Charles Booth: Political Reform and the Spatiality of Poverty

London was in political and economic turmoil in the late 1800s.  Poverty was a major problem for Londoners, who often blamed the poor for disease, crime, and violence.  Many people wrote about these conditions in the mid-1800s. One of these people was Henry Mayhew. Mayhew wrote London Labour and the London Poor in 1840 ( Mayhew used the stories of poor street performers, vendors, prostitutes, beggars, rat catchers and thieves to create data which challenged police reports and census data of the time.


“Beer Street and Gin Lane”. Source:

Mayhew’s work profoundly influenced Charles Booth, who used many of Mayhew’s research techniques to create a series of maps and reports.  His research laid the groundwork for the framework which new welfare policies would be based on.  For a biography of Charles Booth, click on this link:

Booth’s 17-year project was designed to address two things.  First, he was concerned about the Socialist movement in England.  Riots were a serious problem in London, and many believed the socialists were responsible.  Finally, Booth did not believe the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) reports which said that 25% of Londoners were poor. Booth thought the SDF reports were deliberately inflated to encourage conflict.

Booth used Mayhew’s research methods to create a database and twelve maps which recorded 4 million people! In order to define poverty, Booth created a new ‘poverty line’.  Anyone receiving less than 18 shillings per week was ‘poor’.  Booth’s creation of a poverty line is still used in economic policy today.

Booth’s final report, Life and Labour of the People of London (1889), revealed three very important findings.  First, Booth’s idea the SDF were deliberately inflating the numbers of poor people in London was wrong.  Much to the government’s dismay, Booth’s findings showed that 30% of London was living in poverty.

Second, Booth demonstrated that drinking did not cause poverty, as many believed.  The opposite was true – poverty resulted in excessive drinking.  For perhaps the first time, crime, alcoholism and disease could be seen as a result of poverty!

Finally, Booth found that a large majority of the poor were aged.  Booth began campaigning for the government to establish an old-age pension and to abolish the workhouses.  The Old Age Pension Act was finally approved in 1908. Booth’s research, rather than creating a means to end the socialist movement in London, strengthened the power and objectives of the SDF for the future.


UNITED KINGDOM – MAY 14: Spinsters And Widows Protesting For Equity In London On May 14Th 1938 (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images) Source:

The maps of London which Booth created became very important to researchers.  They provided information that showed poverty was not just as an economic issue, but a spatial one!  Booth established seven class classifications for his maps.  These classes ranged from the lowest class (vicious criminals) to the very wealthy.  Each area of London was colour-coded to show the classes of people who lived there.



These maps are now digitized and geo-referenced.  This means that they can be compared to current maps of London in order to track important changes over time!  Maps can help people to better understand patterns of poverty in specific places.  Once we understand these patterns, it is possible to develop policies which better solve poverty problems.


Booth map of Whitechapel. Source:

In the 1800s, many people thought that the poor only lived in certain places, like along the Thames River docks.  It was possible to avoid areas where the poor congregated.  Booth’s findings showed that the poor tended to live in ‘undesirable’ areas, but also lived in the same places as the wealthy.  One example of this is in the historic Whitechapel district.  This was the area frequented by ‘Jack the Ripper’.  This space has a long and volatile history.  Today, evidence of pauper’s graves can be found alongside well-to-do businesses on ‘Petticoat Lane’ (Middlesex Street).


Petticoat Lane Market, 2006. Source:

Unfortunately, mapping poverty in London has also caused harm.  Spatial information was later used by Environmental Determinists, Eugenics societies, and colonial governments to institute ghettos, slums and segregation policies.  Fully understanding the spatial implications of poverty allowed authorities to more efficiently remove the poor from desirable spaces and contain them in less desirable places.  Rather than alleviate poverty, it became possible to plan urban areas which best controlled and policed the poor. Next week, I will examine the policies which emerged from the 1800s, and now form the foundation of the ‘poverty industry’.  Until next time, this is Spatial Integrity – making the invisible, visible!


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