Bringing Christmas to Bournemouth
Sophie Beal looks at the planes, trains, horse-drawn carriages and parades that Bournemouth department store Beales organised for over a century
Published in December ’16
In these non-stop modern times, and at this time of year, we’re given to yearning for simpler times when, rather than the latest must-have gadget, Christmas meant carol singers, a silver sixpence in the pudding and an orange in the toe of your stocking. But far from being Spartans, the Victorians were great innovators of the Christmas we know today and they were unafraid to commercialise the season either.
John Elmes Beale believed a good salesman should be able to sell something to anyone who crossed the threshold. He placed few advertisements in the newspapers, but he and his family worked hard to attract customers to his shop, particularly at Christmas. It is even possible that he was the first store-owner anywhere in the world to welcome an in-store Father Christmas, in the mid-1880s, but unfortunately there is no documentary evidence other than the recollections of a later generation.
One thing is certain about J E Beale, though: in 1913, just ten years after the first heavier-than-air powered flight, he paid for Santa’s arrival by aeroplane. And by the 1950s, the Beales Christmas parades had developed into huge occasions that effectively closed the town.
J E Beale’s busiest Christmas was probably 1881, when he first opened his ‘Fancy Fair’ in Bournemouth. He had worked his way up to store manager for a Weymouth draper, but after eight years’ service he had asked for a junior partnership and been refused. By this time he had a wife and child to support, so he decided to open his own business. When he gave his notice, his boss held him to his six months’ notice and asked he didn’t set up in competition in Weymouth.
Mr Beale recognised Bournemouth’s potential for business. Bournemouth West station had been opened in 1874, allowing the growth of the town as a seaside resort. Within the previous decade, the population had tripled to almost 17,000. So with the £400 capital he had saved, he bought a shop with living quarters at 3 St Peter’s Terrace, off Old Christchurch Road. Although he would not be released until January, he and his wife Sarah decided to open in November, to make the most of seasonal business. At nearly midnight on Saturday, after a full six-day week in Weymouth, he would catch the mail train to Bournemouth. Having tried to sleep on his journey, he then worked all day Sunday, making his own fittings for the shop. This would have required an incredible amount of carpentry. At this time, shops displayed very little – everything was kept in cabinets. He made the most of everything, re-using the wood and nails from packing cases and even re-using paper, card and string for signage. With his remaining capital, he bought a small supply of ‘fancy goods’: small, attractive gifts and souvenirs. The store opened in November, with Sarah in charge until his release from Weymouth.
The same spirit of enterprise in the Beales was evident a few years later, when Sarah Beale made a Father Christmas costume for her younger brother, Ernest Brickell. He then paraded around the shop and showrooms. Ernest was very suitable. In his memoir, Bennett, the Beales’ oldest child, describes his uncle as having ‘a hearty laugh to give expression to his happy spirit’. Ernest was followed by ‘Old Tom’, one of the porters.
Mr William Dunn, who ran the post office across the street between 1883 and 1896, was usually very tolerant of their Christmas marketing. However one year, according to Bennett, his father ‘bought a lot of big clockwork “mechanical” toys – moving figures and animals and a two foot six inch high model of a house on fire with firemen running up and down ladders and rescuing small dolls.’ He put a row of these on the top shelf at the back of the window, and kept them wound up. Eventually, Mr Dunn complained to the police that the gathered crowds were blocking his entrance. The police threatened Mr Beale with prosecution for obstruction. ‘Go ahead,’ he said. ‘It will be the finest advertisement I could have.’ Later he relented and allowed the toys to wind down.
In the autumn of 1912, Cyril, J E Beale’s fourth son, returned from training at Selfridges. He took over managing ‘Advertising and Events’ at what was now Beales Department Store. That December, Santa arrived by train at Boscombe station and was brought to the store in a horse-drawn carriage. The following year, Cyril decided Santa should fly into town by plane. Aviation at this time was in its infancy, a dangerous hobby for those who could afford it – Charles Rolls had been killed at Bournemouth’s first aviation meeting only three years before – but it was gripping the public’s imagination.
Lord Northcliffe, owner of the Daily Mail and The Times, wielded immense political influence at a time when Kaiser Wilhelm II was expanding his navy, threatening British interests. Northcliffe wanted the government to invest in aircraft for the military, and did everything he could to encourage the public’s interest in flying. The Daily Mail offered prizes for specific aviation ‘firsts’ and ran several races, notably the 1911 and 1913 Circuits of Britain. Cyril persuaded the Daily Mail to add a Christmas special in Bournemouth and decided to play the part of Father Christmas himself. There was no airfield nearby, so they used the Four Elms field on Iford Farm, near Pokesdown, as it was the largest, flattest field available. The paper printed coupons for free admission to the field. Readers could also apply to be chosen for a free flight by the pilot, Henri Salmet.
The event was postponed twice due to high winds until Friday 5 December. Father Christmas apparently arrived at the Four Elms ‘with streaming white hair and beard, and a gorgeous cloak of ermine’. He took the back seat of the monoplane standing by – a Blériot XI-2. The plane took off, circled the field three times for the benefit of the cheering crowd and then headed to Bournemouth. The Daily Mail reported: ‘As the machine came low over the edge of the ocean, Father Christmas was plainly visible and seems to have been enjoying himself enormously, judging by the frantic way he was waving his arm. He kept a tight hold on his beard, which was struggling to get free. People shopping in the arcade and in the thoroughfares ran out greatly excited and got a splendid view.’
Back at the Four Elms, he was greeted by the district’s two youngest school-children, who had both only turned three that week. One of them burst into tears at the sight of Father Christmas in goggles. Santa was then carried to Beales in a horse-drawn carriage, with a brass band bundled behind him. The Daily Mail hardly mentions the store’s involvement, except to say that the old man’s passage had been booked by Mr J Beale of Bournemouth. The local press seems to have ignored the event altogether.
By the next year, World War 1 had broken out and the flight was never repeated, but the procession celebrating Father Christmas’s arrival at Beales increased in size until the 1950s. One person from the displays team spent all year in a warehouse creating costumes and models from chicken wire and papier mâché, just for the procession. Gwen Fox, the PR manager, told the Bournemouth Echo that the people inside the models had just enough space to allow their feet to move: ‘This was often a hazardous business, as the top-heavy models negotiated Bath Hill and much excitement was caused as more than one character went out of control. It was like a 1950s version of It’s a Knockout as a giant banana tried in vain to keep its balance and a caterpillar containing thirty scouts snaked out of control through the town centre.’
Nigel Beale is J E Beale’s great-grandson and honorary president of the company. ‘Everyone thought it had been put on by the Town Hall,’ he says. Actually, the council and the police were pressuring Beales to stop the event, because it effectively closed Bournemouth. Eventually, in 1966 Beales handed it to a group of volunteers (as even Beales lost trade, given that no-one could get into the store to do their Christmas shopping), who put on a more modest display until the last one in 1988.