Charles Booth in the East End


The Victorian philanthropists came to their calling by a number of routes. Often it was religious piety that led them to descend into the abyss of the East End, and to help the people there lead ‘better’ lives. The young men who staffed the university missions such as Oxford House were encouraged by tutors who saw growing evidence of ‘two nations’ – and urged their students to do their bit to bring them back together. And often they were the scions of rich families – the likes of Frederick Charrington and Angela Burdett-Coutts – who in their different ways were trying to give back a small part of the millions their family firms had made from London.

Charles Booth was slightly different. He would probably have rejected the term ‘philanthropist’ altogether, being rather sceptical of do-gooders. He wasn’t a pious man: by the time he undertook the mammoth work that would chart the state of London’s poor he had no religious faith left. And he had no political axe to grind, resisting attempts by the major political parties to recruit him.

Booth’s mammoth work, the Life and Labour of the People in London, was published in a number of volumes between 1889 and 1903. Booth had no intention of publishing such an epic: he wryly commented that ‘I cursed every minute I gave to it.’ But a chance conversation altered the course of his life, and saw a rich businessman spending month after month in the East End, studying the lives of the people there.

For Booth hadn’t been an academic (though he was to be given credit for helping to invent the discipline of social science). Born in Liverpool in 1840, the son of a corn merchant, he was an unremarkable scholar, shining only in mathematics. At 16 he was apprenticed to the shipping company of Lamport and Holt; by 22, Charles had been orphaned and lost the woman he loved, Antonia Prange.


The Booths had inherited sizeable sums from their parents, and industrious Charles joined older brother Alfred in a business importing and exporting skins and leather; all the while still working for Lamport and Holt. Charles soon became the dominant partner in the company, and was renowned for the extraordinary thoroughness of his methods. He made his financial mistakes early and determined that he would do his homework. He learned from the bottom: visiting the leatherworks, inspecting the skins, while simultaneously gaining a mastery of the books. Booth was as at home in a tannery as in the accounts office.

Booth quickly saw the potential of steam power, though he refused to set up in opposition to his former employer. In any case, his sister was now married to Alfred Holt. So, with meticulous planning, he devised trade routes across the Atlantic, avoiding those of Lamport and Holt. Then, persuading Alfred and sister Emily to invest their money in the construction of two steamships, he set up a service to Brazil. On the maiden voyage, Charles was aboard – with his characteristic thoroughness he had mastered the workings of the ship’s engines and also had an encyclopaedic (and necessary) knowledge of the South American postal system. In years to come he would see how bicycles, cars and their tyres would create a huge demand for rubber from the Brazilian plantations. Building a harbour in Manaus, he would be there to make the trade happen … and profit from it.

If an astute businessman, he wasn’t a ruthless one. In an 1880 letter to his brother he gives clues to his way of dealing, scorning the American practice of a deal being ‘to get the better of the men we sell to’. Booth argued that ‘it is not our interest to get the better of the men we buy from sell to, but to do the best we can for each, subject to a moderate remuneration for ourselves, and to give our chief attention to getting the utmost value out of the goods we deal in’. A fair share for everyone in fact. A flirtation with party politics, campaigning as a Liberal parliamentary candidate in Liverpool, opened his eyes. The squalor of Toxteth was horrific, but Booth could see neither Liberals nor Tories doing much to cure it. Neither religion nor politics seemed to be bringing the nation together.

But by the mid 1870s, Booth and his new wife Mary were living in London. It was a comfortable life in Bloomsbury and Westminster, yet only a few miles from the greatest slum in Europe … the East End of London. Within just a few years, Booth was to venture east of Aldgate to see for himself, and his real work was to begin.

In the 1870s, the exhausted Charles Booth returned from a rest cure in Switzerland – it was the first break the shipping magnate had taken in a decade and a half, and came at the insistence of his new wife, Mary Macaulay.

Mary also insisted the couple settle in London – she had found life in Booth’s hometown of Liverpool horribly dreary. But their new life in the capital, if sociable, was far from an empty round of parties and genteel pursuits. Mary’s uncle was the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, and the Booths circle of friends included Beatrice Potter (who would become Beatrice Webb and co-found the New Statesman magazine). Another was Octavia Hill: one of the prime movers behind the idea of council housing she also fought for green, open spaces for working people – a campaign that was to lead to the birth of the National Trust. And Canon Samuel Barnett was to make a profound mark on the East End, as the founder of the first university settlement – Whitechapel’s Toynbee Hall.

This then was an energetic, creative, intellectual and radical circle. From disparate backgrounds, they all agreed that the lot of the working East Ender was not a happy one. But unlike so many Victorians, they didn’t blame the working person for their own misery. They were more interested in practical solutions than pieties. As early as 1868, Booth had written:

‘The words “Give us this day our daily bread” have not much meaning to us; do we ever think what they mean to the poor? I am constantly impressed with the different aspect of our life compared to that of those who live on daily wages, from day to day, from hand to mouth. Some of my friends will say “You mean the difference between the thrifty and the unthrifty” but I do not think I do.’

In the era of Samuel Smiles, self-help and the workhouse, this was pretty radical stuff, and Booth get directly involved by signing up to help the Lord Mayor of London’s Relief Fund, analysing census returns But even Booth was sceptical when he first read a report by the Social Democratic Foundation, published in 1885, which argued that a quarter of the population of London lived in extreme poverty. Henry Hyndman of the Foundation records a visit from Booth, writing in his autobiography that ‘in his opinion we had grossly overstated the case’, and that he himself would ‘be undertaking an inquiry into the condtion of workers in London’. Charles had already grown frustrated by how unreliable the Census figures had proved to be. The punctilious Booth, as ever, wanted facts, figures … proof. His quest was to take nearly 20 years!

The inquiry was split into three parts: poverty, industry and religious influences. ‘Poverty’ took data from the School Board Visitors, recording levels of poverty and the types of jobs among the families that had caused it. There were special studies into subjects such as the trades associated with poverty, housing, population movements, the Jewish community and education. ‘Industry’ investigated every imaginable trade in London: from cricketers to wigmakers, to establish wage levels and conditions of employment. And there were ‘the unoccupied classes’: Booth amassed a wealth of stories on the workhouses and asylums, and on pauperism and its causes. ‘Religious influences’ took in the Church, philanthropy, local government and policing.

It was a huge task, and the most visible fruit were the famous maps of London, which were coloured street by street to show the varying levels of poverty and wealth. The first appeared in 1889 and they were revised a decade later. A series of investigators accompanied bobbies on the beats around the streets of London, with Booth adding invaluable new data to his interviews.

It seems an extraordinarily detailed and punctilious task to our eyes and it took over the author’s life. Even Booth remarked ‘Never I should think has a book been the occasion of so much bad language on the part of its author – I cursed every minute I gave to it!’ One problem, with a work so groundbreaking and original, was knowing where to stop. Nobody had done anything like this before.

But the timing and importance of the work cannot be overstated. Britain was seeing an upsurge in Radicalism that would change politics forever. The Fabian Society, which would lay the foundations for the Labour Party, had been founded in 1884. Among its stalwarts were figures such as Annie Besant, The Webbs, Emmeline Pankhurst and HG Wells, all of whom were to make their mark on the East End. Booth’s report was to help fuel the demands for social change … here after all was the proof that change was needed.

Booth was now a respected thinker as well as a successful businessman. He resisted attempts to get him into party politics (having moved by now from the Liberals to the Conservatives). He had served on the 1893 Royal Commission on the Aged Poor, became a Privy Councillor in 1904, and in 1907 served with Beatrice Webb on the Royal Commission on the Poor Law. In 1908, he started arguing for old age pensions, and the Liberal government passed the Old Age Pensions Act in 1908. He was made a fellow of the Royal Society and given honorary degrees by Cambridge, Liverpool and Oxford.

It was 1912, and the energetic Booth was 72, before he handed over the chairmanship of his shipping line to his nephew … though in 1915 an ailing Charles Booth returned to the company to assist the war effort. He died the following year.

Our thanks go the excellent Charles Booth Online Archive.


About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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