30th March 1840. The Poverty Line.
Laissez-faire had become a discredited notion particularly after writers such as Samuel Smiles’ Thrift (1875): ‘When typhus or cholera breaks out, they tell us nobody is to blame…nobody adulterates our food …nobody makes poachers, thieves and drunkards…it is embedded in two words laissez-faire’.
Socialist and pioneer statistician Charles Booth born Today in 1840 was responsible along with the likes of Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree and Henry Mayhew, in bringing to the attention of the public and government, the dreadful living conditions of 19thc lower class London, and their association with crime, drunkenness, gambling and extreme on poverty.(1)
Booth, the son of a ship owner, wanted to see for himself the conditions and found the 1881 Census inadequate as he wished to breakdown occupations and income of all classes.
So Booth produced twelve maps descriptive of London Poverty covered London from North-South (Greenwich to Hammersmith) and South-North (Clapham to Hampstead) though the actual City was not covered.
In order to provide a visual image of local conditions on street by street basis, Booth devised a seven-colour scheme from Black (lowest class); vicious, semi-criminal, via Pink (fairly comfortable with good ordinary earnings). Orange represented the wealthy upper-middle and upper-class.
Rowntree (of the chocolate family), was especially concerned with looking at the dire conditions in the city of York where his findings showed that poverty was a major and widespread problem in 19th century Britain.
Booth in his 17 year investigation, with the help of Beatrice Webb, collected the data in 17 volumes, but though limited to London, arrived at some idea of a ’poverty-line’.(2)
This was set at 10-20 shillings for a family of 4/5, later to be revised in the next century with the notion of a minimum working wage.
Whilst discountenancing any ‘notion of idleness’, Booth advised the setting up of ‘public labour camps’, which contradicted the then ‘laissez-faire’ views and concluded the need for collective responsibility.(3)
Henry Mayhew (1812-1887), sent on a mission by the Morning Chronicle, compiled ‘The London Labour and London Poor’, which when allied with Chadwick’s Sanitary Report and Booth’s work, meant that never again could ignorance be blamed for not ameliorating social conditions.
Booth was an early advocate of pensions and with the support of the Trade Unions was to see a Liberal Government bringing in Old Aged Pensions in January 1909 and National Insurance in 1911.
As the 19thc author William Thackeray said, ‘we had to go a 100 yards and to see for ourselves, but we never did’.(4)
(1) Mayhew was a co-founder of Punch which highlighted social conditions and an article in the Morning Chronicle caused a reaction amongst Radicalists and Christian Socialists.
(2) Now in LSE London.
(3) Punch Magazine. 9.3.1850. p.93.
(4) These had to await until 1926 when camps were set up to help long-term unemployed after the War.
Ref: HC Debate 23. Feb. 1891. vol 350. cc 1359-60.
Ref: victorianweb.org/Pic of boys.