People have made predictions about the what the future may hold since time immemorial and while Christmas may seem a particularly apt time of year to make such declarations - as one year dies and another prepares to spring forth - it’s not often you come across a historical account which turns out to be accurate.
Such is the case, however, with the Yorkshire Evening Post’s annual yuletide supplement of 1934, otherwise known as the Christmas Number.
At a time when newspapers were still produced in black and white, these one-off supplements wore radiant full-colour jackets with romantic Victorian-inspired cheerful painted scenes that spoke of excitement, adventure and hinted at glowing fires in the snug confines of snow-bound homes.
They were packed full of rousing stories, recipes, trips down memory lane, puzzles, magic tricks and party games and were bedecked with a mesmerising array of advertisements selling everything from diamond rings to herbal tea.
Nestled between a full page advert for Ovaltine - ‘everybody’s beverage for health this winter’ - and Barker’s Pianos, of Albion Place, Leeds (the cost of a Challen grand piano was stated as 65 guineas) was one such article.
Entitled What 2034 May Bring by Arthur Lamsley, it beginst: “A hundred years hence science will have given mankind wonders of material progress”: something of a general statement but what follows is far more specific. It goes on: “The family reunion… will be far more possible. Sons and daughters scattered all over the world will be able to go home for Christmas by a super air-liner and journey from the other side of the world in two days by travelling at the comparatively slow speed of only three-hundred miles an hour.
“Electricity a hundred years hence will contribute to the festive side of Christmas, especially for the young… it will revolutionise old forms of enjoyment. Homely entertainments will all reveal the electric touch and the intriguing wonder of magic, so dear at this season to the young mind, will be made a thousand times more thrilling by the service of electricity.”
If one is not already put in mind of smartphones and tablets, then this next sentence may well confirm it for you.
“A hundred years hence, through the aid of science, Christmas will even bring… through our more sensitive home wireless or universal telephone, which will have extended its area to other worlds of life.”
If only the author had known how prophetic his words were. For the ‘universal telephone’ as he calls it, sits at the centre of the digital revolution.
Still, he was perhaps wide of the mark in predicting this would enable us to converse with the dead and to ‘listen in’ on historical events because: “bearing in mind no sound is ever lost in space.”
Either that, or he was even more before his time.
The piece concludes, however, on a sentimental note: “If we were sure this would happen in a hundred years time - that at last generations to follow us would live in a world of goodwill and good neighbourhood, then science and its multifarious wonder would be amongst the most blessed gifts of Christmas. The idea of the first Christmas, to create a Christmas of humanity, is still a dream but science a hundred years hence has the power of turning it into a living reality.”
The adverts in these supplements also have a story to tell - they lack the gloss, the nod and wink of modern advertising campaigns, which, let’s face it can often seem irrelevant to the product being sold (examples abound: M&S, Sainsbury’s, John Lewis…) and yet they carry with them a sense of romance and warmth.
One, for Melbourne Ales proclaims its product is “beer brewed the good-old fashioned way, but under modern conditions”.
An advert for the Skipton Building Society describes the lender as a “snug sanctuary” and even lists its assets as £4m and reserve fund of £160,000. It sits alongside adverts for cream from Provincial Dairies and antidepressant ‘Eezit’, which claims “depression will be banished by taking but one Eezit tablet. Also for colds, flu and headaches.”
Long before texts, church bells rang the news
The old supplements yet have more treasure. While we may consider the ‘universal telephone’ and all it entails a distinctly modern invention, there is a pre-war equivalent which parallels the ‘text message’.
In the YEP’s Christmas Number 1937, an article discussed the primitive (and incidentally wireless) form of mass broadcast - that of church bells, which had more uses than you might think.
“Church bells,” it said, “were the first broadcast media, centuries before Marconi was born, to make the world one great sounding board.”
It went on: “People who lived near abbey churches could always learn as much as was necessary from the air about the rhythmic strides of the enemy.
“The canonical hours observed by the monks were struck on the bells in the church tower. No licence was charged for this.
The curfew which “tolled the knell of the parting day” reminded people to put out their fires and say a prayer - a curfew bell was still sounded in 1937 in some Yorkshire villages. The summons of soldiers to arms to deal with emergencies was also communicated through the ringing of church bells.
The so-called pancake bell was also still sounded (in Holbeach, Lincolnshire) to remind people to go to confession before the season of Lent, while the ‘gleaning bell’ was always rung at the end of harvest - it took its name from the practise of a portion of harvested wheat being left for the poor to ‘glean’ or ‘gather’. Another bell, called the ‘passing bell’ was rung in a village when someone was on the eve of death, while the ‘death knell’ was also still in use in some parts in 1937. Based upon the number of rings, listeners could determine if the deceased was a man or woman and from their local knowledge precisely who it was.
Then there was the ‘Banns bell’, which was rung to alert people to the engagement of a couple, while the tenor bell issued news that an apprentice had done his time - both bits of local gossip. The practise of ringing church bells for news goes back to the Seventh Century.
‘Oatmeal cakes were hung up in the dust’
The writer of the ‘Christmas of the future’ article, Arthur Lamsley, also recalled a story told to him as a boy by his great grandmother, who was alive in 1815 - the year Napoleon was beaten at the Battle of Waterloo - and he recounted one of her tales about how harsh the winter was that year. At the time, Britain and northern Europe was in the grip of a mini-ice age, which brought cooler than usual winters.
“It was after the Bonyparte [sic], things was very bad. Food was dear, harvests were that poor it cost us two or three pounds for a sack of flour.
“We in Wickersley [South Yorkshire] felt the pinch. A poor sort of Christmas it was going to be.
“We bought a sack of flour that year for £3 10s and I’ve never seen anything like it. Made from sprouting wheat. We tried to make bread with it but, eh dear, you could bake loaves black and yet the inside still ran out.
“There was a biscuit bakery along the road just then, where they made hard ship’s biscuits. So what did we do but take along the rest of the flour and get ‘em turned into biscuits, hard as tiles but not bad fare when you’re hungry. We had some on Christmas Day, there wasn’t a bit of bread in the house, even for stuffing. For did we manage to find a skinny fowl that you maybe wouldn’t care to eat. We dropped her in the pot and had her for Christmas dinner.
“Beef helped out. But it wasn’t like your fresh young meat today. Not much freezing and preserving then, lad. When a young bullock was killed we cut him up and salted him and then hung him from the roof until he went black and was hard as nails.
“Then oatmeal cakes. We made them about the end of October and put them on a rack that drew up to the ceiling. There they stayed until Christmas, among the dust but a bit of dust never hurt nobody.
“And there were no nuts and no figs and no wine. Just a few apples in treacle that Christmas and hard biscuits instead of pudding, with a drop of home-brewed.”