DARLINGTON library has unearthed a couple of Christmas corkers for its seasonal display in the form of two 120-year-old magazines called the Northern Echo Christmas Budget.

A “budget” originally had nothing to do with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It comes from a French word, “bougette”, which was a little leather bag in which all manner of interesting and important documents were kept, and so the Northern Echo Christmas Budget is a compilation of entertaining stories to while away the long, dark nights.

The budgets were published in December 1899 and December 1900, and they feature short pieces of prose by some of the most popular writers of the day.

For example, the 1899 budget opens with A Christmas Surprise by George R Sims, who was a journalist and an author who was at the peak of his popularity – in 1898, he was said to have earned £150,000 from his writings. The Bank of England Inflation Calculator works that out as worth £18.5m in today’s values, which not even Boris Johnson earns through his scribblings.

Sims, who wrote so intimately about the Jack the Ripper murders that he either had a very good police contact or was the killer himself, gambled much of his fortune away.

The surprise of his story is that the black sheep of a family turns up unannounced at his upwardly mobile brother’s Christmas soiree, attended by lords and gentlefolk whom the brother wishes to impress, with his new wife – a star in Barnum’s freak show from a South Sea isle who is unable to remove her veil otherwise she’ll show the facial inkings that people pay good money to see at the circus.

This leads to the fantastic line: “‘You’ve married a tattooed woman for her money!’ gasped John.”

You can see why people have been sneaking into the Local Studies section at Darlington library to read story after story from the budgets as they’ve become addicted to such page-turning schmaltz.

Another story is by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, an American poet famous for her couplet:

“Laugh, and the world laughs with you;

Weep, and you weep alone.”

It is entitled How To Be Happy On Christmas Day, but it isn’t a bundle of laughs. She says: “We wear ourselves out with shopping in crowded stores, and we are constantly irritated as the days go by and Christmas nears, a the increasing number of people in the shops and the decreasing number of coins in our purses.”

Then Madame Rose offers some Christmas fashion advice. She tells Echo readers how difficult it is to assemble a wardrobe for the season: “Even for a week’s visit to a country house, three or four costumes are needed. Christmas Day, with its church in the morning and party at night, requires a smart walking costume and a pretty evening dress. Then, if the weather behaves itself properly, there is skating, and no right-minded girl would think of donning her skates in the same gown she would either bicycle or pay calls in; the ice demands something special in the matter of velvet and furs and warm colours, or the game is not worth the candle.”


And can you work out this puzzle from the 1900 Echo budget:

The Mystic Seventh

One-seventh of currant, one-seventh of rhubarb, one-seventh of apricot, one-seventh of peaches, one-seventh of quinces, one-seventh of oranges, one-seventh of bananas, combined, will yield the plural of a dried fruit which is a general seasonal favourite.

Answer at the bottom of this page

  • The exhibition, which includes the budgets and all manner of Darlington-related Christmas curios, runs in the library until December 31.

Answer: The Mystic Seventh is raisins