Thornbury and District Museum: As cold as charity at Christmas

November 29 2019
Thornbury and District Museum: As cold as charity at Christmas

THIS month's photograph is of a ceremony which was a Thornbury Christmas tradition for as long as 300 years.

Taken in 1900, it shows the town's poor people, having been presented with warm clothing at by the mayor and corporation, preparing to parade along the High Street.

We know that by the early 17th century, several wealthy people had made bequests of specified properties, the rents from which went into trusts to benefit the poor. These were often in the form of coal, food (especially) or clothing, to be distributed to the poor. Sometimes gifts of money were given to meet specific needs, like meeting the cost of a bond for apprenticeships, or in cases of sickness.

Some of these trusts were consolidated into a single charity, administered by the town's mayor and his aldermen: they became known as the Mayor’s Gift.

Until about 1940 the gift was warm clothing given at Christmas to the 'deserving poor'. The recipients had to be suitably appreciative and were expected to show their gratitude.

We have a detailed account of this ceremony from a visitor to St Mary’s Church on Christmas Day 1847, so we know that this was the day generally chosen for the gift.

The poor people were assembled outside the Swan Hotel in the High Street, in the cold of the morning, wearing their new coats, dresses, petticoats and shawls (all identically made and so immediately recognisable as a charitable gift). Meanwhile, the Mayor and aldermen had a hot breakfast inside.

They then all paraded down the High Street to the church, where there was a service enabling them to give thanks for their good fortune. We can only imagine how the recipients felt about this occasion.

The only comment that we have seen from those who actually received the gift was a letter from a member of the Stinchcombe family, in which she said that she would have preferred to have money rather than clothing!

We are not sure when the parades came to an end. The gifts of clothing stopped in 1940, when the Thornbury Town Trust ran into financial difficulty because of unexpected expenditure on properties used as alms houses. They opted instead to give each person a voucher, to be exchanged at local shops. A few years later the trust arranged to deliver the vouchers to the recipients, rather than expect them to gather in public.