This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

The Christmas Canary

24 December 2020

It's a very curious postcard photo.
A well dressed gentleman is seated in a parlor room
holding a vintage telephone receiver to his ear.
Next to him is a small bird cage
which has a set of headphones
stretched over the bars of the cage.
There is no explanation,
only a caption that reads:

Mr. Geo. R. Sims and his pet canary.

Is the man actually placing a call to the bird?
What kind of conversation can one have with a canary?
Is the bird even listening?
Maybe it's a scientific experiment.

I can find no references to this image on the internet.
All I can say is what the caption tells us:
Mr. George R. Sims and his pet canary, name unknown.

But Mr. Sims turns out to be, in his time,
a renowned English journalist, poet, dramatist, and novelist. 
His full name was George Robert Sims (1847 – 1922). 

George Robert Sims (1847 – 1922)
circa 1910
Source: Wikipedia

After the publication of his first works in 1874, Sims quickly established himself as a prolific author in many forms from plays to poetry. He was best known in Victorian times for his weekly column of light-hearted humorous sketches called "Mustard and Cress", published in The Referee, a British Sunday newspaper. Beginning in 1877 Sims wrote a story every week for 45 years until his death in 1922. His subject matter was "sprinkled with neat little epigrams in verse, patriotic songs or parodies, with jokes, puns, conundrums, catch-words. He talked of politics... philanthropy, amusement, reminiscence, food and drink, and such travel as so confirmed a Cockney could enjoy. ...he would champion the cause of the unfortunate middle classes.... He took his readers into his confidence, and told them all about... his friends... his pets.... And he contrived to do this without ever becoming egotistical or a bore."

This quote from his obituary in The Times, 6 September 1922,  gives a succinct description of George R. Sims.

"so attractive and original was the personality revealed in his abundant output—for he was a wonderfully hard worker—that no other journalist has ever occupied quite the same place in the affections not only of the great public but also of people of more discriminating taste.... Sims was indeed a born journalist, with the essential flair added to shrewd common sense, imagination, wide sympathies, a vivid interest in every side of life, and the most ardent patriotism.... He was [also] a highly successful playwright... a zealous social reformer, an expert criminologist, a connoisseur in good eating and drinking, in racing, in dogs, in boxing, and in all sorts of curious and out-of-the-way people and things."

Clearly George R. Sims was a familiar enough writer in his time to be easily recognized from a photo. Which may explain why this postcard of him with his pet canary was chosen for a Christmas greeting in 1904.

With Best wishes for a Happy
Xmas & Prosperous 1905   hoping all
are well, we are alright,  love to all from
Arthur & Lottie

Not quite forgotten.

It was sent in December 1904
to Mrs. G. Johnson
of 64 Northcote Road
St Margarets
in London.

In addition to his regular column for The Referee, George Sims wrote several novels, thirty plays, and numerous collections of short stories, essays, and poetry. However, despite Arthur's quip on this postcard, most of Sims's output is now forgotten. But one ballad, Christmas Day in the Workhouse, stands out as it became popular enough to be imitated by other writers for many decades. It was first published in 1877, just when Sims was starting to write his column for The Referee. It is in the form of a dramatic monologue where a poor man criticizes the harsh conditions found in the English and Welsh workhouses of the period.  

"Christmas Day in the Workhouse"
a postcard c1905
Source: Wikipedia

These workhouses were the result of the 1834 Poor Law. This act passed by the British Parliament placed a severe limit to the social assistance given to the poor.  Food and shelter could only be dispensed at the workhouse. Paupers were separated into different classes and by sex. The institutions were purposely designed to be so disagreeable that only people who were truly destitute and indigent would demean themselves to apply for relief. By the 1870s, the state of poverty was so shameful that Sims, a young journalist campaigning for social reform, felt compelled to respond in a public way by writing a ballad about how severe hardship affects the human spirit. 

It is Christmas Day in the Workhouse,
  And the cold bare walls are bright
With garlands of green and holly,
  And the place is a pleasant sight;
For with clean-washed hands and faces,
  In a long and hungry line
The paupers sit at the tables,
  For this is the hour they dine.

And the guardians and their ladies,
  Although the wind is east,
Have come in their furs and wrappers,
  To watch their charges feast;
To smile and be condescending,
  Put pudding on pauper plates,
To be hosts at the workhouse banquet
  They've paid for—with the rates.

The full text for George Sims's "Christmas Day in the Workhouse" can be found at this link. But a better way to understand the poem is to hear it recited by the great American actor, Robert Cochran Hilliard (1857 – 1927), also known in his day as Handsome Bob. 

Robert Cochran Hilliard (1857 – 1927)
Source: Wikipedia

Hilliard recorded Christmas Day in the Workhouse,
lightly abridged to fit the time constraints of early records,  
for Victor Records in Camden, New Jersey on 8 November 1912.

Workhouses no longer exist in our modern era and most governments provide many different kinds of social welfare to people in distress. But I feel the Dickensian melodrama of Sims's ballad carries a poignant quality that resonates with our present time in a way that I don't think it would have had last Christmas. As this dreadful year 2020 draws to a close, everyone in the world has surely reflected on the immense challenges that face humanity. Poverty remains a serious issue, especially with the plight of  unemployment, evictions, and privations brought on by Covid19. Even now with the miracle of vaccines, millions of people around the world will continue to suffer for many months from the consequences of this horrible scourge. If there is anything we need in this holiday season of 2020, it is more charity and good will to all mankind. 

But back to Mr. Sims's canary.

George R. Sims wrote many observations about life in East London.
One of the places he described was the bird market on Sclater Street.

"On Sunday nothing but bird-cages are to be seen from roofs to pavement in almost every house. At first you see nothing but the avenue of bird-cages. The crowd in the narrow street is so dense that you can gather no idea of what is in the shop-windows or what the mob of men crowding together in black patches of humanity are dealing in."

Surely this was the place where he acquired his pet canary.
Likely it was there that he saw
many birds that could whistle complicated melodies,
as since Elizabethan times London's bird sellers
had expertly trained
warblers, canaries, black birds, etc. to sing.

I think that is what George Sims is doing in this photo.
Teaching his canary to sing
via a dictaphone or gramophone recording.

We can only speculate if the tune was Jingle Bells.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where I wish everyone a peaceful holiday
and joyful new year.


Barbara Rogers said...

I'm glad I came back this morning to finish reading about Mr. Sims' canary...I got called away last night. Must have been the brief snow shower that caught my attention. Happy Christmas, Mike. I hope you and your loved ones enjoy the holiday, and continue in good health and with the interests in music that take you far and wide, which you generously share here.

kathy said...

The reading of Mr. Sims' poem is really compelling. And it does especially resonate today - in some rather uncomfortable ways. Volunteers at our church have been holding a Christmas Eve brunch for years now for the unhoused in our city. The guests are seated at decorated tables and are served by volunteers as if in a restaurant. There is music. There are gifts of hats, bus passes, and so on. When it is not Christmas, a hot breakfast is served twice a week. This year, those hot meals inside have become a sack breakfast to-go given outside. Of course, the real and essential question is why we allow this in our prosperous country and how many more are being left in dire straits because of the pandemic.
Well, I hope Mr. Sims was successful in training his canary! He must have been a great dinner companion.

Liz Needle said...

Thank you for your interesting blog and especially for the rendering of that poem. It really brings home the reality suffering of so many people who have nothing except what charity hands out. Food for thought indeed.

Molly of Molly's Canopy said...

What a great post, and so apropos as this year of Covid draws to a close. That poem, written by Mr. Sims so long ago, could have been written today -- with so many working people suffering for lack of the genuine help that is needed during this global pandemic. If Mr. Sims were still with us he would undoubtedly be a weekly blogger using his prodigious output to inspire readers to action. An excellent subject for your Christmas post. Happy Holidays and New Year!

Alex Daw said...

Mr Sims was so very productive and obviously interested in everything, great and small. My sister-in-law had a cockatiel for many years called Joe. He would come to our place for "holidays" at Easter and Christmas when the family went away. Joe died earlier this year. He is much missed. Particularly the whistling and the chattering.

La Nightingail said...

My hope in human kindness has been renewed during this difficult year of the pandemic when so many have come forward to help those less fortunate. Also, in human ability to rise to the challenge in many other ways - such as using "Zoom" to 'get together' and providing virtual concerts and entertainments - all of it so important to the soul and mind's well-being. As for the cockatiel singing "Jingle Bells" (what fun, and what a cutie), my budgie, Shakespeare, doesn't sing, but he picks up words and expressions right and left. One I never thought he'd learn to say has become one of his favorites. From "Laugh-In" days: "You bet your sweet bippee!" We laugh every time he says it.


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