Christmas in the Workhouse

Workhouse Museum in Ripon Workhouse Museum & Garden
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Christmas at the workhouse

What was Christmas like for inmates in a Victorian workhouse? 

Curator Martin Wills discovered that actually this may have been an unusually special day for inmates at Ripon Workhouse. 

You may be surprised to read that inmates here at Ripon were given any kind of festive cheer during their stay, but year upon year the guardians of the workhouse treated adults and children alike to yuletide food, entertainment and gifts. 

Christmas presents 

The inmates were given presents! According to the Pateley Bridge and Nidderdale Herald, in 1882, inmates woke up on Christmas morning to discover a letter on ‘pretty illuminated card’ underneath their pillows. The short message ‘pleased both young and old’. 

Ale was also given out to the adults as well as tobacco (or 3d for non-smokers) and snuff. Thankfully, children were spared the alcohol and nicotine, and were given an orange. One article reports toys and ‘useful articles’ were distributed to the youngsters. 

Christmas food  

The food served over the Christmas celebrations would have been very exciting for an inmate. Although a standard fair of Roast beef was served on Christmas day (a not unusual serving in the Workhouse), it was followed by Christmas plum pudding – quite a treat! Throughout the Christmas celebrations the inmates consumed ham sandwiches, plum cake, tarts, cheesecakes and gingerbread. 

Christmas at the workhouse

Christmas entertainment  

The Mayor, who hosted the occasion, gave the inmates a short address – usually with a moral message, such as temperance, designed to show children the horrors of drunkenness. This was sometimes followed by a prayer led by the local reverend. 

These more serious proceedings would be complemented by lighter forms of entertainment such as ‘a programme of vocal and instrumental music’, an ‘amusing ventriloquial sketch’, a magic lantern show, dancing, piano recitals and a performance from the Ripon Hand Bell Ringers. The evening has also been brought to close with the City Horn Blower, blowing the curfew horn. The perfect way to end any Ripon occasion! 

It might be surprising to read the effort, cost and commitment that was put into giving inmates a Christmas celebration. Entertainers, local dignitaries, the workhouse guardians and the master and matron were all attendance, giving the inmates an enjoyable time. 

It should be noted however that these celebrations were never hosted on Christmas Day itself – so the event was clearly not the most important festive engagements for the powers that be. 

So why go to all the bother? Amongst the Christmas decorations that filled the walls and the evergreens and rosettes that dressed the doors, clearly displayed signs reading ‘Thanks to the Mayor’ and ‘Honour to the Guardians’, were spread around the dining hall walls. 

The celebrations might not have been so much to do with altruism or good will, but moreover a reminder that the inmates were in an institution and should always be grateful for what they have. 

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