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Farthing Bundle Woman of Bow

PUBLISHED: 16:53 11 August 2008 | UPDATED: 13:30 05 October 2010

Queuing for the 'farthing bundle' in Fern-st 1930s

Queuing for the 'farthing bundle' in Fern-st 1930s

TOWER Hamlets historian Gary Haines uncovers the story of the Farthing Bundle Woman of Bow,' a tiny figure of a woman who arrived in the East End from the West Country to take charge of a school in one of Victorian London's poorest districts. She fed the children, helped clothe them and created the now-famous farthing bundled' of toys for them from recycled bits and bobs

TOWER Hamlets historian Gary Haines uncovers the story of the Farthing Bundle Woman of Bow,’ a tiny figure of a woman who arrived in the East End from the West Country to take charge of a school in one of Victorian London’s poorest districts. She fed the children, helped clothe them and created the now-famous farthing bundle’ of toys for them from recycled bits and bobs.

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By Gary Haines

CLARA Grant became head teacher in 1900 of the infant’s school in Devons Road in Bromley-by-Bow. This country girl born in Wiltshire and brought up in Somerset would go on to make thousands of children in a very deprived East End smile through the tough times of the Depression and two world wars with her farthing bundles’.

Clara organised hot breakfasts for her young pupils, paying for porridge, milk, bread and butter. She also gave them proper clothes and boots, being inspired by the work of Canon Barnett at Toynbee Hall who worked among the poor of Whitechapel and Spitalfields.

Clara was to become the Bundle woman of Bow’ when she founded the Fern Street Settlement in three houses around the corner from Devons Road in 1907.

She decided from the beginning to give away gifts in the form of farthing bundles’. These were first assembled from small items sent by her friends.

Clara was inspired to turn everyday objects into toys that were kept in a case in her living room. These included a piece of firewood wrapped in newspaper which became a doll and old stockings tied with string which become cricket balls.

Queen Mary came to the East End to visit the settlement, then regularly sent her old greetings cards to be reused in the bundles.’

Clara devised an arch’ as a way of deciding which children could be given a bundle, as so many lined up outside when they were first offered. In the early days it was common for 500 children to be lining up in Fern Street before 6am. There no time to check ages, weight, or residence.

The arch’ they had top step through was a portable wooden frame on its own stand, no more than 4ft 4½in high, that was set up on the pavement in Fern Street outside the settlement.

It had these words on it, Enter Now Ye Children Small; None Can Come Who Are Too Tall’.

If the child could pass through without bending, they would pay a farthing and receive a bundle.

This nominal payment’ was a deliberate policy by Clara who believed that paying’ gave the those receiving them, however young, a feeling of self-respect, and even the right to complain if the items were not up to standard!

The joy was in the wrapped bundles. The farthing bundle’ continued right through the Depression of the 1930s, through the Second World War and into the 1960s, years after her death.

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

But Clara Grant and the Fern Street Settlement are remembered for more than just farthing bundles.’

As far back as 1908, the settlement linked up with the Voluntary Health Visiting Association. A worker and nurse would visit every baby born to families in the area once a month for a year who were connected to Devons Road School.

The Settlement also had a library for adults and children, various classes in crafts including book binding and a work fund.

Clara Grant received an OBE in 1949, when she was 81, from King George VI. She would die a few months later aged 82 and be buried nearby in Tower Hamlets Cemetery at Mile End. Her gravestone is in the shape of an open book.

She is commemorated by Clara Grant Primary school and Clara Grant House in Mellish Street, on the Isle of Dogs. The Settlement today continues its work helping the people of Bromley and Bow.

Perhaps the final words should be left to Clara.

“It so happens that I, a little school ma’am, have been responsible for the work throughout—I have been merely the agent through whom a splendid band of helpers, a sympathetic council and a vast, almost worldwide army of friends and supporters’ have been enabled to befriend one of the poorest districts in London.

“To me has fallen the happy task of sharing their gifts among our people. There is nothing so embarrassing as wearing as an ill-fitting halo—but a life one would not change for any other.”

Clara Grant, 1868-1950

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