Where poverty won't go away

Poverty and Lambeth have gone hand in hand for years, and the women have borne the brunt. But help may finally be on the way
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Any evening, any day, when you go down Lambeth way, you'll find them: hiding indoors, behind steel grills. Nobody dances down the Lambeth Walk any more, certainly not after dark.

All but a handful of the shops that once lined this famous thoroughfare are now boarded up. Layers of graffiti spread over the dark concrete walls like one long, obscene bruise. The George, the pub on the corner, has been abandoned.

A mural high above the shuttered shops is the only reminder of Edwardian days, when the Walk was crowded with market stalls. But despite the jollity of its theme tune and the faded smiles of those painted grocers, the Lambeth Walk was synonymous with poverty even then.

A visit there was "like a plunge into Hades" said the Fabian Women's Group 90 years ago. From 1909-13 its members visited working-class women in that part of Lambeth, recording the smallest details of their lives. The findings were published in a book by Maud Pember Reeves that became a classic work of social history, Round About A Pound A Week, republished by Virago in the 1970s.

The Group was the voice of concerned, well-educated, middle-class, socialist feminists, whose declared aim was equality and economic independence for all women. The subjects of the survey were not the very poorest of the district but those respectable married women whose husbands brought home a regular wage. Still, many of them were sleeping four to a bed with the children in old banana crates, in crowded, unhealthy homes that made it almost impossible to fight damp, vermin and disease.

Round About A Pound A Week had an enormous impact when it was published in 1913. With birth rates declining but infant mortality high, politicians of all persuasions believed that the way to improve the nation was to improve its mothers. Maud Pember Reeves's moving account of how the women of Lambeth struggled to bring up their families on the thinnest of incomes ended with a call for the state to intervene as their guardian.

Her good intentions - if not her solution - are surely shared by the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, who will stand at the despatch box in the House of Commons on Tuesday knowing that the poverty he pledges to fight is only a Lambeth Walk away across the Thames.

Eradicating poverty has bedevilled every Labour government. The left has always advocated universal benefits, arguing that means-testing humiliates the poor and encourages fiddling the system. But if state benefits go to everyone, including the middle classes, the less there is to redistribute wealth. If Gordon Brown can crack that conundrum, he will triumph where every other Labour chancellor has tried - and failed.

But poverty needs more than just a few extra pounds of benefit money to eliminate it. As the people of Lambeth know, poverty is not only about cash in your pocket: it is about your surroundings, your expectations, and your state of mind.

Thirty years ago architects designed a pedestrian shopping precinct to provide the community in Lambeth with a bright, shiny new heart. Walkways overhead linked two huge apartment blocks. It was a disaster. One of the blocks has now been condemned, and bricked up.

People still live on the other side of the walkway, although it does not seem so when the evening grows dark and the only signs of life are pigeons fighting by the dim orange light in the stairwell. Most flats in the balcony are inhabited, but it's not like the old days when Fabian women with refined accents could charm their way over the threshold. Nobody answers a knock now. Ruched pink curtains and neat lace can be seen in one window, behind heavy bars.

"Dad used to bring us over to Lambeth Walk when I was a little girl," says Susan, a resident who was brought up on the other side of the river. "It wasn't just a trip to the market, it was a day out. The Walk was so colourful then, so busy, it was an adventure: the characters, the hustle and bustle, the shouts of the stallholders. There was a friendliness about, even to strangers."

When Susan moved to live on the estate 18 years ago, she soon found "the decline was dramatic". The market went away, the shops closed, the older houses were pulled down.

Susan has three grown-up sons. One of them is in residential care. A second has his own flat elsewhere on the estate. Her third son lives with Susan and her 13-year-old daughter Kerry. "She is not allowed out after 7pm. It's not safe for her after that - actually, it's not safe for anyone at all, no matter how old they are. If I come out to a tenants' meeting or something I'm always escorted home."

Susan and Kerry live on benefit payments and income support, which add up to pounds 90 a week. Almost half the households in the Lambeth Walk area have gross incomes of pounds 100 a week or less; two-thirds of them contain no one who works.

"We don't manage, we survive," says Susan. She pays pounds 17 towards the rent, pounds 10 for electricity, pounds 4 on bus fares for her daughter and a fiver towards the telephone. There is pounds 54 left to pay for food and clothing for both of them, plus other bills and emergencies. "By Friday night I'm lucky if I've got a few pence left."

Experts have suggested that it costs around pounds 20 to feed one woman for a week, with a diet that just about meets the Department of Health guidelines on nourishment. Ninety years ago the Fabians recorded the budget of Mrs B, who spent the equivalent of pounds 17 on feeding a family of six.

Mrs B's husband, a warehouseman, kept three shillings of his weekly wage for himself. The rest - 20 shillings, worth about pounds 48 now - was spent on housekeeping. Rent cost eight shillings, coal a shilling and sixpence. One shilling paid for a visit from the doctor to a sick child; another went on burial insurance. It cost seven shillings to buy enough bread and scraps of meat for a week, without garnish or supplement. That left just enough to buy two tins of milk. Clothes were mended, or bought when overtime allowed.

Mary, a pensioner who has lived by Lambeth Walk all her life and whose grandfather was born there, will have no truck with nostalgia. "Lots of old people talk about the good old days and they have this memory of how you could leave your door open all day long. Well, that was because they didn't have anything to bloody well nick."

As a leading member of the tenants' association, she is optimistic. Lambeth Walk is part of a pounds 300m regeneration scheme that should mean private developers tearing down the mistakes of the past and building new homes, shops, schools and leisure facilities. The mixture of council and private tenants will manage the new estate themselves. "I still think it's a good community to live in," says Mary. "And I think it's going to get better."

LAMBETH THEN & NOW

1909

Population 408,000.

No welfare state, benefits, or council housing. No NHS. Only safety net the workhouse.

Housing almost exclusively rented from private landlords, often at exorbitant rates.

Most children born inside marriage. Women become mothers early. Infant mortality rates high.

Self-contained community, almost exclusively white and within same social class.

No private transport. Many walk to work.

Main breadwinner usually male.

1999

Population 245,000.

A quarter of adults on income support. Two-thirds of state pupils on free dinners.

More than a third of homes rented from council. A third occupied by owners.

Half of all children born outside marriage. Most couples start family in late twenties.

Lambeth Walk multi-racial due to immigration and influx of asylum seekers.

More than half of households without car.

Men and women work full-time, when they can. Unemployment in the borough 13 per cent, but 29 per cent among Africans.

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