Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Round about a pound a week (Pember-Reeves) 511

I have had this book for quite sometime. I came across it at the end of my first year at university. I did a degree in modern history, and absolutely hated the first two terms where I studied the Anglo-Saxons (although I have to say in retrospect I did develop a fondness for the period where people burnt cakes, buried beautiful things, and had names like Ethelred), Early Modern Europe, and Historiography (the latter two I never developed a fondness for). I was on the point of quitting, when I finally got to take an optional course about The working class between 1870 and 1914, and was given an absolutely wonderful tutor who restored my pleasure in studying history, and went on to teach me three further courses and supervise my dissertation.

I digress. This course was primarily source-based in that we read a lot of texts of the period to find out about the workers, the development of trade unionism, and in particular how the working class managed their existence on such small incomes. This latter topic was where I discovered Maude Pember Reeves.

Round about a pound a week is based on the findings of a study undertaken by some Fabian women in 1909 into the lives of 42 families living in Lambeth in London. The title comes from their discovery that "about a pound" was the amount of money most families had to live on. After paying the rent, and for fuel, there was very little money left for food, let alone for new clothes, health care or any sort of luxury.

Before studies such as this one (there were a number of others in the period), being poor was often attributed to fecklessness or poor management or the husband drinking away the wages in the pub. But this research showed that the poor simply did not get paid enough to survive. The only area where the poor might have been said to be feckless was in their expenditure on burial insurance; yet giving the dead a decent send-off was hugely important in demonstrating respectability - a pauper funeral was hugely disgraceful.

There is all sorts of interesting detail in the book, such as the allocation of food within the family - the breadwinner would receive a far greater proportion because the family were so dependent on his income.

Studies like this were hugely important in the development of the "Liberal Reforms", which set up state unemployment and health insurance which paved the way for the post-WW2 welfare state and the system of income support and state assistance which we have today.

This book must be read; it is such an interesting insight into the lives of the poor at the start of the 20th century, and a key part of understanding the development of society in the twentieth century. It would be hugely interesting to draw comparisons with the state of the poverty stricken in British society today.

There is just the one VMC cover...

...but it has also been published by Persephone. I would love to own the Persephone edition as well! Which leaves me wondering, how many titles have been published as VMCs and by Persephone? Anyone know?


  1. I can only think of the three off-hand: this, The Crowded Street, and A Very Great Profession but there may be a couple more. It would be a matter of cross-referencing authors in Persephone catalogue with VMC database...

    I will definitely be picking this up at some point! I studied poverty in Scotland in the early C20th and this would be a welcome return to history I was engrossed in.

  2. I'm reading this right now in its Persephone avatar. It's amazing, isn't it, how the poor managed then. There may be a lot wrong with the benefit system, but I'm glad it exists if only to prevent anyone living on the edge of a knife like that. I'll be posting my review tomorrow, I'm nearly at the end.