Round About A Pound A Week is an in-depth record of how low-income families in Lambeth managed to keep house and home together with only about £1 a week. It follows a four-year study by the Fabian Women’s Group which recorded the daily budgets of about 30 families between 1909-1913. As a book, it is good on the detailed accounting of both money and time for working women, but also dabbles in anthropology as these women are brought to life for the reader.
It was, very deliberately, written to tug on the heartstrings and many of the innovations the Fabians advocated as a result of this research, such as free school meals for children from low-income families and the minimum wage, have now been made public policy. The Fabian Women’s Group was driven by a desire to reduce infant mortality – then a national concern. The prevailing view of their peers had been that it was just poor parenting by lazy mothers that led to infant mortality and so they are at pains throughout the book to demonstrate how hard these mothers worked to manage their budgets and homes in the face of damp, vermin, hunger and poverty, and a lack of sanitation and clothing. In fact, Pember Reeves is at pains to demolish many of the middle-class prejudices about poor families, and it is in doing so that she acts most like a quirky Victorian anthropologist – her explanations about the horrors of porridge are particularly enjoyable.
Her use of the budgets is relentless in demonstrating how impossible it was to live to a decent standard on such low income. With chapters on rent, food and insurance she goes through budget after budget to show that no matter how hard these families tried, it was a losing battle. Here is one example from the end of a chapter on the diet the children were offered:
That the diet of poorer London children is insufficient, unscientific and utterly unsatisfactory is horribly true. But that the real cause of this state of being is the ignorance and indifference of their mothers is untrue. What person, or body of people, however educated and expert, could maintain a working man in physical efficiency and rear healthy children on the amount of money which is all these same mothers have to deal with? It would be an impossible problem if set to trained and expert people. How much more an impossible problem when set to the saddened, weakened and overburdened wives of London labourers.
She also points out that children in the workhouses ate better than these children, even though their fathers were in full-time work. But Pember Reeves is interested in more than just the physical wellbeing of these people. I think her writing is at its best when she explains how drained and dreary both parents and children are under these relentless conditions. Here she talks about the children in the study:
Want of the joy of life was the most salient feature of the children as they grew older. They too readiliy accepted limitations and qualifications imposed on them, without that irrational hoping agaainst impossibility and belief in favourable miracles which carry more fortunate children through many disappointments. These children never rebel against disappointment. It is their lot. They more or less expect it.
But in case you are thinking that this is a bleak read, it somehow isn’t. It is sort of fascinating to develop such a detailed understanding of daily life. And you really get a feel for the personality of Pember Reeves. I most enjoyed her attempts at sharing ‘amusing’ anecdotes to liven up the book. These usually involve patronisingly recording the speech of the participants. Here she relates the views of Mrs K (who is clearly her favourite):
At the mothers’ meeting they were now having a book read to them called “Dom Quick Sotty”. It was interesting, but not as interesting and Little Lord Fauntleroy.
So, all in all, an interesting read. The thought that kept going through my mind today is that it is sad that we still have children living in poverty in this country, even 100 years after this book was written. Who will be the Pember Reeves for the latest generation?