The spatial configuration of vice

Having learnt only last week that Charles Booth’s classification of streets as ‘Vicious, semi criminal’ relates to vice, not savagery, I’ve got vice on my mind again (as it were). I’ve been looking through the Booth police notebooks, recording notes from walks that Booth and his colleagues made with beat policemen for the 1899 (re)survey of London. It is striking how spatial their reading of the inhabitation of the streets is. For example, on Barnsbury Road (running north-south on the lower part of the map below): ‘Some brothels in the back streets off the main road. “You will always find them in one or two of the quiet streets off the public thoroughfares in any part of London you go to!”’

This understanding of the pathological use of the street fits very well with current thinking on how street-based crime, which has to avoid police detection, will tend to take advantage of locations close enough to the main streets to benefit from passing trade, but secluded enough to carry out transactions. They also obviously need to have good routes of escape.

Map of London Poverty 1898-9 (© LSE Library)

I couldn’t resist also transcribing the following passage, about Grosvenor Road, Islington, c. 1897, found in the same notebook: [Booth’s informant quoting the policeman, Inspector Mason] ‘“A very, very bad street now and always has been; always seems to be a bad set in it somewhere which makes all the rest bad…” Some prostitutes here but no brothels: all doors open. People worse than in Popham Street: it is a cul-de-sac and Mason said they had more liberty in doing wrong: very rough women about: “if there are thieves about you are pretty certain to find them here”, said Mason but Hoxton he said was more the district for thieves: is not very rowdy place though one or two will run amok occasionally!”’

Further reading

Hillier, B and Burdett, R and Peponis, J and Penn, A (1987) Creating Life: Or, Does Architecture Determine Anything? Architecture et Comportement/Architecture and Behaviour , 3 (3) 233 – 250. Download from:

Hillier, B and Vaughan, L (2007) The city as one thing. Progress in Planning , 67 (3) 205 – 230.10.1016/j.progress.2007.03.001. Download from

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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