The Manchester Christmas miracle
For Christmas dinner he gave them beef, potatoes, a loaf, two ounces of tea, half a pound of butter — and a tin of mustard
The weather was so cold in Manchester on Christmas Eve in 1891 that well-to-do families went ice skating on the lake at Belle Vue Zoo.
At just 2ft-deep, the water was safer than the frozen River Irwell at Salford where crowds of skaters would risk everything as jittery policemen watched from the banks.
The Manchester Courier reported how ironmongers’ shop windows in Market Street had for weeks been “filled with skates with gleaming blades” – and how young couples had prayed that the ice at the zoo would be declared safe.
Across town, Miss Isa Bowman was performing as Cinderella in the Theatre Royal, while Dick Wittington and His Cat were raising the roof at the Prince’s down the road.
At the Free Trade Hall, performers including Mr Ffrangcon Davies were making final preparations for their traditional Christmas Day performance of the Messiah.
And, over at the St James’s Hall, on Oxford Street, the popular Blue Hungarian Band was tuning up for a special concert.
“The officials at the post office have had an exceedingly busy time in preparing for the delivery of those beautiful expressions of love and friendship, and good feeling which are the most delightful features of the season,” the Courier said.
Its editor noted how Christmas would be spent “in comfortable, homely fashion”.
But as night began to fall that most special of evenings, another scene was unfolding in a less comfortable part of the city where families had no money for skates or a trip to the theatre.
At the Charter Street Ragged School, in Angel Meadow, the legendary superintendent Tommy Johnson was hard at work preparing food parcels for the poor.
An appeal he had been running for weeks in the pages of the Courier had ensured he could help 270 of Manchester’s most desperate families that night.
So they could have a Christmas dinner, he gave each of them 4lbs of beef, 7lbs of potatoes, a 4lb loaf, two ounces of tea, a pound of sugar, half a pound of butter — and a tin of mustard.
For those without light or heat, he also handed out a small bag of coal.
As dawn broke on Christmas Morning, Tommy was already up to supervise another major charity operation in that small corner of Manchester away from the gas-lit shops in Market Street.
He supervised, in an old cotton mill, the cooking of breakfast for more than one thousand boys and girls.
And as each of them left afterwards to go home, he handed them something they could only have dreamt about — a little toy or a dolly.
“Christmas for these children is always a happy time,” Mr Johnson wrote of his work that Christmas Day.
“And it is always looked forward to with great anxiety and pleasure, for on Christmas Morning, upwards of 1,100 of the poorest and most needy are gathered together when a breakfast is provided.
“Dolls, toys, clothing and Christmas cards are given to all, every house, room and garret in the neighbourhood is visited, and every poor creature made the recipient of some kindly Christmas greeting,” he said.
Over the course of that freezing cold winter, before the Big Abel bell in Manchester Town Hall’s clock tower heralded the start of 1892, the miracle worker Tommy Johnson had given a staggering 50,000 hot meals to the poor people of Angel Meadow and handed out 622 new pairs of clogs.
“Mr Johnson has done much to make life happier and care less heavy in this locality of squalor and wretchedness,” the editor of the Courier wrote.
Happy Christmas — and thank you! 🎄
Just a note to say a big thank you for all your support this year. You are one of nearly 700 early adopters of this newsletter who have signed up so far.
Your support and encouragement is really helping me to keep the newsletter going.
I’m going to take a break over Christmas and then continue writing in the new year — when I’ll have some exciting things to tell you about.
I’m in the process of setting up a genealogy service that will be aimed at helping Mancunians research their ancestors.
It will include the courses I mentioned earlier in the year and hopefully, there’ll be some tours of Angel Meadow too.
First off, I’m offering some one hour Zoom sessions to help people bust their Mancunian family history brick walls.
It will include me researching any documents you want me to look at beforehand and a follow up report on anything I’ve found.
It might make late Christmas present for someone interested in family history.
For full details of what it entails, and to buy a ticket, visit the shop on my Buy Me a Coffee page:
I hope you have the a very happy and peaceful Christmas and New Year.