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Book of the Month

December 2002

Recollections of

Old Christmas

 Performed at Grimston, 24 December 1850
Sp Coll Euing BD1-b.28

And what is more charming than Christmas folly?

For the 2002 Christmas book of the month, we return once more to Victorian festivities. Featuring characters such as Mince-Pie and Baron of Beef, Recollections of Old Christmas is a masque devised by the Irish antiquary Thomas Crofton Croker. Originally performed on Christmas Eve in 1850 by the aristocratic inhabitants of Grimston Hall in Yorkshire, the book is illustrated by charming wood engravings and offers us a nostalgic taste of Christmas past.

Page 7: opening of the masque

In the preface, Croker states that he was asked by Lady Londesborough to write a masque 'as a contribution towards the Christmas revels at Grimston'. As can be seen from the list of characters, the play was to be performed by the younger members of the family, complete with non-speaking roles for the very youngest.

The play opens with 'Young Grimston' (the Hon. Mr. Denison) welcoming the audience to Grimston. He is soon joined by Mince Pie, Plum Pudding and Baron of Beef who indulge in a series of family in-jokes, wordplay and Christmas riddles; amongst the banter is a recipe for a huge mince pie with ingredients including a mammoth six pounds of apples, a three pounds jar of raisins and half a pint of port.  The spirit of old Christmas is then invoked to appear with 'generous heart' to spread 'peace and goodwill'. He is quickly followed by the Wassail-Bowl, about whom all the characters dance and sing. The interlude ends with Young Grimston craving indulgence for the actors and begging 'pardon for the absence of a plot'.

Page 5: dramatis personae

Detail from page 4

Although obviously a piece of whimsy intended for fun, the masque was in fact penned by a serious antiquary and many of its references and characters are  based upon old traditions of Christmas. Indeed, the merriment  of the twelve days of Christmas has encompassed such jesting and acting since medieval times. One of the oldest forms of English folk drama is found in the Mummer's Play, with its simple plot based upon combat, death and resurrection. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, mummers in disguise - also known as 'maskers' and 'guisers' - were a common sight at Christmas. They appeared at private fancy dress parties and were hired to act in dramatic performances at the royal court and in great households. Such entertainments culminated in the lavish courtly masques of the seventeenth century. With no expense spared, these often highly literary productions were truly spectacular and made effective by complicated machinery and special effects.

While our play is dubbed a 'masque' and of this tradition, it is in fact a more homely affair: according to the preface, both the age of the performers and the circumstances of the locality disallowed any 'complicated construction of plot, decorations, or machinery' and therefore the play imitates 'the rude speeches and jests of the village actors or mummers, who still, in many parts of England, go about from house to house, at this season, grotesquely habited, reciting verses quite as rugged and incoherent as those now printed'. In short, the Grimston Masque is to be regarded as  'a piece of mummery'. 

Detail from page 11

Detail from page 12

In spite of its purporting to recollect the 'rude' ancient traditions of Christmas, the sentiments behind this production would appear to be purely Victorian. It conjures up for us the domestic ideal of the nineteenth century festive season - albeit a somewhat privileged example, featuring a wealthy family who not only have plenty of leisure time in which to indulge in amateur dramatics in their mansion, but an author and historian at hand to write (and subsequently publish) a customised play.

At the head of this family was Lord Londesborough, born Albert Conyngham in 1805. Educated at Eton, he had a varied career including spells in the army, the diplomatic service and as a Whig M.P. By the 1840s, however, various speculations had almost brought him to ruin: salvation came when he was bequeathed an immense fortune in 1849 by his maternal uncle, William Joseph Denison - it was in compliance with his uncle's wishes that  he took the surname Denison. His good fortune continued, meanwhile, being raised to the peerage by the title of Baron Londesborough in 1850. 

Denison invested in various properties with his newly acquired wealth, including the purchase of the estate of Grimston Park from Lord Howden. The house had only been built some ten years previously, replacing an earlier building dating from the late 1700s.

engraving of Grimston from S.M.1517

As well as the usual aristocratic interests of racing and horse breeding, Denison was an enthusiastic antiquary; he investigated Anglo-Saxon tumuli, was a fellow of the Royal Society and became president of the British Archaeological Association upon its formation in 1843. With the house at Grimston he inherited a collection of armour and other curiosities, some of which are described in a catalogue produced and described by F.W. Fairholt.  But Denison did not, apparently, enjoy much time at Grimston. He suffered from ill health from 1848 and by 1856 was forced to stay at his villa at Cannes. He died in London in 1860.

Denison married twice: first, Henrietta Maria Forester in 1833, who died in 1841; and secondly, Ursula Lucy Grace - the Lady Londesborough of our play - in 1847. Between the two marriages there were twelve children in all. 

Epilogue (page x)

Detail from page 20

Considering Lord Londesborough's historical dabblings, his acquaintance with the author of the masque, Thomas Crofton Croker, is not surprising. A respected antiquarian and ubiquitous member of nineteenth century learned societies, Croker was a co-founder of the Camden Society and the Percy Society for the publishing of ballads and lyrical pieces. Described by Walter Scott as 'little as a dwarf, keen-eyed as a hawk, and of easy, prepossessing manners' he is now best remembered for his research and publications relating to Irish traditions, myths and legends. However, amongst a varied output of work, he was also responsible for a volume describing  the rings belonging to Lady Londesborough, published in 1853. Croker had in fact sold this collection of rings to the Londesboroughs in 1850, a condition of the purchase being that he should  draw up a catalogue of them 'to facilitate reference to the specimens, and secure, at all events, a record of them'. It was perhaps during the period that Croker was working on this catalogue that he turned his hand to masque production. Certainly, the nature of the play would suggest that he was on fairly intimate terms with the family.

Detail from page vi of index

Croker's scholarly bent, however, is evident even in this supposedly simple piece of frivolity.  The text is scattered with abstruse references. Furthermore, these obscure words and customs are thoroughly discussed and explained in a nine page appendix at the end of the volume. Here, sources such as the Antiquarian repertory and J.O. Halliwell's Nursery rhymes of England are fastidiously cited.

In reading Wassail-Cup's somewhat ponderous speech upon entering the masque, it is impossible not to have the feeling that Croker was slightly guilty of showing off his learning just a little too much at times, cramming in so many antiquated words. Although his delight in etymology is apparent, this was, after all, designed to be an entertainment for children:

Various the ways are in drinking to troul,
But none so brave as the good Wassail-bowl;
Mazer and bombard, and nut proudly borne:
Whiskin and piggin, cruise, noggin, and horn,
(Great swells, and lesser by degrees, 'till small
And in the bounty horn no halfpence fall.)
Jug, bellarmine, can, pot, beaker, and shell,
Black-jack, golden tankard, and thorondell

Detail from frontispiece: 'Wassail Bowl'

Detail from page 14

 Detail from page 15

In spite of the overtones of scholarly pretension in the footnotes and index, the book is considerably enlivened by the inclusion of delightful wood engravings throughout. Although the artist is not credited in the text, at least one of these engravings is signed 'WBS': this is almost certainly the engraver William Bell Scott (1811-1890). In fact, another book known to have been illustrated by Scott - the very same Nursery rhymes of England so beloved by Croker's index - uses several of the same engravings. The depiction of Baron of Beef above, for example, is used to illustrate 'Sing a Song of Sixpence'.

Detail from page 16

The re-use of engravings in this way is not unusual - especially in a private publication such as this where, presumably, production costs would have to have been kept to a minimum. It is possible that Croker made use of other engravings from his other publications in this work - the Christmas Box, an annual gift book from the 1820s edited by Croker, is another likely source for the illustrations.

Opening of pages 16 - 17

Detail from page 22: end of the masque

This then, is a lighthearted and sentimental celebration of Christmas. We can easily forgive the masque's rather creaking verse and meaningless plot in recalling the spirit in which it was originally produced, as a home made play enacted by a family revelling in recently attained financial security.

Thus, we end our book of the month series for 2002 with imagining shadowy Victorian figures declaiming best wishes for the festive season:

With the ivy dark and the glorious laurel,
Say, where is the critic would like to quarrel,
Crowned, as they are, with sharp spears of holly?
And what is more charming than Christmas folly?
Only shew me the man, who at Christmas time
Will not swallow nonsense if put into rhyme.
          So rime - rime,
          Christmas time;
          Let holly
         Crown folly,
     And make us all jolly.

Other works associated with the Londesboroughs:
Thomas Crofton Croker Catalogue of a collection of ancient and mediaeval rings and personal ornaments formed for Lady Londesborough London: Printed for private reference, 1853: Sp Coll S.M. 1517; ; Frederick William Fairholt An illustrated descriptive catalogue, of the collection of antique silver plate, formed by Albert, Lord Londesborough; now the property of Lady Londesborough [London]: Printed for private reference by T. Richards, 1860: Sp Coll S.M. 1518; Frederick William Fairholt Miscellanea graphica: representations of ancient, medieval, and renaissance remains in the possession of Lord Londesborough Sp Coll BD6-a.24

Other works by Thomas Crofton Croker:
The adventures of Barney Mahoney
London: Fisher, Son and Jackson, 1832 (Second edition): Sp Coll Z10-m.19; Edited by TCC The Christmas box : an annual present for children London: William Harrison Ainsworth, 1828 (NB an annual, of which the library only holds issues for 1828-1829) Store AA3-i.11-12; Fairy legends and traditions of the South of Ireland London : John Murray, 1825: Sp Coll Z10-m.14-16; Legends of the lakes: or, sayings and doings at Killarney London, 1829: Sp Coll BG44-k.25-26; Notes on various discoveries of gold plates, chiefly in the south of Ireland London, 1854: Sp Coll Mu5-e.3 and
Sp Coll Mu56-e.16
; The Queen's question queried : a pedantless, philippic production by an Irish barrister at law London: Printed for William Wright, 1820 (Eighty-eighth edition): Sp Coll Mu56-b.2; Researches in the South of Ireland, illustrative of the scenery, architectural remains, and the manners and superstitions of the peasantry. With an appendix, containing a private narrative of the rebellion of 1798  London, 1824: Sp Coll c.2.10

Other works illustrated by William Bell Scott:
Collected chiefly from oral tradition and edited by James O. Halliwell The nursery rhymes of England London, [n.d.] (Sixth edition): Sp Coll BG60-k.14

For a courtly Christmas masque of the seventeenth century, see:
Ben Jonson Hymenaei: or the solemnities of masque, and barriers, magnificently performed on the Eleventh, and Twelfth Nights, from Christmas; at Court: to the auspicious celebrating of the marriage-vnion, between Robert, Earle of Essex, and the Lady Frances, second daughter to the most noble Earle of Suffolke 
London, 1606: Sp Coll Hunterian Co.3.2



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Julie Gardham December 2002