The “narrow streets and meaner houses” of Soho in 19th century London

“Segregation is one of the key methods of accommodating difference” (Peach, 1996: abstract)

It’s been interesting to see the large number of responses to the cover of my new book, Mapping Society: The Spatial Dimensions of Social Cartography. Clearly the Charles Booth maps of poverty resonate with anyone who knows London even in a small way. Just as I’ve seen when people visit my offices (where the maps are pinned to the wall), people’s immediate reaction is to peer closely at the map and search for where they live, or at least somewhere familiar, to see what is was like in the 1890s.

Section of Charles Booth’s Descriptive Map of London Poverty, 1889, sheets 1-4. Image copyright David Rumsey Map Collection, The map’s streets are coloured in a range of colours from warm (yellow, red and pink) to cool (blue to black) to represent classifications from ‘wealthy’ to poor. See key to map below.


It took several iterations to determine which part of the map to show. In the end I chose to centre the image on the West End, rather than the End End of London (which is the more obvious illustration of the spatial dimensions of social cartography, as I wanted to highlight how even in central London, poverty was situated cheek by jowl with prosperity). At the same time, it is clear how the area west of Regents Street is significantly more prosperous than the district to its East.

This matter is not by chance. H.J. Dyos has written how John Nash’s decision on the alignment of the new Regent Street in his masterplan from 1809– 33 was a conscious confirmation of the perceived need for separation between the ‘streets and squares occupied by the nobility and gentry [to the west], and the narrow streets and meaner houses occupied by mechanics and the trading part of the community [to the east, broadly in the Soho district]’.

Regents street slide
John Nash’s plan from 1812 for the new Regents’ Street and Park alongside section of the Charles Booth map of 1889, showing the same area.

The spatial configuration of Booth’s West End is worthy of closer scrutiny, and indeed it formed part of a research project I ran over a decade ago, where I compared the two districts to see if my earlier findings regarding a correspondence between poverty and spatial segregation (measured using space syntax methods) was replicated in the West End of London. Indeed this was the case: both in the study area and in its comparator area, north of Oxford Street, we found a rise in spatial integration alongside a rise in prosperity similar to the pattern shown for the East End. It is notable that the integration values for the red (‘middle class’) streets were much higher in the area north of Oxford Street, whilst gold (‘upper middle and upper’ class) streets had an average value which was below the average red values in the north, though only marginally so. (We concluded this reflected the way in which the wealthiest squares of London have the tendency to step back from the main roads, leaving only one flank facing the city’s busier arteries).

Analysis of the study area, which covered the area east of Regent Street and south of Oxford street, also considered morphological factors such as block size, and showed the study area to have much smaller blocks and narrow streets than its surroundings. The effect of smaller block size is an intensification of the grid, with the ability to make more small-scale journeys. In other cases, where this is coupled with high levels of integration, small block size has been found to correspond to areas of intensified commercial activity.

This is explained by Penn (2003), who shows that “one of the primary effects of the built morphology and its use by people” is to enable movement, smaller blocks enable speedier journeys across the grid. Penn’s second effect is that the “morphology of the environment defines a local visual field and so defines the area from which one can derive visual information and within which one can potentially be considered visually co-present with others” (Penn, 2003: 62.12).

In the cases here, smaller blocks are not coupled with large visual fields and high integration, so, the consequence effect is likely to have been localised patterns of movement and social interaction, which do not engage as well with the larger scale built environment (and the larger patterns of socialisation).

These findings help explain how both Soho and the East End emerged over time as poverty areas. It also helps explain how these areas have acquired a history of being the place of sub-cultures, whether of specific economic activities, specific markets or specific social groups, such as the Italian immigrants who set up restaurants in 1880s London.

“Halfpenny Ices”. From ‘Street Life in London’, 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith. Copyright London School of Economics (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0). (See Sponza, 2002).


[i] For full analysis, see section of special issue of Progress in Planning (Vaughan, 2007).

For more on poverty in London, see blog post on the John Snow map of cholera in Soho.


Dyos, Harold J. 1967. The Slums of Victorian London. Victorian Studies XI:5-40.

Peach, Ceri. 1996. The Meaning of Segregation. Planning Practice and Research 11 (2):137-150.

Penn, Alan. 2003. The Shape of Habitable Space. Proceedings of the Fourth International Space Syntax Symposium, London. pp.: 62.01-16

Sponza, Lucio “Italian ‘Penny Ice-men’ in Victorian London” in Kershen, Anne. 2002. Food in the Migrant Experience. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

Vaughan, L. 2007. The spatial form of poverty in Charles Booth’s London. Progress in Planning: special issue on The Syntax of Segregation, edited by Laura Vaughan 67 (3):231-250.


Poverty concealed, but just around the corner

E.P. Thompson, the ‘New Left’ social historian of seventeenth and eighteenth working-class England has written how by the 1830s and 40s the working people were “virtually segregated in their stinking enclaves” – this was not just social segregation, but spatial segregation too, with the middle-classes getting as far out of the polluted industrial cities “as equestrian transport made convenient.” Even in comparatively well-built Sheffield,

‘All classes, save the artisan and the needy shopkeeper, are attracted by country comfort and retirement. The attorney-the manufacturer-the grocer-the draper-the shoemaker and the tailor, fix their commanding residences on some beautiful site.’

Even more was the case in Manchester, where the poor lived in courts and cellars “hidden from the view of the higher ranks by piles of stores, mills, warehouses, and manufacturing establishments, less known to their wealthy neighbours … than the inhabitants of New Zealand or Kamtschatka”. Thompson quotes a contemporary writer stating how:

‘The rich lose sight of the poor, or only recognise them when attention is forced to their existence by their appearance as vagrants, mendicants, or delinquents. We have improved on the proverb, “One half of the world does not know how the other half lives,” changing it into “One half of the world does not care how the other half lives.’ …”[1]

Victoria Bridge, Manchester by James Mudd, c.1864 (GB124.Q38)
Victoria Bridge, Manchester by James Mudd, c.1864 © Manchester Archives & Local Studies Central Library, M60991 (GB124.Q38)

It is in fact interesting to see how the notion of ‘How the Other Half Lives’ was later picked up by Jacob Riis in his own account of life in the New York tenements of the 1890s, where he describes how the unventilated courts were a breeding ground for disease, hidden away from the eyes of the people of the city.[2]

The spatial nature of poverty was especially apparent in the Cheetham Hill area of Manchester, which suffered from its geographical situation, sloping down to the railway in the valley of the Irk,[3] with houses arranged in cramped rows along excavated shelves separated and supported by flimsy retaining walls. This area of ‘classic slum’ was, according to Bill Williams physically invisible: “self-contained and shielded from view by the lie of the land and a facade of shops and public buildings, socially barricaded by the railway and industries in the polluted valley of the Irk, and so neglected and ill-lit as to be in a state of ‘perpetual midnight'”.[4].

I write in Mapping Society how 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 rebels’.[5] 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. Out of sight is truly out of mind and it is thanks to the social investigators of a century and a more ago that we are a bit less complacent about the poverty that is situated just around the corner.


[1] Thompson, E.P. 1963. The Making of the English Working Class: Penguin Books (A Pelican Book), pp. 321-2. I’m grateful to Duncan Hay from Survey of London for bringing this passage to my attention.

[2] Riis, Jacob August. 1890. How the other half lives: Studies among the tenements of New York. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

[3]See Makepeace (1997).

[4]  The district became an area of high density settlement by Jewish immigrants from the 1870s onwards. Quote is from: Williams, B., 1985. ‘The Anti-Semitism of Tolerance: Middle-Class Manchester and the Jews 1870-1900’, in: Kidd, A., Roberts, K. (Eds.), City, Class and Culture. Manchester UP, Manchester, pp. 74-102, p. 81.

[5] F. Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (New York and London: Panther Edition, 1891 (first published Leipzig: Otto Wigand, 1845), p. 57.


Revisiting the “poverty line”

As we discuss the current state of relative and absolute poverty in the UK, it’s worth revisiting the origins of the concept of a “poverty line” in the work of Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree.

Poverty image (Getty)
Street hawkers selling Christmas gifts on Ludgate Hill, London. Dec 1907

Booth’s definition of poverty was intentionally relative, given that he was using a description of class, rather than income. In other words, he 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. While Charles Booth never defined an actual poverty line, he refers in his writings to a line of poverty, which he notionally positioned at a “bare income” of 18s. to 21s. per week.[i] This was a hypothesised line demarcating those who were just getting by and those who were in want. It was based on Booth’s close observation of a statistical sample of a large population – across many industries active in London at the time. These conditions included the physical setting within which people were living.

Booth and legend
Charles Booth map of poverty, 1889, showing area around the East End of London

Charles Booth’s observations on poverty situated the problem as being to do with the regularity of income just as much as its level. Yet he also put great emphasis on the spatial influences on social situation. Scattered through Booth’s 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…”[ii].

My own space syntax analysis of street block level poverty on the Booth maps has showed statistically measurable differences in the spatial segregation of the poverty classes in contrast with the ‘comfortable’ classes. His three poverty classes – black, dark blue and light blue – were in significantly segregated locations, although these were only one or two streets away from the more prosperous streets of the area. The results suggested that Booth’s three poverty classes constituted a spatially defined poverty line.[iii] Namely, there was a measurable relationship between spatial segregation and living in poverty.

Space syntax analysis of spatial integration (x axis) averaged for the six Booth classes of poverty. Image from Vaughan, L, and I Geddes. “Urban Form and Deprivation: A Contemporary Proxy for Charles Booth’s Analysis of Poverty.” Radical Statistics 99 (2009): 46-73.

Seebohm Rowntree’s York enquiry was conducted with a team of assistants during the period 1899-1900 and then published in 1901 under the title ‘Poverty, a Study of Town Life’. While the study was inspired by Booth, in contrast with Booth’s extensive study using multiple sources, Rowntree chose to conduct an intensive study of a single town, much smaller than Booth’s London.[iv]

Despite the differences in scope, the York study had very similar results to those of Booth: large families crammed into small rooms without sanitation or ventilation and disease rife in poverty areas. Rowntree’s team found that a quarter of all York’s children living in its slums died before the age of one and overall, the poverty rate of the town was at least as bad as that found by Booth in London. If a child survived childhood, their poverty was typically due to the casualization of labour, or sickness or injury from work. If an individual survived working life, it was old age that was likely to return a person to poverty; just as Booth had found, old age was closely correlated with poverty. Unsurprisingly, both Booth and Rowntree became campaigners for pensions.

Map from Seebohm Rowntree’s survey of poverty in York. Source: Rowntree Society and Rachel Welford

By aiming to determine the nature of living in poverty, Rowntree was in effect investigating whether it was due to ‘wasteful expenditure’, or ‘insufficient means’. Rowntree’s report did much to reiterate Booth’s findings that poverty was not, as was typically thought, a matter of fault; critically, his determination of a poverty line based on income was set at the point at which income was only enough for the “maintenance of merely physical efficiency”, as opposed to access to enough to allow for “expenditure necessary for the development of the mental, moral and social sides of nature.”[v]


Gillie, A. “The Origin of the Poverty Line.” Economic History Review 49, no. 4 (Nov. 1996): 715-30.

Rowntree, BS. Poverty: A Study of Town Life. 1902 2nd ed.  London: Macmillan, 1901.

Spicker, P. “Charles Booth: The Examination of Poverty.” Social Policy & Administration 24, no. 1 (1990): 21-38.

Vaughan, L, and I Geddes. “Urban Form and Deprivation: A Contemporary Proxy for Charles Booth’s Analysis of Poverty.” Radical Statistics 99 (2009): 46-73.


[i] Quote is from Booth’s address to the Royal Statistical Society, 1887, cited in Gillie (1996)., p. 715. See also P Spicker, “Charles Booth: The Examination of Poverty,” Social Policy & Administration 24, no. 1 (1990).

[ii] Quoted in Pfautz (1967), 120.

[iii] L Vaughan and I Geddes, “Urban Form and Deprivation: A Contemporary Proxy for Charles Booth’s Analysis of Poverty,” Radical Statistics 99 (2009).

[iv] “I am much indebted to Mr. Charles Booth and his associates for valuable suggestions given from time to time during the progress of this investigation. In a letter received from Mr. Booth, which is printed on p. 800, he shows the relation which exists between the York figures and those which he had obtained for London. It is unnecessary to point out the significance and importance of the facts which Mr. Booth thus brings out. BS Rowntree, Poverty: A Study of Town Life, 1902 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1901)., p. ix.

[v] Rowntree., pp. 112.