July 15, 2020

In 1909, Maud Pember Reeves, a bank manager’s daughter with a big house in Kensington, came up with a plan to make British poverty less lethal. She would cross the river, enter the houses of the poor in Lambeth, and preach — in her words — the gospel of porridge.

Reeves was an energetic and successful socialist campaigner. In New Zealand, she’d helped secure votes for women. In London, where she moved in 1896, she founded the Fabian Women’s Group in her front room in Brunswick Gardens and, appalled by the disparities in child mortality rates across the city, decided to investigate. She and her fellow Fabian Dr Ethel Bentham recruited a cohort of 42 mothers and encouraged them to keep records of their domestic expenditure, with a particular emphasis on diet. Some were not literate, but their children were. Their spelling was often touchingly hard to decipher. Reeves scratched her head at references to items such as “dryaddick”, “sewuitt” and “currince”.1

Reeves and her Fabian comrades wanted to answer questions that attended the discussion of poverty in the Edwardian age, and are still asked today. Why did the working poor spend so much on the wrong things? (Lavish funerals, it seems, were the Sky boxes of 1909.) Why did they eat unhealthy food? Why, for instance, did they have bread and margarine for breakfast when a nice bowl of porridge was cheaper and more nutritious? “The women of Lambeth listened patiently,” wrote Reeves, “according to their way, agreed to all that was said, and did not begin to feed their families on porridge.”

Over a century later, the preaching goes on. At the end of last month, the staff at my local food bank used Twitter to issue a statement about confectionery:

The announcement provoked an indignant report in the Lewisham News Shopper and a convulsion of disgust on Twitter — which was quickly converted into pledges of Milkybars and Curly Wurlys.

Human emotions are historically contingent. Nobody today is plagued by acedia, the form of religious despair felt by fourth-century Christian desert hermits between 11am and 4pm. Others are culturally specific. Only the Ilongot group of the Philippines feel liget, an angry enthusiasm that pushes them to great feats of activity – sometimes agricultural, sometimes murderous. So what’s the nature of the concern felt by those donors who complained about the presence of chocolate in the parcels sent out by the Lewisham food bank?

It’s a powerful emotion, clearly. Powerful enough to move several people to share it with a group of volunteers distributing domestic food aid during a pandemic. (The food bank informed me that objections had been received in private messages, some sent via a local councillor.) But how could we describe its qualities?

Is it a relation, perhaps, of the feeling described by Edwina Currie when she spoke in 2014 of being “very, very troubled at the number of people who are using food banks who … never learn to cook, they never learn to manage and the moment they’ve got a bit of spare cash they’re off getting another tattoo”? Or perhaps it’s closer to the melancholia expressed by Vicky Ford, the children’s minister, who last week declared herself “Saddened to hear of incidents of some parents using free school meals vouchers for alcohol & non food products despite clear restrictions.” Her sadness was so profound that it seems to have rendered her incapable of confirming whether these were anything more than rumours she heard down the newly-reopened pub.

The minister should probably cheer up. The meal voucher scheme is for food. It would be as easy to buy a bottle of gin with a book token. However, as it is funded and administered by the taxpayer, she is entitled to ask questions about it, no matter how tangential.

The food bank system is different. It takes no money from the state. It is a voluntary enterprise that depends on donations from local people. Donors are not obliged to supply foodstuffs to which they may have a moral or a medical objection. Most people, I suspect, would judge that a food bank package contains little that would imperil anyone’s commitment to a life of monotonous frugality. But if anyone does believe that tinned tomatoes are a gateway to sybaritism, they can simply decline to supply them.

Food bank packages are not like those that middle-class people give each other when they are enduring misery and distress, with their M&S ready meals, bars of Green and Black’s and nice bottle of Beaujolais. (Though I find it hard to formulate any strong objection to a food bank distributing these items, were any donors generous enough to supply them.) And yet the complaints come — and are so strong and numerous that the Trussell Trust issues instructions to its volunteers on how to reply. Hopefully they can use this advice to assuage the pain that threshes the hearts of those who think the poor are not doing poverty correctly.

George Orwell puzzled over these impulses in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), his classic account of working-class life in industrial Lancashire and Yorkshire. He was reflecting on the sorry history of the Means Test, a much-hated government policy that sent inspectors into the homes of British people to inspect their food cupboards and make suggestions about what valuables they should sell before being confirmed poor enough to receive unemployment relief.

When the test was introduced in 1931, the letters pages of the British press buzzed with debate about how to set the value of this benefit — or, as Orwell put it, “a disgusting public wrangle about the minimum weekly sum on which a human being could keep alive.” One correspondent to the New Statesman sent in his idea of a weekly budget for a single unemployed man — four shillings a week, to be spent on bread, margarine, dripping, cheese, carrots, onions, broken biscuits, dried fruit, oranges and a tin of evaporated milk. (Fuel was not included, as this was all to be consumed raw.)

Orwell suspected that the letter was a hoax. He reasoned, however, that even if its recommendations made nutritional sense, few would follow them. “A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t,” he argued. “When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull and wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’”.

The point of chocolate is its smooth consoling sweetness; the way it snaps and crumbles and melts against the roof of your mouth. Why deny that pleasure to food bank clients? You might argue that chocolate is bad for you and people should not eat it. You might argue that the receipt of charity should be conditional on the renunciation of pleasure, and that chocolate mars the purity of the contract between the donor and the recipient. But you might also just mind your own damn business.

George Orwell didn’t much like the Fabians. The Road to Wigan Pier reserves some of its most venomous comments for them. Orwell dismissed the society’s leading light, Beatrice Webb, as a “high-minded socialist slum visitor” who, like others of her type, understood revolution as “a set of reforms which ‘we’, the clever ones, are going to impose upon ‘them’, the Lower Orders”.

But he would have had no grounds on which to lecture Maud Pember Reeves. The book in which she published her research, Round About a Pound a Week (1913), is the story of how its author renounced the gospel of porridge. She did so because she listened to the women whose experiences she recorded. They told her that porridge required long cooking and that gas was expensive; that porridge burned easily, and demanded attention when they were busy getting their children up and dressed; that it picked up the flavour of last night’s dinner from the household’s only pan. Moreover, without milk or sugar, children simply didn’t like porridge. (“They ’eaved at it,” one mother reported.)

As for the surprisingly lavish funerals, Reeves also got to the bottom of that mystery. Most working-class parents, she discovered, bought funeral insurance at a penny a week for every child as it was born. She inquired among the undertakers of London and discovered that it cost 18 shillings to bury a baby and 20 shillings for an older child. Cemetery charges could push the final figure to 30s. A family obliged to cover that expense in one week would be forced to ration its food to almost nothing — which risked the possibility of more sickness and death.

Reeves had never experienced poverty, but she was acquainted with grief. Her son, William, had died in infancy in New Zealand. (Another, Fabian, was killed on duty with the Royal Naval Air Service in 1917.) She knew there were some calculations that only the poor understood.

The legacy of Fabianism is ambivalent. It was a formative influence on the welfare state. It also had an authoritarian streak. Some of its adherents wanted to sterilise the poor. That’s not an argument you hear much these days — though in 2012, Ben Bradley, MP for Mansfield, wrote a blog post suggesting that unemployed men should have vasectomies in order to prevent Britain “drowning in a vast sea of unemployed wasters”. Mr Bradley is another figure worried by the summer holiday extension to the school meal voucher system. “I have,” he told Parliament on 16 June, “one concern …” Thankfully, the education secretary was able to clear it up pretty briskly. No, you cannot use lunch tokens to buy fags, booze or scratchcards.

This week it emerged that in the first six months of 2020, 2,500 children were hospitalised with symptoms of malnutrition — double the rate for the same period last year. The figure was calculated from data extracted from NHS trusts by a Freedom of Information request. As only two thirds of those trusts responded, the total is probably much higher.

I hope some Parliamentary questions will be asked about this grim statistic. It seems kind of urgent. Did these children end up in hospital because they ate too much chocolate? Or is there, perhaps, some other explanation? We should know the truth, however sad it makes us, however bitter the taste.

  1. Dried haddock, suet and currants, in case you were wondering.