Challenging Booth’s Social Survey of Holborn18 minute read

Spanning 1886 to 1903, Charles Booth’s Inquiry into the Life and Labour of the People in London was an admirably extensive social survey considering the given resources of that time. Its key achievements included the pioneering analysis of structural causes of poverty – labour market and age – and the finding that 30.7% of Londoners lived below the poverty line. This essay aims to evaluate the information the Booth archives provide about Holborn as a space and as a community, using Lefebvre (1991)’s concepts of representations of space, representational space, and spatial practices as a framework of analysis. Firstly, the map and statistical data representative of Holborn are discussed as tools to advance the appearance of objectivity. Next, the implications of this view of space in rationalising interventions in Holborn are shown. The essay then seeks to challenge assumptions about the journals’ reliability and argues that views of the elite were imposed upon the space, suppressing that of local residents. Following that, the methodological approach is critiqued. While acknowledging inevitable practical limitations in research design, this essay seeks to challenge assumptions about the survey’s comprehensiveness in depicting social life in Victorian London, as it overrepresented the perspectives of working, middle-class men. Following that, the essay casts doubts on the data’s reliability as a comprehensive account of spatial practices. While heeding Bales’ (1986) warning against misinterpreting data based on modern day meanings, the essay asserts that the lack of critical reflexivity not only neglected alternative narratives – of women, the elderly, children, ethnic communities and others – but also reflected and perpetuated biases and moral judgements of that era. Treating the Booth archives as a palimpsest, this essay will heed Dillon (2005)’s call and elucidate previously invisible narratives hidden within the dominant historical account Booth presents. Overall, this essay asserts that the Booth archives are useful portrayals of certain aspects of social life, but must be critically assessed for its implicit biases for all its claims to objectivity.

The published volumes with quantified data, original survey notebooks from LSE Archives and digitised images on the online Booth Archive were consulted for this essay. The discussion will mostly centre around the geographical boundaries of St Clement Danes and District 2 (the Strand/St Giles).

Firstly, Booth’s use of statistics, and to some extent suppression of qualitative data, was deliberately utilised to support his claim of objectivity, create a vision of omniscience and convince his audience about the importance of his survey results. In the Poverty Series, Booth drew upon census data such as death rates and also painstakingly recorded housing rents and occupancies for individual dwellings and along street levels. Booth (1903:10) was aware of the “the bias of impartiality”, but he was keen to avoid publishing qualitative data to maintain the appearance of objectivity. Following Bulmer and Bales (1991), Booth utilised the power of statistics to capture information about a large area succinctly and to convince audiences about the severity of the problem. Booth controlled the necessary knowledge to be made public. As Bales (1999) has shown, using statistics allowed Booth to define poverty and suggest ‘neutral’ solutions such as the forced evictions of one entire class to labour colonies. Furthermore, Booth’s self-initiated survey exemplifies Joyce (2003)’s arguments about how statistical approaches originating from civil society tended to reinforce state power. Quantitative data and categorisations of the poor into different classes, based on economic location and type of housing, were widely adopted and disseminated as scientific truth in public discourse; and the accompanying underlying assumptions of deserving and undeserving poor (Bales, 1999). Statistical analysis convinced Booth to change his previous opinion that less than 20% of the population lived in poverty, and he was convinced of the ability of statistics to change societal perceptions as well (Englander and O’Day, 1995).

 Figure 1. Poverty Map of the area around LSE (LSE Online Booth Archives, 2016)

Figure 1. Poverty Map of the area around LSE (LSE Online Booth Archives, 2016)

Booth’s poverty map illustrates Lefebvre’s (1991) concept of representations of space, as a physical form of conceptualised space. Figure 1 captures the extent of poverty in multiple degrees, showing Booth’s awareness of indistinct differences between class categories in reality and his attempt to capture these transitions (O’Day and Englander, 1992). The area around LSE corresponded generally to the very poor (in blue and black) and yet was surrounded by the relatively well-off (in red). However, the seemingly objective map displayed a panoptic, almost voyeuristic view of the landscape, aligning the viewer with the subject of study in a central, external position (Topalov, 1993). The map facilitated surveillance through its impartial immediacy and symbolised an attempt to control unknown space through a hierarchy of urban forms – districts, streets and individual houses. Osborne and Rose (2004) suggest that Booth’s maps actualise striated space (Deleuze and Guattari, 1986), aided by the adoption of administrative boundaries, collection of official statistics and institutional procedures. The map distilled poverty into a visible and seemingly manageable spatial form through the logic of striation, facilitating disciplinary power (Foucault, 1986). It identified boundaries of space and bodies, organising them in a ‘stable’ time. The map also implied geographical associations of social location, with the categories linking the physical space and moral character of the communities (Topalov, 1993). The colours also allowed Booth to prescribe solutions based on class categories, by easily identifying target locations for slum clearances (Wise, 2013). As illustrated in subsequent paragraphs, Booth’s focus on ‘objectivity’ will prove problematic, by elevating certain perspectives and suppressing others. Booth’s portrayal of objectivity has significant implications in terms of how the landscape was represented and the symbolic values that were validated, as seen in how interventions such as the Clare Market slum clearances and sanitary improvements were justified. This section draws upon Lefebvre (1991)’s idea of representational space, or how physical environments possess layers of symbolic meaning through different imaginaries. The extracts about the Clare Market rehousing schemes reflected the dominant views of those in power, while local, ground-up perspectives of space and society were left uncovered (Topalov, 1993). From the local authority’s perspective, the benefits of the redevelopment outweighed the costs of displacement, and they were praised for their plans. Space was treated as malleable and the people in them easily mobile.

“As to how far it is necessary for these people to live in the immediate neighbourhood, Mr Andrews thinks a good proportion of them could as well go elsewhere.” – BOOTH/B/245/p.129.

“The Strand Board now expresses itself fully satisfied and probably notepayers in other parts of London will think they ought to be. They get all this work – clearances, new streets, rehousing – paid for by London generally.” – BOOTH/B/245/p.135.

Within the text, hints of local reactions exist through petitions for more housing in nearby neighbourhoods. As Duckworth recorded during his walk, one inhabitant said, ‘Don’t pull down our houses guv’nor, before building us up others to go into.’ (cited in Inwood, 2005:202). The London County Council (LCC) was aware of such demands:

“The LCC only proposed to put 500 on the cleared sites but increased to 750 under local pressure.” – BOOTH/B/245/p.129.

However, the subsequent comments tended to be dismissive of local residents’ concerns, which were deemed as barriers to the betterment of society:

The people themselves are the great stumbling blocks in the way of sanitary progress. They object to move very far away from the courts where they have always lived and when the slums are pulled down the occupiers do not move far, and the overcrowding becomes highly intensified.” – BOOTH/B/340/p.7.

Of the rehousing scheme, the LCC’s increase of 250 houses was deemed sufficient. In contrast, a description about ‘controversy’ between the Strand Board and the LCC regarding the Strand’s street widening depicted a markedly different response to business concerns.

“The Board fears apparently some loss of sales by this change and has, acting with various vested interests, got the area considerably reduced.” – BOOTH/B/245/p.135.

Local administrators thus prioritised major economic interests, while being less accommodating of local residents’. The redevelopment schemes were part of the LCC’s broader ‘Haussmanisation’ reconstruction projects to strengthen connections between the city’s administration and symbolic landmarks of empire (Schubert and Sutcliffe, 1996). Slum clearances allowed the state to remove urban blight, ‘reform’ the environment and reimage the Kingsway as a symbol of imperial might and progress. Altogether, the personal meaning residents attached to their residences was neglected, in favour of privileging the state’s perspectives and wider socio-economic objectives. Thus, the state imposed controlled the symbolic significance of the landscape, through enforcing large-scale slum clearances and implementing the redevelopment scheme. Booth’s notebooks reinforced the state’s imaginaries and validated spatial interventions.

Next, the methodological weaknesses in Booth’s research affect the reliability and the range of vernacular experiences reported. Although Booth is sometimes aware of his privileged position, he does not convey reflexivity well in the original notebooks. Drawing on critical theory, there are unacknowledged power imbalances between the researcher and the subject of research. When covert observations were employed, Booth’s researchers often did not reveal their identities or the nature of the research after data collection. Englander and O’Day (1995) argued that Booth desired to understand the perspectives of the poor; however, it is debatable whether that aim was realised. His classification of the poor ignored how some of the poor saw themselves as living respectably (Davin, 1996). Further, London School Board visitors and policemen were gatekeepers through whom Booth accessed much of the previously unknown information on how various communities lived, but his knowledge may have been translated through these third-party interpretations. Omissions due to the selective group of middle-class interviewees rendered the results unreliable (Bulmer and Bales, 1991). Also, the survey assumed informants’ full knowledge. To his credit, Booth was aware that London School Board Visitors were only responsible for the households with children in their districts, but he was satisfied that they knew all households in the district well enough (O’Day and Englander, 1992). Finally, the lack of consideration of multiple identities vis-à-vis class, gender, ethnicity and age restricted the diversity of spatial practices (Lefebvre, 1991), in terms of performativity and how people interacted with and experienced the same space. While Booth recorded attempts to corroborate information, he interviewed very specific groups of people, who tended to be wage earners – factory owners, trade union workers, workers, ministers and congregations (Englander, 1995). This selectiveness reflected his research priorities – to investigate the working conditions, religious life and home environments, from the interests of a businessman. Next, although female researchers Clara Collet and Beatrice Potter were recruited, there was overall more focus on working adult male responses vis-à-vis other societal groups, especially after their roles concluded (O’Day and Englander, 1992). Consequently, Booth’s work privileged male perspectives (Veit-Wilson, 1986) such that women were depicted through these highly gendered accounts (O’Day, 1995). Investigations about home life involved interviews with the head of the households, who were usually men. The elderly, children and ethnic communities were of no interest to the researchers, and no reference was made to homosexuality despite its criminalisation in 1885 (Cook, 2003). Thus, records of the Strand district may not have been representative of the full range of spatial practices. With these missing voices and experiences from the discussion of living and working conditions, Booth’s notebooks are not as comprehensive as they are often portrayed. The methods of data collection influenced how knowledge about the neighbourhood was compiled and classified. The journals tended to uncritically reflect interviewees’ perspectives based on their privileged positions. In one example, the informants themselves had ideas of who deserved to be the subject of interventions for sanitary improvements, and who deserved privacy:

“House-to-house inspection is carried out systematically, says Sgt. Mr Andrews does not think highly rented houses ought to be visited and remarked … “If I caught your infernal inspector poking about my home I should kick him out.” Does not think the legislation intended that the richer classes should be troubled with this, or School Board visitors either.” – BOOTH/B/245/p.143-7.

It is important to recognise how power relations influenced Booth’s research design – in terms of determining research priorities, who is interpreted, who is given a voice and who has the right to have interpretations. Without the diversity in interviewees, biases often went unchallenged, and records reflected a microscopic view of everyday practices. Impaired by a lack of synthesis, Booth’s notebooks tended to reproduce power relations.

Due to selectiveness of informants, certain values and attitudes colour Booth’s accounts of the spatial practices in Holborn. Booth and his team of researchers provided accounts reflecting the anxieties about moral living among the poor (Wise, 2013). Examining the writings on drinking, prostitution and ethnic communities, Booth’s accounts produce highly moralised topographies, reflecting biases in interpreting how people lived. These opinions on morality were selectively applied to the poor (Wise, 2013). On one hand, Booth was guilty of romanticising the poor that lived above his defined poverty line, for envying their simple lifestyle and what he perceived as ‘innocent happiness’ (Englander and O’Day, 1995). He painted sympathetic portraits of their helplessness in the face of structural problems of the labour market and old age, attributing poverty to underemployment instead of behavioural flaws such as alcohol addiction (Bales, 1999). However, Booth was less sympathetic to other groups in society. This partly emerged from his uncritical reliance on his informants’ observations, which reflected prejudices against certain communities (Reeder, 1995). Osborne and Rose (2004)’s critique that Booth’s work imposed an inflexible public order of moral conduct is applicable to this description:

“The plain and simple truth is … they have no desire at all to be rescued. Perhaps the most painful part of the whole work lies in the fact that so many of these women do not, and will not, regard prostitution as a sin. As one sits down and enters into general conversation with these girls, nicely and neatly dressed, well- behaved, and sometimes even with serious thoughts as to the results of the life they lead, it seems incredible that they can be content to go on persistently in the same course.” (Booth et al., 1969:364)

This example strengthens Brown (1968)’s case about moral judgements in Booth’s work against Lummis (1971) who argued that value judgements in Booth’s study were not moral judgements unless it was directly stated that the subjects of study had rejected a better form of life out of choice. Yet in this extract, Booth imposes a sense of shame and immorality on the prostitutes, implying that sexual practices were determinants of character. It rejects any notion of empowerment by the women, or their ability to exercise agency and negotiate their place in a highly patriarchal society. The passivity and victimisation of these prostitutes would later be contested by bourgeois female scholars such as Butler (Walkowitz, 2013). Furthermore, highly prejudiced but at-the-time socially acceptable views of ethnic communities as morally inferior are reflected in the journals. They extrapolated individual characteristics to be applied generally to externally defined groups, including Jewish communities (Englander, 1989). The accounts were also occasionally dehumanising:

“… contemptuous flower sellers, street hawkers, market-porters and … women line like animals, surroundings that are often too disgusting for words, and where sunshine and fresh air are forgotten or scarcely known.” – BOOTH/B/340/p.13.

Some accounts linked the body, dwellings and moral values (Cuming, 2013). Human characteristics were ascribed to the physical environment, such as a “low, vicious look about the people which seem to stamp itself upon the houses” (Booth, 1903:188). The records expressed the Victorian belief that individual external appearances belied internal personality traits, and that the physical spaces revealed the inhabitants’ character (Otter, 2008). Dirt, odours, excessive noise and poorly maintained environments suggested incivility and dubious morality. The realisation that others were less repulsed by these traits widened perceived social differences (Otter, 2008). Where Booth’s statistics had prompted him to confront his own assumptions, his journals reinforced what he expected to see. They indicated hegemonic values and attitudes, including the prejudices against those who did not conform to societal expectations.

While rooted in certain perspectives, the Booth archives are nonetheless important historical artefacts conveying the value systems and assumptions by an elite member of Victorian London. As Reeder (1995) asserts, qualitative analysis from participant observations are indeed valuable in depicting the then-prevalent prejudices. The socio- political circumstances of the time influenced Booth’s research agenda; his results likewise influenced societal perceptions of poverty and provided the impetus for subsequent social reforms (Bales, 1994). The archives usefully depict how some of the elite perceived space, the importance of statistics in justifying what they knew about the world, the role of governments in society, and how people saw each other and represented themselves in communities. Even so, while recognising the merits of Booth’s seminal study, it is equally important to highlight how its apparent objectivity belied its subjectivity. Modern researchers should be careful in how information from Booth’s research is used and interpreted. By reading between the lines, it may be possible to uncover alternative narratives while critically evaluating the researchers themselves, as Dillon (2005) appeals. The archives should be recognised for their subjectivity, rather than uncritically accepted as all-encompassing accounts of life in Victorian London. By doing so, researchers can uncover alternative accounts within the text, recognising that as Booth subverts myths about poverty, he simultaneously creates and reinforces other biased narratives.

Booth’s study was a significant milestone in the development of social investigation in the Western world. This essay has reviewed some of its methodological critiques. Using insights from critical theory, this essay critiques his apparent impartiality by using statistics and maps and questions the validity of Booth’s assumptions. From reports on the redevelopment schemes in Holborn, Booth’s archives reinforced the state-driven representations and spatial imaginaries. However, with a limited diversity in informants and lack of reflexivity over the research design, the reports reflected the biases and moral judgements of the elite, which hinders modern-day researchers’ efforts to uncover the various meanings attached to space and diversity of spatial practices. Nevertheless, the critiques simply emphasise the need for multiple analyses to uncover research gaps, improve research methodologies and apply these lessons to the past, present and future.


Archival Material
Sources from the London School of Economics Library Archives – Charles Booth’s Inquiry into the Life and Labour of the People in London (1886-1903). Notebooks of Charles Booth’s survey of London. BOOTH/B/56

Secondary Material
Bales, K. (1986). Reclaiming ‘antique’ data: Charles Booth’s poverty survey. Urban History, 13, 75-80.

Bales, K. (1994). Early innovations in social research: the Poverty Survey of Charles Booth (Doctoral dissertation, London School of Economics and Political Science).

Bales, K. (1999). Popular reactions to sociological research: The case of Charles Booth. Sociology, 33(01), 153-168.

Booth, C. (1903). Life and Labour of the People in London (Vol. 8). Macmillan and Company.

Booth, C., Fried, A., & Elman, R. M. (1969). Charles Booth’s London: A Portrait of the Poor At the Turn of the Century, Drawn From His’ Life and Labour of the People in London’: Selected and Edited by Albert Fried and Richard M. Elman, Foreword by Raymond Williams. Hutchinson.

Bulmer, M., & Bales, K. (1991). The social survey in historical perspective, 1880-1940. Cambridge University Press.

Brown, J. (1968). Charles Booth and Labour Colonies, 1889–19051. The Economic History Review, 21(2), 349-361.

Cook, M. (2003). London and the Culture of Homosexuality, 1885-1914 (Vol. 39). Cambridge University Press.

Cuming, E. (2013). ‘Home is home be it never so homely’: Reading Mid-Victorian Slum Interiors. Journal of Victorian Culture, 18(3), 368-386.

Davin, A. (1996). Growing up poor: home, school and street in London 1870-1914. Rivers Oram Press.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1986). Nomadology: The war machine (p. 1). New York: Semiotext (e). Dillon, S. (2005). Reinscribing De Quincey’s palimpsest: The significance of the palimpsest in

contemporary literary and cultural studies. Textual Practice, 19(3), 243-263.
Englander, D. (1989). Booth’s Jews: The Presentation of Jews and Judaism in “Life and Labour of the

People in London”. Victorian Studies, 32(4), 551-571.

Englander, D. (1995). Comparisons and Contrasts: Henry Mayhew and Charles Booth as Social Investigators. In Englander, D., & O’Day, R. (1995). Retrieved riches: social investigation in Britain, 1840-1914. Scolar Pr.

Englander, D., & O’Day, R. (1995). Retrieved riches: social investigation in Britain, 1840-1914. Scolar Pr.

Foucault, M. (1986). Disciplinary power and subjection. Power, 1981, 229-42.

Inwood, S. (2005). City of cities. Pan.

Joyce, P. (2003). The rule of freedom: liberalism and the modern city. Verso.

Lefebvre, H. (1991). The production of space (Vol. 142). Blackwell: Oxford.

London School of Economics (LSE) Online Booth Archives. (2016). Poverty Map. Retrieved from,181065.961

Lummis, T. (1971). Charles Booth: Moralist or Social Scientist?. The Economic History Review, 24(1), 100-105.

O’Day, R. (1995). Women in Victorian Religion. In Englander, D., & O’Day, R. (1995). Retrieved riches: social investigation in Britain, 1840-1914. Scolar Press, 339-64.

O’Day, R., & Englander, D. (1992). Mr. Charles Booth’s inquiry: life and labour of the people in London reconsidered. A&C Black.

Osborne, T., & Rose, N. (2004). Spatial phenomenotechnics: making space with Charles Booth and Patrick Geddes. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 22(2), 209-228.

Otter, C. (2008). The Victorian eye: A political history of light and vision in Britain, 1800-1910. University of Chicago Press.

Reeder, D. (1995). Representations of metropolis: descriptions of the social environment in Life and Labour. Retrieved Riches: Social Investigation in Britain 1840-1914, Aldershot, 323.

Schubert, D., & Sutcliffe, A. (1996). The ‘Haussmannization’ of London?: the planning and construction of Kings way-Aldwych, 1889–1935. Planning Perspectives, 11(2), 115-144.

Topalov, C. (1993). The city as terra incognita: Charles Booth’s poverty survey and the people of London, 1886–1891*. Planning Perspective, 8(4), 395-425.

Veit-Wilson, J. H. (1986). Paradigms of poverty: a rehabilitation of BS Rowntree. Journal of Social Policy, 15(01), 69-99.

Walkowitz, J. R. (2013). City of dreadful delight: Narratives of sexual danger in late-Victorian London. University of Chicago Press.

Wise, S. (2013). The Blackest Streets: The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum. Random House.

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