The Edwardian Only Child: All Alone On Christmas?

DISCLAIMER: This piece of research is based on the experiences of a very small number of Paul Thompson’s interview transcripts, which can be found through the UK Data Service. I don’t have any plans to include Christmas as a separate subject in my thesis, though it may form a part of a larger section on loneliness. Even then, I’ll have used a lot more sources and I don’t expect it to bear any resemblance to this post.

The first personal account I read of being an only child before 1950 was Michael Donovan’s (writing under the pseudonym of Frank O’Connor) autobiography An Only Child (published 1958-61, but describing experiences from before that date; Donovan was born in 1903) and it drew my attention that he was especially negative about Christmas, describing it as ‘the worst time of year for me’ [1].  I’ve also read in a couple of modern sociology books that only children find Christmas a difficult time of year because they’re surrounded by adults and can’t see their friends.  This blog post tests this hypothesis on a small number of only children born in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Donovan’s feelings towards Christmas were understandable.  The build-up to Christmas, and the ‘Christmas numbers’ he read gave him unrealistic expectations about the day itself.  Being from a poor Irish family, he found that ‘all Santa Claus could bring me from the North Pole was something I could have bought in Myles’s Toy Shop for a couple of pence’, and nothing of note came in the last post round [2].  The biggest problem, though, was that ‘the day was overshadowed by the harsh rule that I was not to call at other children’s houses or they at mine.  This, Mother said, was the family season, which was all very well for those who had families but death to an only child’ [3].

However, looking at 13 oral history transcripts of English interviewees born around the same time as Donovan, nobody was anywhere near as isolated as he was at Christmas.  Most of the interviewees described seeing some number of people other than their parents on Christmas Day.  Alice Tulloch (b. 1894) would occasionally go to an aunt with her mother, but even when they had Christmas alone at home, she had the freedom to visit her best friend and compare presents [4].  Adam Robinson Aird (b. 1893) reported that aunts and uncles came to stay, and Florence Dart (b. 1895) spent her Christmases in Portsmouth with an assortment of relatives[5].  Doris Nevill Tarling (b. 1903) had by far the most sociable Christmas – she would go to her maternal grandmother’s house, where dozens of people – including the postman – would gather for food, playing, singing and dancing.  Her grandmother had nine children, and her grandmother’s sister, who lived nearby, had eight, meaning there was no shortage of company [6].  Adjectives used to describe the day were ‘lovely’ (Tarling), a ‘great treat’ (Dart), pleasant (Amelia Southern, b. 1887), and ‘marvellous’ (Lady Attrichman, b. 1897) [7].

Some only children’s Christmases came across as more sparse, yet they did not actively complain about them.  Tulloch described how her father was only home once for Christmas, and on that occasion ‘I think we probably just had a good feed and slept the rest of the time’ [8].  Southern related how her family never had any relatives or friends round on Christmas Day, and did not detail any leisure activities that took place, only meals (which she uncomplainingly helped prepare) and her parents’ ‘little doze’ after dinner [9].  Bella Curle’s (b. 1898) family seldom had Christmas visitors because her father had to work [10].

Other only children, whilst not complaining about Christmas itself, did recognise difficulties they faced at this time.  Tarling felt an ‘otherness’ in the sense that her parents were stricter than her cousins’ parents; her mother would not let her accept gift money (though she got around this by, at her great-uncle’s suggestion, hiding a shilling in her bloomer leg) or allow her a drop of port like the other children [11].  Lilian Pool (b. 1902) was too shy to take part in Sunday School festive entertainments and agreed with the interviewer that being an only child ‘makes you shy’.  She also recalled that one year between the ages of ten and twelve, she had to cook most of the Christmas dinner (her father roasted the bird) because her mother had burnt her hand [12] – a task which would surely have been less burdensome with the help of some siblings.  Poor Lady Attrichman was expected to put on a play by herself, in French and German, for her parents and their guests, which ‘rather spoilt Christmas Day’ [13].

So why were these only children’s experiences of Christmas so much more than those of Michael Donovan?  Class might be one reason.  Although ten of the 13 Thompson interviewees were working or lower-middle class, none appear to have been as close to the breadline as his family was.  His Irishness might or might not have been a factor – the ‘numbers’ he read largely described English Christmases, and maybe contemporary Irish Christmases were less of an affair, especially for those who could not afford it.  Having a large extended family is a definite reason – Donovan had few relatives, particularly because his mother had grown up in an orphanage; she was separated from some siblings, whilst others died.  By contrast, many of these interviewees’ parents had many siblings, providing a vast array of cousins to play with at Christmas.  Finally, Donovan may have felt better able to complain about Christmas, writing about a tough Irish childhood under a pseudonym.  The cultural expectation that Christmas was meant to be a happy time may have inhibited interviewees from describing it any other way.

In conclusion, large extended families meant that many only children were possibly less alone at Christmas than they were at any other time.  To find that out, though, I’d have to do a full investigation into full interviews, which is more thesis/journal article territory than suitable for a blog post.  It would also be an idea to compare only children’s Christmases with those who had siblings, who after all might also have stayed at home and not seen relatives, but at least had each other.  The large extended families of these interviewees has attracted my attention because I’m interested in how much contact only children had with their wider family, as well as whether their lack of siblings disadvantaged them in the job market – this little bit of research suggests it didn’t because they had so many other contacts they might be able to draw on.  A similar exercise with a lot more interviewees might reveal something about the kind of leisure activities only children took part in at Christmas – charades and singing have popped up a lot (and one interviewee, Jane Darroch, had a full-on party with rowdy games – she thought this was on Christmas Day, but the uncertainty was enough to put me off including this in the main part of the post [14]), but so have more sedate pursuits such as reading and chess.

Footnotes

[1] Frank O’Connor, An Only Child, (New York, 1958-61), p. 129.

[2] Ibid., p. 134.

[3] Ibid., pp. 134-5.

[4] Alice Tulloch, 2000int080, P. Thompson and T. Lummis, Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1.

[5] Adam Robinson Aird, 2000int185; Florence Dart, 2000int405, P. Thompson and T. Lummis, Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1 .

[6] Doris Nevill Tarling, 2000int064, P. Thompson and T. Lummis, Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1.

[7] Tarling, 2000int064; Dart, 2000int045; Amelia Southern, 2000int115, P. Thompson and T. Lummis, Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1; Lady Attrichman, 5405int133, P. Thompson, Family Life and Work Experience before 1918, Middle and Upper Class Families in the Early 20th Century, 1870-1977 [computer file]. 2nd Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2008. SN: 5404.

[8] Tulloch, 2000int080, P. Thompson and T. Lummis, Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1.

[9] Southern, 2000int115, P. Thompson and T. Lummis, Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1.

[10] Bella Curle, 2000int403, P. Thompson and T. Lummis, Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1.

[11] Tarling, 2000int064, P. Thompson and T. Lummis, Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1.

[12] Lilian Pool, 2000int431, P. Thompson and T. Lummis, Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1.

[13] Lady Attrichman, 5405int133, P. Thompson, Family Life and Work Experience before 1918, Middle and Upper Class Families in the Early 20th Century, 1870-1977 [computer file]. 2nd Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2008. SN: 5404.

[14] Jane Darroch, 2000int392, P. Thompson and T. Lummis, Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1

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About Alice Violett

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