Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Pinch of Poverty, by The Riverside Visitor [Thomas Wright], 1892 - Chapter 20 - Free Dinner Children

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XX.

FREE DINNER CHILDREN.

 To those who think about such things at all it is a saddening reflection that we should constantly have in our midst a veritable "hungry army." It is an army chiefly made up of those who are known as cas'alty folk - the people who practically constitute the "floating surplus" of the ever over-stocked labour markets. When they are employed it is in the most wretchedly paid callings, while frequently and often for long "spells" they have perforce to figure as "the unemployed."
    Theirs is the modern bondage - the bondage of poverty; a bondage worse than the Egyptian bondage of old, in so far as those held in it cannot "sit by the flesh-pots and eat bread to the full." Our cas'altv class can but hanker after the flesh-pots, and it is rarely that even for a passing day they can eat bread to the full. They live habitually from hand to mouth, not knowing when the have had one poor meal where the next is to come from, or how long it may be in coming.
    Such a state of things would be sufficiently sorrowful if it applied only to adults, to those who could, and as a matter of fact generally do, suffer and be strong. Unhappily there is no such limitation in the matter. This hungry army, this army of martyrs, one might almost say, numbers [-284-] hosts of children within its ranks. It is sometimes pityingly said of these little ones that they "can neither work nor want," but it is a daily experience with them to have to want, to have to cry for bread to parents who have no bread to give, and to whom this "cry of the children" is more painful than the pangs of hunger.
    Time was when the extent of juvenile suffering in this respect was only realised by those who personally explored the regions of poverty, and entered the foodless homes, and looked upon the starved child faces. This. however, is no longer the case. Among the other good things effected by the Education Acts has been the establishment of a more widespread knowledge of the woes and wants of the children of the poor. When the waif and stray class of juveniles began to flock - for it is a mistake to suppose that they all, or even a majority of them, had to be driven -  into the schools that were planted in the neighbourhood of their homes, the white, wan faces and enfeebled frames of many of them told their own sad tale of hunger. Whether or not it is true that the way to a man s heart is through his stomach, certain it is that there is a very direct connection between stomach and brain. All teachers were of course aware of this as a simple  physiological fact, but those of them who were appointed to the poorer of the new schools had it brought home to their business and bosoms in a very practical and painful fashion.
    Officially they were not supposed to take into account such a thing as hunger. Ill or well, fed or unfed, the children were in the schools, they occupied "school places," were potential grant-earners. The letter of the duty of the teachers was to grind out of each child the "Code results" [-285-] upon which "my Lords" of the Education Department base their grants to schools. If the teachers had thought only of themselves, of the professional reputation and profit to be gained by squeezing a high percentage of "passes" out of their pupils, they might have got the desired results even out of the children of the hungry army, for such children are, generally speaking, sharp little creatures. But in this matter the teachers, to their honour be it said, were not to be bound by Departmental red tape they had not the heart to work the starvelings at the necessary pressure. It became axiomatic with them that a child could not learn upon an empty stomach; that it must be fed if it is to be taught; and that it is worse than a folly - a cruelty - to try to exact the same degree of mental exertion from a hungry child as from one that is well fed and well cared for.
    Urged by their experience and observation in this respect, the teachers were among the earliest and most earnest workers in the organisation of the now happily well-established institution of free dinners to children. The other supporters of this institution are now a numerous and energetic body; for, though it is the fashion to rail at " he age we live in," at our Mammon-worship, selfishness, and so forth, "the rarity of Christian charity" is not so great as the cynics would have us believe. Wherever it can be shown that there is good work to be done the men (and women) and the means - sympathy and service as well as money - are forthcoming to accomplish the work, and of late years this has been especially the case where the welfare of children has been concerned.
    In my district the Children's Free Dinner movement has [-286-] flourished for some seven or eight years. Throughout the winter months, the months in which the poverty of the poorest of the poor is greatest, and hunger stings its sharpest, we dine our five hundred children per day for four days a week. In respect to each of these children it is ascertained that there is no dinner for them at home, while of but too many of them it is further known that they have had no breakfast, and that their chances of obtaining tea or supper are highly problematical. Among those who are unfortunately qualified to be invited guests at these dinners are a number of infants of from three to seven years of age, who could not find their way any considerable distance, and having regard to this and some other points of detail we arrange to have two "dinner centres" whereat to entertain our hungry little ones.
    The particular centre at which I do suit and service in the capacity of a waiter is a board school classed as a school of "special difficulty." It is situated in the midst of a slum neighbourhood, and is attended chiefly by the children of costers, hawkers, "gutter merchants," dock and other irregular labourers, and widowed mothers employed in the more poorly paid kinds of female labour. It will be easily understood that such a school furnishes forth a large proportion of its own contingent of "dinner children," and the others accommodated at this centre are for the most part of the same class. At the best they are a sufficiently miserable-looking type, but they are not the ragged regiment that many people would expect to find them, and that such children would undoubtedly have been in the pre-Education Acts era. The schools that in these latter days have been brought to the doors of the poor, so to speak, have nut only benefited the children, they [-287-] have incidentally brought about an appreciable improvement in the ideas and habits of many of the parents. Thus, while raggedness is still the badge of all the tribe of such children as are here in question, it is no longer the old slatternly "looped and windowed" raggedness. It is modified and redeemed by much mending of a rough-and-ready kind, and is indeed rather patchiness than raggedness.
    Among the very poor new clothing for the children, clothes expressly made to measure, or bought to fit, are almost undreamed of. The garments of these children are "casts off," and of the poorest and cheapest kinds at that. The parents have not the time, and, generally speaking, not the skill, necessary for any effective work of sartorial restoration or alteration, and the clothes have to be taken into wear as they come to hand, though they may be "sizes" too large or small. As a consequence some of our dinner children present what to an unaccustomed eye would, no doubt, appear a grotesque appearance. But the children are to the manner born, and experience no sense of incongruity in this matter, either in regard to themselves or each other. The pity of it upon this point, so far as the children are concerned, is that as a rule their clothing is insufficient to afford suitable protection against winter weather. Thus it comes that the bulk of our dinner children are enduring the pinch of poverty in the fullest sense of the phrase - the pinch of cold as well as the pinch of hunger. 
    Our dinner time is from twelve to half-past one. In that time we dine some 250 boys and girls, who come to the tables in relays. Our cooks are hard at it from nine o'clock in the morning and during the actual pro-[-288-]gress of the meal we waiters have also to hook alive, for these hungry youngsters are great at trencher work. "The quantity of 'tackle' they put away is a caution," was the remark I once heard fall from the hips of a stalwart carman, who had come to deliver some provisions while the children were at their meal, and had paused enthralled to witness the scene. But we must consider the circumstances here. In practical matters the children of the poor become wise betimes, and with numbers of our dinner children it is wisdom to not merely appease present hunger, but to do a little in the way of "taking in supplies" for the rest of the day.
    As they stand assembled at the dining-room door, our dinner children are no doubt a motley group, but the really remarkable thing about them is their subdued air. There is no restraint placed upon the gathering, and under those circumstances an equally numerous gathering of, say, children of the well-to-do artisan class would be making the rafters ring. Here, however, there is no noise, no shouting, no restless rushing about, and - think of it - no single sound of child laughter. There is no smile even on the pale little faces, only an expression of eager expectancy.
    When the doors are opened our guests of the day troop rapidly in and take their seats, but still without anything like the clatter and bustle that would have marked the entry of a like number of better fed children. A short grace is offered up, and then, there being a good array of waiters at hand, dinner is promptly served, and the children fall to, I was going to say, a hundred feeding like one, but that would scarcely be speaking by the [-289-] card. Some of the children, more sybaritish than their companions, and having the courage of their tastes, exercise a self-restraint which, though only momentary, is remarkable in the circumstances of the case. Before commencing to eat they ecstatically inhale the fragrance of the steaming soup, and warm their numbed hands by gently clasping them around their soup mugs. But these are the exceptions; the bulk of the children cannot so possess themselves in patience, even to make their meal a thing of lengthened sweetness long drawn out.
    The majority of them are quick feeders, and this is especially the case with Master Teddy B.--------- In his childish way Teddy is a ladies' man, and he has constituted himself "corner man" of the group, mostly girls, that you see here. He has apparently a strain of the salamander in his composition, for while others even of the more eager spirits spoon, their soup, Teddy drinks his. I have an especially vivid recollection of Teddy in connection with these dinners.
    On the first day of a season we waiters had had a particularly hard time of it, and at the conclusion of the meal I sauntered into the playground, where I came upon Teddy surrounded by a body of admiring friends. His clothes - - as is usual with him - "fitted him too much." His rolled-up trousers were a world too wide, while the old "man's size" reefer jacket, which served him as a coat, reached nearly to his heels. His thumbs were tucked under his braces - he had no waistcoat - and with his cap well back on his head and refreshed and inspirited by the hearty meal he had just made, he was performing a "walk round" and singing -
            [-290-]" Oh, ain't we having a day,
                          Enjoying ourselves in this way
                          It's proper you know
                          And we do like it so-
                          Oh, ain't we having a day."
The other children did not lend their voices to this chorus of jubilation, but their approving looks testified that it expressed their sentiments. And the opening day of a dinner season is indeed a red-letter day to these hungry little ones.
    As you may notice, the faces of many of the diners are strikingly "old-fashioned," have a something almost weird in their expression; but hunger and hardship fully account for this. Upon such faces it is surprising to note the effect of even a single "square meal." Our children's dinner is no Barmecide feast. The soup is hot and nourishing, and is served in liberal measure, while following it comes a second course consisting of a slice of "roley poley," or a "hunk" of bread with jam, or occasionally a cut of savoury toad-in-the-hole. It is a tasty, wholesome, satisfying meal, and towards its conclusion you may note that under its invigorating influence colour begins to come back to the little wan faces, and a buzz of child talk and a ripple of childish laughter arises.
    More than this even: if you are used to reading the signs in such matters, you may detect a rising disposition upon the part of Teddy and a few kindred spirits to "get up to larks." In any and every case the children go back to school better fitted than they would otherwise have been to stand and profit by the educational work which it is to be hoped may ultimately prove to be a means of improving the prospects in life of the poor. It should perhaps [-291-] be mentioned here that while we get at the bulk of our children through the schools, the dinners are not restricted to school children. The tickets of our organisations are in the hands of those who, from love or duty, go down into the social deeps; and through them the dinners reach forlorn and hungry little waifs who for the time being may not be within the meshes of the educational net.
    As has just been said, these free dinners to children constitute a substantial meal, and it is a matter of pardonable pride to those concerned that they are provided at a cost price of a penny per meal. The knowledge of this fact benefits our dinner fund in a manner worthy of special mention. The more fortunate schoolmates of the "dinner children" willingly contribute pennies to the dinner fund. For that purpose, "the one pennied boy has a penny to spare." He knows that "the smallest contribution will be thankfully received," and that his single penny means definitely one meal the more for seine hungry-eyed Johnny, or Tommy, or Billy, for whom there is no dinner at home. The parents of our school-children subscribers, though generally poor enough themselves, also contribute their mites to our fund, and it is not the least gratifying outcome of these dinners that they have been a fruitful means of developing feelings of kindness and consideration towards the poor. The general body of our subscribers are to be found among all sorts and conditions of men, and considering how many and how heavy are the calls upon those who ate willing to give of their substance in the cause of the poor, we have reason to be grateful in this respect.
    The financial question is of course a very important one [-292-] with us, and on this head we have to fight our battle o'er again each year. But so far friends have never failed us. Even in exceptional years - years of exceptional bad trade or exceptional inclemency of weather - they have always risen to the occasion. We have never had to close our doors, or shorten our season or curtail the meal given. With more means we could do more, for unhappily there is but too much room for more to be done.
    Even as matters stand, however, we have done, and are doing, and hope to be able to continue to do, a great good work. It is hard and, in some of its aspects, heart-wearying work, but it brings its own exceeding great reward in the knowledge that it carries some measure of happiness into young lives that otherwise would be almost wholly miserable. Friends who have helped to found the feast have sometimes visited us while our little ones have been at table, and seeing what they have seen at such a time, they have invariably expressed themselves to the effect that in this instance, at any rate, it is more blessed to give than to receive. On such an occasion I have seen a lady turn away and veil her face to hide the tears of joy that the spectacle brought to her eyes.
    And the blessing of the poor is with the work. I once heard their sentiments upon the point well summed up by a mother whose children had been to the dinners. Better days had dawned for her, in so far that her little ones no longer needed the dinners, but her gratitude was none the less fervent on that account: "God bless the children's dinners," she said; "and God bless those who give them. I say GOD bless them, for the blessing of the poor and needy is already upon them."

source: [Thomas Wright], The Pinch of Poverty, 1892