Christmas with the Apprentices

Last year the cataloguing team found a series of letters relating to Robert Hyde Greg and his family at Christmas. It made me think about the very different Christmas that was happening at the Apprentice House.

Norcliffe Hall, the setting for the Greg's family Christmas in the 1840s
Norcliffe Hall, the setting for the Greg’s family Christmas in the 1840s

Christmas was without a doubt the best day of the year for the apprentices, who worked six days a week with very little time off; only six days a year. Many other factories and workhouses worked on Christmas Day for fear of losing profits, and in the case of the workers, their jobs.

At Quarry Bank Mill, Christmas was the only day off in the year when the apprentices didn’t have to have lessons, or complete their chores on top of their working day, and they only had to walk to church once, instead of the usual two trips they took every Sunday.

The Apprentice House in the 19th century
The Apprentice House in the 19th century

It was unusual for the children to see their families, as it was a long way to travel for many, and would have meant using more of their precious days off, but there were some special cases. In 1801, Bessie Night became an apprentice, and it was written into her indenture that she be allowed an extra six days off a year to see her family at Christmas.

However, Christmas was still a time for celebration at the Apprentice House. Samuel and Hannah Greg ensured that the apprentices received an education whilst they were under their care; in this respect they were pioneers in the industry, providing an education long before Factory Acts made it essential. It was at Christmastime that the Gregs acknowledged the hard work the apprentices had accomplished throughout the year, with an awards ceremony. The whole Greg family attended, with Samuel often travelling miles and miles from appointments and meetings, just to be at the prize giving.

Samuel Greg
Samuel Greg

The children’s school work was exhibited to the Gregs, and recitations were performed, possibly from Hannah’s own Sermons Written for the Apprentices.  The ceremony was the highlight of the day, and prizes were awarded to the boys and girls who had been the steadiest at work, most orderly in conduct, and most proficient in school. The  ceremony also coincided with the departure of apprentices who had come of age.

These prize giving ceremonies became a fond memory for the Greg children too, and Henry Russell Greg, Samuel’s grandson, later recalled at in 1883:

“The Apprentice House night when we boys sat on top of boxes to be given to the departing apprentices- the table with the rows of prizes, coffee cans and buns…”.

The schoolroom at the Apprentice House
The schoolroom at the Apprentice House

The celebration was rounded off with some currant loaf and ‘the luxury of tea’ in the kitchen.

Christmas Day brought the most delicious meal of the year for the apprentices, who were used to a diet of porridge and lobscouse stew. It was recorded in 1836 that 5 pigs were delivered to the House in the run up to Christmas, which was an unusually large amount of meat for the apprentices!

The superintendents of the Apprentice House, such as the Shawcrosses or the Timperleys, would likely have enjoyed a Christmas dinner of goose or beef, separately from the apprentices; turkey was eaten by wealthy sections of society in 19th century.

The Apprentice House kitchen getting ready to serve currant loaf
The Apprentice House kitchen getting ready to serve currant loaf

The superintendents would probably have finished off their meal not with Christmas Cake, (which was known as Twelfth Night Cake in the 19th century), but plum pudding. This was hugely popular treat, and making it involved a number of beloved traditions. As Christmas puddings traditionally had to be prepared by the Sunday before Advent in order to be ready for Christmas Day, the last Sunday became known as “Stir Up Sunday”. Everyone in the household would stir the pudding, starting with the youngest and working up to the oldest, and we can probably assume that the apprentices were involved in this tradition. The pudding mixture was stirred from East to West to symbolise the journey to Bethlehem made by the Three Wise Men, and each person made a secret wish when it was their turn to stir.

Other traditions that were part of making the plum pudding included adding only 13 ingredients to symbolise Jesus and the disciples, and adding 3 tokens which would bring the person who ‘found them’ some kind of good fortune– a ring (for marriage), a thimble (for a happy single life) and a sixpence (for wealth).

If you come along to our Victorian Christmas this weekend, you can visit the Apprentice House and find out more about the traditions they enjoyed, and even treat yourself to a slice of currant loaf in the kitchen.


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