Christmas Past, Christmas Present

A few weeks ago we travelled up to London to visit a museum I had never come across before: the Geffrye Museum.  Reading about it in Family Tree magazine inspired me to visit, especially since it is closing in the new year for a substantial refurbishment.

The Geffrye is housed in Eighteenth century almshouses in Hoxton and is wonderful for a social historian, depicting as it does the changing styles of home interiors through a series of period room from the 16th to the 21st centuries.

The Geffrye Museum

Currently they have a ‘Christmas Past, Christmas Present’ exhibition running through the rooms. We were fascinated by the decorations used and the type of foods consumed.

Twelfth night scarcely features on a modern calendar, except for the few who go wassailing and perform mummer’s plays. But in former times it had a greater prominence and I was interested to read of ‘Twelfth cake’ – a fruit cake made with yeast.  Originally this contained a dried bean or pea and the person finding it was then elected King or Queen of the night.  I quite fancy making a Twelfth Cake, but I think I might omit the dried bean!

Moving on to rooms from the nineteenth century, items of furniture became reminiscent of those in grandparents’ houses and the increasing popularity of the Christmas tree also became evident. Mum still has a tree decoration which her mother remembered being on their tree during her childhood in the 1890s.  Mum was talking about Christmas trees the other day:  during the second world war they did not have a tree and in the subsequent few years, when the family were sharing a house, there was no space for one.  It was not until they were able to move to their own home when Mum was in her late teens that they were finally able to have a Christmas tree.

1870 period room

Despite the increased popularity of sending Christmas greetings by email, Messenger or WhatsApp, I don’t think we have received fewer cards in the post this year. The custom of sending cards dates from the 1860s and it’s certainly a tradition I’m keen to maintain.  Reading my Granny’s 1937 diary I am surprised how last minute the Christmas preparations were:  cards were being sent out only a couple of days before Christmas.  “Wednesday 22nd December – busy day writing and doing up packets, then to Waddon Post Office after school”.  I guess with several collections and deliveries a day there was no worry about cards not getting to people in time.

But we have many things in common with the celebration of Christmas in my Mum’s family 80 years ago: going to Church, having turkey, Christmas pudding and Christmas cake.  They listened to George VI’s Christmas message on their brand new wireless; we will watch the Queen on TV.

This year the Father Christmas figure, now 87 years old, has once again taken up his central position on Mum’s Christmas cake; the little paper lanterns I made with my daughter when she was a child have been blu-tacked in their habitual place and the small plastic tree I bought in Woolworths in 1987 has once more been found a position.

The Geffrye displays brought back memories for us of paper chains, wrapping paper and board games and was a great way of learning about Christmas Past. The museum closes on 7th January, but I definitely recommend a visit. https://www.geffrye-museum.org.uk/ .

Happy Christmas!

1955-65 period room
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Two problems solved

John George 1815 – 1901

Recently I read in Family Tree Magazine that the GRO are currently running a pilot scheme whereby you can order a pdf copy of birth and death records for certain periods. When an actual ‘certificate’ is not needed – just the information contained on it – then the vastly reduced price of £6 is quite an inducement to buy when normally a certificate costs £9.25.  Currently the records available in this format are births 1837 – 1916 and deaths 1837 – 1957.

I was aware of a couple of events on my George tree where the GRO information would be very useful: the actual death date of my Great Great Grandfather John George in 1901 and the birth of a William George who is recorded in censuses living with John’s parents David and Elizabeth and apparently a grandson.  I have not been able to place him properly, so information on his parentage would be very useful.

Finding the GRO references for both was very easy using the search facility on the ordering site https://www.gro.gov.uk/gro/content/certificates/ and cross-checking with the Freebmd site for good measure.  Having set up an account I placed my order and exactly seven days later I got an email to say that the pdfs were ready to download!  I was impressed with the speed of the process but even more excited about the results.  It’s some years since I ordered a certificate by post, but the excitement (“what am I about to find out?”) was still the same.  I was not disappointed.

It turns out that William was born on the 25th of October 1838 to Mary George, the older sister of my G G Grandfather John.  Her illegitimate son was born in the workhouse at Gressenhall, Norfolk.  Now Mary was not a teenage mum – she was 30 when she had William.  Although I have not located her in 1841, subsequent censuses show her as a servant in various farming households in the area.  Her parents were obviously happy to take the boy in and bring him up – at some point I will see if I can find what happened to him in later life. Mary never married and lived to the grand age of 95, dying in Gressenhall and buried in the churchyard there.

As for John George, well he died on the 14th February 1901 of ‘senile decay’, apparently aged 89 years (although I think that should have been 85).  Where did he die?  In Gressenhall workhouse!  That was a surprise.  Poor John.  Perhaps when he developed what we might term dementia his wife Fanny was unable to cope with him at home, I thought.  Wondering what happened to Fanny, I did a bit of digging around and eventually realised that she died first – in 1894 – while visiting or even living with her daughter Martha in Fakenham.

Possibly, then, John was admitted to the Workhouse some years before he died and Fanny went to live with her daughter. Unfortunately the Admissions records for that period do not seem to have survived as far as I can tell so that is probably as far as I can get.  Except that a very helpful Volunteer Researcher at the Gressenhall Museum was able to tell me that the burial ground at the workhouse went out of use in 1900.  I will need to do a bit more hunting to find where he was actually buried.

This workhouse, unlike some others which have been turned into luxury appartments, survives and thrives as a museum and we visited it just the other year, little knowing then the personal connection I had with the place. https://www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk/gressenhall-farm-and-workhouse .

I think that was £12 well spent to have discovered the answers to those two outstanding questions. I wonder what other problems I can resolve while the pilot lasts?

Gressenhall Workhouse
The former workhouse at Gressenhall