Dora B. Montefiore, New Age January 1905
Source: New Age, p. 57-58, 26 January 1905;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
This is the title of a little book that has been sent me for notice in this column, because it deals with what should be nearest to the heart of every mother – the care of the little children. Yes, amongst women’s interests this is the one that ever appeals vibratingly to every woman who has a brain to think, and a heart to love – this question of how best to nurture, and tend, and develop the infant and the child – the hostages for the future race, which area given more especially by nature into the keeping of motherhood. The campaign which the writer of the book, Julie Sutter, foreshadows as Britain’s next enterprise, is the campaign against the ignorance, the callousness, the false economy which denies to the mass of our children their right, as future citizens, to the necessary food and clothing, which should be their portion. The book is of value as being one of the many mines laid, down for the destruction of the existing state of things, as being one of the many attacks on the consciences of the “haves,” bidding them share more equally, and more generously with the “have nots,” as being one more utterance of the mother-voice of humanity for the children of the collectivity. Julie Sutter has studied in other countries, more especially in Germany, the systems and organisations through which these countries care for their children, and though some of her suggested remedies may savour too much of the conventional belief that “the poor we shall have always with us,” yet the voice with which she calls attention to the evil is no uncertain one, and the facts and figures with which she illustrates her theme, convict the powers that be of neglect, shortsightedness, and incompetency.
To all the mothers in England, then, it should be joyful news that the first battle in England’s latest campaign has been fought and won. Last Friday at the Guildhall, London with the Lord Mayor to welcome our assembled forces, and with Sir John Gorst to preside with abounding sympathy and knowledge over our debates, the men and women delegates from Labour organisations, and advanced political organisations all over England, met together to discuss and pass a Resolution urging on the Government the necessity of introducing, without further delay, such legislative measures as will enable the local authorities to provide meals for children attending the common schools. In other words, the National Labour Conference, speaking for organised Labour throughout the Kingdom, demanded that the children of the workers, who are by Act of Parliament forced to receive instruction in our schools from the age of five, shall be kept in such a state of physical health that the imparting of such instruction shall neither be a torture to the children nor a cause of needless expense to the ratepayer. We delegates were only asking that the same common-sense should be exercised by the community as was exercised individually in the past by our ancestors. When any old donations and bequests were made for the education of poor scholars; sums of money, to be applied to the maintenance of such poor scholars, always accompanied the bequest, proving that these old donors knew full well how empty was the intellectual gift without the accompanying material gift. Sir John Gorst’s speech at the opening, of the proceedings touched more: than one vibrating human note; more especially when he asserted the right of every child born to the race to be maintained, either by its parents or by the community and added, impressively, “there should be no such thing as a ‘pauper child’.” The State, he went on to say, “has been robbing the children of the poor; and the few pounds we save by such robbery has cost us hundreds in the after life of those children.”
The amendment to our resolution, proposed by Dr. Macnamara, was practically the same call on the Government to pass legislation providing for the feeding of children in State schools; but adding a clause asking that local authorities should be empowered to take steps to recover the cost of such feeding, from parents and guardians as may seem desirable. His amendment was supported by teachers of whose devotion to the cause of the children there be no doubt, and to whom working mothers owe, in many instances, a debt of deep gratitude; but who, it seemed to me (as a delegate representing an organisation of working women), should, for their own sakes, and that of the children, have heartily supported our resolution. What the working fathers and mothers demand is that the moneys granted by the State (which is, or should be, themselves) for the maintenance of the children, should be spent on the children, and not frittered away in expensive administration, litigation, and punishment. We desire, as the State, to take a wider and saner outlook on the results of such necessary expenditure on those who are to be our future citizens. We know, as parents, that what is spent wisely on the education and maintenance of our children, will be saved over and over again in the decreased expenditure on our hospitals, prisons, and asylums. We no longer desire that the teachers in our schools, devoted as we know they are, should have to bear the extra burden of providing out of their scanty salaries meals for the worst and most distressing cases that come daily under their notice; but we aim at providing a common table, where every child of the community may eat and be satisfied, without being troubled by what might be a haunting and agonising thought to many a highly-strung and intelligent boy or girl, that the eating of a meal in school might mean the visit of the policeman at home, with all the attendant train of miseries involved in the prosecution and imprisonment of one or other parent. We remember John Stuart Mill’s teaching that in the matter of reforms, “when things are very bad, small measures do not produce small effects, they produce no effect at all”; and we showed by our rejection of Dr. Macnamara’s amendment, and our unanimous vote for the resolution, proposed by Will Thorne of the Gas Workers’ Union, that it is no small or grudging measure that we demand, but such a full and generous reform as shall arrest the rapid physical degeneration of the race, and give the children of the proletariat equality of opportunity with the children of the privileged.
DORA B. MONTEFIORE.