Christmas is for many a time of family visits, and in the Victorian era this could mean dozens for dinner. The archive of one Liverpool family, the Rathbones, documents their life throughout the nineteenth century, including glimpses of their Christmas preparations.On this day more than 150 years ago, December 5 1861, the family was welcoming a new member – a second fiancée for William Rathbone VI, local businessman, philanthropist and MP. His first wife Lucretia had died in 1859, shortly after the birth of their fifth child. Lucretia’s sister, Lizzie, kindly wrote to congratulate Emily Lyle on the engagement to her brother-in-law.
I must at once write to say how much pleased I am to find, you are to fill dear Lucretia’s place, I know of no one I should so much like to have again, as a sister as you. You cannot tell too, how thankful I am her children are once more to have a mother’s care.
Emily’s welcome to the family was repeated in a letter from her father-in-law, William Rathbone V, written on Boxing Day 1863, describing their Christmas dinner at Greenbank – for fifteen, including four grandchildren (the younger ones had their nursery tea earlier in the day). Since William V and his wife Elizabeth had five surviving children, and eighteen surviving grandchildren, the nursery must have been pretty full. And the family kept growing: William VI and Emily went on to have six children of their own, five of whom survived infancy, including the future MP and social reformer, Eleanor Rathbone. By 1874, when William and Emily’s last child, Francis, was born, the Greenbank Christmas dinner might have been joined by 29 grandchildren!