Wartime Christmas past and presents from the World War Zoo gardens, Newquay Zoo

1940s toy Ark and toy train, handmade in wartime from any materails to hand, treasured Christmas presents in wartime (Image: World War Zoo gardens project, Newquay Zoo)

1940s toy Ark and toy train, handmade in wartime from any materails to hand, treasured Christmas presents in wartime (Image: World War Zoo gardens project, Newquay Zoo)

It’s almost Christmas in the wartime zoo garden at Newquay Zoo. The snow and ice has for the moment gone from our ‘Dig For Victory’ allotment veg patch, leaving some plants looking the worse for wear. The spring crops of lettuce, cabbage, spinach and carrots look as if they might pull through as they did earlier this year, surviving the snow and ice in February. Frost is still an ongoing problem and garden fleece hadn’t been invented in the 1940s, whilst growing under glass ‘Cloches versus Hitler’ (to name a topical book of the time) was too expensive or impractical for many.

 The gardener always has a long list of desirable Christmas presents in this quiet time of the garden year, poring over seed catalogues, tool and equipment lists for desirable things. I’ve been looking dreamily at tough old fashioned tools  such as the FSC oak planter tools set from Mit Hus www.mithus.co.uk . (Is Father Christmas in his tin hat listening?). Our Zoo director Stewart Muir, a keen gardener at home and in the zoo, has been openly envious of a very tough Dig For Victory 1944 spade acquired for the World War Zoo gardens project on E-Bay as better than any of the several modern ones he’s broken in the last couple of years. All I want for Christmas this year is decent growing weather for next year. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

Newquay Zoo’s keeper carol service www.newquayzoo.org.uk and Christmas fair takes place this weekend, and we’ve been busy putting up a Christmas Past and Presents Trail about the Victorian customs that now make up much of our modern Christmas. The carols, the tree, food, drinks, games and toys – we owe many of these to the Victorians including the German Christmas tree tradition brought to us by Prince Albert. A later custom dictates that the national Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square each year is a gift from the peoples of Norway to Britain for their wartime assistance. It’s been fascinating seeing where our peacetime and wartime Christmas traditions came from and the feast of Thornton’s chocolate indulgence we are lucky enough to have now (possibly my favourite trade stall at the Zoo’s Chritmas fayre).

A rare survival of a cardboard Christmas stocking toy in our World War Zoo gardens collection alongside the excellent Christmas on the Home Front book by Mike Brown

The first Christmas of the war would have been of all the Christmas in wartime much like others before and since, apart from the blackout, the many evacuated children and serviceman overseas. There would still have been chocs, toys and presents in the shops. Food would not become rationed until 8th January 1940. Resources by Christmas 1940 would become increasingly set aside for wartime production. Toy shops would be increasingly empty (many toys pre-war were made in Germany anyway).  The church bells would not be rung at Christmas for several more years as church bells were one form of invasion warning.

 The enduring morale boosting customs despite the changing nature of this wartime Christmas experience between 1939 – 1945 is well documented and illustrated in Mike Brown’s recent book Christmas on The Home Front (Sutton Publishing, 2007). There is more in A Wartime Christmas by Maria and Andrew Hubert  (Sutton, 1995) and excellent Age Exchange publications on Christmas past and wartime reminiscence. There are some great wartime Christmas recipes in the Mike Brown book, along with Jennifer Davies’ The Wartime Kitchen and Garden (book of the 1990s BBC series, available second hand). 

 If Christmas treats and toys were to be had, they often had to be handmade or obtained second-hand (so Present Sense style gift recycling or Yankee Gift Swaps are nothing new). Wartime magazines were full of ‘eco-tips’ for improving or improvising clothes, toys and Christmas food.

One of our wartime life collection toys is a hand-made sliding puzzle made from an Australian  butter box and old calendar by a serviceman for his child back home. It was the sort of wartime Christmas toy many children would have received. We featured this toy and a hand-made wooden Spitfire in our choices for the digital museum on BBC Radio 4 / British Museum’s  A History of the World in 100 Objects series  this year, which you can still see and hear online (see our links page) or buy the BBC book by Neil McGregor. I’m sure many will unwrap and enjoy a copy this Christmas.

Recently we have been loaned or acquired a fantastic wooden toy train with cocoa tin boiler and cotton reel funnel, a paper Indian Headdress from a wartime Christmas stocking and a beautiful wooden ark and animals hand-made in wartime by teacher Mr Ernest Lukey of Poole for his daughter Wendy Norman. She thought the zoo’s wartime life collection would be a suitable place for this to be looked after.

 Amongst the treasured wartime presents handed down in my own family are 1940s children’s books – often the like the above toys, the main present from service fathers far away. Many were and remain the distracting companions for children on rainy days since.  Inscribed with love, a far away place  and Christmas date, these Enid Blyton annuals, countryside  or nativity books from 1944 through to 1947 show that toys and books were still scarce after 1945. Food rationing carried on until 1954. BBC History Magazine’s Christmas 2010 edition features an article on symbolic Christmas activities amongst DPs (Displaced people and refugees of many nationalities) around Europe in 1946. Some of these DP camps took over empty zoo areas such as Hamburg for a while, these strange photographs being in the Imperial War Museum collection (IWM collections are visible online).

The IWM London’s rationing exhibition Ministry of Food ends on the 3rd January 2011, http://www.iwm.org.uk so still time to catch this! For those who can’t make it, there is the IWM blog, the tempting online shop and a well illustrated book of the exhibition by Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall. If you have green-fingered friends, cooks or those interested in history, the RHS have produced a great little DVD called Dig For Victory  and there are plenty of recent reprints of C.H. Middleton’s wartime gardening talks on the radio, wartime cook books or garden writer Twigs Way’s well-edited reprint of Ministry of Food and Farming’s 1945 advice leaflets, all very relevant today. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Twigs-Way/e/B0034PAXNW/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1

Seed saving practice for next year's crops at World War Zoo gardens, Newquay Zoo

Garden writers of the time recommended seeds, tools, livestock or subscriptions as presents, making wartime Britain look a little like a modern Oxfam Unwrapped catalogue. BBC History, Wildlife and Gardeners World magazines aside, there are now plenty of excellent Your Kitchen Garden, Grow Your Own, Amateur Gardening or Smallholder type magazines around for those subscription gifts, not to mention membership of the 1940s Society. Wartime editors of such magazines particularly pleaded with readers to place a subscription as it helped them prevent producing unwanted issues in a time of acute paper shortage. Sadly many magazines never survived the war.

Wartime shortages brought about the animal adoption scheme, to fund the upkeep and feed of zoo animals, started they claim at Chester Zoo but rapidly adopted at others places like London Regent’s Park Zoo and Edinburgh Zoos. Many Christmases in the past at Newquay Zoo have seen our mad scramble to get that last-minute ordered animal adoption or Junior Keeper experience scheme pack out in the last Christmas post. Deatils can be found on many zoo websites or for Newquay Zoo http://www.newquayzoo.org.uk

 Hopefully you will be able to add a World War Zoo gardens book from Newquay Zoo to your present list for Christmas 2011 if all goes well. I have been working for the past few months on editing the wartime pocket diaries of the London Blitz and Home Front life elsewhere in Britain, with fascinating almost Twitter length entries allowed by the space in a pocket diary. Hopefully these should be published later during the year in both schools and adult reader versions so watch this space for details.

Whatever you give or receive for Christmas, we at Newquay Zoo hope you enjoy this family time, sparing a thought for ‘absent friends’ and the many ghosts of Christmas past.

And, although we’d love to see you this Christmas or during 2011, please don’t send your relatives down to see us on Christmas Day – it’s the only day we close to the public each year … 

Enjoy reading this year’s blog entries, we look forward to your company in the next year!

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