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Terry Burke's Memories of Christmas and other public holidays in Brentford from the late 1930s

Terry has also recorded his memories of childhood - he has an excellent memory! - and provided a more general guide to living conditions in the 1930s/40s/50s/60s.


Christmas in Brentford in my early years was not like today. It was nothing like as commercial; the shops in general didn’t start to promote in August or September. December was the Christmas period, in line with the Church period of Advent. For me it is important to remember that we were not well off as a family, although neither were we poor. I put a pillowcase on the bottom of my bed on Christmas Eve and it was always full on Christmas morning.

Mum, me aged 10 and 246 days Granny Burke, Dad.  August 11 1945 St Lawrence Church, Brentford Christmas began just a few days before Christmas. We normally had two weeks holiday from school and on the first Thursday my Mum took me to Gamages a huge and famous departmental shop in Holborn in London. It was an EVENT. We had an ‘account’ there, a few bob each week ensured there was money for my new clothes – small boys tend to grow. Dad had a friend who was a buyer in Gamages and so we got a small discount on my school trousers, sock and shirts. Treat number 1 was going by Central Line underground from Ealing Broadway to Chancery Lane. Treat number 2 was, if I had been good, we might get out at Holborn station and walk to Gamages, passing the best toy shop in the world, not Hamleys, but Bassett-Lowke’s who made real steam model railway engines. We never went in, but I was glued to the window. Treat number 3 was the model railway display in Gamages. Mum could leave me there enthralled for hours, safe in the knowledge I wouldn’t move while she did her Christmas shopping.

We were not a religious family, notionally CofE but not church going, and everyone was far too busy and tired to go to the Watch Night Service. Our real – (plastic ones hadn’t been invented) Christmas tree was decorated on Christmas Eve when homemade garlands and paper chains were pinned up. Christmas cards were set out on the mantelpiece and sideboard. We normally only sent cards to my Grandparents and (selected) aunts and uncles.

Christmas day was of course special. Parcels to open, toys to play with, new clothes to wear. No consumer goods, no electronics although there was always hope of a train set, and one year there was. ‘O’ gauge, mechanical, a Silver Link LNER streamlined engine, three silver coaches and a short oval track. Christmas dinner was 1.30. In the 40s and 50s Turkeys were almost unknown. The few that were expensive and so the main item was chicken, whole roast with bacon on top and homemade sage and onion and sausage meat stuffing. The turkey situation increased towards the end of the 1950s as the turkey rearing industry expanded. Christmas puddings were homemade, usually in October with a silver threepenny bit hidden within it for luck.

After lunch everything was cleared away and washed up and everyone settled down to listen to the King at 3 o’clock. That was a ritual. No one spoke. The front room fire would have been lit in the morning and the whole family settled down with cups of tea in front of a log fire with homemade mince pies. A few chestnuts were roasted on the fire during the evening and there might be a chicken sandwich later on.

Even in those days, Christmas was an expensive time. My parents would have joined a Christmas Club in the preceding January and paid in 2/6d or 10/- a week. In mid-December this paid out the £20 or £40 lump sum. These clubs were usually run in local pubs by the landlords (under supervision and control of the breweries), as they brought people into the pub regularly where they almost certainly bought a pint or two. Later, my Dad joined a Turkey Club and collected a ready for the oven turkey. In those days hardly anyone had a refrigerator and no one a freezer.

Boxing Day was always cold fowl and ham for lunch, with bubble and squeak and pickles.


For working people the holiday was just 2 days. Everyone went back to work on the 27th December. The majority of firms didn’t close on Christmas Eve until normal closing time although some closed at mid-day. Many shops (especially butchers’) remained open on Christmas Eve until 10 o’clock, when some amazing last minute bargains could be had. New Years’ Day was not a Bank holiday until 1978.

There was generally a full programme of league football on both Christmas and Boxing days, often local derbies, with the same teams playing each other, home and away on the two days. Christmas day matches usually kicked off at 11 or 11.15. Boxing Day matches were afternoon affairs.

Trains and buses ran (a special Sunday service) on both days.

Floating bridgeFor the Burke family we sometimes went to Woolston, Southampton where my grandparents lived. As far as I can remember this was the case before and sometimes during the War, but Southampton was badly blitzed, fortunately with no harm done to our family and trains were very crowded. There was a national exhortation not to travel at all unless ‘your journey is Really necessary’.

I recall however catching the train from Brentford to Waterloo and then queuing for the Southampton/Bournemouth express from Platforms 10 or 11. The queues, always very orderly, were very long and sometimes were in two parts, one inside the station, the other outside. Trains were 12 or 14 corridor coaches long, with were individual carriages, seating 8 or 10 people,4 or 5 facing each other. There were always people standing in the corridor. Southern Railway expresses out of Waterloo were generally Lord Nelson or King Arthur class steam engines, later augmented by ‘streamlined’ Merchant Navy, West Country or Battle of Britain class locomotives.

Arrival at Southampton West (as it then was) was followed either by a Streamline Taxi, black with a yellow bonnet to Woolston, or, for me, a tram car ride to the Floating Bridge (a chain ferry) across the river Itchen and a walk to Granny Smith’s in Weston Grove Road. After tea Dad would walk up to his mother’s, Granny Burke in Church Road.

Christmas lunch was always in Weston Grove Road, but Christmas Tea was at Granny Burke’s with a huge circular mahogany table groaning with cakes, jelly, trifle and blancmange. On one memorable Christmas we had to go a Gran’s sister, a Great Aunt, where I was introduced to Junket inadvertently made with burnt milk. Ugh. I’ve never eaten it since.

Boxing Day was often a party, for grown-ups, sometimes memorable for Uncle Tom getting maudlin, singing Nellie Dean, sliding down the wall and going to sleep on the floor.

They were fantastic Christmas’s. My parents were only able to see their parents (my paternal grandmother was a widow) once or twice a year which was of course the only time they saw their Grandchildren. I wish I had known them better. They were of course Victorian.

Granny and Grandad Smith
Granny and Grandad Smith

Happy days.


Other holidays

Other holidays, other than six week school summer holidays, were two weeks from school at Easter and perhaps one or two half-term holidays of 2 days. In addition, at Ealing Road Junior, we had a half day holiday for Empire Day, usually 28 May, and a half day for Ascension Day, 10 days before Whitsun(tide) which was always the summer term half-term holiday.

Empire day was instituted in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 but discontinued in the 1970s after the Empire became the Commonwealth.

Public holidays were Bank Holidays, Boxing Day, Good Friday, Easter Monday, and August Bank Holiday, (first Monday in August) later changed to the last Monday in August. May Day, May 1st, was not a Bank Holiday until the 1970s when the Whit Monday bank holiday (the Monday after Pentecost (Whitsun) became the Spring Bank Holiday, the last Monday in May.

Good Friday was like Sunday. No shops opened except bakers until about 11 o’clock. No theatres opened, cinemas only opened at 4 o’clock. Hot Cross buns were never sold (or made) until Good Friday and Easter Eggs only appeared in the shops in Easter week and were not given or eaten until Easter Sunday morning.

Workers’ annual holidays were usually only for a week before the war (Wake’s Week in the north of England) and two weeks in the 40s and 50s, effectively 11 days (2 x 5½ days) a year plus Christmas Day, Good Friday and 3 Bank holiday Mondays.


Published December 2016