Maud Reeves, nee Robison, (1865-1953)
has been remembered in a number of roles - as the wife of William Pember
who was a New Zealand Cabinet Minister and socialist reformer; as a
suffragette during the struggle for votes for New Zealand women; as a
gracious hostess to influential people when her husband was New Zealand 's
Agent-General in London; as a socialist herself and member of the Fabian
Society. However fewer people are aware of her book, "ROUND ABOUT A POUND
A WEEK", reporting on research into the social conditions experienced by
some working class families in London early in the twentieth century. The
experience she gained from her research work led to her appointment in 1916
to a committee of inquiry into the high cost of food during World War 1.
Then followed an appointment to the staff of the Ministry of Food where she
worked on propaganda for voluntary rationing, and was Director of Women's
The title page of the book has its name printed in upper case, as was the
fashion at the time, but it is an achievement worth capital letters. It is
typical of the attitude to women when the book was published by G Bell and
Sons, Ltd in 1913 that below "ROUND ABOUT A POUND A WEEK" the author is
given as "Mrs Pember Reeves".
Maud Reeves had the support of a group of the Fabian Women's Group and
acknowledges two people in the Preface to her book:
"I am glad to take this opportunity to acknowledge the use I have made of a
manuscript written by Mrs. Charlotte Wilson, Hon. Secretary of the Fabian
Women's Group. The manuscript was founded on a lecture, entitled "The
Economic Disintegration of the Family," delivered by Mrs, Wilson to the
Fabian Society in June, 1909. Not only ideas contained in the lecture, but
also some of the wording of the manuscript, have been used in the last two
"I wish also to thank Dr Ethel Bentham for the invaluable professional
service rendered by her during the five years of the investigation."
Lambeth and its people
The book opens with a description of Lambeth, the area where the research
is to take place. Maud Reeves paints a realistic picture of the
"monotonously and drearily decent streets" where the people who will be
interviewed live. "These are not the poorest people of the district," she
writes. They are "some of the more enviable and settled inhabitants of this
part of the world." She chooses significant details to show that "in these
superior streets a kind of dull aloofness seems to be the order of the day"
except that before and after school "these narrow streets become full of
screaming, running, shouting children."
The women conducting the research chose to investigate the living patterns
of "persons whose work is permanent, as permanency goes in Lambeth, and
whose wages range from 18s to 30s a week."
Maud Reeves portrays the contrasts in the women's attitudes to housekeeping
and in the appearance and liveliness of the children playing in the
streets. Over all as they played they seemed to be abnormally noisy, but
"some are apathetic and some restless: they are often intelligent; but
while some are able to bring their intelligence to bear on their daily
life, others seem quite unable to do so."
The chapter ends with a question. "Had they been well housed, well fed,
well clothed, from birth, what kind of raw material would they have shown
themselves to be?"
The nature of the research
To seek some answers to the above question an investigation was undertaken
by a committee of the Fabian Women's Group. They were given money to enable
them "to study the effect on mother and child of sufficient nourishment
before and after birth." Two visitors undertook the task of paying weekly
visits to the mother, taking the supplementary nourishment and noting the
effects. This was to continue from three months before the birth until the
baby was one year old.
They did not interview women whose husbands earned less than 18s per week
as "they were likely to be living in a state of such misery that the
temptation to let the rest of the family share in the mother's and baby's
nourishment would be too great." Those with over 26s they thought would
already have sufficient nourishment, but after two years they lifted the
upper limit to 30s.
The mothers were interviewed by a doctor before being accepted into the
scheme. The intention was to base the research on the children of healthy
parents, and to rule out parents with disease. However, lung and
respiratory diseases were so common that it would have meant ruling out
half the cases. In the end they ruled out only such serious illnesses as
active or malignant disease which the doctor thought would totally wreck
the child's chance of a healthy life.
The committee expected to find that too much drinking would be a common
problem, but soon discovered that a married man on 18-26s a week could not
afford to drink.
Descriptions of the families' housing, sleeping arrangements, heating and
cooking equipment, bathing, diet (including actual menus), food storage,
and budgeting made sorry reading. These formed the background for the
description of the daily routines and the loneliness of the mothers. In
some cases the women could not read or write and the husband or one of the
children had to write down the accounts to give to the visitor.
One expense to which most families gave priority was the contribution to
the burial insurance. Most couples lost one or two of their children and
to add to their grief at their loss the humiliation of having a pauper's
funeral was more than they could endure. They would borrow from neighbours
if they had no insurance and then the mother and surviving children would
eat less until the money was paid back. The father could not have his
rations cut as he had to be fit to hold down a job.
Maud Reeves gives a very fair account of the families' difficulties and the
predicament of the women trying to manage on insufficient money. The women
would listen to advice about a better diet or changed routines, but were
usually too short of money, too overworked, undernourished and exhausted to
face change. As there were more children life became more difficult and
there was strain on the marriages.
In the chapter on children there is a description of their games on the
street and discussion on how the family's problems impacted on the
children. It also included discussion on the lives of families in even
greater need than those regularly visited.
"The children of the poor," she writes, "suffer from want of room, want of
light, want of air, want of warmth, want of sufficient and proper food, and
want of clothes, because there is not enough to pay for these necessaries.
They also suffer from want of cleanliness, want of attention to health,
want of peace and quiet, because the strength of their mothers is not
enough to provide these necessary conditions."
These children were not isolated cases. One authority stated that 2,500,000
men working in trades in the United Kingdom were getting less than 25s per
week. The Board of Trade returns for the earnings of the adult men in the
textile trades of the United Kingdom showed that for one week of September,
1906, 48 per cent earned less than 25s a week.
Attempts to educate girls in domestic science could have little impact when
so few of the women would be able to afford to follow the guidelines for
health and diet.
Results of the research
The 42 families investigated had altogether 201 children but 18 did not
survive the day of their birth. Of the remaining 183 children in an age
range of one week to about seventeen years 39 had died. Of the 144 who
survived five were mentally deficient and many were slow in intellect or
excitable. All but one of the babies born during the investigation were
normal, healthy babies, but even though they had extra care, by the time
they were one year old, because of the poor living conditions, they were
not as healthy as children brought up in hygienic conditions.
The role of the State
The last chapter in the book is headed "The State as Guardian" and opens
with an extract from a leading article in "The Times, October 7, 1913:
"They (women) are resolved, we may take it, that laws and customs which do
not recognise that their children are the children of the nation are behind
the times and must be altered. Because they are the children of the nation,
the nation owes them all the care that a mother owes to her own child.
Because they are the future nation, the nation can only neglect them to its
own hurt and undoing. That is a law of life which is proved up to the hilt
by the bitter and humiliating experience of a large proportion of the
disease and mortality and crime in our homes and hospitals and asylums and
prisons. But it is a law of life which also carries with it this further
truth - that the nation's children are the nation's opportunity."
The discussion which follows about the role of the state and the
responsibility of parents centres around problems which are faced by
poverty-stricken families and Government departments today. Much of what
is in Maud Reeves' book raises issues which regrettably are not outdated
but affect many families nearly a century later.
Anyone interested in social conditions in the United Kingdom a century ago
coud read this book today and find that in it there is much that is
relevant for social workers helping disadvantaged families today.