The Charles Booth maps: a quick overview

(NOTE: this blog was revised on 16/10/2014 to clarify the dating of the various Booth maps. Further information can be found on the LSE website)

This post is written in response to the most recent of many – understandable – dating errors in the press when reporting on the Charles Booth maps. The maps presented the social conditions of the people of London according to seven classes. Booth, an industrialist and social philanthropist, had set out to conduct a scientific inquiry into the economic and industrial situation on a street-by-street basis across London. To add to the confusion, each survey took place over a period of years and was published in more than one edition. To simplify this, one could say that there were two main surveys, resulting in maps whose official publication dates were 1889 and 1898-9, respectively; although, as  I have written elsewhere, one could argue that there were in effect three survey maps.

A precursor to the 1889 map was a hand-drawn map showing the actual poverty situation of the East End of London. It was the result of a house-to-house survey conducted by Charles Booth and his team in 1886 and covered only the East End of London. Below we can see a sample of the hand-coloured map that following several iterations of classification, led to the much more complex published map of 1889. Evidently Booth and his team realised that it was impractical to cover a large area using this method (see sample below, from image 028 Whitechapel and Spitalfields area, courtesy Museum of London).


The first published Booth map, covered an extensive area of London. Known as the ‘Descriptive Map of London Poverty 1889’, it was a map of social conditions more than poverty. It represented a combination of factors such as regularity of income, work status and industrial occupation (because some occupations were seasonal and thus irregular). The map was coloured up according to finely delineated gradations of poverty and prosperity, differentiating between street blocks – and on occasion street sides and was based on data collected by Booth and his team of researchers. These included School Board Visitors, who had a detailed knowledge of families with children. The Visitors’ information was cross-checked against reports by philanthropists, social workers, policemen and others, which along with Booth’s own assessments provided as scientific a record as was available at the time. [See image below, a sample from the 1889 map for the same area as above],


In the following decade Charles Booth decide to completely revise his survey (this was during a period of some comprehensive slum clearance programmes as well as a large-scale influx of migration from Eastern Europe). This second map was published as: ‘Maps Descriptive of London Poverty 1898-9. Here members of the Booth Inquiry went on ‘Walks’ around the area, – usually with a policeman – recording their impressions in vivid language of how the streets had changed since 1889. A sample of the same area as above is shown below.


As I’ve written elsewhere (in ‘Mapping the East End Labyrinth), even the briefest of looks at Booth’s map, shows a distribution of prosperity to poverty in a pattern that closely follows the sequence of square and avenue to thoroughfare, road, street, alley, court, yard, to dead-end, rookery and slum.

It is not surprising to find the maps still raising people’s interest, despite London’s landscape having changed dramatically in the past 120 years. Their graphic power in showing the true nature and extent of poverty in London in the past resonates today – perhaps more than ever, as our ability to visualise big datasets improves daily.

East London in 1888 was an overcrowded, densely packed district, suffering from some of the highest rates of poverty in the city. Booth frequently noted in his writing that physical boundaries such as railways had the effect of isolating areas, walling off their inhabitants and isolating them from the life of the city. Similarly, the urban historian H. J. Dyos has pointed out “how often these introspective places were seized by the ‘criminal classes’, whose professional requirements were isolation, an entrance that could be watched and a back exit kept exclusively for the getaway…” Dyos describes how Booth’s maps show how minor changes to the street layout frequently reinforced the tendency of poor areas to be cut off from the life of the city, writing how such changes “acted like tourniquets applied too long, and below them gangrene almost invariable set in… it was sometimes possible to run through the complete declension from meadow to slum in a single generation, or even less”[i].

The LSE library has an excellent overview of the maps here: Some of my own publications of research into the maps can be downloaded by searching here.

[i] Dyos, 1967 in Cannadine and Reeder, 1982, pages 140-141.

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.

3 thoughts on “The Charles Booth maps: a quick overview”

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