1930s ‘Working-class wives’ on ‘slums’ and council estate life: conditions, diet, and expenditure

In examining local history sources over at Dec20, I came across this source which contains some useful comments on poverty and ‘slum’ housing in 1930s Derby. I’m reposting the Dec20 article here, to reach those with a broader interest in early 20th century domestic life. It contains references to household income and budgets, and diets, as well as housing conditions  employment and gender in the 1930s  


Margery Spring Rice, niece of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Millicent Garrett Fawcett, wrote Working-class wives. Their Health and Conditions in 1936 (published 1939). This records the findings of a ‘survey of the conditions of 1,250 married working women, based on information collected by the Women’s Health Enquiry Committee’.[i] This committee, founded in 1933, consisting of ‘representatives from certain women’s organisations and on an entirely non-political basis’, was formed ‘to investigate the general conditions of health among women, especially among married working-women, in view of indications that ill-health was both more widespread and more serious than was generally known.’ Investigation was ‘as far as practicable’ to determine:

1.      The incidence and nature of general ill-health among working-women.

2.      Its possible causes, such as lack of medical treatment, poverty, bad housing, over-work.

3.      How far women observe the ordinary rules of health and hygiene, and the extent to which a certain amount of ill-health is accepted as inevitable.

Thirty-nine Derby families submitted information and comments to the survey (in response to a pro forma questionnaire), a sample of which is contained withinWorking-class wives, providing insight into the effects and experiences of housing conditions within working-class homes during the mid 1930s; this is reproduced below (alongside the account of one woman from a nearby village or town). The text has been copied verbatim, retaining original spelling and grammatical errors.


‘An elderly woman in Derby suffers from bad neuralgia, for which the doctor advised the extraction of all her teeth ; the remedy she takes in strong tea ! She has bad rheumatism for which she merely rubs herself ; mental depression for which she says there is no remedy ; and headaches which she caused by bad eyesight for which she wears spectacles from Woolworth’s because the Doctor advised spectacles. She had had nine children of whom only one is living, and two miscarriages. She lives alone with her husband,- an unemployed labourer, complains that her house is extremely inconvenient, and that her work is too hard for her. But she has money enough for a fair diet, and frequent visits to the pictures and the public house.’

Not from Derby, but from somewhere relatively near-by: ‘Of an unhappy elderly woman outside Derby, the visitor writes “This woman is very miserable ; she has no leisure occupation and cannot read or write. She cannot go out much as her leg is too bad ; she only goes to the shops once a week when well enough”. She suffers from nerves, headaches (due to worry of husband’s unemployment,) – general debility and shortness of breath, and a very bad ulcerated leg. “Her leg has been bad for over twenty years ; for two years she went three times a week to the Infirmary for treatment (10 miles distant) but had to stop two years ago owing to husband’s unemployment ; she said the lotion obtained at the Infirmary did much to ease the intolerable pain, but she cannot now afford the fares (1/-) or the lotion. “The ulcers have now burst.” She has eight children ; only one, a son of 23 now lives at home. “He’s a brass-glazer and a big man, requiring adequate food. He gets it,- the old people do not.”’

‘Mrs T. Of Derby, whose housing conditions are described [in the following extracts]… “sits down for feeding the baby, but takes her own meals standing. She is in poor health, having had bad kidney trouble with the first and third babies … Her surroundings are squalid, and there is no water or sink in the house … She has never been to a talkie”. (Extract from visitor’s report.)’

‘As examples of bad sanitation we may quote a woman in Derby who lives in a house in a slum court entered through an archway in a slum street. The visitor says “She has no facilities for cleanliness at all. The surroundings are squalid, the houses jammed close together and the court very narrow, and festooned with unsavoury articles of clothing. At the end of the court is the row of tub lavatories shared with the other cottages. The Corporation clears the tubs twice a week. She gets water from a tap at the end of the yard.” …The woman is 24, she has three children under five…’

‘And now for the vermin. The wife of an unemployed labourer in Derby lives in a cottage where “The bugs which are present and breed in the rotting woodwork cause endless extra work in an endeavour to be clean. It has been necessary to sit up at night to keep the bugs off the small baby [original emphasis]. The Corporation is said to have refused to fumigate the place at present. The job has to wait until the end of the slum clearance scheme.” (Investigator’s Report.) The woman has poor health. She is “languid and weary …husband has had two months work in 3 years. Difficulties connected with lack of money and a house infested with bugs.” She has about two hours, leisure (three children). “Sit down no energy for walks no money for pictures.”’

‘Mrs. V. lives in a slum street of small houses in Derby. She is 40, and has three children, two girls and a boy; her husband is a Railway Porter. Her housekeeping is £1 19s. 0d., which she budgets for the week in the following way [all duplications are as in the original; the data has been tabulated for the purpose of this post]:

Item amount pounds shillings pence
Rent 11 0
Coal 2 bags 2 10
Death Insurance 9
Gas 1
Sugar 4 lb 9
Tea ½ lb 9
Matches 3 boxes 3
Milk Tin 7 1/2
Rice 1 lb 4
Lard 1 lb
Butter 1 lb 9
Flour 7
Bacon 9
Ambrosia 1 0
Potatoes 4 lb 4
Butter beans 2
Cake 6
Fish for cooking 6
Bread 2 0
Meat 1 6
Potatoes 8 lbs 6
Greens 3
Prunes 6
Custard powder 1 ½
Suet 2
Milk for week 1 6 ½
Papers 6
Soap 5
Wash power 3 ½
Blue 1
Starch 1
Golden syrup 9 ½
Cooking Apples 2
Suet 2
Bacon 9
Biscuits 6
Gas 3
Cheese 3
Cake 6
Cocoa 5 ½
Oxo 6
Stewing Meat 6
Peas 2
Box savings for stockings or Doctor 2 3 ½
Total £1 18           10

N.B. Potatoes are here given twice making 12 lbs. In all which is a reasonable amount. 

Her own diet for a week is given as:-


Breakfast:      2 slices of toasts and dripping, 2 cups of tea

Dinner:          Half a small rice pudding and mug of lentil soup

Tea:                2 slices of bread and butter, 1 boiled egg, 2 cups of tea

Supper:          1 slice of bread and cheese, ½ pint pot of Ambrosia


Breakfast:      2 slices of bread and poached egg, 2 cups of tea

Dinner:          Roast beef, 2 spoonful of butter beans, 2 spoonful potatoes, boiled rubarb pudding, small helping

Tea:                2 cups of tea, 2 slices of brown and 1 white bread,

                     6 prunes with custard

Supper:          Bread and Butter (½ slice) ½ pint Ambrosia


Breakfast:      2 slices of Bread and dripping, 2 cups of tea

Dinner:          Small piece of beef, 2 tablespoons of potatoes, piece

                     of Yorkshire Pudding, 1 Baked Apple

Tea:               2 cups of tea, 2½ slices of bread and jam

Supper:          ½ pint of Ambrosia


Breakfast:      2 cups of tea, 2½ slices of bread and butter and golden


Dinner:          Stewing meat, 2 spoons of mashed potatoes, cabbage

                     1 spoonful boiled suet pudding

Tea:               2 cups of tea, 2 slices of bread and butter, boiled egg

Supper:          ½ slice of bread and cheese, ½ pint of Ambrosia


Breakfast:      2 cupfull of tea, 2 slices of bread and golden syrup,

1 banana

Dinner:          Boiled fish, 2 spoons of mashed potatoes, cheese pudding

Tea:              Bread and Butter, 2 slices, 2 pieces plain cake, 2 cups

of tea

Supper:          ½ pint Ambrosia, 3 biscuits


Breakfast:      Toast and dripping, 2 slices, 2 cups of tea

Dinner:          Mashed potatoes 2 spoonsful cabbage 1 spoon boiled

suet pudding with jam

Tea:                Bread and butter, 2 slices, 1 boiled egg

Supper:          ½ pint Ambrosia, 3 biscuits


Breakfast:      3 slices of bread and butter 2 cups of tea

Dinner:          Piece of fish baked, mashed potatoes 2 spoonsful,

4 tablespoons of rice pudding.

Tea:               Bread and Butter 3 slices 1 piece of cake 2 cups of tea

Supper:          ½ pint pot of Ambrosia

The house is very bad. It has not bath, the boiler is broken and the Landlord refuses to mend it: there were bad floods in 1932, and several feet of water in the house, since when it has always been damp ; the W.C. is 25 yards from the house ; there is a rag and bone shop in the yard next door, and this gives out unpleasant smells ; the house is hemmed in by factories. Mrs. V. says she was quite well till seven months ago, when her husband had a serious illness. She was then six months pregnant, but in order to eke out the income she went out to work a little, and had to nurse her husband in the house which made the work very hard. Since then she has been feeling very ill, and has great difficulty in nursing the baby who is now four months old. The Health Visitor says she’s a sensible woman, and the husband is very good to her, and being himself a trained ambulance man, he is very useful in illness.’

‘Mrs. D. of Derby is 35 years old and has five children (all boys) and lives in a small Corporation house. Her husband is an unemployed labourer and her housekeeping is £2 1s. 0d. of which she gives the following particulars of expenditure: – 

Item amount pounds shillings pence
Rent 12 6
Gas and Electric Light (6d. each) 1 0
Clothing Club 3 0
Boot Club 1 0
Coal 2 cwt. 3 0
Milk 2 9 ½
Bread 3 3 ½
Insurance 1 6
Margarine 2 lbs@ 4d. 0 8
Butter ½ lb @ 1/- 0 6
Sugar 6 lbs 1 3
Tea ½ lb 0 9
Cocoa ¼ lb 0 4
Lard ½ lb 0 3
Cheese ½ lb 0 3
Eggs 1 doz. 1 6
Bacon 1 lb 0 11
Self-raising flour 1 bag 0 5
Loose peas 1 lb 0 4
Matches 2 boxes 0 2
Soap 1 lb 0 5
Wash powder 1 packet 0 2
Starch 1 packet 0 1
Soda 1 lb 0 1
Salt 1 packet 0 1
Cooked ham ¼lb @ 1/10 0 5 ½
Old potatoes 0 6
New potatoes 1 lb 0 3
Onions 1 lb 0 2
Radishes, spring onions, lettuce 0 6
Cauliflower 0 2
Oranges 0 3
Meat (beef) Pieces @ 1/3 1 3
Mutton Breast @ 8d. 0 4
Corn beef ½ lb 0 3
Pieces of Codfish 0 5 ½
Sweets for kiddies 0 2
Total 2 1 0

Mrs. D. also gives her complete weekly diet:-


Breakfast:      2 slices of bread, two pieces of bacon, two cups of tea

Dinner:          ½ pint of water, 3 potatoes, two tablespoons of peas,

small bit of beef small portion of rice pudding

Tea:                2 slices of bread and butter, an egg, two cups of tea,

piece of cake

Supper:          1 Cup of cocoa


Breakfast:      2 cups of tea, slice of toast and butter

Dinner:          2 tablespoons of potatoes, stewed meat and gravy,

½ pint of water

Tea:                2 slices of bread and butter and jam, 2 cups of tea,

1 piece of cake

Supper:          1 cup of cocoa


Breakfast:      2 cups of tea, 2 slices of brown bread and butter

Dinner:          3 potatoes, 1 tablespoon of cauliflower and stewed mutton, stewed rhubarb and custard

Tea:                2 slices of bread and butter and radishes, 1 piece of cake and 2 cups of tea

Supper:          1 cup of cocoa and a slice of bread and dripping


Breakfast:      Two cups of tea, slice and a half of bread and dripping

Dinner:          3 new potatoes, 2 tablespoon of peas and sausage,

½ pint of water

Tea:                2 cups of tea, 2 slices of bread and butter, one tomato

and one piece of cake

Supper:          1 cup of cocoa and a slice of bread and dripping


Breakfast:      2 cups of tea, slice of bacon and slice of bread

Dinner:          1 new laid egg and chipped potatoes, 1 slice of bread,

½ pint of water, 1 cup of cocoa at 11 o’clock

Boiled fish, 2 spoons of mashed cheese pudding

Tea:                2 cups of tea, 2 slices of bread and butter and lettuce,

and 2 small cakes, 1 orange at 3 o’clock

Supper:          1 cup of cocoa


Breakfast:      2 cups of tea, 1½ slices bread and butter and jam

Dinner:          2 slices of bread, 1 slice of bacon, 2 tablespoonsful of tomatoes and ½ pint of water

Tea:                2 slices of bread and butter and 1 boiled egg, two

cups of tea

Supper:          1 cup of cocoa


Breakfast:      2 cups of tea, 1 slice of bread and jam

Dinner:          2 slices of bread and corn beef, ½ pint of water

Tea:                2 slices of bread and butter and radishes and onions,

2 cups of tea

Supper:          1 cup of cocoa

It should be particularly noticed here that there is only 2 llbs of margarine and ½ lb of butter a week for 2 adults and 4 children (aged from 9-4 ; – there is also a baby of 3 months whom Mrs. D. is nursing.) There are only 1 doz. eggs and yet she says she eats 3 a week herself ; and only 3d. worth of oranges,-the only fruit.’

‘Mrs. A. of Derby is 25 years old and has four children, a girl of 6 years, three boys of 4, 3, and 1, and is pregnant. She lives in a four-roomed cottage in a slum court which is due to be demolished in slum-clearance scheme. There is no gas or copper, only oil lamps for lights and the water has to be fetched from 40 yards away in the yard. There is no W.C. only a tub lavatory which the family have to share with others. Her husband is an unemployed labourer and the total income is 35/-.[ii] This is divided into the following regular payments:-     

Item amount pounds shillings pence
Rent     5 0
Clothing Club     2 0
Pot Club     1 0
Coal     2 8
Pram and Furniture     1 6
Insurance     1 0
Tobacco for husband     1 0
Total   2 1 0

Leaving £1/0/10 for food, cleaning materials, and extras.

Mrs. A’s. own meals are given as:-

Breakfast:     Cup of tea, porridge and milk, 1 slice of bread and butter

Dinner:          New potatoes and bacon, cup of tea

Tea:              Boiled egg, 2 slices of bread and butter, 2 cups of tea,


Supper:         Bread and cheese, 1 cup of cocoa, 2 spoonfuls of

                    condensed milk


As can be seen, the diet for each family is in many ways similar, although there are also evident differences between each household; similarities are also found when comparing the Derby households with those in other industrial towns. To put the costs into perspective, a contemporary investigation into conditions within London records some of the incomes from which ‘housekeeping’ money derived. An out of work (redundant) coal man received the following ‘dole’: ‘17s. for himself, 9s. for his wife, and 2s. for each child’ (in his case) ‘a grand total of 36s.’ – nearly the same as ‘Mrs. A.’ of Derby.[iii] The weekly wages of a (male) shop assistant was £2, and of a labourer ‘lucky enough to be permanently employed’ (economic decline had reduced many industries to half-time work – and pay) 35s.; a night-watchman received 30s. a week, his wife 15s. for a ‘daily job’ (probably domestic service, possibly ‘charring’; a female factory worker was paid 27s. each week, and ‘attendant at a local cinema’ (perhaps ‘usherette’) received 18s..[iv] These wages have been confirmed as typical within Derby at this time.[v] To put ‘Mrs. D’s’ household finances into context, 10 years earlier (in 1926), Birmingham tenants had to earn a minimum of £3 10s. each week in order to pay the typically high council house rents (£4 a week in order to rent a ‘parlour house’); the dole (the only income of the family at the time of the survey, and which would have been time-limited) obviously fell well below this level.[vi]

Due to the anonymity granted to the participants, it isn’t possible to be certain of the location of these household from this text. However, considering the reference to imminent slum clearance, it is possible that ‘Mrs. T.’ and ‘Mrs. A.’ both lived on the edge of Derby’s ‘West End’, as demolition of housing within this area – part of the scheme municipal ‘slum-clearance’ that had begun in the late 19th century – is recorded around this time.[vii] 

‘Mrs. D.’ inhabited a ‘small Corporation house’; many of the suburban council housing estates in Derby were constructed during and after the 1950s, although the 1920s saw the development of housing in the Victory Road area, and the 30s further housing around the outer ring road. Considering mention of the floods, ‘Mrs. V.’ perhaps lived close to Markeaton Brook, and perhaps near to the Railway; Friargate area is therefore possible. Streets affected by the floods in this area are noted here (the blanked-out text is Ponsonby Terrace; this street should probably be discounted, as family history records that these houses were kept in relatively good condition).

As the content of data has made for an already long post, discussion on the significance of this and similar surveys, and the attitudes towards poverty that they embody, must be relegated to a future post.[viii] Suffice it to say at this point, Working-class wives confirms what social memories make clear: that many households in Derby experienced conditions as harsh as those witnessed in other towns. It is often stated that Derby was relatively prosperous during the Depression, due to the wide range of industries providing sufficient employment. This may indeed be so, but to some extent this undermines the experiences of those who did experience poverty; there was not only significant unemployment, but also the common experiences of underemployment and poor pay. It remains a useful source of information on how women of the day not only managed the household budget in very difficult circumstances, but also endured extreme hardship for the sake of their families.


[i] Background on Working-class wives. Their Health and Conditions can be found in Davey Smith et al. 2001: 215-24

[ii] Sanitary facilities will be discussed in a subsequent post; for further information, see Bell 1999.

[iii] Chesterton 1936: 33, 80

[iv] Ibid. 82-3, 103, 114, 212

[v] See Goodhead 1983: 15

[vi] In 1931, unemployment benefits were restricted to 26 weeks, and limited to only certain industries Laybourn 2009: 381-82; Upton 2010: 146

[vii] Images of West End buildings under demolition in 1937 can be seen here; see also Palmer 1997

[viii] This will probably be posted on the associated website, which considers broader issues of poverty, inequality, and class distinction; if so, a link will be posted


Bell, David 1999 Nottinghamshire Privies. A Nostaligic Trip Down the Garden Path

Chesterton, Mrs. Cecil 1936 I Lived in a Slum

Davey Smith, George, Shaw, Mary (eds.) 2001 Poverty, Inequality and Health in Britain, 1800-2000: A Reader

Goodhead, Elsie Elizabeth 1983 The West End Story. Derby During the Depression. A Social and Personal History

Laybourn, Keith 2009 ‘Social Welfare’, Chris Wrigley (ed.) Companion to Early Twentieth Century Britain, pp. 373-87

Palmer, Derek 1997 The Demolition of Derby

Upton, Chris 2010 Living Back-to-Back



5 thoughts on “1930s ‘Working-class wives’ on ‘slums’ and council estate life: conditions, diet, and expenditure

  1. April Clark

    Much research has gone into this article. Life today, no matter what the income, large or small, can never be as harsh as it was back in the early years of 1900’s. I remember my mother had to “make do and mend” and produce a meal of of a frugal grocery list. We did have a bathroom, 3 bedrooms and two downstairs rooms, plus the kitchen, but it was a struggle as there was always the rent to pay first. How women managed with next to no income, beggars belief and hard to comprehend


    1. Underworld Archaeology Post author

      Thanks, April
      I’ve not really done much of my own research for this – it’s mainly excerpts from the Working-Class Wives book, with comments on Derby pulled out for a local Heritage project (http://dec20.wordpress.com/). The book has similar information on other towns – if there’s a town that you’d be interested in, I could have a quick skim through to see if it’s mentioned?

      Yes, it was certainly tough back then: if you’d like to share any more family memories about domestic life in the past, that’d be great.

      I’m really interested in hearing recollections from anyone, particularly about things like daily household routines, descriptions of décor, furniture, crockery, diet, etc. – such info. can really enhance understanding of the historical evidence found in other ways (for example, the Dec20 link above shows some of the things I’ve found so far through archaeological research into a late Victorian terrace, and early 20th century life in one house). One of the functions of this blog is to record such ‘small things forgotten’

      Thanks again!


  2. Pingback: ‘Secret Histories’ of London’s Streets in the 1930s: Voices from the Notting Dale ‘slums’ « Underworld Archaeology

  3. Pingback: PSP on the paper trail – the journey so far: 19th – early 20th century Domestic Violence | Past Sense

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