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By Stephen Goodfellow on

Treasures in a wooden box reveal the story of school dinners in Bradford

Read about how a discovery in our collection helped illuminate a little-known part of Bradford history: the city’s role in the introduction of free school meals.

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.

The ‘box of treasures’

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.

Staff in White Abbey dining room, Manningham, Bradford
Staff and pupil monitors ready to serve the first school meal at White Abbey dining room, Manningham, Bradford. Image: Science Museum Group Collection

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.

Dinner is served to the children by the Headmaster
Dinner is served to the children by the Headmaster. Image: Science Museum Group Collection

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.

Food being delivered to a school dining room by a council lorry
Food being delivered to a school dining room by adapted council lorry in specially designed insulated containers which kept it hot. Image: Science Museum Group Collection

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.

Schoolchildren listen to a speech by their headmaster
Is this a speech to mark the great day? Everyone is at attention as the Headmaster watches. Image: Science Museum Group Collection

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.

Children waiting for dinner
While the children listen attentively, the dinner (Scotch Barley Broth) cools down. Image: Science Museum Group Collection

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.

Jonathan Priestley
I originally thought that this was a photograph of Jonathan Priestley, but had nagging doubts. Thankfully I found a wonderful clue on the Green Lane School website: ‘Fred Jowett knew that the children wouldn’t be able to learn unless they had enough food, so he persuaded Bradford Council to feed them every day.’ Checking online shows that this is an image of Fred Jowett, MP for Bradford West, a strong voice in Bradford and in Parliament in support of School Feeding. Thanks very much to Green Lane. Image: Science Museum Group Collection

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’.)

7 comments on “Treasures in a wooden box reveal the story of school dinners in Bradford

  1. About 15 years ago the newly-formed Friends of Buck Wood began exploring and clearing the Open Air School site in Buck Wood, Thackley. At the same time I began researching the history of the school, which, as a medical historian, I knew a reasonable amount about, and its development as part of the progress being made to improve children’s health in Bradford. I was told there were some glass plates of pictures at the Industrial Museum, went to inspect them, and found a ‘treasure trove’ of photographs covering the development of the school dinner service and, best of all for me, the Open Air School from its earliest experimental term. We borrowed the plates and had prints made, and returned them to the Museum with a set of prints for their collection, but they have since completely disappeared. We would love to have seen them again because technology has moved on and probably better prints could now be made. However, I was able to use some of the prints in my book ‘The School in the Wood’ which was published for the centenary of the OAS in 2008, and was given other unique photographs from the early years of the school. If, when museums re-open and life returns to normal, I would love to see the photographs you have found, and I could share with you some of those I have, both about the school dinners service, which may not all be the same as yours, and the developmental years of the school itself.

    1. Thank you for your message. We would love to show you the collection, and talk about your research. Due to the Covid crisis, however, we don’t yet know when we will be able to show you the collection. However, once we fully operational we would be delighted to set up a visit to the museum. If you would like to send an email to [email protected] – we will make sure to respond and arrange a meeting when we are able.

  2. Great stuff Stephen – really enjoyed reading the stuff on early school meals. Actually, we know each other through schools’ Health and Safety matters in the past, blues singers/guitarists and the Media Museum (- where I last bumped into you) – I don’t know know whether you know or not, but I used to be head at Wapping School (Bradford) – the first school in the country to have a swimming pool for the children known locally as “Wapping puddle”. Some history there ! (as Ian Beesley’s book shows)

  3. Stephen! What a find! I have known about Green Lane School’s connection with Free School Meals for sometime as I was headteacher there from 1988 to 2000. I was the first female head of the school! There should be a lot of photos showing the first kitchen and Jonathan Priestley weighing and measuring children in school. In 1994 we had a complete refurbishment of the school and a new kitchen was included but prior to the start of the refurbishment I invited ex pupils and staff to have a look around school and have lunch with the children. Two of the “old” pupils who attended were my husband, Leslie and Colin Michellat. We were reminiscing about this event when Colin’s daughter got in touch with me last Friday when it was Leslie’s 85th Birthday!
    My successor, Kevin Holland, went a step further and had the original kitchen complex rebuilt and so meals were once again served in the place where it all started!
    I would love to see the artefacts that you have found, I hope the new headteacher can find the aforementioned photos and the school log books and I will look through my Green Lane Treasures to see if I could add to your story.

    1. Hi Pamela, thanks for your comments. I did quite a lot of research in the Local Studies Library. There are lots of press cuttings about Green Lane and you feature in several, particularly about the problems with the new roof. I visited the school around 2000 and I seem to remember there were some enlarged pictutes from the early days of the school. I’d very much like to seewhat is held at the school, any photos or log books would be very interesting.
      I worked with Kevin Holland at Waverley and Priestman Middle schools and with Jane Townend, the current Head as part of the S11 service and again at Priestman. I know that Kevin was very concerneed at one time that the old dining room might be demolished, and that it was restored to be used again.
      I’d love to know more about your Green Lane treasures. I’m hoping to find out more about the “White Abbey” dining room. This was one of 4 original dining rooms supplied by the Green Lane central kitchen, but nowadays its Green Lane that people remember. I’d like to fill the gap in memory that has grown up over this. It’ll be back to Local Studies for me once it reopens.
      Maybe we could meet at the Museum when things are sorted out, there is quite a lot of interest in this part of Bradford’s (and the UK’s) history.

  4. Hi Allan. I didn’t know that you were head at Wapping. I’m sure that there is a picture of the pool among the slides. Maybe one day I’ll be able to show you. Wapping is a very sad sight/site now. I imagine the pool is beyond saving. What I hadn’t realised was that the early school baths in Bradford were “douche baths” – showers, such as can be seen in images of the Open Air School at Thackley. (Again, photo of the school in the box).
    http://www.friendsofbuckwood.org.uk/thackley-open-air-school.html

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