1913: ‘Farthing Bundles’ of toys given out to children in Bow in campaign tackling poverty

1913: Clara Grant starts her 'Farthing Bundles' of toys for children of the poor in Bow

1913: Clara Grant starts her 'Farthing Bundles' of toys for children of the poor in Bow - Credit: Archant

Our continuing nightly look the East London Advertiser’s 150th anniversary reaches 1913 and the start of the ‘Farthing Bundle’ for the children of the East End’s poor that is to last the next half century. Historian Gary Haines uncovers the story of the ‘Farthing Bundle Woman of Bow’, Clara Grant, who sets up the Fern Street Settlement feeding hungry children, helping to clothe them and creating her famous ‘farthing bundle’ of toys made from recycled bits and bobs…

Clara Grant... and children queueing for her 'Farthing Bundle' at Fern Street Settlement [photo: Tow

Clara Grant... and children queueing for her 'Farthing Bundle' at Fern Street Settlement [photo: Tower Hamlets Archives] - Credit: Tower Hamlets Archives

Clara Grant, who has been headmistress of Devons Road Infant’s school in Bromley-by-Bow since 1900, establishes the Fern Street Settlement in 1907 in converted terraced cottages round the corner to help feed and clothe the children of the poor, writes Gary Haines.

The settlement is linked to the Voluntary Health Visiting Association where a worker and nurse would visit once a month for a year every baby born to families with children at Devons Road School.

Clara organises hot breakfasts for her young pupils, paying for porridge, milk, bread and butter herself, giving them proper clothes and boots, all inspired by the work of Canon Barnett at Toynbee Hall who has worked among the poor of Whitechapel and Spitalfields.

This country girl brought up in Somerset goes on to make thousands of deprived children smile through the tough times of the Depression and two world wars with her ‘farthing bundles’ begun in 1913.

Clara Grant, 1868-1950

Clara Grant, 1868-1950 - Credit: Fern St Settlement archive

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The ‘farthing bundles’ of gifts made are from small items sent by wellwishers to turn everyday objects into toys. These included a piece of firewood wrapped in newspaper which becomes a doll and old stockings tied with string which become cricket balls.

Queen Mary visits the settlement and later regularly sends Clara greetings cards to be reused in the ‘bundles’.

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But they’re only meant for small children, so Clara devises an ‘arch’ to see who gets a farthing bundle out of the 500 who regularly line up in Fern Street before 6am whenever the bundles are ready.

There no time to check ages, weight, or where they live, so they have to step through the portable wooden frame on a stand just 4ft 4½in high, set up on the pavement outside the settlement. It has the words engraved: “Enter Now Ye Children Small; None Can Come Who Are Too Tall.”

The children pay a farthing to get a bundle if they are small enough to pass through without bending. This ‘nominal payment’ is a deliberate policy by Clara who believed that ‘paying’ gives the children, however young, a feeling of ownership, self-respect and even the right to complain if the items are not up to standard!

The ‘farthing bundle’ continues through the Depression of the 1930s, the Second World War and into the 1960s, even years after her death.

A boy in 1964, for example, gets his bundle—a comic, cardboard aeroplane, pencil, home-made notebook, chalks, marbles in a matchbox, ball, and toy car—for ½d (half an old penny), as farthings (four to an old penny) have been out of circulation since 1961.

Clara Grant receives an OBE in 1949, aged 81. “To me has fallen the happy task of sharing gifts among our people,” she writes afterwards. “There is nothing so embarrassing as wearing as an ill-fitting halo—but a life one would not change for any other.”

She dies in 1950 aged 82 and is buried in Tower Hamlets Cemetery, half-a-mile from the Fern Street Settlement, and is commemorated today by Clara Grant School and Clara Grant House in Mellish Street, on the Isle of Dogs.

—Gary Haines

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