Charles Booth (30 March 1840 – 23 November 1916) was a philanthropist, social researcher and social reformist. In the 1880’s he investigated poverty in London, with a team of investigators which included his cousin Beatrice Potter (Beatrice Webb) and Clara Collet.
Clara was also an interesting figure, and deserving of more than a passing mention of her name. Her main contribution to Booth’s work concerned the condition of working women; this and her later work was influential in the many reforms that improved women’s working conditions and pay in the early 20th century. She became a friend of the Karl Marx family, and worked with politicians such as David Lloyd George, Ramsay MacDonald, William Beveridge and Winston Churchill.
Booth’s ground-breaking research – with the help of his talented team that included the likes of Collet – showed that 35% of East Londoners were living in abject poverty. This was far higher than previously appreciated; even the Social Democratic Federation, Britain’s first Socialist party, did not think it was more than 25%.
This work was published in 1889, and titled Life and Labour of the People. It – along with the work of Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree – influenced government intervention against poverty in the early 20th century and led to the founding of – among other things – old age pensions, and free school meals for the poorest children.
Distinctive among the book’s contents are the so-called Maps Descriptive of London Poverty. These maps were colour-coded to indicate the income and social status of inhabitants, detailed to street level. Booth defined seven social classes:
The poverty map of the Island was as follows (click on the map to see a larger version):
Compared to other areas of East London – around Whitechapel and Bethnal Green for example – poverty on the Island was generally less severe in the 19th century. There were no significant slum districts, and jobs were relatively plentiful due to the docks and the industry along the riverfront. However, the making of the poverty map coincided with a period of particular hardship for the Island: a few years earlier, the collapse of the Overend, Gurney & Co. bank caused a financial crisis that led to massive job losses on the Island.
A few years after his first visit, Booth returned to the Island, researching a new edition of his work. Typically, he made extensive notes of his walk around the Island, a walk which started at Limehouse. (Transcribed extracts follow the image.)
May 28, 1897 – Perambulation with Mr Carter, Local Police Inspector Round the District.
Then a [illegible] between high dock walls, road littered with peas that had leaked out from a faulty sack, heavy carts, great noise, echoing walls, wet road. “Traffic always makes much more noise when the roads are wet”; across ‘First Bridge’ i.e. that over the Limehouse Entrance to the West India Docks, into the West Ferry Rd.
West Ferry Rd
Shops and dwelling houses in the main road. The side nearest the river being as a rule the poorest. A block of streets bounded on the west by West Ferry Rd, on the north by Cuba St, in the east by Alpha St, one the south by Mellish St – mostly purple in our map, comprising:
Cuba St – labourers
Byng St – labourers
Manilla St – labourers
(All of the above), poor but respectable.
East of West Ferry Rd
Streets marked light blue or purple in our maps. Some eg Strafford St seem to have improved since then, so has Alpha Rd.
Strafford St – Better class, dock foremen and permanent hands
Havannah St – Poor in the west end but better class opposite the church in the east end
Tooke St – labourers
Malabar St – (formerly Charles St)
Maria St – poor street – some Irish
Janet St – labourers
Mellish St – set of good labourers
Alpha Rd – ….inhabited by dock foremen and permanent hands, neat fronts, trees, comfortable appearance
Then down over the ‘Second Bridge’ over the entrance into the Millwall Dock
Poor Waterside Streets
On the west side of West Ferry Rd, short streets ending in factory walls
Gaverick St, Crewe St and Claude St – low class of labourers, low aspect, bearing out dictum that the poorest will always be found closed to the water – light blue in our map, probably was a darker shade of light blue.
Ferry Rd, now called Powis Rd.
Cahir St on the north side of West Ferry Rd with a low class of casuals.
Chapel House St with a better class.
Lead St, ditto.
Then a block of streets bounded on the west by Stebondale St and on the east by Wharf Rd and Manchester Rd.
Has the character of being the worst street in the Island. Houses with basement floors, 9 feet below high tide, drains run backwards. Some looked very poor, but by no means all – had the air of a street that is improving – all the homes looked better than those in Gaverick, Crewe and Claude Streets mentioned above. Marked purple in our maps.
Church St Now named Newcastle St, of poorer aspect than Stebondale St – rents 8 /- a week from a notice board at one end “All homes in good repair”. Newcastle St looked the poorest in this block.
Parsonage St, Billson St, Kingfield St, Seyssel St – all of a better class than Newcastle St.
Pier St – though marked blue, was not given a different character to the foregoing
Then north up Manchester Rd – a block of streets bordered on the NW by East Ferry Rd and on the East by the Manchester Rd – a triangular
The greater part are occupied by a fair set of permanent hands, the only exception being Marshfield St (purple in our map) out of the Glengall Rd with a low class of labour. Chipka St also with a low class, but perhaps better than Stebondale St.
Stewart St on the east of the Manchester Rd – purple in map – also very poor looking.
At the corner of the Glengall Rd and Manchester Rd, a public house, neat and well-kept appearance from the outside, called ‘a cooperative public house, run by a cooperative society, ‘the only known of in London’ said Carter, ‘and respectably kept’.
General Character of the Island…..
A great many more people work there than live there, though many who live there would like to work there. Those who live there seldom leave. From week to week and year to year the men who are Islanders remain there. Their women kind are the chief exceptions. On Saturday (nights?) there are especial buses to take them to shop in Chrisp St. The Island itself is very poorly off for shops.
None of the Island seems to be rich. Those are comfortably off are the permanent lock officials. The poorest streets are nearest the water. These are marked as light blue, but the general tone of the Isle of Dogs is purple.
Of amusements in the Island there are practically none. The Millwall Athletic ground football matches attract great crowds and have given the men some interest. Public houses get up sing songs of an evening, but there are no music halls.
The chief vices of the island are gambling and betting and thieving. There are more juvenile thieves to be found there than in any other part of the K division. Lots of things to thieve. Old iron, goods from leaky sacks, there is a market for everything. Once anything is found lying about and portable, not a boy would not try to remove it.
Betting is largely indulged in. Bookmaker caught last week in West Ferry Rd betting in the middle of the street. On him they found £40 in gold and £10 in silver, all taken from the natives.
At the opening of the Blackwall Tunnel boys came up to thieve among the crowds. One caught with seven empty purses. He was an old hand too ‘you can always tell an old hand by his silence when he is pinched’. A novice begins to talk and explain. Not so experienced men.
There are no brothels on the Island. The nearest approach is the presence of a few absent sailors wives.
A good many public houses in the Island. Some rough some respectable. Carter said here the same condition attached to the holder of a fully licensed house as to the holder of a beer house. A beer house proprietor must live on the premises, but the licensee of a full licensed house may live in Brighton and put in a man to take care of house in London. That is the licensees here are so difficult to get hold of or to get public opinion to bear upon.
An occasional license is no longer granted to supply beer at the athletics ground during football matches. This has diminished drinking on match days as there are many more people who would drink that can be supplied on the premises of the existing public houses.
The allotments on the south (?) side of the Glengall Rd have had a [illegible] effect. Surplus energy worked off there. Leisure time spent there by many instead of at the public house. Holders have arranged amongst themselves a mutual protection society against outside thieves who steal their flowers etc while they are themselves at work.
Church work does not seem to have had much influence. Alpe (the local vicar) does nothing. [Illegible] is very active and gets people to listen to him. He is strong, athletic looking, amusing! Appeals to his [illegible].
On Sunday evening crowds go to the public garden on the NE side (?) to listen to the county council band, crowds also wander along the South Quay to the back of the Blackwall Station. This is known in the neighbourhood as “East End by the Sea”. Is recommended by many east end doctors for incipient consumptive patients. You can always get a good healthy [illegible] there.
A great blow dealt to the Island by the shutting of Samuda’s Shipping Yard. Entirely owing to the actions of the trade unions. Carter believes the majority of the men were themselves against the strike. Many of them told him that if a general ballot had been taken the majority would have been against the strike. They went on because their leaders made them. Now they are sorry for it. Samuda’s passed through the bankruptcy court and had to give up the two government ships at which they were at work at the time of the strikes.
Men’s work has left. Women’s work – if anything – is increasing. Maconochies Jam Factory, Mortons Jam, give employment to a great number of women.