Charles Booth’s London
Charles Booth and the City
The Poor are always with us—or such, at least, was the accepted Victorian view. But exactly how many of them were there, and precisely how poor were they? Until the very end of the nineteenth century, these were questions which it was hard to answer with any marked degree of accuracy. Much piecemeal evidence was available, admittedly: bluebooks, industrial statistics, census returns, novels, essays in social criticism. Then, too, there were the first-hand accounts of conditions in the slums written by doctors, clergymen, charity workers, and journalists, of whom Henry Mayhew was an unrivaled but by no means unique example. The amateur sociology of the Victorian age deserves to be better known than it is, in fact; even such long-forgotten works as Sanitary Rambles and The Bitter Cry of Outcast London still have a more than academic interest, and to label such literature moralistic or impressionistic is often to say nothing more damning about it than that the authors said what they felt and described what they saw. Still, when it came to the practical needs of social policy and social research, none of this was plainly any substitute for systematic fact-gathering on a comprehensive scale. For that, the Victorians had to wait until the 1890s; but at least when it came—in the shape of Charles Booth’s monumental Life and Labour of the People in London (1889-1903)—it turned out to be very systematic and comprehensive indeed.
In its scope, Booth’s survey went far beyond anything that had previously been seen, and in some ways it has never been surpassed. According to Professor Pfautz, it remains “the only detailed empirical study of the social structure of a large city available to sociologists.”
If it also remains largely unread, the reasons are not far to seek—it runs to seventeen volumes, and most of the information which it contains could be of no conceivable interest today to anyone except a specialist. With the problems of urban poverty once again in the headlines, however, it seems natural that there should be renewed curiosity about Booth’s achievement as a whole, and two recent American selections at last give the wider public a chance to become acquainted with his work. Unfortunately neither is entirely satisfactory. Mr. Fried and Mr. Elman try hard to point up Booth’s contemporary relevance, but a succession of factual errors suggests that they are not altogether at home in the Victorian period. For example, the English Marxist H. M. Hyndman, who was educated privately and at Trinity College, Cambridge, is somehow transmogrified into “the autodidact F. D. Hyndman.” (In the pages of Pfautz the poor man turns up as “C. S. Hyndman.”) And, more significant, it is quite untrue to say that in the 1880s London was still periodically plagued by cholera; the last major outbreak was in 1866, and by 1870 the disease was no longer a serious threat, largely on account of public health measures which are of the first importance to …
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Poor People May 22, 1969