How to describe the reality of poverty? How even to recollect it, in all its urgency, its gripping and sapping need and emptiness? Like all pain, it’s hard to summon up retrospectively. Best forgotten, hence easy to deny the hold it has had.
The Edwardian poor are too close to us for comfort, children of a hundred years ago, only two or three generations away. In their time, a kind of social self-policing gripped working-class districts. The glue which held it was shame, or threatened shame. Poverty had its gradations, though even the most privileged workers were never too far from calamity. Meanwhile, a fragile status quo held: small clues were noticed, what was eaten and worn, how large the debt to the corner shop and doctor.
Here is acknowledged my own debt, to Robert Roberts, author of the classic work The Classic Slum. Roberts exposed detail of everyday life, his childhood realm recognizably that of Kate’s family across the Pennines. Born in 1905, he grew up in a sociological laboratory, a corner shop near the point where slum met a rather more respectable district in Salford. And so he was an eye-witness in a neighbourhood very far from uniform. Roberts was finely attuned to subtle but significant differences, the communities contained in his community, and particularly how much these hierarchies mattered within that world. Above all he was not inclined towards rose-tinting. He saw precisely how poverty ground down families in his own time, and listened to older people who had witnessed a similarly unforgiving past. Robert Roberts spent his life as an outstanding, articulate voice for those who had had none. Meanwhile the daily struggle of the Edwardian working class, his own people, was disappearing from general notice.
Edith, Kate’s second child, for a long time the only daughter, wrote of her youth, of how constant poverty and her mother’s multiple pregnancies had given such embarrassment. The struggle escalated as the babies came. There is a studio portrait of the first-born, Edgar, as a baby done out in broderie anglaise, and another of a toddler in skirts, smart with hat and leather bootees, perhaps Edgar or maybe Edith, two years younger. A passing photographer snapped the Bull Row house in about 1908, with the family of four children, as it then was, grouped at the open door. By this time there was no money for studio visits. There were no more photographs until after 1920, when the adult children posed with their own partners.
Here was a family of ten children, which was nothing unusual. What is more, there was a man’s wage, a miner’s wage, coming into the house, and probably a quota of coal from his employer. The rent must have been paid regularly. What was left after that was never, though, sufficient to nourish the family. The books would not balance. At dinner, the main earner, the man, who spent his days in hard manual labour, was fed first, and afterwards the older children before the youngest. Kate, it was said, barely ate. Even long after her child-bearing years, it was her habit to drink a cup of tea and pretend she had eaten earlier. She had her first child when she was 25, her last at 46. There were never actually ten children at home, for two had died as infants some time before the tenth was born, and by then the oldest were working and ready to leave. But still, it was always very hard.
The evidence of hardship was plain to see in children’s stunted growth. The stark discrepancy between rich and poor was measurable in their height. In 1902 the government investigated the diets and size of 12 year-olds. On average the privately educated had a height advantage of five inches over the rest, those in council schools. As adults, most of Kate’s family were very small, perhaps a little over five feet tall. Several had poor eyesight and other weaknesses. The older ones had been malnourished throughout their childhood. The younger children had an advantage of living in a smaller household with more wage-earners, so had better sustenance. Their disadvantage was in being born to a middle-aged malnourished mother worn out by multiple pregnancies and long-term poverty. Yet the eight who survived to adulthood lived past 70. The youngest, born in 1922, died at 93.
Where the children came in the roll call influenced more than just their stature and health. It coloured their impression of childhood. The oldest, short in stature but bright and strong-minded, were sharp enough to see their situation for what it was, not denying their poverty nor blaming those in want for their predicament. We were poor, said Edith. Kate was a good housekeeper, presumably taught to cook by her own mother, Emma, the former housemaid. In fact, noted Edith ‘we had some good dinners’.
I remember broth, with lots of peas, carrots, and perhaps a pig’s pizzle, which was very tasty with lots of dumplings. Or broth made with a sheep’s head, which mother used to get from a butcher across the road for sixpence, never more. That was lovely and I wish we could sometimes have it now. Or sometimes we had a large meat and potato pie, when mother could afford some meat. For tea we didn’t have much except bread and margarine, or some treacle. We could go to the corner shop with a pound jam jar and have it filled for a penny. I remember once, one of the boys leaving the penny in the bottom of the jar, and having the treacle put in on top. What a catastrophe it was then.
The central problem may not have been the absolute quantity of food – though it was never abundant, and Kate’s own hunger helped protect her children – but the quality. Without doubt protein was in short supply.
The daughter of Fred, the fifth child, could not recall that her father had mentioned hunger. He did, though, complain that he was unable to join a football team as there was no money for football boots. Fred passed his scholarship for the grammar school but could not take up a place, because he must work as soon as it was allowed. The costs would in any case have defeated his family. Edgar went to the junior corps, the Sunday school, of the Salvation Army, where he was not permitted to join the band, as it required a uniform. ‘I was the eldest of a family of ten, and I was told a uniform was out of the question’. More of a problem, though, was that ‘we youngsters’, though wanting their souls to be saved by the Salvation Army, found that it was not easy to accept the creed.
We were mostly without the luxuries of life, and Self Denial was a hard reality from which we could not escape physically. We had no desire to accept it. Being ‘saved’ entailed a renunciation of pleasure-seeking. As children we aspired to more of the good things of life.
17 August 2016