FROM ‘old folks lunches’ to plush servants balls, the New Year period was always a benevolent time in bygone south Essex.

For many years in Victorian-era Southend there was a popular tradition of giving the ‘aged poor’ of the town a hearty New Year’s Day dinner complete with plum pudding and boiled mutton.

The charity meal was laid on at the Forester’s Hall in Marine Parade (later to become the Forester’s Arms pub) and began as a tradition in the early 1870s.

In 1876 the event saw a group of 75 of the poorest men and women – aged 65 and over, from the area, invited to dine on roast beef and plum pudding at half past one exactly on January 1.

Such was the increasing need for help amongst the poverty-stricken in Southend, the lunch attracted at least 25 people more than the previous year’s event.

Echo: Charity lunch - the ‘old folks’ lunch at the Kursaal on New Year’s Day 1924Charity lunch - the ‘old folks’ lunch at the Kursaal on New Year’s Day 1924 (Image: Newsquest)

The food was supplied by the society, the Ancient Order of Foresters, with members footing the bill along with contributions from other social reform causes.

Witnesses described how the landlord of the Forester’s Hall, William Trigg, opened up his ‘great room’ to the needy, who sat on tables arranged on two rows.

The Southend Standard and Essex Weekly Advertiser covered the story and reported how the hall was filled with men and women with faces ‘furrowed by many a deep line of sorrow, yet bright now with the kindness which pure sympathy for them had evoked’.

“They were of varied ages but a few could boast of having over-ran the allotted period,” described the editorial.

“The main course was catered to be reminiscent of ‘Old England’ and included roast beef and plum pudding, along with mutton for those who preferred it.”

Dessert included oranges, nuts, apples and ‘delicious snuff and tobacco’. Afterwards tea, malt liquors and spirits were served.

“The diners went away full of the kindest feelings to their noble benefactors,” described the Advertiser.

Gifts to the guests were normally handed out by the mayor and mayoress of Southend. The presents included ‘half pounds of tea’, sugar and oranges.

As the years went on and attitudes towards alcohol began to change some supporters of the dinner began to disagree over whether wine should be served at the event.

Echo: A New Year’s fancy dress party at the Kursaal in Southend in 1924A New Year’s fancy dress party at the Kursaal in Southend in 1924 (Image: Unknown)

Southend was increasingly becoming targeted by temperance groups who put pressure on the event organisers not to serve alcohol.

After the First World War the New Year’s charity luncheon began to be held at the Kursaal in Southend which was far bigger and could accommodate a lot more pensioners in need.

By 1924 as many as 600 local men and women were attending the January 1 luncheon.

Another New Year’s tradition held at country homes and lavish estates was the annual servants’ ball.

Fans of the ITV period drama Downton Abbey will remember the episode featuring the servants’ ball where the butler and the maids got to dance with Lord and Lady Grantham and other high brow members of the family.

At Hylands House in Chelmsford a servants’ ball was held every year from the late 1800s. The event was by this time a tradition embraced by the country house estates of Britain.

They elegant events acted as a cultural melting pot where popular music of the day would be performed alongside traditional country dance tunes.

Unlike Downton Abbey where the action took place in the ‘Great Hall’, at Hylands dancing took place in the mansion’s dining hall and saw not only the servants and domestic staff invited, but also up to 100 local tradesmen and merchants.

In 1914 Hylands owners Sir Daniel and Lady Gooch hosted the ball. Mrs Gooch led the proceedings by dancing with the head butler Mr White, while Sir Daniel danced with the housekeeper Mrs Smith.

The ball went on into the small hours and as Matthew Crawley remarks in the servants’ ball episode of Downton, there must have been a lot of ‘thick heads’ in the servants quarters the following day.

At 3.30am coffee and cake was served then, bolstered by the welcome calories, the servants and household members resumed dancing and merry making until 5am.

There were 27 dances in total and the ball always finished with the playing of the National Anthem Similar lavish servants balls were also hosted at country estates including Down Hall in Harlow, Broomfield Lodge in Chelmsford.

On not such a happy not, New Year’s Day 100 years ago was marred by news that a man had been found in a ditch in Southend with his throat cut.

A walker came across the gruesome find as he was walking close to Thorpe Hall golf links early in the morning.

PC Christy from Southend Police was called and took the body of the well dressed man to the mortuary.

His throat had been cut from ear to ear and his pockets were still full of cash.

The man’s wounds were eventually put down to have been self inflicted.