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Launch of online poverty maps of Victorian London

Next month (19 April) the Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science will launch the Charles Booth Online Archive . This is the culmination of a 16 month project to make the famous maps of 19th century London poverty, and documents from Booth's survey of life and labour in London (1886-1903), available on the web.

Charles Booth (1840-1916), a wealthy businessman with a profound social conscience, distrusted philanthropy in the absence of scientific fact. His survey team, independent of any government body or institution, set about investigating the social, economic and religious influences on Victorian Londoners. They gathered information street by street, interviewing people in all trades and at all levels, and compiled 449 survey notebooks - available to view in the LSE Library archive.

Booth used the survey information to produce maps, colour-coded according to social status, from "lowest class - vicious and semi-criminal" to "upper-middle and upper classes - wealthy". These maps have now been digitally scanned and are being cross-referenced with a detailed catalogue of the Booth collection and digital images of 31 of the survey notebooks - those compiled on walks with policemen. The project received £131,000 funding from the Research Support Libraries Programme of the UK's Higher Education Funding Councils.

Said Jean Sykes, LSE Librarian: "We're delighted that the Booth maps - some of the Library's finest treasures - will now be available to a worldwide audience, whether academic researchers or simply people wanting to delve into their family history."

This online project will complement work beyond LSE, particularly the digitisation of the 1901 census information, available over the Internet in January 2002.


  • Notes follow on the Charles Booth Online Archive
  • See a preview at www.lse.ac.uk/booth .

  • For more information about the project contact Sue Donnelly, LSE Library Archives on 020 7955 7947
  • For more about the economic and social significance of the maps, contact Professor Paul Johnson, Economic History, LSE, on 020 7955 7061
  • For other details, including images of the maps and Booth himself, contact LSE Press Office on 020 7955 7060 or email pressoffice@lse.ac.uk  

Notes on the Charles Booth Online Archive

Maps descriptive of London poverty, 1898-1899

The maps span Hammersmith in the west to Greenwich in the east, and from Highgate in the north to Clapham in the south. For the website, they have been digitised to be searchable by street, parish, area and other features. The maps illustrate broad features of Victorian London social topography as well as street level detail. The East End does not contain a single wealthy street, but Hyde Park - then as now - is an oasis of wealth.

What the website offers to visitors

Visitors to the site will be able to view and search the colour map of 19th century London poverty. They will be able to access digitised images of the contemporary survey notebooks to get a vivid insight into Victorian London. Family historians will be able to gain further insight into the living conditions of their ancestors, such as their degree of poverty/wealth, or if they were a metalworker, bookbinder or baker mentioned in the notebooks. An online catalogue will help researchers of all kinds to locate further material in the archives of the LSE Library and the University of London Library.

The 'police notebooks'

The website's 31 digitised survey notebooks describe 327 walks around London by social investigators between 1897 and 1900. The investigators were accompanied by policemen who provided local knowledge of the area and inhabitants, as well as protection. These notebooks also describe the policemen themselves, their working hours and duties. Just a few notebook extracts appear below:

Lodging houses on Dorset Street (Notebook B350 page 51)

Common lodgings houses for both sexes where they do not ask for your marriage certificate. One very fat lady at a window. She has sat there for years. She is now too fat to get out of the door.

Murder in Dorset Street (Notebook B350 page 51)

Then into Dorset Street still black as the map. [colour representing "lowest class, vicious, semi-criminal"] 3 stabbing cases and one murder from this street in the last 3 months .

Incident between Gale Street and Furze Street, Bow Common (Notebook B346 page 31-33)

Block of streets between Gale Street and Furze Street are the worst in the district, worse than in almost any district in London. Three policemen wounded there last week. This block sends more policemen to hospital than any other in London

Drinking at Millwall Football Club (Notebook B346 page 23)

Occasional licence is no longer granted to supply beer on the athletic ground during football matches. This has diminished drinking on match days as there are many more people who would drink than can be supplied on the premises

Children standing in line for soup kitchen, Bangor Street (Notebook B359 page 145-147)

St Agnes soup kitchen, busy a tail of school children along the pavement. Girls one side boys the other, about 30 boys and 40 girls waiting to get in, inside was full, inside they get bread and thick vegetable soup, some bring it away "these have to pay a trifle". Children all waiting patiently. Faces clean, hair brushed, clean if ragged pinafores "It's the schools that makes them clean". Many hatless, boots not good, but all healthy, no sore eyes well fed and sufficiently dressed, all chattering, happy, cold day with east wind

Reputation of Bryant and May girls (Notebook B346 page 75-77)

Bryant and May have a rough set of girls. There are 2000 of them when they are busy. Rough and rowdy but not bad morally. They fight with their fists to settle their differences not in the factory for that is forbidden, but in the streets when they leave work in the evening. A ring is formed they fight like men and are not interfered with by the police

Description of Inspector Fitzgerald (Notebook B346 page 157)

Fitzgerald is a man of medium height. Age between 35 and 40. Round faced, rubicund, brown hair and moustache. A bit of a blarney. Has been in the district for 3 years but does not know it particularly well. He is an Irishmen from somewhere near Dublin, a widower.


Booth and his team of social investigators also visited many chapels and churches between 1897 and 1902. The online catalogue to this set of 145 notebooks will be available on the website, describing interviews with Church of England, Jewish, Roman Catholic, Salvation Army, Congregational, Unitarian, and Quaker ministers and missionaries. They highlight the religious, social, educational and poor relief activities of institutions, as well as the health of the population; type of housing available; to what extent people are influenced by drink; the extent of prostitution in the area; views on marriage and thrift.

The map and the IT challenge

The creation and online use of catalogues and digitised archival documents has become increasingly familiar to libraries and archives. The incorporation of historic mapping makes this project different. Turning 12 irregularly overlapping map sheets of Victorian London into one seamless digital image has been a major technical challenge.

The individual map sheets were first scanned at 400 dpi and georectified to conform to modern standards of georeferencing - the Victorians didn't have global satellite positioning when drawing up their maps! The map sheets were then stitched together - extremely painstaking as the borders between the relevant areas followed parish boundaries, not straight lines.

The most difficult issue to overcome was maintaining a consistent colour palette across the map's 12 pieces. Each street is colour coded to indicate social status, but printing processes of the time mean these colours are inconsistent. The West End, with its unusual accumulation of wealthy streets, was particularly difficult.

The resulting file was too large [1400 Mb] for the web, so the map image has been converted into MrSID format, an industry standard. This compresses the image (approximately 1:20) without noticeable loss of quality. More importantly, it allows small sections of the image to be served at many different levels of magnification as users move around the map. Software on the web server that can read MrSID's special encoding means standard JPEG format images are produced dynamically with minimum strain on the server. These JPEGs can be viewed by all graphical browsers and are relatively quick to download (because they only ever show a tiny fraction of the whole image at any one time).

The resulting map image will be searchable, because it has been georeferenced, via a database of gazetteer information, covering street, parish and area names, landmark features and postcodes. Over the last hundred years, slum clearance, war damage and road building have all contributed to the disappearance of hundreds of London streets, courts and alleys. However, sections of the 31 'police notebooks' describe street location. These have been used to approximate grid references for streets which no longer exist.

Cataloguing and notebook digitisation

The project has created new, highly detailed catalogue records for the Booth collection accessible in LSE Library Archives. The catalogue records will be stored in Encoded Archival Description (EAD), one of the Library's first uses of this format. Fully searchable online, the records will link to digitised images of the 31 'police notebooks'. Digitisation was achieved using a high resolution digital camera, producing some fifty CDs of images, each showing a double page of hand-written notes taken by Booth investigators. These images will available in two formats - one using the latest compression technology to provide high quality and small file sizes, and another accessible without installing extra software but longer to download. The catalogue will also provide links to the map from any references to street, parish and area names etc.

The existing handlist of over 6,000 items of correspondence and other family papers held in the University of London Library Archives has also been converted to electronic format with significant enhancements in descriptions for some records. These too will be stored in EAD format and links made from the online catalogue to the digitised images where these are available.

6 March 2001