In 1888, the pupils of the Polytechnic Day School decided to establish a Christmas Dinner Fund. The Polytechnic Magazine of 13 December 1888 tells us,
‘The boys and girls of our Day School are determined not to be the only ones to spend a happy Christmas, for they have arranged to collect sufficient money to give at least 500 poor children a good Christmas dinner in our Gymnasium…. it is proposed to give each child a good dinner of roast beef and plum pudding, a bag of cake and fruit, and a new sixpence. After the dinner the children will adjourn to the Great Hall, where they will be entertained with a Dissolving View Entertainment and a shadow pantomime’.
These children were selected from the ragged schools in the area. In fact, the Day School raised enough money to not only provide 500 children with Christmas dinner, but also to provide 100 children with a free dinner everyday throughout January and February 1889.
The scheme was such a success that it became a yearly event at the Polytechnic. Nevertheless, some adjustments were made. In 1889, it was decided that families would prefer to be together for their Christmas dinner so, rather than hosting the meal at the Poly, food parcels consisting of a joint of meat and groceries were provided. Initially, these parcels were distributed across London by volunteers but as the number of recipients increased this became impractical. So, on Christmas Eve each year, the Poly turned into a food bank where those with tickets could come and collect their parcels.
In January 1905, the Magazine described the experience of coming to collect a parcel,
‘Tickets were duly checked on the Balcony, and this done, the happy possessors passed on to the Gymnasium Gallery where seats were in readiness for them and steaming hot tea with cake… After this acceptable refreshment the people filed on to the next floor where the classrooms had for the time being been converted into a huge provision store, and tables creaked under the weight of some twenty tons of good old English beef and parcels of grocery, making the place a veritable land of plenty’.
In time, the Gymnasium was used as the main collection point, as can be seen in the photo above. In the Polytechnic Magazine of January 1923, a volunteer explained that,
‘the meat had been delivered in the early morning beginning about three o’clock, and had been carefully carried down and set out by devoted workers who had made a night of it at the Poly, and slept there for what remained of the night.’
Members and friends of the Polytechnic were asked to suggest families who were in need.
‘Several were widows, with 5 or 6 children, struggling hard to keep their little ones, and who had scant hope that Christmas would bring any relief, much less improvement of the daily struggle. There were also many cases of families, the heads of whom had been out of employment for some time and others where sickness had been in the homes for a considerable period…. It is impossible to describe the gratitude expressed for the gifts; in many cases the parcels were quite unexpected, and the recipients in numbers of instances were scarcely able to control their emotions, whilst others fairly broke down’.
(The Polytechnic Magazine, 9 January 1890)
Fundraising was achieved through individual donations, events held by the Poly’s clubs and societies, such as concerts and dances, and also collections at concerts held at the Queen’s Hall on Regent Street.
The amount raised increased every year and consequently, so did the amount of people who benefited from the Fund. By the end of the 19th century over £400 was raised each year (over £38,000 today) and 1600 families were being fed. The Magazine estimates this was around 8,000 individuals.
In time, gifts for children were added to the parcels. In 1912, when 4,700 families (30,000 individuals) were fed, the Poly also provided thousands of toys, garments, scrap books and packets of sweets.
The largest amount of food distributed was 42 tons in 1937 when £3,050 was raised (c.£155,000 today). That same year over 5,300 families were fed.
The Christmas Dinner Fund continued every year, even during the First World War. In 1940, it merged with the Poly War Comforts Fund providing parcels to men on active service. Between 1888-1940, the Fund fed over 1 million individuals and raised over £73,259 (nearly £4 million today).
The University is still involved in similar work today. In 2019, a food bank appeal was organised and funds raised from the University’s carol service went towards a Community Toy Appeal.