‘Unskilled’ labourers?

I confess that I had rather given up on this blog (as you may have noticed), but to my surprise these things never go away!  So I thought I might as well try to pick up where I left off.

Recently, I was questioned on the use of the phrase “unskilled labourers” in the exhibit text and exterior listening stations at Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site of Canada.  The visitor felt that this terminology was inaccurate, reflecting the social views of the Hudson’s Bay Company directors rather than the reality of men’s skills and work:  the labourers would have been very skilled with canoes, York boats, hunting, blacksmithing, carpentry, etc.

This is a very valid point:  as Donald Woodward says (in one of my favourite books on English labour history, Men at Work), “even the use of a spade or shovel involves some skill.”  The definition of ‘skill’ is always problematic, and in many ways we can view labour history as an ongoing struggle (mostly but not always a struggle between employers and workers) for the power to control such definitions.

The use of the phrase “unskilled labourers” in the Rocky Mountain House exhibit was meant to refer explicitly to those hired by the HBC as ‘unskilled labourers’:  i.e., the occupational categories of ‘labourer’ and ‘middleman’.  (From my observation, in the mid-19th century ‘labourer’ and ‘middleman’ appear to have been essentially inter-changeable categories used for Anglophone and Francophone servants respectively, and do not necessarily suggest different work descriptions.)  I am always careful to distinguish men in these categories from those in semi-skilled and skilled categories (tailors, carpenters, blacksmiths, etc., as well as bowsmen, steersmen, and guides on the boats).  Such distinctions were important elements in trading post life.  This categorisation is obviously from the employer’s point of view, but this can be said to reflect the dominance of HBC agendas and hierarchies within trading post communities, as well as the sometimes substantial salary differences between the different occupations.

Within the broad (shall we say ‘over-generalised’?) category of unskilled labourers, a wide range of backgrounds and experiences undoubtedly existed.  There are, for instance, some examples (apparently isolated examples, but perhaps representing the tip of a larger iceberg) of men clearly under-employed, being engaged as labourers in spite of specialised training and/or knowledge (e.g. a wheelwright being hired as a labourer).  More commonly, there were ample opportunities to acquire new skill sets once in Company service:  In the HBC as in Britain and Canada, an ‘unskilled’ labourer who consistently assisted a skilled tradesmen at his tasks could acquire at least some of that specialised skill and knowledge.

As the visitor noted, we also need to consider ‘country’ skill sets, such as hunting, fishing, canoeing, etc.  Certainly some HBC labourers were accomplished hunters and fishermen, while others were more likely to injure themselves than to bring home anything for the supper table.  For at least part of Rocky’s history, the Company appears to have preferred engaging one or two Aboriginal (usually Stoney or Metis) hunters rather than send Company men out to hunt, but this was mostly because of the reputed skill of these hunters and the relatively small staff at Rocky.  Fishing was more commonly done by HBC personnel.  To this list, we should add skills with horses, which were an important part of life in the Saskatchewan District.

At the same time, a note of caution is called for:  there is a great deal that we do not know about these men, their lives, their experiences, and their skills.  There is no reason to believe, for instance, that every blacksmith working for the HBC was necessarily a classically-trained master blacksmith, nor should we assume that every member of a York boat crew was by definition good at their job.  My own experiences as part of a York boat crew for several summers were that a good lead oar can compensate for a great deal of incompetence on the part of the middlemen:  in this regard, a York boat is a more forgiving craft than a canoe.  The Company’s records are full of complaints from managers about the shortcomings of their personnel:  while we should usually take these complaints with several grains of salt, at least some of the complaints must have been justified.

Published in: on 11 September 2013 at 10:48 AM  Leave a Comment  

A Few Good Men?

Although it is tempting to think that the Hudson’s Bay Company took great care in selecting its recruits, such was not always the case.  Richard Hardisty, in his annual letter to the Council of the Northern Department, 6 January 1862 (B. 239/c/13, fos. 9d-10), offered a candid appraisal of some new arrivals:

 The new hands from Europe arrived here [at Edmonton]….I expect [they] will in Course of time, make very good Men, but I am sorry I Cannot say so much in favor of the recruits from Canada….Two out of the three, were entirely unfit for the arduous duties required of them, One more so than the other, as he is both blind and deaf. The Agent in Canada who Engages such refuse, must without doubt be affected with something approximate to blindness, for I am Certain it does not require much foresight to perceive at a glance in what respect the person in question is most defective, but may I be permitted to state, that it is a source of great satisfaction to me, to know that the three were picked out as the best among a dozen awaiting orders for a dispersion.

One can only imagine the difficulties that fellow had on his long journey from Montreal to Edmonton by canoe and York boat.

Published in: on 10 June 2010 at 1:53 PM  Leave a Comment  

A Red River Christmas

Last year, when the staff of Lower Fort Garry National Historic Site were getting in the festive mood for their Christmas program, they asked me for some information on Christmas in mid-19th century Red River.  After referring them to Margaret A. Macleod’s Red River’s Festive Season, I pulled together these tasty tidbits for them:

  Mr. Black’s Private Journal recorded on 24 December 1851: “Stores shut tonight till Monday 5th Jan next.” (B. 235/a/15, fo. 3d). This would fit with the long-standing fur trade custom of treating the whole Christmas season — sometimes the whole Twelve Nights, sometimes just the week through New Year’s Day — as one big holiday. The Christmas-New Year’s season was traditionally the most festive time of year at fur trading posts: it was an occasion for football, dancing, drinking, over-eating, pranks, and horseplay of all kinds. In 1862, the Reverend J.P. Gardiner described the ‘visiting’ customary on New Year’s Day at York Factory:

  Early in the morning the clerks visit the gentleman in charge, & each gets a tumbler full of “Old man’s milk” a punch made of equal parts of Brandy & milk with spices &c. – the gentleman in Charge then meets all the servants in the Carpenter’s shop & gives two glasses of Brandy or wine to each the servants go out & the Indians are then received first the men then the women & these also get two glasses of spirits – the servants then visit the clerks & each house in the Fort & the Clerks visit each of the men & this visiting goes on till 4 oclock in the after noon & sometimes till late in the evening, each giving the other grog. [J.P. Gardiner journal, 1861-62, 1 January 1862; quoted in Payne, The Most Respectable Place in the Territory, 91]


  Rev. Gardiner was not always pleased with how the men spent their holiday time, however:


The festivities of the season end to day & I am really glad of it. We have not been able to sleep any night since Christmas day till about four o clock in the morning. The dances are held in the carpenter’s shop & we can hear the dancing as plain as if it was only next door: & all night long some intoxicated persons were walking past the house, one night while we were taking supper two fell against our front door, the door burst open & the two men fell inside. [J.P. Gardiner journal, 1861-62, 1 January 1862; quoted in Payne, 89-91] 

What Gardiner failed to observe was how such activities reinforced the social cohesion of the trading post community. Christmas in the fur trade was not all secular, however: there were Church services. From the Methodist tradition (which was certainly strong in Red River) came the tradition of the ‘watch-night’ service, extending from Christmas Eve through Christmas morning: this was the forerunner of the ‘midnight mass’ in the modern Anglican church.   

Christmas was a time for games and sports, such as snowshoeing (which became hugely popular among Canada’s upper middle class from the 1840s onward) and racing dog carrioles on frozen rivers. The most popular organised sport in Rupert’s Land appears to have been football: although we cannot know what (if any) rules they followed, we do know it formed a regular part of Christmas-New Year’s celebrations, and Methodist missionary John McDougall later called it the “national game of the North-West.” The York Factory journal recorded a frigid Christmas Day in 1823:

Ther 30 below Zero 

Stormy weather as has been the usual custom at this place part of the Men and some of the Gentlemen turned out to a game of football which was not kept up with much spirit probably from the Severity of the Weather combined with a previous too free use of the Bottle [B. 239/a/132, fo. 11, quoted in Payne, 67]


The Christmas season in Hudson Bay was often marked by “too free use of the Bottle.” The previous year, Chief Factor J.G. McTavish had offered a two-gallon keg of rum as a prize for the winner of the Christmas Day football match!  Food and drink were always an important part of the holiday season. Extra provisions were handed out on Christmas Eve and again on New Year’s Eve: in 1829, the men of York received “1/2 lbs Raisins, 1/4 lb Butter, 1/8 lbs Tea, 2 lbs Sugar, 2 lbs Grease, 1 lb Flour, 1 lb Salt Pork, 1-1/2 lb Fresh Do. [i.e. pork], 1 fresh Goose, 1 Rabbit, 1 pint Rum and 1/2 pint molasses” in addition to their regular rations. The Company’s generosity with food and drink during the Christmas-New Year’s season grew out of a long-standing tradition of Yuletide hospitality in Britain: the expectation that resident landowners and employers would entertain tenants, guests, and servants dates from at least the early Middle Ages and can be traced well into the late 19th century, especially in rural and agricultural areas. There is some evidence that temperance was gaining a foothold at major HBC posts from the 1840s onward — in 1841, holiday gifts of rum were reduced from one to one-half pint a day, and the following year James Hargrave observed a decline in alcohol purchases at York — but drinking was still prevalent enough to outrage most missionaries (although levels of consumption do not appear to be out of line with modern Canadians). One of the most popular drinks at York Factory was shrub, made with rum, sugar, and orange or lemon juice.

 Food was a popular gift item, especially preserves of various kinds and candy. Cash was also a popular gift, especially to servants:

[I]n the early Stuart period…several writers referred to the kind habit of dropping money at Christmas into an earthenware box kept by an apprentice, which he would break when it was full and so furnish himself with a treat. The first citation of this is in 1621, and by the 1640s the custom had been extended to servants in general. During the 1660s it is clear that it had been widened again to make cash gifts, now euphemistically known as ‘boxes’, to tradespeople whose services a customer had enjoyed during the year, to enable them to enjoy the holidays more….By the eighteenth century the upper middling sort, at least, were starting to find the tradition oppressive….In 1756 Sir John Fielding was snarling that everybody who did anybody else the slightest service in the year now demanded a ‘box’ at Christmas, so that the total cost to some families was up to L30….[The custom] flourished so steadily through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that during the later reign of Victoria the feast of St Stephen became, for ever, ‘Boxing Day’. [Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, 23]


Note, however, that Christmas gift-giving was relatively new: prior to the 19th century, it was much more common to exchange gifts at New Year’s. Queen Victoria was still sending New Year’s gifts rather than Christmas gifts in 1900, as did many English working-class families; New Year’s gifts were still the norm in many Orkney and Shetland communities until the 1960s! The preference for giving gifts at Christmas rather than at New Year’s was initially a middle-class English (especially London) attitude — not surprising, considering the ways in which the ‘new’ Christmas was designed by and for them (see below). It may also be worth pointing out that the development of nurseries (run by maids or nannies) in middle-class households made the parent-child relationship more formal, while the greater segregation of children from the rest of the family created a need for more toys and games to amuse them. However, the Christmas stocking and Santa Claus (Father Christmas) would not be imported to Britain (from continental Europe and the United States respectively) until 1854.   

One oft-repeated Christmas myth is that Christmas trees were introduced to England by the German-born Prince Albert after the birth of his first son in 1841. In fact, the British Royal Family had been familiar with Christmas trees for at least half a century — not surprising considering their long-standing connection with German royalty and nobility. One member of the court of Queen Charlotte (George III’s wife) recorded a Christmas tree in the Queen’s Lodge at Windsor in 1800: “In the middle of the room stood an immense tub with a yew tree placed in it, from the branches of which hung bunches of sweetmeats, almonds, and raisins in papers, fruits, and toys, most tastefully arranged, and the whole illuminated by small wax candles.” (quoted in Phillip V. Snyder, The Christmas Tree Book, 19) In 1832, thirteen-year-old Princess Victoria recorded in her diary “two large round tables on which were placed the trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments” in the drawing room (quoted in Snyder, 19). The Royal Family’s Christmas tree was usually a young fir about eight feet high, trimmed so that it had six or seven tiers of branches, and it stood on a table rather than on the floor. Candles were arranged on the branches, as were trays, baskets, and other receptacles for candies; cakes, gingerbread, and eggs filled with sweetmeats hung from the branches; and toys and dolls were arranged around the base. We can credit Prince Albert and Queen Victoria for encouraging the popularity of Christmas trees, especially after the Illustrated London News printed a full-page image of the Royal Family’s tree at Windsor in 1848 (frequently reprinted and imitated in Britain and the United States). Nevertheless, Christmas trees did not become universally popular in Britain until the 1950s: they were most common where evergreens were most readily available, and were much more popular among the middle class than among the working classes (who often preferred the old holly and ivy, perhaps with a ‘kissing bush’). This raises an interesting fur trade question: how common would Christmas trees be, given that evergreens were readily available, but that many of the men were not necessarily accustomed to putting up a tree?   

Among the broader British populace, Christmas trees had been used by German immigrants since the late 1700s, but we do not see evidence of it spreading to the wider community until the 1820s. Tree-holders were uncommon (especially in Rupert’s Land): the tree would usually sit on wooden cross-pieces weighted down with stones, or placed in a pot. Awkwardly for your program, trees were usually trimmed on Christmas Eve: putting up the tree was referred to as “planting the tree,” and decorating it was referred to as “dressing the tree.” Initially, Christmas presents were hung from the branches before distribution, thus exhibiting the household’s wealth, generosity, and popularity, while the tree itself served as a focal point for family gathering. Christmas cards developed in the 1840s as a convenient and sophisticated evolution of the ancient custom of giving blessings or good wishes for the New Year, but I think it unlikely that they would be found in Red River as early as the 1850s (they only became widespread in Britain in the 1860s, with cheaper printing and more elaborate decoration).  

In general, the habit of midwinter festivity was well established in all parts of the British Isles by the dawn of what we inaccurately call “recorded history.” Everyone in Red River, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, would have considered feasting and entertainment in themselves to be “fundamental responses to the tedium and melancholy which a northern winter could engender.” (Hutton, 34) The most obvious privations of the season — the lack of green leaves, light, and warmth — shaped the variety of local and regional responses to winter’s dreariness. Decorating spaces with greenery and flowers is a custom with origins in pagan Europe: although much criticised by early Protestants, the practice flourished in 18th and 19th century England and Wales, especially the decoration of churches and private homes. A novelty of the late 18th century was the ‘kissing bush’, which had gained widespread popularity by the middle of the 19th century.  

The custom had begun, and long remained, one of common people, found in farm kitchens, cottages, and servants’ quarters. The ‘bush’ could be made of mistletoe alone, and this plant was often a valued component in it, either because of some significance (never explained) or simply because it was relatively hard to find and so acquired the value of scarcity. In many places, the bush was an elaborate structure which gave tremendous pride to the makers. Some were five or six feet around, the most common forms being a basin shape or two to four crossed hoops. Any evergreens could be used to decorate it, with mistletoe followed by holly at the top of the scale of value and gorse at the bottom; very often a mixture of species was used. Apples, oranges, oat ears, dolls, candles, coloured paper, and ribbons could all be employed in the decoration. In most places it was made for Christmas, but in some for New Year’s Day. [Hutton, 37]  

Although the hanging of mistletoe is well recorded from the 17th century, the kissing custom was a development of the late 18th century, and did not move up into respectable parlours until the second half of the 19th century. There is no evidence to support the suggestion made by Washington Irving in his 1819 short story, “Christmas Day,” that mistletoe was a pagan plant never trusted by the church: mistletoe was in fact used as often in churches as anywhere else throughout its period of popularity.   

Festive greenery appears to have been surprisingly absent from Scotland, except for Highlanders hanging holly in the house (especially upon New Year’s Day) “to keep out the fairies.” There may be a variety of reasons for this: parish and household accounts (where such things would have been recorded) are not available for early Scottish history; the favourite winter plants were hard to find in many parts of the country; and Christmas festivities were banned across much of Scotland in the periods 1561-1617, 1638-61, and 1690-1958. Of course, not everyone heeded the Kirk (Church) and the Protestant reformers, and enforcement was uneven. In the Lowlands (the south and east of Scotland), Kirk influence was strong and much of the old Christmas revelry was transferred to New Year’s Eve and Day (which were well-established festive occasions in themselves, but less ‘tainted’ by religious associations); thus, Mr Black (from St Andrew’s) and clerk & surgeon William Cowan (from Glasgow) may not have been in the habit of celebrating Christmas. By the late 1600s, the New Year feast was known as Hogmanay (or ‘Hogmynae-night’), a word derived from the medieval French word aguillanneuf, which described both the New Year and a New Year’s gift (although where the French word came from or how the Scots came to adopt it is unknown). In the early 19th century, the emergence of Burns Night (25 January) provided Scotsmen with another winter festival, one that by the 1850s was achieving the status of a national festival, part of the ongoing process by which Scots assembled a distinctive set of costumes, customs, and symbols to prevent the submergence of their national identity in that of the English.  

In the northern regions of Scotland, however, and particularly in the islands (the Inner and Outer Hebrides, the Orkneys, and Shetland), the influence of the Reformation was much less intrusive: although the traditional Christmas church services had been abolished, the secular entertainments appear to have been largely unaffected. In the Outer Hebrides, for example, Christmas was still celebrated in the traditional manner in the 19th century: it was called Oidhche Choinnle (Candle Night), because of the tradition of lighting up windows upon it. In 18th century Shetland (LFG labourer/sloopman Thomas Gardiner was from Yell in Shetland), the Yule season lasted 24 days, “and on each of the nights, Sundays excepted, a dance was held in some house in the community.” (quoted in Hutton, 32) Similarly long celebrations were common in Caithness, on the northern tip of the mainland (labourer Alexander Cameron was from Thurso in Caithness, although I don’t know if he was posted to Lower or Upper Fort Garry). Large round cakes were baked for Yule Day: the recipes and names varied by location, being ‘Yule Cake’ in the Shetlands and ‘Yule Bread’ or ‘Yule Bannock’ on the northern mainland. Haggis, ‘sour scones’, and bannocks were also popular Yuletide foods across the Highlands.   

Light was an important part of Christmas festivities. In northern England and southern Scotland, for instance, 19th-century grocers often presented candles as gifts to their regular customers. A well-known and widespread tradition (at least until the end of the 19th century) was the addition of an enormous log of wood to the main fire in the house (usually the kitchen); the last portion of it was often kept and used for kindling the log the following year. Although popularly known as the Yule Log today (and known by that name in many parts of England at the time), it had a wide variety of local or regional names: for instance, Thomas Axe (LFG’s groom) was from Shropshire in the west Midlands of England, and would have called it a Yule Block (another fire-related holiday tradition Axe could have brought from home was the tradition that giving anybody a light from one’s own home on New Year’s Day meant bad luck, as it stole the luck from one’s own house). The men from the Orkneys and Shetland, however, may have been unfamiliar with this custom, as wood (especially large logs) was scarce in their homeland.  

Rites of purification and of blessing were important parts of the Yule season in the Highlands and northern islands of Scotland. Thomas Gardiner (from Shetland) would have been familiar with a variety of ‘saining’ rituals, intended to protect people and property against powers loose in the dark of midwinter and against evil and misfortune throughout the year: for example, on Yule E’en, the house was cleaned and all the locks polished, after which an iron blade was left inside the main door to scare off trolls (this ritual was common in the 18th century: I don’t know to what extent it lasted into the 19th). Alexander Cameron (from Caithness) may have been familiar with the Highland tradition (common in the 18th and 19th centuries) of burning juniper (or other bitter and astringent shrubs/trees) in houses and byres on Yule morning and/or on New Year’s Day, blocking all the doors and windows to hold in the acrid smoke, as a literal and spiritual fumigation. He also probably knew the ‘clavie’ (from Gaelic cliabh, meaning a basket), a basket or barrel containing flaming torches or kindling which would be carried around byres and fields, or through the streets. Note, however, that attempts to link these sorts of fire rituals to pagan fire rituals of the distant past are misleading: most of the rituals these men were familiar with dated no farther back than the 18th century, and several of the most well-known only appear during the reign of Queen Victoria (the Up-Helly Aa procession at Lerwick in Shetland, in which hundreds of men dressed as Vikings tow a replica longship through the town before setting it on fire, would have been unknown to Thomas Gardiner: it was ‘invented’ in 1870 by the Total Abstinence Society as an alcohol-free celebration).  

These ‘saining’ rituals of the north are paralleled by the wassailing customs of the south: in each, people wished health and good fortune to people, animals, and crops. The wassail bowl was usually filled with hot spiced ale, with apples, toast, or Christmas cake floating in it. Shropshire-born Thomas Axe might have been the only British LFG resident familiar with this ceremony, which was in decline by the early 19th century; he may also have known crop-blessing ceremonies called ‘wassailing’, in which people would gather in a cornfield (on Christmas Eve, Twelfth Eve, or Twelfth Night) to light fires of straw, eat cakes, and toast their master’s health and the success of the future harvest with cider. More widespread in 19th-century Britain (though not found in the northern isles like Orkney) was the tradition of the First Foot, the belief that the nature of the first person to enter a home at the New Year determined its luck during the coming year. The First Foot was almost always male, preferably adult and dark-haired — although in Thurso, Caithness (where Alex Cameron was from), children were preferred. In central Shropshire (Axe was from the southern part of the county, but it may have been the same there), the visit of a woman on New Year’s morning was considered unlucky even if many men had preceded her, and a female First Foot could be blamed for deaths or ‘monstrous’ births in the household. There was a general expectation that the First Foot should bring a token gift or perform a brief ceremony, although the nature of the gift varied considerably, and could include coal, wood, food, drink, and/or coins. In return, the First Foot often received gifts of food and drink, and sometimes cash.  

The well-known tradition of door-to-door carol singing would have been familiar to some of the British-born men of LFG, though perhaps in forms that would be unfamiliar to us. Across much of England, town ‘waits’ (bodies of municipally-employed musicians) went about the streets in the week(s) before Christmas, performing and collecting money; some parts of England (including Shropshire) had vigorous traditions of singing by informal groups of poor villagers. The latter tended to be less well-equipped with musical instruments than the former, and the carols they sang tended to be older. Note, however, that many carols that we now think of as ‘traditional’ are relatively new: ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ was a French carol not translated into English until 1840; ‘While Shepherds Watched’ and ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ had Georgian words set to Victorian tunes; and many other staples of our carolling repertoire were entirely creations of the mid- and late 19th century.  Carolling groups typically numbered up to a dozen people, and favourite times for operating were Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. The hey-day of this tradition appears to have been the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and atrophy was setting in (in Britain) by the 1850s. The carolling tradition was largely absent from Scotland, except in the northern and western isles which (as mentioned above) had been less affected by the Reformation (this would have included at least some parishes in Orkney and Shetland). Young men — variously called gillean nollaig (Christmas lads), fir duan (song men), gaisearan (guisers, or disguisers), or nuallairean (rejoicers) — went about singing Gaelic carols dressed in long shirts and tall white hats (to imitate the surplices and mitres worn by bishops). Wherever carol-singers were found, they often carried with them a wassail bowl for soliciting presents (especially cash); interestingly, those areas where the wassail bowl was carried door-to-door did not usually enjoy it inside the home (and vice versa). Shropshire-born Thomas Axe may have associated carolling and the wassail bowl with young women or children, whereas the Orkneymen would have been accustomed to carolling groups consisting of young adult males.


By the 1850s, however, carolling and door-to-door wassailing were showing signs of decline, along with other begging customs which entered the 19th century strong and vibrant, but were rare or obsolete by Victoria’s death. These Christmastide traditions were part of a larger seasonal cycle of door-to-door or otherwise public ritual begging: the only one that has survived to our own day is Halloween, but early 19th-century British communities would have been accustomed to various others, often connected with saints’ days or other holy days. St Thomas’ Day (21 December) was a particularly important one in England (although it never took root in Scotland), as the poor appealed to wealthier people’s generosity and goodwill by asking for money or provisions for a Christmas feast of their own: in Thomas Axe’s native Shropshire, this practice was known as ‘Thomasing’ or ‘gooding’. Lowland Scots like Mr Black and Dr Cowan would have been familiar with children going door-to-door on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day, asking for ‘hogmanay’ (a gift or blessing, by which they meant food or money). In Dr Cowan’s native Fife, a common song or chant on that occasion was:   

Rise up, aul wife, an shack yer feathers;


  Dinna think it we are beggars;

  We’er only bairnies come to play —

  Rise up and gee’s wir hogmanay. [quoted in Hutton, 65]


A similar tradition existed in the Orkneys, where the equivalent song was:  

Gude New Year and Gude New Year Nicht.


  St Mary’s men are we.

  We’re come here to crave our right

  Before Our Leddie. [quoted in Hutton, 66]


Thomas Axe (who, as you’re probably tired of hearing, was from Shropshire) might have known yet another rhyme for the occasion:

  I wish you a merry Christmas

  And a happy New Year

  A pocket full of money

  And a cellar full of beer,

  And a good fat pig

  To serve you all the year.

  Ladies and gentlemen

  Sat by the fire,

  Pity we poor boys

  Out in the mire. [quoted in Hutton, 68]


Note that this version does not explicitly request a gift, but the expectation of a gift was certainly present. Often in that part of England, the group included a youngster (often called “the lucky bird”) who could serve as a lucky First Foot. As with all ritualised begging, these customs were applied flexibly and opportunistically: thus, a disapproving clergyman might discourage such traditions, while a particularly generous and well-to-do local family could encourage them.  

Another aspect of these rituals worth commenting on is the theme of festive disguise and similar suspensions or reversals of normality at Christmas. “From one end of nineteenth-century Britain to another there were districts in which young people, and sometimes adults, used fancy dress as a means both to personal enjoyment and to profit.” [Hutton, 95] A Shetlander like Thomas Gardiner would remember the ‘skeklers’ or ‘gulicks’ who roamed abroad during the evenings of the Twelve Days wearing straw costumes with conical hats and handkerchiefs covering their faces: they would fire a gun on approaching a farm, and if the proprietor wished to receive them, he would fire an answering shot, whereupon the ‘skeklers’ would be invited into the house to dance in return for refreshments and a little money. Dr Cowan (from Fifeshire) and possibly Alexander Cameron (from Caithness) would have known the ‘guisers’ who were out at New Year wearing straw hats and ribbons with blackened faces: doors were often left unlocked for them, and if they entered a household of their own social rank they sometimes claimed the right to kiss every woman in the room.  

The early 1850s were kind of a transitional period for Christmas festivities in Britain, as society was beginning to feel the impact of Victoria & Albert’s royal domesticity, the German influence brought by Prince Albert, and the romantic sentimentality of Charles Dickens and other popular writers (Dickens’ Christmas books appeared 1843-48). During the first decades of the 19th century, British writers were becoming more nostalgic about Christmas, partly because they viewed with alarm the apparent growth of division and instability in a society undergoing rapid industrialisation and urbanisation.  

They turned instinctively to traditional festivities as relics of a time of greater order, deference, and harmony….On the other hand, the perception of decline was firmly anchored in reality. Between 1790 and 1840 employers, led by the government, carried out a ruthless pruning of the Christmas holidays without encountering any resistance. In 1797 the Customs and Excise Office, for example, closed between 21 December (St Thomas’ Day) and 6 January (the Epiphany) on all of the seven dates specified by the Edwardian and Elizabethan Protestant calendars [Christmas, St Stephen’s Day (26 Dec.), St John the Evangelist (27 Dec.), the Holy Innocents (28 Dec.), and the Circumcision (New Year), as well as St Thomas’ Day and Epiphany]. In 1838 it was open on all except Christmas Day itself. The Factory Act of 1833 put the seal upon this process by declaring that Christmas and Good Friday were the only two days of the year, excepting Sundays, upon which workers had a statutory right to be absent from their duties….In twenty of the years between 1790 and 1835 The Times did not mention the festival, and it never referred to it with enthusiasm. To the fashionable world it was increasingly an anachronism, and a bore. [Hutton, 112]  Although the celebration of Christmas was more evident among the middle classes (especially those with children), the day was becoming a surprisingly ordinary day for many ordinary people.


The swift and dramatic reversal of these attitudes can be attributed to much more than just Charles Dickens. The Oxford Movement within the Church of England revived respect for and interest in ritual and decoration (although we should not expect to find much sympathy for that among the evangelicals of the Church Missionary Society). More importantly, the growing middle class was responding (like Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, and other popular authors) to complex social anxieties: the rift between rich and poor, the value of family ties (and the threats posed to them by industrial society), a new interest in protecting children from the world, and the desire for a ‘safer’ pre-industrial past. The enhancement of the image of Christmas focussed on the feast’s association with piety, charity, and family reunion. The speed with which people in Britain changed their thinking about Christmas is illustrated by the difference between Charles Dickens’ passionate avowal of how the festival ought to be kept in A Christmas Carol (1843) and his sentimental but completely traditional portrayal of Christmas festivities six years earlier in The Pickwick Papers (1837).  

Dickens succeeded in turning Christmas celebration into a moral reply to avarice, selfishness, and greed. He linked worship and feasting, within a context of social reconciliation. The story [A Christmas Carol] owed much of its power to the way in which it interwove nostalgia for the past and anxiety about the present, and presented Christmas as a palliative to both….He linked the new prosperity of the age with its social unease, and put the middle classes in the vortex of both, equipped with a feast which employed the former to allay the latter. Christmas, as portrayed by Dickens, invested materialism with a spiritual quality which enabled the newly-rich to enjoy their wealth. [Hutton, 114]  Like Prince Albert, Dickens encouraged and popularised rather than ‘invented’ new ideas of Christmas. Although the new pro-Christmas attitudes did not become manifest in legislation until the 1860s and 1870s, by 1851 the tide was clearly turning. Note, however, that not until the 1950s were the majority of working-class British families able to afford the tree, the turkey, the systematic sending of cards, the large-scale purchase of presents, and the large-scale family Christmas gatherings.


I’m afraid that’s all I have at my fingertips, but I’ll try to track down more information on Orkney celebrations, as well as on Christmas in French Canada, Anglophone Montreal, and Aboriginal communities.  

Published in: on 1 March 2010 at 1:09 PM  Comments (1)  

Who was Tete Jaune?

I’ve been working with Mike Dillon and the folks in the Jasper Field Unit on some new interpretive panels for the Yellowhead Pass National Historic Site.  An interesting question came up recently regarding the identity and ethnicity of the Tete Jaune (literally “Yellow Head”) after whom the pass was named.  Well, actually the pass was named after Tete Jaune’s Cache, which is first mentioned in surviving HBC documents in 1825:  the name Yellowhead Pass does not appear to have been used before 1859.

Tete Jaune is usually identified as either Pierre Hatsinaton (Hathawiton, Atawita, Thaawita) or Pierre Bostonais, both of Iroquois descent.  Former Parks Canada historian David Smyth studied this question of identity very closely, and concluded in favour of Bostonais:  see “Tete Jaune,” Alberta History 32/1 (Winter 1984), 1-8.  However, it has been suggested that Bostonais was in fact Pierre Bostonais Pangman, son of famous New England-born fur trader Peter Pangman and Marguerite Sauteuse.  This would apparently make him of Saulteaux ancestry rather than Iroquois.  Pierre Bostonais Pangman was active among the Red River Metis in the years leading up to the Battle of Seven Oaks, and was in fact put on trial in 1818 as a result.

There is intriguing circumstantial evidence that Pangman could have been the Bostonais known as Tete Jaune.  Particularly noteworthy is the timing:  Pangman appears to fade from the historical record in Red River after returning from his trial in Canada, which allows him just enough time to re-establish himself in what is now north-central Alberta and get involved with the search for efficient mountain passes in the early 1820s.  Also, both men had a brother named Baptiste — although so did many people in the western fur trade.

At the end of the day, however, I was unable to make a clear connection between the two men.  Given that we cannot assume either nickname — ‘Bostonais’ or ‘Tete Jaune’ — to have been unique, the timing could simply be coincidence.  More importantly, although the Tete Jaune of Tete Jaune’s Cache often appeared in the “Iroquois and freeman” section of HBC accounts, which included many non-Iroquois people, he was consistently referred to as Iroquois in other historic fur trade documents by men who knew enough about First Nations to distinguish Iroquois from Saulteaux.  It is possible that Bostonais and his brother were given the ‘Iroquois’ label because they had been absorbed into one of the Iroquois communities in the foothills, but there is no evidence to suggest this, and it would have been an extremely quick absorption into a new community.

I’m afraid I have to fall back on David Smyth’s work, which appears to me to be fairly comprehensive.  Until we can make some clear link between Bostonais Pangman and Pierre Bostonais dit Tete Jaune, I’m going to have to stick with the original identification of Tete Jaune as Iroquois — not Iroquois-Metis or Metis, regardless of his biological ancestry, because I have seen no evidence that he identified himself as anything other than Iroquois.  However, if we ever can make the link with Pangman, there is strong evidence that he self-identified as Metis.

This question highlights one of the difficulties of tracing individuals in the fur trade.  By its very nature, the western fur trade was a very mobile environment, both physically and culturally.  People moved from place to place with relative ease and freedom, and often could adapt their cultural identities too.  Given the many similarities in names and even nicknames in the fur trade, and the inevitable gaps in the surviving historical documents, figuring out whether or not a fellow from Red River and a chap working in the Rocky Mountains are the same man can be infuriatingly inconclusive.

Published in: on 1 March 2010 at 12:17 PM  Comments (1)  

The HBC in the Great Depression

In my copious amounts of spare time, I am teaching two courses at the University of Winnipeg.  One is HIST/BUS 3135 – The Hudson’s Bay Company and the Modern Department Store.  Right now, I’m working my way through the minute books of the Governor and Committee in London, and of the Canadian Committee in Winnipeg, during the 1930-33 period.  The onset of the Depression coincided with (and helped precipitate) a major shift in strategic control from London to Winnipeg:  the Canadian Committee was “authorised to exercise full power and authority in the administration of the Company’s affairs in all departments throughout Canada….with the understanding that matters of policy and principle and important capital expenditure will as hitherto be subject to consultation with the Governor and Committee and that such power and authority shall be exercisable subject to such directions as may from time to time be given by the Governor and Committee or by a General Court of the Company.”  (RG 2/1/15, 26 September 1930)  The idea was that this would allow closer inspection and direction of the day-to-day operations of the Company’s stores in western Canada, but the directors in London realised that this was just the first of many steps they would have to take in order to steer the Company through the Depression.

Published in: on 19 February 2010 at 1:26 PM  Leave a Comment  

Hello world!

I never thought I would start my own blog, but here I am.  This is an experiment, an attempt at sharing my wide ranging research on the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company — from my keen interest in the HBC’s late 17th century beginnings to its transformation from fur trade to retail in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Bear with me as I make my own transition from pencil and paper to the World Wide Web.  Wish me luck!

Published in: on 18 February 2010 at 7:52 PM  Leave a Comment