A brief introduction to Charles Booth’s maps of poverty


Image credits: Extract from original hand-coloured Charles Booth map of poverty. Image © Museum of London, with permission

The revolutionary work of Booth was to for the first time outline the variation in the perceived black hole of poverty which was the East End. Booth produced the first study of the detail of poverty and wealth. His Life and Labour of the People in London (1892) is, as the title suggests, as study of the local economy of each part of London. The colouration of the maps (Booth 1889, 1898-9 – see hand-coloured map in image here) were based on supposedly clear-cut differentiation of poverty counts from street to street are accompanied by his own assessments about each district of the city which were based on house-to-house descriptions collected by Booth and his team of researchers. The maps apparently show a morality-based assessment of poverty, with descriptions of “lowest class, vicious, semi-criminal – occasional labourers, loafers, semi-criminals, street sellers, performers and outcasts of the streets”, yet there is also an emphasis that some of the poor are there for no fault of their own and perhaps a reorganisation of space will eliminate the worse street culture. As stated by Bill Fishman in ‘East End 1888’: ‘the poor were not a homogeneous class’, but varied in their situation according to their work status.

Charles Booth maps of poverty are well known for their use of colourful language – the “vicious, semi-criminal” class (see image of map legend here) is of particular fascination, but we shouldn’t forget also the visual rhetoric of the map. A Daily News reviewer: described it so –

[The map] is in many colours, and the specks of black will show us where to

find the haunts of the lowest class… Happily, the strange landscape shows

a fair predominance of the more cheerful colours. It is a pink, and a red, and a

light blue landscape, on the whole; and only here and there . . . are the dismal

shades which seem but so many varieties of black.

The Daily News reviewer also called the 1889 map a “new physical chart of sorrow and suffering and crime” [East London Life Daily News 16 April 1889, Charles Booth Archive, London School of Economics, A58.53] – the word “physical” (as Miles Kimball from Texas Tech has pointed out) suggesting that the reviewer saw the charts less as mere graphics than as a direct translation of physical reality to a graphic mode. Booth’s maps, in presenting poverty as a concrete problem that could be communicated in a few sheets of paper, a few lines, a few splashes of colour, encouraged people to overcome the paralyzing complexity surrounding poverty and actually do something. And in fact, by the time the last edition of the maps was published in 1902, many of the areas of black and dark blue had been targeted in a heavy-handed urban renewal: torn down and replaced with “respectable” homes, parks and hotels.” One example of this is the area of Rothschild Buildings, which was an area of rookeries at the time of the previous map. (More about Rothschild Buildings in another blog.)


UCL Space and Exclusion research project: http://www.bartlett.ucl.ac.uk/space-syntax/research/projects/exclusion

Charles Booth Online Archive: http://booth.lse.ac.uk/

Author: (sub)urbanite

Professor of Urban Form and Society and Director of the Space Syntax Lab, Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. Online in a personal capacity.

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