The Canon: Life and Labour of the People in London. Edited by Charles Booth

April 29, 2010

In 1889, Charles Booth's research into poverty in East London was published under the title Life and Labour of the People. Accompanying the text was a street map showing gradations of poverty in a spectrum of colour that ran from black, which symbolised "very poor, in chronic want", through to yellow, a visual metaphor for wealth. While other researchers had recorded the condition of the dispossessed and destitute people of London, none had used a scientific methodology nor created a visual aid that informed and shocked with such immediacy.

The book appeared at a watershed in British history; the economy was fragile, socialism was emerging, alien immigration was increasing and the nature of poverty was under discussion. Its publication lifted the "curtain behind which East London had been hidden ... and presented the nation with a physical chart of sorrow, suffering and crime". Whereas previously poverty had been accepted as a condition that the indolent and intemperate brought upon themselves, it was now accepted as a problem.

In 1862, at the age of 22, Booth and his brother founded the company that would provide the financial backing for his investigations. Fourteen years later saw the start of his preoccupation with what he called the "problem of problems" - poverty. His findings have been applauded as a remarkable contribution. His characterisation of East End streets as "awful places, lack(ing) all idea of cleanliness and decency (and their) children ... forming the nucleus of future generations of thieves and other bad characters", coming only months after the Whitechapel murders, shocked policymakers and political activists into seeking solutions.

For the rest of his life, Booth combined business with a search for answers to the questions that drove his social conscience; in 1903, the 17-volume edition of Life and Labour of the People in London was finally complete. It was the plight of the aged poor that troubled him most, his research having highlighted the fact that it was pauperism more than any other factor that forced old people into the workhouse. This distressed Booth, who believed that the elderly should retain their independence, pride and purpose, and he travelled the country advocating a universal pension scheme - which bore fruit in 1908 with the passing of the Old Age Pensions Act.

Booth was a dedicated, compassionate man; a fond and loving husband, father and grandfather of a "sweet disposition who held the strongest of convictions". Although at times the large statistical framework he created for his research found him, he said, "out of his depth", he saw the task through until his death. He left a legacy that benefited generations of researchers, inspiring Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree to carry out his research in York, and furnishing the founder of the Salvation Army, William Booth, with the statistics for his work, In Darkest England.

Booth introduced the concept of a "poverty line" below which, in an ideal society, no income should fall and yet, in spite of his life and labour, that ideal has still to be achieved.

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