Breadline Britain: 65 years in the working very hard classes

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The Independent Online
STANLEY BALDWIN was prime minister and Britain was being paralysed by the general strike of 1926 when Pheobe Austen moved with her parents to the village of Hoath in Kent. The 78-year-old widow still lives there now, her tiny council bungalow fronted by a little garden featuring gnomes and flowers which she still tends, "whenever my back lets me".

In an age when class distinctions are more blurred than they ever have been, Mrs Austen is one of the working class poor. She started working when she was five years old, helping make brooms for her father, a woodsman. By the time she was 13, she was getting up at four to help her father, going to school, then walking three miles every day to a teashop where she worked until ten at night - and then walking back.

After finishing school (just down the road from where she lives now), she carried on working in menial jobs virtually without a break until, just after her seventieth birthday, the pain she suffered from a car accident a few years before finally forced her to retire.

Now, she spends most of her time alone in her bungalow. Her husband, siblings and friends have all died. "I still miss working now sometimes, if truth be told," she says, nestling in an armchair in her little living room, next to a white woolly jumper she is knitting for her great-granddaughter. "I didn't even take much time when my two daughters were born. I put them into care and went back to my job as a housemaid.

"We never had much money, you see," says Mrs Austen. "When I was a child my father would leave with his wagon at two in the morning and wouldn't come back until seven. My husband was a refuse collector. We both had to work, otherwise we wouldn't have survived."

It's easy for our politicians and opinion-formers to form a cliched image for us of "the poor" as a bedraggled underclass. Mrs Austen is a warm, bubbly little old lady who seems like the archetypal kind grandmother. A hundred yards along her road is a row of manorial commuter-paradise houses with Volvos parked in the gravel drive (the residents, she says, don't really speak to her).

She has, in her own words, "always been poor", despite possibly working harder in her life than most of the entire membership of the House of Lords have, collectively, in theirs. "I suppose," she says uncomfortably, "things are a bit better because my husband passed away and I'm entitled to his pension from the council. I'm not going to starve. I can't complain."

A former government health chief last week warned that Britain's poor were living in "food deserts", potentially leading to serious health problems. Until last year Hoath was more savannah than desert, with a little village shop and post office providing fresh produce, albeit at a premium. "They always charged a bit more for everything but the new owners last year said they still weren't making any money," says Mrs Austen. The shop shut and now the nearest supermarket is in Herne Bay, seven miles away.

Perhaps surprisingly for someone who has lived in the same village for 72 years, she approves of the unstoppable rise of the supermarkets. "Oh, the produce there is much better than anything you could buy in the shop. And cheaper. The problem is getting there."

Every day, when the 8.50 bus to Herne Bay passes by the village, Mrs Austen can only watch. The bus is a double-decker, with a high step entrance, and as there is no kerb for her to stand on, she can't get on board; her replacement hip makes it impossible. The only time she can get to the Safeway's is on Tuesdays, when Age Concern sends a bus around for elderly residents of the area.

"It would be really useful to have a car," she says. She has never owned one but, after getting her licence when she was 50, her neighbour used to let him drive hers, until he died 15 years ago. "I'd love one, but, oh no, I can't afford one now."

For most of the rest of the week, Mrs Austen sits in her front room, knitting. "I hate being here with these four walls," she says. In the cabinet beside her are souvenirs of three generations of Britain: a young schoolboy in vivid colour, a middle-aged couple in sixties pastels, faded over time, a small, smiling woman and a tall young man with a mound of black hair swept back over his head, in monochrome. "That's my wedding picture in 1939."

Asked when the last time she had a holiday, she brightens. A couple of years ago she went to Pontin's on Hayling Island with her niece, she says. Imbued since childhood with a work ethic that seems almost Dickensian in its severity, Mrs Austen doesn't consider herself "really poor". "I make myself fish and chips every day," she says proudly, her country accent one of an England long gone, "and half a portion of Safeway's chicken on Sundays. Can't afford a roast, but I will try and make one if my nephews and nieces come round." Her children, grandchildren and nephews and nieces are very caring, but they work during the week, and can only visit on a few weekends.

As evening falls, Hoath becomes a ghostly place, the lack of street lighting combining with the wind - the village is perched on a ridge - to make it seem desolate. "There used to be an over-60s club here, but the lady who organised it died four years ago," she says. Now the village shop has closed down there is no social meeting point. "They keep themselves to themselves around here," says the white-haired lady, "nobody really wants to come in for a chat, even when you invite them.

Would her life be any different if she had more money? "Oh, well," she says excitedly, "I was very lucky this week because I won pounds 25 on the lottery! I bought myself a dress out of that from the man who comes around with clothes to Age Concern. I thought that was a bit of a luxury.

"I was paid very well in my second-to-last job as well," she says. Between the ages of 60 and 65 she worked in a computer components factory, making precision tools for aircraft guidance systems. "It was very skilled and precise, if it wasn't exactly right it was rejected. I used to earn pounds 65 a week."