The Clapham Society Local History Series — 34

Christmas Memories
by Peter Skuse

This article first appeared in the South London Press on 5 January 2018
(Entitled: ‘Recalling Christmases part from a Happy South London childhood’)

In the 1940s and 1950s Peter Skuse and his parents shared with another family a terraced house in Abbeville Road, Clapham, His two close friends, Bruce and Norm lived very near by. In a recent memoir Peter recalled Christmas in his childhood.

Norm, aged 8 years in 1953
Norm, aged 8 years in 1953

Christmas was always a grand time, we were all so excited on Christmas Eve! Socks hung up, Father Christmas coming, anticipation of high spirits, jollifications, presents to get, and to give.

Dad would always string up lantern-style lights in the hall, shared with upstairs Len and Ivy Steadman; the 12ft-high ceiling of the Front Room would be festooned with garlands draped from small nails on the picture-rail across past the central light fitting, and paper chains (made by flour-paste glue sticking each individual strip to a loop and round the next one, and so on). He and I were up and down stepladders when it was time to put up the Christmas decorations.

Peter in school uniform 1956
Peter in school uniform 1956

Bruce opened his pillowcase as soon as he woke up, and his Mum and Dad went into his room; I opened my sock while sitting on my parents’ bed, and Norm remembers a sack he would open while he was still in bed. Christmas Day for me was always spent at home, playing indoors with my new toys, and it was just me and Mum and Dad. Len and Ivy from upstairs would usually come down for a Christmas drink with Mum and Dad, and stand chatting, arms akimbo, which I can remember trying to copy from a very early age, and my little hands would keep slipping off my hips. Bruce’s Christmases as a youngster were at home in Crescent Lane, with his Mum and Dad, or at his Mum’s sister’s in Morden, where they would stay overnight. Christmas dinner was often chicken, a rare treat in the 1940s and early 1950s, though at my home, Dad would sometimes go to Brixton late Christmas Eve, and get a turkey at a knock-down price. We cycled through chicken-turkey-goose during the Christmases when I was young, Dad preferring the moistness of goose, and Mum the drier turkey meat; chicken was a compromise. We always had Christmas pudding, home-made, with all the condensation in the scullery that that entailed! It required to be stirred by each of us at some stage in its mixing, as a superstition of Mum’s from her Mum before her. Mum always made her own Christmas cake too: iced thickly over marzipan, all around the sides, then wrapped in a paper decorated doily affair, and lots of ornaments of a Christmassy nature, stuck into the icing on top.

Boxing Day was always a big party, with all relatives attending as far as possible, seating up to fifteen around the draw-leaf table moved into the kitchen for the purpose, minding the fire (oh so close!). A cosy squash for the celebrations, and cold bird meat and hot boiled bacon, stuffing, chipolatas when they became available again after the war . . . reheated Christmas pudding and white cornflour-custard with mince pies. Then we’d go into the Front Room for games and quizzes (I was writing them from the age of eight), and dancing later to the wireless. My Mum hosted Boxing Day every three years, with her two sisters covering the years in between, Edie two doors down in Abbeville and Mabel in Morden.

Boys and girls in Abbeville Rd back garden 1947
1947 pic showing Bruce [the smallest boy] and Peter [bigger, next to him] in the Abbeville Rd back garden; the girls are cousins or neighbours
Bruce and Norm recall no such Christmas parties in their homes. We always stayed within our own families at this time. Comparing presents with each other would probably have to wait until the next days, though I’m certain Bruce or Norm might run to the end of their gardens and call for me to give news of particular surprises. It was easier for them to make me hear than the other way round: my shout or whistle (shout for Bruce, whistle for Norm) would have to carry forty feet, then through a closed-window house, whereas their shouts or whistles to me would need four feet, then an always-open toilet window: with the WC next to the cooker in the scullery.

Christmas was an opportunity to start trying alcohol, or grown-ups’ drinks. My Dad gave me port, mixed in with my Tizer, then later, neat port. I didn’t like it, but accepted because I was used to my Dad occasionally calling me puny, or a wimp, when I didn’t try something he thought I ought to. I was probably a disappointment to him when a boy, for not being interested in the sorts of things boys should be interested in, such as joining the Scouts, playing football . . . Where I could do something about it, I did try, and so accepted this annual challenge, though with distaste. Then I opted out one year, admitting why I had originally complied, and Dad was actually pleased to hear that I had made a self-sacrifice for many years. That put me off booze for life, probably to my benefit.

It was one of my jobs as I grew and became strong enough, to go down the rather precarious steps into the cellar and fill the coal scuttle for the fire. We only had a coal fire in the bedroom if one of us was ill – a rare occurrence – and in the Front Room at Christmas or special parties.

At Christmas, in those days the tube trains ran all day, and Dad sometimes had to work on Christmas or Boxing Day….. We three as boys (or men) never got together at Christmas: they were (and are) family times for all of us.