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Dear Diary, Merry Christmas!

Passenger diaries reveal what Christmas was like on board the ss Great Britain in the 1800s


When you think of Christmas in Britain your mind conjures up all sorts of images, of presents and Santa Claus, of turkey for dinner and Christmas crackers. All of these familiar festive tropes, and many more, were invented and popularised by the Victorians. In fact, before the 1800s, the festive season had been a rather sombre affair. It’s hard to imagine Christmas now being any different, and for better or worse, we have the Victorians to thank.

The same year that saw the launch of the ss Great Britain – 1843 – also saw the launch of one of the most popular Christmas traditions: the Christmas card. Sir Henry Cole, inventor and promoter of the 1851 Great Exhibition had the bright idea to commission the artist John Callcott Horsley, who by sheer coincidence happened to be Brunel’s brother-in-law, an accomplished painter who also painted Brunel’s portrait, to produce a series of cards bearing season’s greetings and an image of a family raising a toast to the recipient’s good health. These were the first Christmas cards to be sent and were the beginning of a tradition which still persists today.

So, the Victorians changed the way that Christmas would be celebrated for generations to come. But what about those passengers who found themselves on board the ss Great Britain during the festive season?

A number of diaries in the Brunel Institute’s collection reference what life was like on board the ss Great Britain on Christmas Day. Thanks to these valuable documents we are able to shine a spotlight on a whole host of daily activities on board Brunel’s ship. It is certainly clear that it must have felt very strange not to be celebrating by an open fire with snow falling outside, but in the sweltering tropics instead:

It was a beautiful morning the Blue Sea as calm as a Mill pond and not a cloud to be seen. And this was the Xmas I had spent in the summer time for it was quite as warm as the month of August.

 – W.D Waters, Voyage 31, 1867

Even when so far from home there was still jollity to be had and celebrating to be done. It was Christmas after all and the Victorians were not ones to shirk a cause for celebration. With plenty of drinking and merriment, marking the day was taken seriously. Although there is no mention in the diary extracts of presents and other Christmas traditions, there was plenty of feasting. All passengers, even those in steerage, were given extra rations. Some speak of Champagne, pickled pork, preserved salmon and plum duff, whereas others are a little more modest:

We have this day had extra allowance of beef and pudding and a glass of rum each.

William Henry Griffiths, Voyage 18, 1859
 

As is almost a Christmas tradition itself nowadays, passengers on the ss Great Britain had the tendency to indulge a little too much. The diary extracts speak of scuffles, altercations and all sorts of rowdiness. Although, some of those passengers were more a danger to themselves than to others:

One of these sleeping in my room came in that drunk that in trying to get into his birth[sic] which was at the top of all he fell upon his head. I only wonder that he did not kill himself.

– W.D Waters, Voyage 31, 1867

There were plenty of revelries to be had, but the importance of the day was not entirely lost. Most of the diary entries for Christmas Day mention services held on the poop deck and take the time to remember the meaning of Christmas. Some passengers seem to feel more can be done though, as Chief Steward John Campbell writes in 1868:

Oh that Christmas days were more wisely spent. More love for Jesus and our fellow men; less love for self and selfish gratification.