Hand-Colored Maps of Wealth & Poverty in Victorian London: Explore a New Interactive Edition of Charles Booth’s Historic Work of Social Cartography (1889)

Map­ping has always been con­tentious, no mat­ter where you look in time. Maps pre­serve ide­o­log­i­cal assump­tions on paper, ratio­nal­iz­ing phys­i­cal space as they ren­der it in two dimen­sions. No mat­ter how didac­tic, they can become polit­i­cal weapons. In the case of Charles Booth’s visu­al­ly impres­sive Maps Descrip­tive of Lon­don Pover­ty, we have a series of maps whose own assump­tions can some­times seem at odds with their osten­si­ble pur­pose: to improve the liv­ing con­di­tions of London’s poor.

Booth’s “colour­ful pover­ty maps were cre­at­ed between 1886 and 1903,” Zoe Craig writes at Lon­don­ist, as part of a “ground-break­ing study into the lives of ordi­nary Lon­don­ers.” A phil­an­thropist born into wealth in the ship­ping trade, Booth took it upon him­self to study pover­ty in Lon­don in order to ini­ti­ate social reforms.

He suc­ceed­ed. The study, con­duct­ed by Booth and a team of researchers, led to the cre­ation of Old Age pen­sions, which Booth called “lim­it­ed social­ism,” as well as school meals for hun­gry chil­dren. He was clear about that fact that he saw such reforms as a bul­wark against social­ist rev­o­lu­tion.

The study’s sev­en­teen vol­umes are filled with pic­turesque accounts. “Pick­ing through the tid­bits of infor­ma­tion from these people’s lives will make you feel a bit like a Vic­to­ri­an cos­tume dra­ma police detec­tive,” Craig remarks. This ref­er­ence to polic­ing feels point­ed, giv­en the role of the police in main­tain­ing class hier­ar­chies in Vic­to­ri­an Lon­don. As an Amer­i­can, it can be hard to look at Booth’s map and not also see the 20th redlin­ing prac­tices in U.S. cities. Con­sid­er, for exam­ple, the cat­e­gories Booth applied to London’s class­es:

Called ‘Inquiry Into the Life and Labour of the Peo­ple in Lon­don’, the epic work stud­ied fam­i­lies and res­i­dents liv­ing across Lon­don, and coloured the streets accord­ing to their finan­cial sit­u­a­tion: between black for ‘low­est class, vicious, semi-crim­i­nal’ through pink for mixed ‘some com­fort­able, some poor’ to orange for ‘wealthy’.

As in Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s pater­nal­is­tic 1965 report on the Black under­class in the U.S., the lan­guage rein­forces Social Dar­win­ist ideas that deem the “low­est class” unfit for full par­tic­i­pa­tion in civ­il society—“vicious, semi-crim­i­nal…”

Of course, the social and his­tor­i­cal con­text dif­fers marked­ly, but we might also con­sid­er Fear­gus O’Sullivan’s obser­va­tions at Bloomberg City­Lab. A new pub­lished edi­tion of the map, he writes, “accom­pa­nied by com­pelling if bleak peri­od pho­tos, reveals a city that pos­sess­es echoes of Lon­don today. It depicts, after all, a dense­ly-packed metrop­o­lis with a cos­mopoli­tan pop­u­la­tion where immense­ly wealthy peo­ple lived just around the cor­ner from neigh­bors who were strug­gling to make ends meet.”

Maps may not cre­ate the social con­di­tions they describe, but they can help per­pet­u­ate them, ren­der­ing peo­ple vis­i­ble in ways that allow for even more con­trol over their lives. Crit­i­cisms of Booth’s study claimed that not only did the pro­posed reforms not go far enough but that the report described London’s class struc­ture while offer­ing lit­tle to no analy­sis of the caus­es of pover­ty. In lan­guage that sound­ed less objec­tion­able to Vic­to­ri­an ears, the poor are most­ly blamed for their own con­di­tion.

None of the study’s par­tic­u­lar lim­i­ta­tions take away from the graph­ic achieve­ments of its maps and explana­to­ry charts. They are, the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics writes, a strik­ing “ear­ly exam­ple of social car­tog­ra­phy.” The LSE hosts an incred­i­bly detailed, search­able, high-res­o­lu­tion inter­ac­tive ver­sion of the maps, assem­bled togeth­er and over­laid on a mod­ern GPS map of Lon­don. They also detail the var­i­ous edi­tions of the maps as they appeared between 1898 and 1903.

Hand-col­ored and based on the 1869 Ord­nance Sur­vey, the maps seemed “suf­fi­cient­ly impor­tant” to Booth to war­rant “com­pre­hen­sive revi­sion.” Here, the police appear in per­son to guide the process. “Social inves­ti­ga­tors accom­pa­nied police­men on their beats across Lon­don,” the LSE writes, “and record­ed their own impres­sions of each street and the com­ments of the police­men.” You can read the police note­books from these sur­veys at the LSE and learn more about the 12 dis­trict maps and the demo­graph­ic data they rep­re­sent at Map­ping Lon­don. The LSE print­ed a hard­cov­er print edi­tion of Booth’s work in 2019, com­plete with 500 illus­tra­tions. You can pur­chase a copy here. Or vis­it the inter­ac­tive edi­tion here.

via Messy Nessy

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The 1855 Map That Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Dis­ease Pre­ven­tion & Data Visu­al­iza­tion: Dis­cov­er John Snow’s Broad Street Pump Map

Ani­ma­tions Visu­al­ize the Evo­lu­tion of Lon­don and New York: From Their Cre­ation to the Present Day

Syn­chro­nized, Time­lapse Video Shows Train Trav­el­ing from Lon­don to Brighton in 1953, 1983 & 2013

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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