children on Wood Street surrounding man dressed as Father Christmas handing out toys
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Adapting Tradition: Christmas at the Wood Street Mission

Christmas is always a special time of the year for the Wood Street Mission

By Clio Flaherty and Max Maxfield

Man dressed as father Christmas handing out gifts
Father Christmas surrounded by children Ref. WSM/15/2/27

Clio Flaherty and Max Maxfield, University of Manchester MA placement students, join us for their final guest post on the Wood Street Mission

During this year we’ve been participating in a placement at the John Rylands Library as part of our studies at the University of Manchester. In this role we’ve integrated a series of historical materials into the library’s existing Wood Street Mission Archive and had the opportunity to really get to grips with the history of this local charity. Thankfully, as lockdown restrictions were lifted, we were able to continue with our work in August and we conclude our enjoyable time in the placement with a look at one of the Wood Street Mission’s oldest traditions, its festive activities.

From the earliest days of the Wood Street Mission a broad range of Christmas services have been delivered. In the 1870s the charity began its tradition of hosting Christmas day breakfasts, organising festive hymn services and offering shelter to homeless children. However, the charity’s flagship programme in this period was the toy distribution project that saw hundreds of children line-up along Wood Street on Boxing Day to receive a gift. A member of the management team (usually dressed as Santa Claus) would offer the children a toy and an orange, both of which were considered by working-class families at the time to be luxury items. 

Father Christmas surrounded by children, Ref. WSM/15/2/27

These distribution events were frequently attended by city dignitaries and often caught the attention of local journalists and the Manchester public. Recognising the public interest in their Christmas activities, staff at the charity promptly made the toy scheme the main event of their seasonal promotional campaigns in the late nineteenth century. Subsequently, the festive programme (and the Boxing-Day toy event especially) became a key means through which the Wood Street Mission engaged with local media, raised awareness of the charity’s general activities and expanded their circle of committed supporters. 

Distribution begins, WSM/15/2/2

The charity continued to utilise the Christmas programme as a promotional opportunity well into the first half of the twentieth century as the scale of the toy scheme expanded at an astonishing rate. From 1945 to 1955 the number of toys that were distributed at Christmas rose from 1800 to 4000. However, despite efforts to maintain media coverage of the event, several prominent local newspapers refused to continue their support. For instance, in a meeting with the charity’s management committee in the late-1940s, representatives from The Manchester Guardian refused to expand their coverage of the event, whilst the paper effectively abandoned all of its coverage of the charity’s toy distribution scheme by the mid-1950s. Further complications arose in this period as demand for toys dropped dramatically, possibly due to the success of the welfare state and rising working-class prosperity.

Despite these issues, the Wood Street Mission recognised that the toy distribution remained an important tradition and continued with the scheme during the 1960s, albeit in a new form. The appointment of Arnold Yates in 1962 sparked a reshuffle of Christmas activities as the new superintendent attempted to modernise the charity and reconnect it with the local community. For instance, the ‘outdated’ and ‘impersonal’ Boxing Day queueing system (as it was described by the committee) was ended in 1964 and replaced by a new scheme in which toys were given privately to parents a week before Christmas Day in the charity’s main building. These reforms altered a tradition that had begun almost a hundred years earlier and gave parents the joy of giving a gift to their children themselves. 

Display of dolls and musical instruments, Ref. WSM/17/7 undated

This format of the toy scheme has survived right up to the present day and demand for gifts has risen sharply in the last thirty years. Since the early 1990s, the number of toys distributed by the charity has trebled, with 11,500 Christmas presents being delivered in 2018/19. However, following the appointment of manager Des Lynch in 2017, the Christmas programme offered by the charity has changed somewhat. The staff no longer assemble gift-bags as parents now themselves pick out presents for their children from the Wood Street Mission’s extensive collection of toys (most of which are now brand new rather than second-hand).

Photographic Album c.1920s, Ref. WSM/15/1/2 p 3

It is clear that the work of the Wood Street Mission during the festive period has been adapted through time to meet the needs of the local community. This year is no different as support for struggling families in Manchester and Salford during the pandemic is now more important than ever. Thankfully, the Great Northern Warehouse has stepped in to ensure that the charity has the resources and space required to enable the Christmas appeal to go ahead in the midst of the ongoing Covid crisis.

If you wish to support the Wood Street Mission this Christmas please follow the link below. 

Clio and Max at the John Rylands Library

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