Caroline Ganley and the School Care Committee: school meals and active citizenship before the Vote by Yvette Williams Elliott

The closure of schools to most pupils due to Covid-19 this year has once again highlighted the issue of food poverty, and raised fears for vulnerable children missing out on vital lunches and all the other social welfare provision provided through schools. This reminds us that citizenship – the ability to participate in, and contribute to, society – may be seriously impacted by material inequalities and quickly eroded or reversed.  Sadly, such inequalities are longstanding and persistent.

Caroline Ganley (1879-1966) saw citizenship as material and class-based, and took the problem of material inequality very seriously. Ganley was a working-class woman, active in public life in the first half of the twentieth century. Her service on a School Care Committee, which was responsible for feeding needy children, gave her a direct, practical way to address inequality locally. It also helped her to make her mark within the wider labour movement.  The Care Committee was an important early step in her personal journey through a lifetime of active political citizenship, during which she was to become a councillor, a magistrate and an MP.

Caroline Ganley did not have an easy start in life.  Her father died shortly before her birth, and she was cared for by her grandmother while her mother worked to support them. Ganley had an elementary education, and was in service herself before her marriage to James Ganley, a tailor’s cutter, in 1901. The couple moved to Battersea in 1903, and there Ganley struggled to care for a growing family in inadequate housing with inadequate income.  She and her husband shared an interest in politics, and attended meetings together.

It was a political meeting on Clapham Common which cemented her decision to join the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), a Marxist party which had a commitment to state provision of free school meals, as part of a manifesto of material improvements. Membership of the local Women’s Socialist Circle soon followed, and there, school meals were discussed. Mrs Winton Evans, a fellow member of the SDF and the Women’s Circle, put forward Ganley’s name to the London County Council as a suitable candidate for the Care Committee of Sleaford Street School in Nine Elms, a poor area of Battersea. Ganley served as the Secretary of the Committee from 1911 for several years. This was a very busy post, unpaid, and taxing for a working-class mother with a young family.

The Education Act of 1906 had allowed school meals provision paid for through the rates, as the existing patchwork of voluntary and philanthropic initiatives had proved ineffective. In 1907 School Care Committees were created to implement the new public provision, charged with investigating families in need and organising school meals (recovering costs from parents whenever possible). Additional duties included liaison with the school doctor, and the aftercare of school leavers. In London, Committees were overseen by the London County Council which appointed paid organisers to assist them and maintained lists of suitable members.

Care Committees have often been seen by historians as essentially middle-class. This is certainly what might have been expected from initial recruitment methods – the LCC first looked to established groups like the Charity Organisation Society, many of whose members were leisured women, for suitable candidates. Guides to Care Committee work also assumed that prospective members would be leisured women, warning them about the shocking and unfamiliar conditions they might encounter in working class homes.[1] However, Sleaford Street School Committee had a more mixed composition. All members lived locally, three were men, and some members were involved with the SDF, The Clarion Clubs, and suffrage organisations. This reflected the densely populated urban borough of Battersea with its strong labour presence.

At Sleaford Street, Ganley came across some desperate families. She fiercely rebutted contemporary stereotypes of feckless, drunken or negligent parents. Rather, many were struggling with illness and disability, bereavement, or seasonal unemployment and inadequate wages. Her Committee pushed to provide the maximum help permitted, offering both breakfast and lunch to some children, and ensuring that the food was of a good standard. They also organised information evenings for parents, to inform them about other services and benefits they might access. But Care Committees had considerable independence, and many were far less generous than Sleaford Street. Justice, the SDF paper, regularly reported on hungry children failed by the Committees. Ganley was angered by the ignorance of the realities of poverty, and she warned of attempts by the Charity Organisation Society to dominate Care Committees, contemptuously characterising their approach as “a great amount of organisation but precious little charity”.[2]

The expectation that Care Committee work would be dominated by women was predicated upon the idea of an instinctive feminine ability to care for children, and such assumptions could operate to restrict women to domestic and care work.  But for Caroline Ganley, the Care Committee instead offered her a platform. She helped to organise a public meeting about school feeding in Battersea Town Hall with invited speakers from education, medicine and organised labour. She began to speak publicly about school feeding, for local union and co-operative groups, and at meetings and rallies across London. Many of her speaking engagements were advertised and reported in national labour and suffrage publications, to which Ganley also contributed letters and articles on school feeding.  Thus, her reputation spread beyond the confines of Battersea, and she soon became established as an authority and spokesperson on the subject.

Histories of women’s citizenship are frequently organized around the long struggle for the vote, and its aftermath – but Caroline Ganley had an alternative focus. She fully supported votes for women, but she was sceptical that the vote would solve the problems of poverty, or of poor women. Her experience on the Care Committee helped to give her a public voice, and contributed to her growing visibility within the labour movement.  There, she continued to argue for direct, material, practical help for working-class people, believing that without this, real equality and citizenship might never come.

Biography: Yvette Williams Elliott is a social and cultural historian of the period 1880-1950, and a doctoral candidate at Birkbeck, University of London.  Her doctoral thesis is ‘My Circle Widened’: Caroline Ganley and Networks of Public Life in London, 1900-1940. 

[1] For example, Maud F. Davies, School Care Committees: A Guide to their Work, London Thomas Burleigh, 1909

[2] Caroline Ganley, ‘Our Care for Care Committees’, Justice June 4, 1914, p6