Christmas – A Time of Cheer for All in Hobart Town

When we think of a 19th century Christmas, I suspect most of us think of an idealized image – the decorated tree with toys and gifts, stockings hanging from the mantelpiece stuffed with oranges and nuts, the table groaning under the weight of roast beef, ham and roasted potatoes, not to mention the flaming brandy soaked pudding. Such a picture comes to mind even here in Australia where Christmas is usually warm and sunny.

Christmas tree complete with presents, 1880s.
Walter Hodgkinson, photographer.
(courtesy State Library of Victoria)

By the 1870s we had accepted that Christmas was a summer celebration and had begun to adapt and modify the way we celebrated Christmas. This can be seen in the way Chistmas was celebrated even in the coolest of our states, Tasmania. In 1878, when Christmas tried to emulate the northern hemisphere, there was disappointment in Hobart Town where ‘the glorious weather with which we associate Christmas, has proved a mockery, and a delusion.

The Hobart Christmas of 1883 was more usual. Although the day began overcast, by ten o’clock the sky was cloudless, the day warm and ‘nicely tempered by a soft sea breeze’. There were the usual well-attended Christmas Day services held in churches well decorated with ferns, ivy, lilies and other flowers. Some had picnic lunches outdoors but for most Christmas dinner was a heavier winter style meal in their homes. Afterwards many went down to the Queen’s Domain where there were a couple of roundabouts for the children. Others preferred to stroll in the Domain or the adjacent Botanical Gardens. Some even rode out or walked into the countryside surrounding Hobart. Light glittered on the River Derwent and the sails of the ‘craft of all sorts an sizes’ that dotted the river. There were excursions available on steamers along the river. In the evening, it was estimated that between two and three thousand people, couples and families, promenaded up and down a packed Elizabeth Street. The Orchestral Union performed Handel’s Messiah in the Town Hall to a more select audience of three hundred.

The following day, Boxing Day, was always a great holiday when people looked for entertainment. A few energetic types took the opportunity to climb to the summit of Mount Wellington, some taking picnics up to the Springs; others, wanting a less strenuous exercise, made their more leisurely way to the streams and waterfalls in the foothills of Mount Wellington.

Strickland Falls in the foothills of Mount Wellington

As was usual when time was free, hundreds of people thronged to the Domain. Cricket games were played and watched. Many strolled into the Botanical Gardens or sat and watched the activities on the river.

Local Sunday Schools used the day to hold their annual picnic for their students. The Methodist schools combined and following a special children’s service at the Melville Street Wesleyan Church, more than 1,000 children marched in procession, banners held high, along Melville, Elizabeth and Liverpool Streets to the Domain where they feasted on buns, cakes, cherries, and ‘other indigestibles’ (hard boiled lollies?) and then games were played and races run. The Anglican Sunday schools similarly combined and marched to the Domain but held their feasting and games apart from the other denominations. The Presbyterian Sunday school at St John’s Church took itself off to Kangaroo Point for their celebrations. The children at a number of other of Presbyterian Sunday Schools were taken, along with their parents, up to the Guy Fawkes Creek, above the Cascades. And the children of the Davey Street Congregational Sunday School went by train to the estate of a Mr Henry Bilton at Glenorchy, and there, ‘amid the strawberry beds and the orchards, were able to enjoy themselves thoroughly’.

The New Norfolk regatta was also held on Boxing Day and the Mercury waxed eloquent:
‘A more picturesque spot for an outing could not well be imagined than the banks of the beautiful River Derwent below New Norfolk. The majority of the excursionists proceeded by river from the capital to the regatta ground, and thus had the pleasure of viewing the beautiful panorama all along the tortuous windings of the Derwent.’

The beautiful River Derwent winding past New Norfolk.

Others went by train or coach many taking picnics with them and settling themselves along the riverbank to watch the boat races.
‘There was a seething mass of human beings, decked out in holiday attire. Flags fluttered in the breeze from poles erected along the river’s bank, and the pavilion and publicans’ booths were gaily decked with evergreens and bunting, and the whole presented a lively and animated scene. It was estimated that between 4,000 and 5,000 persons were on the ground during the day.’

And a good time was had by all, it would appear.
‘The public houses were well patronised, and did a roaring business. The booths on the riverbank also did a good trade. Everybody, however, behaved well, and there was little drunkenness or unseemly conduct to mar the enjoyment of holiday-seekers.’

The editor of the Mercury was well pleased with the behaviour over the Christmas period in general.
‘One good, feature observable was the general freedom from disorder and unruly behaviour. Everyone appeared bent on thorough enjoyment of the holiday in a rational and seemly fashion.’

It was reported that the Hobart Police Court had only a light list to deal with on the morning of 27 December 1883.
Two drunkards were fined 5 shillings, in default one week in the House of Correction. An elderly woman was fined 20 shillings and sixpence, in default a month in the House of Correction, for using obscene language in Murray Street on Christmas Day. Her hefty fine was an indication that she was a repeat offender.

More seriously, there were two cases of indecent behaviour, one in the Domain on Christmas Eve and one at New Town on Christmas Day. The first received a fine of 20 shilling, in default one month; this may have simply been a case of a man caught relieving himself in public. The second was described as aggravated and received a fine of 40 shillings or two months. Unfortunately, I cannot find out more about these cases as the Police Court Records for the period are missing.

At Christmas the less fortunate were not forgotten. A church service was held at the General Hospital for those who could attend. The nurses decorated the wards with floral arrangements of evergreens and flowers which were donated by the public. Gifts of food were sent. Messers Shoobridge of Bushy Park regularly donated vegetables to the hospital at Christmas. And Mr Vigars of North-West Bay ‘baskets of very fine strawberries’. Hospital attendants and the patients who could safely eat the meal dined on roast beef and plum pudding. Tobacco was also officially supplied to the patients.

A committee of philanthropic ladies provided dinner and entertainment for the elderly and infirm inmates of the female division of New Town Charitable Institution some days before Christmas. The tea was held in the decorated dining hall and included cake, pastries, fruit and ‘other delicacies’. The entertainment included recitations as well as musical performances. They were also treated to an ‘interesting and kindly’ address by the Bishop of Tasmania. On Christmas Day both the male and female inmates assembled in the dining hall for a dinner of baked meat and potatoes and plum pudding. They were also provided with ‘dainties’ on the dinner table as well as extra tea and tobacco. Mr. Syme, of the Cascade Brewery, donated a hogshead of ale which was distributed judiciously and cheered the inmates ‘without affecting their sobriety’.

Christmas Day at the North Melbourne Benevolent Asylum, 1895
(courtesy State Library of Victoria)

Those in the Campbell Street Gaol and the House of Correction received a similar Christmas dinner to those at the Charitable Institution – roasted meat, potatoes and plum pudding. The did not, however, have the benefit of the extra liquid good cheer. Just before Christmas 1882, it was suggested that ‘some of the kindly-disposed members of the community’ could send a few flowers to the prisoners in the gaol, so that the prisoners might ‘understand that they are still counted as belonging to humanity, and are not altogether forgotten by the Christian world at the time of the chief festival of Christianity’. There was no mention of whether this suggestion was taken up.

The Hobart Benevolent Society did its best to provide something extra to those in receipt of aid through the society, the elderly and deserted women and children mainly. The monies used came mainly from donations by members of the wider community. The extras included such things as puddings, cakes, fruit and vegetables. At this time of year, they also provided a ration to deserving people who were not on their books but who the officers of the society knew to be in need.

The Wesleyan Christian Association, in the years around 1880, also provided an annual Christmas treat for the ‘poor lads of the city’. This was held in the Mechanic’s Hall on the evening of either Christmas or Boxing Day. Nearly two hundred boys attended and were provided with a ‘substantial tea’. The Association advertised for donations of money and fruit to assist with this. The boys then sat through short talks that aimed to advance their ‘religious and moral welfare’ interspersed with popular hymns. At the end, each boy received a Christmas card and a new sixpence.

The Mercury reported on 28 December 1880,
‘Though most of them were ragged and unkempt in appearance, they were as lively as boys better brought up, and their appetites were almost insatiable. The tables were well-filled with good wholesome food, and the rapid manner in which it disappeared might lead to the impression that there was a good deal of what is known as ‘pocketing’ going on … To their credit, [the boys] conducted themselves very well indeed, and showed that though they appeared to be of the larrikin type, they had had some good training somewhere in the course of their short lives.’

Wishing everyone a very Happy Christmas and much good cheer.

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