Charles Booth (1840 – 1916) was an English businessman and an active participant in local politics in the place of his birth, Liverpool. Booth developed a sense of obligation towards the poor and improvement of social conditions (LSE Booth webpage: see bibliography), and the rapidly spreading problem of poverty in the fast-expanding Victorian cities incited Booth’s embarkment into conducting social surveys of London.
Booth’s Inquiry into the Life and Labour of the People in London attempted to record 19th century London’s population through a tripartite investigation. This involved the population’s places of work and working conditions, their homes and surrounding urban environment, and the city’s religious life. These undertakings began in 1886 and were finalised in 1903, forming an extensive resource that provide an insight into the social and economic history of the city at this time.
This essay focuses on the homes and surrounding urban environment component of Booth’s work in relation to the London neighbourhood directly surrounding the present-day LSE campus. For the purposes of this essay I define the boundary of this locale as the district of St. Clement Danes, now better known as Aldwych and the Strand (see fig 1 and 2). I will examine Booth’s Maps Descriptive of London’s Poverty, an example of social cartography that uses a colour classification of poverty to display the class and wealth of London’s population at a street level, alongside George H. Duckworth’s (1868 – 1934, secretary to Booth) notebooks recording police walks throughout London that helped inform Booth’s survey of poverty. This essay will discuss the information that the Booth archives provide about this locale at the time of publication and how this information can be used to understand the area in its present form.
The LSE Booth webpage (see bibliography) states that Booth ‘recognised the importance of a true description in facts and figures of the social landscape’, however a critical discussion of the information presented in his inquiry is important to assess why the information it displays has been chosen, its validity and why it has been presented in the way it is. To do this, I will explore the influences, motives and assumptions involved in the creation of the Booth archives through analysis of correspondence relating to the publication of the survey. This essay will conclude that the Booth archives are able to provide a general description of poverty in the neighbourhood surrounding the present-day LSE campus at the time of publication, however the accuracy and reliability of this information is hindered by four main limitations. Additionally, the Booth archives are limited in their ability to provide information of the area in its present-day form; the use of sources external to the archives is required to achieve this.
The dispersion of poverty in the neighbourhood surrounding the present-day LSE campus at the time of publication
First we turn our attention to the information the Booth archives provide about the neighbourhood around the present-day LSE campus at the time of publication. The immediate area surrounding the present-day LSE campus was shown to be one characterised by high instances of poverty, however levels of poverty diminish as one travels south. Below I will provide a brief description of this before moving to a critical discussion of the information that guides it.We begin our description at the north-western end of the LSE campus around Stanhope Street. The streets that offshoot this are shown to have been populated by some of the most impoverished in Victorian London: the “lowest class”, who Booth describes as “vicious, semicriminal” and those who are “very poor, casual” suffering from “chronic want” (see figure 1). This is supported by Duckworth’s notebook, which describes the area between White Horse Yard and Kemble street as ‘very narrow’, characterised by ‘mess’ and home to ‘many people who have been convicted’ (1899: 125). Moving south-east we see that the class and wealth of the inhabitants improves. Booth’s cartographic work shows that Houghton Street, considered the epicentre of the LSE campus (and indeed its main postal address), was populated by people of ‘mixed’ class and wealth, of which some are ‘comfortable [and] others poor’. Duckworth notes that this street housed ‘working class’ people (1899: 129). Further south-west and closer to St. Clement’s church living conditions improve dramatically. Surrounding the Strand in the area where the present-day Australian High Commission resides, Booth’s map displays entirely ‘middle-class’, ‘well-to-do’ residences. That this area can be considered residential, however, is contested by Duckworth, whose notebooks question whether the streets surrounding Norfolk Street should be ‘left red, or marked yellow [denoting the wealthiest classes], or not coloured at all’, as the buildings are all ‘hotels and offices’ (1899: 171). Whilst the classification of the area surrounding the Strand is contested, Booth’s map displays much of the area to the east of the present-day LSE campus as un-coloured, denoting buildings of non-residential use such as King’s College Hospital and the Royal Courts of Justice.
Critical discussion of this Information
Whilst the Booth archives serve as a useful tool for understanding the general distribution of poverty in the neighbourhood surrounding the present-day LSE campus, critical discussion of the influences, motives and assumptions in the Maps Descriptive of London’s Poverty reveals limitations in both its accuracy and reliability. Below I will focus on four limiting factors: the risk of Booth’s work being subject to generalisations, influenced by external sources, hindered by inconsistency and exclusive in its focus.
I draw your attention first to the risk of Booth’s work being subject to generalisations. The colour- based classification system Booth uses makes the differentiation of poverty levels at a street level difficult and risks generalising occupants into broad stereotypical categories. It is unlikely to be the case, for example, that all the residents of Stanhope Street were of the ‘lowest class’, and of those that are, not all are likely to be ‘criminal’. Duckworth describes this street as a ‘mess’ and from this overpoweringly unpleasant condition arises the possibility that his conclusion here may have been impressionistic (Bales 2009: 79) (for example, residents of a higher class could have been overlooked). Spicker (1990: 34) supports this, stating that in the Booth archives ‘the use of ‘notes’ is remarkable not so much for the accuracy of the observations as to the weight attached to impressions’. Additionally, residents of Houghton Street, adjacent to the ‘very poor’ and ‘criminal’, are unlikely to all fall under the category of ‘mixed’ class denoted by the blush-red colouring, as this street marks the transition from the lower class of Stanhope Street to the upper class south around Norfolk Street. The possibility of generalisations such as these being present in Booth’s map is supported by Col. James Baiker’s correspondence to Booth, in which he voices concerns over the ‘great deal of labour’ (BOOTH/A/31: 19) involved with Booth’s survey that may have led to imprecision.
Secondly, further correspondences relating to Booth’s inquiry suggest that the Booth archives were influenced by external sources and may have exaggerated the extent of poverty, leading to further inaccuracies that affect the validity of the information they provide about the LSE neighbourhood. Analysis of correspondences surrounding Booth’s survey reveal that Booth’s work was influenced by others: writing to Booth in 1901, Theodore Llewellyn Davies attaches ‘3 1⁄2 pages from a paper of mine [that] may be of some use’ (BOOTH/A/31: 27). External sources of information such as this cannot be relied upon for their accuracy, and their inclusion in Booth’s work suggests the information provided by the Booth archives may misrepresent the area surrounding the LSE. Furthermore, the possibility exists that the Booth archives exaggerate the extent of the poverty crisis in London: Duckworth writes in 1901 of his belief that ‘the cry of the insufficiency of House room in London is a good deal exaggerated’, stating that some demand exists, but ‘nothing very tremendous’ (BOOTH/A/31: 30). Motivated by his ‘own ideological and philosophical orientation’ to influence social policy (Bales 1994: 3), Booth may have had want to exaggerate the severity of the poverty crisis to encourage policy reform, leading some critics to believe his work to be ‘flawed and misleading’ (ibid.: 4). Indeed, correspondence to Booth suggests he was aware he had an audience amongst varied establishments: Davies in 1901 wrote of a ‘Mr. Harper’ (spelling not clear) who would ‘very much like to see Booth’ for his work as head of ‘housing’ in a statistical department (BOOTH/A/31: 27), and H. Cranford of the People’s Refreshment Houses Association requested Booth to join their council for so that his ‘special knowledge and experiences’ could be used ‘occasionally’ (BOOTH/A/31: 8). Knowledge of this interest may have encouraged bias in Booth’s work, leading to potential inaccuracies in the information pertaining to the LSE neighbourhood.
Thirdly, information provided by the Booth archives is possibly hindered by inconsistency. The translation of Duckworth’s notes into the visual interpretation we see in Maps Descriptive of London’s Poverty is unlikely to be consistent across this neighbourhood, let alone London in its entirety. Duckworth uses descriptions of dirt and mess as an indicator of poverty: on Holles Street he observes ‘old boots, bread, fish potatoes and meat in the street’ (1899: 129). Of quick note is that 19th Century London was a polluted city in general, and residents were not always at fault for unhygienic conditions as local authorities had ‘varying degrees of sanitary enthusiasm, and funds’ (Jackson 2014: 241), suggesting that dirty street conditions such as that of Holles Street may not be a reliable indicator of poverty. However, my main point here is that Duckworth’s translations of the qualitative data in his notebook into the semi-quantitative colour-based classification system employed by Maps Descriptive of London’s Poverty are likely to be inconsistent due to the subjective nature of the task. Spicker supports this, stating that at times this subjectivity is ‘so evident’ that it ‘invites scepticism’ (1990: 34) as to the reliability of the information presented by the Booth archives.
Finally, Maps Descriptive of London’s Poverty focuses solely on poverty in residential areas and thus is detrimentally exclusive in its focus. The Booth archives provide little information on poverty in the east of the St. Clement Danes district, as the buildings here are not of residential use. However, evidence suggests central London had a ‘considerable homeless population’, particularly at the nearby Embankment (Allen 2008: 83), and indeed Duckworth observes ‘sleepy, weedy men’ (1899: 133) in the streets surrounding the Royal Courts of Justice, suggesting their presence in this area. That Booth does not account for vagrant populations due to the lack of residential buildings limits the extent to which information about poverty in the neighbourhood surrounding the present-day LSE campus can be construed from the Booth archives.
It can be concluded from these four limitations that the Booth archives provide a general description of poverty in the neighbourhood surrounding the present-day LSE campus, but this information cannot be considered wholly accurate or reliable. A more reliable understanding of this area could be gained through analysis of other sources in conjunction with the Booth archives, such as the 19th-Century British Pamphlets collection (see bibliography), a comprehensive array of information on the key social issues this, and other areas, faced.
Using the Booth archives to examine the present-day form of the neighbourhood surrounding the LSE campus
Despite its limitations, the above demonstrates that the Booth archives provide valuable information on the neighbourhood surrounding the present-day LSE campus at the time of publication. Information about the development of this neighbourhood since Booth’s survey can also be construed from the archives, but as I will show below this requires the use of other sources to provide details of the neighbourhood’s present-day condition.A visit to the neighbourhood surrounding the present-day LSE campus reveals the area has changed dramatically since the publication of the Booth archives. The residential buildings noted by Duckworth no longer make up the majority of land use in the area: instead, high-quality offices and university facilities are now predominant. The neighbourhood’s development from a residential slum into one housing many institutions came about in part as a result of the construction of the Kingsway, a scheme to aggrandise the area which ‘increased the value of adjacent land’ (Schubert et al. 1996: 121) and led to redevelopment of the Clare Market area through demolition that affected 3172 inhabitants (ibid.: 128). As a result of its commercialisation, wealthier people occupy this area now (businessmen, graduate students etc.)— however, fewer people occupy the area in a residential sense than in Booth’s time. Instead, the majority pass through it on a daily basis, using facilities such as offices, shops, and classrooms.
The fact that this area shows fewer signs of poverty and squalor than noted by the Booth archives informs us that the present-day LSE neighbourhood is one that has seen considerable development since Booth’s time. However, as shown from the above, this information could not be construed without the use of other sources, such as that relating to the Kingsway development and my own experience physically navigating the area. As is the nature of archival information, the Booth archives provide only a snapshot of conditions in the neighbourhood surrounding the present-day LSE campus at the time of publication, and thus alone provide little information about the present-day condition of the neighbourhood surrounding the LSE.
Overall, the information provided by the Booth archives allows us to form a general description of the extent of poverty in the neighbourhood surrounding the present-day LSE campus. The Maps Descriptive of London’s Poverty, alongside Duckworth’s notebooks, display that high instances of poverty and squalid living conditions were present in the north-west of the neighbourhood. Moving south, levels of poverty decrease as a transition occurs from a lower to upper class population. We can believe that this information provided by the Booth archives holds some validity as the later work of Seebohm Rowntree ‘took Booth’s methods as [its] starting point’ and returned ‘similar results’ relating to London’s poverty (Spicker 1990: 23).
However, critical discussion of this information reveals four main limitations. Analysis of the influences, motives and assumptions of Booth’s work, alongside the subjective nature of Duckworth’s notebook, suggests the information provided by the Booth archives may be inaccurate and unreliable in its portrayal of the distribution of poverty around the LSE campus. Furthermore, the Booth archives are unable to provide information about the present-day form of the neighbourhood surrounding the LSE campus; this can only be achieved in conjunction with other sources related to the development and current form of the area. These limitations of the information presented in the Booth archives hold implications for inquiries based upon it: Booth’s work had ‘a great influence in its day’ (Spicker 1990: 37) and any resulting research or policies risk having been misinformed by the survey’s shortcomings.
To surpass these limitations and gain a more comprehensive understanding of the neighbourhood surrounding the present-day LSE campus, both in the 19th Century and present, other sources pertaining to London’s poverty and development must be consulted alongside the Booth archives. Those briefly mentioned in this essay provide a good start, such as work documenting 19th Century London’s sanitary conditions and the development of the Kingsway. Only then can one begin to paint a full picture of the LSE neighbourhood and appropriately employ the information provided by the Booth archives.
Allen, M. (2008) Cleansing the City: Sanitary Geographies in Victorian London, Ohio University Press, page 83.
Bales, K. (1994) Early Innovations in Social Research: The Poverty Survey of Charles Booth, Department of Social Science and Administration, LSE, pages 3, 4.
Bales, K. (2009) Reclaiming ‘antique’ data: Charles Booth’s poverty survey, Occasional reports: London, Cambridge University Press, page 79.
Duckworth, G. (1899) Notebook: Police District 2 [Strand and St Giles], BOOTH/B/354, LSE Archives, pages 125, 129, 133, 171.
Jackson, L. (2014) Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth, Yale University Press, page 241.
LSE Booth Archives webpage. (2016) Who was Charles Booth?, Social Investigation: London. Available at http://booth.lse.ac.uk/learn-more/who-was-charles-booth [Accessed 07/12/16]
Multiple authors, (1886 – 1903) Correspondence relating to the publication of the survey, BOOTH/ A/31, LSE Archives, letters 8, 19, 27, 30.
Research Libraries UK webpage, 19th Century British Pamphlets. Information can be found online: http://www.connectedhistories.org/resource.aspx?sr=jp#d2 [Accessed 07/12/16]
Schubert, D., Sutcliffe, A. (1996) The ‘Haussmannization’ of London?: the planning and construction of Kings way-Aldwych, 1889–1935, Planning Perspectives, Volume 11:2, page 121.
Spicker, P. (1990) Charles Booth: the examination of poverty, Social Policy and Administration, Volume 24:1, pages 23, 34, 37.