The Poor Live off Bread, Jam and Tea


Maud Pember Reeves. Image from http://www.nzine.co.nz.

Round About a Pound a Week by Maud Pember Reeves (1865-1953) was a landmark book. It described how the “respectable” working poor lived and, in doing so, provided evidence to support arguments for child benefit and school meals.

The book, first published in 1913, was based on four years of research by the Fabian Women’s Group.  This group set out to investigate the impact of nutrition on the health of mothers and their children because it was known that a greater proportion of the babies born in poor areas died compared to those born in wealthier areas.   Each week the Fabian women visited homes in Lambeth, a poor part of London, and interviewed working class mothers.  The notebooks recording these visits are held by the LSE library.

The research looked at families with a weekly wage of between 18 and 26 shillings and revealed how little money was left for food once the rent and other necessities had been covered.  Even in cases where the husband brought home his entire wage (rather than spending most it down the pub or elsewhere) and where the mother was deemed a “good manager” the meals provided inadequate nutrition.

“Bread…is their chief food.  It is cheap; they like it; it comes into the house ready cooked; it is always at hand, and needs no plate and spoon.” [1]

The book challenged some conventional views of poverty.  It rejected what Maud described as the “gospel of porridge”.  It explained to well-meaning middle-class philanthropists that although porridge might be the cheapest and most nutritious breakfast it is not a sensible option if you live in two rooms without a stove, the only saucepan you have is burnt and / or your children don’t like it.

Maud was brought up in New Zealand and moved to Britain with her husband when he became New Zealand’s Agent-General.  In London Maud was active in left-wing politics and the Fabian Women’s Group was started at a meeting in her home. During the First World War she worked in the Ministry of Food as the Director of the Education and Propaganda but she withdrew from public life after the death of her son on active duty in 1917.

A century after the book was published I think it is time to go back to Lambeth and re-do this research.

[1] Round About a Pound a Week, edition published by Virago Press in 1997,  p.97

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