Nutrition in the slums
in early 20th century England
Meals that poor people ate
Not everyone was fortunate enough to live like the ordinary people described on this website. There were still families who were desperately poor, who lived in slum conditions. For them, meals were very different from what my mother describes in the other pages of the menu.
The following information about food in the slums comes from the book Round About a Pound a Week which records the findings of a group of women who interviewed families of manual workers in a poor part of London in 1909-1913 under the auspices of the Fabian Society.
The book gives precise menus for a range of families with different numbers of children. Essentially the mothers and children had to exist for much of the time on sweetened tea with no milk and hunks of bread spread with margarine. The man of the house additionally had what was referred to as his 'relish' which was something additional for his supper - perhaps an egg, a rasher of bacon or a small piece of cheese or fish. It was essential to keep him fed well enough to continue working to earn the weekly income for the family. There was no state support other than the terrible stigma of pauperisation, which, in its worst form meant being admitted to the workhouse.
Death and disease was rife among the poorer families, as a result of poor nutrition and insanitary damp living conditions.
It was noted in the book that:
Children fostered out by certain parishes were budgeted at 4 shillings a week for food, which was much more than poor mothers could afford for each child. So children in workhouses were fed better than children in the slums. Women in the slums had to manage on between 6 and 8 shillings a week to feed the entire family.
London teachers were instructed to teach household management to girls on the basis of £3, 35/- or 28/- for a family of 6 persons. It was accepted that adequate living standards could not or should not be achieved on less.
Also of note:
Judging by the food that my mother describes, living as she did in a newly built housing estate, and comparing it with the food of desperately poor families with incomes of around a pound a week, it is reasonable to assume that weekly incomes on the new estates were around 30 shillings a week.
The subsistence diet of weak sweetened tea with bread and margarine was comparable to that on which tramps and vagrants existed.
The practice of feeding the husband more than his wife continued well into the 20th century. My mother who married just before the outbreak of World War Two told me that on her honeymoon my father was given two eggs for breakfast whereas she was only given one.