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I grew up in poverty in Bolton - kids today have it worse

Hilary Mitchell grew up in poverty in Bolton in the 90s. Here she explores what poverty looked like then - and what it means today

February 22 2024, 11.45am

I didn’t understand why there were men at the door with a sack of toys. It was 1991; not long after Christmas. The sack was full of board games and stuffed animals: one was a teddy bear in blue overalls. I still have it. I was a primary-school age child living in a freezing, bare-floored terraced house in Preston Street, not far from Burnden Park; former home of Bolton Wanderers.

Years later, I found out from my mother – who raised me alone – that those men were from a group called the Bolton Lions, a voluntary organisation who arrange an annual festive toy appeal. We were referred to them too late to receive Christmas presents, but they brought some anyway. They also arranged for us to go on holiday to Morecambe.

“Back then, we only helped around 40 kids a year with our Christmas toy appeal,” a Bolton Lions representative – Jeff Hartley – tells The Bolton Lead. By December 2023, he says that figure had grown to 1801 children, and he says he fully expects the number to rise again this year. He explained that demand for the festive toy ‘sacks’ has increased by about 55% year on year since 2019. 

My childhood years also marked a steep increase in child poverty in the UK, partly due to the freeze on child benefit: child benefit rates were uprated roughly in line with inflation until 1988, but were subsequently frozen until 1990. About 13% of children in Great Britain lived in poverty in 1979, just before I was born, and 22% in 1990.

What did poverty look like for us? It meant sitting in darkness – if there was no money for the electricity meter. It meant no heating or hot water – if there was no money for gas. It meant a dirty school uniform that I was teased for, and a mattress on the floor rather than a bed. My mum did what she could though; there were more sources of help then than there are today. Also, my mother never had her benefits sanctioned, and fuel and food were more affordable.

Things are now significantly worse for children in Bolton than they were during my childhood years. The borough's rate of child poverty was 41.6 per cent in 2022, up from 32.8 per cent in 2014. The figure is the third highest in Greater Manchester and the 14th highest in the UK. Even worse, figures for the area I grew up in (Bolton South East) showed that more than half of children were below the breadline after a rise of more than 12 percentage points since 2014.


On 8 February 2024, former Labour PM Gordon Brown spoke out in the strongest terms about these ‘obscene’ levels of destitution in the UK in an excoriating opinion piece for the Guardian. 

Britain is in the throes of a hidden poverty “epidemic”, he said, with the worst-affected households living in squalor and going without food, heating and basics such as clean clothes and toothpaste. He also singled out ”punitive but arbitrary cuts cruelly directed at children.”

One person who sees the realities of this level of destitution in Bolton first hand is Kathryn Lamport, the manager of the Trussell Trust food bank based in Farnworth Baptist Church. Last year, food banks in the Trussell Trust network saw the highest ever level of need in a six month period, providing 1.5 million emergency food parcels to people between April and September 2023. A record 540,000 emergency food parcels were also provided to 265,000 children.

Kathryn explains how the child benefit cap has particularly impacted families. Introduced in 2017, the UK government's two-child benefit cap was supposed to incentivise parents into work. Instead, it has plunged a rising number of children and families into poverty.

“If parents have three or four or five children there’s just no money for them, it’s impossible,” Kathryn says. “I regularly see single mums who I can’t do anything else for other than give them a bag of tinned food. A lot of the work (the Trussell Trust) do is to try to help people access any source of income available, but you get to the point you can’t do anything else for them. Those kids have nothing, there is simply no provision after the benefit cap. It’s an impossible situation.”

However, the child benefit cap is far from the only issue facing people living below the poverty line in Bolton, Kathryn goes on to explain.


Jeff Hartley (L) and his grandson Ryan supporting Bolton at Wembley


“Deductions are also deeply serious issues. Benefits are so low: a single person only gets £368 a month and if you’re taking anything out of that - an advance payment, bedroom tax, sanctions or arrears on anything – then it’s immediately catastrophic. It’s so little money in the first place.

“People are sanctioned for various things, for example missing a benefits appointment. The compromises people are facing at the moment are terrible. We give out SIM cards, but they’re of no use to someone who has had to pawn their mobile phone. Without a smartphone or computer, they can’t view appointments on their online journal, increasing the risk of sanctions.”

Then there’s the general increase in the overall cost of living. The Trussell Trust are currently running a campaign called Guarantee Our Essentials. Working with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the trust examined current levels of Universal Credit versus the outgoings of a standard household. They discovered that benefits fall short by £20 a week. 

“The main thing we’re hearing day in and day out, is fuel - gas and electric,” says Kathryn. “Many people are either putting no money at all onto their meters or only putting the gas on for short periods when they need to cook something.”

"A lot of the people we help also have government debt, like council tax,” she continues. “Some people don’t know that they’re entitled to a reduction in council tax, sometimes people aren’t claiming as much as they’re entitled to. But most are. The reality on the ground is so dark, it’s really tough. People are living in desperate situations and the services that are trying to help and support people are so stretched that people are left with nowhere to go."

Asked if she had any positive or hopeful stories to share, Kathryn said that she didn’t. “Some of the stories we hear are just horrible – I can’t imagine living the lives that some of these people are living. We are simply living in horrendous times at the moment,” she says, sadly. 

“All I can do is beg you all to support your local food banks. Food banks have the capacity to ask ‘what’s going on with you and what can we do to help with these underlying issues.’ If you’re supporting your local food bank it’s going above and beyond putting food in someone’s cupboard: it’s about giving people back their dignity and their ability to live.” 

Jeff Hartley, a member of the Bolton Lions who previously served as their president, admits he sees much less first-hand destitution than front-line workers like Kathryn. All he knows is that he wants to avoid having any child in Bolton wake up on Christmas morning to no presents. 

“We started our toy appeal in 1982 in a very small way. For the first few years, about 40 kids in Bolton got toys. Then it gradually rose to 100. These days, we work on an almost industrial scale,” he says. “For families with kids aged 14-17 we do gift vouchers: £30 each. They can go to Sports Direct, or somewhere to get themselves makeup, toiletries, that sort of thing.”

Jeff explained how the demand for the festive toy deliveries has increased since 2019. 


Kathryn Lamport (right) with a food bank volunteer


“In 2019, we helped 561 families. Since then, it’s increased by almost exactly 55% each year. In December 2023 we helped 946 families, which worked out at 1801 kids. I’m sure that (the increased demand) is because of the financial issues caused by the cost of living crisis,” he continues. “It’s gotten to the point that we can’t deliver all these bags ourselves – we partner with Bolton At Home, Urban Outreach, Macmillan Cancer Care, domestic abuse charities, and social services, amongst others, to get the toy deliveries to all of the families who need them. 

“I call myself a footsoldier: I collect toys from schools and churches. We pick them all up and sort them into sacks. Each is coloured differently for different age groups - we then give them to our partners to pass to the families. Farnworth social services give us money, £4000- 5000 a year, as many of their residents need additional support. I take a van full of sacks to the town hall in Farnworth every year, which are then delivered to all of the families in need,” he adds.

Jeff is clearly proud of the work Bolton Lions do. He suggests I go to visit their toy hub nearer to Christmas time, and bring the bear they gave me in 1991. He could be a sort of mascot for the service, he suggests. He insists I let the people of Bolton know that if they ever hear of any family struggling to provide for their kids, they can contact the Lions directly, and they will help. 

“We’re not a religious organisation, we just try to provide support for people,” he explains. “We don’t judge anyone or ask why a family needs help: we just step in. And we always will.” 

A spokesperson for Bolton Council told The Bolton Lead: “Like many areas across the UK, we know Bolton residents may be struggling with the cost of living and other financial pressures. We have worked with our partners in the charity sector to develop a comprehensive package of support, advice, and guidance for anyone in need of help.

"Residents who are worried about their council tax bill should talk to us. They may be eligible for means-tested Local Council Tax Support, and a Local Council Tax Reduction award if they are in financial difficulty.” 

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