Christmas in Watford in my father’s youth in the 1920s and first half of the 1930s was marked by the big stores’ stock rearrangements in preparation for their respective Father Christmases and decorated grottos. Clements’, Trewins’ and Cawdells’ seasonal guests would often arrive, to big celebration and much publicity, by horse and carriage. All three big stores are long gone; nearly forgotten names when they were once such an important part of shopping in Watford High Street. On December Saturdays crowds flocked into the town, armed with long shopping lists. The pavements were heaving and trade was brisk.

My father, Ted Parrish, recalled his parents buying their annual Christmas tree at the old Watford Market and bringing it home on the bus in the 1920s. After placing it in a galvanised bucket filled with earth, tin candle holders with coloured candles were clipped onto the branches and a few small presents were laid beneath. He was given the task of making paper chains with strips of coloured paper and flour paste which, when complete, were hung from the picture rails. Holly was lodged between the paper chains; mistletoe was placed above the door frames and coloured balloons completed the transformation of the dining room and sitting room into what he recalled as ‘magic grottos’. He remembered the impressive Christmas tree outside St. Mary’s Church; lit with electric bulbs and decorated with artificial snow on the branches and the ground below.

Watford Observer:

Swiss Cottage c1908

The pudding and cake ready, with only icing to be added, the turkey was plucked and drawn. The grocer made his last delivery, one that my father particularly noted as it included tea and biscuits, added as gifts by the grocer in appreciation of the family’s custom. With coal buckets filled to the brim and curtains pulled ‘in a vain attempt to stop the draughts’, relatives arrived and nuts, fruit jellies and chocolates were handed around. The locally-made Crowley piano was well used, but never more so than at Christmas when guests played popular tunes and everyone joined in. My father’s favourites were: ‘All by Yourself in the Moonlight’ and ‘The Road to Mandalay’. Little was he to know that a few years later he would be in Mandalay, serving in wartime jungle conditions in Burma (now Myanmar) and India in the Royal Air Force.

After the singsong, youngsters were allowed to stay up and offered ginger beer, whilst the adults sipped port and lemon. Then, to quote my father: ‘Prayers said, but too excited to sleep, I snuggled down and put my cold feet on the ‘stone’ hot water bottle that my thoughtful mother had not overlooked, despite the demands of the festive occasion. I hardly heard the fond ‘Goodnight, God bless’. It was still dark; perhaps I did not sleep after all. There was no sound. Had Father Christmas paid his annual visit? My small hands found the bed rail and groped for the pillow case tied to the end of the wooden bedstead.’

Watford Observer:

My father's 'stone' hot water bottle

His main presents over the years included Lott’s coloured building bricks made in Vale Road, Bushey; an inexpensive Hornby tinplate engine, tender and three wagons; a small lead army of World War One soldiers in khaki and Black Watch soldiers in ceremonial uniforms; and a Meccano set that I still have. On the subject of gifts, my father noted: ‘Economic pressures rubbed off on small shoulders. Family incomes would not stretch to occasional, let alone frequent treats to which the new generation is accustomed. Our young expectations were directly related to our parents’ capacity to give. No wonder we looked after our toys.’ Sobering words indeed.

Fast forward a generation to the 1950s. Post-war pockets were tight and the choice of gifts was limited. Clements, Trewins and Cawdells continued to do Watford proud in terms of Father Christmases and their grottos. Woolworths, at the corner of King Street and the High Street where, in my father’s youth, nothing cost more than 6d, sold Christmas gifts and boxes of sweets and chocolates. Boots opposite, on the Queens Road corner, stocked diaries, calendars and toiletry gifts.

Watford Observer:

The writer at 62 Talbot Avenue, Oxhey, with World War Two era bird and star tree decorations, still in use

In those days Christmas fare was generally home-made. My grandmother made the Christmas pudding; my mother the cake. The latter took hours to cook and, for the duration, no one dared enter or exit the kitchen in Wilcot Avenue in case draughts caused the cake to sink. The recipe used for decades was Watford Observer writer Sheila Sills’ own recipe and it never failed! Batches of mince pies went into the oven and Christmas cake icing was followed by the careful placing of plastic Christmas trees, elves, a sleigh and a Father Christmas. At home, I too was given paper chains to paste together. A locally-bought real Christmas tree was decorated with the same tin holders from my father’s childhood with coloured candles, as well as coloured metal shapes stars, bells, birds dating from wartime. The metal shapes still grace our tree every year.

Family tradition (or rather my practical Gloucestershire-born grandmother being keen to open family presents early before a busy Christmas morning in the kitchen) meant that we gathered by the tree on Christmas Eve. After the present opening and a peep through the penultimate window of a magical Christmas booklet that I still treasure, sleep overwhelmed me. Around five or six o’clock I discovered a red net stocking filled with a few small gifts; a foil-wrapped tangerine always lurking at the bottom. A filled pillowcase by my bed contained presents that I excitedly opened without disturbing my parents and grandmother who lived with us. In those days, children were expected to conform.

After Christmas lunch, my father often took me on walks to Attenborough’s Fields where he ran as a schoolboy, Oxhey Park sledging if there was snow, around Bushey where Grange Road fascinated him with its different styles of architecture and up Merry Hill Road to the fields beyond. In the evening, he’d entertain the family and guests with party games and magic tricks.

Watford Observer:

A snowy Aldenham Road

One Christmas he surprised me with a dolls’ house with leaded light windows that he had made from an old tea chest. He had painted the exterior, even adding a climbing rose by the door. He wallpapered and furnished the house and fitted miniature working light bulbs in every room. In the integral garage he placed a pull-back sports car. As a teenager, he had wanted to be an architect but his parents could not afford the expensive course, so I know he enjoyed making the dolls’ house just as much as I enjoyed playing with it.

So ‘tis the season to be nostalgic! Happy Christmas, but let’s spare a thought for Oliver from the World War One generation. On December 24, 1914 he sent a postcard of St. Mary’s Church tower to Mrs. Pearce in Wealdstone. ‘No leave on Christmas day for anyone. Have to report three times; much regret that we cannot come.’

Lesley Dunlop is the daughter of the late Ted Parrish, a well-known local historian and documentary filmmaker. He wrote 96 nostalgic articles for the ‘Evening Post-Echo’ in 1982-83 which have since been published in ‘Echoes of Old Watford, Bushey & Oxhey’, available at and Bushey Museum. Lesley is currently working on ‘Two Lives, Two World Wars’, a companion volume that explores her father’s and grandfather’s lives and war experiences, in which Watford, Bushey and Oxhey’s history will take to the stage once again.