Power and Politics in Booth’s Mapping Survey18 minute read

Victorian London was a site of great social change. Even as it solidified and strengthened its position as national and imperial power, there was a growing unease amongst the middle classes regarding the perceived persistence of poverty and casual labour (Jones, 2013). Numerous writers of the time – including Mayhew and Dickens – wrote about the conditions in which the poor lived, often to sensationalist effect. Their works served to arouse in the general public concern and prejudice, for they feared the threat the existence of this dangerous group brought to the respectable classes (Dyos, 1967). It was an alarmism that spurred more studies into the lives of the poor, carried out by state commissions and private individuals alike, in order to determine the exact dimensions of the phenomenon. Booth’s Life and Labour of the London Poor was the largest social survey of its time, spanning 14 years and 17 volumes, and it went on to have great influence on the field of social sciences as well as on welfare politics. This essay will look at the Booth archives and the politics that are embedded in them, and examine what they tell us about the representation of Londoners, specifically the poor. It will argue that, firstly, the quantitative focus of the survey, far from being objective, was a tool to categorise Londoners into different social groups, forcing on them identities that were used to control them and the spaces they lived in; secondly, the choice to gather information mainly from figures of authority led to a representation of the poor that simultaneously revealed and concealed certain aspects for the benefit of the powerful; thirdly, the persistent association of Jews with poverty was a result of the narrative created through the privilege of authority and the support of public opinion. Overall, this essay posits that the representations of Londoners found in Booth’s survey were not objective nor transparent, for the embedded power inequalities enabled the use of ideological tools and narratives that appeared to be rational to frame issues and people in ways that benefit those in power.

Quantification, identity and control

Booth’s survey was revolutionary for its use of statistical analysis and mapping to describe and explain a social phenomenon. He saw previous reports on poverty, which were reliant on qualitative methods, as sensationalist exaggeration, causing reactive charity that only worsened the evil (Topalov, 1993). He needed a method that would present the facts as they were, free of value judgements. To this purpose he created the social categories in which he sorted all the households he surveyed and the map in which he coloured each street according to the predominant social group inhabiting it. In his view, statistics were a ‘trustworthy generalisation …by which details can be classified and seen in their proper place” (Booth, 1893, in Topalov, 1993). Indeed, he resolved ‘to make use of no fact to which [he] cannot give a quantitative value’ (Booth, 1889); O’Day (1989) noted that interviews were conducted explicitly to supplement the statistics; and his final published survey report included only information that could be quantified (LSE, 2016). The problem of poverty would thus be viewed in perspective, surfacing effective solutions. In reality, his statistical method was an ideological tool that enabled the enforcing of identities onto his subjects, representing them in specific roles in society that facilitated control over them and their spaces.

Statistics were at the time closely tied to the idea of rationality, of being able to present the facts without distortion (Joyce, 2003). In reality, it was teeming with biases and subjectivities. In what Joyce (2003, p.25) calls the ‘technicization of politics’, statistical methods deliberately sought out particular knowledge regarding the issue of poverty, limiting its bounds, thereby reframing the issue in favour of the user’s aims, all the while maintaining a veneer of objectivity. It is a tool of the rational user, in this case Booth and the authorities for whom the map had practical use later on, to categorise people into arbitrary social groups, making each group an entity of known and fixed characteristics. Booth’s arbitrary hierarchy, arranged according to income and general qualities of work and life, included a distinction between the respectable and the immoral poor: those in the lowest class and those with ‘casual earnings’ were poor because they lacked the will or discipline to work hard (Booth, 1889). Each individual was given one of these class identities by which they were thereon represented. The result is that poverty was reframed as a problem with identifiable characteristics and connected to certain social groups. The deserving poor were the victims; the immoral poor the cause. Contrary to Booth’s claim of mere measurement being his goal, his classification system that framed the study in terms of problems and solutions was, as Topalov (1993) asserts, a strategic operation that made the data intelligible. This had even greater significance once one realises that there was little difference between some of Booth’s categories. For instance, there is no real characteristic that separates class B of the ‘very poor’ and class C of the ‘poor’ besides the supposed immorality in class B, as both had irregular earnings. Yet they had different roles in the poverty problem. Admittedly, Booth disabused the public of the popular notion that rowdiness was the major cause of poverty (Langley, 2014), showing that structural problems such as chronic joblessness played a greater part. However, more disturbingly, categorisation allowed him to represent the two lowest classes as ‘residuum’ and needing to be eliminated from society (Gidley, 2000, p. 14; Kimball, 2006), a notion which was reified and reinforced through his maps of poverty.

Fig. 1: Poverty map, inner southern district (Booth, 1898-9)
Fig. 1: Poverty map, inner southern district (Booth, 1898-9)

The poverty maps were a close transposition of Booth’s classification system onto a visual medium. Each colour corresponded to one or two classes, with pink, red and yellow referring to the comfortable working and middle classes, light blue to the poor, dark blue and black to the ‘very poor’ casual workers and semi-criminals, and purple for streets that had a mix. Streets were assigned a colour according to the predominant class of its residents. The social hierarchy he created was by no means one that already existed or was in general use; but his colouring in of the streets according to it reified this construct. The map marked out poverty directly onto London’s spaces, allowing viewers to draw conclusions about the problem, its causes, and its potential solutions. It facilitated the segmenting of the city into subdivisions, reconfiguring existing perceptions of the social composition of the city (Joyce, 2003). Viewers could immediately see where poor people were concentrated, and infer a relationship between poverty and space. These inferences were thought to be correct because of viewers’ acceptance of its apparent transparency (Kimball, 2006) and ‘objective rationality’ (Osborne, 2004), an outcome of its standardisation of space and the aerial perspective. But like statistical representation, maps were too a subjective social and ideological construct. They had their own limitations in representing multidimensional realities, thus distorting the information that influenced social policy (Kimball, 2006). Furthermore, the necessary abstraction in map creation privileged the observer and detached him (for it is a gendered gaze) from the object represented (Joyce, 2003). Building on the opposition of the respectable versus the undeserving poor that Booth’s social classification suggested, the map created a space that was rational and ordered (Joyce, 2003), inscribed the social relations of poverty upon it and reframed it as a spatial issue. Dark blue and black streets became signs that signified poverty due to criminality and disorderliness. As Kimball (2006) argues, it made the problem of poverty seem more manageable, and focused attention to specific areas deemed to be sources of the problem. This had real impacts on policy, as Booth concluded his final report in with suggestions for slum clearance and outward migration into suburbs so as to eliminate poor areas and distance oneself from the poor (Booth, 1903). Yet another form of control over the poor and their spaces, it was a predictable solution in the rhetoric of poverty that was built on the deliberate classification and spatial placement of Londoners, using ideological tools that appeared to be objective, and created categories of people that came to signify social ills. Thus, in his quest to present the true facts through quantification, Booth in fact achieved the representation of Londoners in a way that was hardly value-free nor accurate.

Revealing and concealment in representation

Next, this essay will examine which groups were included or left out of the process of representation and its implications on the way Londoners were represented. The poverty survey, despite having the goal of finding out as much as possible about the poor, hardly sought to gather information from the poor itself, instead relying on figures of authority. This process of privileging some voices over others led to a representation that revealed and concealed different aspects of the poor in a way that was primarily beneficial to the aim of the survey.

Most of Booth’s qualitative data emerged from interviews with School Board visitors, police constables and clergymen. His justification was that these people encountered the poor in their daily lives, and knew the people and their residential districts in intimate and reliable detail (Booth, 1887). Though these people were not themselves poor nor inhabitants of the area, they were given the authority to speak on behalf of the poor. This bears a striking resemblance imperial explorations: just as powerful Englishmen were creating visions of the people of their overseas colonies, similarly powerful Londoners were creating and reinforcing their own knowledge about the poor of ‘Darkest England’, as Kimball (2006) puts it. The knowledge produced from these figures of authority did not paint a complete picture of poverty, but that was not Booth’s aim. His desire to gather only quantifiable information meant that only certain aspects of poverty were inquired about, and the reports contain only the parts of poor ‘culture’ that have been given value within this system. This was demonstrated in an interview with Police Constable Machell on the topic of decreasing drunkenness:

‘The reason Machell gave was first and foremost that the rough drinking class was being driven out and 2) that those who remained had within the last 5 years found a different way of spending their money.’ (Booth, 1898)

Machell’s answer to this question is an incomplete depiction of the situation: the reader only learns the events that led to less drunkenness, but not the forces that drove the leaving of the ‘rough drinking class’ and the change in spending habits, nor the opinions of the poor on these changes. The public lives of the poor had value; their private lives did not; their voices did not. Drawing on Mitchell’s (2000) work, it can be seen that Booth, who had the power to determine the situation in which value was defined, was also able to determine the sources that contained this valuable information. This then resulted in the production of a dominant body of knowledge that revealed some aspects of poverty, but resolutely kept other aspects unknown for a lack of necessity to find out, thus representing the poor in a manner than benefitted only the those in power, and not the poor themselves. This will be further explored in the next section with a case study on Jews in Booth’s London.

The narrative of Jews and poverty

Finally, this essay will look at the representation of Jews, who were given particular attention in Booth’s study. It draws on the earlier point to discuss how the researchers and the interviewees used societal prejudices and their own authority to construct a narrative that reinforced the Jewish community’s place in society as low-class outsiders, one of the causes of poverty. This community is of special interest because of the position they held in society and their general social characteristics, which did not fit in with Victorian public morals. Englander (1989) provides some context to the Victorians’ general views towards the Jewish community: the emergence of a large Jewish enclave in East London due to high migration, together with their different physical features, invoked in the Victorian English a sense that Jews were a peculiar people, an unknown ‘other’. These views were shared by the members of Booth’s team, as well as a good number of their interviewees, whom, until the religious influences series was undertaken, included few Jews.

Numerous references to Jews can be found in the descriptions of living conditions in police walk reports, more so than any other race, but they go unremarked under the authority of the reporter’s apparent objectivity. In one report on St George’s in the East, Duckworth describes Winterton Street as “rather narrow, smelly, …brothels, prostitutes & bullies, Jews coming in at North and very poor” (Booth, 1898). One cannot miss that the presence of Jews was noted alongside other indicators of immorality and disreputability. Even when they were not explicitly linked to signs of poverty, the frequent mentions of the presence or absence of Jews draws the reader’s attention, and creates a psychical connection between Jews and the social condition of an area. Jews were turned into a spectacle: images of them described the set of social relations that associated them with poverty, but, as Debord (1994) explains, this focus obscured the dominant mode of production and allowed those social relations to continue and reproduce. The reader would not understand why Jews were constantly connected with poverty, only that they were and so must be part of the problem. This association was further reinforced through the direct exploration of Jewish lives and trade, for example in this report on the experience of a trousers machinist:

‘She had been at the trade 8 years, and during that time the prices had fallen from 8d or 10d for the making to 6d. The Jews had caused the fall in the price; every time the work comes in they take off a ½d or 1d from the price.’ (Booth, 1884-88)

This reference resonates with the popular notion of Jews as desperate, even greedy, willing to accept lower profits if it meant getting work. They were, according to Beatrice Potter, competitive and ‘unrestricted by the personal dignity of a standard of life, and unchecked by the social feelings of class loyalty and trade integrity’ (Booth, 1889, in Englander, 1989). This assumption of such a cultural trait, with hardly any substantiation, became embedded in the ways Jews were seen and represented in the study, and made their way into the published reports:

‘There was also an influx of foreign Jews, who…came to London, expecting to pick up gold and silver in the streets. Not having a farthing in their pockets, they accepted the sweater’s wages, and honest, industrious English men and women were driven out of the field; and these two evils led to over-crowding.’ (Booth, 1888)

Their behaviour and motivations were explicitly framed as evils, and their position as outsiders emphasized. They were foreign, and unaware of the local economic situation, and they had caused the displacement of hardworking English people. It was a form of cultural production — of giving value to aspects of a society or community – that drew on place and social relations to it as the raw material for production (Newman and Smith, 2000). Despite their commitment to obtaining work and general docility, they still became associated with criminality and vice (Englander, 1989), and the state of their own poverty was never questioned. Supported on one hand by similar opinions from the numerous Gentile interviewees, anti-sweater sentiments from the textile industry and general public acceptance of such views, and unassaulted on the other by substantial opposing voices, this rhetoric persisted, ultimately ensuring that Jews would not be recognised as part of the deserving poor.


This essay has shown the significance of the Booth archives to the representation of Londoners. Firstly, the use of statistical methods enabled the representation of Londoners through identities that were forced on them and then used to control them. Moreover, the privileging of other voices over that of the poor meant that representation of them would only reflect aspects that the figure in power, in this case Booth, found valuable. Lastly, Booth’s team made use of their authority to construct a narrative about Jews that highlighted their position as outsiders in society and space and reinforced their association with poverty. There is doubtless much more to be gathered from this extensive archive, but in the interest of space this essay has not explored much on representation in the religious influences series, nor delved deeply into the power relationships within the hierarchy of the poor; these remain areas for possible future study. To end off, it is meaningful to think about lessons one can draw from Booth’s poverty survey in relation to issues of representation in contemporary society. It must be noted that his work has had immense impact on the tradition of the social survey (Topalov, 1993), and his system of classification still exists in Britain’s census survey today, albeit in a modified form. Maps and statistics are today still regarded with an assumption of objectivity, and thus their limitations and inherent tendency to distort information continue to affect the ways in which things, or people, are represented. The discourse of any major issue is embedded with the politics of power relations, and as different groups struggle to have their values and perspectives gain cultural dominance, some may lose the power to construct and have accepted their own identities. While any one body has social, cultural or political dominance, even if there is a struggle, they also hold on to the power and the tools to determine what will be represented and how. It is thus vital to study the social relationships and inequalities of power that are at work under the surface of any process of representation in order to understand what is emphasised or obscured in the representation produced as a result.


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