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.


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]

[1] https://www.standard.co.uk/news/politics/uncomfortable-truths-to-be-exposed-in-theresa-mays-race-relations-review-a3648956.html

[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: http://www.davidrumsey.com/about.

[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: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lselibrary/22724753136/in/album-72157658449873093/

[5] Image source: https://digital.library.cornell.edu/catalog/ss:19343551