Jerry White is a London Historian, Professor at Birkbeck College and a London Fairness Commissioner.


Toynbee Hall, in London’s East End, has been very much the midwife to the London Fairness Commission (LFC). It is here that we meet together and where our staff are based, and it is at the heart of a network of social investigation and collective intervention in London life, especially in the East End. Toynbee Hall is also a congenial base for the LFC for another reason too. Toynbee Hall played a similar role in the very first systematic investigation into London poverty. It was begun, paid for and supervised by one man, Charles Booth, between 1886 and 1903.

Charles Booth (1840-1916) was born into a wealthy ship-owning family in Liverpool. With a strong aptitude for maths he was inducted into the family firm at the age of 16 and grew the enterprise with his eldest brother.

Business might have been his life but it was his marriage to Mary Macaulay in 1871 that marked his true turning point. Mary was a metropolitan bluestocking from a family of radical administrative reformers. This match encouraged an interest in the scientific study of society’s problems. In the midst of a social and economic crisis in 1886 impacting especially hard on the East End of London, he resolved to discover the depth of poverty and need in this crucible of the country’s ills. He embarked at his own cost – he was a very wealthy man – on a ‘poverty survey’, making his own definition of what constituted a ‘poverty line’.

His first task was to devise a poverty line and his second was to enumerate the proportions of East London’s population who lived above and below the line. He went further, dividing the population into eight ‘classes’ depending on family income. Essentially then this was an economic survey depending on assessing the earnings of a family’s major breadwinners. Four classes he put below the poverty line:

A (the lowest class of ‘semi-criminal and degraded’, more of a moral category than an economic one, as he admitted at the time);

B (‘casual labour, hand to mouth existence, chronic want’, ‘very poor’);

C and D (‘the poor’, discriminating between those whose earnings were irregular and those in fulltime work but on very low wages).

He then placed another four classes above the poverty line:

E and F (both ‘working class’ from the regularly employed on fair wages to the ‘comfortable’);

and G and H (middle class and above).


Besides all the detailed and extensive statistical analyses that underpinned Booth’s survey, he simultaneously produced what in many ways he is best remembered for today: the Booth maps of London poverty.

As Booth’s work progressed, classifying the people and drawing the maps became two sides of the same coin. The process leading to one also led to the other. The same people were involved, the same data used for Booth’s statistical tables and for the maps that immediately flowed from them. It was an immense task. How was it done?

He relied very heavily in the process of collecting information and devising the maps on one important group of local officials. These were the 270 or so school board visitors employed by the School Board for London, the body tasked from 1870 with establishing compulsory elementary education for all the children of London, however poor they were or dysfunctional their homes. He set out how uniquely placed these officials were to give him the information he sought and described their relationship with the Londoners in their patch as follows,

The School Board Visitors perform amongst them a house-to-house visitation; every house in every street is in their books, and details are given of every family with children of school age. They begin their scheduling two or three years before the children attain school age, and a record remains in their books of children who have left school. Most of the visitors have been working in the district for several years, and thus have an extensive knowledge of the people…. They are in daily contact with the people, and have a very considerable knowledge of the parents of the school children, especially of the poorest amongst them, and of the conditions under which they live.

Booth’s staff supplemented these schedules by means of interviews with the school board visitors, noting down their descriptions ‘of the inhabitants of street after street’, these are full ‘of picturesque details’. But the school board visitors had a key function that Booth failed to mention: they policed the lives of the poor. For they were the law enforcement officers who could and did prosecute parents for failing to send their children to school or for permitting truancy, and whose prosecutions could and did lead to fines and imprisonment for those convicted. We should not forget that the visitors were at war with some families, among them the poorest, and that the visitors’ powers could be backed up by arrest and imprisonment.

Booth Poverty Map

Descriptive map on London poverty in 1989 by Charles Booth.

Once the largescale maps were coloured they were given a public airing at Toynbee Hall and Oxford House.

It is worth noting who was consulted and whose views were taken into account in devising the poverty maps. They were not the poor themselves, far from it. Rather, it was those who were paid to control and discipline the poor in some way. Relieving officers were the agents of the poor law authorities employed to give or to deny aid to the destitute and very poor, either in their homes (the ‘deserving’ and the elderly) or in the workhouse, where family members were separated and subject to institutional discipline. The Charity Organization Society, its agents often clergymen, policed the interface between private philanthropy, which was discouraged, and the poor law, so that families did not hawk their poverty from one agency to another and thus collect more than was due to them. And the Metropolitan Police speaks, as it were, for itself.

In addition, the churches and the universities collaborated in the two earliest great East End university settlements mentioned by Booth, at Toynbee Hall and Oxford House. Charity organisation men and clergymen of one complexion or another were active among the founders, and all were outsiders – even if the outsiders were broadly sympathetic to the difficulties of poor Londoners’ lives. That reflects the mores of the time and the generally superior attitude that educated men and women of all political persuasions, including those on the left, adopted to working people during this period. But it is worth noting as a key difference when considering questions of poverty, inequality and fairness in London today.

Booth, however, was not inquiring into inequality, a word that I don’t think you’ll find anywhere in his seventeen volumes. He took it for granted, as a fact of life. His interest was in the poor, in the causes of their poverty (which he thought were almost entirely economic) and in what might be done to reduce their poverty and make their lives better. That might have impacted on inequality, of course, but that was not his aim, and nor was the redistribution of the nation’s resources between his eight classes to another.

Nor was he inquiring into fairness, again a word that he didn’t use, although he did talk about ‘fair wages’ and ‘unfairly paid’, so the concept underpinned something of his inquiry. Who was living at a level of income above or below the poverty line, that was the question he pursued. And he came up with stunning answers.

Between 1889 and 1891, Booth extended his survey beyond the East End to consider the whole of central London, north and south of the river. He concluded that for central London as whole 30.7 per cent of the population lived below his poverty line, or some 1.8 million people. It was a proportion, and a number, that staggered many in the middle classes, who felt that the socialists’ estimates of London poverty during the 1880s had been an exaggeration. The socialists talked in round figures of one in four Londoners living in poverty. In fact, Booth showed, the truth was far worse.

Unsurprisingly, Booth’s work caused a sensation. It was reviewed and noticed everywhere and was almost everywhere considered a great and illuminating success. The Times, in recognition of the great social problem now convincingly dissected for all to see, called the survey ‘the grimmest book of our generation’.

Inevitably, after the first shock had settled, Booth’s survey provoked opposition. The controversy that ensued over whether Booth’s poverty line was set too high, as some contemporary observers affirmed, or was too imprecise, as many subsequent investigators concluded, raged in learned societies and journals for months, even years, to come. There was room for argument either way. But at the end of it all, Booth’s poverty line, of around 21s a week for a family of five, stood the test as a reasonable and pragmatic proxy for the threshold of hardship in the London of the 1890s.

When the London School of Economics came to revisit London poverty forty years after Booth had begun his work, the poverty maps were unavoidably an integral part of the project. In 1935 LSE’s social investigation published nine volumes of the New Survey of London Life and Labour. Two of the nine volumes were given over entirely to folding maps showing London poverty in much the same way as Booth had done some forty years before.

In the intervening period much had changed. Most important of all, the New Survey had to deal with a far larger London. There had been extensive growth since 1900 and especially from 1924, and when the Survey began suburban growth was more prodigious than at any time before in history. So it was now essential to include most of the County of Middlesex, and those parts of Essex, Kent and Surrey that were now indisputably part of London’s built-up area and inextricably attached to the capital.

The New Survey’s results overall, analysed it’s true to say before the worldwide financial crash of 1929 had really impacted on the metropolis, revealed a London far less poor, far less unequal, far more fair than had been the case in Charles Booth’s day. Just one figure will have to suffice here: on an upgraded Booth standard to take account of contemporary expectations of what a family might reasonably be able to purchase, the New Survey on one measure found 6 per cent of families in poverty in East London against 30 per cent in 1890.

The New Survey’s methods followed Booth in relying fundamentally on the views of outsiders in assessing the lives of the poor, rather than involving the poorest Londoners themselves. Yet, when all that is said, how grateful we must remain for Booth and for his legacy, working through his disciples forty years on. These surveys, even when properly contextualised, are so much better than nothing at all. And how woeful the neglect of our own generation, the lack of intellectual curiosity of our own times, that nothing comparable has so far been generated in the eighty-five years since the New Survey.