OXFORD shopkeepers were determined to spread Christmas cheer in 1914, despite the hardships caused by the start of war.
Street decorations were in short supply – even Father Christmas appears to have been absent. But shops were gaily decorated, with displays to tempt shoppers.
It was, as one optimistic trader put it, business as usual, Kaiser or no Kaiser.
Webbers in High Street took out full-page advertisements in the Oxford Journal Illustrated, one of the city’s three newspapers, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, telling customers that it had “gifts at every counter – not a few, but thousands to select from”.
- Webber’s Christmas advertisement in the Oxford Journal Illustrated
They included a full range of clothing, including the popular Royal Worcester women’s corsets costing from 3s 11d to 14s 11d (20p to 75p).
Boswell’s in Cornmarket Street offered ladies’ bags between 2s 9d and three guineas (14p and £3.15), while you could get the watch you always wanted from the Oxford Goldsmiths Company nearby.
Toy shops were keen to tap into the market, telling customers: “Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without toys.”
The Arcade Toy Stores offered cars, dolls, soldiers, fluffy animals, trains and much more. Not to be outdone, E de la Mare insisted it was ‘THE Oxford toy merchant’.
The Cash Drapery Stores in St Ebbe’s was said to have one of the best patriotic tableaux, featuring Britannia and her allies and the soldiers of the future, the scouts.
- Detail from a patriotic tableau at the Cash Drapery Stores in St Ebbe’s, Oxford – Britannia surrounded by her allies, and the future soldier, the Boy Scout
Despite the war, there was plenty of entertainment in Oxford, with not one but two pantomimes at the New Theatre in George Street to cheer everyone up.
The first was Robinson Crusoe which “played to overflowing audiences on Boxing Day”, the newspaper reported. “It is a dainty and pretty show and should have a prosperous tour. There are lots of references to the Kaiser, including many laughable jokes, one of the best of which is about the Oxford tramlines which, the audience was told, have been bought by the German emperor to make iron crosses.”
It was to be followed early in the New Year by Sinbad the Sailor.
Other entertainment was laid on not only to raise spirits, but to bring in money to buy gifts for active and wounded soldiers and for other good causes.
The boys of South Oxford Schools made bonbons containing sweets and cigarettes for injured soldiers, while a concert at the village hall at Kingham, near Chipping Norton, raised £3 12s 9d (£3.64) to send comforts to troops in the Oxfordshire Yeomanry.
Children at St Clement’s infants’ school in Oxford staged a play called The Man in the Moon, in aid of Princess Mary’s fund for Christmas gifts for soldiers and sailors at the front.
Meanwhile, The Flitterbys, described as a clever party of children, gave “delightful entertainment” at Ruskin College, Oxford, in aid of the local motor ambulance fund and the Waifs and Strays Society.
- A bonbon made by boys from South Oxford Schools for wounded soldiers, usually filled with sweets and cigarettes
Another popular event was the weekly performance by the brass and bugle band of the 4th Reserve Battalion, Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, in the Oxford University Parks on Thursday afternoons, which “delights the many people who assemble to hear them”.
One casualty of the war, however, was the annual tea party and entertainment for aged widows and spinsters in the city. It had to be cancelled because the town hall was being used as a military hospital.