Charles Booth (1840–1916) was an English reformer, social surveyor, and social scientist and, at the same time, a wealthy Victorian captain of industry. In many ways he combined within himself the themes and conflicts prevalent in late nineteenth-century England, where the problems implicit in the maturation of an urban industrial civilization were becoming increasingly evident.
Booth was the son of a prosperous Liverpool businessman of liberal politics and religion. He left school to work for a steamship company and later, with his brother, founded his own steamship business. As a young man he was a member of the younger set within a group of prosperous industrialist families who had lively intellectual interests and were endowed with great social consciousness: his wife was a cousin of Beatrice Webb and a niece of the historian Macaulay. Booth was familiar with Comte’s positivistic theories but, typically, never became a disciple. Although a Conservative in later life, he remained sympathetic to the trade union movement.
In the 1880s the ubiquitous paradox of urban industrial society—poverty in the midst of plenty —became too patent to ignore; the conventional doctrine of economic liberalism was increasingly deserted in practice, and a variety of sheerly speculative socialist theories were loudly proclaimed. In this context Booth set out in businesslike and positivistic fashion simply to discover “the facts.” He believed that the assumptions of orthodox political economy were “very imperfectly connected with the observed facts of life” and that intelligent social action must be based on “a true picture of the modern industrial organism” (1887, p. 376).
Booth began his research by investigating the occupational characteristics of the population of the United Kingdom and went on to study the inhabitants of a small depressed area of London. The results of these as well as other efforts were published in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, beginning in 1886 (see Booth 1886). Ultimately, he organized and directed at his own expense a plan of research that eventuated in his 17-volume classic, Life and Labour of the People in London (1889–1891). His aim was nothing less than to give a picture—extensive and statistical as well as intensive and qualitative—“of the whole of London society.”
The work is divided into three major subject areas: poverty, industry, and religious influences. In the four-volume poverty series, Booth divided London’s four million inhabitants into eight social classes on the basis of income. The family was the unit of inquiry, and the reports of School Board visitors, whose cooperation Booth secured, were the source of the data. His conclusion that over 30 per cent of the people of London were “below the line of poverty” was a shock to many; it was also in essential agreement with the estimates of such socialist critics of the time as H. M. Hyndman.
The five-volume industry series classified London’s population by two new criteria: “crowding,” as measured by the number of persons per room, in the case of the lower classes; and number of servants, in the case of the upper classes. The source of these data was the 1891 census, to which Booth had served as a consultant. In the interests of economy, the street, rather than the family, was taken as the unit of investigation. A complete picture of the economic organization of the city in terms of the demographic characteristics of each occupation was presented: significantly, the locus of each trade, as well as the residences of those engaged in each occupation, was analyzed in terms of “inner” and “outer” ring divisions of the city.
The religious influences series was really misnamed, for despite Booth’s concern with discovering the influence of organized religious efforts on the poor, he gave more than half of the seven-volume series to an investigation of the way of life of the poor and the working classes. Indeed, Booth lived as a participant–observer in lower-class households on a number of occasions.
A major focus of the final volume, “Notes on Social Influences and Conclusions,” was a statistical analysis of the relation of birth and death rates to poverty and crowding. Here Booth turned from the 30 census registration districts and constructed 50 areas, “fairly convenient for comparison,” which he colored according to “mean social condition.” The resulting “Index Map of London” was only one of a series of maps that portrayed the spatial pattern of various aspects of the social organization and functioning of the city: for example, the distribution of the inhabitants by social class; the location of “Places of Religious Worship, Public Elementary Schools, and Houses Licensed for the Sale of Liquor.”
Although the original intention was simply to discover “things as they are,” the time span that the work came to cover inevitably led to an interest in change. Therefore, in the final series and in the summary volume Booth often abandoned mere description and instead offered generalizations and causal interpretations of his findings. While he lacked academic training and theoretical interest, his empirical generalizations concerning the social and spatial structure of the modern urban community (as well as many of his methodological innovations) were hardly surpassed by American urban sociologists a generation later. For example, Booth formulated a “general law of successive migration,” which noted the “centrifugal movement” of the city’s population; he also concluded that “residential London tends to be arranged by class in rings” with the most uniform poverty at the center.” His recognition of the trend toward the separation of workplace from residence and the development of a “metropolitan community” are just a few of the modern insights with which the work abounds.
Despite Booth’s desire to remain objective, his findings disturbed his ethical sense. Especially concerned over the plight of the aged poor, he drew up and advocated a program of noncontributory state pensions. Some of his proposals were incorporated in an act of Parliament under the Liberal government in 1908. A privy councilor and member of several royal commissions, Booth was honored by Oxford, Cambridge, and Liverpool universities. He also served as a president of the Royal Statistical Society.
A careful study of Life and Labour reveals Booth as a major methodological (and, implicitly, sociological) precursor of the University of Chicago studies of the city carried on by Robert E. Park and his students in the 1920s. Indeed, Booth went far beyond his own predecessors in England—Sir Frederick M. Eden, The State of the Poor (1797), and Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor (1851)—precisely in his concern with developing and employing more meaningful areal units for comparative analysis. Undoubtedly Park’s use of spatial patterns as an objective index of social structure was much influenced by Booth’s work. Moreover, Booth’s study was clearly a great force in inspiring the social-survey movement both in England and America, such as the community studies of B. S. Rowntree and Sir Hubert Llewellyn Smith and the Pittsburgh Survey. On the other hand, Booth’s contribution to the study of social stratification has been almost completely overlooked by modern students.
In England, the practical and political influence of Booth’s work outweighed his impact on academic social science. British sociology failed to follow the empirical lead of such surveyors as Booth and Geddes; rather, the tradition of social philosophy under Hobhouse dominated the scene for the subsequent generation.
Harold W. Pfautz
[For the historical context of Booth’s work, seeCity, article onForms and functions; Public health; Statistics, article onthe history of statistical method; and the biography ofSidney and beatrice webbFor discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, see the biographies ofGeddes; Park.]
1886 Occupations of the People of the United Kingdom, 1801–1881. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society Series A 49:314–435.
1887 The Inhabitants of Tower Hamlets (School Board Divisions), Their Condition and Occupations. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society Series A 50:326–391.
(1889–1891) 1902–1903 Life and Labour of the People in London. 17 vols. London: Macmillan. 1899 Old Age Pensions and the Aged Poor: A Proposal. London: Macmillan.
1910 Poor Law Reform. London: Macmillan.
1913 Industrial Unrest and Trade Union Policy. London: Macmillan.
Charles Booth: A Memoir. 1918 London: Macmillan. → Published anonymously.
Eaton, Allen H.; and Harrison, Shelby M. 1930 A Bibliography of Social Surveys. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Eden, Frederick M. (1797) 1928 The State of the Poor. London: Routledge.
Lynd, Helen M. 1945 England in the 1880’s. New York: Harcourt.
Mayhew, Henry (1851) 1861 London Labour and the London Poor. London: Griffin.
Simey, Thomas S.; and Simey, Margaret B. 1960 Charles Booth, Social Scientist. Oxford Univ. Press.
Smith, H. Llewellyn 1929 The New Survey of London Life and Labour. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society Series A 92:530–547.
Webb, Beatrice (1926) 1950 My Apprenticeship. London & New York: Longmans.
The English social scientist Charles Booth (1840-1916) conducted a massive pioneering investigation of living and working conditions in London.
Charles Booth was born in Liverpool on March 30, 1840, into a family of merchants and shipowners. He early became a successful shipowner and in 1871 married the niece of the author T. B. Macaulay. After a serious illness Booth settled in London and turned his attention to the condition of the working classes. He was struck by the abundance of theoretical proposals for the relief of poverty and the absence of accurate quantitative evidence. In his view, the first need was to obtain facts, both "to prevent the adoption of false remedies" and to provide materials for others "to find remedies for the evils which exist."
In 1886 Booth began his survey of East London, at that time probably the area of greatest destitution in England. He and his assistants compiled 46 books of data, with family-by-family notations of economic level and occupation. He published a one-volume condensation of this information in 1889. In 1891 he produced a more general report on the rest of London. He worked through the 1890s with the help of the 1891 census, and his final text, in 17 volumes, appeared in 1902-1903 under the general title Life and Labour of the People in London. Booth organized this work into three series: "Poverty," arranged geographically; "Industry," categorized into 16 trades; and "Religious Influences."
Booth's most important discovery was that 30 percent of the million families in London lived at or below the bare minimum level for independent subsistence. His facts appeared, on one hand, to disprove the Marxist presumption of a massive, destitute proletariat and, on the other hand, to show the futility of private charity and the need for a program of welfare legislation.
Although Booth avoided specific recommendations, he concluded that the state must intervene to preserve capitalist competition by the "removal of this very poor class out of the daily struggle for existence." He envisaged a dual system of individualism and socialism under which Britain could "dispense with any socialistic interference in the lives of all [but the poor]." Booth's work did much to lay a statistical basis for the structure of the welfare state; old-age pensions, health and unemployment insurance, and minimum wages were all instituted between 1908 and 1911.
Booth served on the official Poor Law Commission of 1905-1909, in which his views were essentially conservative. He died on Nov. 23, 1916. Beatrice Webb, his cousin and coworker, called him "the boldest pioneer …, and the achiever of the greatest results, in the methodology of the social sciences of the nineteenth century."
Aside from Booth's own volumes, there are accounts of his life and work by his wife, Mary Macaulay Booth, in Charles Booth: A Memoir (1918), and by Beatrice Webb in My Apprenticeship (1926; 2d ed. 1946). Albert Fried and Richard Elman, eds., Charles Booth's London (1968), is a volume of selections from Booth's survey with a useful biographical introduction.
O'Day, Rosemary, Mr Charles Booth's inquiry: Life and labour of the people in London reconsidered, London; Rio Grande, Ohio: Hambledon Press, 1993.
Charles Booth, social scientist, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980, 1960. □