Book review: Charles Booth’s London Poverty Maps

Following is a slightly expanded version of a review of a book about the Charles Booth maps of poverty in London that came out a short while ago. The review was first published on the LSE Review of Books website on 25/10/19. An additional paragraph below discusses what we know about precedents to the Booth maps.

6_West Central district_legend
Legend for ‘Map Descriptive of London Poverty 1898-1899’. LSE reference no. BOOTH/E/1/6.

Charles Booth’s London Poverty Maps. London School of Economics and Mary S. Morgan, Inderbir Bhullar, Sarah Wise, Anne Power, Katie Garner, Aileen Reid and Jacob F. Field, with a foreword by Iain Sinclair. Thames and Hudson. 2019.

‘I may here draw your attention to the many coloured map hanging on the screen, which I have called the Map of East End Poverty. Although it is on a large scale – 25 inches to the mile it requires a near view, and even needs a magnifier to be seen properly. It has been tinted with various shades of colour – from pink, through violet and blue, to black – to represent the condition of the people.’ (Charles Booth, 1888, 284-85)

Charles Booth first presented his poverty mapping project to an audience at the Royal Statistical Society over 130 years ago. His monumental study, which resulted in seventeen volumes of written analysis, hundreds of handwritten notebooks – and most vitally, a masterwork of two series of maps that created a detailed chromatic coding of London’s patterns of life and labour in the last two decades of the nineteenth century – continues to fascinate both as a visual record of the past, as well as essential evidence on the social logic of urban space.

6_West Central district_crop
Section of ‘Map Descriptive of London Poverty 1898-1899’. Sheet 6. West Central District covering: Westminster, Soho, Holborn, Covent Garden, Bloomsbury, St Pancras, Clerkenwell, Finsbury, Hoxton and Haggerston. (LSE reference no. BOOTH/E/1/6)

Charles Booth’s London Poverty Maps have been issued in a sumptuously illustrated, large format (36.5 x 26.5 cm) book by Thames and Hudson in conjunction with the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). LSE Library is home to the Booth archive whose importance is recognised by its inscription on UNESCO’s UK Memory of the World Register. While there have been dozens of publications relating to Booth’s project throughout the past century, this latest publication is probably the most comprehensive printed pictorial record of it to date.

The book’s opening pages explain how Booth started his inquiry into the life and labour of the people of London in the 1880s, having gathered together a self-funded team of researchers to capture data on the true nature and extent of poverty in London, with the aim, Booth wrote, of showing ‘the numerical relation which poverty, misery, and depravity bear to regular earnings and comparative comfort, and to describe the general conditions under which each class lives’ (Charles Booth, 1889-97, 6.).

The book provides an essential guide to the landscape of London’s poverty in late-nineteenth-century London, much of which can be gleaned from the ‘morbid beauty’ of the descriptive maps, as Iain Sinclair’s ‘Forward’ to the book puts it. The two series of map surveys (of 1889 and 1898-99), their extents as well as the systematic methods used for the study, are explained through excellent graphic presentations throughout the book, while the book’s five thematic chapters (on housing, immigration, religion, trade and morality) reflect the principal themes of the inquiry. The thematic chapters are interspersed with interleaving sections for each of the twelve districts. Each section contains the full extents of the maps alongside detailed descriptive statistics, photographs and other pictorial sources. The reproductions of sample descriptions from Booth’s notebooks bring the data to life with visceral language that records the experience of walking the streets of London, while photographs of people such as a cat’s meat man enrich the scholarly accounts.

Iain Sinclair’s ‘Foreword’ evokes the precedents to Booth’s work from novelists Arthur Morrison and George Gissing and journalists such as Jack London, so “the rigour of this masterwork was a step change forward to refinement and indeed an invention of the academic discipline of  social science”. Sinclair provides an argument for this use of mapping as stemming from Booth’s familiarity with shipping charts through his work as a shipping magnate. Other interesting speculations about influences on Booth’s mapping methods come from Mary Morgan’s ‘Introduction’, which mentions possible precedents to Booth: property maps of a small area of Sydney made by the economist William Stanley Jevons (1835-1882) and the medical-epidemiology maps by John Snow. She writes how Snow’s approach was critical to the current understanding that an individual’s level of poverty has many systemic causes (see p. 41).

A precursor to Booth?

In fact, there is a strong argument (as I wrote a couple of years ago), that a significant precursor to Booth work is found in the set of maps of Liverpool published in 1858 by a parish priest, Abraham Hume, who lived in All Souls, Vauxhall – possibly the poorest and unhealthiest district of the poorest city in England. Maps were a constant in Hume’s method. Prior to the Liverpool study, he had used them for his contribution to the 1851 census of religious worship. Almost as soon as he had been given charge of his Liverpool parish Hume compiled records on its housing conditions as well as patterns of church-going. Hume set out his statistics street-by-street in a pamphlet published in 1858, alongside a set of maps to denote, in turn, ecclesiastical, historical, municipal and moral and social statistics. While there is only circumstantial evidence for him having seen Hume’s maps, it seems more than a coincidence that when Booth embarked on his survey in 1880s London he employed similar methods of gathering statistics and mapping them to those that had been used by Hume. Nevertheless, in scale, ambition and influence, the two men’s efforts cannot compare.

Rev. Abraham Hume’s map of Liverpool, Ecclesiastical and Social (coloured historically), 1854. From Hume, Abraham. Condition of Liverpool, Religious and Social, Etc. 2nd ed. Liverpool: Privately printed, 1858. Electronic image courtesy of Tinho da Cruz, Department of Geography and Planning, University of Liverpool

Mary Morgan highlights the importance of Booth’s work as a social scientist. Rather than relying on a single source of data, she writes, Booth triangulated data on individual household surveys, observations regarding patterns of work statistics as well as qualitative findings from researchers spending time in the studied areas – either by staying with families, or by spending time in workshops – in order to get a multidimensional insight into life and labour, and not, as she points out, just poverty.

In fact, various contributing authors mention the fact that this project was not so much a static snapshot of income levels, but a study of social conditions, yet there is an interesting debate played out on the book’s pages over whether this was an entirely objective study. Morgan argues that despite the apparent moralistic language of the class categories (with ‘vicious, semi-criminal’ for the bottom class being the most extreme example), Booth’s research showed that the principal causes of poverty were not just income levels, but particular circumstances, such as irregularity of income or accidents, ill health and old age. In contrast, Sarah Wise argues in her chapter on ‘Morality’ that Booth’s team was ‘relentless’ in its negative judgement of supposedly feckless behaviour.

The book also highlights various important themes relating to the relationship between poverty and housing, urban design or planning. In fact, the maps’ importance as evidence for the spatial dimensions of social cartography (as I have termed it) is highlighted by Morgan, who ends her chapter by observing how the survey’s cartographic records ‘introduced a way of saying a city is mapped in socio-economic space’ (41). The maps don’t just illustrate issues of displacement caused by urban change, but also the domino effects of improvement, having both social and spatial influence on adjacent areas. So, for example, we can see the impact of the main railway stations and tracks in acting ‘like tourniquets’ (see the classic 1967 paper by H. J. Dyos on the slums of Victorian London) to restrict the lifeblood of areas where Londoners were just getting by: in places improving inner city slums by replacing them with model dwellings, but for the poor, as Anne Power shows in her chapter on ‘Housing’, displacing poverty to ‘ever tighter spaces’ (80). The latter chapter abounds with examples of the spatiality of poverty, such as in descriptions of how streets of deep poverty, coloured black in Notting Dale, housed the ‘casual poor’, who were working for the rich of Kensington living in nearby streets, coloured red or gold.

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Section of ‘Printed Map Descriptive of London Poverty 1898-1899’. Sheet 8. Outer Western District, Covering: Fulham, Kensington, Notting Hill, Kensal Green, Kilburn, Earl’s Court, Shepherd’s Bush and Hammersmith.

The book also provides an important analysis of how London’s rapid growth in the nineteenth century shaped patterns of poverty and wealth across the Victorian metropolis that are persistent to this day. The chapter on ‘Religion’ by Aileen Reid is especially insightful on the social and economic aspects of religion such as churchgoing habits, the impact of clergy’s outreach work and the economic consequences of charitable giving, with some interesting observations on Booth’s team’s attitude towards the recently arrived refugee Jews living in the East End. She comments on the map drawn up in 1899 by George Arkell (one of Booth’s team) of Jewish East London, which uses a visual language borrowed from the poverty maps, with the cold, dark colours used to denote poverty on the Booth maps used here to colour the Jewish majority streets, and the warm tones of Booth’s prosperity correspondingly used to denote predominantly non-Jewish streets

Jewish East London, 1899. from Russell, B.A. & H.S. Lewis. 1901. The Jew in London: A Study of Racial Character and Present-Day Conditions. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co. Copyright Cornell University – PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography (with permission).

And so to the legacy of Booth’s work. We learn that by the turn of the century Booth’s analysis had not only overturned many of the prejudices regarding the nature of deprivation in London, highlighting the complexity of ‘situation’, but also had practical outcomes, such as legislation to record overcrowding in the census and a successful campaign for an old age pension. His methods were replicated in subsequent social studies, most notably in the 1895 Hull-House study of Chicago that drew up an even more detailed set of coloured maps of nationalities and of wages. But Booth’s legacy is longer still. It is reasonable to state that his research methods helped establish the academic discipline of social science. While we continue to battle with social issues that were already being tackled 100 years ago, it is worth revisiting what we learned at the time: how poor housing areas can diminish the circumstances of local communities, while poor housing management or upkeep can have a significant impact on people’s lives.

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Detail of Wage Map No. 4, Hull-House Wages maps, 1895. Copyright Cornell University – PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography (with permission).

The 12 sheets of the 1898-99 survey can be downloaded free from the LSE website, while readers can compare London’s streets today with how they were in Booth’s time here.


Booth, C. (1888). “Condition and Occupations of the People of East London and Hackney, 1887.” Journal of the Royal Statistical Society 51(2): 276-339.

Booth, C., Ed. (1889-93). “Life and Labour of the People in London”. London, Macmillan & Co.

Dyos, H. J. (1967). “The Slums of Victorian London.” Victorian Studies XI: 5-40.

Residents of Hull-House – a Social Settlement (1895). “Hull-House Maps and Papers: A presentation of nationalities and wages in a congested district of Chicago, together with comments and essays on problems growing out of the social conditions”. New York, Thomas Cromwell.

Vaughan, L. (2018). “Charles Booth and the mapping of poverty”. In Mapping Society: The Spatial Dimensions of Social Cartography (pp. 61-92). London: UCL Press. Download free here: 

W.E.B. Du Bois: Charting Black Lives

I was pleased to see the announcement of a new exhibition at the House of Illustration on the pioneering work of W.E.B. Du Bois (running 8 Nov 2019 to 1 Mar 2020, 10:00am – 5:30pm).

W. E. B. Du Bois: Charting Black Lives will display the complete set of 63 graphics shown at the 1900 Paris Exposition, produced by Du Bois and a team of African American students from his sociology laboratory at Atlanta University. These visually innovative graphs, charts and maps formed a radical new approach to refuting racism, using strikingly presented facts and statistics to counter contemporary white supremacy.

Thanks to the excellent chapter by Martin Bulmer in The Social Survey in Historical Perspective, I became aware of the work of Du Bois on The Philadelphia Negro (1899), where he mapped the residential distribution of African-Americans according to a scale of income, from black to red (in explicit homage to the work of Charles Booth).

Detail of: The Seventh Ward of Philadelphia: The Distribution of Negro Inhabitants Throughout the Ward, and Their Social Condition, 1896. From the 1899 edition of Du Bois, “The Philadelphia Negro”. Image copyright University of Pennsylvania Archives.

Du Bois’ legacy as an urban sociologist is frequently omitted in the narrative arc that starts with Booth and continues with Hull-House and through the work of the Chicago School from the early twentieth century onwards. His pioneering study of Philadelphia’s black population was entirely original in its comprehensive and systematic empirical analysis of an area of the city that until that time had not been considered worthy of analysis. The subject of migration continued to interest Du Bois, who analysed it in subsequent studies he conducted at the University of Atlanta, where he went on to work. The pioneering infographics, such as the one below is one of many such statistical graphics created by Du Bois for his later studies and it is these that feature in the exhibition at the House of Illustration.

Infographic from W. E. B. Du Bois’ Hand-Drawn Infographics of African-American Life (1900), taken from:

An interesting footnote to this piece is that one of Charles Booth’s maps, Map Showing Places of Religious Worship, Public Elementary Schools, and Houses Licensed for the Sale of Intoxicating Drinks, 1900 and Du Bois’ info graphics on “The American Negro” were both exhibited at the Paris Exhibition of 1900.

Photograph of Exhibit of the American Negroes at the Paris exposition, 1900. Taken from The American monthly review of reviews, vol. XXII, no. 130 (1900 November), p. 576. Library of Congress record


Bulmer, M., Bales, K., Sklar, K. K., Eds. (1991). The Social Survey in Historical Perspective, 1880-1940. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1899). The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. New York, Schocken Books.

Rudwick, E. (1969). “Note on a Forgotten Black Sociologist: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Sociological Profession.” The American Sociologist 4(4): 303-306

Vaughan, L. (2018). Mapping society: the spatial dimensions of social cartography. London, UCL Press.

See also:

The Casbah of Algiers – a “ghetto”?

The Cyprus Network for Urban Morphology has just published the proceedings of its first conference, which include the findings of a study into Algiers’ urban transformation over the past two centuries, as it changed hands under various colonial powers.

Algiers Casbah
Algiers Casbah – Google Earth

The typical narrative of this change is that the historical city, the Casbah, became effectively segregated by its isolation from the French colonial streets and structures.


“… a divided town largely designed for the needs of the French military – “war place,” … The eastern third of the Muslim city became a European town. Somewhat broadened, largely rectilinear streets replaced narrow, winding ones. The remaining two thirds of Algiers, severely depopulated during conquest, were left to recover slowly as the native town… [ evoked] a sealed-off world that kindled fantasies of Orientalist sensuality, exoticism, timelessness, mystery and squalor.” (Nightingale, Carl H. 2012. Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities (University of Chicago Press: Chicago).

This narrative suggests that the social-political division between native and incoming peoples deepened over time due to the increasing spatial segregation of the area. Yet, our research shows that while there has been a shifting in the location of the Casbah’s local marketplace and other core public functions, the historic district has maintained local connections to its surroundings, enabling it to maintain trade connections with the wider city.

The paper can be downloaded from here: Sekkour, Issam, and L Vaughan. 2018. “The Casbah of Algiers: from a fortified city to a “ghetto”…’:

Algiers_syntax analysis
The street network of Algiers c. 1930. From left to right segment angular analysis of: radius n choice, radius n integration and radius 400 integration

The full proceedings are available from the conference website: N. Charalambous, N. Zafer Cömert, Ş. Hoşkara eds., Urban Morphology in South-Eastern Mediterranean Cities: Challenges and Opportunities, Proceedings of the 1st Regional Conference: Cyprus Network of Urban Morphology, 16 -18 May 2018, Buffer Zone, Nicosia, Cyprus, Nicosia 2019 ISBN: 978-1-5136-5221-4.