Mapping LSE's heritage

At the time of Booth’s project, we didn’t have wage rates, income rates, or any other reliable, scientific information on people’s lives.
Booth map 16x9
Chares Booth maps. LSE Library

Charles Booth's project, Inquiry Into the Life and Labour of the People in London, remains one of the most ambitious and wide-ranging sociological surveys ever completed. To mark the centenary of Booth’s death, departments across LSE have used his work to create a new exhibition, inspire LSE’s Research Festival 2016, and develop a new and updated website.

British businessman, researcher and social reformer Charles Booth spent 17 years gathering the data for the first large-scale study of poverty, industry and religion in London.

Booth and his team of researchers conducted numerous interviews to gather the data, with help from the London School Board, who kept detailed records of families whose children were in the school system, and later accompanied London policemen as they walked their beats across the capital.

Booth famously linked the raw data from his findings to a series of ‘poverty maps’, which used colour to represent how wealthy people were; infamously describing London’s poorest residents as "vicious, semi-criminal". The vast and unprecedented project eventually yielded 17 volumes of maps and texts, providing a rich and detailed view of the social conditions faced by Londoners living in the late-Victorian era.

As a result of his research, Booth became a long-time advocate for a program of state support for the elderly, which he believed would stop older people from falling into destitution. After the completion of this project Booth also became a Privy Councillor, and was a key member of the lobby that successfully passed the Old Age Pensions Act in 1908.

While the importance of Booth’s work to the study of poverty is widely recognised, LSE Library’s exhibition focuses on its detailed insights into the local area. Central to the exhibition is one of the original, hand-coloured poverty maps of Holborn, alongside several of the original hand-written notebooks.

The Library’s exhibition curator Indy Bhullar said: “There were so many links from this project to different fields that the exhibition could have taken a number of different forms. But we decided to focus on the geographical qualities of Booth’s work to reflect the fact that the exhibition would physically take place in the Library’s Exhibition Space and on the LSE campus.”

“The exhibition allows visitors to contrast just how much this part of London has transformed, as well as how much the work influenced changes we see today in research methods or social policy.” Indy adds.

The sprawling physical scope of Booth’s project is also reflected academically at LSE, informing a number of departments in the School, and continuing to be an influential marker for many. This is reflected in Booth's work providing the inspiration for the 2016 Research Festival and the Booth Centenary Lectures.

Professor Nicola Lacey of LSE Law, a contributor to the festival, said: “Booth’s work has touched so many of the academic departments: philosophy, economics, geography, anthropology… You will find his work being used almost everywhere you go on campus, and now at the Research Festival.”

Professor Mary Morgan, of the Department of Economic History, also a contributor to the festival, said: “At the time of Booth’s project, we didn’t have wage rates, income rates, or any other reliable, scientific information on people’s lives. Because Booth was starting from scratch he did everything, and as a result we have a very rich and dense body of work, that describes what it means to be poor, and all of the causal links that exist between the conditions of poverty. He set a new standard in the measurement of poverty, which still exists today.”

To reflect this variety, the LSE Research Festival featured a competition where 10 groups of undergraduate students were tasked with completing a research project in two weeks under the supervision of PhD students.

Professor Morgan said: “It was really quite amazing what they do in such a short space of time. The student’s short projects truly reflect the originality of Booth’s work. One of the projects won the “Booth” prize for the best exhibit on Booth’s themes”

Professor Lacey added: “The anniversary and these events are a wonderful way of making students more aware of Booth’s work, and the Library’s archive. It brings out how his work contributed to the methodology of the social sciences, his work was revolutionary in terms of academic research.”

Professor Morgan said: “The centenary is also a great time to remind us that the Booth theme is very much an LSE theme, to use the social sciences to understand the causes of poverty, but also to improve society. These events help reflect how central Booth’s work is to the School’s history. I always wondered why he was not one of the founding members of LSE, but I think emotionally and intellectually, he is one its creators.”

Behind the article

A new website featuring interactive Booth poverty maps as well as the original police notebooks is now available.