A view of people ice skating on the frozen Serpentine lake
Historic photography

‘Twas Christmas Day in the Historic England Archive

Here we look at a selection of our historic images that capture something of Christmas past.

Historic England’s Archive is not just a record of England’s architectural history, archaeology and historic environment – the photographers whose collected work it holds have, like everyone else, been caught up in the fun and fervour of the festive season.

Here is a selection of our historic images that capture something of Christmas past and gift an introduction to some of the extraordinary collections of photography held in our Archive.

Deck the halls (factories and streets) with boughs of holly

Those with a head for heights climb ladders or jump into cherry pickers as every town puts up its festive season decorations.

Copy photograph of a photograph showing the manufacture of walking sticks in the single story building of St Mary's Mill, which is decorated for Christmas
Copy of a photograph showing the manufacture of walking sticks in the single story building of St Mary’s Mill, which is decorated for Christmas, around 1900. Source: Historic England Archive
Street view at junction of Tranquil Vale and Montpelier Vale, Blackheath
Street view at junction of Tranquil Vale and Montpelier Vale, Blackheath, Lewisham, London SE3. Photographed 13 Nov 1992 by Paul D Barkshire © Historic England Archive (Paul D Barkshire Collection)

Rockin’ around the Christmas tree

Time to dig out that box of decorations, try to get the lights working and have a close encounter with something prickly.

A scene from Barnet street market at Christmas, showing shoppers selecting Christmas trees from a stall in the foreground, with a view of other busy market stalls in the background
A scene from Barnet street market in North London at Christmas, as shoppers jostle to find the perfect Christmas tree. Photographed by John Gay around 1960 © Historic England Archive, (John Gay Collection,)
A view of a ward, in which a Christmas tree stands, at Watford Maternity Home
A view of a ward, in which a Christmas tree stands, at Watford Maternity Home 1940. Source: Topical Press Agency Medical Collection Historic England Archive

Away in a manger

For a family with young children no festive season is complete without the emotional roller coaster of their little one appearing in a nativity play.

Shepherds gathered at the manger in a nativity play performed by nurses and children in the chapel of King's College Hospital
A nativity play performed 23 December 1941 by nurses and children in the chapel of King’s College Hospital, Denmark Hill, Camberwell, London SE5 was captured by photographer Norman Kingsley Harrison. Source: Topical Press Agency Medical Collection, Historic England Archive

Santa Claus is coming to town!

Although Santa has moved with the times and got a web page with the Royal Mail, little else about him has changed.

A young boy receiving a present from Father Christmas as two clowns watch, at the annual children's Christmas party held in the canteen of Laing's Mill Hill office
A young boy receiving a present from Father Christmas as two clowns watch, at the annual children’s Christmas party held in the canteen of Laing’s Mill Hill office, Page Street, Mill Hill, Barnet, London NW7 on 18 December 1965 © Historic England Archive, (John Laing Collection)

All I want for Christmas is you (and some toys)

It wouldn’t be Christmas without a fraught trek around your local high street, hunting for the latest gadgets.

The interior of an unidentified shop showing children looking at a display of mechanical toys
Photographer John Gay took a series of photos from behind the counter of this toy shop in Barnet in around 1960 to capture the children dreaming of what Santa will bring them © Historic England Archive, (John Gay Collection)

Time for parties and celebration

Whether you love them or dread them, the run up to 25 December is Christmas party season and time to enjoy the company of friends and colleagues.

Members of the Citizens Club raising schooners of sherry during a coach journey to or from central London to see the Christmas lights
Members of the Laing Senior Citizens Club raising schooners of sherry during a coach journey to or from central London to see the Christmas lights in December 1986 © Historic England Archive, (John Laing Collection,)
A group of students and nurses celebrate Christmas in a ward at the Nightingale Training Home at St Thomas' Hospital
A group of students and nurses celebrate Christmas in a ward at the Nightingale Training Home at St Thomas’ Hospital, Waterloo Road, Lambeth on 28 December 1938. Photographed by Norman Kingsley Harrison.. Source: Topical Press Agency Medical Collection, Historic England Archive

Oh, bring us a figgy pudding!

A Christmas meal once meant a splendid wild boar or a big fat goose. These days, most people tuck into a Turkey. It’s always been more about getting everyone together around a table and eating and drinking until you can’t move.

Members of the Lancashire Regiment enjoying a Christmas meal at Combe Bank House
Members of the Lancashire Regiment enjoying a Christmas meal at Combe Bank House. Source: Historic England Archive
A group of women enjoying a Christmas dinner during a Laing Christmas party at Manor Hall.
A group of women enjoying a Christmas dinner during a Laing Christmas party in December 1954. Manor Hall, Elstree and Borehamwood, Hertsmere, Hertfordshire © Historic England Archive, (John Laing Collection)

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas

The child in us always hopes for some snow to set a magical Christmas scene. Actually, according to the Met Office, there has only been four Christmases since 1960 when we’ve had widespread snow: 1981, 1995, 2009 and 2010.

People walking in the snow along the Flower Walk in Kensington Gardens
Flower Walk in Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, City Of Westminster, Greater London Authority, W2. Photographer Katherine Jean Macfee in 1904 © Historic England Archive, (Katherine Jean Macfee collection)

It’s been a long time since the Thames has frozen over, but ice-skating is still a Christmassy pastime. (Usually on a rink these days though!)

Black and white photo of people skating on the frozen lake water of the Serpentine
Skating on the Long Water of the Serpentine in the winter of 1895, Hyde Park, London W2. Photographed by York and Son in 1895. Source: Historic England Archive (York and Son Collection)

And a Christmas is truly magical if you get to build a snowman!

A snowman sitting on a park bench in Regents Park.
This snowman was photographed by John Gay in Regent’s Park, London around 1960 © Historic England Archive, (John Gay Collection)

And a Happy New Year…. let’s hope it’s a good one

People playing a party game at the Sports Club's annual New Year party.
Laing’s Sports Club’s New Year party was held for club members and their families at Goodwyn Hall, Mill Hill, Barnet, London. Photographed 6 January 1958 © Historic England Archive, (John Laing Collection)
The steps and base of the Queen Victoria Memorial, with the words 'Happy New Year' written in snow
‘Happy New Year’ is written in the snow on the Queen Victoria Memorial opposite Buckingham Palace © Historic England Archive, (John Gay Collection)

Historic England wishes everyone a safe, healthy and prosperous 2022.

Further Reading

3 comments on “‘Twas Christmas Day in the Historic England Archive

  1. artculturetourism

    What a lovely nostalgic Christmas feature blog with glorious photographs! Many thanks for sharing. 🙂

  2. Hi Mike, these are great pictures. I enjoyed this historical tour.

  3. DevonExplorer

    Such fab photos. I thoroughly enjoyed those. However, I would like to point out that only the well off had goose for Christmas, and as for wild boar that must have been for the really rich! Most people had roast chicken for their festive lunch, as chickens were quite expensive and not readily available in the 1950s and 60s except for the season. Turkey was very much a later thing, of course. Cheers from Devon and Merry Christmas. 🙂

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