Author Archives: Alex Fairlamb

this poor little chap

The Feeding of the Bairns – what happened next?

Loyal blog readers might remember that last week we were halfway through the story of the Feeding of the Bairns – starving children, no school meal provision and the Women’s Labour League ready to do battle with the local councils! So what happened next?

Faced with remarks by the Newcastle Aldermen in 1908 that the plight of the children was due to the “thriftlessness and ignorance of parents”, the women pushed for their pleas to be heard.  Alderman Richardson’s ‘give them an inch, and they’ll take a mile” mentality boomed with heartless comments that to help the children would encourage poor parenting skills and that poverty was the result of the evil ways of their fathers – let them sort themselves and their children out!

Upset by being labelled a “duffer” in her neighbourhood, a young schoolgirl wrote back in response outlining the condition of her area and the “pale thin children on the street.”  She called for common sense, wisdom beyond her years, that in order to become good scholars and grow up to be strong men and women, the council must feed their children.  After all, as one famous supermarket brand will tell you themselves, “every little helps”.

A typical school cookery class kitchen at Blaydon

A typical school cookery class kitchen at Blaydon

Success came with the granting of £1500 for 2,600 school children in Newcastle.  Would this satisfy the strong willed women of the North East?  Why, no!  Galvanised, the Gateshead suffrage movement sprung into action.  Calling a “Great Women’s Meeting”, the woman cried out to the town council to feed the children and stop relying solely on local charity, who at the time were providing breakfasts for the 600 worst cases.  With a resolution to hand they pushed hard to be heard.  Rebuffed by the town council, they decided instead to take matters into their own hands.  They decided to carry out the “Feeding of the Bairns” in Gateshead to fill the void the council refused to fill.  Perhaps this might also shame the council into recognising the errors of their way.  Through a campaign of donated food and begging for scraps, the women came together to cook a hearty soup to put colour back into the pale, thin faces of the Gateshead children.  They say soup is good for the soul, and on this date this saying was proven.

You may ask, did they succeed in changing the attitude of the town council?  In some ways, yes.  In January 1911, the council began to provide meals in the winter for the worst cases.  Progress had made surely.  Did the women settle for this as a solution?  Of course not!  Ground had been gained and there were still many more starving children.  For the women of the North East, the cause was ongoing and they continued to battle on.

Dean Road

Cookery at Dean Road School, South Shields in 1912

Inspired by this story, I began to lament by bashing of school dinner dishes.  Had I taken for granted something that others had been denied that very same century?  (I’ll not give away my age here!)  Resultantly, we decided that it would be a great way to engage with children today.  Using school dinners as a focus, something at the forefront of the tabloids at the moment, we have decided to create this fascinating event using theatrical drama and costume.  What else could you expect from us here at Beamish?

this poor little chap

Detail from charity collecting envelope, c.1912

Armed with soup to hand and Suffragette rosettes pinned proudly on our pinnies, we will work alongside Thomas Hepburn Community School and the Then and Now Group to feed the children of Gateshead their dinner.  At the House on the Hill on International Women’s Day, we will hear the engaging speeches of the Suffragettes and boo the Alderman accordingly, washed down with some of Soul Soup’s hearty goodness.  We hope to have many come to take part in this performance this Friday 8th March and help right the wrongs of 1910.  You won’t be surprised to hear though, I’ve not invited my old dinner lady!







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……