Chelsea Pensioners share memories of Christmas

20th December 2019

As we look ahead to the upcoming festive holidays, we caught up with some of the Chelsea Pensioners who have been sharing their memories of Christmas past.

George ParsonsGEORGE PARSONS recollects poor Christmases in London’s East End 

“We were very poor when I was a child. One year, another boy on the street got a wonderful Meccano set for Christmas. I said I’d been given a chemistry set, but I wasn’t allowed to bring it outside. I didn’t get one really! That’s when I realised we were poor. I did get a stocking with an apple and an orange in it though.” – George Parsons

Connie EvansCONNIE EVANS remembers roller-skates and Christmas stockings

“At Christmas, my parents did their best to get whatever I said I’d like. I was skate mad and one year I asked for some roller skates that clipped over your shoes. My dad bought them in Gamages for half a crown – it was a lot of money in those days. I used to drive my mother mad, because once I’d put ‘em on I didn’t take them off. I’d go upstairs with them on! We didn’t have real Christmas stockings, but you’d have one of your socks put up. In it, when times were hard, was a penny, an apple, an orange and some nuts.” – Connie Evans

Colin ThackeryCOLIN THACKERY remembers ‘gunfire’ on Christmas morning

“When I was a sergeant, us sergeants and the officers served ‘gunfire’ – a cup of tea with rum in it ­– to the men first thing in the morning on Christmas day. We’d be in the cookhouse at 5.30 in the morning! We’d also make them lunch later.” – Colin Thackery

Audrey MertonAUDREY MERTON recalls a day of feasting and fun

“We used to have 16 round the table for Christmas. We’d have prawns, then turkey with all the trimmings and a Christmas pudding with loads of silver threepenny bits in it. Then we’d have afternoon tea – my mother would cook a ham and we’d have ham sandwiches and tinned salmon and a trifle. We’d have pork pies for breakfast too! The night before, we’d hang our Christmas stockings on the mantelpiece and they’d be filled with a pear, apple, oranges, nuts and a little present. We’d have a tree with lots of lights and my mum would play the piano and we’d sing carols. The best present I got was a doll.” – Audrey Merton

Bill GorrieBILL GORRIE’s memories of a Scottish Christmas

“I was born in Dundee. My family worked in the jute mills and we didn’t have much money, so I can’t remember getting much at Christmas. New Year was the big thing. I do remember my uncle who worked in an engineering factory made me a sledge. I used to take it to the field next to our cottage when there was snow and ice. Another Christmas memory I have is of a Christmas concert in the factory where my mother worked. It was 1948 and I was nine years old. She’d arranged for me to play my accordion and I had three songs prepared – one was The Bluebells of Scotland. I had loads of applause and was on a real high until the man who’d introduced me suggested I played another one. I didn’t know any more, so I burst into tears and left the stage!” – Bill Gorrie

George SkipperGEORGE SKIPPER remembers Christmas shopping

“We had very little money. My mother used to give me 3 shillings and 6 pence to go shopping. I bought an EverReady torch for my brother, a John Bull printing outfit for my other brother, a doll for my sister, some stockings for my mother and some tobacco for my father. I’d take the 9 pence that was left to Rathbone Street where John Reed butchers were auctioning off chicken and I’d get one for our dinner. We didn’t have a tree, but I’d go to Grove Park with my little saw, cut off a branch and put it in a bucket with paper round it. I’d help my mother fill the socks my brothers and sister left at the end of their beds. There’d be an apple, an orange, sweets and a toy. I’d polish up pennies with ash from the fireplace to make them shiny and they’d go in too. Then my mother and I would go to midnight Mass.” – George Skipper

Ernie BoydenERNIE BOYDEN remembers carols and the circus

“I don’t have many happy memories of Christmas, because it reminded us we were poor – although we always ate well. When I was seven or eight, my father took me to the Agricultural Hall in Upper Street, Islington, where there was a circus. We couldn’t afford to go in, but we looked through the bars at it. When we lived in Kentish Town, my mother managed to get one ticket for the Bertrand Mills Circus. She said, ‘You must take your brother’. I took him to Olympia by train, left him there and went to see relations at Parsons Green before picking him up again. I was 10 and he was eight!  

My favourite song at Christmas was Jingle Bells. Then, when I was at grammar school in 1937, we learned the carol Stille Nacht (Silent Night) in German. I loved it and can still remember the words today.” – Ernie Boyden

James LittleJAMES LITTLE spent Christmas on Christmas Island

I spent the Christmas of 1961 on Christmas Island in the Pacific. It was a nuclear test base where they were carrying out the last American atmospheric nuclear test series. I was in the Sappers and we responsible for maintaining public buildings and works. Four and a half thousand Americans arrived on the island to test nuclear warheads before the ban on tests in the atmosphere. I remember a ‘rainbow bomb’ was fired from nearby Johnson Island – it turned the sky rainbow colours and people had parties. On Christmas day we did the usual – drank and wore stupid hats! There was a church service in a little chapel that had been built by Sappers out of coral – the altar rail was made from mahogany from the Royal yacht. – James Little

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