December 2007 Meeting


The first speaker of the afternoon was Audrey Gillett whose lively talk was entitled ‘Poverty, Porridge and Pavlova’.

Audrey told us the story of her maternal grandmother, Emma, who had been born in the Victorian era and died at the age of 88 in 1951. The daughter of Thomas and Sarah Ann Green, Emma was a woman of extraordinary strength and courage.

Before Emma’s birth the family had lived in Walworth, South London where her eldest sister was born. The rest of the family was born in Northampton, one of them in Daventry Workhouse. Thomas Green was a shoemaker but when he was unemployed and had no means of supporting his family he dumped them in the workhouse. The 1871 census later finds a son, Thomas Jnr, in Bermondsey, London with a visitor – Thomas Green, shoemaker born in Daventry, having left his poor family behind in the workhouse. Thomas Jnr was a journeyman shoemaker, living near the Bermondsey tanning factories. Audrey gave us a very graphic description of these factories.

Emma was sent to train as a lace maker: she would have gone to a lace school at the age of eight years, working ten hours a day. The workers had to account for every pin and had to pay 2d a week for lighting – candles or oil lamps. A good lace maker could earn 6d a day but Emma would not have earned anything like that.

Mr Green eventually returned to Northampton but he was a wife beater and after a particularly cruel assault on her, Sarah Ann left him and took the family to London where she was wrongly recorded on the 1881 census as a widow.

Emma, who lived with her mother, was fond of classical music and would save up to sit in ‘the gods’ in a theatre, seeing all the performances of ‘Carmen’ in London.

Emma married James Collis, a high class shoemaker and they had a daughter, Ivy. Because she herself was illiterate, Emma paid for Ivy to have lessons in reading and writing. Rather than work by hand as they had always done, the men were told to use new machines at work but James was one of those who refused and there was a ‘lock out’. The men who refused were blacklisted which meant nobody would employ them in the shoe industry. James and his family of four boys and three girls moved across the river.

Emma went to work in Clarnico’s Sweet Factory where the kind manager would often give her porridge for breakfast. Emma also helped out with confinements and laying out the dead. At one time the family was so desperate the children went to a Paupers’ School and then the boys were sent to a boarding school in Hutton, Essex which was run by Poplar parish. When the boys were old enough to work they finally went home and James Collis also found work in a Piano Factory. In 1910 the famous ballerina Pavlova arrived in London and Emma scraped enough money together to go and see her dance.

Emma had a very strong will and did not approve of some of her children’s choice of partner. She tried hard to prevent the marriages and Audrey gave good descriptions of her intercepting letters and interfering in many ways. Albert, one of the sons, joined the regular Army in 1913 and was captured by the Germans in WWI, remaining a POW for the rest of the war. All the sons entered the War, as did Emma’s son-in-law, but none of them were killed or injured.

James Collis died in 1921 of mouth cancer, caused by all the shoemaker’s nails he had had in his mouth over the years. Following a broken romance, Ivy courted and married a relation called Charlie and it was a very successful marriage. They were given the piano which belonged to Emma.

Emma decided she needed looking after and donned a bonnet and shawl. None of her sons would have her or live with her and thought it was the daughters’ job. It was left to Myra and her husband Henry who said he would look after Emma as long as she did not interfere. Ivy and Charlie had only one child, Audrey. They moved from their flat in Peckham and bought a house in Elm Park, Essex. Emma insisted on moving in with them, along with Eliza, another daughter. They still had the piano and Emma paid for Audrey to have lessons. There was a family story that the family had been left money by a Dick Green and this was explored but no money was ever discovered. Following a fall Emma was admitted to St George’s Geriatric Hospital and died in 1951. Audrey told us she adored her grandmother, Emma, although she was overbearing, bossy and wanting her own way. She was very Victorian in her attitude but her family was all important. Emma could read and write when Audrey knew her, Ivy had taught her mother. Emma always said that being poor was no excuse for being bad, none of her children was ever in trouble and they all had very good jobs.

Following refreshments the members were serenaded by the ‘Islington Meistersingers’, a group of parents of children who attend the German Saturday School. They were in excellent voice and we were treated to some beautiful German Carols, finishing with ‘Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht’.


The second talk of the December meeting was given by Peter Ritzer who told us about the ‘Nuremberg Christmas Market’ and we were all given some Lebkuchen. We were told that this is often to be bought in a very attractive box. It has no flour and all the ingredients are natural. Peter explained some of the differences between Britain and Germany at Christmas. In Germany a big thing is made of Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas when the 24th is the first Weihnachtstag, the 25th being the second. On the 24th banks do not open and the majority of shops close after 2pm, public transport slows down and buses and trams are empty after 5pm. Very few people walk the streets and everywhere is tranquil.

The original date of Christmas was in the Spring, the Pope in 4C decided to change the date. The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on 6th January. For centuries it was a gift-free day but gifts were given earlier in December. St Nicholas was the man who delivered unexpected presents from 15C.

Peter told us that it was the Americans who turned St Nicholas into Santa Claus and put him into the traditional red and white outfit. It was an ideal marketing ploy. An important change came in the Reformation when in 1535 Martin Luther started the tradition of giving presents on Christmas Day but people in Germany hand out their presents around the tree on Christmas Eve. They stand around with their Advent Candle and sing carols and play musical instruments.

Peter told us that at Christmas butchers in Germany hand out carving knives to all their customers and food is a very important part of the festivities. On 24th local delicacies are eaten, ie carp in the south. Goose and Turkey are eaten on 25th.

Families go to church on Christmas Eve and services are very well attended. Postmen receive presents from their customers, usually money.

Since the Reformation the ‘Christkind’, a female angel figure and the Weihnachtsmann are said to deliver the presents. Children are told to believe that there is someone beyond real life.

The Advent wreath has four candles and every Sunday one more is lit until all four are alight. This wreath has been popular since 1900 and Advent calendars were first printed in 1903.

Peter told us that the first Stollen was baked in 1330 Saxony, consisting of Rum, Marzipan and Almonds. Advent is really a period of fasting and at the end there are all these delicacies. Usually Stollen is baked several weeks in advance to give it time to mature.

There are two popular types of Christmas tree, spruce and fir, which are sold from stalls two or three weeks before the event. Trees became more popular following the Franco-Prussian War. Trees are very expensive in Germany, one metre costs 20 Euros. They now come from Denmark as German Christmas tree plantations have given way to wheat fields.

More people are putting decorations on the outside of their houses. Red apples represent Adam and Eve, gingerbread is to give long life. Paper roses represent blooms in winter. The first Crib stood at the Church of St Francis of Assisi in 1223, it is associated with the Roman Catholic church.

Peter said that nowhere can compete with Nuremberg Weihnachtsmarkt although the ones at Dresden and Strasbourg claim to be older. Nuremburg market started in 1628 and on the Friday before the first Sunday in Advent there is an elaborate ceremony with carols and music. There are stalls stacked high with gifts – gold foil angels, glass baubles, fresh gingerbread, roasted almonds, stollen, lebkuchen, Nuremberger sausages, washed down with a mug of mulled wine. The City Council do not allow any cheap goods to be sold. Shops make an enormous effort with window-dressing and lights although German shoppers are very cautious as the economy is not very robust.

Most members won a raffle prize and over £70 was raised towards the cost of hiring the Hall. Over 40 members stayed on after the meeting for the usual Christmas party with food and refreshments and a quiz.

Jeannette Spence, member 105



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