“A Sort of Collective Santa Claus”: Sir C. Arthur Pearson and the Poor Children’s Yuletide Association

  • Originally published on the Bartitsu.org site on Wednesday, 20th December 2017
Publisher and philanthropist C. Arthur Pearson

This holiday-season article offers a departure from our usual focus on Edwardian-era martial arts and combat sports to briefly illuminate a much kinder and, therefore, more important endeavour from the same period; namely, the work of the Poor Children’s Yuletide Association.

That said, the PCYA was the brainchild of Sir C. Arthur Pearson, who is best-known to Bartitsu aficionados as the publisher of Pearson’s Magazine,  without which the present-day revival of E.W. Barton-Wright’s New Art of Self Defence would probably have been impossible.  Before his magazine featured Barton-Wright’s articles on “strongman” feats, jiujitsu and Vigny stick fighting, Pearson himself had accepted Barton-Wright’s offer of a personal demonstration, and then found himself flying head-over-heels via one of the first tomoe-nage (stomach throws) ever applied in England.

C. Arthur Pearson was a wealthy and influential man in Edwardian London society, with a particular philanthropic interest in the welfare of children.  At that time, London’s slums were little better than when they had been described by Charles Dickens; impoverished families lived as well as they could manage, which is to say, not well.  As one of Pearson’s contemporaries noted, “There are only two ‘classes’ in London – those who have too much, and those who have too little”.

In 1892, Pearson had established the Fresh Air Fund, a charitable organisation that enabled disadvantaged city children to take summer outings and holidays in the country.  Thirteen years later, he observed that, while charities existed to provide for children in orphanages and hospitals during the winter holiday season, many thousands of  “waifs” living in London tenements had never seen a Christmas tree, nor received a gift marking the season of goodwill. Therefore,  in 1905 he set up the Poor Children’s Yuletide Association, a new and strictly non-denominational initiative that organised the distribution of Christmas treats to the children of the city’s poorest districts.

Above: not so much plucking at the heart-strings as giving them a seasonal yank, this image was widely used in advertisements promoting the good work of the PCYA.

The scheme was as ingenious as it was generous.  Through emotive advertising in Pearson’s various newspapers and magazines, individuals, companies and “working groups” (including children from wealthier families) were encouraged to donate toys, scrapbooks, sweetmeats and similar Christmas presents to the PCYA.  Monetary donations were also encouraged, with all proceeds going towards purchasing more gifts, as the administrative and other costs of the Association were borne by Pearson and his fellow benefactors.  As a thank-you to donors, the Association then organised “Christmas Tree Parties” in venues such as Victoria Hall, featuring entertainment, refreshments and galleries of hundreds of trees laden with decorations and presents.

Above: a giant gift-laden tree, courtesy of the PCYA.

On Christmas morning, fleets of vans donated by some of London’s major department stores delivered the trees and presents to those schools and parish halls that the PCYA had identified as serving those most in need.   This massive logistical effort resulted in bright and happy Christmas parties for London’s neediest children.

Between 1906-10 the Poor Children’s Yuletide Association organised the distribution of many hundreds of trees and hundreds of thousands of gifts, leading one commentator to aptly describe the Association as “a sort of collective Santa Claus”.

With seasonal greetings to all readers of the Bartitsu Society website, and may you have a happy and prosperous New Year.

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