Charles Booth’s Representation of Londoners: Class, Gender, and Morality17 minute read

Charles Booth’s social survey of London spanned almost two decades and resulted in 17 volumes in the Life and Labour of the People in London, providing an incredibly rich source of knowledge about the city and its inhabitants (Charles Booth’s London). One of the most important products of the survey was the poverty maps of London, which illustrated the city and outlined each neighborhood, street, and corner in a different color that corresponded to the area’s level of poverty and wealth. His extensive sets of notebooks include detailed accounts of his observations of London’s life and people that complemented and provided insight for the poverty maps. Although Booth’s work is acclaimed for its scope and detail in documenting poverty unlike any other project before or since, his representation of Londoners must be understood in the context of its creation. This essay employs two of Booth’s notebooks from the London School of Economics Library’s archive of Charles Booth’s Inquiry into the Life and Labour of th e People in London (1886-1903) to discuss his representation of women, particularly through the repeated motifs of prostitution and drinking. Across both of these topics, and in general when representing women, Booth uses women as markers or signifiers of economic and moral standards of society. In order to assess Booth’s representation of Londoners, I first introduce the context of his work in Victorian London and the rise of empirical work in the 19t h century. I reference the limitations to producing an objective geographical knowledge both at large, and more narrowly in Booth’s case. In the second half of the paper I incorporate archival material from two of Booth’s police notebooks to illustrate how Booth represented women in his surveys, and how these representations have implications for his representation of Londoners as a whole. Throughout the paper, I emphasize the subjectivity and incompleteness of geographical knowledge due to gender, class, and social biases in order to demonstrate that Booth’s representations of Londoners reflect as much about the author and societal expectations as they do about the city itself.

Representation in the 19th Century

During the 19th century, professionals increasingly used statistics and empirical evidence to obtain objective knowledge. Contemporary professionals in the nineteenth century operated through a positivist paradigm, with the goal of documenting and knowing the world at both an individual and collective level (Osborne & Rose, 2004). Michael Cullen shows that the statistical movement was driven by middle-class anxieties about the lack of available knowledge to do so (Englander & O’Day, 1995). Those who constructed this knowledge were predominantly white male professionals, and their processes of obtaining and recording information created masculine knowledge. Thus, while scientists in the 19t h century used statistics and data as a means of proving their objectivity, “the overtones of neutrality attaching to science were themselves associated with masculinity” (Joyce, 2003). Women were almost always excluded from the work of social sciences or experience of documenting, and thus were unable to contribute to the production of knowledge. Indeed, women were still represented as confined to “a domestic space which was personal and local, as opposed to scientific, neutral, and objective,” and in effect women and their characteristics represented the antithesis to what gentlemen in the nineteenth century hoped to achieve through the pursuit of rigid, impersonal data and facts (Joyce, 2003). In compiling data and statistics, and constructing maps or surveys, 19t h century professionals exemplified the idea that geographical knowledge “aims to be exhaustive” and presumes that the “world can be fully known and understood” (Rose, 1993). Thus, ‘impartial’ organizations of information such as maps and surveys only present “partial views which construct, rather than simply describe, an object of knowledge” by excluding certain groups from the production of knowledge (Gilbert, 2002). In this reading of Booth’s material, I draw on Sarah Dillon’s explanation of palimpsests in understanding Booth’s work through the intertwined female and male experiences in order to bring out the hidden text of female oppression, while not ignoring the narrative of the primary text (Dillon, 2005). Thus, the purpose of this study is not solely to identify Booth’s shortcomings as a truly objective producer of geographical knowledge, but rather to analyze his work through a gender lens that reveals the power-knowledge relations inherent in his representation of Londoners.

There was a novelty amongst professionals in the nineteenth century of normalizing and systematizing the production of knowledge, and in particular the “routinizing of a new set of transactions between knowledge and space” that defined spaces in relation to social phenomena such as crime or poverty (Osborne & Rose, 2004). This production of knowledge often served as attempt to chart the previously unknown, to document ‘new’ or ‘discovered’ territory, such as slums (Koven, 2006). Yet, those who conducted field work and wrote lengthy journals in an attempt to outline the entire objective experience were themselves “performing the truth of their reports,” in effect revealing their inability to observe without presenting themselves as “moral beings” in their reports (Joyce 2003). Inspectors’ copious notes on their interactions and observations belies their struggle to represent others objectively, as their attempts to codify turned into justifications of what they described. Booth’s position as a male investigator of poverty informs our reading of his notebooks in understanding the layers of knowledge present in his work (Dillon, 2005).

Representation of Women in Victorian London

This surveillance of social problems and morality often involved preoccupation with vice and morality, and women were central to this discussion as representations of respectability. In the field of cultural geography, women are often represented by male geographers, but “women have been and continue to be marginalized as producers of geographical knowledge,” and this was certainly true in the Victorian age (Rose, 1993). Although there was an increase in women participating in ‘slumming’ and social work during this period, elite white males continued to dominate most of the production of geographical knowledge, and their work continued to exclude women by assuming that that their measurements were comprehensive (Rose, 1993). Yet with women’s increasing participation in the labor force, such accounts fail to encompass the diversity of experiences, and changing expectations in Victorian London. In particular, women’s entrance into the workforce blurred the line between public and private space, which problematized understandings of gender roles, particularly in relation to appropriate public behavior. There was a concern that as women had more access to the streets, they were prone to moral contamination, and often the causes of the spread of moral contagion; their movement in public spaces introduced the challenge of understanding where women belonged, since before they had been confined to traditional domestic roles and spaces (Nead, 2000). Together, this theoretical framework of exclusion from knowledge contrasts with the historical context of increasing inclusion of women in the public arena, introducing how Booth’s representation of Victorian women reflected a struggle to understand class, gender, and morality in the modern society.

Booth and representation

In 1851, Henry Mayhew completed his report on the working class in the city, London Labour and the London Poor, but after the social crisis of the 1880s, Booth was inspired to undertake his own social survey (Englander & O’Day, 1995). Ultimately, he produced a map of London color-coded by poverty level, and also compiled several hundred journals with his observations from surveying. Booth’s project fit into the context of 19t h century empirical analysis, as David Reeder explains that the purpose of this massive representation was “to make London comprehensible” through illustration (Gilbert, 2002). Yet, such a statement begs the question of who London was made comprehensible for, and why such an outline of social division was necessary. The desire to know and define space motivated more surveillance in order to regulate the poor and thereby solve society’s physical and moral problems (Osborne & Rose, 2004). Michael Foucault’s notion of disciplinary power points to the enclosure and division of spaces as a form of imposing power in order to supervise and control the body; thus, Booth’s power to illustrate and outline the city reveals his power to identify the poor and their spaces (Sargiacomo, 1977). In his police notebooks, Booth describes walks through certain neighborhoods with a local police officer, including documentation of conversations with the officer, other individuals, as well as general observations about the street conditions, and I draw on two such notebooks for analysis. To focus on Booth’s representation of women is not to ignore the representation of women of other scholars during the same time, nor the fact that Booth employed women, such as his cousin Beatrice Potter, to contribute to his research (Koven, 2006). Instead, this study of the intertwining narratives of space, gender, and morality sheds light on how Booth, and society at large, associated certain characteristics with certain spaces (and vice versa). 19th century investigators distinguished the poor in order to better understand the causes of poverty in attempt to improve the poor’s conditions and thereby improve society. Yet in producing this knowledge of society, investigators such as Booth often found themselves in the middle of the problems they sought to solve, as their studies exposed their own positions and biases in understanding poverty.

Prostitution: Class and Moral Markers

Booth refers to women most frequently in reference to prostitution, and his representations of this particular group tie in closely with his evaluation of the economic conditions of particular areas. In the Victorian period, there were several private movements that urged increased government intervention and regulation of prostitution as both a crime and a disease. For instance, the National Vigilance Association lobbied for the incrimination of prostitution, and also mapped where prostitutes were located throughout the city in another form of imposing a moral spatialization, pointing to the intersection of space, class, and morality (Nead, 2000). During this time, professionals also assumed that social class was correlated with moral behavior, and thus they targeted disease amongst the working class, as they perceived the poor to be more prone to vice and immoral behavior. In his walks, Booth often uses prostitutes’ presence as a marker of the neighborhood’s quality and status, observing “a few thieves, prostitutes” in the same breath as indicators of a dangerous area (Booth, 1897). Booth presumed that an area’s reputation would align with the poverty map’s classifications, and expresses confusion that a certain street “has a bad reputation for roughness and prostitutes but Green has never been able to understand why” because these areas were shaded as areas of higher living standards (Booth, 1886-1903). This street was marked on the poverty maps as pink and purple (mixed, to fairly comfortable living standards), but the presence of prostitutes is a negative signifier that contradicts the overall positive reputation of the neighborhood. Booth’s color-coding “built on the tradition of nineteenth-century iconography in the display of undesirable variables as dark shading and also the convention of conversion of economic into moral status” by marking the poorest areas as black, and associating these regions with behavior such as prostitution (Gilbert, 2002). The poverty maps, then, clearly embody the way in which “maps are strategies and relations of power-knowledge,” or products of their producers and processes of production (Crampton, 2001). Booth’s color-coding imposes a spatial knowledge, but fails to encapsulate the fluidity at the margins of each category, as evidenced by this contradiction between his observations and the map’s definition of space. He often refers to neighborhoods’ reputation in relation to the presence of brothels or prostitutes, and he even likens the prostitutes who are sitting on a doorstep to “spiders [waiting] to catch flies,” and remarks that it would be “an awkward place for a stranger at night” (Booth, 1886-1903). In this instance, not only are the prostitutes compared to bothersome insects, but Booth’s representation of space relies on his experiences in a space where he did not belong (Koven, 2006). Because Booth’s evaluation of poverty was predicated on his biases as an outsider, his exposure of economic conditions did not always serve as aiding to resolve social problems, but rather introduced the complication of his personal reservations and tension with the classes he observed.

Women and Drinking: Gender and Moral Markers

Women’s drinking behavior represented a certain moral character, but the increase in the prevalence of women of all classes consuming alcohol in public raised concerns about women’s responsibility in spreading this immoral behavior. Drinking was predominantly a male activity, and drunkenness was closely associated with vice of the lower classes (Porter, 2000). Booth insisted that the increase in drinking could be attributed almost entirely to the female sex, and this pattern was “one of the unexpected results of the emancipation of women” (Booth, 1902-1903). Indeed, throughout his surveys Booth seems preoccupied with explaining the increase in women’s drinking, and seems to think there might be some relation to grocers’ licenses, as he asks several individuals about this issue. He asserts that “women’s drinking has certainly increased,” but “grocers licenses here not had much to do with it because it is away from home that the women indulge” (Booth, 1897). His repeated inquiries into grocers’ licenses relates back to the idea that “social investigation was a form of moral expertise” during the 19t h century, in that Booth tries to impose his own justification of women’s immoral behavior, and relates it to their increased freedom (Osborne & Rose, 2004). These concerns revolved around women’s position in an immoral space, and their abandonment of traditional sexual reservation and proper motherhood (Kneale, 1999). While Booth’s representations of women typically marked differences between economic status, the issue of drinking was a unique case in that it both divided and unified classes, and in certain instances represented an opposition to social norms of moral behavior. Booth observes that drinking was a moral vice across all women, and observed that as “all classes go in [to the pub], no one seems in the least to mind being seen” (Booth, 1897). His comment on the fact that no class of women feels ashamed in being watched while participating in such behavior implies a certain moral judgment and the tension within this period of how much and in what ways women should move in public spaces (Nead, 2000). Thus, women’s increased visibility outside of the private domain thus problematized the masculine conception of space.

Women’s physical body and respectability

From the representation of women in prostitution and drinking, we can extrapolate that Booth generally uses women as markers and symbols of society. Through the 19t h century, the female body represented economic welfare in relation particularly to physical cleanliness (Koven, 2006). Because women of lower classes often engaged in manual labor and did not have the means to maintain a pristine appearance, they were perceived as less ladylike, and thus less respectable. Booth’s remarks about women were often cursory and physically-focused, as he notes “women slouching with dragged skirts and hatless” or “rough looking hatless Irish women about” in descriptions again of an area’s economic status (Booth, 1886-1903). This emphasis on their articles of outerwear, and lack of head coverings, reflects how “clothing was both a metaphor and a marker of class and sexual identities” for Victorians (Koven, 2006). Thus, the female body in its entirety reflects the epitome of the intersection of class and gender, and the perfect symbol for measuring these qualities. In this age of empirical collection, those who did the measuring were most often elites, who represented the working classes; those who were represented rarely had an opportunity to represent themselves (Koven, 2006). However, those who were represented did have the occasional chance to have their voices heard, such as the woman pulling fur at her open window who must have seen Booth watching her and “spoke in shaky husky voice,” explaining she “‘must do it to live you know!’” (Booth, 1886-1903). His observation of her manlike voice and unkept physical appearance in performing this work again indicate how working women’s bodies were imperfect, and their flaws denoted their social class. Booth’s masculine writing style aims to remove the author from the work, but this woman’s defensive, direct tone contrasts markedly with Booth’s methodical, detached scientific writing, exposing his position as an outsider, and highlighting his gendered representation (Rose, 1993). In sum, Booth’s inclusion of women in his reports usually served as complements to his understanding of economic status, but his individual experiences interacting with women often contradicted his objective scientific evaluations. Power and knowledge interact in dynamic processes, and Booth’s insertion of personal judgment in his surveys reflect how personal bias influences the construction of knowledge. While Booth’s power to represent Londoners provides us with a certain image of Londoners, his representations also reveal the struggle between the represented and those did the representing over social problems of class and morality.


In this essay, I have provided an overview of Charles Booth’s representation of Londoners in the context of Victorian London and the 19th century’s age of rationality. In particular, I considered Booth’s representation of women as markers of society through the motifs of prostitution and drinking. While a study of only one theme in Booth’s work, or throughout other archival material would have been possible, this small sample aims to address Booth’s representation of women as symbols of society, specifically in relation to class and morality as a whole, rather than in isolation. In general, Booth’s focus on the female physical body’s interactions with space indicate the gendered power struggle emerging in modern society. These representations of women within the context of Booth’s social survey serve as a reminder not only to his partiality as a producer of knowledge, but also to the partiality of the type of knowledge he sought. In constructing this dynamic representation of Londoners in poverty, Booth aimed to expose and explain their plight, but his observations reveal his own position in the conflicts between gender and class.


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–George H.Duckworth’s Notebook: Police District 31 [Lambeth and St Saviour’s Southwark], District 34 [Lambeth and Kennington], BOOTH/B/363, 1899-1902, LSE Library’s Archive of Charles Booth’s Inquiry into the Life and Labour of the People in London (1886-1903).

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