Born just five years before the Wall Street crash and the crushing Depression that followed it, Island octagenarian Elsie Butcher nevertheless has fond memories of her earliest Christmases. For, in spite of the widespread poverty ushered in by the Depression years, she says families took delight in the simplest of pleasures.
Here, Elsie, 82, tells Island Life just what made Christmas so special in the tough times of the late 1920s and early 30s.
Like most people, Elsie Butcher says her earliest memory of Christmas centres around food. But in her case, we are not talking feasts or banquets – simply the vivid colours of the oranges, apples and gold-foiled chocolate coins that she and her elder sister Eileen would find in their little stockings, perhaps with a drawing book and pencil.
“We couldn’t normally afford it, so just the sight of that brightly coloured fruit is a vivid memory for me” says Elsie.
She also remembers the excitement of going with her mother on Christmas Day to collect a piping hot cooked chicken and roast potatoes from the local Weeks bakery near their home in Trafalgar Road, Newport, and then hurrying home with it wrapped in a cloth.
“It was known as the ‘baker’s perk’ to his customers” she says. “You paid a penny and he cooked the chicken for you, with the potatoes, so all you had to do was cook the vegetables at home. I vividly remember the excitement of carrying it back up the road when I was about five years old”.
The Christmas dinner and fresh fruit was in stark contrast to the difficult everyday life of Elsie and her contemporaries. Her father Patrick Flood, in common with many other men at the time, was out of work and used to walk miles every day in search of employment. To qualify for unemployment benefit, he would have to clear snow, and the family had to submit to the means testing introduced by the government.
This meant selling any possessions that were seen to be surplus to need, in order to raise cash – which is why the Flood family had to sell off their beloved piano, and all their chairs over and above the four they needed.
Elsie’s mum Hilda went out and did housework to earn extra pennies – and one day she was even reduced to selling her own hair.
“I would have been about 7 at the time and when she came home and I saw her lovely long fair hair was all gone, I was ever so upset,” recalls Elsie.
Happier times were on the horizon, though, after the economy began to pick up and her father found work as a prison officer at Camp Hill. After that, Christmases meant presents in a pillowcase rather than a stocking – and Elsie fondly recalls her best-ever present, a huge doll with a price tag of 8 shillings and 11 pence (around 45p) for which her parents saved money throughout the year.
Other highlights of Christmas past for Elsie include watching her maternal grandfather, whom she adored, playing carols as a member of the Newport Town Band.
She also loved the fact that the streets were lit until late into the evening because shops stayed open until around 9pm.
And school was a pleasure in the run-up to Christmas as Elsie and her pals made paper chain decorations to hang in their homes, and then enjoyed the Christmas party at Nodes Hill School, where traditional games of pass the parcel and musical chairs were played, with crackers and paper hats to add to the excitement.
After leaving school in 1938 at the age of 14, Elsie initially worked as a char girl and then a clothes dyer and cleaner, before joining the Land Army and taking on a milk delivery round in Brighstone with a pony and cart.
In that job, she had to make deliveries on Christmas Day – which she says she didn’t mind a bit, because she loved the job so much. However, on one December 25 she was offered a glass of elderflower wine by a customer – and the memory of it remains with her.
“I was about 17 and had never had a drink in my life before, so it was a good job the pony knew the way home!” she quipped.
Elsie did that job for three years until 1944, and was in fact the last person to deliver milk in Brighstone by pony and cart.
After the war, she met her husband-to-be, Harold, who’d just come out of the Army, and once they were married and he was working as a farm manager, Christmas changed again.
Like all farming families, on Christmas Day they worked on the farm, and had their festive meal in the evening, whilst Boxing Day was spent following the Hunt, with a cold lunch of ham and pickles.
“Harold always tried to make sure we had a new-born calf in the stable on Christmas Day” she says, “and by the art and craft of putting the bull in at the right time, he managed to achieve it nine times out of 10!”
As well as running their busy farming life, Elsie and Harold had a son, Peter, who now lives in Ventnor, and now Elsie has three grandchildren – Tanya, Claire and Tim – and four great-grandchildren.
These days, she says she spends Christmas quietly at her cottage at Home Farm, Shanklin, the farm she and her late husband used to run.
“Christmas is not like it used to be,” she says. “I think the main difference is that we didn’t seem to want so much, and yet we still managed to have a lot of fun and excitement”.