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Why Charles Booth's Poverty Maps are still relevant today

Posted on 23 Oct 2019

Charles Booth’s 'Poverty Maps' were an unprecedented street-by-street document of London living conditions. More than a century later, this remarkable survey still reveals much about inequality in the capital.

Charles Booth in 1902, seated with members of his family on the steps of Gracedieu Manor, Leicestershire, where he lived in later life. Charles Booth Archive, courtesy of London School of Economics

How do you define poverty? In the late 19th century, social reformer and industrialist Charles Booth set about answering this complex question with one of the most ambitious and rigorous records of economic distribution ever undertaken, the Inquiry into the Life and Labour of the People in London.

Compiled between 1886 and 1903, Booth’s seventeen-volume project presented a comprehensive street by street analysis of the capital’s living conditions. From Hammersmith in the west to Greenwich in the east, from Hampstead in the north to Clapham in the south, it detailed the city’s wealth disparities with unprecedented clarity and scope.

Booth’s working methods were rigorous and immersive. Together with a team of researchers, he set out across the city to interview, observe, assess, and record evidence – not only of household income, but also of employment patterns, health, ability, and family circumstance.

The findings were distilled into detailed written reports but also into colour-coded maps, which designated each street into one of seven income class categories, from upper middle and upper class wealth (a golden yellow) down to the lowest class and “chronic want” (black).

These meticulous Maps Descriptive of London Poverty are one of the most extraordinary features of Booth’s project. In terms of infographics, they provide a pioneering example of data distillation and visualization. But they are also a defining moment for social cartography, reconceiving of the map less as a tool of linear navigation or a gesture of territorial conquest, and rather as a textured document of human experience.

Mile End taken from 'Charles Booth's Poverty Maps'. Charles Booth Archive, courtesy of London School of Economics

Today, the so-called Poverty Maps and accompanying reports, edited by Charles and Mary Booth, provide a unique account of London’s socio-economic past. Combining streamlined statistics with local and personal colour, they give us vivid snapshots of different London neighbourhoods, from the “bowler-hatted insurance agents” strolling along Old Ford Road to the “prostitutes and juvenile thieves” gathered at King’s Cross. They note the “Refuge for Fallen Females” on Dalston Lane and the “home-loving residents” of Peckam Rye, “seldom out late and not much given to entertainments”.

Such anecdotes testify to how much London has changed, most notably with the gentrification of the East End. But the maps also document the deep-rooted inequity of the capital, and the stubborn proximity of high wealth and deep deprivation in so many London boroughs. Several pages of Booth’s maps show the yellow of the highest class category gleaming right next to the black and blues of poverty. The maps likewise show how wealth and space have long existed in correlate, with affluence luxuriating around green and open and riverside spaces, while strained incomes are cramped into crowded households and narrow side streets.

A mother and her children making matchboxes. The children were sent to fetch the chip and paper from the match factory and to return the finished boxes. This was one of the lowest paid sweated industries with families earning just 2 pence for 144 boxes made, and normally buying their own paste and string for tying the bundles. © Museum of London

The methods of the Poverty Maps are as intriguing as its findings. As a leading survey of 19th century socio-economics, the maps provide fascinating insight into the evolving philosophy and practice of poverty analysis – a field dealing in technicalities and statistics, but long fraught with political priorities, social concerns, and competing methods of research.

Booth, who came from a wealthy Liverpool shipping family, was preoccupied throughout his adult life by poverty’s causes and possible solutions, and funded the entire seventeen volumes of the Inquiry himself. His methods were highly progressive in their immersive fieldwork and their insistence on different criteria – as well as a sliding scale – of poverty.

Unlike other reports, he refused to tack poverty onto any particular income line, and rather insisted on the interconnecting factors that could constitute an experience of deprivation, including family make-up and size, housing conditions, illness, physical ability, and regularity and reliability of employment.

Nevertheless, the maps were still products of Booth’s particular class consciousness, not to mention a Christian framework that leaned towards moral judgements. The street reports often describe lower class residents in terms of “doubtful”, “rough” or even “savage” character. Most notably, the lowest group of his classification was constituted as “semi-criminal”, distinguished from those in “chronic want” on an ethical basis, and implying that at least one tier of poverty was somehow deserving.

Booth identified this group with destructive habits, in particular excessive drinking and poor money management, as well as “bad character”. Unlike his contemporary, the progressive Dr. Thomas Barnardo, who insisted that “heredity counts for little, environment counts for everything”, Booth was unresolved on whether the origins of “bad character” resided in nature or nurture.

PRESENTATION BOARD ELABORATING THE FINDINGS OF CHARLES BOOTH’S INQUIRY, 1901. This sheet (138.5 × 170.7 cm [54.5 × 67.2 in.]) presents the key findings of Booth’s seminal survey. It sets out the percentage membership of each class in the capital, and the percentage degrees of overcrowding. It concludes that 30.7 per cent of Londoners are poor, and 30.1 per cent are living in crowded conditions. Charles Booth Archive, courtesy of London School of Economics

But Booth’s reports were nevertheless a major leap towards a more systemic and secular understanding of the complex causality and varying experiences of poverty. The survey’s conclusion – that a startling 30.7% of the capital was living in poverty – generated significant interest and alarm. Booth was invited to serve on several commissions and policy discussions and his vast report can be credited for laying down the roots of Britain’s welfare state, in particular the provision of an old-age pension.

And despite great advances in social science and policy, Inquiry into the Life and Labour of the People of London has never been replicated in size, scope, or depth. Booth’s questions and findings remain critical to our understanding that a life in poverty can have many different causes and is experienced in many different ways. As we grapple with the precariousness of the gig economy, a collapse in social welfare systems, and a crisis in social housing, his monumental analysis continues to offer much to poverty research, and action.

Wordy by Eliza Apperly

Charles Booth’s London Poverty Maps presents Booth’s hand-colored maps alongside period photographs and reproductions from the original research notebooks. An introduction by Mary S. Morgan and six themed essays explore the aims, methods, and context of Booth’s survey.

Composite Maps of London taken from 'Charles Booth's Poverty Maps'. Charles Booth Archive, courtesy of London School of Economics