Thursday, December 27, 2012

Boxing Day explained. And Hull Cheese

I have a word-a-day calendar for 2012, where each day it presents a forgotten English word and either a story about the word or about the day in the year. This was the one for Boxing day, aka St Stephen's Day, aka the day after Christmas, aka the start of Kwanzaa.


Hull cheese
A strong ale for which the town of Hull was at one time famous. To "eat Hull cheese" was to get incontinently drunk. —Trench Johnson's Phrases and Names: Their Origins and Meanings, 1906

London Boxing Day

William Tayler wrote in his Diary of William Tayler, Footman (1837):  "This [date] is what is called here Boxing Day. It's the day people go from house to house gathering their Christmas boxes. We had numbers here today—sweeps, beadles, lamplighters, waterman, dustmen, scavengers, postmen, and waits—these are a set of men that go about the streets playing musick in the night after people are in bed and asleep. Some people are very fond of hearing them, but for my part I don't admire being roused from a sound sleep by a whole band of musick. All these people expect to have a shilling or half a crown each. Miss P gave me half a sovereign for a Chirstmas box and Mr. S gave me half a crown. I might get fuddled [drunk] two or three times a day as all the trades people that serve this house are pressing with their glass of something to drink their health this Christmas time."

This British custom of presenting Christmas boxes, still practiced today, came from a time when alms boxes were placed in churches on Christmas and distributed the next day.

I've heard many explanations as to why it's called Boxing Day, but i'd never heard the explanation of the alms boxes. And, having lived in a place which for my lifetime thus far has decimalized currency, i had to refresh myself on what a shilling, half a crown, and half a sovereign were.

For those who forgot or for those who never learned, before decimalization in 1971, Britain had pounds (£), shillings (s), and pence (d).

12 pennies made 1 shilling
20 shillings made 1 pound
21 shillings made 1 guinea

So a half sovereign was a half a pound or 10 shillings.
Half a crown was 2s 6d; therefore a crown was worth 5 shillings (remember 6d is half a shilling--good old base 12).

It doesn't sound like much in today's money, half a pound or a quarter pound (we'd think of that as 50p or 25p); yet, in watching A Christmas Carol the other day (the Alistair Sim version), the charwoman is shocked when Scrooge wants to raise her wages to 10s a week (up from the 2s she had been receiving).

I don't know how much money footmen made, but to think that i'd get a raise from my employer equal to 5 times what i'm currently making, or a present equal to
5 times what i'd been making as most generous indeed!


  1. How interesting. I thought boxing day, the day after Christmas, was the day to box up what was not needed and send off to charity. That works well with your story of alms boxes, or expecting a "tip" for a box. It also goes with my Irish notion of St. Stephen's day as the day the wren was caught in the woods and became part of a kind of beggar's day/night. All variations on a theme.

    1. I've heard that, too, Joanne, and also that it's the day the servants were given off to celebrate and the meals for the master and mistress of the house were in boxes.

      I'd like to read that footman's diary. I'll have to see if i can find a copy of it somewhere.

  2. My first ever salary (as a trainee stockbroker) was 500 guineas a year; makes me sound ancient!

    1. At least you were paid in guineas and not ha'pennies or farthings!

  3. Happy New Year to you and your family.

    Gill in Canada