Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
A new edition of Charles Booth’s famous 19th-century maps offers a chance to reflect on how London has changed—and how it hasn’t.
Flicking through the new edition of Charles Booth’s London Poverty Maps, contemporary Londoners might be struck with a feeling of déjà vu.
The book is a reprint of a gargantuan study conducted between 1889 and 1903 by Victorian social reformer Charles Booth, whose incredibly detailed maps (fully viewable online here) catalog exactly how rich or poor London was—street by street, and sometimes even house by house. Each row of houses in the landmark study is categorized in color grades ranging from “wealthy” all the way down to “lowest class: vicious, semi-criminal.” The maps offer an incredible document of late Victorian London.
At the same time, this new edition, accompanied by compelling if bleak period photos, reveals a city that possesses echoes of London today. It depicts, after all, a densely-packed metropolis with a cosmopolitan population where immensely wealthy people lived just around the corner from neighbors who were struggling to make ends meet.
Take the map above of Westminster, as an example. Most prominent on the map is Buckingham Palace, already in possession of London’s largest private garden and colored in orange to signify upper-class residents. Flanked by parkland and grand houses, you might expect the palace to only have plutocrats for neighbors. Just a few minutes down the grand avenue of Birdcage Walk, however, you find a semi-hidden street colored in black, to signify residents so poor they may regularly resort to crime to stay alive. This narrow lane is Old Queen Street, a backstreet of once grand 17th-century houses (many of which still stand) that had clearly fallen on hard times.
In east London, things were even starker. Look at this map of the inner East End, left blank within the area of the City of London where data was apparently unavailable. The black rows depicted top-center in the map show Dorset Street, a lane then known as the “worst street in London,” a place that, according to one eye witness, “teemed with nasty characters—desperate, wicked, lecherous, razor-slashing hoodlums,” and acted as a sort of consciously tolerated holding pen for London’s underbelly.
This underbelly was large. Booth’s own research revealed that during the period of his study (and in contradiction of the slightly lower numbers mentioned on the key sheet above) roughly 35 percent of Londoners were living in abject poverty. This meant they weren’t just poor in relation to their more prosperous neighbors, but were struggling daily to cobble together the food, shelter, and clothing they needed to stay alive. And for some, things were getting worse.
We tend to think of the 19th century as a grimy but sure-footed march toward prosperity. London in Booth’s day, however, was hard-bitten by the so-called Long Depression, its population swollen by escapees from Ireland’s major famine of 1879. Reformist efforts were starting to kick in—Booth’s maps already show East London’s half-built Boundary Estate, a ground-breaking slum clearance and affordable housing scheme—but these would not have reached the poorest.
Newly-built “model dwellings” for the working poor, built by American-born philanthropist George Peabody, among others, generally barred tenants who had no fixed employment or who did piecework at home, meaning that desperate workers like the exhausted family of matchbox makers captured in the photograph below would not have been eligible to rent one, even if their means had stretched to the modest rent. If better conditions for the poor were coming, they were still a long way away.
Return to those same sites of poverty today, however, and the transformation in wealth is dramatic, powered by better living standards as well as a drastic rearrangement of where different social classes live in London today. Old Queen’s Street, the poverty-stricken lane near Buckingham Palace, is now ludicrously expensive: A house on the street is currently on sale for just under $23 million. Meanwhile, over in East London, Dorset Street’s warren has been largely demolished and is now home to finance companies and a branch of Chanel, rather than brothels and flop houses.
But still something lingers. Walk through the surviving alleyways nearby and there is some miasma of the past rising through the paving. Transformed into a metropolis during Booth’s time, London may strive to constantly reinvent itself, to pile its surface ever higher with steel and concrete each year, but the city has never really lost that era’s stamp, both in its vibrancy and inequality. Beneath this new flesh, however, the city’s dank Victorian bones always somehow show through.
Charles Booth’s London Poverty Maps, by Mary S. Morgan, Iain Sinclair and the London School of Economics, will be published in the U.S. by Thames and Hudson on November 12.