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27/08/2009

Round About A Pound A Week - Maud Pember Reeves


I'd chosen Persephone books to read this week that came from different genres. So I had The Victorian Chaise Lounge which was a very short thriller and the soon-to-be-reviewed They Knew Mr Knight which is a quite thick but quite funny story by Whipple. And the book I will be talking about today is Round About A Pound A Week which is a non-fiction title.

Coincidentally, co-host Verity has just reviewed this as part of her Virago Venture (review here) while I was reading the Persephone version.

A few weeks ago, I had a spirited discussion with a friend on the benefits system, and if it should be scrapped. I'm not going to go into the argument as I'm sure you're all familiar with both sides of this much-debated topic, but I do think that everyone who thinks the poor should receive no help at all from the state should read this book. In 1909, the general consensus was that the poor were poor either because of indulgence in vices like drinking, or because of poor management. The impression is that some middle-class men undertook an experiment to survive on about a pound a week and found that it could be done comfortably. To shatter the myth, some Fabian women undertook a study of about 40 women in Lambeth in London, living on the poverty-line. These were not even the poorest of the population as the men had steady jobs, and even they lived precariously.

Among other things, the study found that the men could not indulge in drinking or gambling because they had no money to spare. And the women were astonishingly good managers, as they must be to make a pound pay for all the bills, clothes, boots and food!

The insight into the life of the Lambeth families is heart-breaking, mostly because of the quiet pride of the women interviewed. None of them seem to complain or sound bitter, preferring to just get along with things. The fact that the Lambeth children never tasted milk once they were weaned off their mother's breast was a shocking statistic. Well-meaning officials went around these communities advertising the benefits of milk, completely overlooking the fact that the children did not get milk because their mother could not afford to buy it, not because she was ignorant of its importance. It is this well-meaning, but ignorant, middle-class interference that provide some dark humour. For instance the mothers are encouraged to give their children porridge, which the Visitors consider a cheap and filling staple food, and they are baffled when the mothers ignore their advice. Finally one woman says that porridge made without milk or sugar is so horrid that even starving children turn their nose up at it, and sugar and milk is beyond their means!

It is impressive how far the women of Lambeth make their pound go. It is, of course, at the expense of the nutrition of her own children and herself. And even one unexpected expense, like a doctor's bill, or a sudden employment can throw them into disaster. There is a very sad example of a mother who pawned her only pair of boots to buy work clothes for her daughter, and stayed indoors for months till she could afford to get back her boots. It is a life on the edge of a knife.

It is a very sad read, shocking at times, but it brought about a huge change in public awareness and led to the State exploring more effective methods of helping the poor. Three cheers for Maud Pember Reeves and the Fabian women.
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5 comments:

Nymeth said...

To be honest, theories about the "laziness", "poor managing skills" or "vices" or the poor just drive me batty. Thank you - I will definitely read this book.

Paperback Reader said...

Another great review! The way you have described this makes me want to read it NOW. Persephone Week has been so tempting and I am going to be in a complete quandary next time I visit the shop or make an order.

claire said...

This sounds like a must-read. I can't stand generalizations on the poor and why they stay poor. While in high school, we visited families surviving on a dollar a week, and this was 1992!

verity said...

I'm glad you enjoyed this as much as I did - it's nice to see a non fiction review too!

Green Road said...

Nymeth and Claire, this is a bugbear of mine too, generalisations of the poor (or any spectrum of society) make my teeth itch. The generalisations are still well and alive, Claire like you say a dollar a week in 1992 is hardly ancient history.

Claire and Verity, I have really enjoyed this week. Congratulations on a job well done.