"Not the Poorest People of the District"
JANUARY 25, 2013 by SARAH SKWIRE
Maude Pember Reeves, Round About a Pound a Week (London: Persephone Books, 2008 ), 217 pp.
One of my favorite small publishers, Persephone Books, specializes in bringing neglected interwar novels, usually by women, back into print. They brought Dorothy Whipple’s High Wages (which I reviewed in an earlier Book Value column) to my attention, along with a slew of other novels slated for future columns. In addition to the fictional works Persephone publishes, they bring out the occasional piece of nonfiction from the same period as their novels. It is through their auspices that I have read such books as How to Run Your Home without Help—for new brides learning to manage without household staff—and They Can’t Ration These, a cookbook about how to treat foods that can be freely hunted or found in the English countryside.
By far the best piece of nonfiction that I have rediscovered via Persephone is Maude Pember Reeves’s Round About a Pound a Week. Pember Reeves was a member of a Fabian Socialist women’s group in the early years of the 20th century in London. Those who prefer to make reading selections based on the political ideologies of the author may wish to pass by this book—if they do, however, they will be missing one of the most astonishing books about domestic economics that I have ever read.
Based on studies conducted between 1909 and 1913, Round About a Pound a Week is an early demographic study of a “working poor” neighborhood in London. Pember Reeves describes a neighborhood where “respectable poor” families—the wives and children of men typically employed as “somebody's labourer, mate, or handyman. . . . respectable men in full work, at a more or less top wage, young, with families still increasing, and they will be lucky if they are never worse off than they now are”—were living on about a pound a week for all their expenses.
While many of us would disagree with Pember Reeves that the poor would benefit from more centralized assistance from the State, that argument forms a minor part of her book. The stronger portion pairs a wealth of detail with a novelist’s ability to capture the world of the working poor and to sympathize with the choices they make.
First, she and the women who created this study recorded the finances of the 41 families they studied in minute detail, and every one of those details is shared with the reader. That makes the book a phenomenal source of information about rent, food prices, coal prices, clothing prices, and insurance prices of the period immediately preceding the first world war.
As for conveying the life of the neighborhood, here she is on food:
There are those who, if they happen to read these weekly menus, will criticize with deep feeling the selection of the materials from which they are composted. It is not necessary to pretend that they are the absolute best that could be done, even upon that money. It is quite likely that someone who had strength, wisdom, and vitality, who did not live that life in those tiny, crowded rooms, in that lack of light and air, who was not bowed down with worry, but was herself economically independent of the man who earned the money, could lay out his few shillings with a better eye to scientific food value. . . . The fact that there is not enough money to buy good, healthy house-room means that appetites are sickly and jaded, and that food which would be nutritious and valuable, and would be greedily eaten by people who lived in the open air, seems tasteless and sickly to those who have slept four in a bed in a room 10 feet by 12 feet.
In another chapter she tangles with the subject of funeral insurance, carefully working through the calculations of families who know they are likely to lose at least one child, that the cost of a minimal funeral is between 1 and 1.5 times the family’s entire weekly income, that funeral insurance is one penny per week per child, and that those pennies must come from somewhere. She writes, “It is a common idea that there is no thrift among them. It would be better for their children if this were true. . . . No living child is better fed or better clothed because its parents, decent folk, scrape up a penny a week to pay the insurance collector on its account.” That said, she sympathizes thoroughly with the argument of these families that a pauper’s funeral is “wanting in dignity and in respect to their dead.” Her frustration with the question of funeral insurance runs in every direction, and this is only understandable. Because as Pember Reeves asks early in her text:
How does a working man's wife bring up a family on 20 [shillings] a week? Assuming that there are four children, and that it costs 4s. a week to feed a child, there would be but 4s. left on which to feed both parents, and nothing at all for coal, gas, clothes, insurance, soap, or rent. Four shillings is the amount allowed the foster-mother for food in the case of a child boarded out by some Boards of Guardians; therefore it would seem to be a justifiable figure to reckon upon. But for a woman with 20s. a week to spend it is evidently ridiculously high. If the calculation were to be made upon half this sum, would it be possible? The food for the children in that case would amount to 8s. To allow the same amount to each parent as to each child would not be an extravagance, and we should on that basis arrive at the sum of 12s. a week for the food of six people. That would leave 8s. for all other expenses. But rent alone may come to 6s. or 7s., and how could the woman on 20s. a week manage with 1s., or perhaps 2s., for coal, gas, insurance, clothes, cleaning materials, and thrift? The usual answer to a question of this kind is that the poor are very extravagant. It is no answer. It does not fit the question.
This is a world where, for the honest working poor, the money simply isn’t there. And families are left deciding whether the father—who brings home the life-saving wage envelope—or the vulnerable children should eat on a given day. They decide which of the children should be allowed to wear the only decent pair of shoes. They decide whether to buy coal to heat their rooms or medicine for a sick child. There are no easy choices in this world.
Read Round About a Pound a Week as a history lesson, or as a demographic study. Read it as an essential piece of evidence in the argument that the 21st-century poor are better off than the poor have ever been. Read it as an exercise in sympathy and understanding with a poverty that is unimaginable for most of us. It will reward you.