Saturday, 27 December 2008

Round About a Pound a Week by Maud Pember Reeves

This Persephone reprint of a 1912 Fabian Society tract was a Christmas present; like A Christmas Carol it served as a salutary contrast to the feasts and presents. Reeves reports on the outcome of an experiment in Edwardian Lambeth, in which the Fabian Women's Group recorded in meticulous detail the income and expenditure of poor families. Reeves emphasises firmly that these are the hardworking poor; the men do not drink, some hardly smoke, the women do not spend their few shillings at the pictures or on a new hat. Instead, the family's income is usually spent on rent for unhealthy, often vermin-ridden rooms, which work out dearer per cubic foot than a house in a middle-class area; burial insurance to avoid the shame of a pauper's funeral at the almost inevitable death of a child; and the bread, margarine and tea which forms the greater part of the family's diet - a diet less nutritious than that provided in contemporary workhouses. When rent, or the price of coal, or the breadwinner's travelling expenses, go up, the amount remaining for food goes down: the women and children will always eat less if that means paying the rent. Unhealthy accommodation and poor diet make for sickly and undersized children, although they are not without spirit: my favourite was Joey, who, when asked to explain the meaning of Christmas, replied "You get a bigger bit of meat on your plate than ever you seen before ... and when 'E dies, you get a bun". Reeves' tone is generally mild and neutral; the simple reporting of the Women's Group discoveries is shocking enough without emphasis, and the point is clearly made: you cannot raise a healthy family on round about a pound a week. In her final chapter Reeves calls for the introduction of a minimum wage, and for the State - which has already taken some responsibility for children by prohibiting child labour - needs to meet the other half of this bargain by ensuring they are properly housed and nourished, through grants to parents. The book gives great insight into women's lives at this time, of both the Lambeth mothers and the rather ghostly "visitors" who helped them track their budgets and expenditures, and who are often kind, sometimes patronising, but usually generous in their view of what makes a good parent and a good housekeeper. I wish it had not reminded me so forcibly of David Widgery's Some Lives, published in 1992 and showing families struggling with the same problems: little money, poor food and poor housing, and consequent illness and death.

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