The Leeds Poor Children’s Holiday Camp was opened in 1904 and ought by now to be in a museum, although it most definitely isn’t.
It was built at Silverdale, a beautiful spot overlooking Morecambe Bay, to give some respite - a fortnight at a time - to children brought up in the squalor of the old Leeds slums.
The slums have been cleared, the water runs clean and many children could think of better places to holiday then on the Lancashire coast, but the camp remains because there are still, as Leeds enters the John Lewis era, more than enough children who need a break – and ‘need’ is not too strong a word; these are blameless children living blighted lives through illness, homelessness or poverty, compounded by more complex problems such as living in households ruined by abuse, mental illness, addiction or clueless parenting.
So despite 70 years of the welfare state, Silverdale isn’t ready for retirement and this year welcomed its 60,000th young holidaymaker. There is now the equivalent of a sizeable townful of people who can remember an experience which, whether they liked it or not (and some didn’t), was quite unlike anything else available, through the years, to youngsters at the bottom of the pile in Leeds.
The face of the charity running the camp has changed. It dropped the stigmatising word ‘poor’ from its title in the early 1950s and is now known as the Leeds Children’s Charity.
Its founders were prosperous, civic-minded, dedicated, and, by modern standards, rather amateurish, because it doesn’t require a qualification in child-care or social work to supply a slum child with decent clothing (the holiday-campers were given their own uniforms, plus clogs) and a diet which, although it might horrify a modern nutritionist, was right for children a lot closer to starvation than to obesity.
The crime writer Frances McNeil, who writes now as Frances Brody, was sent to Silverdale in the 1950s and compiled a book about the camp to mark its 100th anniversary in 2004. Now I am aSwimmer shows how the camp in its early years measured its success mostly in pounds and ounces, reporting annually on average weight increases over the two-week holidays. These reached 3.5 pounds per child in 1906; which was a significant rise for scandalously under-weight children.
Special congratulations were given to those children who had gained the most weight. Nelly Linley, aged 14, entered the camp weighing 4st 12lb and went home weighing just over 5st 5oz, which was remarkable but left her about two stones short of what the annual report called a ‘normal’ weight for a girl of her age. Ethel Wilkinson was the only child to disgrace herself by actually losing weight – a shocking half-a-pound, possibly because she was wasting away through home-sickness, two weeks being a very long time in a young life. Now Silverdale children only stay a week, although, if they’re used to neglect and indifference, it may be the most full week of their life.
Healthy eating, in the modern sense, was not a consideration in the early Silverdale days. The children were given porridge, treacle, milk and bread for breakfast; bread and butter with jam and cocoa for tea; and bread, treacle and dripping for supper. Dinner was mostly robust food of the type many children now find utterly disgusting, including Irish stew, liver and bacon, tripe and sago pudding.
The plumping-up strategy worked. Photographs reproduced in Frances's fascinating book show the children growing sturdier and more confident through the decades, probably due to a combination of Silverdale values, the post-war welfare state and twice-daily doses of treacle.
But camp, like the welfare state, now faces an uncertain future, even though 500 children, aged from seven to 11, visit it every year. These are chosen by staff at the charity liaising with teachers, social workers, foster parents and other experts, but in the beginning they were chosen by a remarkable one-woman social work department called Miss M E Richardson, who was paid £25 a year to visit families and assess whether they were poor enough to merit a Silverdale holiday, which generally meant they had to have a family income of less than £1 a week.
And it’s still, as you would expect, all about money. The Silverdale service costs around £250,000 a year to run, which might buy a medium-priced home in a posh neighbourhood but wouldn’t, unless very carefully and creatively spent, do much to alleviate the plight of thousands of miserable children. A quarter of a million spent on child happiness isn’t very much.
The charity’s annual report for 1908 calculated, very precisely, that every £1 spent produced a weight-gain of 2lb for each of the holidaying children. Now things are more complicated because, although charities are required to account for every penny and show their workings-out, it’s difficult to weigh the value of living for a while away from problems and poverty and with decent camp-provided clothing and toiletries (for many children a rarity), plus Easter eggs and Christmas gifts, well-organised and enjoyable activities and – even harder to price - wonderful views.
When you learn that over 90 per cent of the camp children arrive without a toothbrush or hairbrush, the time when there will be no need for Silverdale seems very far off indeed.