As Christmas party season comes upon us once more, it is interesting to note that in the mid-nineteenth century, the smock frock also put in appearance at one such event in Manchester, although this was held after Christmas on 6 January.
Mechanics Institutes had been established from the 1820s as a way of educating working men, part-time, either after work or on their days off. They usually provided libraries and often lectures on various subjects too. Manchester’s Mechanics Institute was founded in 1824 and strove to teach the principals of science, then seen as mechanics and chemistry, and in 1868, became famous as the birthplace of the TUC, as well as UMIST and the Co-operative Insurance Society. By 1847, the popularity of the Manchester Mechanics Institute had grown so that for their Christmas celebrations they could not fit into their own building but moved to the Free Trade Hall. This was in the same location that the famous venue remains today, the site of the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, but in a different brick building constructed in 1843. This was demolished in 1853 to make way for the building that currently stands. Seats for two thousand people were provided and filled in the venue in January 1847, with a central space left clear for ‘rustic processions and mummeries’.
Wreaths and bushes of holly, mistletoe and other evergreens were provided as decoration, hanging from the ceiling, between pillars and as general embellishment, ‘tastily designed’. Refreshments were also provided. After toasts and speeches, the rustic procession got underway. It seems to have been carried out in the spirit of the Lord of the Misrule, a band of youths entering, ‘a rabble of supposed rustics full of mirth and jollity, shouting “Yule! Yule!”’ They proceeded to play pranks on those trying to be serious, tipping people’s hats and pulling at people’s clothes, the ‘merrie tricks supposed to have been very common among our forefathers’, although the reporter does sound a little doubtful himself.
All of those taking part in the procession, were dressed in rustic attire with smock frocks. This presumably distanced them from their immediate surroundings, not being their normal dress, and acted almost as a disguise, allowing the pranks and tricks to go ahead. It also formed a link back to their forefathers who were likely to have lived rural lives, before the pull of industrial towns with their lure of full employment uprooted families. This carrying on of a tradition was obviously important as it is mentioned by the reporter – it was a way of grounding a relatively new industrial society within older customs and from which their own new rituals could develop. However, smock frocks were not totally alien garments and would have been seen worn on the streets of Manchester, as well as by trades such as carters and butchers. The procession finished with the singing of the Yule song:
Come bring with a noise, My merrie, merrie boys,
The Christmas log to the firing, While my good dame she
bids you all be free, And drink to your heart’s desiring
A mixture of Christmas folk and rural traditions, the Yule log, the smock frock and encouragement to drink and be merry, I am not quite sure how this fits with the mechanics institute membership and their desire for education and betterment. Maybe it was a welcome release in the spirit of a good Christmas party on Epiphany.