Socialist Worker

Underpaid and underfed: life for the poor in 1910

Issue No. 2219

To fully appreciate the significance of the chainmakers’ victory, we need to understand the social conditions that existed 100 years ago.

This was a time long before everyone had the vote. Some 40 percent of the poorest men could not vote.

No woman was allowed to vote—and many people saw them as unworthy of it.

In 1910 there were no maternity rights, and childcare was exclusive to the rich. Pictures from the era in Cradley Heath show babies in cots in the corner of the workshops.

Many young children huddled away from the fire, the sparks, the hammers and the smoke—while the more adventurous are photographed seemingly playing or helping make the chain.

Child mortality was high.

Illiteracy was common. Most of the women chainmakers in Cradley Heath had never been taught to read or write.

And the accepted, dominant view in society was that women should be paid less than men—even when they did exactly the same work.

Britain was still the workshop of the world, leading in industrial innovation. And 90 percent of all chain made in Britain came from Cradley Heath and the surrounding areas.

While this kind of capitalist growth created huge profits and wealth for the bosses, it created little but poverty and slums for the working class.

A survey in 1904 of 2,000 working class households revealed that, where households had less than 25 shillings a week, 67 percent of their income would be spent on buying cheap, basic food.

Those earning 20s a week (£1) had sufficient if they were single or a couple, but not enough to feed a family.

Another study in 1913, entitled “Round About a Pound a Week”, concluded that there were two million men, and eight million people in all, who existed on less than 25s a week.

From a study of household budgets, the author Maud Pember Reeves stated, “…the great bulk of this enormous mass of people are underfed, under-housed, and insufficiently clothed.

“Their growth is stunted, their mental powers are cramped, their health is undermined.”

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Tue 14 Sep 2010, 17:14 BST
Issue No. 2219
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