Lockdown Diary 16 – A Christmas Story: The Cinderella Clubs

With Christmas fast approaching this is seasonal blog with a fairy tale theme, but like all good fairy tales it has a twist.  It started life at a meeting of the Local History Group in December 2019.  So apologies to anyone who was there for repeating myself – but I hope I have added more to the story about the Cinderella Clubs…

At the heart of our Christmas story is a journalist called Robert Blatchford.  Blatchford was born in 1851 in Maidstone, Kent, and like so many people at the time had a difficult childhood.  When he was two his father died, leaving his actress mother to bring him up alone and he was apprenticed as a brush maker at the age of 14.   Largely self educated, Blatchford became a very successful journalist and writer, founding the socialist Clarion newspaper in 1891 and publishing a best-selling book, “Merrie England” (1893), which sold over 2 million copies.   Blatchford also set up the Cinderella Clubs in 1889, with the aim of providing meals, entertainment and clean clothes for slum-dwelling children.

What is Blatchford’s connection to Manchester?  It was while working as a journalist for the Sunday Chronicle in Manchester in 1888 that Blatchford had a chance encounter that led him to set up the Cinderella Clubs the following year.    Here we will let Blatchford himself continue the story, as he describes the meeting in an article in the “Labour Prophet” (May, 1893).  The description of a Victorian Christmas is almost Dickensian, and gives a shocking picture of the extent and impact of poverty in Manchester at the time.

Well it was just before Christmas in 1888, and just outside the Exchange Station a little girl came and asked me to buy a box of matches. And I had bought two boxes of matches already, and you know, even a big boy with a lot of money, cannot buy matches from every child. There are so many poor children in the streets, you see. … I said, “No thank you” to the little match girl. But she would not go. She ran along-side of men and said something like this “0h sir, please, sir, buy a box, sir.  Only got three left, sir.  Just one, sir. ” I said, “No thank you, my dear. ” and walked on. And the little girl ran on beside me and kept talking. “I’m going to a party tonight, sir. You might buy a box, sir. ”  When she said that, I looked at her very carefully. She was about eight years old, had reddish hair and blue eyes, and was clean, but not very tidy. But she had such an honest little face, and she looked so glad and so good-humoured, that I stopped and asked here where she was going to the party. It was at a Catholic school. It was threepence to go in. She had got nearly “all” the money, and then she said “Please, sir, buy a box. I’ve never been to a party before. ”  I said, “Oh! ” and give her a shilling or a sixpence, I forget which, and she said, “0h thank you.” and ran away as hard as she could run. I hope she enjoyed her party. I never saw her again.

Victorian match seller

Although Blatchford was clearly shocked by meeting the little girl, he did not immediately set up the Cinderella Clubs, and it took another three prompts for him to take action to help the poor children of the city.   He takes up the story again with a brilliant evocation of the children playing in the streets of Hulme and Ancoats.  He also pointedly mentions the responsibility of those with wealth and power to build better housing.

It was months after that, in the spring, when I was going all through the poor streets of Manchester, so that I might write about them, and get the rich people to build the poor people good houses to live in that I began to notice the little children, in Hulme and in Ancoats, dancing round the piano organs, or playing in the gutters. And one day I saw a little baby girl nursing a doll. The little girl sat on a doorstep in a very narrow and very dirty street and her doll was made of a clothes-peg tied up in a duster. I am fond of children; and I have some children of my own. I knew how fond my little girl was of a doll. … I thought I should like to take a cart-load of dolls around Ancoats and give them to the little children of the poor. But – I still never thought of the Cinderella Clubs.

Children playing on the streets of Hulme, early 1900s

Eventually, in October 1889, after receiving letters from two members of the public, Blatchford founded the first of the Cinderella Clubs.   The second letter, from a woman in Liverpool, was the final prompt Blatchford needed – “You say it would be a good thing to have a child’s club, where children could dance and play and have dolls and fairy-tales; but why don’t you start one?”. 

Children attending a Cinderella Club meal in Manchester, early 1900s – note the girl at the front with the headscarf

The first Cinderella Club was an immediate success and soon clubs were set up in Hull, Ashton-under-Lyne, Stalybridge, Salford and Birmingham.  One set up by the Salford and Manchester Labour Churches in 1892, served 3,164 meals during its first winter, and fed and clothed over 800 children from the impoverished Deansgate area of the city – it’s hard to believe now that the wealthy modern district renamed Spinningfields was a warren of narrow streets and courtyards 130 years ago!

Blatchford wrote that we started this club to amuse and please the children. We did not want to teach them anything; but we knew we could not amuse them whilst they were hungry, and so we made it a rule to feed them first and amuse them afterwards.  At Christmas special entertainment was provided.  The photo, from the Manchester archive, shows a Cinderella Club Christmas display in Manchester Town Hall in 1910, complete with Christmas tree, dolls house and toys. 

Cinderella Club event in the Great Hall at Manchester Town Hall, early 1900s

His description of such events reads at times almost like a fairy tale.  We had a Christmas tree, too, and dolls and toys and sweets, and oranges, and one day I thought we would give dolls and other things as prizes to the cleanest children; not to the best dressed but to the cleanest. Up to that time poor little Cinderella had not been very careful about being clean. But the week after the prizes were offered there was such a change that we almost believed there had been fairy godmothers about, with soap instead of pumpkins, and combs and towels instead of lizards and mice.

Over time the Cinderella Clubs gradually disappeared, although one has survived in Bradford.  Most were absorbed by the Socialist Sunday Schools, run by the Labour Churches, and the slow introduction of free school meals for the poor lessened the need for the clubs.  In 1904 Bradford became the first town to introduce free school meals, under the influence Councillor Fred Jowett, who was elected as a Labour MP for the city in 1906.  Many other cities followed suit, although it did not become a national policy until 1914.   

Blatchford himself was reluctant to take the credit for the Cinderella Clubs and in what should be the season of Christmas pantomimes we will leave him with the last words.

I should say that the Cinderella Clubs were started by — Who do you think? — By Cinderella! Yes, my dears, by Cinderella herself. Mind; I don’t mean the Cinderella of the story book, who got to be a princess because she had small feet. No I mean a real Cinderella, a Manchester Cinderella; a poor little girl, who had neither small feet, nor a fairy godmother, and so had to sell matches in the street. And the worst of it is I don’t know that little girl’s name.

A Manchester boy with presents from the Cinderella Club

Images courtesy of Manchester Libraries and TUC Library Collections