Throwing Cheese from the Belfry

Paddington Church in 1750 and 1805, as pictured in Old and New London Volume 5 (1878)

Christmas History 39.  There is a longstanding tradition in Britain of giving aid to the poor at Christmas.  200 years ago, the Leicester Chronicle reported a wealthy landowner distributing “a fat beast, four sheep, and two hundred and eight yards of linen cloth” to his neighbours (from 26th December 1818).  The following is another example of Christmas benevolence, from the Chester Chronicle, 25th December 1818:

Sir Thomas and Lady Stanley, of Hooton, with their accustomed liberality, have ordered to be distributed to the poor of Hooton and Eastham, some useful articles of clothing, suitable for the season of the year, and certain quantity of coals, to those who are deserving of the same, by their moral and good conduct. —And to the children the Vicar’s School at Eastham, established for education upon the National plan, to which they are such liberal patrons, her Ladyship, on Monday last, presented to each boy a new hat, and to each girl a new bonnet, in number one hundred and sixty children, with a large bunn to every one them.— In addition to the above, we have since heard, that the benevolent Baronet, has had two Bullocks slaughtered to be distributed to his poor work-people on Christmas Eve.—We shall be glad to hear of so delightful an example being generally followed.

But such benevolence was not always organised in such an orderly fashion.  The same year, the Morning Post reported an annual tradition of throwing food from the belfry of Paddington Church.  The following quote is from the 22nd December 1818 issue.

According to annual custom, at eight o’clock, on the morning of the Sunday before Christmas Day, a quantity of bread and cheese was thrown from the belfry of Paddington Church among the populace. The assemblage was immense. It consisted in a great measure of men, women, and children of the lower class, and a very few others, attracted by curiosity. The concourse was greater than usual, and the injury done to the tombstones, raised graves, gravel-walks, railing, etc, we should think can scarcely be less than £20.

We are informed that what was thrown away (and literally wasted, as well as thrown away, was great part of it), was less this year than before; the more creditable plan of distribution among the needy parishioners, by tickets, having been adopted, and nearly a thousand of these, for bread and coals, will be apportioned to the fittest subjects. We suppose that certain estates belonging to this Parish are held by tenure of throwing bread and cheese away from the Church, but the quantity to be thrown away is undefined and has been already considerably reduced. We would recommend its entire abolition, except in regard to a single piece of bread and cheese, not to endanger the loss of whatever property may be held by it.

We believe that no written document on the origin of those “bread and cheese” lands is in existence; but there is a vague oral tradition, that two Sisters (paupers) travelling from the country to claim certain estates, in which they succeeded, and that having been first relieved at Paddington, they gave certain land to that Parish, for the use of the Poor, as a memorial of it…

The intention of the Donor of this Charity must have been confined to the parishioners of Paddington; but by making a scramble for it, strangers have at least an equal chance, and the destruction of the bread and cheese must almost necessarily occur in the scramble, particularly in wet or dirty weather. We hope that the scrambling scene has taken place for the last time.

1818 was far from being the last time bread and cheese was thrown to the poor at Paddington Church.  The practice continued until 1834.  The tradition started in the late 17th Century.

Happy Christmas from Windows into History, and thank you for reading this year’s “Christmas History” articles.  You can find all the previous ones on the Contents page.

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About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in 19th Century, Britain, Christmas, Christmas History, History, Newspapers, People and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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