The Little Ice Age
In the middle of the 1700s, Church Street was developing apace and soon it would become my turn to be built. It was towards the end of what is now referred to as “The Little Ice Age”. The winters had been viciously cold and, in this region, white with heavy snow cutting Whitby off for weeks at a time as snowploughs and blowers were not to be invented for another two hundred years. Conversely, the summers were hot and humid with some doldrum days that saw trade in the normally busy harbour all but stop. Men would sit around the jetties drinking and gambling whilst they waited for the next vessel to make an appearance then descend on it like flies as they pleaded to be chosen to carry the goods to the harbour-side.
People had become used to the weather and accepted the fact that rivers would freeze over in the winter and there was even talk of Londoners holding markets on the frozen Thames but who knows, sailors could always tell a tall-tale!
News and Hearsay
As the building work continued along Church Street I settled with my first family who would gather at mealtimes to talk about the rumours and ‘news’ that would be spread by the visiting crewmen. They would tell their tales with embellishments and personal ‘spin’ to keep interest or raise a laugh whilst drinking copious amounts of beer in the huge number of inns, bars and houses-of-horizontal-jogging that were scattered throughout the town and catered for their needs.
Some of the sailors would have been at sea for months and had accrued a small fortune to be spent on what the preachers would term the sins-of-the-flesh as they spouted their warnings of eternal damnation to the already converted, sadly, those that needed to be saved absented themselves in favour of “a day and night or two of gratuitous sinning”. Who am I to comment, they probably needed the exercise!
As the hot and sultry summers waned the autumn westerlies would hit the moors bringing cycles of sheet rain that would soften the land either side of the Esk and create landslips that would prevail right through to the present day. However, the real challenges would take place when the cold northerlies would fetch the sea into the mouth of the river and if the planets aligned then the resulting tidal surge would flood the town leaving weeks of work – usually for the women – to clear the stench from the rotting creatures that had been left as the water receded – all this took place until the next time!
Autumn would merge into winter and the difference between the two was the cold. The wind and damp sea air would drop well below zero and with the chill factor approaching minus twenty or thirty the river would begin to freeze and the workers would only venture out because they had to; no work meant no money and no money would mean no food so the question of whether they had to or not was already resolved.
Meals and Family Together
I had a large fireplace that contained a bank of burning logs or coal with a cauldron hanging from a small derrick that could be swung into and over the flames or cinders. It would be charged with a mix of local herbs, potatoes and any other root vegetables that could be acquired or preserved then reinforced with fish of one type or another. Occasionally it would be supplemented with meat or something even more exotic from a visiting ship. It would be acquired via a clandestine barter of tobacco or drugs for some ‘borrowed’ cargo that had been ‘damaged’ in transit. This usually took place in one of the local hostelry’s where the bar would be full of smoke and laughter whilst the upper rooms were hired by the hour.
The cauldron would be left for days slowly getting progressively more tasty and viscous as ‘stuff’ was added until it started to ‘turn’. The decision on whether it had ‘turned’ or not would be the sole responsibility of the eldest woman of the house and her decision was always final. it would be emptied into the harbour to the delight of the seagulls lurking on wing-and-roof ready to home in on the cascading treasure like arrows from a bow. Some things never change!
Build up to Christmas
In the early days, the build-up to Christmas was quite reverent and there would be references to the big day at each of the Sunday services although some Christians refused to acknowledge it believing it to be pagan and unholy!
The fire would be lit constantly and, occasionally, a huge kettle would join or take the place of the casserole ready to at least warm the water that would be added to the tin or wooden bath for bathing in front of the fire. This activity was extremely infrequent in the winter and some of my occupants would not change their clothing or wash for weeks on end, they would even sleep in them.
There would be some limited decoration usually made from evergreen plants and pine cones with an occasional flower head from anything that may have still been in bloom probably limited to gorse and the odd bit of hardy winter jasmine. These garlands were hand made by the women and children and displayed from Christmas Eve and then remained for 12 nights.
In those days the cold would bring more snow and a ‘White Christmas’ was the norm rather than the exception and the weather would often close in from time to time with this cycle continuing for the following three months.
When Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837 the traditions hadn’t changed much and the churches of various denominations controlled the detail whilst tradition sometimes varied the practice.
I wouldn’t see a tree in my front room for many years and whilst Prince Albert is credited with the tradition in the UK it was more likely brought to us by King George’s wife, Charlotte, who was a German and decorated a tree for the royals as early as the 1790s.
I remember the discussion around the dinner table about the Royals and how they celebrated Christmas and the incredulity of bringing a tree into the house and adding trinkets and candles. Nevertheless, the following year there was quite a stir as the more enterprising market traders cut the tops off a few fir trees and sold them in the town It’s fair to say that Prince Albert made it popular and from the late 1800s I have had a tree in my living room most years since.
WW1 and the Christmas Truce
The First World War had only been declared a couple of months previously but on December 7, 1914, Pope Benedict XV suggested a temporary truce for the celebration of Christmas. There was no official response but a few weeks later the conversation around the dinner table included lots of ‘facts’ heard on the grapevine that both sides had put down their rifles in their respective trenches and the soldiers had met in no-mans-land where photographs were exchanged, carols were sung and there had even been a game of football, then, in a surreal moment of sadness, on return to their respective trenches, they had picked up their dead to carry the unfortunate (fortunate?) souls back for proper burial. The top-brass were not impressed, of course, they were concerned that the men may not be as interested in slaughtering the enemy if they became too friendly and it was forbidden in the future although islands of friendship were confessed by visiting or returning soldiers within my rooms over many years.
Between the wars, Christmas became a family-orientated affair with homemade decorations created with crepe paper of different colours often cut into strips and then linked together like the chains that moored the heavier ships in the harbour. The glue would be a mix of flour and water often dyed using soot, beetroot juice or dried gorse flowers. Eventually, the glue would be bought in a little bottle that had a rubber ‘shoe’ shaped dabber on the end. It had a slit in it that the glue would be forced out to be spread on to the decoration being manufactured. The tree by now would be festooned with life-threatening lighted candles that were responsible for numerous fires usually dealt with by throwing a bucket of water over the whole tree. They would also decorate my beams using holly and other evergreens especially the ones with berries. There’d also be a sprig or two of mistletoe tucked out of the way so that any unsuspecting lady could be pounced upon to steal a kiss but always with good grace. In 1939 the first Beano Book made an appearance and, although it was published in the middle of the year, it was meant to be the Christmas Annual, however, at 2/6d it was expensive and only people who were in reasonably well-paid jobs could afford it.
The second world war brought more rationing and stocks of food had to be built up over the two or three weeks pre-Christmas. I also remember some ‘unofficial arrangements’ made between local farmers, fishermen and shop-keepers so that there was plenty of food and the day was ‘special’. There would be empty seats at the table and nervous sadness when the reminiscing related to friends and family who were still fighting. There would also be tears when thoughts turned to those that would never come back and silence would reign for a few minutes as the empty chairs brought back memories of better times and the words from WW1, “It’ll be all over by Christmas”; well, it wasn’t, well not this one anyway! The emotions would become raw as the beer and sherry took its toll.
Presents and Traditions
The Beano Book became the Magic-Beano Book and presents reflected the war effort with guns and hand-made ships for boys with dolls houses (also hand made) for the girls.
After the war, Christmas established itself as a time of giving and I heard them talking over a meal that a tree had arrived in London donated by the Norwegians. The man of the house was reading from a national newspaper. Apparently, Norway started a tradition that still holds today. They ceremonially cut down a huge tree and send it to London for erection in Trafalgar Square as a thank you for the help we gave them through the war.
Through the 1950s and 60s, the youngsters in the family were completely absorbed with Father Christmas whist a new phenomenon began to influence the season. ‘Teenagers’ became an important part of the economy and record buying took off with the record-charts starting in the early 1950s with lots of emphasis on the all-important Christmas Number One. George’s recollection goes back to 1957 when Harry Belafonte took pole position with ‘Mary’s Boy Child’. My rooms have heard them all, in the early days on the ‘wireless’ in the living room, then, through the decades’ transistor radios made it possible for music to migrate to my bedrooms and even outside.
Through the 60s and 70s, I had a television installed. It was a big contraption with not much of a screen by modern standards; however, everyone would be drawn together at Christmas waiting for the much anticipated Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special. There was only one TV and it was in the living room so this was a complete family occasion which became a veritable tradition. The first one had a black and white picture but soon they were in full colour and ‘Top of the Pops’ would resonate around my walls. The teenagers would dance whilst dad would question whether it was ‘music’ and mum would question if what they were doing was ‘dance’! The Queen’s speech became a favourite and the whole family would crowd around the box, ironically, to listen to it.
Christmas through the 1960s began to ramp up the commercial aspects and gifts became more expensive with an expectation of more. In the ’50s there would be one main present but the following decades would see more. Board games were popular with Ludo, Snakes and Ladders and Draughts. These were family games and, after Christmas Dinner, they would clear the table and set out one of the board games and play. The children were always surreptitiously ‘helped’ in an effort to level the playing field but within a short space of time they would be winning and the adults would drift off to doze in front of the open fire.
Carol singing would be conducted house to house and small possies of youngsters would tour the streets with some carefully rehearsed traditional carols. I would have a constant stream of mini-choirs knocking at my front door. They usually sang one verse but delivered it with gusto and volume. It would be followed by a knock if my occupants didn’t make an appearance during the performance and a repeat of the verse to encourage a little bit of seasonal generosity. If they were lucky they’d get a sixpence, 6d (2.5 pence) and when times were short it would be threepence 3d (just over a penny) or even a brief round of applause. This would also be the case if there’d already been a two or three mini-choirs before you so the objective was to get out on the street as soon as possible and if there was a singing-possie already on that street then you chose another one. It has to be said that the coins mentioned above had quite a buying power for children in a sweet shop and four black jacks could be had for a 1d or a bar of McCowans Highland Toffee for 3d. There was also midget gems and aniseed balls usually sold by the quarter but could be negotiated down to 2oz if you didn’t have enough money.
Death and Near Dereliction
Towards the end of the century, my last family were well established both in my rooms and with the people of Whitby. Dad enjoyed painting and an occasional beer with the locals and the lovely lady-of-the-house spent a lot of time with John, their son, who was an adult by now but needed a little help with everyday life. He would spend a lot of time at his window on my first-floor front bedroom. He’d wave to the fishermen as they set out to sea and he’d be there when they returned. To his delight, they would wave back and he’d talk about it at length with his mum, it meant a lot. Sadly Dad died over ten years ago and the family never returned. Mum intended to come back but she had so many happy memories she couldn’t handle the pain.
As far as mum was aware I continued to be ready to be lived in and why wouldn’t she? The last time she closed and locked my door I still had all my furniture, the beds were made and ready to be slept in, all the clothes were still neatly folded in wardrobes and the fire was prepared and ready for a match that would transform the building into a warm home in a matter of minutes when they returned…but they hadn’t factored in dad’s sudden death. Over the next couple of years, all was well then, one stormy night parts of the roof were lifted together with several roof tiles. My dormer roof began to leak and then collapsed, the water penetrated the floors below and soaked the soft furnishings so that I never became dry. During the wet, the rain made the furniture and bedding sodden and during the dry, the soft-furnishing gave out the water that it’d absorbed and I never got dry. The result was rotted floorboards, joists, beams and timber together with severely damaged walls. Over the next 5 years, things became tragic and every Christmas was empty, cold, wet and bleak. I was in a desperate state and…
A New Beginning
The moment mum became aware of the situation through a letter from the Council she initiated a chain of events that meant I had a new owner within weeks and assessments were made to halt my dereliction.
In 2018 I got my new owner and he re-roofed me and for the Christmas of 2018, I was dry. This was the first year I had Christmas lights outside and lots of people passing began showing a keen interest in my wellbeing and how the renovation was going. Throughout 2019 my floors were repaired and walls replastered with traditional lime-based material. In 2020 George did a talk about me for the Whitby Civic Society in the Coliseum and it had a great turn-out and he was able to network with several people that readily gave advice on preservation and repair, information that would become more important as my renovation progressed. The concrete that had been used as plaster on my inner walls and was destroying the bricks was replaced over four months using lime-based plaster similar to the original used so many years ago. It breathes and so do I. My walls are clean and painted now, I smell fresh and warm. There is light and heat. Now everyone stops and takes photographs and best of all, they smile; everyone smiles.
Covid slowed things down a bit but I’ve seen many plagues and diseases over 250 years and I can quote George Harrison in his assertion, “All Things Must Pass”.
The heating has been switched on and the fire lit so everything has dried or is drying and the finishing touches are still being done. I’m warm now and delighted that all of the work that has made me whole again has been a case of, “only replace if it can’t be repaired”. It’s meant that the whole thing has taken much more time to complete but the result is that I have retained a lot of my original materials or traditional materials have been used for repairs and the result is evident.
George will be opening my doors for people to look around when Whitby Civic Society can reintroduce the ‘open days’. It’ll give the people of Whitby (and beyond) who have shown so much interest and support the opportunity to have a look around, I’m sure you’ll be pleased.
Just as an aside, I would encourage you to look out for and attend the Whitby Civic Society’s events. They’re diverse and very interesting. I’d also encourage you to join the Society, it has Whitby and its future at its heart and expresses caring and learned views whenever it can.
This Christmas edition is longer than was intended. I hope you’ve enjoyed reminiscing with me. I’ve been around a long time and my rooms have seen life, love, death and all things in between and now, newly renovated I’m ready for another 250 years.
Have a great Christmas and let’s all look forward to a new and wonderful new year.
Look after yourselves and more importantly, look after each other.
A Very Merry Christmas and Lots of Love from the Little Yellow Cottage. x
Feel free to share…G x
I’ll tell you more in the new year about the whole project and the wonderfully dedicated and skilful tradesmen who have helped me in the last two and a half years together with names – they deserve a plug and copious thanks! There’ll also be some before and after photos.
Here’s a photo of my living room as a bit of a teaser – see you in the new year. LYC… x