Christmases Past at Holkham

Posted: December 28th 2020

Christmas is always such an exciting time at Holkham and this year was no different, but as someone that works in a remote corner of the hall it is normally the sounds and smells that waft up the stairs that indicate that Lady Leicester and her very busy team are starting to transform the state rooms in wonderful displays. Closer to Christmas the noises and aroma changes to excited chatter, carols and aromatic candles and I know the candlelight tours have started! Although the decorations were on a smaller scale this year, I could still sense the excitement of Christmas and I wanted to share how Christmas at Holkham has been celebrated in the past.

Thomas Coke, later 1st Earl of Leicester, first brought his new wife and their baby son, and household to Holkham for the first time in Autumn 1719. During the three months leading up to Christmas 1719, the household consumed a whopping 70 turkeys, however it was game and beef that the household feasted on over the Christmas week. This extract from the accounts, dated 28 December 1719 shows the wide variety of game eaten. It includes geese, pheasants, partridges, woodcock, wild duck as well as widgeons and even Red Shank. Additionally, there was over 40 stones of beef brought to the kitchens and with another 30 stones being ‘given to the Pore’.

It would be Lady Margaret, Thomas’s wife who would continue the tradition of distributing gifts of beef and flour every Christmas to the Holkham villagers. Preserved in the archives is her account book, in her own hand, carefully listing each family with its number of children. Families with large families were given fourteen pounds (in weight) of beef and flour; families with one child ten pounds and single people seven pounds. Some of the beneficiaries in the list were workers on or for the estate. For example, Thomas Waller, the first entry, came from a family closely associated with the construction of the hall, his father was a carpenter and his son was later employed in the brickyard.

Holkham at Christmas in the nineteenth century must have been a very special place. The families of the 2nd Earl’s two marriages came back to Holkham with their children for large Christmas gatherings. This photograph shows the grandchildren of the 2nd Earl of Leicester taken at Christmas albeit rather sober in appearance. An account of Christmas in 1884 recalls of ‘there being a very big tree in the hall and everyone got a great quantity of presents, & as Tom was three & a half he was allowed to sit up & hear the carols on Xmas Eve. A photographer came and photographed all the children & also some of the grown ups. They all stayed till after new years day & then went back to Cadogan Square…’ Tom, who could possibly be the boy in the chair in the front row, would become the 4th Earl of Leicester.

For the servants, there was the long-awaiting annual Servants’ Ball. Tradition dictated that the opening dance at 10 pm saw the Earl dancing with the Housekeeper and the Countess with the Butler. One year the proceedings got completely out of control with the result that the Earl banned the strong home-brewed ale. The servants took their revenge at the carol service, and led by the cook, sang with great vigour ‘No ale, No ale, What shall we do without out ale’. Later the Earl’s youngest daughter, Lady Lichfield, commented to her maid about the spirited singing, whereupon the maid replied, ‘Yes m’lady, but you should have heard what they were singing!’ It is expected that the Earl relented.

It was the responsibility of the House Controller to organise the Ball. Amongst the papers of Capt. J.W. Sibary are lists of attendees with their details of their ‘plus one’ which needed the approval of the Butler or Housekeeper; instructions for the refreshments being served in the Billiard Room and details of the supper was served in the Servants Hall.

In the interwar years, the visitors for Christmas were on a much smaller scale. Lady Silvia, granddaughter of the 3rd Earl remembers being with her cousins walking to St Withburga’s, hearing carols in the Marble Hall sung by the church choir, treasure hunts for the children and a large tree in the Marble Hall. This photograph shows the 3rd Earl of Leicester in 1940 keeping a watchful eye on J. Surridge, the butler carving the Christmas turkey. Workers on the estate could also enjoy turkeys at Christmas as these were given out by the family following the tradition established by the first Earl and Countess of Leicester two centuries earlier.

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