Where were your ancestors on Christmas Day 100 years ago?

My maternal grandfather Tommy Hill, had a butcher shop in Westbrook Crossing, Queensland, in 1917, and I’d like to think he would have kept the best ham, or the best cut of beef or pork for his own family (but I doubt it). I’m sure the table would have been covered with home-made bread, sweets, jellies and jams, and home-grown veges.  My grandmother Ethel, was two months pregnant at the time with her fifth child (Joe). Tommy and Ethel celebrated Christmas 1917 with their children Leo (10), “Surrey” (7), Carmel (4) and “Tiger” (2).   Ethel’s parents had both passed away prior to 1917, but I imagine her younger brother Frank (18) would have joined them for Christmas Day.

Tommy’s cousin Robert Ryan, lived not far away at Athol.  So perhaps, he and his wife, Norah also joined them for Christmas Day.  Robert and Norah had five children by then.  The two eldest girls, twins Nell and Ode, had just passed their first musical exams according to the local newspaper, so perhaps a little musical concert was performed on the day. Robert was a grazier, so I bet he took along some lamb or mutton for the occasion. Robert’s sister Margaret-Ellen also lived at Westbrook and as a single lady, would have spent the day with the family also.

Perhaps Margaret-Ellen, may have chosen to spend the day with her Aunt Isabella and three spinster cousins. Tommy’s mother, Isabella, had been widowed two years earlier. She was still living in “Ballymena”, in Gipps Street, Drayton with her three adult daughters in 1917.  Isabella and the ‘girls’ led very quiet lives and I’d say that they would have spent a quiet day at home. I doubt that they would have travelled to Westbrook for the day, given that Isabella would have been in her 70s and it was probably too hot for her to travel far. Devout Catholics, they may have attended Mass that day, or had prayers at home.  I’m sure Tommy would have also provided them with a nice piece of meat to roast for Christmas lunch.

Fifty-two years earlier (1865), Isabella (my great grandmother) had spent Christmas on the “Earl Russell” with her sisters on the voyage from Ireland.

Ethel’s’ sister “Lottie” was married by then, to Jim McKenna. Lottie and Jim were living in Russell Street, Toowoomba, so may have made the trek out to Westbrook Crossing with their two littlies, “Cis” (2), and Kath (almost 1), to spend the day with the family.

As we approach yet another hot Christmas day, picture in your mind’s eye the clothing of the day, and imagine what it would have been like for all of them, with no electricity, refrigeration or swimming pools.

In December 1917, our troops were about to spend their fourth Christmas at war.  The Queensland Christmas Box Committee had raised funds to send almost 30,000 gift boxes to “our boys” overseas.  Many country towns and Church organisations had also organised “Soldiers’ Sock and Comfort Funds” and “Christmas Cheer Collections”.

My great uncle Joe Schwartz (my grandmother’s brother), was spending his second Christmas away from home.  He’d arrived in France in October 1917 after a bout of illness in England, and would spend Christmas at “the front”. There is no doubt, my family would have raised a glass to him on Christmas day, and probably shed a tear and said a prayer.

Tommy Hill had cousins living in Toowoomba at the time, who were also feeling the repercussions of the Great War.  His cousin, Rose Lonergan was living in Helen Street, Toowoomba with her four daughters. Earlier that year, 1917, she had been notified that her husband Mat had been killed in action.  Her sister Marcella, had married Charles Redwood a well-known Toowoomba footballer and business man of the Toowoomba “Maltings” family.  Marcella’s brother-in-law Joseph Redwood had been wounded in France, and was in hospital in England for Christmas 1917 suffering severe gunshot wounds to his right arm and leg.

Marcella and Rose’s brother William Joyce, was a widower himself by now.  William and his two sons were living not far away in Neil Street.  William was the Manager at Gas Works in Toowoomba.  Perhaps William, Marcella, Rose and their families would have spent Christmas together.

There would not have been many Australian families who had not been touched by the tragedy of a war that no-one had imagined would last four Christmases.

So, on Christmas Day, let’s spare a thought for friends and family, past, present and future, and count our blessings.

Jacqui Rose Brock DipFam Hist