An article by Janet Woodall & Eleanor Waldock from the December 2010 / January 2011 issue of the Walkern Journal
The diaries of John Izzard Pryor, extracts of which can be found in the book A Chronicle of Small Beer by Gerald Curtis, provide some quite colourful insights into how the Georgian and early Victorian Christmas and New Year was celebrated, at least for those in a comfortable position to do so.
John Izzard began writing his diary in 1827, the year that he purchased Clay Hall, now Walkern Hall, and two years before he and his family moved in (see page 28 for an outline of the Pryor dynasty). Upon his death in 1861, there were 33 volumes.
In 1842, thirteen sat down for Christmas dinner at Clay Hall. The fare on offer included ?a very fine cod, boiled turkey and four very fine ribs of beef, fatted by my brother Vickris, being the choicest of a lot sent up from Herefordshire to tie up about two months since.?
Things did not always go smoothly? In an early diary entry, John Izzard notes that on New Year?s Day 1828 ?a party of twenty dined and spent the evening at our house. Mrs North of Ashwell came to us as temporary cook, our cook having taken herself off in a huff.? We can only guess at the cause of his cook having taken such umbrage?
Day 1843 the dinner party of 11 sat down to cod fish and oysters from Buisses. Izzard Pryor notes that Mr Harding (Walkern Rector) and his wife left at about 11 o’clock and soon after 12, after the ladies had retired of course, five men sat down to a card game of vingt et un (pontoon) at which Pryor ?was a considerable winner – a very unusual thing for me.? They ?finished with oysters and Hatfield ale and broke up about two in the morning.?
The giving of gifts on Christmas Day was not yet customary, though Pryor noted on Boxing Day 1844 he had presented six pocket books to his wife, his daughters Emma and Eliza, and Eliza?s three children, Marian, Winifred and Ogle (yes really!) writing their names in each. Then on New Year’s Day 1845 he ‘Made presents to my grand children accompanied by a verse of poetry to Marian and Winifred.’
On Christmas Day 1848 Louisa Pryor and went in ?the omnibus to church? with her brother-in-Law Dr Philip Bliss and his wife. John Izzard noted ?I walked but found it rather dirty. I found by my place in our pew a very handsome, or rather elegant Prayer Book, a Christmas present from Dr. Bliss which I shall value much.?
His diary for Christmas 1852 notes that St Mary?s church was ?beautifully decorated with holly and laurel under the direction and assistance of Mrs Harding.? There was no Christmas tree at Clay Hall in John Izzard’s time, but regularly every year he used to supply one to Mrs Malet, the wife of the vicar at Ardeley. On Christmas Eve, 1852 he ?selected a spruce tree for Mrs Malet’s Christmas family party which she decorates with fancy lamps for the occasion. Their servant came over with a little cart to fetch it.? He also notes that he ?received by rail this day a turbot and lobsters, a crimped cod, and two barrels of oysters from Pitmans.? And on Christmas Day 1852 ?Our rector and his wife joined our party as usual for our Christmas dinner. Had a fine turbot with lobster sauce, soup, boiled turkey and roast ribs of beef.? And on Boxing Day ?all met again at dinner, partook of a crimped cod, oyster sauce, giblet soup and a new haunch of small mutton with sundries.?
How others in Walkern celebrated Christmas is harder to determine, although every Christmas John Izzard sent a barrel of oysters to Farmers Thomas Rowlatt of Walkern Place (now Manor Farm) and James Stacey of Walkern Bury farm. He also gave all the farm men a dinner of boiled beef and plum pudding.
A hint of a Christmas party is given in an intriguing exchange in the minutes of Walkern Vestry [forerunner of the Parish Council) for 20 December 1861. Three members of the Vestry committee met but ?The School gate being locked, the overseers adjourned to Mr Beecroft?s house. A rate of 6d in the pound was granted in the presence of William Bray [wheelwright], Thomas Garratt [miller] and George Beecroft [sanitary inspector], and that we, the above signed, do consider the locking of the school gate to be an intended insult to the Parish Officers.?
Strong stuff! However, the word ?accidental? is written above this in a different hand, and at the bottom of the page is ?The Annual School Feast at the Rectory going on?. It makes you wonder why Messrs Bray, Garratt and Beecroft weren?t invited?
John Izzard Pryor?s Rum Punch
John Izzard described his recipe for rum punch, a popular winter drink at Clay Hall, as ?Good and simple and also easy to remember – 1 of sour ? 2 of sweet
4 of strong ? 8 of weak – being double of every article from the beginning. The strong, alias spirits being 2/3 rum and 1/3 brandy. The lemon juice and spirits prepared any time in the course of the day and the hot water added just before the punch is brought on the table.?