For several weeks if you happened to fall

In the way of the ladies of Polam Hall,

You would hear them talk, if they talked at all,

Of a great event,

That was shortly meant

To make their acquaintances hastily run

With promise of pleasure and prizes and fun,

Each hoping to find,

Some gift to his mind,

That grew on a tree, of a marvellous kind.

On December 19, 1861, an anonymous poet performed his humorous epic poem – all 350 lines of it dedicated to a Christmas tree – to the Darlington Essay Meeting held in the grandiose surroundings of the home of Sir Joseph Whitwell Pease.

The poem was such a success that copies of it were printed and neatly bound for private circulation and appreciation among the town’s literary set. The little booklet is very rare and for the first time in 30 years, a copy has recently surfaced.

The lines record the excitement, and even the sexual tension, of what was the great social centrepiece of the wealthy Quakers’ Christmas season as they traditionally gathered at Polam Hall – then a Quaker girls’ school – for the tree party.

Darlington and Stockton Times: The first page of the 1861 Polam Christmas Tree poem

Christmas trees had been a Germanic tradition ever since the mid 16th Century when religious reformer Martin Luther decorated a fir tree with candles to show children how the stars twinkled in the sky on the night that Jesus was born.

The tradition crossed to this country in 1800 when Queen Charlotte, the German-born wife of George III, dressed a tree for Christmas Day at Windsor Castle. However, at that time the royal family and its foreign ways were so unpopular with the British people that no one took any notice.

Queen Victoria and her German husband, Prince Albert, changed that. They made royalty fashionable, and when, in 1848, the Illustrated London News showed Victoria and Albert gathered around a candle-covered Christmas tree, their children looking up at it in awe, the British people immediately took the tradition to their hearts.

Darlington and Stockton Times: The December 1848 illustration showing Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children happily gathered around a Christmas tree, and suddenly the craze took over

Five years later, on December 21, 1853, 83-year-old Edward “the Father of the Railways” Pease wrote grumpily in his diary: “Invited to the Proctors' Boarding School for Girls to see what is called a Christmas tree. I did not feel inclined to go. About 70 were present."

This is the first evidence of a Christmas tree in Darlington.

The Proctors were three spinster sisters, Jane, Elizabeth and Barbara, who had started their Quaker school in a large house in Houndgate – now the Saltfish restaurant – in 1848 to tap into Darlington’s increasingly prosperous Quaker community.

After displaying the first known Christmas tree, they moved their school the following year to the larger mansion of Polam Hall, and the Christmas tree tradition went with them.

And so the Darlington poet – perhaps the bard of Branksome – described the giggly schoolgirls excitedly put all of their crafting skills into action making gifts to be hung on the massive tree.

Such felting, and fitting,

And quilting, and knitting,

They managed to do, whether standing or sitting;

Such dotting, and spotting,

And no one knows whatting,

Much harder to tell than Gunpowder Plotting;

Such hemming and sewing,

And coming and going,

And giving advice, and consulting, and showing,

From Kitty, and Fanny,

And Ellen, and Nanny,

And Lizzie and Mary and Sophie and Annie

And Susan and Sarah and Tishie and Gulie

And Jenny and Emma and Pussy and Lulie

Who gladly devoted their skill and their time

With a great many more that I cannot make rhyme.

Darlington and Stockton Times: An Edwardian postcard showing the grand ivy-covered entrance to Polam Hall. The Christmas Tree party continued as Darlington's seasonal highlight until the outbreak of the First World War

The girls made all kinds of trinkets and treasures which they wrapped up with a little motto they had composed. Then they attached a number to their precious parcels ready to be placed on the tree:

On Thursday the ladies devoted the morning

To hanging the gifts on the Tree, and adorning

With great expedition

and no intermission,

The boughs and the branches in every position.

There were things for the sofa, and table, and chair,

There were things for the wise, and witty, and fair,

There were things that were brittle, and things that would tear,

And things with which no other things could compare;

There were things of all colours, white, amber and black,

And things that were meant to go off with a crack.

There were things made of silver and things made of gold,

And things to be held, and things that would hold.

The guests from all points of the compass came forth,

From the East and the West and the South and the North;

They walked and they ran and they rode and they drove

From Cottage and Terrace and Villa and Grove.

Till the gentleman thought, as they stood on the mats,

There would hardly be room in the hall for their hats!

The poet namechecks all the great gentlemen industrialists who were there with their wives – Pease, Backhouse, Thompson, Lucas, Mewburn, Ianson – but the young ladies were not interested in such beardy fuddy-duddies. They only had eyes for the young Quaker men with whom the tree gave them the chance to mingle.

Each man drew a number and then eyed the tree to see if he could spot the trinket or treasure that was coming his way. The poet explains:

The tickets, with numbers, were chosen by lot,

And everyone wondered what prize he had got.

As Arthur and Gurney and Henry Fell Pease

Were with scissors invested,

And proceeded with ease

To cut down from the Tree all the gifts they could see

And to hand them about as the numbers might be.

Now comes the really fun bit as the guests discover they have unwrapped the most inappropriate present and so, in the dim half-light of the candles (or tapers) on the tree, they begin to swap gifts with the girls – and perhaps furtive glances too, although, of course, as this is a Quaker gathering, everyone behaves with the utmost decorum:

A slight disappointment was seen on his face,

When a 'talented man' drew a handkerchief case.

But he presently managed a bargain to strike,

And made an exchange with a lady, Miss Pike.

A nice pair of slippers was won by his brother,

But the pair that he wanted was gained by another.

One very nice girl got a packet of soap

That was worthy of washing the hands of the Pope.

And a very nice lady who came out of France,

Drew the flowers she had made, by a very nice chance.

Yet all good parties must come to an end, and so a few days before Christmas 1861, before the good company in Sir Joseph’s tasteful residence of Woodlands (now St Teresa’s Hospice), our wordsmith wraps up his epic poem with the tree’s boughs all bare, the candles extinguished and the visitors going home…

Darlington and Stockton Times: A tall Christmas tree

And when on the Tree

There was nothing to see,

The crackers all crack’d and the tapers put out,

The friends then assembled for coffee and tea,

But soon after ten

It was over, and then

In muffles and ruffles, in bonnets and caps,

And in all sorts of hoods, and in all sorts of wraps,

And in all sorts of ways, and to all sorts of places,

With pleasant ‘good nights’, and with pleasanter faces,

And with many kind wishes and kindly expressions,

The guests all departed with all their possessions.

Happy Christmas!

  • With thanks to Jeremiah Vokes who has just discovered the booklet amid a collection of local material that he has just taken delivery of in his antiquarian bookshop in Coniscliffe Road, Darlington