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Charles Booth's Poverty Mapping

In 1889 Charles Booth undertook an immense task of creating a poverty map depicting the social conditions of every street in London. To get a true picture of what it was like in the street and area your London ancestor lived, this social survey is a unique tool.

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Susan Bogan
Word Count: 462 (approx.)
Labels: Social Aspect 
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Charles Booth undertook the challenging and complex project of studying poverty and bringing it to the forefront in Victorian Britain for greater understanding. This study lasted 12 years. Booth and his team of investigators covered the east end of London where poverty was at its worse, and then continued to map the whole of London. The reasoning behind this task was not just to survey and report, but to find the possible cause of the poverty and the poverty trap people found themselves sin and unable to rise out of it.

How did Booth undertake this study? A team of researchers would accompany policemen on the daily beat through the streets of London; accompany school board attendance visitors, church ministers, and churchgoers; and visit factories and places of work, interviewing extensively at home and in the workplace. Using notebooks to record the interviews, the data was collated to eventually producing the first poverty map in 1889, "Labour and Life of the People." Although the word poverty was used, it was a study of the whole social structure, which showed the living and working circumstances of th population of London. Not only do the surveys give information on the level of income of the family, it elaborates and uncovers at length, both the leisure and religious ways of Londoners. The policemen and school board inspectors knew the people they came across, so local familiarity provided the investigators with on-hand knowledge. Observations on crime and drunkenness, comments on the state of the streets and the conditions people had to live under, were all well noted. Food, clothing, and the deprivation of the qualities of life we expect today were all part of the overall picture ascertained. Nothing like this study had ever been undertaken before, and these notebooks survive in a collection at the London School of economics.

From these notes the map was produced, determining the social class/category of a family from the data collected, the large street map was thus coloured. The colours represented each category:

  • Yellow; Upper class and upper middle class
  • Red: Middle class, well-to-do
  • Pink: Good wages and fairly good way of life
  • Purple: a Mixture of some reasonable and some poor
  • Light blue: Poor
  • Dark blue: Very Poor, unabating need
  • Black: Semi-Criminal, violent. Lowest
From the first map, the work continued to 1903. The Booth collection in the Archives Library of London School of Economics contains in all 450 of the original notebooks, plus papers, maps and other documents. Fortunatley, this amazing work has been put online and is a free searchable archive: http://booth.lse.ac.uk/" target="_blank">http://booth.lse.ac.uk/">http://booth.lse.ac.uk/. You can search the catalogue, as well as browse the maps and notebooks. If your ancestor came from London in the time zone noted, it is a fascinating insight into their life, the street whee they lived, who else lived there, and the conditions etc.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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