By The London Historian
Most of us will have walked past Finsbury Square and seen the city workers quaffing their wine on the grass in the summer, or the silver haired folk playing bowls dressed in white. What is less easy to notice is the ornate stone drinking fountain adorning the south-east corner of the square. The grimy, unloved, relic is not just a fountain though. It depicts the rags-to-riches story of a Victorian family done-good, giving back to society and changing the face of Christmas forever.
Now, Christmas as we know it is a relatively modern invention. For thousands of years man got by without decorations, wrapping paper, the last minute rush for gifts, turkey bloat and reruns of Only Fools and Horses (shock horror, I know!). The annual celebration even predates the little man’s birth himself – Jesus Christ. The Pagans always celebrated the Winter Solstice and the Romans kindly fitted their plans around that when they rewrote the calendar. Evergreen trees were incorporated in the festivities to ward off those evil spirits and encourage the return of Spring. William the Conqueror had a Christmassy coronation in 1066AD. But, it was those canny Victorians who really dug deep to bring in the festive cheer. Let’s remember that we’re talking about as recently as the last two hundred years. The iconic Christmas tree is not really British at all – we have Ze Germans to thank for it. Queen Victoria’s German mother introduced the idea, but it never really took off beyond Buck Palace. By the time Victoria married her German cousin, the Christmas tree was being used in public and around the houses of the emerging middle classes; doing all they could do in order to feel like minor royalty. London’s most famous Christmas tree, in Trafalgar Square, has been donated by the city of Oslo every year since 1947 as a token of gratitude for British support of Norway in World War Two.
Arguably, it was man about town Charles Dickens who had the greatest impact on the way we see Christmas today. The snowy streets paved in white were inspired by the freak weather, which saw snow fall every Christmas until Charles was eight. The literary giant not only etched Christmas into the public conscience via his novels, it was also romanticised in his weekly periodical ‘All Year Round’ which went into almost painfully minute detail about the table designs, the cards, the gifts, the carols, the food and the Christmas crackers.
The Christmas Cracker was the invention of London-born confectioner Thomas J Smith. Born around 1824, he worked at a sweet shop as a young boy and strived to invent new ways to sell the fondants, pralines and pastilles. During a trip to Paris in 1840 he discovered a sugar almond wrapped in tissue paper, twisted at either end. He brought the idea back to London. The bon-bon was a success and by the following year Tom decided to include a love motto in the wrapper. Business was booming and the young entrepreneur was still looking for improvements. It was whilst he threw a log on the fire that he came up with the idea for the ‘pop’. The crack was introduced, the size was increased, the bon-bon became the Cosaque, the love motto remained (now in the guise of a joke) and a small gift was added. In 1847 the ‘cracker’ was unleashed to the world and was an overnight success. In 1851 Tom Smith was still living in his Goswell Road factory and by 1861, Tom did as most nouveau riche Victorian men did and took his family out of London to the fledgling luxury suburbs. Living in Lower Heath, Hampstead, near to the poet John Keats, and then King Henry’s Road in Primrose Hill, Tom and his family of his wife Martha and six children had made it.
Tom Smith & Co. moved to a larger premises, on Wilson Street off Finsbury Square. Bucking the trend of male dominated workforces Tom Smith employed more than twice as many women than men. His company received a Royal Warrant in 1906 and has provided Christmas crackers to the Royal Household ever since. Thomas’ wife Martha lived as a widow for her final twenty years and grew closer to her sons Thomas, Walter and Henry. Her passing in 1898 prompted the boys to create a fitting memorial to her and the cracker shaped drinking fountain (pictured) was donated to the parish of St. Luke, in which the company was based.
Legend has it that in 1927 a generous, but somewhat forgetful, gentleman wrote to the Company enclosing a diamond engagement ring and a 10 shilling note, as payment for the ring to be put in a special cracker for his fiancée. Unfortunately, he did not enclose an address and never contacted the company again; the ring, letter and 10 shilling note are still in the safe today.
In essence this story is of a working class London boy who pushed through the class system, capitalised on the origins of Christmas during its modern revival, changed Christmas forever and whose family’s legacy left Londoners with the gift of clean water during a time of disease and poverty. So next time you don your paper hat, or walk past the forgotten drinking fountain in the corner of Finsbury Square, remember the family of Tom Smith and why the lasting memorial of a son’s love of his mother is London’s ultimate Christmas decoration.
However this is Christmas, excess is never too far away and if you so choose you can buy your very own set of six Tom Smith Indulgent Christmas Crackers for £449.89 including pearl earrings, Bose earphones, Mulberry Keychain and Link of London Cufflinks. (http://www.costco.co.uk). Alternatively, get more traditionally priced Tom Smith & Co Crackers at: http://www.gocrackers.co.uk
If you’re looking for a family way to enjoy the Christmas Cracker then www.notonthehighstreet.com has some ‘make your own’ designs that you and the kids can enjoy, just as the Smiths did 170 years ago.