Round About a Pound a Week by Maude Pember Reeves

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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”)

The Agenda

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!)

Reviewed on February 27, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I love the sound of this book! I knew that Persephone published a few non-fiction books, but this is the first I’ve seen reviewed. I love the way you’ve explained how other literary characters wasted their money when others needed it so much – I don’t think I’m going to look at the bird food in Mary Poppins the same way again.

  • A wonderful review, Rebecca! I love your personal response to this, your enthusiasm and the literary context you put it in. It is a staggeringly eye-opening read and I found the social history riveting. I suggested it for one of my book groups and it provoked a lively discussion (one of us read the online version you did); as young women living in London, in boroughs not that far removed from the London borough of Lambeth, in an economy that is bleak (with further drastic cuts since reading and discussing), it took on a personal and relevant tone for us too. I found your conversions jaw-dropping as -to put the present UK poverty levels into context- the current weekly unemployment benefit is £65, less than the 1910s £1. Having to struggle on limited means, at the best of times or with additional support, forces you to put things into perspective such as material extravagance and waste; I have learned invaluable house-budgeting skills but nothing compared to how those women ran a household on round about a pound a week.

    • Claire (Paperback Reader), oh my, I am sad to hear that the unemployement benefit is even less than the modern equivalencies! Maybe things haven’t improved all that much yet… I didn’t think to look up the US unemployment benefits.

      I do think it may help that both spouses can work — it just wasn’t an option for the Lambeth families — but still, 65 pounds for a week in todays’ world!? incredible.

  • Dear Rebecca, I’m reading this for PRW and have loved reading your review and from the overseas perspective. It is a fascinating book and I’m still working out how to write about it when I’ve finished it. We’re currently looking to buy a house in london and it’s humbling thinking that so many of the Victorian houses we’re looking at were built for shared families or very large families where we’re thinking ‘are they big enough for us if we were lucky enough to have a family?’ On another note Polly Toynbee who wrote the introduction wrote a book about her experience of trying to live on the mimimum wage in contemporary Britain. It makes a fascinating read, and also harrowing comparing how little in some ways the choices of those in poverty still have in our society today.

    • Joan Hunter Dunn, oh I do wish I could read the Persephone version, that introduction sounds wonderful. And yes, I’m amazed at how these huge families crammed in to small houses. You’re right, those in poverty still have few choices. I certainly hope, though, that there are far fewer! The 2.5 million statistic staggered me!

  • This sounds so interesting. I find social history fascinating, and it’s wonderful that this book is still available to show the other side of Edwardian-era England. We always think of the beautiful homes and elaborate gowns, but that was a small segment of society. So many people were barely getting by. And, sadly, it remains relevant today because people still have to get by on so little while many of us are surrounded by abundance. A really moving post, Rebecca.

  • This sounds fascinating. I love history and these kinds of in-depth, personal reflections of time periods really matter. I will definitely have to get my hands on this!

  • The nearest college library has this and also A London Child of the 1870s which I’m going to go and check out today! It won’t be a Persephone edition but I’m glad to have it. If you’re interested in social history, you might also really like A Woman’s Place which I finished last week.

    It’s heartbreaking to hear how poor people were and probably still are. This is especially striking to me because I was just reading the Sunday New York Times — I don’t normally read the sports section but there were two articles on the same page and their juxtaposition was amazing. The first was an article about a new baseball player, Clayton Kershaw from the LA Dodgers, who just came back from a week working with orphans in Zambia. The second article was about Derek Jeter’s new mansion in Tampa, which at 30,000 square feet is the largest house in the county. The lot alone (well, three lots, actually) cost $7.7 million dollars. That’s for one person. It’s jaw-dropping.

  • Hahaha, I think this would stress me out so much. I’m nowhere near the poverty line, of course, but I’m not making a lot of money, and it can be hard to plan groceries every week. Everything’s so damn expensive, especially fresh fruit and veg! I don’t know what I’d do if I had to organize family meals every single day.

    • Jenny, I think reading this does the opposite. It makes me less stressed out because I can see how many options I have! So much abundance, even though it is expensive. For them, they never tasted fresh fruit. Put only what they could afford on the table and their menus were not very creative or varied (lots and lots of bread). But it takes the stress out of cooking. Other than the fact that everyone will still be hungry after the meal is over.

  • Rebecca – fantastic review. Made me think a bit of the Road to Wigan Pier, and I was struck by Claire’s observation of the comparison to current unemployment benefit levels. I hope to read the book sometime soon.

  • Hi Rebecca.
    Congratulations on winning two Persephones!
    I just found your blog via PRW and I was moved by your review. It is so well put and your personal thoughts are food for thought. I applaud your determination in finding a Persephone text in order to participate. Well done 🙂

  • Your review was great! Your monetary conversions were really helpful, and the experience of these women was incredible.

    One of the questions I had while reading your review was how Reeves chose the families she wrote about. It seems she selected the hardworking, more respectable poor, the ones who tried to meet their responsibilities and attempted to keep their homes as clean as possible on a very small income. At one point, you quote her saying that poorer people lived in the district, and the poorest people are avoided by the families she’s writing about. I wonder whether Reeves purposely chose these 42 more respectable poor because their stories would appeal more to middle-class readers. Do you know what her selection criteria was?

    As for what Persephone to pick up next, there are many good ones. I’ve read 23, and out of those, I would recommend reading They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple.

    Thanks again for the great review!

    • Virginia, that is an excellent question that I also had as I read. From what I read, unfortunately, it seemed this book was a secondary account of the study: the study focused on health aspects of the families rather than economic, although they did also track the economic facts of the families. I would have loved to learn more about the actual study myself.

      Reeves indicated that the study was of infant growth and development among the working class. So they chose 42 families that were expecting a child and then tracked that family and the child’s growth until the child was one year old or until he or she died, about 15 months in most cases. They purposely didn’t want to choose the poorest families because they wanted a general study of the hard working working class — that 2.5 million people quoted above. Although she didn’t tell very much about the study, she did mention that each of the children that lived (about eight died in the course of the study, I think. Some were born dead, others died shortly after birth) were born strong and gradually became weak and lethargic by age 1. It was quite sad.

      So that doesn’t exactly clear up your question, and I had the same one! Note that I read only the error-ridden OCR of the 1914 original. I wonder if the introduction to the Persephone edition has further information about the study? Although the women who did the study seemed to have good intentions, it didn’t exactly sound scientific, with control groups or what not.

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