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"Why was the Snowman sorting through the carrots?"

The answer can only be found in one place and that is the inside of a Christmas cracker, for it is one of the many terrible jokes that have become a festive institution.

What has the Christmas cracker and a rather hideous drinking fountain have in common? No that's not another one, this is a fact which I only stumbled on the other day. Leaving Moorgate underground station I decided to vary the route I was taking and took a detour through Finsbury Square. Tucked away in the south east corner is what looks from a distance like a recreation of a Jules Verne spaceship, but once you get closer you realise it's a drinking fountain.

The square itself is rather pleasing, it's uncluttered apart from a few trees, some buildings and of course the drinking fountain. It was laid out in 1777 as a planned quadrangle of terraced town houses surrounding a central garden. The town houses are all gone but despite some rather hideous buildings the square retains a feeling of space and openness. In 1784, Vincenzo Lunardi achieved the first successful attempt at hot air balloon flight from the Square, the south side of which at the time was known as Sodomites Walk a notorious gay cruising area.

I was interested in this strange monument and so took a closer look at the inscription which is dedicated to Martha Smith from her sons Thomas and Walter. "Yeh whatever" I thought and moved on, but as what usually happens I did a bit of digging later and found that Martha Smith née Hunt was married to Tom Smith. Who he? I hear you shout in true Christmas pantomime fashion.

None other than the confectioner Tom Smith, the inventor of the Christmas cracker. Smith had his factory in nearby Goswell Road and during the 1840s took a trip to Paris to check out their confectionery industry. While there he became fascinated with the French Bonbon a confection wrapped in tissue paper with a twist at each end. He decided to bring the ‘bon bon’ to London and during Christmas that year they sold extremely well, but in January demand virtually ceased. This left him with a problem as he had vastly over estimated their appeal and had a large amount of stock sitting in his warehouse, so he came up with an ingenious fix to shift the stock.

He had all the Bonbons unwrapped and a small printed love note placed alongside the chocolate before they were both re wrapped. He encouraged his regular customers to purchase these and they rapidly became a good seller throughout the year. He soon tired of the idea of the Love bon bon and decided to put money into it's development. It is said that while sitting by the fire one evening he was captivated by the noise of the wood crackling in the grate producing a snapping sound and decided that his Bonbons needed something amazing to lift them beyond the ordinary confectionery of the time. This is probably not true and is born out by the fact that a novelty known as Waterloo Crackers, a paper strip containing silver fulminate which produced a snap when pulled apart had been used in amusements and practical jokes for around twenty years.

He was then faced with a design problem as the strips were too long for the bonbons and the tissue paper limited the addition of any size of gift to be incorporated, so he fashioned a larger bonbon out of thin card and the Christmas cracker was born.

The novelty loving Victorians took the cracker to their hearts and sales started to increase, so much so that a move of premises were needed to cope with demand, and so the firm was moved to Wilson Street which borders Finsbury Square and the drinking fountain.

By 1900 Smith was employing 1,500 workers at Wilson street producing 13 million crackers a year and this only increased as the years went by until the outbreak of the Second World War when restrictions were placed on the production and use of cracker snaps. The Ministry of Defence commissioned Tom Smith to fold and tie bundles of three to six snaps together with special string and regulation knots. These bundles were then used by soldiers in training as when the string was pulled, the snaps were pulled apart mimicking the noise of machine gun fire.

Rather strangely when looking at the company history there is no mention of the war years, which is a bit odd as the factory at Wilson Street is shown as being very badly damaged by German bombing, but it continued to produce crackers there right up to 1953 when the company was sold and production moved to Norwich. The factory was demolished in the late 1960s

Today, there is only a nondescript office block on the site and nothing to commemorate that factory being there which I think is a bit sad, given that the cracker has been part of British Christmas culture for nearly one hundred and seventy years.

And as for the Snowman sorting through the carrots? "He was picking his nose"

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