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'Feeding the hungry little ones'
The story of Manchester’s Cinderella Club
By Dani Cole
On one December’s day in 1888, Robert Blatchford was outside the Exchange Station in Salford when a small girl approached him. She implored him to buy some of her matches, but his pockets already rattled with two boxes bought earlier from other children who were wandering the streets. There were so many poor children, and there were only so many matches he could buy. He declined and walked on.
Yet the girl, who he guessed to be around eight years old, ran alongside him like a faithful companion, her shoes pattering on the ground. She had blue eyes and a dark blaze of red hair, the colour of autumn leaves. There was a party she wanted to go to, she told him, please might he buy some matches? She had never been to a party before. She had “such an honest little face” and she looked “so glad and so good-humoured” that he stopped and asked where she was going to the party. It was at a Catholic school, the cost being threepence to get in. She had almost saved enough. He relented, and after handing her a coin she thanked him and “ran away as hard as she could run”. He never saw her again.
‘A drab nightmare of a region’
This is the story that Blatchford would recount in his autobiography My Eighty Years when explaining how Manchester’s Cinderella Clubs came to be. He was a socialist campaigner and journalist for the Sunday Chronicle and would later leave to co-found The Clarion, which one letter writer to the Manchester Guardian noted “was an attempt to convert the British public to Socialism”.
He was witness to the poverty of Manchester’s slum-dwellers. In an article in the Labour Prophet in August 1892, he wrote about his experiences of “Shantytown” — the “penurious district” of Hulme, “a drab nightmare of a region”. Of its inhabitants, he wrote: “They have no sweet air to breathe, nor pure water to drink, nor limpid streams to bathe in. They are shut off by a great gulf from all who profess to pity or wish to aid them.”
In My Eighty Years, he remembers visiting a damp home in Shantytown where he found “a thin shred of a woman, blue with cold” and a baby wrapped in rags, wheezing with bronchitis, who died shortly after. In the slums of Hulme and Ancoats he saw children draped in sacks and others playing in the gutters and sitting in dirty streets with dolls fashioned from clothes-pegs and tied up in a duster.
“The iron had entered into my soul,” he recalled in the book, and seeing this dire poverty left him “growling like a terrier.” He was passionate about justice and mercy, and was driven by “great human kindness.” At one point, when visiting the slums with the Sisters of Mercy who carried out charitable work, what he saw angered him and was reproached by a nun for being too fierce. For people who hadn’t seen the slums for themselves, his descriptions of the conditions seemed far-fetched:
The average comfortable reader, to whom poverty and distress were remote and inconsiderable phenomena, regarded my stories as lurid exaggerations.
‘To send a ray of sunshine’
In the late nineteenth century, long before any kind of welfare state, there was a patchwork of charitable provision for hungry children. The School Boards of Manchester and Salford provided very basic free meals for kids, including “A good pea soup, containing boiled bones and plenty of vegetables.” The Cheap Meals Committee of the Sanitary Association offered potato hash, and for Roman Catholic children, on Fridays it was rice milk with bread and jam, “in substitute of flesh food.”
It took two prompts from readers writing to Blatchford before he came up with the idea of the Cinderella Club, which was actually founded by the editor of the Prophet, John Trevor, around 1889. The name of the club came not from the fairytale Cinderella who scrabbled in ashes, but from Blatchford’s little match girl, a “Manchester Cinderella” who had wanted to go a party, and who “had neither small feet, nor a fairy godmother,” he explained.
The club first set out to amuse children, but he soon realised that there was little joy to be had when children were hungry so they made it a rule to “feed them first and amuse them afterwards.” Children were given tickets that permitted them entry inside where they received a hot meal and were entertained. Other Cinderella Clubs would also provide clothing. Efforts were made to ensure only those most in need received a ticket.
He paints a colourful scene of what it was like inside the first Cinderella Club in Manchester. It’s not clear where its location was, but it had singers, conjurers, a Punch and Judy show, ventriloquists, dancers and magic-lanterns. “We had a Christmas tree, too, and dolls and toys and sweets, and oranges,” he writes. One by one the children must have filed in, cheeks flushed pink from the sharp winter air into a room filled with the clamour of delighted peers.
The winters were cold, sometimes bitterly so. In 1890, Manchester awoke to a clear and frost-glittered Christmas morning; the Cathedral was decorated with evergreens, and snow fell at dusk. Newspaper accounts of the following years wrote that at Christmastime the streets rang out with the bellowing of street hawkers and toymakers, and strange figures laden with bundles of holly and mistletoe “started out of the cloudy grey”. One year at Victoria Station, “the eye could hardly carry from platform to platform” because it was so crowded.
“The club was a success from the word go,” Blatchford writes in his autobiography. According to one estimate (by the Reverend David Summers) the club served 3,164 meals by the end of its first winter’s work. Over time, other Cinderella Clubs sprang up in towns and cities like Ashton, Stalybridge, Salford, Birmingham and Bradford. They became part of the Christian Socialist movement, called the Cinderella Movement, which seems to have been a response to the failure of traditional churches to support the working classes. The public was generous and enthusiastic with their donations: in 1909, the Manchester Guardian reported that about 50,000 toys were sent to the Manchester Cinderella Club, and there was a doll display at the Town Hall.
Despite his experiences in the slums, he was still shocked by the poverty of the children who came in. He writes:
Many of the little children were so poor, so ragged, so thin, and so pale, that it made our hearts ache to look at them. I have seen big fat jolly men who called to see the club, turn away with tears in their eyes, and I don't think many women came there who did not have to use their handkerchiefs before they went away.
One article in the Manchester Guardian on December 31st 1923, carries an extraordinary story: in a single Saturday 4,000 children were fed by the Salford Cinderella Club, divvied up into groups of hundreds. The club also distributed 5,000 pairs of clogs, which were made by the club’s own clog maker, who worked for trade-union wages and was by all accounts kept very busy. All the children were given a feast:
Each child was given a meat pie, bread and butter, a mince-pie, and a quarter of a pound of fruitcake. On leaving they each received a new penny, an orange and apple and a stocking crammed with sweets.
Of all the Cinderella Clubs, only one in Bradford remains. By the end of the twentieth century they had declined in importance as the state stepped in. But their social impact was great. A December 1893 edition of the Prophet carries a song “Our Cinderella Club”, which was sung to the tune of “Maggie Murphy’s Home”. The final verse reads:
We think it is our duty,
In the world of strife,
To send a ray of sunshine,
Into their cheerless life;
To lighten up their darkness,
And chase away their gloom,
And this is what we purpose at
Our Cinderella Club.