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Poverty lines

Are you vicious? Do you lurch? Have you ever thought of yourself as semi-criminal? Or are you just purple going on blue? If you lived in London in the 1890s, Charles Booth, creator of the London Poverty Map, had a category for you – for what you were depended on where you lived. If you lived in a nice neighbourhood such as Kensington or Lewisham then you probably lived in a street coloured yellow and designated “Uppermiddle and Upper classes. Wealthy”. If you lived in Shoreditch or Holborn, you might well have a street address edged in black (“Lowest class, vicious. Semi-criminal”).

It was a slight, of course, and a slight generalisation. But that’s morphological mapping for you, and it was just this mapping that changed the lives of millions.

Charles Booth was born in Liverpool in 1840, which meant he was perfectly placed to witness the effects of industrialisation on a city that didn’t have the social infrastructure to cope with it. When he took the new steam train to London the picture was even more extreme: those who had been made wealthy by mass manufacture and foreign trade were erecting fearful mental barricades against those whose lives had seemingly gone backwards in the rush. The well-off had begun to segregate themselves in cities like never before, and swiftly became reliant on the new police force to maintain order. But just how big was the problem of the poor? And did domestic squalor necessarily lead to social disorder?

Influenced both by the Quaker philanthropic zeal of Joseph Rowntree and by his wife Mary’s experience of deprivation in the East End, Booth decided to find out. And as the president of the Royal Statistical Society, he was clearly well placed to do so.

East London, vicious, semi-criminal marked in black

Booth had studied the census from 1891, and had broken down the figures on earnings and dwellings into conclusions that at the time established a completely new understanding of how poverty influenced a geographical area. Then he went further, and suggested that where you called home may influence not only how well you lived, but also how well you behaved. A multi-volume report of Booth’s work was full of notes, tables and jagged graphs, and encompassed not just poverty and housing, but also industry and religious influences. Yet he knew from his earliest statistical work that the impact of his research rarely reached those directly affected by it. So he published his findings as maps.

Booth obtained the latest Ordnance Survey charts (on a scale of 25 inches to a mile), and instructed his assistants on hand-colouring. The streets of his first map of Tower Hamlets had six colour-coded categories, but the large-scale map of London had seven:

Black: Lowest class. Vicious, semi-criminal.

Dark blue: Very poor, casual.

Chronic want.

Light blue: Poor. 18 to 21 shillings per week for a moderate family.

Purple: Mixed. Some comfortable, others poor.

Pink: Fairly comfortable. Good ordinary earnings.

Red: Well to-do. Middle class.

Yellow: Upper-middle and Upper classes. Wealthy.

Some streets contained a blend of Booth’s colours, but his findings were still stark. Just over 30 percent of London’s population was shown to be in poverty. His methodology set the tone for a new form of urban cartography that amplified a specific form of information in an aesthetically compelling way. But there was something else about Booth’s maps: they made it look as if the city was moving, not unlike like a live traffic stream today. They weren’t just about topography or navigations – they were about people.

The maps were first displayed at Toynbee Hall in the East End where Booth lectured, and they received instant acclaim. The Pall Mall Gazette called him “a social Copernicus”. A closer look revealed far more than the dissection of London’s rich and poor. They showed that the middle/merchant classes grouped around the large thoroughfares into the city – Finchley Road, for instance, as well as Essex Road and Kingsland Road. Extreme poverty settled by railway yards and canals, as well as cul-de sacs and alleys; the common wisdom had it that criminal classes would find these labyrinths easier to hide in and ambush intruders. Nor did you want to live – or venture close to – the docks around Wapping or Limehouse, areas we now would regard as warehouse-hip and bordering on 2012 Olympic.

Booth continued to expand and update his map coverage until 1903. He didn’t work alone, and his many assistants gathered information from many sources, particularly school board inspectors, “worthy” locals and the police. The descriptions that accompanied the maps were both startling and compelling. Chelsea, for example, was predominantly blue to black, its houses described as predominantly damp, crowded and peopled with “lurchers” who never pay rent. Westminster was dark blue, a dirty, bad lot. Greenwich, red, was a little more des res, teeming with caretakers, police sergeants and works inspectors. The reports also detected what we may now call gentrification and the reverse, the formation of slums. As Booth put it colourfully, “The red and yellow classes are leaving, and the streets which they occupied are becoming pink … whilst the streets which were formerly pink turn to purple and purple to light blue.”

Booth’s reports on the black and blue areas were less about poverty and more the degrees of crime. In the Woolwich ‘Dust Hole’ for example, blue and black on the map, the police refuse to attend incidents unaccompanied, and find that “missiles are showered on them from every window when they interfere.” Elsewhere in the darkness, Borough High Street seemed to come straight out of ‘Nicholas Nickleby’: “Youths and middle-aged men of the lowest casual class loafing. Undergrown men. Women slouching with bedraggled skirts. A deformed boy with naked half-formed leg turned in the wrong direction …”

Booth’s colour-coding had many limitations, as he himself acknowledged, not least condemning nameless inhabitants on account of their neighbourhood; it did nothing for the ghettoisation of the Jewish and Irish populations in the East End. But the maps did lead to reform and the improvement of lives. A year after his first map appeared, the Public Health Amendment Act prioritised the local provision of water and sanitation, while the Housing of the Working Classes Act of the same year enabled local authorities to purchase land for improvement and thus initiate slum clearance. Two of the causes Booth identified as the cause of poverty are so obvious to us now that they seem banal – low income and unemployment.

But the third was more shocking in its generalisation: old age. Booth saw this last cause as the easiest to improve, and the statutory introduction of a non-contributory pension in 1908 owed much to his campaigning.

Booth’s cartography had solidified a fairly novel theory in the way we live our lives, namely that where we live does indeed determine how we behave. The layout of the city – its morphology – was itself a prime cause of misdemeanour. Booth advocated the provision of more open green spaces and the eradication of the cul-de-sacs, courts and alleys – a prime force in the fairly new concept of urban planning rooted in social justice.

One looks at the Booth maps today (and they have a fine, searchable website, http://booth.lse.ac.uk/) with a mixture of disbelief and awe. Has there ever been a finer depiction of a more vibrant city? Has there ever been a map where the population it portrayed gazed upon it with so much anxiety?


Simon Garfield’s ‘On the Map: Why the World Looks the Way it Does’ is published by Profile Books.

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