Friday 11 March 2011

A Plumber and Family

A study of a typical working class family in the 1890s, from Family budgets: being the income and expenses of twenty-eight British households. 1891-1894 (1896) ...

Jobbing Plumber, age 30.
Wife age 29.
Children : Boys, ages 8 and 5. 
Girl, age 3.


History of the Family. — The man's parents were Londoners, but his father's mother was born in France. His home was unhappy, owing to the drinking habits of his father, and, as the eldest child, he was kept much at home to help his mother and look after the children, with the result that his education was much neglected. Nominally at school for four or five years, he was absent more than half the time. At the age of twelve he was glad to leave school, and start work as an errand boy. In this capacity he served 2 months with a greengrocer, 8 months with a linendraper, and 12 months at a china shop, returning next to the greengrocer. His mother now died, and he went to live with an aunt, and engaged himself at a low wage to a plumber. Having a natural liking for this work, and thinking his want of education would not seriously impede him in it, he deliberately chose it as his trade, soon picked it up, was entrusted with skilled work, and stayed with the same employer nearly 7 years. At this time his aunt died. Though he paid her for his lodging, he was "not too comfortable" with her ; but, when he removed to other lodgings, he found them much more uncomfortable. He was now thrown out of work, through a quarrel with his foreman, and could get nothing to do for a fortnight. Having, however, saved £10 or £11, he married during this fortnight within a few weeks of his aunt's death.
    The wife was born in London. She lost her father (a cabman) when she was very young, and went to the King Edward's Schools for destitute children at Southwark, a charitable institution, whence she was drafted at the age of 15 into domestic service as a general servant. This situation was so uncomfortable, that she left it at once for another. In all, she tried five places, remaining 3 years as nursemaid in one of them, and marrying from the last. The numbers correspond with those in Tablet A, B, C, D. t See Note (a), page aa. B 1 8 Notes on the Families:
    Since his marriage, the man's employment has been marked by extreme irregularity and uncertainty. When her first-born was 6 months old, the wife fell ill of bronchitis and required more nourishing food. To obtain this, her husband, who had no work at the time, allowed the rent to fall in arrear us., when their home (worth about £5 to them) was distrained upon, and broken up. Since then, they have not been able to get on their legs again. On one occasion, when he lay ill for a month in St. Thomas's Hospital, his wife was forced to apply for out- door relief, having absolutely no resources. The necessary steps of appearing before the Guardians, receiving the Overseer's visit, &c, were not surmounted for nearly a fortnight, when they were " almost starving." They were allowed 2s. 6d. a week, and received this for two weeks. Directly the husband came home convalescent, the relief stopped. It has not been applied for except this once. The misfortune of the time, the tardiness of the relief, and the surliness of the Overseer, are looked back upon with some bitterness of recollection by the man, who is devoted to his wife and children. Some months ago their fourth child, a boy of two months, died of inflammation of the lungs, on a cold day, when the last penny had run out, and there was no fire in the room. The loss of the child is keenly felt : they repine too, that the funeral was necessarily of the cheapest (30s.) and plainest. As the man puts it ; " We could not have the little fall-things, wot shows respect." Neither trials in the past nor fears for the future have, however, broken down their honesty, cheerfulness, or self- respect. The wife extorts the maximum of utility from their slender resources. Her husband has no further aspiration than the hope of permanent and regular employment. A good week, when it comes, clears off the debts and shadows of the bad, and provides for the time some satisfaction of the more urgent needs of clothing or substantial food which have been forced into abeyance. Comfort arising from neatness of home and person is relatively high ; but the standard of this precarious living is so low, that it is difficult to conceive of a lower, apart from actual starvation.
    Moral circumstances. — On Sunday afternoons the children are sent to a Wesleyan Sunday School. In the evening they are put to bed early, and their parents go to the Wesleyan Chapel "to pass away an hour." They incur no expenses in these respects. The man does not smoke ; neither he nor his wife drinks. The family is orderly, truthful and honest ; but offers no soil for the cultivation of foresight in the direction of saving. Earnings are spent within the week. The eldest boy is sent to the Board School at a cost of 3d. per week levied for each week during which he is at least once present. Last winter he was ill for 11 weeks and rarely attended; the fees were then remitted after his mother had been before the Local Managers.
    Hygiene. — The man is of strong constitution. His only illness since marriage arose from lead poisoning, due to the inhalation of ingredients of colour on a day when he resumed work with an empty stomach after two weeks enforced idleness. This was the occasion of his transfer to the hospital. The demand for beds led, as he asserts, to his premature discharge. Having no money to pay his fare, he walked home (3 miles), and the same night had two fits — his first and last attacks — attributed to weakness and fatigue. The wife was strong until after the birth of her first child, when, endeavouring too soon to get about her work in the house, she caught cold, which brought on a lung trouble, never since got rid of. Her mother came to nurse her ; but the eviction of the family (see p. 18) happening at the time, she was, through the kind offices of her doctor's sister, sent the same day to a convalescent home at Kilburn, and there kept for four weeks at 8/6 a week, her husband ultimately bearing half the expense. The oldest boy is consumptive. The family often lacks the warmth and nutrition necessary for the preservation of health. In case of illness application is made to a charitable dispensary which provides medical advice, medicine, bandages, &c, to accepted patients, who must pay 1d. on each visit on application, and find their own bottles. The doctor now attending the wife, spoke to a charitable lady of her want of coal during a severe illness, and the want was supplied. A previous (charitable) doctor, as already stated, interested his sister in this poor patient.
    The children play in their school-yard, and sometimes in a neighbouring park, but this is restricted by the fear of their parents that they might get into bad company.


Sources of Income. — The man describes himself as a three-branch man. His main business is that of a jobbing plumber. The usual wages of a London plumber are said to be 9d. an hour, and the weekly hours of labour 56½ generally, in the suburbs, 53 in the "City," and large suburban firms. This plumber trusts to his local connexion, and the information supplied by comrades, for his jobs. When out of work he applies to firms, and sometimes to likely householders. Other resources failing he tries to earn a trifle as a porter at auction rooms, or wherever he can get a job for the time. He is not deft at paper-hanging, and it took him 14 hours to hang 9 pieces at 6d. a piece, with his own paste (costing 2¾d.) His tools, worth about 5s., would cost 30s. to replace. He is often unable to do a job because his tools have been pawned. There is nothing else upon which he can raise a loan. The interest charged is ½d. in the is. for each month, and ½d. for the pawn-ticket.
    The wife is too delicate to do charing, or take in work. To oblige an unmarried brother "who is rather particular," she washes and mends his linen, but the 6d. a week which he sends in payment does not cover the expense of mangling and washing materials. She would like, she says, to do the work for nothing. She makes the children's stockings and all their garments, except the girl's dresses. She has a small sewing machine. But her main contribution to the economy of the family is her very skilful house-keeping, which circumvents poverty by the most ingenious expedients.
    The children are not old enough to earn money. The boy of eight is, however, sent to do the small errands. He is found to receive sympathetic attention when he has a farthing, or half-penny to lay out ; while his father or mother would often be told that orders of such small value could not be executed. When there is no definite measure for a "ha'porth" his parents think he " gets the benefit of the doubt." He is also useful about the house, and, for his mother's health, lights the fire before she gets up; but complaint is made that he burns more wood in the process than a grown person would do.
    The family has no credit, nor can it count upon the aid of relatives, except that at rare intervals it gets a cast garment, which the wife makes up. When they lost their baby, the man's brother, though actually out of work, "made" 30s. (i.e., by pledging) and lent it to them to pay the funeral expenses. And the wife's mother, now dead, took in the man and his children when they were homeless. Last Christmas they received a 4lb. joint of beef and ¼lb. of tea from a lady at the chapel, who observed that they "used the place regular." The pleasures of memory as to this feast are still very vivid. The wife was recently discovered by an old fellow-servant, whose mistress now gives the man an occasional job, and his wife a few odd things, surplus food, a remnant of linen and the like. But the family receives no visits and conceals its privations ; so that this spasmodic help does not always come at the best time.
    Their last lines of defence are (i.) to fall back upon cheaper and scantier food ; (ii.) to pawn. Neither resource will bear much strain.


Meals. — Breakfast 8.0 a.m. Tea, bread and margarine or fat bacon.
Dinner 12.45. Bread and margarine. Two or three days a week, meat and vegetables, or fish. On Sunday, when possible, suet pudding is added.
Tea 5 p.m. Tea, bread and margarine.

    There is never supper. The man takes a tin flask of tea with him in the morning, and warms it where he is working ; he carries his bread and butter. His dinner, bread and cheese, or bread and a rasher of bacon, at an eating house costs 2d. or 4d. When he is working within easy distance he comes home to dinner. He complains that the children are given food between meals when they sometimes cry for it out of mere whim, though at other times they suffer real hunger.
    The fat bacon, used instead of  butter," is melted in a frying- pan, and a slice of bread put into the pan to absorb the fat. The children are fond of this economic dish, which is nutritive and a change from " butter."
    The eldest boy is sent before 7 a.m. to a neighbouring baker's, to buy bread baked two days earlier, and sold at a very low price, five twopenny loaves for 2d. The baker's supply is, however, too small to be counted upon daily. Syrup is found to be cheaper than treacle because it is thinner and spreads further.
    The only commodity in which the wife thinks much loss is incurred through her want of means is coal. This is bought at 14lb. for 2d, though the price per ton is19s., and per cwt. 1s. 2d. Block fuel is bought in emergencies, but it provokes her cough and is no saving. Asked whether Indian tea at 1s. 10d. would not yield more cups than dust at 1s. 2d., she replies that she is fanciful about her cup of tea, and finds the Indian tea too rough. When times are good a tin of Swiss milk is bought (3½d.) This is ample for a whole week ; and on Sunday the children have suet pudding with Swiss milk spread upon it. Loaf sugar is never bought, the children would want pieces to eat.
    Dwelling, Furniture, and Clothing. — The house is situated near Loughboro' Junction in the S.E. of London, in a neighbourhood thickly peopled by the lower middle class, by artisans of small regular earnings, railway servants, etc. This family occupies the top or second floor. Its two rooms are well-lighted and ventilated. The front room, looking upon a street of considerable width, is the living room of the family and the bed-room of the parents. The boys sleep in the back room, the girl on a bed-chair in the large room. There is no attachment to a particular dwelling. They have removed seven times in all. Their furniture is too trifling to make this process expensive or dangerous. They are anxious to remain here because the rent 4s. a week, is 6d. lower than their last lodging, and they could not expect to find equally good rooms elsewhere at the same rent. They find that householders object to poor families with young children as tenants. Their last residence was an undertenancy of a workman, who, himself, got into arrears and was evicted. They were obliged by the superior landlord to leave at the same time. They have a good water supply and sanitary accommodation. Trains run very near the top of the house. The immediate vicinity is cheerless and depressing.
    The furniture and clothing are very scanty, but kept fairly (not perfectly) clean. The best room has a rough carpet, a few cheap prints, a chest of drawers, and a little American clock, which they have owned (if not possessed) ever since their marriage. Out of doors the man wears an overcoat, which is warm and conceals deficiency of other clothing. Indoors, or at work, the overcoat is removed, and reveals him in shirt sleeves. The bed- clothes, in like manner, are a thin counterpane, and little more.
    Recreation. — The man plays a little upon the flute, mainly to amuse the children, in whom he finds his chief pleasure. Sitting, coatless, before the fire of an evening a boy on one knee and a girl on the other, he sings or whistles, and, as he says, "as a game with 'em in my way." At 7.30 p.m. (having arisen at 7 a.m.) the children go to bed ; and the man goes to his brother's to have a game of dominoes. These visits are not returned. The brother,  " being a single man and a little better off, he thinks as my place ain't quite good enough for him." Expenses are scarcely ever incurred for recreation, but last Bank-holiday they all went for a country walk towards Dulwich, and hired a mail cart for the children, three hours at 1d. an hour. The man himself has never been into a Museum, although born in London. He is sensitive to the feeling that, in any public building, he or his children might be looked down upon as having "no right to be there " because they are not smartly dressed. Neither he nor his wife has been to a theatre or entertainment since marriage. "We have pantomine enough at home," they say. The children play with each other, and with the neighbour's children in the street. They have never been on a steamboat, taken part in an excursion, nor visited any place of special interest.


    (a) When London workmen are spoken to on the unwisdom of marrying before due provision is made to avoid distress, they not unusually reply that they are led into precipitate marriage owing to the discomfort and swindling experienced in lodgings. It is worthy of consideration whether the economies of community might not be utilized to combine for unmarried workmen some of the comforts of a well managed home with some of the advantages of club life. Compare what is (with special advantages, no doubt) done at the Students' Residences at Wadham House, and Balliol House, close by Toynbee Hall, for the class from which junior clerks are drawn.
    (b) The superstitious extravagance of the poor in funeral expenses is well known. One of the attractions of the Salvation Army is said to be the quasi-military funeral promised to those who enlist. A brother of this plumber's wife quarrelled with his mother and went to Australia, where he succeeded well. Learning of his mother's illness, he sent home £50 to a comrade, to be applied only to funeral expenses in case of death, and refusing personal correspondence. £16 of the £30 was laid out in the event.
    (c) On the abolition of school fees the family ceased to trouble to send early to the baker's for cheap stale bread. See further details of this family in the Royal Statistical Society's Journal, June, 1893, page 284.


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