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An Old Arbury Christmas... The Mysterious Tramp, A New Peg Rug And 'Poor Puss'...

Richard and Amelia Brett with their dog, Nell, at the Manor Farm, Arbury Road, 1913. The photograph was taken in the farm's 'Park' meadow - later the site of Manor School/North Cambridge Academy. The Bretts usually had family photographs taken in the 'Park'. 'Arbury' and 'Arbury Field' (on the other side of the Manor Farm 'Drive'/Campkin Road) were cultivated, but the 'Park' was a grassed meadow - sometimes used for grazing.

Looking back at how Christmas was celebrated at the Manor Farm on Arbury Road, over one hundred years ago... 

The Bretts, Richard and Amelia, lived at the Foreman's/horse keeper's house at the Manor Farm from 1886 to the early 1920s. They had eleven children and many grandchildren. 

Richard and Amelia were married at St Andrew's Church, Impington, on 19/10/1880, and moved to King's Hedges a couple of years later. King's Hedges was a fifty eight acre farm, north of what is now King's Hedges Road. In those days, the road was a much-shorter unnamed private farm track, simply leading across the railway (now the guided busway) to the farm. See the map at the bottom of this post.

In 1886, the Bretts left King's Hedges and moved to the Manor Farm, which was north of Arbury Road. Their house was opposite the farm's Stable Field (now Arbury Town Park), facing sideways, and beside the farm's Park meadow (Manor School/North Cambridge Academy). 

Extract from a forthcoming book:

Some months before Christmas each year, Amelia liked to start work on a new peg rug. She would gather together old clothes that she had saved, all things made of thick materials, and cut them into small strips. These she would peg through a large oblong or square of canvas with a hook. Each piece of material was tied in a secure knot at the back and, gradually, colourful patterns were built up.

The end result was always a fine new peg rug to place in front of the fire. To Amelia, the festive season would not have seemed quite right without one! As Christmas drew near, she would “set to” and clean her house “from top to bottom”!

On Christmas Eve Day, Richard and Amelia's eldest daughter, Elizabeth Jones, and her family, would emerge from their house in Trafalgar Street. There would be an air of excitement, for that day was Christmas shopping day.

'They’d make their way up Victoria Avenue,' Mrs Muriel Wiles, Richard and Amelia's granddaughter, recalled in 1985. 'The meat was bought from Waller’s and all sorts of lovely things to eat from Finch’s, next door. Everything was taken up to Manor Farm in a wheelbarrow - with the Christmas tree on top!'

The decorations were put up at the farmhouse on Christmas Eve. 'Uncle Albert used to save all his old wallpaper sample books so we could make paper chains from them!' Mrs Wiles recalled.

Amelia always prepared a special supper for Christmas Eve. Her family would assemble to feast on cakes, rabbit pies, a whole tongue and numerous other treats. The big dining table would be absolutely laden!

On Christmas Day, Richard and Amelia’s grandchildren got their presents. Their eyes would light up as they were each presented with a Christmas stocking, usually containing such delights as a mouth organ, a bugle, a bag of sweets and a puzzle.

Young aunts Cissie and Lily would chip in with ordinary stockings, loaded with nuts and an apple.

The day would pass with food aplenty, carols round the piano and games. After a huge tea, everybody would retire to the 'best room' and the lamp would be lit. Amelia would then go upstairs for a well-earned rest while the children played and the adults chatted or dozed.

After a while, each year the same, there would come a knock at the front door. One of the adults would go to answer it and then, as the children looked on, usher in a shabby figure dressed in dirty old trousers, jacket, muffler and cap. 'Could you have pity on a poor old tramp at Christmas?' he would beg.

The tramp was always welcomed and invited to sit by the fire for a warm. He would be presented with a plate of things to eat and something to drink, and food would be put in a bag for him to take away with him and eat 'on the road'. He would then thank everybody, most humbly, and leave.

The children sometimes wondered about the tramp who called at Manor Farm each and every Christmas, but was invisible for the rest of the year. Many years later, Mrs Wiles, chatting to her mother, remembered him. 'Just think, he only passed this way once a year,' she mused. 'I wonder who he was?'

Her mother looked at her in amazement. 'Why, don’t you know who it was?!' she exclaimed. 'It was your gran!'

A highlight of Christmas Night at Manor Farm was a game of 'Poor Puss'. For this, Amelia would get down on her hands and knees and pretend to be a cat. 

'She would meow most pitifully, spit and hiss like cats fighting, and contort her face into the most comical expressions imaginable!' said Mrs Wiles.

The children had to sit straight-faced, perhaps giving 'Puss' an occasional sympathetic pat, and say, 'poor puss, poor puss'. Anybody that laughed was 'out' and the child that kept a straight face to the end won an apple as a prize. It was well deserved!

Richard always enjoyed the festive season, but he kept a sharp eye on the Christmas cake. As noted earlier, Richard had a passion for cake - and Christmas cake in particular!

When the object of his desire was placed on the table, he would sigh, as if over a work of art: 'Look at that! It’s far too beautiful to eat! Let’s all have a look at it, then put it away.'

The adults present were not fooled for a moment, but it was the festive season and they'd had loads to eat already, so Richard was indulged and the cake put away in the cupboard. Richard enjoyed large slabs of Christmas cake well into January. They livened up his 'docky' - his midday meal which he ate out in the fields - a treat!

'Grandad Brett worked very hard indeed,' said Mrs Wiles. 'He worked on the farm and got a smallholding when it was sold to the County Council, was horse keeper, started up and ran a huge piggery, kept goats... he never stopped working. So nobody minded his yearly treat!'

Old Arbury, around 1900. The Bretts' house is marked with an 'X'.


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