The First School Dinners

Margaret McMillan, campaigner and writer. Image from

British school dinners do not have a good reputation but when they began they were a lifesaving initiative.  Just over 100 years ago a number of people in Bradford played an important role in introducing and promoting school meals.

After 1870, when primary education became compulsory, it became clear that many poor children were attending school hungry.  What was not clear was whether public money ought to be used to feed them.   In Bradford two members of the School Board, Fred Jowett (1864-1944) and Margaret McMillan (1860-1931), argued that if the state required children to attend school it also had a duty to feed them because education on an empty stomach was a waste of money.

Fred Jowett, MP for Bradford East. Image from

Fred Jowett explained that “ In September, 1904, such distress existed in Bradford that the teachers under the education authority were called together to give advice and impart knowledge as far as they were able, as to the extent of under-feeding among the school children, and they reported to the education committee that in their opinion some 3,000 children in the Bradford schools were insufficiently fed…Such was the feeling of the education committee, on the facts being stated, that they immediately passed a resolution to the effect that they would feed such children as needed to be fed out of public funds, and run any risks that they might be running thereby…”. [1]

The risk was that Bradford City Council was not entitled to use public funds for this purpose.  This changed with the 1906 Provision of School Meals Act.  This Act allowed, but did not require, local authorities to use taxpayer’s money to provide food for school children.  In Bradford they got stuck in.  Not only did they feed the children breakfast and a mid-day meal, they also ran an experiment to show the effect of doing so.  Extracts from the report  can be read on the National Archives website and there are some evocative photos from the early days of school meals in Bradford here.

[1] Hansard 7th December 1906.