When you think of carol singing you think of festively dressed, finely tuned singers, merrily warbling traditional Christmas tunes at your door in the hope of a small donation.
But go back to Victorian times and this harmless Christmas tradition was anything but.
There were fights on door steps, carol singers were shot at, killed, and rival singing gangs would slug it out with each other.
For many years they were considered a public nuisance, hanging around in gangs, terrorising neighbourhoods with their ‘screeches’, bad language and appeals for money.
There were calls to have them banned.
If ASBOs existed back then, carol singers would have certainly been slapped with them.
Let’s start with this Scrooge like solicitor in Shrewsbury who in 1866 took his complaint to the Chief Constable.
Mr Craig lived in one of the more affluent areas of the town called the Crescent – coincidentally and rather ironically one of these houses was used in the 1984 film A Christmas Carol starring George C Scott – it was the home Scrooge’s warm-hearted nephew.
Christmas eve garden brawl
In 1870 four “well-dressed gentlemanly looking men” appeared in court charged with knocking at the door of a Clerkenwell gentleman without lawful excuse and then assaulting him.
The victim Thomas William Boyden told the court it was three o’clock on a Monday morning and he was smoking in his greenhouse.
The rest of the family had gone to bed, when there was a rapping sound at the door, and a loud noise that he “could not call singing”. He opened the door and saw the four defendants, Richard Dennison, Edward Hooten, Henry Breban and Stewart Tresillian, with two other men, in full singing voice, and told them to clear off. He threatened to fetch his revolver.
As they moved away to the gate they started slamming it and making more noise – to which Boyden, as promised, fetched his revolver. A brawl followed until nearby police stepped in and there was much finger pointing.
In court the defendants said they were often in the habit of carol singing and that night they had been hospitably treated at most places they’d visited – except at the house of Boyden. They believed the gun was loaded and wrestled it off of him. Despite this their actions were branded “disgraceful” and they were fined.
Complaints about the carol singing nuisance
Many people dreaded the oncoming Christmas carol season, taking to the papers many weeks before-hand to air their trepidation at the youths who, as this reader writes in October 1861, will be getting… “their various mouths to every hinge, key-hole, letter-box, and opening of the doors and roar out in miserable discord (often two opposing companies together) names and events which all should hold sacred, the next moment running away with ribald jests, or cursing, swearing and quarrelling over the coppers they have received, as a tax to the nuisance”.
Just the year before another letter to the same paper called for the Christmas Carol Nuisance to be “entirely obliterated”.
In early December 1892 One Who Suffers called on readers of the Surrey Comet not to encourage it too soon before Christmas by giving children money; “We shall then be spared the infliction of being tortured with all sorts of noises, bad language, &c, for weeks before Christmas”.
One commentator in the Essex Newsman in January 1887 said that the singers’ antics were “little better than rowdy burlesque drunken or half drunken orgies”…
This nuisance continued well into the 20th Century as highlighted by this disgruntled Shrewsbury resident calling himself “A LOVER OF PEACE” who claimed gangs of boys and men were infesting the streets who make the dark hours hideous with festive howling. He claimed he’d personally witnessed the gangs fighting,
Shot dead in Larkhall Lane!
In 1886 a large group of well-oiled carol singers thought they’d give their favourite landlord a vocal blast of festive cheer.
They didn’t expect him to blast back, but he did…with a gun.
The bullet buried itself into the chest of one of the Christmas crooners
As Scrooge said, and this article concurs, Christmas; “A poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December!”
One who cares
Not everyone hated them though, as evident from this letter below in which the writer appeals to a previous correspondent from Hereford to show a little more of a charitable attitude.
“If “Braithwaite Road” had a little of the milk of human kindness he would not speak so scornfully of poor children infesting his quiet neighbourhood, and would not desire carol singing to be put down by the strong arm of the law.”
These days British streets are free from the nuisance of carol singers, instead you’re much more likely to hear complaints about troublesome youths doing trick-or-treat during Halloween.
However, I for one would welcome more carol singers at my door at this time of year. It’s fair to say a festive warbling would provide some light relief for everyone in these turbulent times – but fingers crossed it wouldn’t turn ugly.