The Contemporary Tree Sheep Reviews – Charles Booth’s London Poverty Maps by Mary S Morgan, Iain Sinclair et al, published by Thames & Hudson, 2019

Charles Booth’s ‘poverty’ maps were the most distinctive and original aspect of his socio-economic survey of London. Shaded to show degrees of wealth and class street by street, they have become defining images of late Victorian London. Pioneering large-scale statistical maps might sound dry as dust, but as Iain Sinclair writes in his foreword to this volume, they have a ‘morbid beauty’. Sinclair is an inspired choice to lead us in. He is immersed in the psychogeography of London, and most booksellers I know have acquired a copy of his 1987 novel ‘White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings’ featuring a thinly disguised gaggle of 1980s book runners including Driffield and Martin Stone. 

The book encompasses the entire project, which consumed seventeen years of Booth’s life and a considerable amount of his own money. As a bookseller, I appreciated the opening montage of all seventeen volumes of the final version, bound in publisher’s faux vellum and decorated in gilt, and the 19 small photographs selected to show how the maps were cut down into assorted shapes and sizes (so that they relate directly to the text) and tabbed into the books. It would have been easy to fill the space with a few more nice close-ups from the maps, but these images give a sense of the physical reality of Booth’s labours – a good shelf’s worth of it.

Morgan is excellent on Booth the man (where the money came from to fund his project, for a start). I have always been impressed by Booth’s willingness to change his mind when the facts changed. He came to the subject as a sceptic, anticipating that reports that a quarter of Eastenders were living in poverty had been exaggerated by social reformers, but by his own reckoning the figures were over a third. Booth took it in his stride, and ramped up his efforts. Morgan discusses the originality and sophistication of his methodology, which triangulated factors including family size, crowding and regularity of income. She also assesses the far reaching impact of Booth’s work: his contribution to the field of statistics; his influence on contemporaries undertaking similar projects, such as Rowntree in York; the role ‘Life and Labour’ played in ushering in real social reform, such as the old-age pension. By no means least, Morgan notes the impact on the individuals being studied, who began arguing with interviewers about the colour coding of their streets. One can see how people might resent being classified as ‘vicious, semi-criminal’ but I suspect the real argy-bargy was going on a few streets away, over whether or not an area was ‘mixed’ or ‘fairly comfortable’. 

The rest of the book is divided into categories which reflect the subject matter of Booth’s survey, with chapters on housing, immigration, religion, trade, morality and leisure. Each is supplied by a different contributor with an individual voice, and the chapters are interspersed with sections covering the dozen geographical districts into which London was divided for Booth’s purposes. There are some fascinating insights into the objectivity of Booth and his team and how their own morality and prejudices may (literally) have helped colour the maps. What shines through, however, is the underlying humanity of both the interviewers and their subjects.

It’s a big book but, comprehensive and profusely illustrated though it is, it is not intended to be a facsimile. Booth’s corpus is too extensive to be compressed into a single volume, and the maps are too large to be reproduced actual size, except for the occasional sample. If street level detail is what you are after, the maps and notebooks have been digitised by the LSE and made available free of charge (the book was produced in association with the LSE, and Morgan suggests using it in conjunction with online resources). If you prefer having a paper map, a folding reprint of the first edition is published by Old House Books for £12.99. If you have time and a healthy bank balance, original examples still appear in the marketplace (and I will find you one), but it is likely to cost a five figure sum.

Returning to the illustrations, some of the images are thumbnail-sized, but imaginatively laid out to give us sense of the scale of the project: double page spreads of 126 investigator notebook covers (of 450), near identical but each with handwritten labels; 286 (of 351) hand-drawn sketch maps of walks made by investigators across London; a page of 72 portrait photographs of vicars who appear in the notebooks, staring with uniform gravity into the camera’s lens. The supporting illustrations, from street vendors to music hall programmes, are well chosen. One cannot help but come away with a richer, fuller understanding of life in London at the turn of the 20th century.

​I hope Thames and Hudson are making a habit of this. In 2015 they brought out an excellent edition of the London County Council Bomb Damage Maps. The originals are in the Metropolitan Archives and the only printed version had been published for members of the London Topographical Society in 2005, in a run of maybe 1000 copies in all. The maps are valuable for historians but also useful for surveyors and other professionals (not all subsidence is about tree roots – it makes quite a difference if the neighbouring block was taken out by a V-2). The Topographical Society edition quickly became so sought after that secondhand copies were on the market for hundreds of pounds, when available at all, and I was asked about the ruddy thing so often that I came close to putting an explanatory notice in the window. Thanks to Thames and Hudson I haven’t had a peep out of anyone for five years. Brilliant. 

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