Family in Bethnal Green, 1900
“No man is an island”
This is a fairly long post as I have a correlation between debt and poverty at the end that I am trying to back up with evidence, so grab a cuppa and get comfy.
I propose in my book that we need a deeper and more critical look at how society and culture have a subconscious effect on how we feel in an ever-increasing consumer society, and that examining this is vital if we are going to tackle the underlying causes of our debt problems. One of those aspects that I briefly discuss in the book is how the memory of abject poverty in Britain is diminishing and I’ll explore that here in more detail, and how it relates to the growing debt problem in Britain.
I’d like to be clear, I am not dismissive of current poverty in Britain; it certainly does exist and there is also an unacceptable level of homelessness, and it is a miserable state to be trapped in poverty. There is a distinction though between poverty and destitution. Destitution is poverty where you have absolutely nothing to fall back on, and there was a time where there was no state help and when I was younger I heard first-hand accounts of this time.
Most of us haven’t experienced a time when there wasn’t a safety net
The system of National Insurance was introduced in Britain in 1911, providing free medical treatment and 26 weeks’ sick pay. Prior to that, old age pensions were introduced in 1908 for the over 70s and Labour Exchanges were set up in 1909 to help the unemployed to find work. It wasn’t until after the Second World War that National Insurance would also provide unemployment benefit.
Prior to these welfare benefits the main option for the destitute was the workhouse, though charitable institutions sometimes helped people in desperate situations. This was still the moralistic age where the ‘deserving poor’ were helped however and if there was any hint of perceived idleness or immorality apparent to the charity, help could be refused.
What I learnt from my grandma
My gran, born in 1901, was one of 10 children in a poor household living in a small 3 bed terraced house. Her mother also took in and raised a local child who had been orphaned so that the child wouldn’t have to go into the workhouse or some other institution. My great-grandfather was a factory worker, so he didn’t earn a huge wage and his wife would also do anything possible to bring in money and to feed the family on a tight budget, as well as having a football team of children to raise. Although my great-grandmother was illiterate, she was a proficient midwife and well-known for this in the area, having learnt midwifery from her mother. She would also lay out the dead for burial, another skill learnt from her family; the local area was poor and its people were not able to afford the fees of a doctor or a hospital to deliver a baby or an undertaker to prepare the dead for burial. My great-grandmother’s modest fees were affordable.
The children would also bring in money in various ways from a young age by doing odd jobs such as deliveries and their earnings were handed straight to their parents. They were handed back a farthing, ha’penny or a penny occasionally for treats such as sweets. Everyone, young and old, pulled together to bring in money and it was spent sparingly, and the reason for this was the horror and stigma of the workhouse.
Lambeth Workhouse, men’s dining room
I heard from my gran just how terrified people were of the workhouse; it was the ultimate shame for the poor, but the choice was the workhouse or starve. In my gran’s youth, the workhouse had become a more benevolent institution than it had been in the past as compassion for the poor was increasing. It had also become mainly a place to house the elderly, orphans and people with physical and mental disabilities who had no-one to look after them. In an appallingly insensitive move, the city’s workhouse building later became a geriatric hospital and the elderly hated being admitted there; in their minds, they were ‘going in the workhouse’ and my poor great-grandma spent her last days in that hospital too. On the other branch of my family I discovered that my great-great-grandfather had died in his old age in a workhouse. This came as a complete surprise to the older members of my family; it had never been discussed, such was the shame and stigma attached to it.
Many people today look upon the thought of themselves claiming state benefits with horror and shame, but I don’t think that the depth of the stigma is anywhere near as intense as the fear of the workhouse over 100 years ago. At least if you claim benefits you can lead a fairly normal life, albeit on a very low income, and make your own decisions. You don’t have to move into a regimented institution where you have to wear a uniform, eat the most basic food, perform monotonous work, live by a strict timetable and be segregated by gender. Sounds like a prison, doesn’t it?
Britain at war
People in Britain went through the Second World War with some hardships such as rationing of food, petrol and clothing, also people living in cities would be at risk of bombing at night. My parents told me about uncomfortable, damp and dark nights spent in their air raid shelters in the back garden, sometimes spending several hours in there until the all-clear sirens sounded.
The nation pulled together and most did their bit to keep a semblance of normal life. Flower beds and lawns were turned over to grow vegetables and there was a ‘make do and mend’ attitude to clothing and other essentials. Britain also benefited from imports from countries such as the USA and Canada that included food imports, which came at a high cost; 2,825 merchant ships were sunk by U-Boats. For those who managed to escape the worst of the bombing they were adequately fed and clothed and it is said that the reduced diet made the health of the nation the best it has ever been, but the situation across the Channel was much worse.
A case study of Italy – abject poverty through war
Families left homeless on the street after the bombing of Milan
I’ve chosen Italy as it’s a country that I know well, I used to visit friends there in the early 1980s and I’ve also had the chance to visit a few times again to see friends more recently. I heard about people’s wartime experiences during my earlier visits and also I am grateful to my dear friend Paola Laghi for sharing her parents’ reminiscences.
Rural areas in Italy were already very poor before the war, which is the main reason why there was much emigration not only to the United States but also to many countries worldwide. In the later years of the war, hardship increased considerably and food was scarce; cities and towns were frequently bombed as the Allied forces attempted to defeat the Axis forces. I once visited a family in a rural town and we ate roast chestnuts one evening. The lady of the house told me that roast chestnuts reminded her of the war, as there were often times when she would get home from school and that was all there was to eat and nothing else – chestnuts that had been gathered from the local woods. The winter of 1944 was particularly severe and the people struggled to survive with a lack of food and fuel; 1944 also saw natural disasters such as the explosion of Mount Vesuvius and earthquakes.
Many Italian men and women fought back bravely against the Fascists, even though the death penalty existed not only for being a partisan but also for anyone found to be helping or giving refuge to partisans, and also for aiding escaped Allied prisoners of war.
Italian partisans in the winter of 1944
Paola’s family lived in the region of Emilia-Romagna in an area that suffered from bombing attacks and her aunt died from gangrene after she lost a leg in a bombing raid. The family lived in a 2-roomed house and the children shared single beds, though Paola’s mum and her sister eventually went to stay with family friends near Lake Como in the north for safety. Towards the end of the war and in the aftermath many people had little money and they managed to survive by bartering goods and services. Paola’s grandmother was an excellent seamstress and obtained food and other necessities by paying with clothes that she had made. After the war, Paola’s parents married in 1950 and lived in an old, tiny house and the door had a wide gap at the bottom that the landlord refused to fix, so they had to stuff a sack in the gap to keep out the worst of the winter weather. I’ve experienced Italian winters, it’s not always hot and sunny as some believe and its winters can be very severe. Her mother had to work even when she had her first child, who would play in a back room whilst she worked.
Paola’s parents managed to find work in England as a driver/handyman and housekeeper/cook; at that time it was fashionable amongst the well-to-do to employ an Italian cook. They were struck by the relative prosperity of England, even though rationing still continued and to Britons it was a time of hardship – but to Paola’s parents, it was paradise. By the time they emigrated they had a child but they were not allowed to bring him with them, and it would be five years before they were permanently reunited as a family; such was the sacrifice they made in order to get themselves financially secure. Paola says that when talking about these years her mother would say ‘”non saprete mai quanto siete fortunate” (you’ll never know how lucky you are).
How this relates to personal debt problems
On one of my early visits to Italy in the 1980s, I met a young engaged couple and they talked about getting a home, but they hadn’t saved up enough yet. I asked if mortgages were easy to obtain, and they were horrified! They said that you should never, ever borrow money, not even to buy a house and I later found out that this was a common sentiment. This was at a time when Britain’s credit boom was taking off and personal debt in Britain would see an ever-increasing rise every year to staggering levels.
Sadly, this is changing. Whilst many Italians still prefer the use of cash and are often very prudent with their money, card use and borrowing are increasing and consumerism is on the rise. Credit card companies are targeting countries such as Italy that have low card use with a blitz of advertising. Gone are the days when you would see many battered old Fiats on the road; you still see some around, but there is a predominant desire for a brand new car. Italy is starting to feel like Britain in the 1980s in this respect.
There appears to be a statistical correlation of personal debt and abject poverty within living memory. Of the EU countries with the biggest levels of personal debt, six of the top ten were largely unaffected by occupation, widespread destruction of property and extreme poverty during the war. Britain is the 7th most indebted and Italy is at number 16. It’s interesting to see that many of the countries with the least personal debt are in eastern Europe, an area that suffered great deprivation and destruction in the war.
Maybe that’s why our debt problem is such a huge problem in Britain – we no longer have a paralysing fear of destitution. It could be that it is in our mindset that even if we don’t have a home or a job, the state will help us out and there is no danger of starvation. Nevertheless, reduced circumstances lead to a miserable life so it is a worthy education to learn about the prudence of our ancestors and how they coped with a level of poverty that is unimaginable to us today.
PLA Collection/Museum of London