Sarah Holbeche’s Diary gives a glimpse of everyday life in Sutton in the mid-nineteenth century. Sarah Holbeche (1803-1882), a lady who lived in a large house in High Street with her four spinster sisters, compiled the diary over a period from about 1840-1865; it records what she regarded as significant events right back to her earliest memories in the 1810s. The diary includes photographs, newspaper cuttings, party invitations and other souvenirs as well as her handwritten notes and comments, and begins with a short account of the great houses and top families of Sutton Coldfield.
One such, the Pepper family of Falcon Lodge, are described as having wonderful Christmas parties - “Mr. Pepper purchased Falcon Lodge, bringing his wife, family and father…and for many years, old-fashioned hospitality, Christmas festivities and good neighbourhood”. Sarah, who was one of a large family and a pillar of the church, must have enjoyed celebrating Christmas, but it is a subject she never comments on. However, when she received her first Christmas card, in 1859, she duly pasted it into her diary-cum-scrap book, - it may have been one of the first to be seen in the town, as such cards were something of a novelty.
The first Christmas card is supposed to be one sent in 1846, but the vogue for exchanging cards only became general in the 1870s. Sarah’s card, received at Christmas 1859 from Howard and Emily Chavasse, bears a text in fancy writing wishing a merrie xmas and a happy new year, framed by sprigs of holly and a robin, and enlivened with star-bursts.
Sarah pasted several more cards in her Diary over the next few years, some less elaborate, but still featuring a robin and holly, single sheets like post-cards or even compliment slips; the first folded cards with a message inside appeared on the 1864 page. No doubt many more were received in later years, but no longer a novelty and not considered worth keeping.
Sutton Christmas cards worthy of note were produced, however, long after Sarah’s day, when the quiet market-town Sutton she knew had become a thriving municipal Borough. The first elections to the corporation of the newly chartered Borough of Sutton Coldfield took place in 1886, and soon Sutton had its first Mayor, Mr. (later Sir) J. Benjamin Stone. Stone was an antiquarian as well as a noted photographer, so it is no surprise that his first official Christmas cards featured views of historic Sutton and a traditional folk dance.