Data and Booth’s London Poverty Maps

The Student Perspectives category collects posts written by current CityLIS students.

Cat O’Carroll looks at processes of large data collecting, prior to the digital era, specifically to the work of Charles Booth and his descriptive maps of London Poverty in the late 1800s.

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Life and labour of the people in London / edited by Charles Booth (1892-1897). Public Domain

Life and labour of the people in London / edited by Charles Booth (1892-1897). Public Domain

#CityLIS classes for #INM348 #DITA Data Information Technologies and Applications module, form the basis of topic of this article.

Life and labour of the people in London / edited by Charles Booth.  (1892-1897). Public Domain

Life and labour of the people in London / edited by Charles Booth. (1892-1897). Public Domain

Today, the term data, now conjures up association to the digital age of computer systems and digital network technologies. A quick search on wikipedia will tell you from the 1940s it was used to mean transmissible and storable computer information, although through time there is still no agreeable single definition for what it actually is. ‘Data have many kinds of value, and that value may not be apparent until long after those data are collected, curated, or lost’. (Borgman 2015)

Examples of data however can be explored as far back as the Upper Paleolithic era, with tally markings found on sticks and bones or the census undertaken by the Babylonians in 3800 BCE. (Holmes 2017) As Kaplan stated in his article, Big Data of the Past (2017) ‘Big data is not a new phenomenon’. History, as he puts it ‘is punctuated by regimes of data acceleration, characterized by feelings of information overload accompanied by periods of social transformation and the invention of new technologies’.

It’s interesting to think about processes of large data collecting, prior to the digital era. A recent podcast of In Our Time – Booth’s Life and Labour Survey (2021) sprung to mind which explores this. Charles, Booth, born in 1840, was most noted for his Inquiry into Life and Labour in London, and his descriptive maps of London Poverty in the late 19th century. From the 1800s, societies became much more complex and difficult to understand, as the growth of economy, came the need to gather more data.

In his time analysing census returns in 1884, he realised the lack of valuable information that came through the compilation of the 1881 census. The opportunity to ask people about the circumstances on how they lived wasn’t captured and wondered why the census authorities were not doing this.

In 1885 Henry Hyndman, of the Social Democratic Federation published his inquiry into poverty, which claimed up to twenty-five percent of the population of London lived in extreme poverty. Booth’s claims that this figure was vastly overestimated, resulted in him undertaking his own inquiry into the condition of workers in London. It would turn out in his findings, that the number was higher, closer to a third.

One key resource that Booth tapped into to compile his data, was the school board visitors. It was through these interviews he understood the types of occupation among London families in their households and the types of data and information they gathered through their yearly visits.

Although his inquiry investigated poverty, industry, and religious influences; his mapping of London poverty, were the most striking. Each street in London streets were given specific colours on the map, that indicated the levels of poverty and wealth within the area. He organised these into eight specific groups, from A, which denoted the occasional labourers and the ‘semi-criminal’ as he put it, through to H-which represented the upper-class and the wealthiest.

Understanding of the household, became very important, as this gave a representation on what was going on throughout society. Through his surveys and published reports, he identified the causes of circumstances such as low wage income, family sizes and illness. The number one reason he concluded was old age and the decline in physical capacity to work. In Victorian London, there was no means of support for the aged, only the workhouse, where they seemed to end their days.

For many years, he then began writing and speaking about the need for state pensions to assist with issue of poverty amongst the elderly and saw in 1908 the passing of the Old Age Pensions Act in 1908.

References:

Data 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Data [2021, Oct 13]

Christine L. Borgman. (2015). Big Data, Little Data, No Data : Scholarship in the Networked World. The MIT Press.

Holmes, D.E. 2017, Big data: a very short introduction, First edn, Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom.

Kaplan, F. & di Lenardo, I. 2017, “Big Data of the Past”, Frontiers in Digital Humanities, vol. 0.

In Our Time – Booth’s Life and Labour Survey – BBC Sounds. Available: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000wsxf [2021, Oct 14,].

LSE , Charles Booth’s London poverty maps and poverty notebooks. Available: https://booth.lse.ac.uk/ [2021, 15/10/].

Images: Life and labour of the people in London / edited by Charles Booth (1892-1897). Public Domain

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This and other articles written by Cat can be found via her LinkedIn profile.

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