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Charles Booth (30 March 184023 November 1916) was an Englishmarker philanthropist and social researcher. He is most famed for his innovative work on documenting working class life in Londonmarker at the end of the 19th century, work that along with that of Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree influenced government intervention against poverty in the early 20th century.

Early life

Charles Booth was born in Liverpoolmarker on 30 March 1840 to Charles Booth and Emily Fletcher. His father, a scion of the ancient Cheshiremarker familymarker, was a wealthy ship-owner and corn merchant as well as being a prominent Unitarian.

Booth attended the Royal Institution School in Liverpoolmarker before being apprenticed at aged sixteen.

Booth's father died in 1862, leaving Booth with control of the family company to which he added a successful glove manufacturing business. Booth entered the skins and leather business with his elder brother Alfred, and they set up Alfred Booth and Company with offices in both Liverpool and New Yorkmarker using a £20,000 inheritance..

After studying shipping, Booth was able to persuade Alfred and his sister Emily to invest in steamships and create a service to Pará, Maranhão and Ceará in Brazilmarker. Booth himself went on the first voyage on 14th of February 1866. He was also involved in the building of a harbour at Manaus which could overcome seasonal fluctuations in water levels. He described this as his "monument" when he visited the area for the last time in 1912.

Booth also had some participation in politics. He campaigned unsuccessfully as the Liberal parliamentary candidate in the election of 1865. Then, he became disillusioned with politics following the Tory victory in municipal elections in 1866. This changed Booth's attitudes, he saw that he could influence people more by educating the electorate, rather than through politics. Booth was involved in Joseph Chamberlain's Birmingham Education League, a survey which looked into levels of work and education in Liverpoolmarker. The survey found that 25,000 children in Liverpool were neither in school or work.

On 29 April, 1871, Booth married Mary Macaulay, who was niece of the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay. One of his daughters married the son of Lord Macnaghten

The survey into London life and labour

Booth was critical of the existing statistical data on poverty, by analysing census returns he argued that they were unsatisfactory and later sat on a committee in 1891 which suggested improvements which could be made to them.

Booth publicly criticised the claims of the leader of the Social Democratic Federation H. M. Hyndman - leader of Britain's first socialist party. In the Pall Mall Gazette of 1885, Hyndman stated that 25% of Londoners lived in abject poverty. Booth investigated poverty in London, working with a team of investigators which included his cousin Beatrice Potter. This research, which looked at incidences of pauperism in the East End of Londonmarker, showed that 35% were living in abject poverty - even higher than the original figure. This work was published under the title Life and Labour of the People in 1889. A second volume, entitled Labour and Life of the People, covering the rest of London, appeared in 1891. Booth also popularised the idea of a 'poverty line', a concept originally employed by the London School Board. Booth set this line at 10 to 20 shillings, which he considered to be the minimum amount necessary for a family of 4 or 5 people.

After the first two volumes were published Booth expanded his research. This investigation was carried out by Booth himself and a team of researchers. However Booth continued to operate his successful shipping business while the investigation was taking place. The fruit of this research was a second expanded edition of his original work, published as Life and Labour of the People in London in nine volumes between 1892 and 1897. A third edition (now expanded to seventeen volumes) appeared 1902-3. He used this work to argue for the introduction of Old Age Pensions which he described as "limited socialism". Booth argued that such reforms would prevent socialist revolution from occurring Britain. Booth was far from tempted by the ideas of socialism but had some sympathy with the working classes, as part of his investigation he took lodgings with working class families and recorded his thoughts and findings in diaries.

The London School of Economicsmarker keeps his work on an online searchable database.

Political views

While Booth's attitudes towards poverty may make him appear fairly liberal, Booth actually became more conservative in his views as he became older. Some of his investigators such as Beatrice Potter became socialists as a result of their research, however Booth was critical of the way in which the Liberal government appeared to support trade unions after they won the 1906 General Election. This caused him to renounce his Liberal Party membership - he defected to the Conservative Party.

Influence of his work

Life and Labour of the People in London can be seen as one of the founding texts of British sociology, drawing on both quantitative (statistical) methods and qualitative methods (particurly ethnography). Because of this, it was an influence on Chicago School sociology (notably the work of Robert E. Park) and later the discipline of community studies associated with the Institute of Community Studies in East Londonmarker.

The importance of his work in social statistics was recognised by the Royal Statistical Society, who awarded him the first Guy Medal in Gold in 1882 and elected him their president in the same year. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1899 "As having applied Scientific Methods to Social Investigation".


In later life, Charles moved to Grace Dieu Manor in Thringstonemarker, Leicestershire. Here he built England's first community centre, and founded Grace Dieu Cricket Club. His body is buried in St Andrew's Church in the village, and a memorial dedicated to him stands on the village green.


  • Life and Labour of the People, 1st ed., Vol. I. (1889).
  • Labour and Life of the People, 1st ed., Vol II. (1891).
  • Life and Labour of the People in London, 2nd ed., (1892-97). 9 vols.
  • Life and Labour of the People in London, 3rd ed., (1902-3). 17 vols.


  1. Charles Booth (1840-1916) - a biography (Charles Booth Online Archive)
  2. Unitarian Society
  3. Charles Booth (1840-1916) - a biography (Charles Booth Online Archive)
  4. Belinda Norman-Butler, Victorian Aspirations, London: Allen & Unwin (1972) p. 177
  5. Charles Booth's London (1969) edited by Albert Fried and Richard Ellman. London, Hutchinson: xxviii
  6. The reversal of the words in the title of the second volume was due to the original title "Life and Labour" being claimed by Samuel Smiles who wrote a similarly titled book in 1887.
  7. Alan Gillie, ‘The Origin of the Poverty Line’, Economic History Review, XLIX/4 (1996), 726
  8. David Boyle - The Tyranny of Numbers p.116
  9. Charles Booth's London (1969) edited by Albert Fried and Richard Ellman. London, Hutchinson: 341
  10. Booth Poverty Map & Modern map (Charles Booth Online Archive)
  11. Royal Society citation

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