Christmas In The East End

Clementina Maria Black (1853 – 1922) was an English writer, feminist and pioneering Trade Unionist, who worked tirelessly for women’s rights at work and for women’s suffrage. She wrote numerous articles about the conditions of the poor in the East End of London, the majority of them dealing with the daily lives of the factory girls and the homeworkers of the area.

A photograph of Clementina Black.
Clementina Black.


In December, 1894, several newspapers published an article that she had written about how the people of Whitechapel and Spitalfields spent their Christmas.

The article gave an insight into the lives of the people of the East End, and didn’t pull any punches about the fact that some of them were, most certainly, not looking forward to Christmas.

However, she also portrayed the exuberance of the Victorian Eastenders and, in so doing, has left us with a wonderful pen-portrait of the East End of London at Christmas in the 1890’s.

The following version of the article appeared The Cardiff Times on Saturday 22nd December, 1894:-


“Looking back upon my Christmas impressions of the East End, I find fog in the foreground. Whitechapel-road in a yellow fog, Commercial-street in a black fog; the flare of innumerable naked lights on long rows of stalls, the smell of paraffin, and fruit, and meat, and mud – these are the things that rise before me.

Never, I think, shall I forget the sense of piled up discomfort aroused by the passage in a tram through Spitalfields Market, on a certain 23rd of December. Outside the tram, the fog lay smoky black, sooty to the scent as to the sight; within was a wavering red lamp, whose light failed to render distinguishable the crowd of weary passengers.

As we approached the Market, the stoppages grew longer and more frequent, until every two or three yards of advance was purchased by five or ten minutes of pause.

Out of the darkness heard hoarse shoutings and slowly moving wheels; sudden flares of light shone, each surrounded by a dull red space, that looked less like atmosphere than like a hollow in some solid; big wagons loomed vague and monstrous. There were cries, oaths, and the scent of orange peel.

Last of all the car began to move continuously, though at a snail’s pace, and slowly we emerged from the blockade of the market.

The passage of certainly not more than a furlong’s length occupied exactly three-quarters of an hour.

An image of Commercial Street filled with horse drawn carts and carriages.
A view Along Commercial Street. Spitalfields Market is to the left in the background.


Crowds, mud, discomfort, cold, delays, straining horses, swearing men, these are the visible signs of approaching Christmas in poor and busy districts.

The traditional Dickens-like joviality of the season is replaced (if indeed it ever had any real existence) by a joviality which is purely commercial, a festivity of the shop window, addressed solely to the pocket.

Extra wreaths of coloured paper are twisted about the posts and supports in the sweet-stuff shops, sugar pigs and mice and watches make all appearance the grocer starts a pudding-club and displays lists of ingredients (so many ounces of raisins, peel, spices, etc.) to be procured by weekly payments – a bottle of wine being thrown in to contributors above a certain figure; the public-houses start the goose clubs or turkey clubs, to which husbands pay in a weekly sixpence or shilling, spending probably an incidental four-pence on beer at the same time.


On Christmas Eve the goose is carried home to the hard-driven wife and mother, who misses the extra money far more than she welcomes the unfamiliar bird which she has neither knowledge nor appliances to make into a well-cooked dish.

Extra work for the woman, extra drink for the man – that is tho plain English of the public-house goose club.


The better-off artisan, in the East End as elsewhere, regards Christmas as an occasion of family assemblage, and generally takes his wife and children to spend the day with relatives. He has been able to lay aside a little for this outing and neither for him nor for them is Christmas week one of extra privation.


For many factory workers and others who are paid by the day or the piece at low rates, the case is far otherwise.

There are hundreds to whom Christmas Day is merely an extra Sunday, preceded by a particularly late Saturday night, followed by the noisiest and least climatically advantageous of Bank Holidays and involving a most unwelcome and unavoidable loss of two days’ pay out of an always inadequate weekly income.


As for the home worker, accustomed to work seven days in the week, and, even so, hardly to ward off starvation from herself and her children – the home worker is terribly apt to be a widow, or the wife of an unproductive husband – she differentiates Christmas from other seasons only by taking home an extra stock of work, if she can get it, to carry her over the two or three days in which the factory or warehouse will not be open.

For obvious reasons, she does not cook a Christmas pudding or a joint of beef. Her chance of obtaining these things lies solely in her happening to be an inmate at Christmas time either of the workhouse or the hospital. Otherwise, her room will be as shabby, her dress as ragged, her movements as dull and hopeless on Christmas Day as on any other of the three hundred and sixty-five.

On that day, no less than on every other, it would be happier for her to be in her grave than living as she is compelled to live.

She has not even – poor, dulled, over-driven, inefficient drudge as she is – the hope by which some of us are comforted, of that slow-coming, peaceful, sure-footed change of social system which shall some day render impossible such waste of life as goes on now all around us.

It is the lives of such as she which tempt the thoughtful onlooker, to desperate and revolutionary imaginings but she has not such herself as she sits day after day cobbling a coarse shirt or hemming heavy trousers – mechanical, apathetic, and deeply, fundamentally hopeless.

Inside the matchbox maker's room.
From The Graphic, 24th April 1886. Copyright, The British Library Board.


The Mile End-road, which is a continuation of Whitechapel-road, which is, in its turn, a continuation of Aldgate, is perhaps the finest road in London.

There is, at least, no other which can show so long a stretch of equal width.

This unusual width, which leaves space for a row of booths between the wide footpath and the even wider roadway, enables a second line of temporary shops to arise every Saturday evening; and on Christmas Eve this line is longer and closer packed than its wont; whelk-stalls, quacks, cheap jacks, hawkers, cocoa-nut shies, and street entertainments of all sorte are there in wearisome iteration, all tawdry, all brightly illuminated, all vociferously attended.

A photograph showing Mile End Road.
Miles End Road In The 19th Century.


Between them goes a jostling, pushing, wet-footed muddy-skirted throng.

The same throng will be in the same place on the afternoon of the morrow, girls and lads in separate groups, lounging with linked arms, and exchanging rough greetings when they meet.

Of these young people, in so far as they appear in the streets, good humour and bad manners are the outward tokens. They are full of spirits, anxious and ready to be amused, and the supply of harmless amusement at their disposal is lamentably small.


Boredom, the lack of any real entertainment, is, I am honestly convinced, the cause of much of the drunkenness of London, and if this drunkenness is greater at the Christmas season than at any other, as on the whole it probably is, the reason may be found in the impossibility of out of door excursions at that time of year.

What the East End worker really likes – as any person may observe for himself on any Whit-Monday or the first Monday in August – is to take his place in a large and crowded wagonette, and be driven to some more or less rural spot where he can have a meal at so much a head, and find cocoa-nuts on sticks or Aunt Sallies, at which he can throw with hopes of  a trifling prize to emphasise the applause due to success.

This form of enjoyment is practically impossible in December, and Boxing Day has to be filled up with urban delights, or in other words mainly at the public-house.

Of course, there are coffee-houses, and the admirable Tee-to-tums where good cheap food, temperance drinks, and such games as dominoes can be had and at the People’s Palace and the Assembly Hall, in Mile End-road, there are often organ recitals and other music.

But there is nothing which at all takes the place of the public gardens, which make general recreation-grounds for the citizens of some foreign cities.


Healthy amusement on a large scale is the great need, let me say rather one of the great needs, of the East End, and Christmas is, perhaps, the season when this need is shown most plainly.

A large winter-garden with plenty of growing things and of opportunities of getting refreshments of the Lockhart type, plenty of space to walk about in, and plenty of short and cheerful entertainments, conjuring, performing animals, harmless farces and stirring songs, would do more than any mere temperance propaganda can possibly do to draw people from haunting the public-houses.

Of course, however, such an establishment would be useless unless it was cheap, and it would not obtain that profit from the sale of drinks which is generally understood to be the paying branch of many music-halls.

The price of admission should not exceed a penny, and the entertainment should not aspire to be instructive:- panoramas, magic lantern shows, and really good marionette shows would probably be eagerly received, but the promoters of the enterprise should realise fully that what their patrons need and desire is diversion pure and simple.


In St. Petersburg there is a garden of this description which is thronged by the poorest working people. It is under cover, and has swings, theatrical and conjuring performance. etc.

There are gardens and open spaces in the East End – though not enough of them – and, in warm weather, these partly supply the need, but, in winter, hundreds of persons wander up and down the brightly lighted Mile End-road, simply for want of any other equally cheerful place of resort.


Towards evening on Boxing Day they drift in large numbers into whatever places of entertainment are open to them.

The music-halls and variety shows are probably fuller than on any other night in the year.

The hospitals, too, receive considerable additions, for extra occasions of drink mean extra occasions of quarrel and accident.

I remember the chaplain of a big hospital telling me how he went in on Christmas Day to hold an early morning service, and found the head porter sitting, with an air of fatigue, his coat off, his shirt sleeves rolled up, and his arms blood-stained to the elbows.

The startled clergyman asked what was the matter. Said the porter:- “We have been taking in accidents, one after another, ever since ten o’clock last night. That’s what comes of Christmas Day being on a Sunday – Christmas Eve and Saturday night together.”


Yet let me not give the impression that the East End is altogether a place of gloom and dreariness.

Its young people, though they are often hard-worked, and far too poorly off, are a cheerful race. The factory girl has a truly amazing energy in amusement. She will dance up to any hour, after having been at work, and most likely on her feet, from seven in the morning to six or seven at night. She will sing during all the hours of a long drive out and home on a Bank Holiday, will dance in the morning before she sets out, and be seen still dancing when she descends from the vehicle at ten at night.


On one bright and clear night, when there was snow underfoot, and moonlight overhead, a party of factory girls came along the Mile End-road at nearly midnight. This was not on one of the holidays of the season; the girls had been at work, probably in an unwarmed room, but they were as active, as full of energy, and life, and spirits, as a band of schoolboys turned out for their midday play.

Their laughter rang out among the gradually diminishing noises of the thoroughfare; they ran, and shrieked, and threw, and dived for a fresh handful, as if cold, hunger, and overwork were things unknown.

A photograph showing another section of Mile End Road.
Mile End Road In Victorian Times.


But even for a rare sport of snowballing they had no other play-place than the Mile End-road and to spend Christmas strolling in the Mile End-road, even though it may be the best road in London, is, after all, but a melancholy pastime.”