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 anyone studying the administration of the city at this period, but which Fried and Elman, who generally seem determined to make a sufficiently dark picture even blacker, studiously ignore. Nevertheless from the point of view of the general reader they have more to recommend them than Professor Pfautz. They have chosen their extracts with an eye to vividness and readability, and they reprint some of the more picturesque sections of the original in their entirety, notably Beatrice Webb’s account of the Jewish East End, and Booth’s own description of “Unity Sunday,” a crowded Frith-like panorama of open-air preaching on Peckham Rye.

By contrast Pfautz’s selection is bitty, and his introductory essay, though detailed and informative, is heavily academic, written in the usual ready-to-xerox jargon that shows up as particularly cumbersome alongside Booth’s old-fashioned civilized prose. There are two respects, however, in which he has done a better job than Elman and Fried. Unlike them, he includes a good deal of statistical data—and one of the main points about Booth’s method was his success in blending statistics and reportage. He also reproduces a specimen section of the “map of poverty,” which Beatrice Webb regarded as perhaps the most impressive outcome of the whole inquiry. This map, originally issued in separate folders, covered the whole of labyrinthine central London, with every single street and alleyway tinted one of seven different colors according to the social status of its inhabitants—a minor triumph of Victorian cartography, and a reminder of how lavishly Booth was prepared to back his ideas. The entire survey eventually left him well over £30,000 out of pocket, a very considerable sum for those days, and not tax-deductible either!

Not that he couldn’t afford it. The son of a prosperous Liverpool merchant, by the time he was forty he had made a fortune in shipping on his own account. His first extended contacts with poverty, gained while electioneering on Merseyside as a young man, were enough to make him skeptical about the Unitarian tradition of Good Works in which he had been reared, and for a time he devoted himself to such causes as secular education and parliamentary reform. Then, disheartened by the meager results, he tried once again to concentrate all his energies on business, which satisfied at least one side of a complicated, highly strung temperament. (His career was punctuated by a number of serious breakdowns.) But his social conscience still nagged at him. He received fresh intellectual stimulus through his marriage to a gifted woman who was to share his enthusiasm for the Survey to the full: Mary Macaulay, a niece of the historian and a cousin of Beatrice Webb—yet one more instance of the extent to which in Victorian England the Family, to speak Podhoretzwise, literally was a family. He felt the need of a faith, too. For a time it looked as though Positivism might be the answer, but in the end he found it too utopian and too dogmatic. His thoughts kept returning to immediate social problems, above all to the problem of poverty; he explored the East End, talked to social workers, interested himself in working-class movements—“though not in Karl Marks (is that the name?) and the ultra set.”


It was an “ultra,” however, who eventually spurred Booth into undertaking the work which made him famous. In 1885 Hyndman and the Social Democratic Federation published figures claiming that no fewer than 25 percent of the working population of London were living in conditions of dire poverty. Convinced that this was a rabble-rousing exaggeration, Booth set out to compile his own statistics, relying in the first place mainly on the evidence of School Board officials and devising a standard-of-living index which broke down the population into eight main groups, labeled—in ascending economic order—from A to H. The standards of those in classes A to D, he reckoned, fell below the reasonable minimum of comfort, or, to use the term for which he is best known, below the Poverty Line. (Was the concept suggested to him—a natural enough inspiration for a shipowner—by the recently introduced Plimsoll Line?) The first area which he investigated was East London, where he found, to his dismay, that the proportion of the population living in poverty actually amounted to some 35 percent. This was bad news; but at least it could still be argued, hopefully, that such notoriously slum-ridden regions as Shoreditch and Bethnal Green were unrepresentative. Subsequent findings showed, however, that in London as a whole 30 percent of the population, which meant nearly 40 percent of the working class, were struggling along below the Poverty Line. Before long, too, other investigators were reporting strikingly similar figures for provincial cities; in particular, there was Seebohm Rowntree’s classic study of primary poverty in York.

As far as Booth was concerned, living conditions were only half the story. From the first, he was equally preoccupied with work and wages. His East London survey contained a good deal of new material relating to the two most hotly debated labor questions of the hour, the great dock strike of 1889 and sweating in the tailoring trade; subsequently five complete volumes, the so-called “Industry Series,” were devoted to labor conditions generally. These in turn were followed by the seven volumes of the “Religious Influences Series,” which in fact touched on many secular cultural influences as well, and a final volume which included numerous notes on working-class mores and on specific social problems such as drink and prostitution. And at almost every stage, except in the duller stretches of the Industry Series, there were case histories, interviews, descriptive sketches, anecdotes from Booth’s notebooks.

He was not an especially vivid reporter, and anyone who goes to him hoping to find another Mayhew will be disappointed. But being both an honest and a sensitive man, he could at any rate be relied on to talk to the poor without condescension, and to record whatever his inquiries brought to light without flinching. Few of his readers are likely to forget in a hurry his account of the tumble-down horrors of the streets off Drury Lane, or the history of the Rooneys, “a family prolific in paupers,” or the glimpses which he gives of markets, doss-houses, working-class funerals, backstreet chapels, skittle alleys, opium dens. Here and there, too, he does bring individual types to life with something of Mayhew’s pungency—the professional rat-catcher, “as surly as his dogs and as sharp as his ferrets, and as rough a customer as any rat”; the elderly atheistical doll-maker (“he said his brother had served the Lord till seventy-four years old and ‘then He thought fit to choke him’ “). And since a good social researcher must have curiosity as well as a conscience, there are any number of out-of-the-way facts, from the origin of nursery rhymes to the tendency of dentists to have their consulting-rooms in squares (on account of the better light), and the tendency of prostitutes to have their consulting-rooms near the major railway stations.


What Booth lacked were adequate theoretical tools for arranging and interpreting all the information which he had heaped up. His concluding remarks in Volume XVII, which cost him a good deal of labor, are a sad anti-climax; and even his biographers, the Simeys, who claim what they can for him as a theorist, are forced to concede that

his inability to construct a sufficiently elaborate and clearly defined framework of analysis…led him to accumulate vast numbers of facts that, far from “speaking for themselves,” obstructed the development of a better understanding of their significance.

The Simeys are inclined to put this defect down to “an excess of impartiality,” but in a more general way it can surely be related to Booth’s old-fashioned laissez-faire liberalism and the essentially atomistic view of society which it entailed. State regulation of the economy was anathema to him, and for the most part he was vehemently opposed to “socialism,” which meant, in the common usage of the period, almost any major extension of government power; the other favored term was Collectivism.

There were two points, admittedly, on which he was prepared to modify his faith in untrammeled Manchesterthum and to accept the need for a dual system, “Socialism in the arms of Individualism.” He was an early advocate of old-age pensions, and he believed that only the State could cope with the problem of the two lowest classes on his index, A and B. To examine his actual proposals, however, is to be struck in the first case by his timidity as a reformer and in the second by his inconsistency as a thinker. All honor to him for wanting to spare at least some of the poor the fate of ending their days in the workhouse, but why stop where he did? The greater part of the space which he devotes to old-age pensions in Life and Labour of the People is taken up with arguing that, when introduced, pensions ought not to become payable until the age of seventy—no very great privilege; and in any case, radicals hardly needed Booth to tell them what could be accomplished by the State in the way of social security, with the practical example of Bismarck’s welfare legislation already at hand.

As for the very poor, Booth’s ideas were that Class A—the semi-criminal class, the riff-raff—should as far as possible be “harried out of existence,” and that Class B, the class dependent on casual earnings, should be placed under “state tutelage” and settled in specially created industrial colonies, the theory being that it would then no longer drag Classes C and D below the Poverty Line. Since he didn’t believe in mincing his words, he readily conceded that another name for state tutelage might be “state slavery.” Yet if he could countenance so drastic a piece of Collectivism (in London alone Class B represented 300,000 people, 7 1/2 percent of the population), why couldn’t he even begin to consider other, milder forms of state intrusion into the laissez-faire jungle?

The answer probably lies as much as anywhere else in his date of birth (1840). It is easy to think of him, since he did his most substantial work in the Nineties, as more or less a contemporary of the leading Fabians. In fact he belongs to the previous generation; he grew up during the heyday of Cobden and Bright, and began his business career at the time of the Crimean War. If he had been a younger man, one feels, he would have been ready to face up to the “collectivist” implications of his research. But then if he had been a greater man, he wouldn’t have been a prisoner of his generation to the extent that he was.

As it is, he takes his place in the history of social reform far less as a policy-maker than as a portent and an indirect influence. The mere fact of his having carried out the survey at all was a significant step forward, more significant, perhaps, than any of his actual findings. After all, it had never really been any kind of a secret that a large proportion of the population was miserably poor, and whether it was 25 percent or 35 percent didn’t affect the basic political issues. The difference was that before Booth’s time the attitude of middle-class society toward poverty was rather like that of a neurotic who refuses to confront his problems and finds himself being haunted by lurid fantasies in consequence. As Booth himself put it, when he first undertook his inquiry:

East London lay hidden from view behind a curtain on which were painted terrible pictures:—Starving children, suffering women, overworked men; horrors of drunkenness and vice; monsters and demons of inhumanity; giants of disease and despair.

The reality turned out to be rather less sensational. There were bitter hardships, frustration, squalor, insecurity; but there were very few monsters or demons. And once “the Poor” had been demythologized, they began to present themselves to the middle-class mind as a social problem rather than as a threat which had to be kept at bay. On the principle that the optimist is the man who says that the glass is half full, there were even some grounds for optimism; with over 50 percent of the working class above the Poverty Line, it could be argued that economically society had already turned the corner. Booth himself rejected facile consolations, and refused to minimize the evils which remained by making too much of those which had been mitigated. But he never doubted that there had been substantial improvements, that a generation earlier, or indeed at any previous period, a comparable survey of London would have revealed “a greater proportion of depravity and misery than now exists, and a lower general standard of life.”

It would of course be complete nonsense to suppose that he changed the public attitude to poverty single-handed, or that it wasn’t still perfectly possible for writers who came after him to go on painting the same terrible pictures as before. In the very year he completed the survey, for example, Jack London published The People of the Abyss; and even if we allow for London’s apocalyptic streak, his account of “this human hell-hole called the East End” probably came closer to the vague popular notion of what life was like beyond Aldgate Pump than Booth’s. It was not among ordinary newspaper readers, in fact, that Booth enjoyed his real influence, but among administrators, planners, early architects of the welfare state. Even here, the precise strands of influence are hard to disentangle, since one is dealing with a climate of opinion rather than with specific proposals; but a good start, as Beatrice Webb suggested, might be to consider the subsequent careers of Booth’s research assistants. Not only Mrs. Webb herself, but forgotten worthies like Ernest Aves, later chairman of the Trade Boards which helped to enforce minimum-wage legislation, and Hubert Llewellyn Smith, who as an Edwardian civil servant played a major part in setting up both the Labour Exchange system and unemployment insurance. These men were not glamorous figures, and as individuals they belong firmly among the footnotes of history. But without the type of dedicated administrator they exemplify, it would have taken very much longer than it did to transform Britain into a halfway decent society. Only one of Booth’s early associates, incidentally, eventually became what he would have called a Marksist—Maurice Paul, later better known under the name of Eden Paul as a translator and pamphleteer and as the originator of the term Proletcult.

Going beyond Booth’s immediate circle, one finds abundant evidence to justify Beatrice Webb’s claim that his work gave “an entirely fresh impetus to the general adoption, by the British people, of what Fourier, three-quarters of a century before, had styled ‘guaranteeism.’ ” It was much admired by his great contemporary, the Cambridge economist Marshall; it made a deep impression on a younger man like Beveridge, then just beginning his public career; it helped to shape the “new Liberalism” of the 1900s which survived the debacle of the Liberal Party itself in the person of such figures as Beveridge and Keynes. Naturally Booth the conservative businessman didn’t foresee all this, any more than, say, a Positivist like Frederic Harrison and a Christian Socialist like Tom Hughes foresaw the rise of the Labour Party when they took up the cause of trade unionism in the mid-Victorian period. The history of English social reform is not an epic of orderly, systematic progress, but an extremely untidy story, in large measure the story of individuals and small pressure groups who have made their specialized contributions and then as often as not fallen by the wayside.

I don’t think there are many direct lessons to be learned from Booth today. The world has changed too much, and that includes the corner of the world which he studied so exhaustively. Michael Young and Peter Willmott’s Family and Kinship in East London (1957), for instance, is a work in the Booth tradition, and one which occasionally echoes his specific findings; but the authors go out of their way to warn readers against the fantasy of supposing that general conditions in the modern East End are anything like those which he described. As for contemporary American cities, the nature of their problems seems even more remote. To take only the most obvious example, there were very few black people in Booth’s London. Many of the East Enders he interviewed must have been the forebears of the dockers who nowadays demonstrate in favor of Enoch Powell, and without wishing to visit the sins of the children on the fathers, I can see little reason to doubt that if there had been black ghettos on the transatlantic scale in Victorian London, there would also have been no shortage of virulent racism. As it is, the problem didn’t arise.

One final footnote. With all its grim aspects, the predominant impression which Booth’s London makes is not one of desolation. Mr. Fried and Mr. Elman, while generally praising Booth’s objectivity, get rather cross with him when he argues that the better-paid workers and their families—he is careful to specify those above the Poverty Line—often enjoyed a good deal of happiness. Their reaction is understandable: we have all seen too many attempts to romanticize the lives of the poor, and conversely, as Dr. Johnson said, “you never find people labouring to convince you that you may live very happily upon a plentiful fortune.” Nevertheless I still believe that Booth was right; I even think that the picture of the old resilient working-class London which comes across in such things as music-hall songs and the drawings of Phil May, however fanciful it obviously is in some respects, bears at least some relation to reality. Anyone who knows an area like the East End, or has ever spoken to its older inhabitants, will also know that most of them think of it as a home, rather than as a hell-hole or an abyss. Booth’s London deserves to be remembered for its character, variety, and neighborliness as well as for its poverty—always provided, that is, that one isn’t lulled into overlooking the suffering of a very large minority, or the extent to which even for the majority anxiety was always there in the background, like a dull, persistent headache.

This Issue

January 30, 1969