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There was no shortage of very poor families in the early 1900s. According to the book Round About a Pound a Week, some families were in perpetual poverty which they could not get out of, try as the might, even when the man, the wage earner, was in full-time work.
This full-time work brought in about £1 a week in the poorer parts of London, but the amount could not be relied on, as the men were frequently laid off without notice if there was no work. These men were not skivers.
The book, 'Round About a Pound a Week', records the findings of a group of women who interviewed families of manual workers in Lambeth, London, in 1909-1913 under the auspices of the Fabian Society.
The aim of the study was to look at how these poor families managed financially. (The findings were hugely influential for improving state support for families, but that is another story.)
The book never uses the term 'slum'. That is my interpretation from a modern perspective. Certainly the accommodation which the book describes has all been pulled down now. Back in the early 1900s, they were known as 'tenements' and were already old properties, in contrast to the then relatively new Victorian and Edwardian terraced housing estates, where my mother grew up and which are still giving good service today.
The rent for the accommodation was around 6 to 8 shillings a week for one or two rooms in fairly large tenement blocks. The book makes the point that as a proportion of family income, such rents were significantly higher than those where better off families lived. What was left over after paying rents left very little for the other necessities of life with absolutely nothing for bettering themselves.
The cheapest rooms were in basements which were always damp and never saw real daylight. They tended to be bug infested, and illness was rife.
Families lived in one or two rooms. Most families were large, which meant being creative with the space available. Babies tended to sleep with their parents and children slept two, three or more to a bed.
The women worked hard and the rooms were described as surprisingly clean in the circumstances.
Clothing was second-hand and repeatedly mended. It was normal to see children and even women without shoes.
When I had to visit Ireland on business in the 1960s, it was still common in the poorer parts to see children running around outside with no shoes.
It is reasonable to wonder why these families, headed by men who worked hard and were prepared to work, did not move to other parts of London where work was better paid and the accommodation was in purpose built houses on new estates, like the Huxley estate where my mother grew up.
According to the book the main reasons were as follows: