BBC programme on maps

Maps: Power, Plunder and Possession: episode 2 – Spirit of the Age

In a rather neat coincidence, a TV programme from 2010 that features some of the key maps that I discuss in Mapping Society, such as John Snow’s map of cholera in Soho, Charles Booth’s maps of poverty, and the 1900 rare map of Jewish East London is showing on the BBC iplayer for the next few days. It features Professor Danny Dorling, Ed Parsons from Google, and a rather more fresh-faced version of yours truly (amongst others).

In a series about the extraordinary stories behind maps, Professor Jerry Brotton shows how maps can reveal the fears, obsessions and prejudices of their age.

Religious passion inspires beautiful medieval maps of the world, showing the way to heaven, the pilgrims’ route to Jerusalem and monstrous children who eat their parents. But by the Victorian era society is obsessed with race, poverty and disease. Royal cartographer James Wyld’s world map awards each country a mark from one to five, depending on how ‘civilised’ he deems each nation to be. And a map made to help Jewish immigrants in the East End inadvertently fuels anti-semitism.

‘Map wars’ break out in the 1970s when left-wing journalist Arno Peters claims that the world map shown in most atlases was a lie that short-changed the developing world. In Zurich, Brotton talks to Google Earth about the cutting edge of cartography and at Worldmapper he sees how social problems such as infant mortality and HIV are strikingly portrayed on computer-generated maps that bend the world out of shape and reflect the spirit of our age.

Available to watch on BBC iplayer for 6 more days: 

And my tip of the day: most UK universities provide access for free to BoB: Learning on Demand, which allows staff and students at subscribing institutions to record programmes from over 65 free-to-air channels, and search the archive of over 2 million broadcasts on TV and radio.

From my bookshelf

2018-09-27 08.07.31In an interview published in Times Higher Education this week, I was asked about the books that inspired me in writing Mapping Society (my new book with UCL Press). Given the constraints of space, I thought I’d write a bit more about my sources of inspiration here.

The sidewalks of Williamsburg were cracked squares of cement, the streets paved with asphalt that softened in the stifling summers and broke apart into potholes in the bitter winters. Many of the houses were brownstones, set tightly together, none taller than three or four stories. In these houses lived Jews, Irish, Germans, and some Spanish Civil War refugee families that had fled the new Franco regime before the onset of the Second World War. Most of the stores were run by gentiles, but some were owned by Orthodox Jews, members of the Hasidic sects in the area. They could be seen behind their counters, wearing black skullcaps, full beards, and long earlocks, eking out their meager livelihoods and dreaming of Shabbat and festivals when they could close their stores and turn their attention to their prayers, their rabbi, their God. [Excerpt from ‘The Chosen‘ by Chaim Potok).

As a child, books such as From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler were the sort of safe adventure that, as someone situated in the suburbs – first of London and then of Jerusalem – seemed an ideal way of exploring the city. It tells the story of Claudia Kincaid, who decides to run away, not from home but to a place that epitomises beauty and elegance, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Yet later in my teens it was darker tales, such as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and the novels of Chaim Potok, which shaped my interest in poverty, religion and the city.

My initial interest in social maps came from Bill Hillier and Julienne Hanson’s theories of space syntax, laid out in The Social Logic of Space, which I first encountered in the 1990s when I was studying at the Bartlett UCL for my Master’s in space syntax. In one of the most important papers published by Hanson and Hillier, The Architecture of Community, they argue that it is the combination of an urban individual’s plural memberships, for each of which a different set of spatial principles is used, and each of which is concurrently realised in space, which creates the form of the city. By considering urban social space as plural, rather than singular; namely that a person can belong simultaneously to a home-based local community as well as to a wider network of connections around the city, I was able for the first time to look at maps, such as the map of Jewish East London from 1899, as more than a snapshot of a situation in time, but as a source for starting to unpack what had been considered until now a static ‘ghetto’.

The Jew in London: A study of racial character and present-day conditions (full text available) was published just a few years before the first Aliens Act. It captured the pattern of Jewish settlement at the time in graphic detail, showing the variation in Jewish residential density street-by-street across the East End of the city. The map’s author George Arkell had worked with Charles Booth on his magisterial, Life and Labour of the People in London and I soon realised that London’s East End which had been perceived to be an immigrant ghetto, had a spatial complexity that warranted detailed exploration and indeed, 25 years later, I am still mining the riches of its urban spatial history.

2018-09-27-08-08-23.jpgRobin Evans on Rookeries and Model Dwellings influenced a lot of my early thinking too , while social histories by Bill Fishman (East End 1888) and H.J. Dyos (The Victorian City) and more recent historical geography of Cities in Modernity by Richard Dennis, showed me a way to research social cartography through the prism of a locale’s physical, cultural and economic context.

In the case of Evans, he showed how demands to deal with the problem of urban poverty were due to a prevailing concern  that the dense, dark urban fabric would conceal the worst of the social indecencies of the rookeries, whose interiors, were:

‘characteristically portrayed as the scene of daylight dissipation, drunkenness and criminal conspiracy . . . a picture not of an actual place but of a latent condition… ‘filthy habits of life were never far from moral filthiness’.[i]

David Sibley’s Geographies of Exclusion and the work of Ceri Peach on the geography of ethnic pluralism, spurred me to analyse the spatial complexity of segregation. Finally, Pfautz’s classic work on Charles Booth (On the City: Physical Pattern and Social Structure) helped shape my hypotheses regarding the urban ecology of London.


Readers wishing to have a more generalist introduction to cartography are likely to find Great Maps by Jerry Brotton a useful introduction to the topic. For those especially interested in London, Peter Barber’s London: A History in Maps, gives a similarly long mapped history of the city. As regards social cartography, I’d recommend Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map, which is an account of the 1854 cholera epidemic and the establishment of disease mapping as a scientific method. I must also mention the immense scholarly enterprise of The History of Cartography,much of which has been made available open access by its publisher, University of Chicago Press.

Mapping Society: The Spatial Dimensions of Social Cartography is out now (open access with UCL Press).

[i] Evans, ‘Rookeries and Model Dwellings’, p. 95, citing W. Beckett Denison, ‘On Model Lodging Houses’, 1852.

Linguistic colour in social cartography

I wrote a while back on how language has been used to describe the human condition in cities, citing Weber’s likening of the city as akin to ‘a human being with its skin peeled off and whose intestines are seen at work’ as an example of how language has been used over years to express visceral disgust towards slum areas of cities.[1]

This is a recurring topic in my forthcoming book, Mapping Society: The Spatial Dimensions of Social Cartography, where I write that no language, especially when used to describe marginality, is entirely neutral. When Engels was roaming the streets of London, visiting the slums, but also negotiating his way through the streets of ‘The Great Town’, he wrote: ‘The very turmoil of the streets has something repulsive, something against which human nature rebel.’  This could be interpreted as a repulsion against the lack of care towards the city’s poor, but equally, his words can be read as horror at the degradation of their behaviour as well. In fact, as Gareth Stedman-Jones has written, poor districts had become by this time ‘an immense terra incognita periodically mapped out by intrepid missionaries and explorers who catered to an insatiable middle-class demand for travellers’ tales’.[2] Lurid newspaper articles on the East End used ‘slum stereotypes and other formulaic motifs’ to reinforce the colourful descriptions read by the masses, helped by the fact that most of their readers had never ventured into its streets.[3] On the other hand, sensational imagery used by those who visited the slums safely at a distance from their carriages was bolstered by more precise accounts from what might be termed as explorers, who roamed the streets on foot to get closer to the reality of life in and on the slum streets. These ranged from Henry Mayhew’s newspaper articles published between 1849 and 1850 (and collected in London Labour and the London Poor), through Charles Dickens on his Night Walks, whose accounts of ‘houselessness’ helped shift Victorian consciences regarding the plight of the poor.

Similarly, numerous accounts of nineteenth-century slums show the negative perceptions associated with clusters of ethnic minorities. I discovered some of the worst language in the texts associated with the maps drawn up to record the activities in San Francisco’s Chinatown. This sense of foreign intrusion was strengthened by styling Chinatown a ‘colony’. The term was widely used in American cities to characterise poverty districts as being foreign in their character. Looking at the 1885 map of San Francisco’s Chinatown of that time (the first to be called that) we can see a compelling example of visual as well as linguistic rhetoric being used for a political purpose – to raise public concerns about the supposedly invasive population. The map was drawn up to accompany a report by a committee that had been established by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to record ‘the Condition of the Chinese Quarter’, aiming to uncover the effects of Chinese immigration on the locality.

Official Map of Chinatown, San Francisco, 1885.
Image copyright Cartography Associates, 2000

The report, an inflammatory text titled ‘The Chinese at Home and Abroad’ had gambling and the taking of opium described vividly as a ‘twin problem’. The author did not hold back on his criticism. In a passage rife with racist language and replete with terms intended to emphasise his revulsion at the manner of living in the quarter, he writes,

‘The twin vices of gambling in its most defiant form, and the opium habit, they have not only firmly planted here for their own delectation and the gratification of the grosser passions, but they have succeeded in so spreading these vitiating evils as to have added thousands of proselytes to the practice of these vices from our own blood and race.’[4]

Indeed, Nayan Shah has written of the salacious ‘press coverage of public health inspections’ in which ‘reporters described the Chinatown labyrinth as hundreds of underground passageways connecting the filthy “cellars and cramped “garrets” where Chinese men lived.’[5] Thus, language is used to paint a picture of the ethnic minority as living in spatially segregated conditions, with eyewitness accounts casting the Chinese quarter as being comprised of ‘serpentine and subterranean passageways’. In a neat trick, the minority group is distanced, if not in reality, than at least in the mind, by being hidden away. Thus, both the clustering, and the spatial segregation of the Chinese inhabitants of the city were seen as a severe challenge to public order in much the same way that Booth’s policemen viewed parts of London a decade later (and with similarly intolerant language).

An opium den, Chinatown, San Francisco, California (c.1900s). The fact that such images were available for sale is an indication of the exoticisation of the Chinese population at the time. Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views

I end with another aspect of the use of language in social cartography, namely the way in which writers on the city used language to depict spatial segregation. One of the most interesting examples of this is  Frederic Thresher’s The Gang: A Study of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago, published in 1927 (and still in print), which is full of the most intricate detail on the spatial nature of gang activity and the way in which disorderly behaviour takes place in the interstitial, marginal areas of the city, namely ‘the spaces that intervene between one thing and another’. In fact, an interesting game could be played spotting the many synonyms for segregated areas used in the course of the book. The wilderness, the slum, the colony and the terri­tory are found to nestle on the barriers, borders or frontiers of another gang’s area. These are typically in low elevation areas – valleys, gullies or canals – which are segmented by railroad tracks or highways; in some cases, they occur in a veritable wilderness or so-called blackspot.

The low areas of the city were shelters for crime and – as Dickens had it over half a century earlier –  crime and poverty intertwined in the worst corners of the city, with Nicholas Nickleby finding,

‘. . . pieces of unreclaimed land, with the withered vegetation of the original brick-field. No man thinks of walking in this desolate place, or of turning it to any account. A few hampers, half-a-dozen broken bottles, and such-like rubbish, may be thrown there, when the tenant first moves in, but nothing more; and there they remain until he goes away again: the damp straw taking just as long to moulder as it thinks proper: and mingling with the scanty box, and stunted everbrowns, and broken flower-pots, that are scattered mournfully about – a prey to “blacks” and dirt.’[6]


[1] Weber, 1904, quoted in Nolan J. L. What They Saw in America: Alexis De Tocqueville, Max Weber, G. K. Chesterton, and Sayyid Qutb (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2016), p. 72.

[2] Stedman Jones, G. Outcast London: A Study in the Relationship between Classes in Victorian Society. Oxford: Peregrine Penguin Edition, 1984, p. 14.

[3] G. Ginn, ‘Answering the “Bitter Cry”: Urban Description and Social Reform in the Late-Victorian East End,’ The London Journal 31, no. 2 (2006)

[4] Farwell, W.B. The Chinese at Home and Abroad Together with the Report of the Special Committee of the Board of Supervisors of San Francisco on the Condition of the Chinese Quarter of That City. San Francisco: A. L. Bancroft & Co., 1885, p. 39.

[5] N. Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), p. 29.

[6] Dickens, C. Nicholas Nickleby. University of Oxford Text Archive http:// text/ 3082. html. Accessed 24 May 2017.