A Glimpse of Christmas Past
By Lynne Burlingham
This article was originally published in the December 2004 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
Henry Solly 1813-1903
Some time ago, looking through some of my father’s family history notes, to my surprise I came across a reference to a book written by a Henry Solly, These Eighty Years, or, The Story of an Unfinished Life, 2 volumes, Simpkin, Marshall & Co. Ltd., London, 1893.
More out of idle curiosity than anything, I checked the catalogue of the Library where I then worked and, much to my surprise, discovered there was actually a copy of the book in its store. Needless to say, I wasted no time in borrowing it and I have had it on loan again several times since! The book, especially the first volume, is full of detail about his early childhood and school days as well as the family, and provides a fascinating glimpse into the life of one particular, well-to-do branch of the Solly family in the 19th century. The second volume is more concerned with his later life as a Unitarian Minister, although there are some snippets of family information.
Henry was a descendant of Stephen Solly of Pedding, Ash-next-Sandwich in Kent, and his wife Elizabeth Hougham. One of Henry’s ancestors moved to London in the early part of the 18th century. Henry himself was the grandson of Isaac Solly of London (d.1802) and his wife Elizabeth Neal. He was born on 17 November 1813 at his father’s business town house in St. Mary Axe, London, the youngest child of Isaac Solly of Leyton, Essex (d.1853) and his wife Mary Harrison. There were ten children, one of whom died before Henry was born and two others before he was eight years old. The family were Protestant Dissenters and, in time, Henry became a Unitarian Minister and Social Reformer, a founder of the Working Mens’ Club and Institution, the Charity Organisation Society and the Garden City movement.
There are a number of web sites, which cover the later life of Henry Solly including:
With Christmas in the offing (at the time of writing!), it seemed appropriate to select from the book some of Henry’s reminiscences relating to Christmas in his childhood and teens.
The first item to catch my eye includes Henry’s description of his grandmother, Elizabeth Neal. ‘I can just recollect old Mrs. Solly, as a stately and rather severe old lady, attired in a magnificent yellow silk brocade, as she appeared at Leyton House on the Christmas day when I was five years old, and was led up to her to receive the golden guinea [probably worth around £40 in today’s money?!], which she gave to all her numerous grandchildren every Christmas day till her death. Unfortunately for me, being the youngest of my father’s family, she died before another Christmas day came round. The good lady had, however, given away a considerable number of guineas by that time for she had five sons and seven daughters; all but one married, and most of them having several children’.
Elsewhere in the book Henry says ‘…the first Christmas Day I can remember, when I was just six years old, and which recalls memories of the bright glow of the fire that evening in the dining room, of all the happy faces of bothers and sisters, father and mother, and domestic servants; of the lights in the large hall, and how one of my brothers caught me up, swung me on to his shoulder and went capering round the hall and dining-room to my infinite delight. And then came the grand event of the evening – an exhibition of the Magic Lantern, which all the servants were invited to behold. Ah, that was a never-to-be-forgotten wonder and rapture! Equalled only by the first sight of a real play, when I was a school-boy.
I attempted to reproduce that joy to others in after years, but to my intense disappointment, the whole affair went as flat as ditch-water, and ended in a fiasco. The reason was not apparent to me then, just in my teens, but many of us are slow to learn that we cannot put back the clock, or enjoy over again the delights of childhood when we have “gone forward”. And, in this particular case, I had no younger brothers and sisters; had provided no “little people” of any kind as spectators, only the domestics and their friends, summoned from their Christmas party in the Servants’ Hall.
Among the latter was a pretty fair-haired graceful young girl, the daughter of my mother’s former maid, who had come with her parents to the servants’ festivities, and who gave me kindly and efficient help in preparing that unlucky Magic Lantern exhibition. True, she with difficulty repressed some suspicious tendencies to mirth, when a serious and attentive demeanour would have been more suitable to the performance, and at length, to my great astonishment and regret, she exploded with uncontrollable laughter at the final catastrophe. As, however, I felt she had great provocation, and really looked very charming, I forgave her, all the more readily because there were the customary Christmas delights of round games at cards awaiting me with a happy family party in the drawing-room…’
From one of the chapters on his school days comes this reminiscence. ‘Before closing this school-period, I should not omit mentioning being taken to Drury Lane Theatre, in one of the Christmas holidays, to see Sheridan’s celebrated play of “The Critic”, with a wonderfully strong cast – Liston, Matthews, and Farren, the three finest comedians of that or perhaps any period on the English stage. I fear, however, I was hardly worthy of the privilege of witnessing the performance, being too young and ‘uncultured’ to understand all the polished wit and humour of the piece without explanations. But I was immensely delighted with the sight of Liston (after he had been satisfactorily killed in the tragedy, the rehearsal of which the author and his friends were supposed to have come to witness and criticise), rolling himself up in the carpet on which he had just died, over and over, all the way up the stage, amid shouts of laughter from all of us juveniles.’
‘During that Christmas vacation of 1828-9, I was standing in the City-road, with a school-fellow (whom I had gone to visit), when he pointed to a great lumbering vehicle, drawn by three horses, coming from the City (and which looked to me like a huge and gaily-painted hearse), saying “Have you seen this new concern?” It was “Shillibeer’s” omnibus, just started – the first ever beheld in London. But when I rode on one, seeing a young fellow standing on the step outside (just as a boy, called a “cad”, used to stand or hang on behind the Paddington stage-coach, and who let people in and out of the said coach), I addressed that young man by the same title of “cad”, to his great disgust; whereby I learned that the industrial classes were rising a step in the world, and that, thenceforth, I was to call the omnibus attendant a conductor, and not a cad.’
‘The last Christmas holidays before leaving Hove School were spent in London (with a few days’ visit to Leyton, for popping at field-fares and skating), my father having taken a house for the winter at the corner of Harley Street and Cavendish Square, with the view, which he and my mother had much at heart, of giving their elder children, now grown up, the advantages and pleasure of London Society for a few months.
During these same holidays I was given the great enjoyment of access to a private gymnasium in the neighbourhood, which my mother obtained for me, as I had not the usual run of garden and fields. A ticket to hear one of Faraday’s delightful winter lectures courses of juvenile lectures, at the royal Institution, was also a great treat. It was no little delight exploring all the maze and labyrinth of streets (“Oxford Road” was only just beginning to be called a street), and the Soho Bazaar etc; but it was the books, and the grand evening parties in which I shyly mingles with some amount of wonder and awe for an hour or two before bed-time, that afforded me supreme delight.’
Finally, I couldn’t resist including this amusing anecdote totally unrelated to Christmas! In another recollection of his childhood Henry says ‘The door of my mother’s boudoir opened on to a landing place, in the upper part of the large entrance hall, round which, over the broad oak staircase, were hung various ancestral portraits. To one of these a scornful looking pale-faced lady, in a green dress, who confronted me whenever I came on the landing, I had, as a child, taken an especial dislike; and having been given a little bow and arrows, when about six years old, I resolved at last to utter my antipathy in unmistakable terms.
Accordingly, one day, when all the family had gone to town, I aimed an arrow at the unhappy lady’s heart, and on their return from London it was soon observed, sticking in the picture. Fortunately it had missed the intended victim herself, but, needless to say, I was severely reprimanded. Yet, when asked what could have induced me to commit such an atrocious attack upon a harmless and respected ancestress, I had no defence to give, in the midst of my penitential confessions, except that “the poor lady always looked so cross at me”, an answer which provoked, from my mother, almost as much amusement and astonishment as anger.
My punishment was that the arrow was to be left sticking in the picture for two or three months as a testimony against my misconduct, a sentence which I felt rather severe until I got used to it’.
I wonder what has become of that portrait – does it still exist – and, if so, does it still bear the scar of that occasion?
Return to The Sole Society Home Page