Retrieved Riches - Charles Booth's Life and Labour of the People in London
Rosemary O'Day explains how a reinvestigation of the data collected by a pioneer social scientist is shedding new light on the lifestyles of Victorian London.
Booth you say? Ah yes – that'll be William Booth,... brass bands and hymns, salvation and soldiers and that sort of thing. No, not that Booth – Charles Booth. Um...
Not only the proverbial man or woman in the street is confused by a reference to Charles Booth. Some contemporaries – including quite well educated ones – muddled him up with William the Salvationist. The Reverend J Reid Howatt, minister of the Presbyterian Church in Brunswick Square, Camberwell, thought that Booth was from the Salvation Army. And even today John Maloney's Marshall, Orthodoxy and the Professionalisation of Economics (Cambridge University Press, 1985) has in its index the words: Booth, General Charles. Perhaps it was and is understandable. The two men were contemporaries and were both concerned with the problem of and manifestations of poverty. But Charles Booth had his own distinctive identity and deserves more public acclaim than he has received.
Charles Booth was born in Liverpool in 1840, the third son and fourth child of the Unitarian Charles and Emily Booth. He was not considered academic and after attendance at the Royal Institution School, Liverpool, he entered the shipping business. His young manhood was spent in the offices of Lamport and Holt's steamship company, following which, he began, with his brother Alfred, the Booth Steamship Company. This enterprise involved much time in the United States of America. In 1871 he married Mary Macaulay, daughter of Charles. An awareness of his upbringing is more than usually important. Booth spent his formative years not at university but in business. He was never a professional scholar but a concerned and intelligent citizen. He came to social investigation through his lively political interests and through his shocked consciousness of the poverty-stricken condition of much of the population.
Booth was a social reformer rather than a social investigator. For him social investigation was a means to an end. By enquiring into the nature and extent of poverty he might bring the educated public to a heightened awareness of the condition of the poor and perhaps be the more able to suggest political and social solutions to the problem. His elaborate proposals for old age pensions, his membership of the Poor Law Commission of 1905-09, his writings on housing and transit reform, and on trades unionism would in themselves guarantee him a place among the important Victorian social reformers.
But Charles Booth is best remembered for his survey of the condition of the people in the nation's capital. In all, this work occupied over sixteen years of Booth's life. The survey began to appear in print in 1889 and eventually appeared as a library of seventeen lengthy volumes, entitled Life and Labour of the People in London, in 1903. The first series on poverty grew out of a paper given to the Royal Statistical Society in 1887 on the East End of London. Booth extended his work to cover the remainder of the metropolis. It is this first poverty series which has commanded most attention from sociologists and historians, yet Booth went on to research a series on 'Industry' in the early 1890s and a 'Religious Influences' series in the last years of the decade. All this work – accomplished with the help of paid associates – was financed from his own, seemingly bottomless, pocket. Booth's voluminous work has of late earned its initiator faint praise and much blame. Many of the criticisms have been fair. The deficiencies of the survey upon which historians and social scientists have fastened should not blind us to the fact that in its day the survey represented a great breakthrough. Before Booth no-one had attempted scientifically to measure poverty. Moreover, whatever the defects of Booth's printed survey, the research programmes which he initiated and organised produced a rarely-rivalled, rich archive of materials about aspects of late Victorian London.
Certainly, Booth was no social theorist. His was not an original mind. His ideas and assumptions were those of his age: his moral criteria and beliefs those of his class. The absence of grand theory, fixed upon by professional sociologists as a major defect in his work, has been sufficient to exclude him from the sociological canon. Such criticisms, however, tell us more about the condition of academic sociology than about the worth of Booth's work. True, he never confronted in general terms the relationship between social structure and the urban environment and likewise failed to address organising concepts like 'class' and 'institution' in theoretical terms; as to urban 'ecology', it is doubtful whether he had ever heard of it. But it is also fair to point out that he was not undertaking the fieldwork for a doctorate in sociology. He was concerned with identifying and describing the problem of poverty and the correct means to alleviate it.
Booth, to the horror of modern social scientists, found 'class' to be a non-problematic concept. For him classes were either income groups (as in the Poverty series), or status groups with distinctive life styles (as in the Religious Influences series). His terminology, if at times imprecise, – distinctions between 'poor', 'very poor' and 'loafing, criminal classes' seem arbitrary and difficult to follow – was more readily understood by contemporaries whose language of class we have yet to recover. His associates used terms such as working-class with impunity, knowing that the reader would understand what was meant. Thus the Sunday School teachers at St Gabriel's, Poplar, in 1900 were 'all working class'. The people they interviewed knew the language. 'No middle-class families'; 'church schools for middle-class girls and infants'; 'children of the fairly comfortable'; 'the very poor'; 'the poverty of his parish'; 'in poverty'; 'decent and respectable'; 'servant-keeping and comfortable'; 'the well-to-do class'; 'of a lower class'; 'the artisan class'; 'the lower sections'; 'rough'; 'lowest'; 'the gutter class' – all were terms which crop up in the reports of interviews in the late 1890s. And class was certainly regarded by Booth as of key importance in understanding life in the capital. He was aware of class determined differences in education and employment as well as in attitudes, values, beliefs and norms.
Booth hummed and hawed and infuriated policy makers when he was asked to advise on legislation.
I was disappointed by his unwillingness to commit himself to any definite steps of a legislative or administrative character arising out of the conclusions to which his investigations have conducted him,
wrote one of those who encountered his diffidence. Notwithstanding this, Booth was prepared to make general statements on the strength of his findings. His general law of successive migration, which pinpointed the patterns and processes underlying the movement of Londoners from the centre to the periphery, is a case in point. The spatial arrangement of the metropolis, the localisation of trades and industries and the separation of home from work, were, as he readily appreciated, determined by demography, transport, land values, the family cycle and so on. Underlying his famous 'Poverty Map' was a considerable understanding of the urban area as a unit of analysis which prefigured much of our current concern with the social geography of industrial cities.
Booth did not labour his theoretical framework. But it was there nonetheless. Raymond Kent, in a cogent and convincing assessment, argued that, so far from being of marginal concern to sociology proper, '... there was more than enough theory implied in his work to give it form and significance as a sociological text.' This theory was that of empirical investigation. During the 1860s he had been much intrigued by the positivist philosophy of August Comte, although he never formally joined the movement. That this theory did not agree with that espoused by his critics has been his misfortune but it was, notwithstanding, a theory with a sound pedigree.
Sociologists might find all this puzzling – how can Booth's work be praiseworthy if he did not theorise, did not have an original mind and did not have at his disposal the sophisticated conceptual tools of the modern sociologist? historians know why. The Booth survey is to be seen as a rich and vital source for the social history of urban Britain. It is a path-breaking study based on personal and statistical inquiry: in it Booth used a variety of methods to seek out and describe the condition of life of the people of the metropolis. He exploited the resources at his disposal – the census; the expertise of school board visitors and clergymen, teachers and councillors, policemen and overseers; the evidence of his own and his associates' eyes and ears – to their utmost. Quite apart from the intrinsic worth of his observations about metropolitan London, the three series represent a breakthrough in the techniques and practice of social investigation.
In the 1870s, in search of a solution to the problem of poverty, Booth familiarised himself with the ideas of Octavia Hill and the Barnetts, of Hyndman and the Social Democratic Federation, of Toynbee Hall and Oxford House. He was unconvinced by their proffered remedies. He examined the census figures of 1881 and presented a paper to the Royal Statistical Society on poverty. He proposed a more intensive study of the East End of London and talked over the idea with a group of friends to determine methodology. He decided to extend his survey to cover the whole of London. Beatrice Potter had heard from Joseph Chamberlain about the knowledge which the London School Board Visitors possessed about the lives of the poor and she told Booth all about it. On the strength of this information, Booth obtained permission to visit and interview 250 London school board visitors. In addition Booth engaged in an inquiry into the trade of the East End – the Docks and the Sweated Industries. This was no small enterprise. Booth recruited assistants – some paid and some unpaid – to assist with the collection of data. The fruits of their labours filled some 80 notebooks. The first volume of the Poverty Series did not appear until 1889, the second a year or so later.
The Poverty series alone would justify the use of the descriptive epithets 'path-breaking' and 'trend-setting'. In terms of scope and organisation his poverty survey far outran any previous attempt. It is against its predecessors that its worth should be measured not against its successors. Let us make it clear – Booth's survey was not Mayhew writ large. Mayhew brought to us the voices of London's poor. If we go to Booth looking for a work in the same mould, we shall be disappointed. Booth brought a description of poverty in London which in part depended upon direct observation and in part upon an interpretation of various types of data supplied by others – through the media of the census, the school board visitors' books, the school board visitors, the employers and the associates' experiences. He tried to discover a satisfactory method of measuring and mapping the degrees of poverty or wealth which he found. We may carp about his relative lack of statistical and methodological sophistication, about the problems engendered by a lack of consistency in his collection and presentation of data and so forth but we have to acknowledge that his was a. grand and unusual vision.
The printed work has then its place in the annals of social investigation and its developing methodology as well as in the description of conditions in Victorian London. Few, however, have appreciated the tremendous wealth and potential of the unpublished archive which Booth and his team left to posterity.
What is amazing is that we are able to retrace Booth's steps as he undertook his programme of research and wrote up the results. The Booth family deposited papers in several major libraries. At the London School of Economics are the 80 or so notebooks containing data collected during interviews for the poverty series; the 79 notebooks containing evidence collected about trades, industries and occupations; and the 146 notebooks containing reports of interviews of ministers, missionaries, schoolteachers and local notables in connection with the Religious Influences series. This library also holds very considerable material concerning the working up of the material for publication. It is especially rich for the Religious Influences series because it includes the digests which Booth and his associates made of the data (thus enabling the historian to trace his decision-making processes) as well as annotated draft chapters. The library of the University of Liverpool holds a vast quantity of materials which includes annotated draft chapters of especial use for work on the Industry Series. The Booth correspondence is in the Senate House Library – although a small cache of letters is in the British Library of Political Science. Rarely have historians had access to such a full archive relevant to the production of a major survey. Work is shortly to be published which, for instance, explores Booth's development of interviewing as a sophisticated tool of social inquiry.
The Charles Booth Group at the Open University are engaged in a data retrieval project which will facilitate access to this rich archive, which is, in its present state, available only to the fortunate few, and unmanageable even for them. The project will enable libraries and individual scholars to purchase IBM compatible software and a data bank of material from the archive. A deliberate decision has been made not to sample but to make available the whole archive for scholarly use. The system can be used either for data retrieval, pure and simple, or as a sophisticated finding guide for use with the original archive. For example, a scholar who wishes to study prostitution in the metropolis will be able by pressing a key to retrieve the information in the poverty notebooks relevant to that subject (with references) and obtain a quick print out. Dedicated scholars can then, if they so wish, explore the references further in the original notebooks. The first part of the package will shortly be available. Projects are under way elsewhere which involve making the notebooks themselves machine readable.
The reader might well wonder why work on the archive is so important – after all did not Charles Booth put all his findings in the seventeen volumes of the survey? The short answer is no. Firstly, Booth was actually very disposed towards general statements and loath to give many specific examples. When he did give examples he was slapdash about providing the scholarly apparatus to support them. In his Poverty series he used fictitious names for the streets selected for the printed work and he avoided using all the streets. He used very few concrete examples in the Religious Influences series and as a matter of policy withheld names and detailed critical appraisals. Only by going to the archive (either directly or through a data retrieval system) is the scholar able to see the full range of the data which Booth and his team collected and assess his eventual use of it. The results are eye-opening.
Secondly, Booth did not display active interest in some of the areas which fascinated his associates or the people they interviewed. The notebooks are jammed full with material of interest to scholar's working on ministers, their opinions and their pastoral work; on women – their paid work, their domestic position, their religiosity; on the police and their relations with the people of the metropolis; on various trades and professions; on leisure activities – including gambling, football arid cricket, dancing, debating and gossiping; ethnic groups – Jews and Irish; and on living conditions. Sometimes the information amounts to no more than a 'good quote" for which it would not repay the scholar to search an enormous archive but which it would be lovely to have if all it took was the pressing of a key or two on a computer. Sometimes the amount of data present would make possible a whole study – as with that about the Christian ministry.
Let me take, as illustration, two areas – the Christian ministry in the metropolis and the place of women in the life of the London churches. When Charles Booth set his five associates to assist him in interviewing 1,450 ministers bf religion, his professed aim was to discover the influence of religion upon the people of London.
The reports of the interviews are of interest for other reasons. Firstly, although the reports are not precise records of the interviews themselves they do contain many verbatim comments from the ministers which reveal their attitudes and opinions on many subjects, ranging from housing conditions to the provision of social facilities for the young and the old; from the social role of the church to the way in which to reach the people with the churches' spiritual message; from church attendance and the worth of house-to-house visiting to the importance of the evangelical/ high church divide. As an attitudinal survey of the Christian ministry this is without parallel, but Booth did not exploit it to the full. He can. The c material is so rich that it is difficult to use – no wonder Booth ignored so s much of it and counted so little when he came to write his Religious Influences volumes. And He still managed y to fill seven long tombs.
Here is a mere summary of one s report which well illustrates the e potential of the material to support n studies of ministerial attitudes and e opinions as well as the work of the churches. In May 1897, the Vicar of St Matthias, Poplar, was interviewed. Mr Neil had been resident in Poplar for thirty years and he was supported in the cure by a curate, 8-10 lady visitors and other lay helpers. Neil thought that it was the first duty of a parson to teach and would be 'ashamed' if he did not find time to read and think. His policy with regard to attracting people to the church was one of strictly no 'bribes'. Nevertheless, he had 200 communicants on the roll, an active all male church council of 100 (this was the centre of his parish organisation), drew congregations of reasonable size (120 adults at the Sunday morning service and 250-300 adults to the evening service) and put himself out to reach those who would not come to church with a Thursday evening mission which averaged a 50-100 attendance and, in the summer, an outdoor service which attracted between 300 and 400.
He was under no illusion – 'he thinks they are prompted to attend by a vague religious instinct.' While he admitted that he left the Roman Catholics alone, and had given the costermongers up as hopeless cases, he did attempt to reach the rest of his people by dividing the parish up into 26 blocks for visiting purposes and ensuring at least one visit per household per annum. There were many clubs, including a mothers' meeting and late afternoon women communicants class. His wife ran a dinner fund which provided between 4,000 and 5,000 dinners for invalids and children per annum and there were 2,000 Robin breakfasts and teas for the children of the parish, but he did not believe it was the duty of the Church to give help except to the sick and to a few aged Christian people. Neil was a low church minister in a high church pocket of the East End.
All the clergy in immediate neighbourhood except Mr Elliott, high church. Mr Neil felt no bitterness, but clearly tendency very distasteful to him. Romanising he described the more extreme Anglican practices. He said of confession but nobody goes so I hear except a few old women; no man (with option) goes. The laity will not put itself under the domination of the priesthood. Mr N feels very strongly on the subject of Confession, & gave me a small volume of sermons.
This brief summary of Neil's interview is not exceptional – there are 1,449 other interviews, some of them far richer, but all of them offering rare insights into the late Victorian metropolitan ministry – Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, Congregationalist and so on.
These same interview reports contain much information about the place of women in Victorian religion. The material can be categorised as follows: information about women as workers; as worshippers; and as members of women's groups. Women far exceeded men in the congregations of all the churches – but a few boasted equal numbers of both sexes at particular services and when there was a surplus of men this was a case for rejoicing indeed. 'Women, of course, preponderate but not largely' said W.D. Springett of St Matthew's, Brixton, in 1900. Carroll of St Frideswide's in the East End could go one better: 'On Easter Sunday there were three more men than women'. Information such as this is interesting but not surprising. What is more remarkable are the attempts made by the ministers to explain this imbalance in religious worship – they do not usually appeal to the natural religiosity of womankind but rather to the failure of the ministry to reach the men. Working men, exhausted after work or simply not around when the district visitors called, often had little formal or informal contact with the church as an institution. A Baptist minister commented that he finds it 'difficult to see the men and is now thinking of giving some meetings up so that he can visit them in the evening'. A rare exception was Brooke of St John the Divine who was not overly worried by the sex imbalance because he thought that, because women make or break their menfolk, it was all important to bring the women to Christ.
It was also true that women workers had a pivotal role in all the organized churches. When women workers withdrew their services, all pretence at thorough pastoral care and visitation was removed. Women district visitors, sisters, nurses and Sunday school teachers proliferate in the pages of the Booth notebooks. Thus the Methodist minister of the Free Church, Peckham, in 1900 commissioned his 27 district visitors to circulate 1,000 parish magazines and to find out the sick and needy and invite those who attend nowhere, to come. It becomes clear that the women of a parish came into much more frequent and regular contact with the churches' women workers than they did with the male ministers. The wives and daughters of the ministers were often as involved in parochial work as were their husbands and fathers. Mr and Mrs Free of the St Cuthbert's Anglican mission on the Isle of Dogs;
are setting about their work with the utmost earnestness and energy. Mrs Free I imagine will do almost as much as her husband; she is a bright, cheery, buxom woman, quite an ideal parson's wife...
A multitude of clubs and classes were provided for the woman of a parish – mothers, meetings, girls friendly societies, Bands of Hope, sewing classes, guild meetings, bible classes, women communicants' groups and so forth. Often these seem to have been run by women workers. So at the Baptist Chapel in Denmark Place there was a mothers' meeting for about 100 mothers (not from the congregation) on Monday afternoons between 3.30 and 4.30. 'They bring their work and babies, a lady reads a book to them, or an address is given'. Other women's meetings were gatherings to provide parcels and benefits for the parish poor – at the same church there was a monthly sewing day to produce 'work' for the maternal society and for the families of poor ministers. Another church saw it was important to encourage girls to participate in public debate. Women were also often the beneficiaries of specific charities – the maternity society at St Matthew's, Brixton provided a poor woman with a E5 maternity box, which contained many necessities, two months before her baby was due. Jumble sales owed their origin to the attempts by concerned ministers to provide for the material needs of poor women in clothing their families.
These are just two examples of the rich data buried until now in the Booth archive. Had Booth not published his work, historians and others would have explored the manuscript sources long since. It is fitting that a hundred years later, proper attention be accorded to Booth's vision and to his attempts to realise it.
- David Englander, 'Booth's Jews: The Presentation of Jews and Judaism in Life and Labour of the People in London', in Victorian Studies, (1989)
- E.P. Hennock, 'Poverty and Social Theory in England: the experience of the eighteen-eighties', in Social History, I (1976)
- Rosemary O'Day, 'The Men from the Ministry' in Gerald Parsons (ed.), Religion in Victorian Britain, Vol. II, Controversies, (Manchester University Press, 1988)
- T.S. & M.B. Simey, Charles Booth, Social Scientist (Oxford University Press, 1960)
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