This year’s festive tweet was a little different, I’d come across the poem while researching something entirely different.
I’ve been working my way through Juliet Barker’s magisterial history of the Brontës, more as a way of understanding life in late Hanoverian England, and when I don’t understand something, I follow it up.
Now, much the early life of the Brontë siblings revolves around school, either as pupils or teachers, or as tutors to children of the gentry and that lead me to wonder exactly how common schools were, especially schools for girls, in the early part of the nineteenth century.
To do this I looked at the adverts for schools in English language newspapers in Welsh Newspapers Online between 1804 and 1843 – the dates are arbitrary, 1804 is the start of the collection, 1843 simply because it was after many of the Chartist riots of the late 1830’s and early 1840’s and society was much as it had been in the Regency.
There was no real railway network, meaning people would not travel long distances, and newspapers were still intensely local. (For example, when Charlotte Brontë travelled to Bridlington with her friend Ellen in 1839, the only part of the journey from Haworth that was done by rail was the journey from Leeds to York.)
Outside of the coal mining and iron working areas around Swansea, Cardiff and Merthyr Tydfil, society was still conservative.
Newspapers would have been expensive, and each would have sold a few thousand copies at most. And they would have been targeted at the English speaking gentry, rather than the Welsh peasantry, who were probably mostly monoglot Welsh speakers.
So, to school adverts, especially schools for young ladies.
The sheer number of adverts makes it clear there was considerable competition for pupils, as in the advert from the Cambrian in 1841
The first thing to notice is the emphasis on the healthy aspect of the school’s location – the proprietors did not want their charges going sick for the simple reason that it would be bad for business. It’s also interesting that they mention sea bathing as an option.
Sea bathing was very much a thing in Regency Wales – a search for the term brings up innumerable adverts for both sea bathing establishments – essentially a hotel with a private beach and bathing machines, and houses for rent for the summer in locations such as Oystermouth and Tenby which emphasis their proximity to sea bathing beaches and resorts.
The other thing that come out from the adverts is the importance of quarter days – the days when rents and bills came due – hence ‘Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year’, Christmas being one of the quarter days, so as well as a time of celebration is was a time to settle that quarter’s bills, or indeed move to a new property.
The poem was Christmas Bills was lifted by the Glamorgan Monmouth and Brecon Gazette from the 1837 edition of the Comic Almanack, which was published between 1835 and 1843.
(A compilation version of the annual is available on Google Books and contributors include William Makepeace Thackeray, Albert Smith, Gilbert Abbott À Beckett, Horace Mayhew. Henry Mayhew with illustrations by George Cruikshank.
It’s clear, however, that people, or the gentry at least, did have fun at Christmas, with adverts for balls and recitals, meaning that it was not all bills and invoices.