management skills before visiting civic leaders, gentry, and other respectable benefactors. If the paupers appeared clean and well-dressed, it proved that the staff did their job well. The system worked. Cheers for the staff from inmates also displayed the effectiveness of this as the chosen way to remove paupers from society. Thus, a second type of display features in these stories. The readers had a chance for self-congratulation that they belonged to a society which had indeed found a solution for poverty. They emerge as heroes.

Victorian Bournemouth (155): assessment

Temperance sharp practice

No stories have emerged depicting Christmas meals at the Christchurch Union workhouse during the 1870s. In the 1880s, however, the subject attracted some newspaper ink. The Guardians spent time discussing events for Christmas Day: an important subject. A brisk row occurred after Temperance Guardians applied sharp practice one year. Most Guardians left their meeting believing that agreement existed on arrangements for the Christmas meal, including the provision of beer for the inmates. The Temperance rump took the initiative to substitute coffee for beer, justifying their decision with the usual arguments. Their intervention did not, it seems, become clear until the day, too late to change the provisions. Lord Malmesbury, an ex-officio member, offered to provide a barrel of beer in compensation. Drinkers would consume it to complete their Christmas celebration early in the New Year. Thus, this Union, as elsewhere, sought to inject politics into that year’s Christmas celebrations.

A darker pantomime

Pantomimes had become a regular feature on which those in funds could experience Christmas entertainment. Bournemouth’s local press covered shows appearing in London. The audience could watch actors cavort on stage, acting a predictable but anticipated story. Aladdin, Babes in the Wood, Cinderella: all variants on a theme. The press stories depicting Christmas in local workhouses perhaps present an alternate, dark pantomime to entertain respectable readers. They present a predictable tableau where poor people receive a bounty from respectable members of the species. No tough love meted out by the staff features in these stories. Happiness abounds, but poverty’s experience will awake in the morning. For a day, though, these paupers’ pantomimes acted as a salve on respectable consciences. The lustre and decorations, the enormous sizes of the well-stuff Christmas puddings, represent respectable people’s reach for absolution from the unsolvable problem. Merry Christmas to them all; God bless them, everyone!


Victorian Bournemouth (155) has explored press stories that ran at Christmas time, which presented depictions of seasonal celebrations provided for Workhouse inmates. It finds a media seasonal trope that, when probed beneath the surface of sequins and sultanas, reaches into the darker aspects of how respectable people engaged with poverty and the institutional means to remove it from society. 


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