Charles Booth’s London Poverty Maps: A Glimpse Into the Lives of Your Ancestors
If your ancestors lived in London at the end of the 1800s, the digitized Booth poverty maps provide fascinating insight into neighborhoods and standards of living in the city. The maps form part of Charles Booth’s, Inquiry into the Life and Labour of the People in London, a study conducted between 1886 and 1903. Booth was a Victorian philanthropist and a successful businessman.
I have several ancestors who lived in London during that time, so I decided to see what could be gleaned about their living situation from the collection. Much of the information collected is available online thanks to the library at the London School of Economics.
By cross-referencing a known address from both the 1891 and 1901 England censuses, I was able to read descriptions of the exact streets that some of my ancestors lived in, and uncover details about their lives and living conditions.
First I looked for the neighborhood of George Samuel Earley, a coachman, who was recorded living in Kensington in both 1891 and 1901; his address was 16 Phillimore Mews in Kensington on both census returns.
The Booth Poverty Maps Color-Coded System
What sort of street was Phillimore Mews? The color-coded maps of the Booth inquiry give an instant visual representation of the kind of district he was living in; the accompanying Police Notebooks offer additional, unique observations on the surroundings. Here is Phillimore Mews on the Booth map for the area:
Under Booth’s color-coded system, Phillimore Mews is classified as “Purple” (although the map inks make it appear more reddish-brown). Purple dwellings meant a “mixed” standard of living – “some comfortable, others poor.” Nearby streets to Phillimore Mews showed rows of houses marked yellow on the map. The yellow classification signified the households were “upper middle and upper classes. Wealthy.” The proximity of the Mews dwellings to the more well-to-do residences makes sense; the designation of “Mews” in a street name typically refers to the location of stables. As George Earley was a coachman, he likely lived above the stables, which were often round the corner from the owner’s more luxurious abode. The mews would have been a service street designed to keep any noise and smell of horses away from the fancier residences.
Using the Booth Poverty Maps to Add Biographical Details to Your Family History
As Booth walked the streets of London gathering information, he was accompanied by policemen who were familiar with each neighborhood. The notebooks Booth carried with him on those walks are also available to view on the site. The corresponding notebook for the route they took past Phillimore Mews is shown below; Booth noted that the street was made up of “Rooms over stables. Not many inhabited.”The small details Booth noted offer a wonderful insight into late Victorian life. My great-grandfather, Samuel Roper, lived in Northolme Road in Islington around this time. Booth’s notes for that area tell us that Northolme Road and the neighboring Sotheby Road were “new streets” and that there were “many greengrocers carts going round.” According to the policeman he was walking with, the carts were “cheaper than the shops in Highbury Park, and Upper Street is too far to go.” Great-grandfather’s house was designated “pink/barred” – so in Booth’s classification his living standards were “fairly comfortable” through his occupation as a gold-refiner, and he had “good ordinary earnings.” The size of the houses isn’t made clear, but according to the 1901 census there were five adults plus two children under two living under one roof in Samuel Roper’s home, although they did have a servant living with them.
Other Londoners were not living so comfortably. Neighborhoods which were struggling were given blue or black classification on the maps, and described in these ways:
- “Light blue – Poor. 18s to 21s a week for a moderate family”
- “Dark blue – Very poor, casual. Chronic want”
- “Black – Lowest class. Vicious, semi-criminal”
Browsing the notebooks for these areas shows a different side to the London of new houses and vegetable carts. One area of Holloway, designated black on the maps, was noted as having “windows broken, dirty curtains, doors open, women talking in loud voices to one another, litter of paper, old meat and sardine tins, vegetables but not bread, in the street.”
In most areas designated dark blue to black, Booth felt that the condition of the residents spoke for itself. He often omitted to describe the housing situation, and paid more attention to the evident poverty of people in the streets. On his walk through Holmbrook St in Hackney he wrote that it was “very rough and low: its inhabitants wood-choppers, bone gatherers and bottle merchants. The houses were two-storied. Many children were about in the street. Women talking with babies at the open doors.”
Tips for using the Booth Poverty Maps
- They are searchable. Type in the name of a street to see how it was classified.
- See which areas have notebooks associated with them. “Show notebooks” in the top right corner of any map page brings up green drop pins on the map. Each drop pin represents a notebook of observations from that area.
- The slider at the bottom of the page compares Booth’s maps to a modern map of the city. This can be useful to see how street names may have changed.
- In addition to the maps and police notebooks, explore the Stepney Union casebooks and the Jewish notebooks. The former may contain valuable genealogical information if your ancestors were inmates of the Stepney or Bromley workhouses at the time Booth was visiting.
The Booth poverty maps may be accessed online at https://booth.lse.ac.uk/. Want to learn even more about your English ancestors? Get started with our guide to the basics of tracing your English ancestry. Haven’t made it across the pond yet? Check out how to use apprenticeship records to trace your ancestor from the U.S. to England.
The team at Legacy Tree Genealogists would love to help you with your family history, whether you’re interested in building a broad family tree as far back as possible, or delving into the details and stories of your ancestors’ lives. Contact us today to request a free quote!
 “Mews”, Brittanica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/mews, accessed February 2020.
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