‘Dirt’ in Booth’s Poverty Classification17 minute read

The Booth archives contain a collection of surveys which were gathered to generate evidence about the working and living conditions of Londoners. What this essay will focus on is the language used to represent social class in this area, specifically looking at the language associated with dirt that Booth uses to classify poverty. By using the archival material in the LSE Library I have looked mainly at the police notebooks, Jewish notebooks and the survey maps to build up a picture of the area around the current LSE campus. First I will consider the use of archival material as cultural representation of the area around LSE. Secondly, I will look at the role of the representation of dirt as signifier of poverty and further its associations with dirty practices – such as gambling, crime and prostitution. Thirdly, I will consider the idea of morality in social classification and how Booth links ideas of sanitation and dirty practices with immorality. Fourth, I will explore the idea that Booth’s poverty classification is intrinsically linked with the religious views that were present at the time and how the role of dirt and sanitation link to racial classification – specifically towards Jews and sanitation. Fifth, I will consider the Victorian context that underpins Booth’s survey. Finally, I will consider how representations of London cannot be removed from the ideology of the authors and that through classification it results in the creation of difference. This essay will therefore argue that the Booth archives represent the neighbourhood around LSE using language associated with dirt but that describing dirt is not a socially neutral enterprise (Campkin and Cox, 2007:5).

Through searching the LSE library archive catalogue by location, the police notebooks give an insight into the classification used by Booth to create his poverty map. The information provided by the poverty map shows the area of the LSE campus to be mainly dark blue in classification, such as Great Wild Street and Vere Street, and some black areas, such as Stanhope Street. Dark blue signifies living below the poverty line. Through qualitative analysis of the streets on police walks Booth uses signs and signifiers of poverty to colour code each street. We will explore the connotations of this coding method later in this essay. The Booth archives show there is a correlation between geographical residence and social condition (Joyce, 2003). Joyce further argues that “London is mapped…literally and figuratively” (Joyce, 2003:4). In a literal sense, the classification of social classes is mapped by street using Booth’s colour system, and figuratively Booth maps the social culture of space. The Booth archives are therefore cultural artefacts of representation. Cultural representation can be defined as the way in which meaning is produced between members of a society through the use of language, signs and images which stand for or represent things (Hall, 1997). The use of language in the police notebooks show common themes of these signs and images, highlighting aspects of the poor in Victorian streets such as dirt, smashed windows and open doors. The archives also contrast the lowest class types in the LSE area to a ‘new working class’ in Great Wild Street. What this essay will explore is how the archival material comes to these classifications and contrasts between classes and how Booth’s classification is not neutral but portrayed by the language used to both represent and construct social class.

Dirt as an indicator of class

The language used in the Booth archives to classify poverty is almost always associated with dirt throughout the police notebooks. There is immense heterogeneity in the narrative potential of dirt to highlight poverty in the LSE area but three main themes occur frequently; dirty children, dirt linked with airless streets and overcrowding and the general comments of the LSE area describe it as having “messy streets”(Booth, B354:133). Dirt in this sense, therefore, was as much a class description as employment or housing indicators were. Comments such as “very dirty children…[dark blue] rather than the purple on the map” (Booth, B354:121) highlight that Booth viewed dirt as a direct sign of poverty. Cohen (2005) argues that “filth supplies a means of both ordering and disrupting”. In this sense, this allows Booth to use certain signs and signifiers of dirt as justified empirical evidence for ordering streets into different categories. However, I will argue that what Booth viewed as empirical fact surrounding the idea of dirt is actually deeply rooted in representations of space. By this I mean that space is not understood to be absolute or fixed but it is a representation by the actor interpreting the space. Schulting supports this claim, arguing that “dirt is not ontological but a relational and spatial category” (Schulting, 2016, 6). I believe that Booth’s use of the language associated with dirt is both material and metaphorical. The vocabulary of dirt is not just about describing things as they are (O’day and Englander, 1995:51). Dirt is not just something physically visible which can be associated with poverty, but rather metaphorically dirt has many more deeply rooted connotations – such as the dirty practices of the poor, and most significantly the racial connotations linked with dirt. Dirt therefore has to be understood as a representation of social space.

Dirty practices

The police notebooks contain evidence of prostitution, crime, gambling and drinking around the LSE area. These dirty practice were used by Booth as signifiers of poverty. Schulting (2016) argues that dirt was used to signify worthless or unclean acts on a metaphorical level. Although the LSE campus area itself shows little evidence of prostitution, the wider neighbourhood of St. Martin’s area towards Soho, as well as the area near King’s Cross show “a very large number of prostitutes” (Booth, B354:199). Prostitution was seen as immoral and the police officer “Zenthon thought that women took to it not for pleasure but because of indolence. ‘It is easier than hard work’ he said” (Booth, B353:205). This idea of immorality was used by Booth as a representation of social class. Similar to prostitution, crime was viewed as an indicator of the lowest class, with the black classification described as ‘vicious and semi-criminal’ (Booth, 1889).The example of Wilson place can be used here as Booth describes thieves and assaults on police in the area and to “mark it as black as you can” (Booth, B354:169). Campkin and Cox (2007) support this by claiming that Booth represents social class through dirt by associations with physical cleanliness but also cleanliness in terms of practices and activities. Dirt in Victorian London was therefore rooted in the idea of a London cleansed from the dirty practices of the lowest classes and it can be argued that social division is constructed through power and representation.

Dirt and morality

In classifying the poverty and life of the working class around the LSE area, Booth often associates the idea of dirt with immorality and a lack of respectability. The new working class in Great Wild Street is described as a “respectable class” and “not immoral” (Booth, B354:119). Schulting (2016) argues that there was a moral rejection of dirt because it signified unclean practices, such as gambling, prostitution and crime. Dirt here is used not only as an indicator of poverty but of being less than human and unfit for higher spheres because dirty habits indicate a dirty mind (Jackson, 2015). However, this distinction of a moral/immoral working-class is a social construct and again highlights how Booth’s description of the social structure of the LSE area has to be understood in terms of representations of space and political ends. Jones (2014) argues that the distinction between a deserving and undeserving poor was a concern of middle-class social philosophy. Therefore, Booth’s inquiry actually created this distinction in order to encourage individual responsibility in society. Booth sought to encourage sanitary improvements which shows his study to be used for political aims.

Dirt and race

The Booth archives tell us a lot about the racial makeup of the area around LSE in Victorian times, particular the presence of Jews and Irish. What I want to argue is that dirt is used as a classification of class through racial prejudices. This argument will be two-fold, firstly looking at the racial implications of dirt in terms of sanitation and secondly referring back to the dirty practices associated with certain races. First, the example of Broad Street shows the link between dirt and Jews as there was a “sense of crowding and dirt…Jewish faces and tailors hands” (Booth, B355:3). In the Jewish notebooks, Booth expands arguing that Jews “have a low conception of things from a sanitary point of view” (Booth, B197:101). By directly associating dirt with race, Booth aims to use race as a form of social classification. Booth therefore “saw religious influences as a social influence” (O’day and Englander, 1995:165). The LSE area also contained a large number of Irish immigrants. Similar to Jews, they were viewed as a part of a lower, outcast class. Wild Court was an area in the LSE neighbourhood of “great untidiness” inhabited by “Irish cockneys”(Booth, B354:115).

Colour Key for Booth maps
Colour Key for Booth maps

The dirty practice of immigrants also comes into context here. The Irish were considered to be thieves and heavy drinkers who often attended public houses, whilst Jews had a “passion for gambling” (O’day and Englander, 1995:77). Moreover, cleanliness was linked with being a moral citizen who attended church. The archives note that the “impression from the Chaplin is that all Jews are agnostic and all deceitful” (O’day and Englander, 1992:81). This shows the racial implications associated with morality as “cleanliness in next to Godliness”(Jackson,2015:150). Ultimately the concept of ethnic minorities in London as ‘dirty’ is a social construct related to the middle-class vision of a ‘white’ London, cleansed of dirt and dirty practices associated with immigrants. A healthy London for Booth is one associated whiteness and civilisation (Campkin and Cox, 2007). On a more conceptual level, I believe that even Booth’s colour classification can be linked with the idea of race, with ‘black’ as the most poor which implies that Booth’s language of race suggest “not only physical labour but also dark skin” (Schulting, 2016:6). Once Booth’s enquiry in placed within the context of the middle-class racial prejudices of the time, it is clear that Booth’s analysis is limited by his position in society. His enquiry is not based on empirical fact or “religious truth” but rather “he was involved in a religious quest through his enquiry” (O’day and Englander, 1995:164). Specifically with the LSE area, Booth’s enquiry can be said to have been part of a social quest of displacement of the poor through imperialistic ideology. The context of empire building, as well as the Victorian context of sanitation, need to be taken into account when considering what we can learn about the neighbourhood around LSE.

Victorian context and Empire Ideology

It is important to consider the Victorian context of sanitation in which dirt can be understood as signifiers of poverty. Booth’s classification is underpinned by a “nineteenth century understanding of health and sanitation” (Gilbert, 2002:25). Jackson (2015) argues that cleanliness was the aspiration of all workers as a sign of respectability. Following the Cholera epidemic the poor were encouraged to practice morality and cleanliness to reach a proper position on the social hierarchy (Jackson, 2015; Wise, 2013). Booth therefore focuses on the idea that the poor should make effort to develop moral character. However, his analysis is limited by the lack of sympathetic analysis of the problems of the outcast poor (Englander and O’Day, 1995:81). By using morality as an indicator, the archives imply that being moral is a choice. However Booth’s analysis does not consider that personal filth was a problem “they could do little about” (Jackson, 2015:139). Booth rather than creating moral citizens arguably outcasts the lowest classes further because morality through cleanliness was not achievable.

 The neighbourhood around the LSE area should also be considered in terms of the context of empire building which was intrinsically rooted in imperialistic ideology. Jackson (2015) argues that dirty streets did not fit in with empire ideology and although London was imperial in terms of grand architectural statements, it was dammed by visitors for having the dirtiest streets. The image of a modern London included open streets, no overcrowding and cleanliness. Modernity and empire ideology influenced the plans for development of Holborn through the opening up of Kingsway as well as the Torrens Act in 1868 of 10-acre slum clearance (Jackson, 2015). However, through the Booth archives we can see that the LSE area still remained extremely poor. I believe the can be linked to the idea of a ‘haunted past’ as well as the concept of the palimpsest. The palimpsest is the idea that when we write over something, its history and culture can never be truly erased. The area around the present-day LSE campus show “layering and superimposition” of culture and history through the archives (Dillon, 2005:256). This is because the area is palimpsestuous both literally and metaphorically. In a literal sense, over half of the Holborn area was left out from the initial development plan so there was layers made up of new construction mixed with old slum streets and metaphorically because the “present haunted by the image of ruin” (Nead, 2000:10). By this I believe that the space was haunted by slum dwellers and that there was a “haunt of Irish immigrant labourers” (Jackson, 2015:181). Englander and O’Day (1995) also argue that not only was Booth’s classification rooted in imperial ideology but also contained aspects of social Darwinism. By arguing for improvements in moral character the Booth archives imply a social cleansing of the city freed from dirt and decay associated with the lowest classes. These political aims show Booth’s use of dirt to be far from a neutral concept. I believe that not only do the Booth archives highlight the LSE neighbourhood as one continually haunted by a past of dirt and decay, but also that in highlighting these issues Booth was caught up in a social and political agenda to truly remove the historical past which haunts this space.

Booth the intellectual and the politics of difference

Throughout this essay I have argued that language of dirt is not a neutral concept but rather it is bound up by power relations of social thought within spatial representations. Therefore, what the Booth archives tell us about the LSE area is limited and governed by his and his colleges position within society and we cannot remove the context of the author from our analysis. As O’day and Englander(1992) argue, a proper appreciation of Booth as an intellect must be taken into consideration. Firstly, Booth’s survey “provided the basis for an interventionist social policy” (O’day and Englander, 1992:7). This shows that Booth had political aims in classifying the poor in order to point to appropriate remedies. However, O’day and Englander (1992) further argue that the observed incidences of low life are told with simplicity by the actors themselves and Booth doesn’t point the way to a successful solution of poverty, and more specifically dirtiness. Therefore, his political aims are not to provide motivations for solutions to poverty, but rather, by classifying the poor, Booth was involved in political quest in which moral space was a form of ordering and “governing the moral conduct of others” (Osborne and Rose, 2003:220). Rather than trying to engage and understand the poor, Booth created further divisions between classes and imposed further power. Joyce (2003) supports this argument, arguing that authority, selection, omission and creating hierarchies all contribute in the construction of social class. Booth’s contrasts between dirty and clean, open and closed doors, rough and respectable are therefore all used to create difference and separation between social class. “Difference is actively produced” just as “culture is actively made” (Mitchell, 2001:79). Duckworth himself notes that there is a separation between himself and the working class, stating that “I suppose anyone can see what the other is” (Booth, B354:131). This shows that even Booth and his colleges were aware of difference and outcasting. This quote also highlights the limited engagement with the subjects they were investigating which shows the devices of inclusion and exclusion in Booth’s analysis. I believe that the Booth archives are not just limited by their position within a political sphere but also that Booth failed to express the real voice of the working class and therefore produced misrepresentations. This shows the „narrative conventions through which the city was imagined” (Owens et al, 2010:xx). Not only does Booth excludes the voice of the poor in his survey but I have also shown how by creating difference he also is trying to physically exclude them from society.


The corollary of this essay is that the area of present-day LSE campus is presented by the Booth archives as suffering from poverty and immorality through the mapping of social class. However, what I have critically analysed is the way in which the archives represent social class through the language of dirt. By looking at just one aspect of the language used in the Booth archives it shows great heterogeneity in the narrative potential used in social classification. The archives highlight the creation of difference and outcasting. However, what is evident is that the use of dirt to justify social classification is deeply rooted in a political and social sphere in which Booth’s ideology was bound within. Religious motivations, empire building and sanitation beliefs all underpin the ways in which culture and social class are represented. Moreover, I have argued that the language of dirt is in no way a neutral concept. Whether describing physical dirt, dirty practices or even religious practice, dirt is used as a form of power and control. Overall, the area of present-day LSE may have been presented to be made up of lower classes but what is crucial is that this is a representation of space rather than a fixed space. Finally, I believe that the reader themselves is part of this representation of space because we interpret the language used in our own way. Space therefore, just as dirt, is relative to the actor interpreting it.


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