Walter Stevens and the Santa Claus Christmas Distribution Fund
PUBLISHED: 10:42 24 December 2018
Colin Runeckles, of Ilford Historical Society, tells the story of a man who embodied the true spirit of Christmas
Sitting at home in Stoke Newington a week before Christmas 1894, Walter Stevens was clearly so moved by the verses of a poem entitled Christmas Eve he was reading, that he thought he ought to do something for the children of the poor and underprivileged in the area.
A week later, and after having sought contributions from friends and the circulation of a printed appeal, he and others were able to distribute 310 parcels of clothing and toys on Christmas Eve.
The following year, 1,710 parcels were delivered. The Santa Claus Christmas Distribution Fund had begun in earnest.
Around 1899, he moved to 184 Balfour Road in Ilford. By this time the fund had grown in size and was able to deliver 2,951 parcels on Christmas Eve to children in areas all across London.
The fund’s annual Gazette records the types of toys that children might wake up to on Christmas morning: dressed dolls, skipping ropes, skittles, tin trumpets, marbles, slates and slate pencils; as well as clothing and sweets.
By 1905 the fund had grown to an extent that the Stevens household was full to the brim with parcels.
It was decided that a hall should be built in order to cope with the growing numbers of presents. Initially Brisbane Road was chosen as the location but as Stevens decided to move to Seven Kings, a new plan was approved for a hall to be built in Durban Road, close to his new house in Aldborough Road.
This was financed partly by raising money through fund events, and partly through a loan. Amongst the events were two concerts – the second of which held in the hall received a glowing report in the following week’s Ilford Guardian. In addition, the fund hired the town hall for a Christmas bazaar which ran over several days.
The Redbridge Museum holds three items connected to the fund, two of which relate to these bazaars.
The fund’s reputation grew to such an extent that they received patronage, not only in the form of donations from both the past and present Queen but also, acting as president of the fund, Lady St Helier initially and then HRH Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein, daughter of Queen Victoria.
By 1912 more than 10,000 parcels were being delivered across London and that remarkable number was also exceeded in 1913. But both donations to the fund and numbers of helpers fell away significantly during the war; and by Christmas 1917 the parcels delivered amounted to just over 2,000.
Stevens appears to have relinquished the role of secretary in 1918 due to ill-health.
The fund itself seems to have continued after the war but at a greatly reduced level of activity.
Walter Stevens was also active in public life in Ilford as a councillor for the Seven Kings ward of the Ilford UDC from 1912 until 1926 serving on many council committees. He was chairman of the council in 1918-19, organised the Peace meeting held on November 11, 1918, and was the instigator and first chairman of the committee of the War Memorial Fund.
The money raised paid for both the war memorial itself but also the children’s ward of what was then the new King George Hospital.
It is fortunate that the entrance hall of the ward (now called the War Memorial Hall) was saved for posterity as a foundation stone to the right of the entrance bears his name.
Stevens moved to Walton-on-the-Naze around 1927 initially to a house called, appropriately enough, “Aldboro” but died in King George Hospital in 1938 after having been admitted three weeks earlier.
Walter Stevens’ charity work as founder and long-time secretary of the Santa Claus Fund was as important to him as his public duties; and he deserves to be recognised as one of the most significant people of Ilford of the early 20th century.