Brief History of Father Christmas in Wareham:
Nigel Spiller, the man within the golden boots for 55 years.
As every son and daughter of Wareham knows, only the ‘real’ Father Christmas wears gold boots. And for more than sixty years the ‘real’ Father Christmas has arrived in Wareham in his gold boots to make his way down the chimney from the roof of the Red Lion Hotel to his grotto, where he meets all the girls and boys.
From 1962 until his last appearance in 2017, Nigel Spiller played the part of Father Christmas, every year pulling on the famous golden wellies – the same size tens his father, Jack, wore that first Christmas in 1958.
How it all started was in he late 1940s, when they had a Father Christmas event in Corfe Castle that Reg Spiller, was involved with. The village all came together to set it up with the lights, then Father Christmas arrived in the Square and set up in his grotto around the stone plinth there. At that time Reg Spiller was on the council in Wareham and after meetings in the Town Hall, they used to go over the Red Lion for a drink. One year the landlord there, Gurner Jones, told them about a friend who owned a racehorse that he’d been to see in training on the gallops, as this friend was going to get a decent jockey in and put the horse in for a race. He reckoned it had a chance if anyone fancied a flutter.
So Reg Spiller, Gurner Jones and another chap put in a fiver each and this horse came in at 20-1, so they ended up with a pool of £300 and wondered what they could do with it. It was quite a bit of money in the late 1950s. Reg Spiller said he fancied having a Father Christmas event in Wareham like the one they had in Corfe Castle, something for the children that would bring the town together.
When Father Christmas arrived in Corfe Castle, he used to go up onto the roof of what was Holland’s shop, where the National Trust is now, so that’s how Reg Spiller ended up on the roof of the Red Lion in Wareham. George Burt from Modern Radio and Sparky Mears, the manager of the SEB showroom, rigged up the first strings of lights, the tree came from Harry Perry of Wareham Transport, who had a sawmill, and we got the timber to make up the dummy chimney. Reg Spiller got the idea for the gold boots from his friend, Harry Ashley, the chief photographer on the Bournemouth Echo, who did Father Christmas in Bournemouth with a parade every year. He always wore gold boots.
This went on until Reg Spiller injured himself. Three weeks before Christmas, Reg Spiller fell off a carpenter’s stool and ended up with three broken ribs. He was in a bad way and said he couldn’t do Father Christmas, so Billy Dean stood in. He said that from a distance nobody would know.
In those days the whole town would be involved. There were teams of men from all the local builders – Spillers, Marsh and Moss – the Westminster and Lloyds Banks used to chip in and so did the town’s little department store, Hicks. The grotto used to be in a big furniture lorry they got from Churchills and the children would come up a ramp, meet Father Christmas, then go out through a side door.
Lots of things were very different in those days. We never had a safety harness and to close the road, we’d just go up the police station to let them know and they’d send a couple of officers down. Today you have to apply to the council and provide first aid, marshals, crowd control barriers, all sorts of things. Father Christmas got through lots of beards because they’d always get snagged, but he always had the same boots Reg Spiller had, although they’ve been re-sprayed so many times that they’ve taken on this bark-like quality.
One thing we always try to keep a secret is the transport and over the years he has arrived in everything from a JCB to an armoured car, pony and trap, horse and carriage or the Whitbread dray with heavy horses. In the year 2000 we even had camels. One year he was in a three-wheeled sled drawn by huskies, which was fine until one of the dogs got a scent and took the lot up onto the pavement. With the sled stuck on the kerb heading for a lamppost, he capsized, then when he set up again, they went off like a rocket – poor Hughie Elmes was commentating and sounded like Murray Walker as Father Christmas shot past him.
Another time we had a big white horse called Lumpy, loaned by Peter Andrews and escorted by Boy Scouts carrying flaming torches made of cocoa tins stuck on broom handles and filled with cotton wadding soaked in paraffin. As we turned the corner of Trinity Lane, the fumes from these torches got up the horse’s nose and it reared up like the Lone Ranger’s horse, Silver. Somehow he survived and got to the Red Lion.
Billy Dean has been sharing Father Christmas duties with Ray Derek when he had a stroke in 2020 and was told to cut back on things, but Billy is still the Mace-Bearer for the town and belong to the Guild of Mace-Bearers. Billy is president of Wareham Camera Club, belongs to Wareham Dining Club and still work in the family business, so after sixty years it’s time for a new Father Christmas.
Things change and although there is still some support, it’s different from how it was when all the local businesses and organisations were involved. People will always want to come to see Father Christmas, but if it’s to continue, we need younger people to get involved with making it happen.