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An eighteenth-century Christmas at St John's

On Christmas Day, most probably in 1741, George Baker wrote from the College to his guardian, William Dye, back in County Durham. Baker was admitted to St John’s in 1740 aged 18 as a Fellow Commoner, a privileged category of student, who paid higher fees and dined with the Fellowship. George Baker was the great nephew of Thomas Baker, antiquary, non-juror, and Fellow of St John’s, who died that year aged 83.

The first page of Baker's letter

The second page of Baker's letter

Having complained about the unreliability of the postal service (one wonders whether the young man was blaming the post for his own deficiencies in correspondence), George gave his guardian an account of the weather conditions in Cambridge and their effect:

The Weather has been exceeding sharp, and I believe above half the University were on the Ice one Day, both young & old. I have at last got the art of scating but all my bones are almost Broke. The frost is now quite gone of[f] to the satisfaction of all who are lovers of their country. I don’t make the least doubt but if it had lasted as long as it did last year, it would have ruined the whole nation. Coals are risen mightily but as soon as I found the river was frozen over I got in as many as will serve me this 2 months.

Skaters on the River Cam
A rare sight in recent years: skating on the Cam during the 'Great Frost' of 1947. 

George was staying in St John’s over the Christmas period, and described the preparations that were being made in College for Christmas and how he planned to spend the festive season.

The Preparations that have been made for this Xmas at our College are very great; and the noise that the Cooks made with their Chopping Knives has turned half our lads Heads and set their stomachs pretty sharp. I have had two invitations to spend the Xmas at Oxford, but was willing to see how we come of[f] here. I already Prophecy that I shall be Pretty well sconced at cards.

He continues with the latest celebrity gossip that was circulating locally, though freely admitted that the information could be wrong:

No news is stirring here, but that the Duke of Cumberland had like to have broke his neck when he was scating over a very Pretty young lady, which has occasioned many Punns to be flying about, but as it is not mentioned in the News Papers I fancy tis false.

and concludes with the usual Christmas greetings:

Pray make my complyments to all friend. I wish you a very merry Xmas.


This seasonal Special Collections spotlight was contributed by the Special Collections Librarian.