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A Very Different Christmas

A mess deck decorated in the 1930s

It's no great secret that Christmas 2020 is going to be a bit different, which of course got us thinking here at the museum.

Christmas has also been very different over the years for those serving in the Royal Navy.

We did a bit of research to find stories from several different festive seasons through the ages from the 1800s to the mid 1900s.

A Christmas at sea can look very different as you can see from these artefacts from the National Museum of The Royal Navy’s collection.

A Merry Christmas

A Merry Christmas highlights two Christmas Cards from 1875 in our collection.

These two Christmas cards were sent to 'Dear Papa' serving on HMS Discovery during the voyage of Arctic exploration, 1875. One card asks him to bring back 'two bears, a white fox, a few dogs with curly tails and a big bit of the pole'.

A Miserable Christmas

A perfect example of a miserable Christmas was one experienced by George Bedford on the cutter Etna, running down the Channel, heading to West Africa for survey work in 1833.

George said: “Twas a very nasty night, blowing and raining violently, with a heavy sea running, which in our deep state caused us to labour and work very much, and required the pumps to be frequently going, as the water got into our provision bins.  The crew being strangers to the Cutter, were a long time getting her under the topsail, and it was near seven o'clock before the Watch was called, after 'Splicing the Main brace'.   ... We had a most sorry Christmas Day, everything and everybody being wet through, and the motion of the vessel very violent ...”
Taken from the Admiralty Library Manuscript MSS 151 in our collection.

A Victorian Christmas

'Christmas Day.  ... turned out at 5 am Christmas Day - it being my day of duty - felt rather tired.  The ship was fairly dressed with green stuff.  After hearing prayers read by the Captain, we all walked round the lower deck which was well fitted up with chandeliers, flags, mottoes and what was more to the purpose, plum pudding and all other sorts of indigestible stuff.  Before I came off the deck, I think I had tasted pieces of pudding from about sixteen different messes. We then had lunch which was a rather good one ... I then took a stretch off the land for a couple of hours, leaving the deck in charge of Sir Roger Tichborne an enormous stuffed figure made up by the men - and brought aft by the Quartermaster of the Watch - to do duty.'

A Victorian Christmas as enjoyed by Sub-Lieutenant George King-Hall aboard HMS Lord Warden, flagship on the Mediterranean station, 1871.

Christmas in Wartime

When ships were in service at sea there was a limit to Christmas festivities, but the Navy still took the opportunity to celebrate Christmas in a variety of ways.

'Everybody's Sick of It' a programme for the Christmas play aboard HMS Manica, a hired kite ballon ship, in 1916.

Christmas Day menu from the cruiser HMS Jamaica, 1942.  The ship was escorting Russian Convoys and the menu features 'Murmansk Soup' for supper.

A mess deck decorated in the 1930s. Note the model ship on the mess table, portraits of George V and bathing beauties on the walls.

The Admiralty's Christmas telegram of 1943.

Mess deck Christmas carols sung aboard a battleship in the Second World War.

Christmas at Action Stations

War at sea does not stop for Christmas and many actions have been fought over the Christmas period - from the RNAS raid on Cuxhaven in 1914, to the defence of Convoy WS.5A against the cruiser Admiral Hipper in 1940, and most famously the Battle of North Cape in 1943.  Here are two contrasting examples, minor and major:

Operations against New Orleans, December 1814.

Extract from diary kept by Midshipman John Bluett writing of his Christmas when in command of a requisitioned merchant vessel landing troops for operations against New Orleans, 1814.

‘24 December.  The whole expedition being assembled they were again re-embarked, and about 5 o'clock in the evening began to land within 15 miles of New Orleans in a wet swampy ground ... As soon as all the troops were landed I received orders to get under weigh and follow one of the gun boats.

25 December.  Christmas Day was ushered in with a smart gale of wind; I now began to feel the loss of my large anchor, for the little one I was riding by (360lbs) was unable to hold the schooner.  I had the misery to find myself drifting away at the rate of a mile an hour ...  and about three in the morning I struck the ground.'

He then stayed aground with no ship's boat until the 31st when his water stocks were reduced to 3 gallons for 9 men, and he wrote:

'31 December.  I have at length made up my mind.  The attempt is hazardous, but desperate cases require desperate remedies.The Anaconda brig is in sight at anchor 12 miles off, and I intend attempting to reach her on a raft, which I have constructed of the schooner's jib boom, and a plank or two laid across; at one end a table turned bottom upwards to the legs of which are tied my musket and ammunition to keep them dry; two brave fellows have volunteered to accompany me; which with a bottle of water, and some biscuit is all the raft will float with ...

Midshipman Bluett never reached the brig but was picked up on the evening of 1 January by a British schooner.

Battle of North Cape, 26 December 1943

While providing distant cover escorting Arctic Convoy JW 55B to Russia the cruisers HMSs Belfast, Sheffield and Norfolk detected the German battleship Scharnhorst which had sailed from Altenfjord in Norway on Christmas Day.

On the morning of 26 December they opened fire, and the Scharnhorst withdrew to attack the convoy from the other side, not knowing that the battleship HMS Duke of York was closing. Against superior odds the Scharnhorst fought hard, but with her speed reduced by hits from Duke of York's guns she became an easy target.

This painting by the artist David Cobb shows the final moments of the ship - illuminated by star shells - as torpedoes are fired by the 4 destroyer escorts of the Duke of York. Over 1900 of her crew died.

That’s quite a few examples of a very different Christmas and we’re sure 2020 will find its way onto this list next year as another 'Very Different Christmas' in the history books.

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