How did our ancestors celebrate Christmas?

How did our ancestors celebrate Christmas?

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January 2, 2017

How did our ancestors celebrate Christmas?

With Christmas fast approaching (you may even be reading this after all the festivities are over), have you ever wondered how our ancestors celebrated Christmas? We all have festive traditions we enjoy at Christmas such as a roast turkey with all the trimmings, carols at church on Christmas Eve and a Christmas tree with fairy lights but how long have these traditions been around?

For our medieval ancestors, Christmas was an important religious festival. During the 12 days of Christmas, churches and other buildings were decorated with evergreens including rosemary, holly and ivy. Christmas boxes were distributed to servants and the poor whilst large amounts of brawn, roast beef, “plum pottage”, minced pies (made from meat) and ale were consumed.  People celebrated by dancing, singing, playing games and performing stage plays. This came to an abrupt end during Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan Commonwealth in the 1640s where the drunkenness and revelry associated with Christmas was condemned and Parliament banned the celebration of Christmas in 1647, replacing it with a day of fasting. Under Charles II Christmas festivities were restored but traditions remained largely unchanged until the Victorian period.

Christmas trees had been popular in Germany for centuries but it was only following Queen Victoria’s marriage to her German husband Prince Albert in 1840 that some of the German traditions were introduced here. An engraving of the Royal Family celebrating Christmas at Windsor Castle in front of a decorated Christmas tree was published in 1848 and the idea quickly caught on although initially they only tended to be displayed in public buildings. From the 1860s the Bucks Herald reported that some local schools had Christmas trees with small presents as a treat for the children whilst trees were also provided by benefactors to the hospital and workhouse in Aylesbury.

Christmas cards are replaced to some extent now by electronic messages but they were first introduced in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole, a civil servant who helped set up the new Post Office and thought it would be a good way for ordinary people to use the service. They gradually became popular, especially from the 1870s when the cost of sending Christmas cards by post was reduced. Most people now have turkey on Christmas day but again they only became popular in the Victorian period, replacing the previous favourite of roast beef. Market traders in the local towns sold turkey from the 1860s whilst the local Aylesbury duck was obviously popular too.

Historically celebrations were centred around the church but by the later Victorian period other events such as Boxing Day hunts, brass band parades and pantomimes regularly took place. Christmas festivities now seem to start much earlier but originally workers only had Christmas Day off. Over time employers also gave their servants small gifts and the day off on Boxing Day, traditionally known as such as money collected for the poor in alms boxes would be opened on the day following Christmas Day. Some employers, notably the Rothschilds who in the later 1800s owned seven country houses and various estates in the Vale of Aylesbury treated their employees and local villagers to an annual Christmas party with food and entertainment – well received at a time when many people had little spare money to spend at Christmas.

Times may have changed since then but many of the traditions we enjoy today have their roots in the Victorian period if not earlier. Merry Christmas!




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The Washingtons of Tring – Ancestors of George Washington, the first US president

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October 28, 2016

Most of us would have been taught at school that George Washington became the first president of the United States of America in 1789 but it’s not widely known that his great grandfather John Washington originated from Tring in Hertfordshire.

George Washington

Since the 1920s a Washington family tree has hung on the North wall of Tring’s Parish Church of St Peter & St Paul depicting those members of George Washington’s immediate ancestors who were born in Tring or associated with the town. In June 2015 as part of the Tring 700 celebrations a new, revised family tree of the Washington family was presented to the church by the Tring & District Local History & Museum Society.

Recent research by Murray Neil, the author of “The Washingtons of Tring” showed that revisions to the original were required. His book recounts how John Washington’s father Lawrence was born in Sulgrave Manor, Northamptonshire in 1602. He entered Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1619 and was elected a fellow of the college in 1626. He was related to the Spencers of Althorp House and during his time at Oxford he visited Althorp on at least two occasions where he met Sir Richard Anderson who was married to Lawrence’s fourth cousin, Mary Spencer. Sir Richard was the owner of Pendley Manor in Tring and it was there that Lawrence met his future wife, Amphyllis Twigden, a farmer’s daughter from Creaton, Northamptonshire. Her mother had moved to Tring in 1612, after her husband died, with Amphyllis and her four sisters, havingmarried Andrew Knowling of Frogmore Street.

When Lawrence and Amphyllis met at Pendley Manor they had an affair which resulted in the birth of their son, John, in 1631. They could not marry then as fellows of Oxford University were not permitted to marry. However after Lawrence was appointed as Rector of Purleigh in Essex they married in Tring. Two more children were born in Tring before Amphyllis and the children moved to Purleigh in 1637 where two daughters were born. Purleigh was a rich parish in an area that was predominately Puritan and Parliamentary whereas Rev. Lawrence was Royalist and Anglican. In 1643 after the start of the Civil War he was ousted from Purleigh due to his Royalist sympathies and became vicar of a poor church in Little Braxted, Essex where he remained in poverty until his death in 1653.

Amphyillis and the children returned to Tring in 1641, where her final child, William, was born, and she remained in Tring for the rest of her life. In 1650 her stepfather, Andrew Knowling, died and left his estate to Lawrence, the second son of Rev.Lawrence and Amphyllis. As the eldest son John should have been the beneficiary of Knowling’s will but due to his illegitimacy he was denied his inheritance. If John had inherited Knowling’s estate then it is unlikely that he would have left Tring and therefor the history of the United States would have changed significantly. Amphyllis died in 1655 and was buried in the graveyard of Tring Parish church. John was in Tring in 1656 to finalise his mother’s affairs before leaving on a trading voyage to Virginia. On the return voyage his ship was wrecked in the Potomac River resulting in John remaining in Virginia. He married the daughter of a rich plantation owner and they began a family which eventually resulted in the birth of his great grandson, George Washington, first president of the United States of America.

Murray’s book is available from Tring & District Local History Museum in Market Place, Brook Street, Tring (the museum which is well worth a visit is open from 10 am to 3.30 pm on Fridays and Saturdays) and also Almars in Tring High Street.

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The old County Hall in Aylesbury

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April 21, 2014

This is an extended article of the one appearing in the new Vale Life Magazine

The original County Hall in Aylesbury

 Aylesbury Crown Court

Mention County Hall to any local Bucks person, and they will probably conjure up an image of the 1960s concrete tower block in Walton Street in Aylesbury which most people consider an eyesore. However this was not the first County Hall built in the town – that honour goes to the 18th century smaller but more imposing building at the bottom of the Market Square which is now the Crown Court.

There had been rivalry between Aylesbury and Buckingham for a couple of centuries regarding which one should be considered the county town. Whilst Buckingham had originally been granted that status in the early medieval period and had obviously lent its name to the county, in practice since the Tudor period Aylesbury was regarded as the county town and the majority of the Assize Courts (predecessors of the Crown Court) were held in the town. In 1720 it was decided to rebuild the old gaol and court house in Aylesbury and 2 local architects submitted plans for a County Hall which were judged by John Vanbrugh the architect best known for designing Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard (a cheaper option than paying him to submit plans himself!). He chose a design by Thomas Harris of Cublington; it is not known if he accepted them without any modifications, although he almost certainly wouldn’t have designed a building himself with prominent drainpipes placed between the windows.

Work commenced in 1722 with Thomas Harris as the builder but it was suspended for 13 years from 1724 due to lack of funds and political feuding (some things never change!); the exterior of the building was finally completed in 1737 and the interior in 1740. Built in a classical Palladian style (after the Venetian Andrea Palladio), with some baroque features, it is one of the first examples of a Palladian building outside the capital. It was constructed in red brick with stone dressings with 7 bays, the middle 3 are crowned with a pediment decorated with 3 large stone urns. The far left ground floor window was originally the entrance to the gaol which was built behind the hall whilst the county emblem, the Buckingham swan in chains adorns the wrought iron over the central door. Unless called up for Jury Service, most people probably won’t see the interior of the building which contains a stately staircase and a grand panelled court room. This was destroyed by fire in 1970 but it was restored in every detail including box pews, a gallery and a raised judge’s seat.

Both Assize Courts and the local Quarter Sessions courts were held at the County Hall and there were a number of notorious cases heard for crimes including murder and highway robbery. Especially in the 18th century, those found guilty were often sentenced to death including those charged with lesser crimes such as sheep stealing and wounding of deer. In the 19th century as attitudes began to change progressively fewer executions were carried out and convicts were often transported to Australia instead. Between 1810 and 1845 the handful of those convicts who were condemned to die without any reprieve were hung from a drop erected on a balcony below the upper middle window of the County Hall. The executions attracted huge crowds and the Bucks Herald estimated around 6000 ‘less respectable’ people, mainly from the villages crowded into the Market Square to watch the 1845 execution of John Tawell who had poisoned his mistress. Tawell had been transported to Australia in 1820 for forgery but having obtained his ticket of leave he trained as a chemist in Sydney and became very wealthy. Returning to England in 1831 he remarried after his first wife died but he continued to have a relationship with Sarah Hart/Lawrence a nurse to his family and set her up in a house in Slough. Facing financial problems he poisoned her and he tried to escape by train to London but he was apprehended as the Station Master at Slough had sent a telegraph to the police in London, alerting them that the suspect was on the train – the first occasion that the use of an electric telegraph had resulted in an arrest.

By the 1840s conditions at the old prison at the rear of the County Hall were very poor and it was decided to build a new prison on the Bierton Road which was opened in 1847 (now the Young Offenders prison). As a result new Judge’s lodgings were constructed in 1849-50 at the back of County Hall to replace the old gaol. The new Buckinghamshire County Council established in 1888 following the new Local Government Act was also based in County Hall until the Old County Offices were built in Walton Street in the 1920s.


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Long Crendon Court House

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March 26, 2014


Long Crendon Court House



This is an expanded version of my article on Long Crendon Court House which appeared in the March edition of Vale Life magazine.

Tucked away close to St Mary’s parish church in the pretty village of Long Crendon is a beautiful medieval Court House which dates from the 15th century. Now owned by the National Trust it is open to the public and is well worth a visit.

The Court House is a long 5 bay, 2 storey timber framed jettied building. It was previously thought that the court house was built in the early 1500s but recent dendrochronology tests using tree ring dating on some of the original beams show that they were felled between 1483 and 1487 so it was almost certainly built between these dates. It is believed that the building originally served as a church house – the medieval equivalent of the church hall, and would have been used to celebrate religious festivals and ‘church ales’ which were social gatherings to raise funds for the church where strong ale was brewed and drunk on the premises. Such festivals would originally have been held in the church itself but as pews were introduced into churches in the later medieval period, lack of room led to separate church houses being built.

The Puritans disapproved of such merriment (alcohol was permitted but not to excess!) and under Oliver Cromwell’s rule in the 1650s church ales and festivals were banned. Redundant church houses were often converted into pubs or schools but in the case of the Court House at Long Crendon it seems it was used for a period to store and sell wool (it was once referenced as ‘Old Staple Hall’) and the upstairs room was used to hold regular manor courts (although the building may well have also been used for this purpose since it was first built).

In the 1200s the manor of Long Crendon which had been held by the Earl of Pembroke was divided between 3 female co-heirs. By the 1500s, the three respective Lords of the Manors were the Dromer family who were Wycombe wool merchants, St George’s Chapel in Windsor and All Souls College in Oxford. The latter two institutions held a number of manors in the area. Manor courts were originally held to administer the customs of the manor and deal with any civil disputes and minor crimes and offences such as selling rancid fish and unlicensed beer. All tenants in the village would originally have been expected to attend the courts but by the Tudor period manorial courts mainly just dealt with property issues and the transfer of copyhold land. Under the feudal manorial system all copyhold land whilst in practice owned by the tenant was formally owned by the lord of the manor and each time copyhold land was sold or passed to an heir the new tenants had to go before the court to be formally admitted. Whilst a lot of copyhold land was enfranchised during the 19th century the system essentially remained unchanged until the 1920s when the 1922 Law of Property Act abolished copyhold tenure.

In practice the Long Crendon courts for each of the 3 manors were probably held at the same time (at least annually if not more frequently) and would have been administered by a locally appointed steward who represented the three Lords of the Manor. Records of the 3 Haddenham manors have survived well (the earliest records date from the 13th century) and are held respectively at the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies, the Bodleian Library in Oxford (All Souls College records) and St George’s Chapel in Windsor. As copyhold land was often inherited they can be a really useful source in providing genealogical information for family historians.

The manor courts would have been held on the first floor of the building which as is now, was one large long open room with a small adjoining room, used at one point as a kitchen. The exposed roof beams are a key feature of the room and comprise 5 bays of alternating tie beams and arch braced collar trusses. The upper story is jettied on the south and west sides. The east end is in the Wealden style (a type of medieval house common in Sussex and Kent where a recessed open hall was flanked by floored jettied end bays) although in this case the east end itself is recessed and it appears that it originally was open from the ground floor. There was a large fireplace at this end with a 16th century moulded wood lintel which ran the full width of the building.

On the ground floor each bay was separated to form individual rooms which by the 18th century were used to accommodate the homeless poor in the parish. In this period each parish was responsible for providing parish relief for those of its residents who had fallen on hard times. In many villages a building was used to house those parishioners, often the elderly, who had no other means of support and the Court House in Long Crendon would have served a useful purpose. In 1834 with the introduction of a new Poor Law Act the system changed and all local able bodied persons who couldn’t support themselves were sent instead to the new Union Workhouse which was built at Thame. As a consequence the lower rooms were rented out to tenants although the upper floor continued to be used for the Manor Court meetings and was also used by the local Sunday school. However the building by this time had fallen into disrepair and was threatened with demolition. The vicar mounted a campaign to save it and following a survey by the recently formed National Trust the organisation decided to buy it – the second property they acquired. It was restored in 1900 at a total cost of £560. The upper floor continued to be used to hold the manor courts until they were finally abolished in the 1920s whilst the ground floor was let to tenants.

The Court House (upper floor only, accessed by very steep steps) is now open to the public on Wednesdays, and weekends.  More details can be found on the National Trust’s website




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