Historical Snippets, WA History

Christmas in 1899

Hay Street in Perth circa 1899. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia.

[It matters little] …whether we make good cheer snugly within four walls and with closed windows, or beneath the verandah or spreading tree, or in the house with doors and windows open to the most welcome of guests, the breeze – Christmas is ever the same, the day when we give ourselves up to friendship, to merrymaking, to pleasure, and desire nothing better of Fate than that it shall “let every man be jolly.”

The last day of trading in Perth took place on Saturday, 23 December 1899. The city was buzzing with shoppers making last minute purchases before everything closed on Christmas Eve. Businesses displayed their wares attractively in the windows and surrounded them with eucalyptus boughs, palm branches and orange Christmas tree flowers. Verandah poles were likewise adorned with the same foliage.

Australian Christmas tree flowers

Windows were decorated for all tastes. Some were adorned with clothing, fabric, millinery, lace and ribbon. Others displayed men’s clothes and accessories. Children, of course, were not forgotten. Arranged behind the glass for their eager eyes were all the latest dolls, carts, toys, tea sets, and “instruments of wind and percussion which, in the mouth of a child, occasions his seniors to long for death…

There were grocery windows crowded with Christmas cheer, ironmongery windows, books windows, jewellery windows, and picture windows…

In the grocery windows, fruit, ham and beef were all temptingly displayed to encourage patrons to buy food for a Christmas feast.

On the corner of Hay Street and Barrack Street near the Town Hall was a crowd dressed up in their “holiday attire“. Young men and women strolled about in groups enjoying each other’s conversation. Every now and then they erupted in “mirthful peals of laughter“.

Fathers carried their children in their arms, on their shoulders or piggyback. Those who did not held their little hands firmly as they led them through the crowd. Many people walked the streets carefully grasping and balancing their Christmas parcels of food, clothes and toys.

Various types of transport were available to help the public travel to and from their destinations. The recently opened tram line may have been a popular choice for many.

Up and down Hay-street, at short intervals, pass the trams, their “bells, bells, bells, bells, bells”  ringing incessantly as the motormen signal for a clear track.

One of the first cars in Perth’s electric tramway circa 1899. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Horse drawn omnibuses moved up and down Hay Street, Barrack Street and William Street. Drivers contributed to the sounds of the city by shouting out the suburbs they were heading to.

‘Ay-street, Subiacker! ‘Ighgate ‘ill! Wannerew!

Barrack Street circa 1890-1900. A horse drawn omnibus is visible in the street. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia.

On another corner the sound of an organ rippled through the air as an organ grinder played “Dreaming of Halley” on his instrument. A group of people gathered to listen while children watched the man’s monkey in wide-eyed wonder as it contorted and moved its body around for their entertainment.

In other parts of Perth street bands set themselves up and played songs for the public. A cap passed around to those listening secured a few coins for the musicians.

The day ended, night fell and many of the stores were illuminated in the darkness. Electric lights, gas lights and Chinese lanterns “flooded the streets with light” and lit up the window displays prettily.

Various hotels were likewise decorated with lights. From within, the sounds of music and step-dancing filtered out onto the street. Two little girls stood outside one hotel and sang songs for a large crowd. Similarly, a Salvation Army band moved from one pub to another, hoping their music would “woo the revellers from the inebriating cup.

As it got later still, visitors eventually left Perth. Trams and omnibuses were packed with bodies. Men, women and children all rushed through the streets to the station in order to catch the train. Those who missed their chance walked home.

Every one was exhausted and none more so than the children.

More and more people left and the streets of Perth were quiet. Those who remained made their way to the Roman Catholic Cathedral to attend the midnight service. In contrast, others continued their celebrations and good cheer until the early hours of the morning. They staggered home on Christmas Eve after having spent an enjoyable night “keeping up Christmas.



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