Maybe it was Santa Claus?
As the twelve festive days of Christmas now fade away into memory and we start once again to work on our extended waistlines whilst wondering where we will spend our next holiday in the sun, let us spare a moments thought for the cash-strapped residents of a Melton Mowbray of more than a century ago who worked as hard as they were able at this changing time of year to provide some form of extra income to invest in a little happiness for their families, maybe on the train to the East Coast?
In December of the year 1900, many people would hove been employed locally at the business of hand-raising the traditional and local delicacy of the ubiquitous Melton Mowbray pork-pie. It would certainly have been a case of ‘all hands to the pump’ as efforts were traditionally increased during that month to assist in the process of manufacturing these popular food favourites, a great number of which would have been required not just locally, but to export to all areas of this country and other far-flung corners of the world. This was especially so in the case of the military fighting in foreign lands for good Queen Victoria. But each and every pie produced in the town would need to be made individually by hand, the cases crafted on a bench with a wooden former and these packed with the correct ingredients, which then included the best meat taken from the legs of the hundreds of poor porkers who always, like the turkeys, dreaded the arrival of the festive season. Packed with a form of gelatine so that the contents would stand up to their many miles of travel, they were then cooked and suitably packed according to the length of its proposed journey. I am assured that many of these workers would hardly have been able to afford themselves the luxury of purchasing any the products of their hard labour, as this commodity was considered to be the treat of the better-off in a country approaching hard times. But I’m sure that ‘special’ arrangements were made for the pies to end up in most of the workers homes on Christmas day along the Stilton cheese and mince pies.
Located in the east midlands county of Leicestershire, the small market town of Melton Mowbray and it’s environs was, at the dawn of the 20th century, a beehive of food and drink production which was mainly due to its interconnection with a plentiful supply of comfortable hostelry or club accommodation resorted to by an ever-increasing presence of the mostly very wealthy hunting set during the winter season, with the result that the town was a little better off than most in the county. With many small cottage bakeries and butchers shops were by now into the business of providing these little gems that were as welcome sliced up on a grand dining table, or roughly wrapped in a napkin and popped a saddlebag in a rain-soaked countryside. There were probably a dozen or more pie makers around at the turn of that century, some of them being small family set ups, producing from the family kitchen, or others like Messrs. Dickinson and Morris, Mr Evans or Mr Crosher, (who was the originator of the well-known Tuxford and Tebbutt factory of today). Not for them the sprawling purpose-built, state-of-the-art pie factories which we see now in our cities, churning out vast quantities of their product almost unseen on rolling belts and untouched by man around the clock.
Who needs Scrooge?
Anyway, this is not intended to be a historical trip into the history of the Melton pork pie, more a moment I would like to share with you relating to a small snippet which I chanced to read in the Melton Times of Friday Jan 11th 1901 which demonstrates a way of life in another age when the above mentioned Mr Crosher stood in the public dock to face his ‘superiors’, accused of a ‘grave’ exploitation of his casual Christmas workers. I reproduce the piece, ‘as published’, to provide an true perception of the place and time. It reads:
MELTON MOWBRAY PETTY SESSIONS.
Tuesday — Before Mr C. W. Chaplin (in the chair), Colonel Baldock, Rev. P. F. Gorst, and Mr. Andrew Shipman.
John Thorpe Crosher, pork-pie manufacturer Melton, was charged by Mr. Sedgwick, factory Inspector, with illegally employing three women, viz, Emma Taylor, Mary E. Irons, and Catherine Pettifer, overtime, at Melton, on the 19th December. — In opening the case, Mr. Sedgwick said the complaints were made under section[s] 10 and 12 of the Factorie’s Act of 1878. In the course of his duties he visited the premises occupied by the defendant on the 19th December last year, and on making enquiry of the females who were working on the place he found out that they had been employed from 6 a.m. until 12 at night, except for 3 1/2 hours allowed for meals and recreation. The legal period for employment was from seven o’clock in the morning until seven at night, with 1 1/2 hours for meals. In the case of pork-pie manufacturers, however, there were special arrangements in the Act whereby women might work from seven o’clock in the morning until nine at night, but not more than three nights in one week, and not more than 30 times in one year. As he had before stated, however, he found that the women had been employed from six o’clock in the morning until twelve at night, so they would see that a grave irregularity and contravention of the Act had taken place. He was aware that Christmas time was an exceptionally busy one, but the Act had provided that women could work two hours extra, and if that was not sufficient time for the work to be completed, then the employer ought to obtain extra help. By working the women after nine o’clock at night employers were liable to a fine not exceeding £3 in each case. Although he had only taken three cases out, yet he found other women on the place who had been working overtime. — Defendant said that they were all aware that the week before Christmas was a very heavy one, and it so happened that on the day prior to the Inspectors visit they had a large order come in, and they had to work overtime to supply it. He might say the women did not in the least mind working overtime, and two of the women mentioned in the charge-sheet were not regularly employed by the firm. — In answer to a question from the Bench, defendant said that the women were paid 3d an hour extra for overtime.
—Defendant, who pleaded guilty, was fined £1 in each case, including costs.
For information and at no extra cost, in 1900 £1 was equivalent to £101.15 today and 3d (old pence) would be worth today, £1.26
I also discovered from the same newspaper that Queen Victoria’s extended reign came to an abrupt end that same week with her sad passing and that on the Monday morning after his Court appearance, John Crosher was to be rudely awakened to discover that his small bakery was under about three feet of floodwater as, overnight, the local River Eye had burst its banks with devastating effect – the iconic town flood of 1901 – filling the centre of the town with much water.