The Charles Booth maps as a mirror to society

I am struck by a quote in today’s Standard (and many international press outlets) that Prime Minister Theresa May has announced a new website, Ethnicity Facts and Figures: ” She said:

“In doing this groundbreaking work we are holding a mirror up to our society. The idea itself is not new, Charles Booth’s maps of rich and poor areas in Victorian London drew attention to hardship that was too often hidden, but this focus on how ethnicity affects people’s lives will present findings that are uncomfortable.”[1]

In my forthcoming book for UCL Press I will show that May is correct to say that Booth’s maps drew attention to hardship that was too often hidden. Yet, it is important to point out that his maps had a much more fundamental purpose: they highlighted the role of spatial setting on social conditions. Booth did not define a basic level of subsistence, below which an individual could fall; rather, he established what the conditions were in which poverty took place.[2] These conditions included the physical setting within which people were living. Scattered through his writing are comments such as “Thus… the ‘poverty areas’ tended to be literally walled off from the rest of the city by barrier-like boundaries that isolated their inhabitants, minimizing their normal participation in the life of the city about them…” (See Figure 1). Just as in the past, the same is today: by ignoring the impact of policy decisions on where and how to design housing; on where and how to design town centres, we are doomed to forget the lessons of the past.

Figure 1: Sample area from Booth’s Descriptive Map of London Poverty 1889 showing The Old Nichol area, which was transformed into the Boundary Estate by the London County Council.[3]

Booth determined the class of residents according to their situation. He took specific note of the accessibility of areas to one another, particularly areas of living to areas of work. In other words, Booth recognised that if an individual found it difficult to get to work from home, they would find it harder to get a job. Indeed there are many accounts of dockers having to live within reach of the port or tailors having to live within barrow-wheeling distance from the tailoring industry’s heartland. If poverty areas were cut off from the life-blood of the city, they were more likely to decline into festering sores on the body of the city.

Booth was also deeply aware of the impact of the physical conditions of housing on poverty. Amongst his recommendations to the Royal Commission on Housing (1901) about the urban spatial solutions to housing and poverty were provision of better transport to allow for dispersal to the suburbs; improved planning: open space; widening of thoroughfares and opening up of courts; closing of houses not fit to live in; supervision of new buildings; slum clearance; and a policy of construction and reconstruction throughout London (not only in its crowded parts). Taken together, such policies were taking account of the importance of the finest scale of design, as well as the finest delineations of social conditions.

Booth’s project became part of the drive for reform which sought state intervention to relieve poverty conditions. The Nichol’s housing was demolished and replaced by the Boundary Estate. It was the first project constructed by the newly formed London County Council, the first state social housing in the country. The process of spatial change that would normally take a significant period of time to have an impact on social patterns of life was much more rapid in cases such as this. The aim of the slum clearances was to tidy up the overly complex geometry of the street layout. Instead of the dense, labyrinthine layout of the Nichol a central circus ringed by impressive red brick blocks of flats were constructed, with streets radiating out from the centre to connect up with the surrounding area. Once constructed, the complex was rapidly inhabited. Less than ten years later, the streets were classified by Booth’s team as ‘pink, fairly comfortable’ (see Figure 2). Even at its time it was a step up from the surrounding area. However, in the same unfortunate pattern seen today in many regeneration projects, the original inhabitants of the cleared streets had to move elsewhere – they could not afford to move into the new housing. Their new living conditions were only a mite better than before, and in some cases less; as the surrounding housing became more overcrowded, they continued to worsen.

Arnold Circus_1998
Figure 2: Detail of Map Descriptive of London Poverty 1898-1899 showing The Old Nichol area transformed after the construction of Arnold Circus.[4]

May’s website intends to – rightfully – examine the problems of the marginalisation of some of this country’s ethnic minorities. But, just as with poverty, we need to be just as careful with analysing associations between ethnicity and poverty. Booth’s associate, George Arkell drew up in 1901 a map of Jewish East London, that sought to shed light on what was seen at the time to be a highly problematic ‘ghettoisation’ of the large influx of refugee Jewish migrants from Eastern Europe. Close examination of his map alongside the Booth maps shows how fundamental it is to account for how long someone has been in the country, what their network of support is, opportunities to obtain work and ultimately to acculturate into wider society. The ‘ghetto’ was, and continues to be, a misnomer.

Figure 3: Detail of map of Jewish East London, published in The Jew in London.  London: Fisher Unwin, 1901[5]


[2] Paul Spicker, “Charles Booth: The Examination of Poverty,” Social Policy & Administration 24, no. 1 (1990).

[3] Image: Composite map of Descriptive Map of London Poverty 1889. To accompany Labour and life of the people. Appendix to volume II. Edited by Charles Booth. William and Norgate, London; Edinburgh. 1891. Images copyright © 2000 by Cartography Associates. Source:

[4] 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. Source:

[5] Image source:

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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