Reading Round about a Pound a Week gave me a new perspective on the inequality that comes from poverty. As the title indicates, the book is a description of a 1909-1913 study of 42 families in the Lambeth neighborhood in England that live on about a £1 a week.
It is no easy task getting a budget to stretch, and Maude Pember Reeves’ account of the study is a fascinating education on the industry, thrift, and dedication that the impoverished lower class workers, and especially the home-bound housewives, possess.
I was ignorant of British currency equivalencies, so I needed to reference the web for more details so I didn’t get lost as I read: 12d (pence) equals 1s (shilling) and 20s equals £1. I won’t forget now, because every pence mattered to these families. To put 1910 money into our perspective, one pound from 1910 is equivalent to about £75 in modern day money (see this site), or about $120 US, which is about half the current poverty threshold for a single person in the USA (note that the USA guideline on the website is a yearly figure; in 1910 Lambeth, workers were paid daily or weekly so I have divided by 52 to get this number).
The 1910 money for the family of between 3 and 10 people must provide food for 3 to 10 people, rent, burial insurance, clothing and boots, and house needs, like soap.
Now that we have the economic realities in perspective, the next important thing to keep remembering as one reads Round about a Pound a Week is that this is an account of what some experts (chapter 15, “The Standard of Comfort”) estimate to be the weekly life of 2.5 million adult men (and their families) in England in the 1910s. That is, 2.5 million adult men earned less than 25 shillings a week for the majority of the year. This is a profile of selected workers in one neighborhood, but the problems are not from one neighborhood. All poor working class people struggled.
“They are not the poorest people of the district. Far from it! They are … some of the more enviable and settled inhabitants of this part of the world. The poorest people … are anxiously ignored by these respectable persons whose work is permanent.” (Chapter 1, “The District”)
I loved the praise Ms Reeves gives to the well-deserving families.
“To manage a husband and six children in three rooms on round about one pound a week needs, first and foremost, wisdom and loving-kindness, and after that as much cleanliness and order as can be squeezed in.” Chapter 2
So true: and as Ms Reeves discusses the women’s habits, I loved them. They were so hard-working. My favorite parts were the stories shared about the women’s lives: their daily schedules, the food they cooked, the challenges of having one or maybe two rooms for six or eight people, the things they did to be thrifty. For example, many of the women pawned their boots when income was low (that is, when the man was sick or his boss needed fewer workers one day, and so forth). The boot-less woman would stay inside until she got her boots back, sometimes waiting to go shopping at night so no one would see her house slippers.
Can you imagine having to stay inside all the time? I think I would lose my mind.
And for any thinking, “Why didn’t the woman go work?” remember that this was 1910. Factories didn’t employ married women. And there was usually a baby or two or three at home. The women had no choice but to remain home.
My favorite parts were the stories, not the budget charts. Reporting conversations with the women was not the purpose of Ms Reeves’ account, but that’s what I looked forward to. One women reported to the visitor that their mother’s group was reading ““Dom Quick Sotty.” For another example, only two women in the course of the surveys (during which they tracked each family for about 15 months), had included going to a movie on their budget. This is one conversation about it.
“’E treated me,” said the young wife.
“Then why does it come in your budget?” asked the visitor. [Men kept a portion of their income for extras and for their dinners while at work.]
The girl stared. “Oh, I paid,” she explained; “he let me take him.” (Chapter 14, “The Poor and Marriage”)
Round about a Pound a Week is not a masterpiece of writing, unfortunately. It’s a report on a historical reality. Ms Reeves was a part of a liberal group of women seeking for reform, and her agenda is evident throughout the text. She repeats herself, as if anticipating disbelief, and she reiterates her call for social reform in the last two chapters at length.
“A hundred years ago their fathers would have regarded these children as economic assets, and the family income would have been produced by every member who was over a very tender age. During the last century the State prohibited the employment of children under a certain age – an age which, as wisdom grows, tends to become higher and higher. By this necessary action the State formally invested itself with the ultimate responsibility for the lives and welfare of its children …” (Chapter 15, “The Standard of Comfort”)
Ms Reeves’ call for a minimum wage, state health care, and other social changes gives the modern reader a little hope: maybe some things have improved in the past 100 years. Yet, for how many people in modern society is poverty still crippling their hope? About the children, Ms Reeves’ writes,
“They too readily accepted limitations and qualifications imposed upon them … These children never rebel against disappointment. It is their lot. They more or less expect it.” (Chapter 13, “The Children”)
This broke my heart: not only do these children live in reduced circumstances and receive very little food every day, but they also lose their hope for the future. Life sucks and then you die. Indeed.
At the same time that I cheer the help of State for all those who need it, I do also wish that we all (myself included) found ourselves a little less “whiny” and a bit more resourceful when hard times come! These families had the pride to make ends meet: if their rent was missed one week, they paid it back the next. They were responsible for their needs, despite the incredible hardships. What truly inspiring people!
A Personal Response
Most of the women and children were allowed about 2d (two pence, or tuppence) a person each day for food. I couldn’t help but think of other novels or stories about the era. In the movie Mary Poppins, which takes place in 1910, “tuppence” is the cost of food for the birds. In The Forsyte Saga (published 1906), wealthy Soames makes a house that cost £20,000. I don’t think he ever thought in terms of “tuppence.” In Great Expectations, Pip spend £5 easily, gradually getting into debt by the hundreds of pounds, an amount that these families would never have in their lifetime. Yet, in Lambeth, 2d was a day’s food for one person (equivalent to about $1 US modern).
Beyond literature, though, Round about a Pound a Week touched me in a deeply personal way. I’ve been busy researching my family history, and I’ve found a few families of mine in Manchester in the 1850s through 1880s, before they immigrated to the USA. One family with six children in particular was found in the 1851 census in the “cellar.” As I read about the detrimental health conditions in the cellars in Ms Reeves’ book, I couldn’t help but picture my poor Irish ancestors fifty years earlier, coughing in a similarly bug-infested one room that could not be cleaned or ventilated. It was, I’m certain, much worse in the 1850s.
But Reeves’ book is not about Victorian times: it’s not a contemporary account to Charles Dickens, or my ancestors in Manchester. Round about a Pound a Week is contemporary to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, which would be written a few years after it. It is contemporary to the stories of E.M. Forster and W. Somerset Maugham. That is the life the middle class is living while the families of Lambeth struggle for life. While Clarissa prepares her party, the women in Lambeth stay home because they have no boots, and they eat just a scant portion of bread for breakfast and tea (and maybe watery soup for dinner).
As I went to the grocery store today, I was a bit overcome with the plenty before me: pounds of bananas, peaches, onions, grapes, garlic, greens; gallons and gallons of milk, cream, yogurt, cheese; aisles of breads and cereals, flours and sugars. It was all before me, and given my bank account and sufficient budget for groceries, I could pick and choose what I want. I can choose what foods my husband, my preschooler, and I will eat, be they healthful or not. The poor don’t have that option. Food was always the item to vary from day to day. Meal after meal was bread, with maybe a bit of meat and greens on Sunday. Once a child was weaned from his mother, he never tasted milk again. I’d be lethargic and ill too!
That was Ms Reeves’ point in compiling the 1909-1913 study into a report for mainstream readers: she wanted her contemporaries to know how challenging life was for the poor. The historical import of the report and the inspiring account of the women is (probably) why Persephone has chosen to republish it.
It’s Persephone Weekend (hosted by Claire and Verity) and I really wanted to participate, but I’ve had trouble finding any books in my USA libraries. Thanks to this link tweeted by Claire the other day, I found some of the public domain works that I could download. This one was perfect for me right now. Given my interest in history, it was a great choice!
That said, I will warn you not to read the Kindle version of the book as found on Internet Archives: it is full of OCR typos that really irritated me. I had to discover for myself that is is 1s and 255 is 25s, for example. When it came to tables and charts, it was a hopeless case for me. How I wish I could have read the Persephone with all the pretty charts (and the pretty cover)! (I think the PDF on Internet Archives is also correct.)
Thoughts on Round about A Pound a Week at Persephone | The text at Internet Archive
Have you participated in Persephone Weekend? Which Persephone should I read next?
(One of these days, I really need to buy one of them, since I have such a hard time finding them around here!)