Christmas 1939 - the lull before the storm

A Christmas party for evacuees in 1939

A Christmas party for evacuees in 1939 - Credit: Torquay Museum

We all know that Christmas won’t be the same this year. But what was it like during the war?

In my book The Funk Hole Myth – Torquay during World War Two, I reveal that Christmas 1939 was the lull before the storm. 

It was to be the last relatively normal one for five years until Hitler was defeated.

Torquay’s housewives had a pre-Christmas shock when it was announced there would be limited butter supplies during December, although rationing would not officially come into force until January 8.

The Ministry of Food said it would endeavour to issue a weekly supply, subject to stocks being available, but in effect everyone from now on would be limited to a maximum of four ounces per person. An immediate outcry ensued.

The Ministry of Food was criticised at a town hall meeting of the Torquay Food Committee with shopkeepers complaining they were taking the brunt of housewives’ wrath and being called liars when they told people of the restriction.

Another complaint was the increased price of marmalade with claims of profiteering.

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This brought an angry response from several Torquay grocers, one of whom said there were 29 different types of marmalade on sale in the town. Those were the days!

A concerted campaign to get people to shop early for Christmas had begun in mid-November with traders concerned that many people would shop ‘blindfold’ by which they meant ‘shop through the post’.

A strong advertising campaign warned that it was unfair to ‘overworked’ shop assistants to shop late and that people might find the very things they had set their heart on would be gone.

There seemed plenty of choice for those who had the money.

Allanson, the butchers in Union Street, offered a ‘stupendous show’ outside their shop in daylight hours throughout December with hundreds of turkeys, geese, chickens and ducks hanging from the walls of their premises. A turkey cost two shillings a pound (£4.40 today).

Costers, just up the road, had overcoats costing 30 shillings, shirts for five shillings and men’s kid gloves costing seven shillings.

A large bottle of port at Whiteways cost two shillings and three pence, while Boots sold their Jasmin perfume for two shillings and six pence and a steel knife set for eight shillings and six pence.

If you wanted to impress your friends Bendle Bros. promised printed Christmas cards ‘with your own name and address’.

A few traders alluded to the war in their advertising in terms which were soon to change.

Bobbys on the Strand said because of ‘the present emergency’ (a euphemism for war) they urged people to buy really practical gifts for Christmas.

Neighbours Williams and Cox used a similar tone when they talked about ‘doing your Christmas shopping in difficult times made delightfully easy with a list of useful gifts appropriate for the times we live in, usefulness being the keynote.’

The shop re-opened just in time for the Christmas rush after September’s disastrous fire.

There were heavy hearts among Torquay children when news arrived just before Christmas that Douglas, their favourite chimpanzee had died of pneumonia only six weeks after arriving at Regent’s Park Zoo.

He had been moved from Mr Herbert Whitley’s private zoo in Paignton where he had lived for eight years and been a major attraction.

With no bombers overhead, the government, in conjunction with the council, reduced the number of paid air raid wardens and other ARP personnel by 40 per cent from 150 to 90, saving £150 (£7,000 today) a week. It was a decision they regretted six months later.

There had been much criticism in local media of the money wardens received for what some considered should be voluntary work. After all, there had been no air raids and many felt the war would not be fought on any Torquay doorstep.

The fishing industry was vital to the country’s food needs, but while journeying out to sea was not as dangerous yet as it became the following year, the perils fishermen faced when carrying out their ordinary day-to-day activities were brought home on December 7 when two Torquay fishermen had to be rescued by lifeboat when their boat’s engine packed up off Hope’s Nose and they started to drift out to sea, driven by a strong south-westerly wind.

Fortunately, the boat had a good anchor, but the two men spent the night bailing out in the hope somebody would rescue them. It wasn’t until 12 hours later they were spotted five miles off Teignmouth. 

In the lead up to Christmas plans were made to try and entertain the large number of young evacuees now billeted in the town under the Government Evacuation Scheme during what would be for most of them their first Christmas away from home.

The aim was to provide interest and relaxation from schoolwork and its associated routine, and to relieve foster-parents from those difficulties which boredom and idleness can quickly produce.

It was agreed that the school Christmas holiday should be shortened to a fortnight and that each day some form of entertainment should be provided.

A club for boys under 14 was set up at Upton Vale Baptist Church’s Institute, while older boys were catered for at the YMCA.

Other Christmas holiday activities included film shows, indoor games, a swimming gala at the town’s baths, football matches, two illustrated lectures in conjunction with the National History Museum, a visit to a pantomime and trips to Cockington, Kents Cavern, Buckfastleigh, Exeter Cathedral and Brixham.

The peak of the Great Western Railway holiday rush was reached on Friday and Saturday, December 22 and 23, when more than 30 additional expresses left Paddington for the West of England and South Wales.

Famous expresses, suspended since the outbreak of war, were reinstated for the holiday. These included the midday Torbay Express, the 3.30pm Honeymoon Express and the 9.50pm final express to the west of England.

Christmas lunch or dinner was served in all the restaurant cars during the holiday period, but seats could not be reserved in the main compartments.

The most moving scenes of joy, however, were at Paddington, not Torquay, when some evacuees returned home briefly.

Some of Torquay’s largest hotels were booked up well in advance before Christmas with several reporting they had a waiting list for possible cancellations.

Smaller hotels and boarding houses also reported excellent bookings boosted by parents keen to see their evacuated children. One caterer said it was better business than had been the case for many years! 

For those visitors and locals alike who had money to spend there was plenty to keep them occupied. On Christmas Day the Imperial Hotel held a grand gala fancy dress dinner-dance and ball from 9pm to 2am costing £1 (£45 today) per person. For five shillings less there was entrance to the ball and a buffet.

The Grand Hotel’s programme started with a tennis tournament on Christmas Eve, an orchestral concert in the afternoon followed by a general knowledge quiz and an evening concert featuring the illusionist Jack Crosby.

A table tennis tournament started Christmas Day, followed by a buffet lunch, a tea dance and the hotel’s own gala dinner.

On Boxing Day, the Torquay Leander Swimming Club’s sturdy members said ‘mines, submarines of other forms of German frightfulness’ could not deter them from taking their 40th annual dip at Beacon Cove after which there was aquatic fun at the Marine Spa swimming baths and a water polo match.

The Pavilion’s pantomime Dick Whittington opened - as tradition dictated - on Boxing Day with twice daily performances.

There was less welcome news at Plainmoor when Torquay United manager Alf Stewart resigned. He said he was moving to Birmingham in the new year.

It was a further blow to the club; several key players had already left and the club had to loan players from Exeter to complete fixtures in the hastily-arranged South West Divisional League.

Even so, they ended the year with a six-game unbeaten run including a 1-1 draw at Plymouth Argyle.

Not everybody enjoyed their Christmas.

Several women who had been evacuated to Torquay to do war work complained that there was nowhere to go except a pub when they found themselves unwanted in their lodgings.

It was still standard practice for landladies to ask their lodgers to stay out all day after breakfast whether it was Christmas Day, or any other day!

The year ended with news that a record 1,009,045 cards and letters were stamped at Torquay and Paignton sorting offices in the week leading up to Christmas which were helped on their way by a late delivery on Christmas Eve, a Sunday.

* The Funk Hole Myth was published in March 2020 but is only available direct from David by emailing him at