At the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, we have millions of objects in our collection. Kept in very controlled conditions, under close lock and key. They’re very precious. Anyone can come and see them by special request or on a guided tour, but most visitors will never get hands-on with any of the objects. Except for a tiny fraction. We call it the Object Handling Collection. Objects that everyone can pick up, explore, try out, press buttons, turn dials or just get up close and hold in their hands.
And sometimes we find TREASURES in this collection. Not gold and silver, but treasures for the mind.
We have a storeroom in Insight, our collection centre, where potential Handling objects are kept. And one day in that store, we found an old wooden box. Heavy, sturdy and with strong steel binding.
And in that box we found: a cotton glove, a business card and lots of glass photographic slides. Each one 3.25in square with black paper masking the edges. These were magic lantern slides. Slides of children, slides of exotically dressed people, and slides of countryside and castles. After looking at them I put the slides of holiday photos to one side because the others were TREASURES.
A lot of the slides were labelled ‘T. Throup, Publisher, Bradford’ so I had an exciting local connection. Each slide had a number, so they must have been part of a magic lantern show, shown to groups of people in a specific order. They were part of a documentary, to be shown wherever the magic lantern travelled. The styles and backgrounds said these were over a hundred years old. The different types of clothing told of status and position. Some were formal portraits; some were children in rows at table under the eyes of adults in aprons. There were buildings, a lorry in a street scene with a queue forming nearby. Some of the slides had hand-written labels. ‘White Abbey’, ‘Odsal House’, ‘Thackley Open Air School’ and other places in the Bradford area.
This was really exciting. I was seeing Bradford history captured on glass slides. I know Bradford and knew what this brilliant find was telling me. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Bradford was a tremendous innovator in the field of education. In front of me was direct evidence of some of those amazing innovations. One in particular was a truly historic first: the first ever council-funded school meals service in the country. I could see the actual children who ate them and the teachers who supervised the meals.
In those days there was great concern about the health of the poor, who were expected to provide labour and troops for the economic wellbeing of Britain and its Empire. Despite this, before 1907 meals in ‘state’ schools (officially ‘public elementary schools’) could only be provided by charity or by the ‘Poor Law Guardians’ (who also ran the Workhouses). Charities could not cope with the huge demand and the Guardians, who only catered for the very poorest children, were said to give them ‘a bun, a banana and a beverage’. Bradford was the first city to use powers under a new law (The Education (Provision of Meals) Act 1906) which allowed it to spend council funds on feeding its children.
Initially there was a ‘Feeding Experiment’ to scientifically establish what benefits school feeding could provide for ‘Necessitous Children’. Then, in a few short months, a whole infrastructure for cooking, distributing and serving meals in dining rooms around the city was devised. The first school kitchen was set up in ‘White Abbey’ at Green Lane School. Ingeniously, heat from the boilers of the school baths was used to cook the food. Within a couple of years thousands of hungry children were being fed across the city. The city became world famous for its efforts and inspired feeding schemes throughout the country. The National Archives has information and learning activities about it on their School Dinners pages.
These photographs are part of the Bradford story and the nation’s story, an example of what we can do together if the will is there to drive us. The story of these images echoes through the years even to the present day.
Before the museum closed temporarily due to lockdown, I had arranged to see the current Head Teacher of Green Lane Primary School to talk about our find and to see what evidence remains there. Thankfully, I had copied a few of the pictures to take with us. These are the ones you can see here; the rest are safe in lockdown at the museum, out of reach for now. I’m finding it hard to wait to get back to the treasure box to explore more of the stories of those days. I’m really looking forward to finding ways to share these treasures with visitors to the museum and especially with the people of Bradford. Perhaps with the local Libraries and Museums service, where I found a lot of historic information to help me to interpret the slides.
One last thing. There is a fascinating link between the National Science and Media Museum and this story. Outside the museum is the welcoming statue of Bradford’s great literary hero, J.B. Priestley. This is a story he knew well, and not just because he was a schoolboy at Belle Vue Grammar School, just across the road from White Abbey kitchens. His father, Jonathan Priestley, was Headmaster of Green Lane School, where the kitchen was established and who can be seen in the photographs presiding over the meals.
From Bradford University: further background on school feeding and Jonathan Priestley.
(Images published by T Throup and are undated. The firm appears in and disappears from Bradford business directories in the early 20th century, being noted for ‘Throup’s North Wales cyclists’ and motorists’ guide: including Aberystwyth, the Wye Valley (upper) and part of Cheshire and Shropshire’.)