Kieran’s Our City, Our Town Article,
Cork Independent, 31 October 2019
Tales from 1919: Providing for the Poor
On 5 November 1919, a public meeting was held in Cork City Hall to discuss the public milk scheme in operation for the winter. The scheme is another lens to study living conditions and the poverty in Cork, one hundred years ago. Bishop Daniel Cohalan presided at the meeting, and the attendance included the Lord Mayor William F O’Connor, the city’s High Sherriff and members of the clergy and approximately 25 male and female leading citizens.
The Honorary Secretary Fr P Cahalan outlined the report of the Milk Supply Scheme and its operational period of 24 weeks from November 1918 to the end of April 1919. During this time, the quantity of milk subsidised was two pints per family per day and the cost of subsidy was 2d per pint. The number of families relieved varied from 900 to 950 and the cost of the scheme averaged about £100 a week. The scheme would have cost £2,400 were it not that some families were provided with milk at less than the retail price. For the 24 weeks, the scheme came in at £2,292 19s 6d. Overall the scheme and its committee subsidised 275,000 pints of milk. The general secretariat work cost less than one per cent while Mr Pelly gave the work and the work of his staff free.
The subsidisation came from monies raised from different groups and companies in the city and region. For example, in the 24-week season for 1918-19, special sums came from the dairy farmers regionally of £180; the O’Meara Company concert raised £58 and two church collections amounted to £560. Smaller amounts had also been forwarded by other firms. Cheques were received for £50 from both Messrs J J Murphy and Company and Dwyer and Company.
The Lord Mayor proposed that the scheme be put into operation again for the winter of 1919 in order that impoverished citizens may be able to procure enough quantities of milk for their children at a comparatively cheap rate. Canon O’Leary seconded the resolution and highlighted that the scheme was needed more than ever. In collaborating with the milk vendors of the Middle Parish he found multitudes of poor people amongst the population of circa 5,000 people living in tenement houses without any milk. The Canon noted that the milk vendors had told him that they were not selling half as much milk as they did the previous year – the reason being because of increasing costs. Some milk vendors had even made an allowance of 1d per pint for some needy cases.
Fr Cahalan outlined that in the city centre schools the numbers of children suffering from swollen glands had increased due to a lack of calcium. Some of them had to be treated at the Infirmaries. The teachers explained to him that this was because they were not provided with natural food for children. Many of the city’s poorest citizens were returning to the habit of using black tea. In 1919, black tea was deemed ruinous for personal health.
The Bishop outlined that the parish priests and administrators of the city went to great length to find out the families who were really in need, as well as those families with young children, and those who had not enough income to provide milk for their children.
The Bishop expressed the view that no matter how much wages had increased there was always many families who for one cause or another did not have a living income and had not enough income to maintain themselves and their families. The Bishop deemed that milk was not the only question that required public discussion in society. The whole question of prices and inflation was also serious problem across the country.
In the beginning of the Milk Supply Scheme in the winter of 1917, the Cork and Kerry Creamery Company supplied milk to the poor of the South Parish. The Scheme dealt with children only and babies for whom milk was an absolute necessity. Excellent quality milk was supplied at a very cheap rate of one penny per pint. Subscriptions from local merchants and businesses made up the balance of price to the vendor. Initially, there were 660 families registered to be given milk, with the figure rising to 965 families by the end of 1917. The income threshold of families interested in the Scheme was not to exceed 25s per week, and in any one family there had to be children under six years of age.
In 1918 the milk was sold at 3 ½ d a pint, and then the poor paid 1 ½ d whilst the subsidisation fund paid was 2d per person. The committee decided that the distribution of funds would be on the basis of the number of families on the parish lists as follows: North Parish – 400 families, SS Peter and Paul’s – 200, St Finbarr’s – 200; Lough – 70 and St Patrick’s – 60.
The price in 1919 was 4 ½ a pint and the Milk Scheme made provision for 1,000 families. The organising committee believed that the number seeking milk would be higher in 1919-1920 Milk Supply Scheme. There had been a greater number of people who could pay for provision such as milk through receiving war bonuses in their employment with war However since the end of the war and by the winter of 1919, these had all but disappeared leaving many families under financial pressure with rising inflation levels also hitting in.
Kieran’s book The Little Book of Cork Harbour (2019) is published by The History Press and is available in Waterstones, Vibes and Scribes and Easons.
1021a. Map of Middle Parish, c.1900 (source: Cork City Library)