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Charles Booth Online Archive Poverty maps of London

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The Maps Descriptive of London Poverty are perhaps the most distinctive product of Charles Booth's Inquiry into Life and Labour in London (1886-1903). An early example of social cartography, each street is coloured to indicate the income and social class of its inhabitants.

Classification of poverty

The seven classes are described on the legend to the maps as follows:

    BLACK: Lowest class. Vicious, semi-criminal.
    DARK BLUE: Very poor, casual. Chronic want.
    LIGHT BLUE: Poor. 18s. to 21s. a week for a moderate family
    PURPLE: Mixed. Some comfortable others poor
    PINK: Fairly comfortable. Good ordinary earnings.
    RED: Middle class. Well-to-do.
    YELLOW: Upper-middle and Upper classes. Wealthy.
    A combination of colours - as dark blue or black, or pink and red - indicates that the street contains a fair proportion of each of the classes represented by the respective colours.

In the first volume of the poverty series in the final edition of Life and Labour of the People in London[1] Booth expounds further on the system of classification. Here he uses an eight-tier system, summarised in the table below:

Booth ClassificationDescription of class
AThe lowest class which consists of some occasional labourers, street sellers, loafers, criminals and semi-criminals. Their life is the life of savages, with vicissitudes of extreme hardship and their only luxury is drink
BCasual earnings, very poor. The labourers do not get as much as three days work a week, but it is doubtful if many could or would work full time for long together if they had the opportunity. Class B is not one in which men are born and live and die so much as a deposit of those who from mental, moral and physical reasons are incapable of better work
CIntermittent earning. 18s to 21s per week for a moderate family. The victims of competition and on them falls with particular severity the weight of recurrent depressions of trade. Labourers, poorer artisans and street sellers. This irregularity of employment may show itself in the week or in the year: stevedores and waterside porters may secure only one of two days' work in a week, whereas labourers in the building trades may get only eight or nine months in a year.
DSmall regular earnings. poor, regular earnings. Factory, dock, and warehouse labourers, carmen, messengers and porters. Of the whole section none can be said to rise above poverty, nor are many to be classed as very poor. As a general rule they have a hard struggle to make ends meet, but they are, as a body, decent steady men, paying their way and bringing up their children respectably.
ERegular standard earnings, 22s to 30s per week for regular work, fairly comfortable. As a rule the wives do not work, but the children do: the boys commonly following the father, the girls taking local trades or going out to service.
FHigher class labour and the best paid of the artisans. Earnings exceed 30s per week. Foremen are included, city warehousemen of the better class and first hand lightermen; they are usually paid for responsibility and are men of good character and much intelligence.
GLower middle class. Shopkeepers and small employers, clerks and subordinate professional men. A hardworking sober, energetic class.
HUpper middle class, servant keeping class.

The correspondence between the seven colour codes on the maps and the eight classes defined in the published volumes is not direct. Rosemary O'Day and David Englander[2] set it out as follows:

ClassDescriptionMap colour for streets
AThe lowest class of occasional labourers, loafers and semi-criminalsBlack
BCasual earnings: "very poor" (below 18s. per week for a moderate family)Dark blue
CIntermittent earningsTogether "the poor" between 18s. and 21s. per week for a moderate familyLight bluePurple
DSmall regular earnings
ERegular standard earnings - Above the line of povertyPink
FHigher class labour - Fairly comfortable good ordinary earnings
GLower middle class - Well-to-do middle classRed
HUpper middle class - WealthyYellow

Interpreting the colours

It can be a little difficult to interpret the colours used on the Maps Descriptive of London Poverty. The colours of adjacent classes have not been chosen to emphasise distinction: in fact, similar classes have similar colours. This allows general trends across the city to be made apparent, although it can make identification at the street level more difficult.

It is worth noting that the light blue - "Poor. 18s. to 21s. a week for a moderate family" - and pink - "Fairly comfortable. Good ordinary earnings" - are not solid blocks of colours. If the user zooms in to view these colours on the map hatching becomes apparent. This is a useful aid to interpretation where the shades may be similar to neighbouring streets.

The compilers of the map also sometimes used a combination of colours to indicate that the street "contains a fair proportion of each of the classes represented by the respective colours".

Area covered by the digitised map

The twelve Maps Descriptive of London Poverty, 1898-9 cover an area of London from Hammersmith in the west, to Greenwich in the east, and from Hampstead in the north to Clapham in the south.

The Booth Collection at the Archives Division of the British Library of Political and Economic Science (London School of Economics) contains a possible thirteenth sheet, covering Woolwich [archive reference number: Booth A49]. This has not been digitised, but can be consulted by appointment with the Archives Division (Document@lse.ac.uk).

The City of London was not included in the street level survey because it did not house any significant number of residents. For this reason, the City of London remains uncoloured and unclassified on the maps.

Map editions

Descriptive Map of London Poverty 1889
The first edition of the poverty maps was based on information gathered from School Board visitors. A first sheet covering the East End was published in the first volume of Labour and Life of the People. Volume 1: East London (London: Macmillan, 1889) as the Descriptive Map of East End Poverty. The map was expanded in 1891 to four sheets - covering an area from Kensington in the west to Poplar in the east, and from Kentish Town in the north to Stockwell in the south - and published in subsequent volumes of the survey. These maps are collectively known as the Descriptive Map of London Poverty 1889. They use Stanford's Library Map of London and Suburbs at a scale of 6 inches to 1 mile (1:10,560) as their base. A digital image of the 1889 map has been made by the University of Michigan.

The original working maps from this first edition of the poverty maps are held at the Museum of London. These are handcoloured and use the 1869 Ordnance Survey 1:2500 maps as their base.

Maps Descriptive of London Poverty, 1898-9
The first edition of the maps had proved to Booth the value of social mapping of this type, and he felt that they were sufficiently important to warrant a comprehensive revision ten years on. Social investigators accompanied policemen on their beats across London, and recorded their own impressions of each street and the comments of the policemen. This information, gathered together in the police notebooks digitised by this project, was used to revise the street classification given for 1889.

The twelve sheets - covering an area from Hammersmith in the west, to Greenwich in the east, and from Hampstead in the north to Clapham in the south - were published in the survey volumes between 1902 and 1903. These maps are collectively known as the Map Descriptive of London Poverty, 1898-9. They use Stanford's Library Map of London and Suburbs at a scale of 6 inches to 1 mile (1:10,560) as their base. It is this edition of the map that has been digitised and made searchable by the Charles Booth Online Archive project.

The original working maps from this second edition of the poverty maps are held in the Booth Collection at the Archives Division of the British Library of Political and Economic Science (London School of Economics) [LSE archive reference numbers: Booth E2/2 - E2/61]. They are handcoloured and use the 1897 Ordnance Survey 1:2500 maps as their base.

More information about the maps can be found in Ralph Hyde Printed Maps of Victorian London: 1851-1900 (Folkestone: Dawson, 1975).

Map digitisation

The project was tasked with creating a searchable digital version of the Maps Descriptive of London Poverty, 1898-99 which could be linked to the detailed catalogue of survey materials and to the relevant pages of the digitised notebook images. The maps could not therefore simply be presented as twelve simple static scanned images, but would have to be made searchable. Digitally scanned images would have to be georeferenced and a database of gazetteer information purchased to use in association with the georeferenced map.

The twelve map sheets were scanned[3] using a Colortrac 360 GX+ at a resolution of 400 dpi. This is a roller scanner, not a flat bed scanner, but given that the LSE archives have multiple copies of the printed maps the risk of damage from the roller was thought to be acceptable in this circumstance.

Each of the resulting twelve files was then georectified to make them conform to modern standards of georeferencing: the Victorians after all did not have the benefits of global satellite positioning when they were drawing up their maps. The georectification process, which associates grid references with points on an image using specialist software, in effect treats the Victorian map image like a sheet of rubber to be stretched and pulled to force it to match modern mapping of the same area.

It would make no sense in a digital environment to keep the twelve images separate so once georectified the sheets were stitched together. Unfortunately the borders between the relevant areas of each of the sheets were not straight lines, but followed the parish boundaries, making this task extremely painstaking. Furthermore, the matching of the border lines had been made even more problematic through having undergone some degree of distortion during the georectification process. The resulting single image had to be carefully checked along its internal seams to ensure that these were as smooth as possible.

The most serious problem encountered however was the difficulty in maintaining a consistent colour palette across the twelve pieces of the map. Colour is vital to the maps but - inevitably given the printing processes of the time - these colours are not necessarily identical across all the sheets. It became a process of trial and error to join the sheets together in a sequence which minimised the consequences of merging the colour palettes of adjoining sheets. The sheet covering the West End, with its unusual accumulation of wealthy streets, was particularly difficult, perhaps because the area it represents was always so distinct from neighbouring districts.

The resulting image is searchable by association with a database of gazetteer information. Modern street name gazetteer data was purchased, but the project has supplemented this to cover parish names, area names, landmark features and postcodes. London's streets have undergone a considerable amount of change over the last hundred years. Slum clearance, war damage and road building have all contributed to the disappearance of hundreds of streets, courts and alleys. However, sections of the Booth notebooks (the "police notebooks") describe the locations of several thousand streets and these have enabled us to calculate approximate grid references for "lost" streets. We hope to gradually improve the accuracy of this data by manual georeferencing.

Another of the benefits of georeferencing is that the Booth map can be displayed alongside any other georeferenced digital map of London, with both views synchronised to show exactly the same area. We purchased the Bartholomew digital map of London, and users have the option to view our map of Victorian London alongside the equivalent piece of modern mapping. Persistence and change in the topography of London becomes immediately apparent. The clarity and legibility of the modern map also helps users to orient themselves.


  1. Charles Booth. Life and Labour of the People in London Volume 1 (London: Macmillan, 1902) pp.33-62
  2. Rosemary O'Day and David Englander. Mr Charles Booth's Inquiry: Life and Labour of the People in London Reconsidered (London: Hambledon Press, 1993) p.47
  3. Scanning, georecification and mosaicing were carried out by Colourmap Scanning Ltd.


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