Fascinating facsimiles of Charles Booth’s Poverty Maps published in a book

PUBLISHED: 10:16 01 September 2020 | UPDATED: 10:16 01 September 2020

Booth's Poverty Maps collected details of London's residential areas and graded them in terms of wealth

Booth's Poverty Maps collected details of London's residential areas and graded them in terms of wealth


The Victorian philanthropist and social reformer used his wealth to highlight the plight of nearly a third of Londoners living below the poverty line

Booth's Poverty Maps collected details of London's residential areas and graded them in terms of wealthBooth's Poverty Maps collected details of London's residential areas and graded them in terms of wealth

Coffee-table books tend to be defined by their glossy paper, lush photographs, innocuous subject matter and large size.

Charles Booth’s London Poverty Maps may be a coffee-table book by virtue of size, but it shares none of the other characteristics.

This is a unique publication, best peered into and closely examined – “reading” hardly does justice to the experience – on a table (a magnifying glass helps with some of the maps).

Charles Booth was a successful Victorian businessman who owned a steamship company and used his wealth to hire a small army of researchers to walk the streets of London.

Accompanied by police officers on their beats, they made house-by-house notes on family income, occupation, religion, morals and social life.

Their notebook material was then were used to produce detailed, hand-coloured maps of poverty levels in the capital at the end of the nineteenth century.

The philanthropist and social reformer’s conclusion was that 30.7 percent of Londoners were living in poverty. The east of the city is judged the poorest but “in spite of this it cannot be said that there is a vicious look about the district”.

It is observational comments like these, in combination with the intricately drawn maps of streets and houses, which turn Booth’s project into an invaluable set of historical and social documents.

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The North-Western District, one of twelve divisions used to present the research, includes Hampstead, Camden Town, St John’s Wood, Primrose Hill and Kentish Town.

Its streets are mostly marked in red, the second-highest of the six colour-coded categories and defined as “comfortable”.

Occasional splashes of gold, signifying the “wealthy” are outnumbered by darker colours marking areas where people live below the poverty line.

The pubs in this area earn particular praise for looking “as respectable as a mission house or a board school,” but a keen-eyed researcher looking at equally respectable homes notes how “one had a glimpse of something – a woman leaving a house shawl-clad and care-worn, or a little child not too well cared for, that made one fear that appearances might be deceiving”.

The researcher’s still-valid message – “that clean and garnished windows might not infrequently hide want and suffering” – suggests that Booth’s assistants were on their toes.

You can search Booth’s material digitally (booth.lse.ac.uk/map) but seeing maps and notebook extracts as they appeared on pages of the original volumes brings home just how thorough was the work behind the final set of 17 velum-bound volumes.

Facsimiles of selected pages from the original volumes are fascinating.

They include an A-Z coding of the “Causes of Pauperization”. The first three are work-related - unemployment, poor pay and disablement – but there is also “early marriage”, “drink” and “misfortune (Ye Gods)”.

There is a wealth of photographs from the period and a series of essays by scholars looking at key aspects of Booth’s remarkable and enduring undertaking. Topics include housing, immigration, morality and leisure.

Charles Booth’s London Poverty Maps is published by Thames & Hudson price £49.95.

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