West Sussex Unwrapped: Festive edition!

Welcome back to a special festive edition of West Sussex Unwrapped! Watch Screen Archive South East’s wonderful film footage featuring the Williams family of East Grinstead on Christmas Day, 1967-1970. Then discover more about West Sussex Christmases gone by through a multitude of festive records from the archives.

Christmas on Film

Family Christmas in East Grinstead, 1970s. Williams Family collection.

Watch the full film at Screen Archive South East

Christmas in the Archives

Images should not be reproduced without permission from West Sussex Record Office.

Lord of Misrule

Court transcript, 1587, Ep I/17/6 f.79v

In the Middle Ages the Lord of Misrule was a man elected to preside over the Christmas games and revels.  For the twelve days of Christmas, his word was law, and no-one could refuse his command.  The Bishop’s Courts in Chichester for 1587, describe an incident where a member of the clergy has been deemed not to have acted in a manner becoming to his cloth.  Henry Weston was rector of East Wittering cum Bracklesham, so not a good advert for the clergy:

“Mr H. Weston 4th day of March 1586/7 appeared and objected to the charge that he played at tables [that is, backgammon] all night in an Inn in the City of Chichester publicly, to the slander of his function.  He alleged that he was sent for by virtue of a Commission from my Lord Admiral to be examined about certain marine causes the 30th day of December last and being in the town somewhat late so that he could not be dispatched to return home again the same night, he went to the sign of the Swan for lodging, where being on the next day about eight of the clock he played at the tables with the goodman of the house and he had not played above an hour’s space but that one William Brunne who then played the part of a lord of misrule came in where the defendant was at play and said that the game was a Christmas game and so perforce took the defendant from thence and made him ride over a staff to the Cross.”

The Rector was presumably made to use his staff as a hobby horse along East Street, which was then the main business street of the City.

With thanks to Dr Caroline Adams, from whose talk ‘Christmas in the Archives’ the above was taken.

Christmastide essentials

There are some aspects of Christmas that cannot be forgotten; a big roast dinner, the swapping of greetings cards, beautiful decorations, and singing carols (even if badly!). Many of these traditional essentials go back centuries, especially the preparation of a delicious feast, shared amongst families and communities…

‘One fat hen’

This release of property between George Marshall, an apothecary, Sibili [sic] Marshall and Mary Marshall, both spinsters, and Henry Gadd, a butcher, includes a stipulation of a yearly rent of 44s. and one fat hen to be provided at Christmas.

‘Four large, fat and good capons’

(Lavington Ms 818)

This bond between John Harrys of Buntingford, John Harris of Braughin, and Giles Garton of London includes a stipulation to deliver three large, fat and good capons (neutered cockerel) at Easter and four at Christmas to Garton each year for five years, 1584.

A mantlepiece full of cards

Although the first recorded sending of a recognisable Christmas ‘card’ was in 1611, from Michael Maier to James I of England, it was not widespread until the middle of the 19th century. With the introduction of the Penny Post, cheaper postage encouraged the sending of these cards in the festive season. Richard Cobden, a liberal politician and native of West Sussex, was instrumental in reforming the country’s postal system. And, as with many customs, Queen Victoria helped to popularise the sending of special greetings cards at Christmas when she began sending ‘official’ Christmas cards.

Above: a selection of 19th and early 20th century Christmas cards from the archives.

And who could forget carolling?

A Shippam’s Christmas

Late 19th to early 20th century brochures advertising “Shippam’s Specialities for Xmas”. From the Shippams Archive.

As a major purveyor of luxury potted provisions, Shippam’s of Chichester must have done booming business at Christmastime. Sausages, wild boar’s head, brawn, tongue, curried chicken, potted meat and fish, soups, you name it Shippam’s could supply it. Yet, it wasn’t just meat-based specialities you could buy, they also sold festive plum puddings (traditional Christmas pudding) in basins, ready to steam on the day.

It wasn’t just to West Sussex households that Shippam sent Christmas puddings to –

“Although no Army contracts were given to the firm, Shippams were voluntarily sending quantities of their foods to the men of The Royal West Sussex Regiment [sic]; and for Christmas, a huge consignment of Christmas puddings was despatched.” – from Shippams of Chichester: The Annals of a Family Firm, by Augustus Muir.


Manuscript atlas compiled by Edward Fuller, 1812-1813.
A note in the front of the book records that the volume was given by Edward Fuller as a Christmas present to his father, Richard Fuller senior. There is also an unsigned pen and ink drawing of a donkey, dated 1812, presumably also the work of Edward Fuller.

Letter from Eliza Shaft to Mary Shaft, 18th December 1845. In it, Eliza discusses her plans for the month and also her ideas for Christmas gifts. She is content with gifting “half a crown” to two particular children. Whilst a little unimaginative, it was a tidy sum for a child in the 1840s.

(Holmes Campbell collection Acc. 1771A, Box 3, Bundle 2, 12)

A nautical gift, perfect for the mariner in the family. Kenneth Long, of Chichester, listed this advert in the West Sussex Gazette, 7th December 1950, capitalising on West Sussex’s extensive coastline.

Wartime festivities

Sussex born painter Ralph Ellis enlisted in The Royal Sussex Regiment in 1914. A skilled artist, Ralph made sketches, watercolours and notes throughout his time in the army, which formed the basis of his Great War memoir. As you can see from the above images, he recorded his fellow comrades, his surroundings, and captured the atmosphere in France.

Ralph spent more than one Christmas in France. His first Christmas on active duty is documented in December 1915, when he wrote to his mother from the front line at Hinges:

“Christmas was almost with us, before we left Hinges for the line again; and in some way we had to celebrate, as best we could, in such a place… The dining hall was an old cart shed, which we hung about with old tarpaulins and sacking, borrowed from the transport, it kept out most of the cold, rain laden wind.  A dimly lighted place, filled with the faces of men, all else seemed to melt away into the shadows; and the faces talked, talked freely without restraint and fed and drank sumptuously of the good fare provided, for the cooks had excelled themselves; and when you have tasted nothing but stew or bully beef, day after day; roast pork with a liberal supply of vegetables is vastly appreciated… the choruses, sung in mass, almost raised the roof and brought the little kiddies of the farm running wide and wonder eyed to the door, it was a cheery evening.”

For more on Ralph Ellis:

Great War Memoir: 1914-1917 (Add Mss 25001-25006)

Sussex Record Society website – The Great War Memoir of Ralph Ellis: Image gallery

Purchase Sussex Record Society Vol. 100: The Great War Memoir of Ralph Ellis, Sussex Artist and Soldier.

J. A. Davison of The Royal Sussex Regiment recorded his Christmas Day whilst serving in France during the First World War, 1917. He describes the snowy landscape of the “tiny village” which his unit are resting in, “miles behind the [front] lines”.

His words express a palpable sadness of being away from home for Christmas and he becomes emotional through the thought of loved ones “bravely trying to keep the spirit of Christmas”.

A church service is held, quickly though because of the cold, and afterwards a football match breaks out “between the Officers and Serjeants, and the men all flock to watch”.

The realities of wartime food rationing impacts festivities in West Sussex – Sussex Agricultural Express, Friday 23rd November 1917

Doreen and fellow land workers, 1939-1945.

Doreen Peskett (née Strange) was an avid diary keeper throughout the Second World War. She was one of many thousands of women who joined the Women’s Land Army and provided much needed agricultural support in and around Horsham. Her diary of September to December 1943 (number 12, MP 7343) records her wartime festive experiences:

December 22nd, Wednesday

A beautiful day, though cold.  I helped Timms get some chicken to Billl & get straw & hay & at 5 o/c we all went to the house & were presented with a chicken each as a Christmas box, which is about as useful a present as anything these days. In the evening Charles & I went for a walk. It was a glorious night.

December 24th, Friday

Worked with Timms, getting hay & straw.  Oh no of course I didn’t, that was Bill!  I helped old Fred clean the combine & spent 1½ hrs on my tummy in its interior, scraping & brushing!  It was a beautiful day.

We went home early about 4 o/c so I got ready, & washed & when Mrs Cruise came in had a hurried dinner & went to Arundel just in time for the 6.15 – only it was a bit late, so I had to wait.  It was lovely to get home & feel I had 3 complete days there.  Had some holly which we put behind the pictures. Gwyneth, Pa & I went to the midnight communion at church.  I felt different there than any other communion.


I celebrated today (morning anyway) in bed!  I had a beastly headache when I got up & was sick 4 times & went back to bed in Ma’s room, after which I felt perfectly normal again, had my Christmas dinner & got up about 3 o/c. What was wrong I couldn’t say! We spent the day quietly, just listening to the wireless & playing on the piano & playing Monopoly in the evening.

You can read more about Doreen and her diaries here.


For millions of Christians around the world, advent is a particularly special time of the year. The four Sundays prior to Christmas Day are spent in preparation for the Nativity of Christ.

Many churches are decorated with greenery, including a Christmas tree, and lighted candle wreaths are hung. Carols are sung and Christingles are made by children.

Left: Lancastrian Infants School Nativity play, 1961 (CPS 0973-9)

“He’s behind you!”: Pantos and plays

Nursery school children enjoy Christmas party entertainment, December 1961 (CPS 995-3)

A newspaper reports that the Theatre Royal in Worthing will put on a production of Puss in Boots, “transplanted in its entirety from one of the London Suburban Theatres” and ensuring that “Christmas tradition is to be faithfully observed”.

Worthing Gazette, Wednesday 10th October 1900

Another newspaper article reports of Chiddingfold’s “home-made” pantomime which was written and produced by no less than Major General Claude Liardet. The score was composed by Lord Chelmsford, and included such favourites as “See me dance the polka”. The characters were played by village residents, including some “tiny tots [who] were among the dancers”

West Sussex Gazette – Thursday 11th January 1951

Panto season at Chichester Festival Theatre

Visit Chichester Festival Theatre’s website to find out what’s on over December and January 2020.

We hope you have enjoyed this special festive edition of West Sussex Unwrapped. All of us at West Sussex Record Office wish you a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Watch this space in January 2021 for an exciting announcement!

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