Monday, 11 July 2011

120 years old today

120 years ago on 11th July 1891, 120 ‘street vendors’ - children living on the streets set out from Newcastle on a day trip to the seaside. The outing was paid for by the generosity of Mr. John Lunn, a Gosforth shipping merchant and organised by his neighbour Mr. John Watson, who had been concerned about the plight of street children for some years. It is hard for us to imagine that in those days the centre of Newcastle was like today’s slums in Mumbai or a Brazilian shanty town.

Children were living on the streets because they were orphaned; rejected by a step-parent after the death of a parent; or because their families could not afford to keep them. They made a meagre living by selling matches, bootlaces and newspapers or sweeping street crossings and running errands. Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Scouts recorded being mobbed by the mass of ragged adults and children trying to sell him things as he got off the train in Newcastle. If they could afford to they ate and slept in unsanitary lodging houses maybe 15 to 20 in a room. If they were unlucky they slept where they could – in coal cellars. A child froze to death in the station portico.

The seaside trip was to get the children out of the smoke and dirt and into the fresh air and sunshine for the benefit of their health. Fresh air was considered to be very important to health, for example all the parks in Newcastle were created between 1870 and 1900. The population of Newcastle grew sixfold during the 19th century and poor people lived in very cramped conditions – whole families of 10 or more in one or two rooms. Fresh air and clean water were vital public health concerns.

That was the start of the Poor Children’s Holiday Association (PCHA) which quickly set up a club for street children in Prudhoe Street, Newcastle and a night refuge on Bottle Bank, Gateshead where the Hilton hotel now stands. For a nominal fee the children could get shelter, good food, clothing, boots, an activity club and health checks by volunteer doctors and nurses.

Unlike some other children's charities, the PCHA was open to children of all faiths; its mission was to end street vending by training children to earn a good living. The organisation soon set up a ‘farm colony’ at Stannington, near Morpeth where boys were trained to be farm labourers and a home in Shotley Bridge that trained girls to be domestic servants.

In 1907 the PCHA set up the first children's TB Sanatorium in the country next to the farm colony which supplied it with fresh farm produce. TB known as 'consumption' was the cancer of the times and popularly thought to be a shameful disease caused by dirt and poverty. We think of it as a disease of the lungs but many of the children at Stannington had TB in their bones and the cure was traction which meant being strapped into metal supports in bed for weeks or months.

In 1988 the PCHA changed its name to Children North East. Today we no longer see children in rags with no shoes but poverty and disadvantage are still with us. Children still go without meals and live in overcrowded houses. In some parts of the North East three quarters of all children live in poor families – mostly parents in poorly paid work. Every year we remember the origins of the charity with a huge Sandcastle competition for primary school children on South Shields beach. Like the street children of 1891 many of today’s children have never been to the sea before.

Children North East believes it is just not fair some children do not get the same chances and breaks. Our mission is ‘to promote the rights of children and young people; and counter the effects of inequality on them, their families and communities' or 'better lives for poorer children' and everything we do is to make up for missed opportunitie.

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