With its chorus of scantily clad slave-girls paraded around the stage by ranks of muscular men, the West End musical Chu Chin Chow seemed an unlikely choice of festive treat for King George V and Queen Mary.
There was certainly much tamer fare on offer in London‘s theatreland that Christmas of 1918, including productions of Babes In The Wood, starring ‘the most winsome Principal Boy imaginable’ and a ‘gorgeous and glittering Cinderella’.
Yet there the royal couple were on the evening of December 28, taking in a show so daring that complaints had been made about it to the Lord Chamberlain, the censor of the day.
Quite what their Majesties made of such numbers as Any Time Is Kissing Time and When A Pullet Is Plump, She’s Tender is not known.
Father Christmas gifts two children a doll in 1918. That autumn of 1918, the pandemic had entered its second and most deadly wave in Britain, killing just over 8,000 people in the first week of November alone
But this pantomime for adults was certainly a hit with the public, the Globe newspaper describing how the queue for tickets wound ‘its snake-like course’ all along Haymarket and into nearby Waterloo Place.
Those long lines were part of the record crowds which, according to the newspaper’s headline, saw ‘All London A-Theatre-Going’ that year. As each theatre filled to overflowing, ‘whole families were to be seen waiting trustfully even when they had no chance of obtaining admission.
‘How many thousands of persons they estimated the theatre would contain, it is impossible to say,’ the Globe marvelled.
But nobody could blame them for being ‘on amusement bent’, for this was a Yuletide like no other.
Only six weeks after the Armistice saw the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front following four years of bloody warfare and the loss of hundreds of thousands of people, it was widely referred to as the ‘Peace Christmas’.
A barber in 1918 wearing a face covering (pictured) — a garment that has become all too familiar to us
But there was another reason to celebrate, too: the nation was seemingly rid of a spectre all too familiar today — a pandemic which had threatened to see Christmas cancelled altogether.
Back then, of course, the rampaging virus caused a lethal infection dubbed the Spanish Flu, which turned the skin of victims blue and filled their lungs with fluid which suffocated them.
First reported among American military personnel in the spring of 1918, it could kill even perfectly healthy young men and women within 24 hours of infecting them.
Up to a third of the population of the world is estimated to have become infected — some 500 million people — and it would claim an estimated 228,000 lives in Britain and 50 million worldwide. Celebrated war poet Robert Graves and Prime Minister David Lloyd George were among noted survivors.
That autumn of 1918, the pandemic had entered its second and most deadly wave in Britain, killing just over 8,000 people in the first week of November alone.
With no government-imposed lockdown in place, it was up to the authorities in each town and city to decide what precautions to take.
With no government-imposed lockdown in place, it was up to the authorities in each town and city to decide what precautions to take. Pictured: A man sprays disinfectant
By the beginning of December many schools had closed and there was much talk of churches and chapels shutting too.
All around Leicester there were official posters urging people to stay away from cinemas, theatres and music halls.
And for returning troops awaiting demobilisation across the country there was no choice in the matter, the military authorities banned them from any place of entertainment. ‘Every semblance of khaki has been completely eliminated from audiences,’ noted the theatre newspaper The Stage.
Many establishments were also forbidden to admit anyone under the age of 14, leading to this farcical situation reported in the Yorkshire Post: ‘A Newcastle theatre announces ‘Great Children’s Pantomime’ and at the foot of the bill is the line, ‘Children not admitted’. The children have the influenza to thank for this.’
Cinemas which usually had a continuous bill running throughout the day were forced to divide their performances into two or three sessions with what the Liverpool authorities described as ‘breathing space’ in between, so that disinfectants might be used to create a ‘new atmosphere’.
Such measures became a selling-point in themselves, one cinema boasting proudly that it was ‘The Best Ventilated Picture Theatre in Bedford’.
But for all such reassurances, people were still ‘fighting shy of cinemas and all kinds of meetings’, according to the Manchester Guardian.
Add to all this the food and fuel rationing still in place and it promised to be the most Scrooge-like of Yuletides.
But then came what seemed to be something of a Christmas miracle. No one could explain why, but the death rate began dropping dramatically.
By December 21, the weekly number of flu deaths had fallen to 1,029 — an eighth of the November peak. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph suggested that ‘the influenza epidemic is abating as rapidly as it arose’.
‘All the figures are much lower than in previous weeks,’ confirmed the Dundee Evening Telegraph. ‘And matters are now believed to be quite normal.’
No one knows why this occurred, although the theory is that the virus had mutated into a less deadly strain.
If only the same could be said of the coronavirus this year, instead of some of the most direct warnings yet from scientists this week that there will be thousands of deaths as a result of the planned five-day relaxation of rules which will usher in a third wave of the virus. Back in December 1918, the mood was very different as infection levels plummeted. Although many schools remained closed, local authorities country-wide removed restrictions on attendance at entertainment venues.
And even the government got into the festive spirit — declaring a lifting of the blackout which had prevented shopkeepers from illuminating their windows, both for fear of German bombs and to save energy.
As the Newcastle Chronicle pointed out, this meant many children would be enjoying ‘their first ‘light’ Christmas’, with the shops seen ‘as a sort of fairyland’.
So ensued ‘an unequalled rush’ to spend money, encouraged by an advertisement for Boots the Chemist suggesting that ‘this year of all years, everyone will expect a present’.
It was also the month in which women had been given the vote for the first time.
That momentous General Election was held on December 14 with the results due to be announced after Christmas. But there was nothing progressive about the presents recommended for them.
While Stell’s of Newcastle’s list of ‘Delightful Christmas Presents for Ladies’ included ‘afternoon tea aprons’, Messrs. Mappin & Webb of London suggested that ‘a charming gift for a woman is the artistically shaped bread basket’.
During those less extravagant times, other advertisements emphasised what Dunn’s of Chichester called ‘useful presents’, including ‘handkerchiefs singly and in dainty fancy boxes’.
By contrast, a clothes shop in Brighton insisted that the importance of this special Christmas should be acknowledged by ‘generous giving’ and offered ‘furs in all fashionable species’.
Whatever you had your eye on, it paid to shop early. Christmas Day was on a Wednesday, and on the last Saturday before, the crowds in London were such that The Times described how ‘the tradesman who deals in presents must sigh for more counter space.
‘As for windows, the biggest was often inadequate on Saturday to accommodate all the faces that desired to be pressed against it. To try to look into some was as difficult as to get on the omnibuses.’
The ‘King of Toys’ that Christmas was ‘a wonderful British-made model tank. This is fitted with caterpillar tracks which revolve when the tank is pulled along, enabling it to surmount any obstacle.
‘Yesterday in one great Regent Street store there was loud wailing from a party of small folk who arrived when the last tank had been sold.’
On Christmas Eve, the Yorkshire Post reported that the spending fever in Leeds that day saw ‘several instances of pressure so great that it was necessary to lock the doors and only let fresh customers in as those who had been served came out.
‘At noon, a big window in the heart of the city was empty save for one or two highly priced Teddy Bears and an equally expensive doll’s perambulator.
‘Several retailers in the game row of the Kirkgate Market were announcing by notices that they were sold out of turkeys, geese and rabbits. Others had a few turkeys, distinctly of the scraggy order.’
The same journalist described a shortage of Christmas trees — ‘to meet the demand it has been necessary to cut down some of the larger ones’ — and mistletoe and holly were also fetching high prices: ‘It has been a very little bit that one got for a shilling.’
Although a shortage of raisins and currants presented ‘immense difficulties in the preparation of Christmas puddings and mincemeat,’ high-class greengrocer Austin Hodgkinson of Derby had reassuring news: ‘Icing sugar is to be had, so that decoration may conceal the still prevailing plainness of our cakes.’
The same shop was also offering a wide range of Christmas crackers — ‘a very large proportion of them decorated in the colours of the Allies’.
The wealthy had theirs made to order, the Worthing Gazette describing versions 9 ft long and fully functional, ‘cracking like the small ones in boxes’.
‘The pulling of these monster crackers is the principal event in the big houses at Christmas time and the cracker-maker is generally told what to put in them.
‘One giant which recently left the factory contained a miniature railway engine, carriages and rails. Another had 36 musical toys.’
More common were stories of how both thrift and rationing of paper led many to fashion their own Christmas adornments. These included decorative chains made out of old wallpaper — and homes looked no less welcoming for it.
‘Many houses were more profusely decorated than last year,’ said the Preston Herald, describing how church bells across Lancashire ‘sounded cheerily and there were the usual congregations at midnight masses at Roman Catholic churches.’
This was followed by a Christmas Day which ‘dawned bright and sharp’ with ‘on the whole a livelier atmosphere, the general depression which has held us all captive having given way, though leaving still, unfortunately, the mourners to nurse their grief.’
Both the war and the Spanish Flu were clearly very much on people’s minds, the North Wilts Herald describing how ‘the churches were especially well attended this year by worshippers thankful for the safety of loved ones. At all the churches it was observable that the worship was of a very earnest character.’
At the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle, one of the house surgeons dressed up as Santa Claus and handed out presents to the patients with ‘tobacco for some, cigarettes for the others, together with apples and oranges’.
There were also many acts of kindness towards the poor and needy, with orphans invited to a dance at the Palace Hotel in London, hosted by American officers billeted there, and to a party at the Savoy which included a Punch and Judy show.
Elsewhere in the capital, the King and Queen attended Westminster Abbey for a morning service which was ‘of a simple character and included some Christmas carols’.
That afternoon, Queen Mary went on to the Royal Albert Hall for an entertainment hosted by naval officers — which was no doubt a far more circumspect affair than the colourful Chu Chin Chow.
That treat was yet to come, as were many other attractions which re-opened on Boxing Day.
They included the RAF’s display of captured enemy aircraft at the Agricultural Halls in Islington, North London, and a chance to see Madame Tussauds’ latest exhibits — a ‘life-like portrait model of Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig’, alongside ‘celebrities of the past and present and heroes of the war’.
These were reminders of a cruel world in which war could carry off one’s loved ones at a moment’s notice.
So too, could disease, and the Spanish Flu would return for a third, albeit less deadly, wave in the spring of 1919 before finally petering out.
For the moment, however, the nation remained happily unaware that it was not over quite yet, and the Derbyshire Advertiser And Journal offered people advice which befits this year of the Covid Christmas — even if, as Boris Johnson implores, it is to be a ‘little’ one with limited family members.
It urged them to put aside for a few days the troubles of the recent past and enjoy ‘a halcyon time of calm and recuperation, basking in the glow of the hearth.
‘For life on this old Planet will always be a struggle and to most of us a bitter if triumphant struggle. And so to all our readers a happy Christmas and a bright and hopeful New Year.’
Amen to that!