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

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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?

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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……

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