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100 years of first State pension—only 25p, but it made ends meet

PUBLISHED: 15:59 02 January 2009 | UPDATED: 13:55 05 October 2010

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THE first old age pensioners went to the Post Office to collect their State pensions 100 years ago this week. They were entitled to the grand sum of five shillings a week if single, or seven shillings-and-sixpence for a married couple

ABOVE: The first Old Age State pension book at 5/- a week. Pensioners before 1909, like those pictured (top), would end up in a workhouse like this

BELOW: The worst slum streets of Edwardian London, where poverty and deprivation were rampant

By Mike Brooke

THE first old age pensioners went to the Post Office to collect their State pensions 100 years ago this week. They were entitled to the grand sum of five shillings a week if single, or seven shillings-and-sixpence for a married couple.

That’s only 25p and 37½p in today’s money, but just about enough in 1909 to buy the week’s groceries and fuel and pay the rent.

It works out at £19.30 and £29 in today’s money—hardly enough for food, let alone heating and rent at today’s prices.

Half-a-million old folk in Britain got a State pension that first year. Now they number 12 million as the population gets older, with the standard weekly rate of £90.70. In London alone, those over 65 will number more than a-million by 2020.

Around 12,000 in the UK will share their 100th birthday in 2009 with the State Pension. By 2050, we can expect 250,000 centenarians a year.

“It is incredible to think that one-in-four babies born today could live to 100,” said State Pensions Minister Rosie Winterton. “That’s a lot of telegrams from Buckingham Palace.

“Things have come a long way since 1909. People these days can spend a quarter-of-a-century as pensioners.”

HOW EDWARDIANS MANAGED

The first pension was non-contributory, but was means tested. Pensions officers visited people’s homes to check what possessions they had—including the kitchen sink!

The first pensioners also had to prove they were of good character’ before they received a penny.

The 1908 Old Age Pensions Act introduced in Parliament by Lloyd-George created a means-tested payment of 5/- a week for the poor aged 70 and over.

But they were ruled out if they had refused work when able, made themselves poor to qualify, had been in prison or were habitually drunk.

Less than a-quarter of the population survived to 70 back in 1909. Those who did lived on average just nine more years.

The cost of living’ in Edwardian London included average weekly rent for a two-room dwelling between 4/6d (22½p) and 7/6d (37½p).

But in the slums of London’s East End, you could probably rent a room for 2/- (10p) in Whitechapel and Spitalfields, the two bob bedsit’ of its day.

This would leave 3/- (15p) for food and winter fuel which would buy: ½cwt of coal at 6d (2½p), four loaves 6d, ¼lb tea 6d, ½lb sugar 1d, quart milk 3d, 7lbs potatoes 3d, ¼lb cheese 2d and ½lb meat 3d.

That left just 6d in the good old days’ for beer, vegetables, clothes and bits and bobs.

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YOUR 1909 SHOPPING BILL

TEA per lb, 4d (2p) to 2s (10p)

SUGAR per lb, 2d (1½p)

BREAD per loaf, 6d (2½p)

BUTTER per lb, 1/- (5p)

POTATOES per 7lbs, 2½d (1p)

CHEESE per lb, 7d (3p)

BACON per lb, 9½d (4p)

FRESH MEAT per lb, 7½d to 9½d (3p-4p)

MILK per quart (two pints), 2½d to 4d (1p-2½p)

COAL per cwt, 9½d to 1/- (4p-5p)

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Source: 1908 Board of Trade enquiry into Working Class Rents, Housing and Retail Prices.


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