Harkive: ‘The Children of the Unemployed’

Harkness’s 1893 article ‘The Children of the Unemployed’ gives a significant insight both into conditions found in London’s poorer neighbourhoods during an extended period of economic crisis, and into Harkness’s own convictions and priorities. Published in the New Review, the periodical run by Labour politician Archibald Grove which had published ‘A Year of My Life’ in 1891, it reflects Harkness’s appeal for philanthropic support for those in most urgent need as, she argues, the progress made by the labour movement in the late 1880s following successes like the Dockworkers’ Strike of 1889 had not eliminated the problem of extreme poverty for the dependants of people subject to long-term unemployment. By referring to detailed research similar to that which Harkness had carried out for fieldwork research articles at the start of her journalistic career in the early 1880s, such as ‘Women as Civil Servants’ (1881) and ‘Railway Labour’ (1882), it provides extensive detail of the workings of charitable organisations working to feed and clothe children in poverty during the period.

Source: New Review, February 1893, pp. 228-236. Accessible via ProQuest.


On December 28th last the officials of the Dock Labourers’ Union, assisted by Mr. John Hutton, L.C.C., and Mr. J. Williams Benn, M.P., L.C.C., gave a dinner and an entertainment to five thousand children whose fathers are classed as “Unemployed Waterside Labourers in the East End.”

Let it be said at once that the good intentions of the entertainers were partially frustrated by want of helpers, and ignorance in dealing with children. The gentlemen of Toynbee Hall, who generally grace such entertainments with their presence, did not “approve” of a free dinner, and other “superior” people stayed away for the sake of conscience. Consequently the children took things into their own hands. Not only the four thousand boys and girls who had tickets gained admittance, but also one thousand uninvited guests. In vain Mr. Tom Mann tried to make himself heard; in vain Mr. Charrington brandished his stick; the youngsters roared like bulls of Bashan. Mr. Hutton and Mr. Benn retreated to the platform, and the reporters gathered in little groups to discuss the situation. The children with tickets devoured the meat pies and plum puddings provided for them; the children without tickets cried out lustily for food and drink. Mr. Alderman Tillett and his colleagues quickly discovered that it is easier to deal with ten thousand starving men than five thousand hungry children. A climax was reached when someone had an unhappy inspiration to play the organ. Never before, and probably never again, will the Great Assembly Hall witness such a scene of noise and confusion. Nevertheless, the children were fed—the thousand boys and girls who had no tickets as well as the rest; and the officials of the Dock Labourers’ Union learnt “how not to do it.”

It is easy to understand why Mr. Ben Tillett made the attempt. He is fond of children, and the knowledge of what the children of the unemployed have to suffer is like the sting of a whip to him when he thinks of his own family. It requires a very superior person to look calmly on while children starve. Amongst those five thousand children in the Great Assembly Hall that night were raged, bare-footed little mortals, with pinched faces and sunken eyes, whose cry through like is: “I’m so ’ungry.” Some of them will be “’ungry” from the cradle to the grave, for death frequently finishes the work starvation does its best to accomplish. Two children come vividly before me while writing: a little girl, whose sole garment was a print dress, whose white, sharp features resembled those of an old woman; and a small boy, without socks or boots, holding a ragged coat over his naked body. These children, tearing their food to bits, shouting hoarsely with the rest, made me wish that the mantle of a superior person would fall on me, and that right quickly.

No one will deny that there is an unusual amount of starvation going on in the East of London this winter. Mr. Barnett says: “I have never been an alarmist . . . . I think ‘wolf’ has been often cried when there has been no danger.” But now even Mr. Barnett tells us that a bad time has come for East London. The depression of trade, the organisation of labour, and other causes are making it difficult for the weak, the old, and the shiftless to get work. Things are not likely to improve for some time; and meanwhile those who suffer most are the children of the “out-of-works.” No one can blame them for the present state of things, or call them “idle,” “vicious,” “drunken,” “extravagant.” They—the men and women of the future—are not responsible for bad laws, strikes, and faddists. “There are too many of them,” says the economist. Perhaps; but no amount of preaching will teach “out-of-works” of to-day that theory. Now we must be content to know that “the little nipper” who sits on the “out-of-work’s” knee, who eats his father’s dinner and leaves his father hungry, is a civilising influence without which the “out-of-works” would sink even lower in the social scale than his present position.

What can be done for the children of the unemployed?

They must be fed and clothed in the right way, and by the right people.

Objections are raised to this.

First, it is said those who enjoy ease and wealth are so desirous to give a ransom for their idleness and riches, that they will pauperise the children of the unemployed if they get the chance.

My reply is the annual report of the London Schools Dinner Association for 1892. Here I find that the “school-dinners” of last year were supported to a large extent by public elementary school children, who had no need to share in them. “In the autumn of 1891 the chairman of the Council addressed a letter to the head teachers of every public elementary school in London, suggesting that perhaps the children might help the Association by subscribing one week’s fee to the funds of the Association, the further payment of school fees having been abolished, or considerably reduced. The response was most gratifying; no less a sum than £405 10s. 9d. was subscribed by the children in the public elementary schools of London for the provision of meals for such of their fellow scholars as were in need of them.” The balance-sheet of this Association for 1892 shows £1,000 received and spent. Thus £400 was contributed by the school children themselves, and £600 by the generous British public!

“But,” objects a well-known politician, “the meals might overlap.”

Yes, it is possible that one of the thirty thousand children without a dinner to-day might receive two meals to-morrow, and for once cease to be “’ungry.” This terrible evil must be faced. The M.P. can, however, console himself with the thought that the child will probably suffer less than one of his own overfed servants. Three and four meat meals a day are now considered necessary by domestics; and any West End doctor can tell the M.P. how many guineas these meat meals put into doctors’ pockets. The waste and overfeeding in the West End would more than cover the wants of the East End, of course; but when the Sisters of Nazareth go round with their carts to collect the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table, they are frequently told to “move on.” Why?  Because they make the rich and idle feel “uncomfortable.” There is little fear that “the leisure classes” will pay a ransom for ease and wealth if they can possible help it.

Secondly, it is said that to feed and clothe the children of the unemployed will lessen parental responsibility.

My answer is that in too many cases the parents have sunk below such considerations. The fathers and mothers of the children for whom I plead either starve themselves to feed their families, or make their boys and girls the victims of improvidence and vice. The outlook of the parents is almost helpless. But the boys and girls have a future. For them a brighter time is coming. If the State cannot supply the food compulsory education renders necessary, those who have well-cared-for children should surely come to the assistance of the overwrought, underfed little ones.

“Can ye bear,

The sweet looks of your own children

While those others, lean and small,

Scurf and mildew of the city,

Spot our streets, convict us all

Till we take them into pity?”

“What splendid material to work upon!” exclaimed the Prioress of a Catholic convent, who for the last fifty years has been engaged in teaching children. She was walking up and down in the Great Assembly Hall on December 28th, talking to the children as best she could amidst the general uproar. “Why I could do anything with those children,” she said. “I expected to find them altogether different.” She had not taken into consideration the work being done in the schools, the education the children now receive, even in the poores [sic] districts. Scrofulous, rickety, and deformed children were there that night, but no one could deny the intelligence of those little English citizens. Having desperate odds to contend with, who would lay on their young shoulders the sins and misfortunes of their parents more especially when “parental responsibility” is but another name for unceasing privation that borders on despair and sees no future?

The third objection comes from the Labour people themselves. “We want no charity,” say the Trades Unionists. That is true enough; but they know there is a stratum of society Trades Unionism does not touch, in which the only hope lies with the children. What are the Trades Unionists doing for these little ones? They tried their prentice hand at the Great Assembly Hall on December 28th last, and learnt that their work is to organise men and women, not to feed boys and girls. It is easy to sneer at “General” Booth, the Clearing House people, and other “faddists”; but what would become of those who fall out of the ranks if some humble-minded servants of Progress did not follow in the wake of the great army of Labour? “Organise, organise!” cry the leaders. Nothing can stop the Collectivism that is leading to a fuller and more unselfish Individualism; but as all progress entails suffering, and those who suffer most are the weakest members of society, we may rejoice that some “faddists” have warm hearts and well-lined pockets.

Now I have nothing new to suggest in the way of feeding and clothing the children of the unemployed. The machinery for what is wanted exists; it is only necessary to grease its wheels and increase its speed. Surely this will be done by disciples of “The New Morality”—by people who can no longer salve their conscience by doles in church, or feel they have fulfilled their whole duty to God and man by teaching in Sunday-schools? “The New Morality” is bringing rich and poor closer together, sometimes by means of an over-worked signalman, who forces home the fact that hours of labour must be curtailed in order to secure life and property; sometimes with the aid of an enthusiastic sempstress, who asserts that the heir to the Throne has narrowly escaped the contagion of a fever-den. “What ought we to do?” many ask at present—people who are not prepared to do much, but sufficient.

The strictest economist will agree with me that the right way to feed and clothe the children of the unemployed is through the schools, and the right people to employ for the purpose are the School Board officials. Mr. Charles Booth, an ultra-superior person, built his book, Labour and Life of the People, on the facts and statistics furnished to him by the School Board visitors, and to them he owes the result—namely, the acceptance of his work everywhere without contradiction or prejudice.

School Board visitors know more than anyone else about the children of the unemployed. They can furnish particulars concerning each child, and tell the history of its parents. It is necessary to accompany a School Board visitor on his or her rounds in order to learn how thoroughly the work is done, how accurately the information is scheduled. The female School Board visitor perhaps knows more than the visitor of the other sex, because she cannot be put off with “You can’t come in, sir; mother’s ill in bed, sir.”

It is scarcely necessary to insist upon the knowledge the teachers possess, more especially of those children whose parents try to hide their poverty. The teachers take the liveliest interest in their children, they are very self-sacrificing and generous.

“It is to their interest to get the children fed.” I was told the other day, “Starving children can’t pass examinations.”

Self-interest does not account for the money given to deserving cases, the hours spent cooking and serving free dinners, the soup sent to sick parents and invalid children. I know a head-mistress who after four o’clock puts on a cooking apron and spends the whole evening making soup and puddings for her children. Day after day she thus adds several hours’ labour to her school work, because she cannot bear to see the children swoon from want of food in the classes.

The London Schools Dinner Association, 19, Surrey Street, Strand, although not officially connected with the London School Board, has Mr. J. R. Diggle as chairman of its Council and also as a member of its Executive Committee.

Its object is to provide cheap or free meals for necessitous children attending the public elementary schools of London. The amount of each grant it makes is based upon the estimated number of children who need assistance at the centre. Each centre is under the control of three or more persons, who undertake to see that the grant is economically expended, and that the food supplied reaches those who are in real need of it. The grant is renewed as a rule at the expiration of a fortnight, but not before a statement has been forwarded from the centre to the Association in the following form:—



Name of School………………………………………………………

Dr.       In Account with The London Schools Dinner Association.

  To Local contributions …       …        …        …        …

” Grant received from Association     …        …        …

” Payments for dinners*         …        …        …        …

”          ”          ” breakfasts*   …        …        …        …

” Special contributions for free meals …        …        …

*Give number and price.

  Do you ask for a further grant?

If so, are the conditions the same as stated in your last application?

  By Rent, rates, and taxes…    …        …        …        …

” Plant and repairs to same     …        …        …        …

” Fuel and gas …        …        …        …        …        …

” Wages           …        …        …        …        …        …

” Cost of food …        …        …        …        …        …

” Purchase of tickets. No……….at…….d.    …        …

” Balance in hand        …        …        …        …        …

  Number of meals paid for by children…        …        …

Number of free meals given    …        …        …        …

Average cost per head of meals          …        …        …        …


NOTE.—Instructions as to Accounts.—Accounts must be rendered in accordance with the enclosed form direct to the Executive Committee for all money expended on behalf of the Association. They must be cast and balanced, and the balance in hand, if any, brought down on the proper side. The number of free meals must be stated, together with those for which the children have paid in whole, or in part, and the average cost per head must be given. No application for a further grant will be considered until this form has been returned, fully filled in, to the Secretary, London Schools Dinner Association, 19, Surrey Street, Strand, W.C.

The Poor Children’s Aid Society, 37, Norfolk Street, Strand, has Mr. Diggle for president and Mr. John Kirk for secretary. It makes grants of clothes to deserving cases, furnishing the following form of application to School Board teachers, School Board visitors, and others:—


            I recommend the case detailed on the other side as a deserving child for a grant of clothes. This recommendation is made from Personal Knowledge of the circumstances of the case, and I undertake that a receipt shall be given for any clothes which may be loaned before they are handed over to the child.


Date…………………….                                           Address………………



            This form must be fully filled in, or the application cannot be considered. The address must be given in full as must also the height and description of the child, together with particulars of the occupation, earnings, and character of the father or mother, number of children in family, &c. When boots are required, insert the length of the foot in inches. The Society can only supply a limited number of leather boots, except in the case of sickly or crippled children. The name of each garment required must be inserted, and not merely the words “clothes” or “an outfit.” A separate form is required for each child.

Name of Child……………………….. Aged……….

Living with…………………………………………..


School attended……………………………………..

Who requires…………………………………………

Height and personal description……………………….

The father is a………………………………………


The clothes are lent to the children; if given, they would in many cases find their way to the pawnshop. Needless to say, they are never taken back. But the fact that they are lent enables the School Board teachers, or visitor, to ask, “Where are my boots?” “Where is my coat?” if the child appears at school without the clothes provided by the Association.

Some dozen forms lie before me, filled in by School Board officials, who tell the story of the applicant in a few sentences.

  1. Father lying in hospital; family on parish; boy in rags.
  2. Father dead; mother gets her living at charing, when able to work, but suffers from some complaint, and consequently can do no work.
  3. No parents; grandmother makes skewers, rent, 3s. 6d.
  4. No father; mother has to support two children by box-making; very poor.
  5. Father has been out of work for months, except one fortnight; a woman in the house sometimes gives bread to the children (3); mother has a baby, so can’t work; this child is nearly naked.
  6. Father, painter, out of work; mother, box-maker, out of work; wretchedly poor.
  7. Father, compositor, out of work, mother in lunatic asylum; six children.
  8. Father, labourer, out of work sixteen weeks; two children; positively starving.
  9. Father dead; mother supports six children by box-making; very deserving.

The Clothier’s Depôt of the Association is well worth a visit. There the applications are sorted by Mr. Kirk, and from thence the clothes are sent to applicants. Boots are badly wanted. Suits for boys are very acceptable. Nothing comes amiss.

“Upon my word,” said Mr. Kirk, “I am sometimes ashamed to buy the things, I get them so cheap. Someone must be sweated to make boots at five shillings a pair, and a suit of boys’ clothes for three shillings and sixpence.’

Saddest of all is the fact that Mr. Kirk could get the labour yet cheaper if he employed men and women to work up his materials, instead of buying things ready-made at the shops.

Having recommended to the disciples of “The New Morality” the way to feed and clothe the children of the unemployed, and the people to intrust with the business, I would only draw attention to the Children’s Dinners Food Fund, organised by the London Vegetarian Society, at the Memorial Hall. This Society works through the schools, and with the school officials. Last year it gave 83,199 half-penny dinners in eleven London elementary schools, consisting of substantial vegetarian soup, eaten with a slice of wholemeal bread, and followed by another slice of wholemeal currant-bread. This Society will provide a halfpenny dinner for three hundred children for the sum of twelve shillings and sixpence.



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