Monthly Archives: February 2013

The Feeding of the Bairns – Kids crying out for school dinners?

School cooks (2)

During a busy day as a Community Learning Co-ordinator, I, Alex Fairlamb, have many vital issues to attend to.  First and primarily, the pressing topic of……school dinners.  Loathe them or love them, they are an inbuilt part of growing up.  As a fan of a cornflake tart and pink custard, I often look back with curiousity.  When we think about it, it’s one thing that a lot of us have in common.  School dinners are almost like a rite of passage with those scoops of lumpy mash and congealed gravy play an integral part of life as a bairn growing up in the North East.  Admittedly, at times, it could be a case of survival with a few cunning tactics to hide this week’s prime cut of lamb’s liver.  However, there were moments when it was something to look forward to with some restaurants now even opting to have school dinner themed menus!  So now that I think about it, was this culinary adventure something that I took for granted as a child?  Should I have been more appreciative of that semi-cold semolina?

Looking back, perhaps I should have been.  School dinners were not always something that we had a legal right to as a child, something the suffrage movement soon decided to try to change.  Quite often we link the Suffragettes to their quest to obtain the vote.  However, there were far more other issues that they were willing to campaign to change.  Groups of women in the North East were also aiming to change attitudes in society about provision for the poor and the right to an education for all.  They were greatly concerned by the children that they saw lacking nourishment and a chance to gain a good education.  Here at Beamish, we are hoping to breathe life back into one of their most heart, and belly, warming attempts to push for change – the Feeding of the Bairns of Gateshead.


The feeding of school children became an increasing concern for many in the early twentieth century as society felt the negative ripples of industrialisation and increasingly recognised its effect on young people, often faced with a life of factory or domestic work ahead of them.  The Boer War further highlighted the need for Britain to take better care of its future citizens.  For some female suffrage groups, this was about ensuring that children were provided for, irrespective of their social grounding, and that they should have access to nourishing food to keep their bodies and minds healthy.  After all, how can a child write their A, B, C’s without a stodgy dose of creamy porridge in the morning to get them going?

School cooks2 (2)

The Liberal government responded to societal concerns by introducing an Act of Parliament in 1906 granting local councils the freedom to provide school meals for needy children if they felt that it was required. There in lay the problem; if they so required or desired.  Not surprisingly, the extent to which some local councils adopted such measures was varied, including in the North East.  How could this be changed you may ask?  Beginning with the Women’s Labour League in Jarrow, women in the north were spurred into action to vowing never to “cease from troubling till the children are fed.”  A war of wills with the local councils was waged.

Despite the women rising to action with a petition at a memorial presentation at the Town Council, their words fell on deaf ears.  After all, the Mayor had far more pressing matters to deal with than the starving children waiting in the room next door.  He had his own Mayoral Banquet that he must hurry to attend that very evening instead of course!  Despite the Jarrow Authority’s lacklustre response, this did not dampen the spirit of the women.  The Newcastle suffrage movement soon took up arms.

To be continued……

The Golliwog Dilemma

Robertson's Golly

Since we started emptying our off-site storage, we’ve come across a wide range of objects: everything from doors to toy trains, and from postcards to shop interiors. Another remarkable object we found is this plaster Golly from the 1970s. For almost one hundred years, from 1910 to 2002, this figure was the face of Robertson’s Golden Shred Marmalade. Starring not only on the jars, but in all adverts and souvenirs, Golly became a celebrity and an integral part of British culture.

The golliwog on which Robertson’s based their Golly was created in a children’s book written by Florence Kate Upton in 1895: The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwog. The golliwog, a ragdoll that looked like a blackface minstrel, became extremely popular and a common sight in England and other European countries.

Two golliwog dolls from our collection

It wasn’t until the 1960s that the popularity of the golliwog started to get questioned. As our society changed and became more diverse, racial issues became increasingly important and minority groups started to get a stronger voice. The blackface minstrels were no longer seen as entertaining, but as racist caricatures and crude stereotypes. The same was true for the golliwog: he may have had a more gentle character, but he was still an expression of the negative way Black people were formerly seen.

Although the golliwog obviously offended many people, not everyone agreed with the view that he was racist. The golliwog had become such a part of our culture that many people felt personally connected to him, having grown up with the Robertson’s Golly. Many saw him as a positive figure that wouldn’t hurt or offend anyone, at least not deliberately. Most of all, some felt that he was never created with any racist intentions in mind and should not be perceived in that way.

When thinking about displaying objects like this golliwog, museums are faced with difficult questions. In some of the time periods we cover at Beamish the golliwog would have been a very common sight. So if we want to be historically accurate we should display him. But how important is historical detail if it may offend large groups of people? On the other hand, leaving it out might suggest that racism didn’t exist in the past, so maybe telling the story within the right context would be better? The story of Golly can tell us a lot about how our society has grown and changed.

Golly’s days as the face of Robertson’s marmalade might be gone, but he remains an instantly recognisable and controversial 20th century figure. There aren’t many children’s book characters who can inspire warm nostalgia and offence in equal measure! It leaves museums like Beamish with an interesting but sensitive problem. What do you think about the golliwog dilemma?

The Great Donate: 5 days in

We’re just over half way through an exciting half term week here in the Beamish curatorial team: all week we’ve been holding our Great Donate event, collecting objects and stories from members of the public. We’ve been asking you to share your history with us by donating 20th century items, and by telling us your stories and memories.

We have launched our campaign to collect 20th Century objects as part of our exciting future development plans, which include a 1950s town and farm – we need your help to make this happen though, which is what the Great Donate is all about.

We’ve transformed our Collections Study Room into the Donation Station for half term complete with 1950s living room setup:

Reading a 1952 Woman's Weekly in our 1950s living room

Reading a 1952 Woman’s Weekly in our 1950s living room

And if ours doesn’t take your fancy you can design your own:

Some dream 50s interiors created by our visitors

Some dream 50s interiors created by our visitors

As well as tea, coffee and Tunnocks wafers on tap –what more could you need?

Authentic 1950s curator snacks - come and eat them before we do!

Authentic 1950s curator snacks – come and eat them before we do!

We’ve been here all week taking in some amazing objects: we’ve already had some great things brought in, from our lovely picnic hamper:

Picnic hamper

Pristine picnic hamper

To a classic (and very cute) 1980s E.T. – the Extra Terrestrial!


World’s cutest alien

We’ve also had some fascinating memories shared – we asked visitors what they remember about the 1950s, and the results have been very interesting! Here are just a few snippets that people remembered:

“The Goon Show”

“National Service and the 11+”

“Dick Barton – Special Agent”

“Moving to Peterlee New Town in 1954 when I was 7 and starting a brand new school – I was first through the door!”

And the timeless:

“Fell in puddle!”

It’s exciting to think that we’re just over half way through and we’ve already been given some brilliant things and told some wonderful stories. We’re here every day from 10am to 4pm until Sunday 24th February, so there’s plenty of time for more! If you would like to donate something to us you can find out how here.

That’s not all for half term though – if you come down to our Pit Village this week you’ll notice a definite 1950s feel, as well as some fierce debates going on. That’s because we’re telling the story of County Durham’s Category D villages – find out more here, or come along to Beamish and join the debate!

Pottering about – our first adventure in collecting buildings

Hello, our names are Clara and Rosie and we are two of the new Curatorial Assistants working at Beamish. Here, at the Museum we not only collect interesting objects from the North East, but architectural elements and sometimes entire buildings.  As a part of the continued development of the Museum, we were given the task of collecting a potting shed from West Boldon in County Durham.  What makes this particular potting shed remarkable is the bricks that it is made from – but more about those later.  This would be our first intrepid step into the relocation of an historic building!

The potting shed at West Boldon

The potting shed at West Boldon

After an initial visit to the site, we began a survey of the potting shed. This rather complex process, in which every aspect of the building (down to the gaps between the bricks) had to be measured and recorded- which was a steep learning curve.  While Rosie took charge of taking measurements, Clara busily sketched:

Clara's initial sketch

Clara’s initial sketch

But as only Clara was able to understand her sketches, she developed a series of working drawings that looked more like this:

One of Clara's working drawings

One of Clara’s working drawings

From these we were able to produce much more accurate and detailed architectural plans from which our specialist builders will eventually rebuild the shed at Beamish.

One of eight architectural drawings of the potting shed. This drawing shows the facade of the shed at a scale of 1 inch to 1 foot.

One of eight architectural drawings of the potting shed. This drawing shows the facade of the shed at a scale of 1 inch to 1 foot

One of the challenges we faced, as part of the Metric generation, was working with a building that was constructed using the Imperial system. We couldn’t just convert its measurements to Metric, as by recording the shed in Imperial, it was easier to understand the building’s design features. For example, the three window spaces each measured 3 ft by 4 ft- much simpler figures to deal with than 0.91440m by 1.2192m.  On top of this, we soon discovered that the building had been put together in a haphazard fashion, with wonky walls and mismatched bricks!

Architectural plan of the roof timbers and inner walls of the shed.

Architectural plan of the roof timbers and inner walls of the shed

Indeed, getting back to those bricks, they were the key to understanding our interest in this seemingly humble potting shed. Written on the bricks was ‘Jones Brothers Pelaw’, which was one of the largest brick manufactures in the North East from 1911 until its closure in 1968. The potting shed had been in the grounds of Ashby House (now Ascot Court) that was built by one of the Jones brothers from the profits of the brickworks. The shed itself looks like it was made using seconds from the brickworks, as the brick ‘specials’ used on the cornices are rather elaborate for a potting shed. We think that it was probably constructed in the 1910s, after the brickworks changed its name to ‘Jones Brothers’, but if anyone has any local knowledge that could provide us with an exact date that would be really useful.

One of the bricks from West Boldon impressed with the name of the brickworks - Jones Brothers

One of the bricks from West Boldon impressed with the name of the brickworks , ‘Jones Brothers’

So what next for the West Boldon potting shed? Well, it has now reached Beamish in it’s disassembled state and will in the future be rebuilt to provide our gardening team with an historic setting to work in. Yes, it’s going to remain a potting shed!