Christmas Stuffing: British Turkeys Through History. (No, Really.)

Will you be having turkey this Christmas day? A lot of people have beef or even fish don’t they, or if you’re a vegetarian, a nice nut roast perhaps.

When Bernard Matthews passed away last week we had to do a bit of turkey research in the archive and were surprised to discover just how many fascinating reels there were related to a topic that we though was, well, a bit parochial.

But no! From Christmas turkey fairs to 1950s communal freezers, from stately turkey farms to the introduction of the new ‘Gobblers’ plucking machine, we were thrilled to find some of these archive nuggets.

Admittedly some of the narrator wise-cracks are a bit cheesy, but to their credit there isn’t an awful lot to say about a turkey. What makes these clips so great however are the visuals, a great insight into Britain’s age-long tradition of having a turkey dinner at Christmas!

Here are 5 favourites to watch, and then a general link to more funny old turkey videos at the bottom.

“A Short Life and a Gay One”(1921)

I don’t imagine this is a Bernard Matthews farm, but quite the opposite as we see gianormous and luxuriant turkey proudly parading around some kind of stately grounds. “But this year’s turkeys can at least console themselves that they’re cheaper than last year”. The clip moves quite suddenly from a regal panoramic shot of the turkeys showing off their glorious tail plumes, to a heartless shot of dozens, killed and plucked, hanging upside down in a shop.

“Britain’s Christmas Stocking”(1948)

Set at Woolwich Barracks in London, the clip begins with officers inspecting the chefs’ hands, who then proceed to march into the kitchen. A propaganda edge emerges as we the narrator glorifies the wonders of a military camp Christmas, whilst a homesick looking boy gets to work on making a tonne of stuffing. The video ends at Olympia’s poultry show, as people inspect turkeys in lined up in their cages.

“Christmas Is Coming” (1938)

“There’s a vast difference between being brought up at Eton and brought up to be eaten” jokes the cheesy narrator in this 1930s clip of Christmas cattle at Norwich Castle in Norfolk. Considerations towards animal rights are clearly evident, even in the 1930s, although everything is still drenched in humour, for example “It may be tough on a turkey, but as long as he isn’t a bit tough on us”.

“Turkey Farm”(1969)

With a jazzy Hark The Herald soundtrack, this High Wycombe clips is silent but offers good colour footage of a turkey farm in the 1960s.

“GOBBLERS!” (1933)

Perhaps the British Pathé archive’s most sinister turkey clip, this one kicks off all jovial with a title frame announcing “Nature’s prize walking comedians – nearest rivals to the penguin”, followed up by the macabre line “It’s a good job they can’t see their future”, only to be trumped by “And here’s a new device, the automatic plucket – doe s an hour’s work in a minute”. Sure enough the clip continues and a woman demonstrates the plucking machine. Feathers fly everywhere, to say the least!

“Food Bank’s Not a Frost”(1959)

Over to Newbury in Berkshire, 1959 and Malcolm Warrell has had a brain wave. As so many people can’t afford turkeys in the run-up to Christmas, and have no place at home to freeze them, why not start up a turkey bank! Any kind of poultry is accepted, and so the video depicts two gents marching into the freeze vaults following a spot of game-hunting, pheasants in tow. One lady arrives with a beautiful plate or ornately arranged lobsters!

The ‘Turkey Collection – Watch more clips from the British Pathé archive on the subject of Christmas Turkeys here.

Author: British Pathé

British Pathé holds the world's finest newsreel collection. We also represent the Reuters historical collection. All 220K films are viewable on our website.

2 thoughts on “Christmas Stuffing: British Turkeys Through History. (No, Really.)”

  1. Nice to see the “cheesy narration” has not been parked in the past; these turkey clips certainly are “nuggets”!

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