Maud Pember Reeves

Maud Pember Reeves
Maud Robison, the daughter of a bank manager, was born on 24th December 1865 at Mudgee, New South Wales, the third of ten children of William Smoult Robison, a bank manager. The family moved to New Zealand when Maud was a child.

Sally Alexander described her as "tall and striking, with a handsome face, full red lips, dark eyes, and brown hair". She met her husband, William Pember Reeves (1857–1932), a journalist and politician eight years her senior, when she was nineteen. They married at Christchurch on 10th February 1885.

Maud's first child, William, lived only a few hours. Her second child, Amber Reeves, was born in 1887. After the birth of her second daughter, Beryl, in 1889, Maud took the first part of a BA in French, mathematics, and English at Canterbury College. Maud's studies were abandoned so that she could concentrate on the struggle for women's suffrage. In September 1893 New Zealand was the first country in the world to grant women the vote, and Maud chaired the first public meeting of enfranchised women in Christchurch soon afterwards.

In March 1896 William Reeves was appointed New Zealand agent-general in London. On their arrival in England they joined the Fabian Society and became friends with Hubert Bland, Edith Nesbit, Sidney Webb, Beatrice Webb, Graham Wallas, George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells. Maud also became active in the women's suffrage movement and in 1906 she was appointed to the executive of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. In 1908 she helped establish the Fabian Women's Group.

William Reeves
William Reeves

In 1909 Pember Reeves, Ethel Bentham and the Fabian Women's Group began a four year study of the daily lives of working-class families in Lambeth. Maud's biographer, Sally Alexander, has argued: "The Lambeth mothers' project, initiated by Maud, was prompted by the recognition that more infants died in the London slums than in Kensington or Hampstead... Forty-two families were selected from a lying-in hospital in Lambeth, London, to have weekly visits, medical examinations from Dr Ethel Bentham every two weeks, and 5s. to be paid to the mother for extra nourishment for three months before the birth of the baby and for one year afterwards. The money came from private donations, and the mothers wrote down their weekly expenditure. Eight families withdrew because the husbands objected to this weekly scrutiny. Eight other mothers who could not read or write dictated their sums to their husbands or children."

The report, written by Pember Reeves, was published as a Fabian pamphlet, Family Life on a Pound a Week in 1912. The material later appeared as a book Round About a Pound a Week. In the report, Pember Reeves argued for a series of government reforms including child benefit, free health clinics and the provision of school meals. She wrote: "If people living on £1 a week had lively imaginations, their lives, and perhaps the face of England, would be different."

During the First World War, Pember Reeves worked as Director of the Education and Propaganda Department of the Ministry of Food. Her son Fabian was killed while serving in the trenches in June, 1917. She was devastated by this news and she withdrew from public life.

Maud Pember Reeves died in a nursing home at 27 Powis Gardens, Golders Green, on 13th September 1953.

Primary Sources

(1) Maud Pember Reeves, Round About a Pound a Week (1913)

One of the criticisms levelled at respectable, hard-working, independent people is that they do not like to squander money on funerals. A working man and his wife who have a family are confronted with the problem of burial at once. They are likely to lose one or more of their children. The poorer they are, the more likely they are to lose them. Shall they run the risk of burial by the parish, or shall they insure each child as it is born, at the rate of one penny a week? If they decide not to insure, and they lose a child, the question revolves itself into one of borrowing the sum necessary for the funeral expenses, or of undergoing the disgrace of a pauper funeral.

For months afterwards the mother and remaining children will eat less in order to pay back the money borrowed. What is the sum necessary to stand between a working man and pauperdom should he suffer the loss of a child? Inquiry among undertakers in Lambeth and Kennington resulted in the discovery that a very young baby could be buried by one undertaker for 18s. and a dozen others for 20s. To this must be added the fee of 10s to the cemetery paid by the undertaker, which brought up to 28s or 30s.

(2) Maud Pember Reeves, Round About a Pound a Week (1913)

Mr. W. aged twenty, a toy-packer in a London warehouse - wages 20s. His wife before marriage was a machinist on piece-work, and could earn 10s a week. She worked for six months after marriage, and paid for most of the furniture in their own room; also she provided the coming baby's clothes. She is clean and thrifty, writes a good hand, and keeps excellent accounts. She is nineteen. Out of the 2s retained by the husband, he pays 6d a week into a clothing club, and of course his 4d is deducted for State Insurance. With the rest "he does what he likes". Sometimes he likes to give his wife an extra penny for her housekeeping.

Rent (one good room upstairs; two windows) 5s.; burial insurance: 3d.; boot club: 6d.; coal: 1s. 3d.; gas: 8d.; soap; 3d.; oil: 2d.; matches: 1d.; food: 9s. 10d. If the wages never rise, and if the family grows larger, the amounts spent on burial insurance, soap, gas, and later on, rent will increase, leaving less and less for food, and more people to feed on the less amount.

Mr. H. is twenty-two and works in a brewer - wages 20s. Every third week he has night work. He allows his wife his whole wage. There is one child of six months. The wife is twenty. She worked in a polish factory until marriage, when she was dismissed, with a small bonus, as the firm does not employ married women.

It is obvious that with both these young men marriage is, so far, both pleasant and successful. The young women's lives are far more changed. They tell you that they are a bit lonely at times, and miss the companionship of the factory life and the money of their own to spend.

The first baby is a source of great interest and pleasure to both parents, especially if it is well managed and does not cry at night. It is different when the children multiply and the room becomes crowded and food is less plentiful. Then he must never smoke, he must never take a glass of ale; he must walk to and from work in all weathers; he must have no recreations but the continual mending of the children's boots; he must never read nor go to picture palaces nor take holidays.

© John Simkin, April 2013