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Notes on De Beauvoir by Charles Booth

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Booth de Bover

Charles Booth was one of those remarkable English Victorians who can justly be described as one of the great and the good. Profoundly concerned by contemporary social problems, and not a pious nor even a religious man, he recognised the limitations of philanthropy and conditional charity in addressing the poverty which scarred British society. Without any commission other than his own he devised, organised, and funded one of the most comprehensive and scientific social surveys of London life that had then been undertaken. Booth also added his voice to the cause of state old age pensions as a practical instrument of social policy to alleviate destitution in old age, established as one of the commonest causes of pauperism. Simultaneously he was a successful businessman, running international interests in the leather industry and a steam shipping line.

Charles Booth's Inquiry into the Life and Labour of the People in London, undertaken between 1886 and 1903 was one of several surveys of working class life carried out in the 19th century. It is the only survey for which the original notes and data have survived and therefore provides a unique insight into the development of the philosophy and methodology of social investigation in the United Kingdom .

The survey was published as Life and Labour of the People 2 vols (London: 1889) (title of Vol 2 reads Labour and Life of the People), Labour and Life of the People 2 vols & Appendix (London: 1889-1891 2nd ed.), Life and Labour of the People in London 9 vols & Maps (London: 1892-1897) and Life and Labour of the People in London 17 vols (London: Macmillan,1902-1903). However, Booth included in the published volumes only information that could be quantified, and which would not identify or embarrass any individual interviewee. For these reasons much of the vivid detail can only be traced through use of the original notebooks.

These are held by the London School of Economics and can be inspected on its website, from which these biographical notes are taken.

The notes were made in 1897 and Charles Booth was accompanied in De Beauvoir by Inspector James Flanagan of Dalston subdivision of the Metropolitan Police.

  Booth map

The colours referred to in the notes and use to code the map:

 BLACK: Lowest class. Vicious, semi-criminal.

 DARK BLUE: Very poor, casual. Chronic want.

 LIGHT BLUE: Poor. 18s. to 21s. a week for a moderate family

 PURPLE: Mixed. Some comfortable others poor

 PINK: Fairly comfortable. Good ordinary earnings.

 RED: Middle class. Well-to-do.

 YELLOW: Upper-middle and Upper classes. Wealthy


( Church Road is now Northchurch Road and Northchurch terrace)


 September 9th and 13th, Thursday & Monday

Walk with Inspector Flanagan round district bounded on the North by Balls Pond Road , on the West by the Essex Road ; on the South by Church Road , and the Regents Canal ; & on the East by the Kingsland Road .

Starting at the Dalston Junction

Westwards along the Balls Pond Road (which comes in our district 16) as far as the Essex Road . The Essex Road is a wide road with trams down it, shops on the East side and dwelling houses on the West. The shops are of a substantial class at the North end. At the South, Flanagan said there was a street market with costers and street barrows but not so much frequented as the Kingsland High Street (…)

Englefield Road Semi-detached 3-1/2 storied houses. Red as map. A richer class here; “Some even occupy the whole house themselves.” “Some are city solicitors.” There is a common lodging house next to the public house at the corner of Englefield Road & Essex Road. Church Road looks the same as the foregoing. The map marks it pink barred with red. Houses 3-1/2 storied. Good gardens & trees behind. Crowland Terrace, Oakley & Church Road are also much like it. Houses old & well-built. Many notices in the windows of “apartments for a single gentleman”. One of the inhabitants announces himself on a brass plate as a “lecturer at the Polytechnic & People’s Palace”. Fine trees about.

Then Eastwards into the Southgate Road . The streets on either side of it are known as the Overtown Estate. Flanagan cd. not say more about it than this. There are trams running down the Southgate Road . The houses stand back from the road, are 3 storied & have good gardens. Red as map. Ufton Grove between Southgate & Ufton Roads has rather smaller houses - pink as map. Ufton Road is broad & bare & well kept. The milkman going his rounds the only sign of life. North into the Englefield Road which tails off to pink as map at its East end. Houses 2-1/2 storied inhabited by many builders & prudential agents. Good gardens. Sunflowers, holly hocks, chrysanthemums, golden-rod, tobacco plants in flower. Trees chiefly limes and elders. Ardleigh Road running NW out of Englefield Road is pink barred with red as map. Culford Road though marked the same does not look better than pink. At the triangle apex made by Ardleigh & Culford Roads is the Sussex Hotel, a large old-fashioned public house owned by Whitbreads. With its dancing license and assembly rooms it is more characteristic of what the neighbourhood was than of what it is. But even now it is used as a club and the neighbourhood goes there with its wives and daughters to the variety entertainment and dances given in its assembly rooms. There are flower boxes above the doorway and at the windows of the first floor and a small railing in green also bright with daisies and geraniums in front of the house. It is more like a county town hotel than a London public house.

  Booth sussex

The Culford Road is clean & bare with small fronts & large backs. Builders’ plates on the doors. Only the East side of the road has a pavement. The west is still gravel footpath. No Jews in this neighbourhood. Then on down the Mortimer Road to De Beauvoir Square . (pronounced locally as ‘De Bover’ square). Two factories are built into the large back gardens of the Mortimer Road . One belonging to a straw hat maker. The other an artificial flower makers employing about 60 girls. Flanagan thought the hat maker employed about 25 but was not sure. De Beauvoir Square is surrounded by old-fashioned looking houses with odd-shaped window panes (drawing) thus. They looked good enough houses but Flanagan had been surprised at the poorness of the inhabitants & the insides once when he had occasion to visit a house on the west side. The west side has good large gardens & should be the better side. The East has practically none & backs onto the purple Derby Road . The houses about here looks as if they had been the habitation of the ‘lean annuitants’ of whom Charles Lamb speaks as living in the ‘suburban northerly retreats of Dalston and Shacklewell.

  Booth dbs

(On the opposite page is a drawing of a semi-detached house with the note (The square a resort of prostitutes – jb).

Church Road is typical of the whole of De Beauvoir town – 2-1/2 storied semi-detached yellow-brick, slate roofed houses with long gardens behind. The level of the gardens is rather lower than that of the street. The house shown in the sketch on the last page is at the corner of Ufton Road and Church Road at the NE corner of Church Road . Pink barred with red in looks as map. Southgate Grove out of the Ufton Road is pink 2-1/2 storied as map. Across the Downham Road which is as map on the west end (pink barred with red) but gets worse as it goes eastward. The north side of the east end is certainly no better than purple. The map marks it the same as the rest. Then south down the Culford Road into Benyon Rd pink in character 2-1/2 storied, good fronts. No jews. Into Balmes Road which is much the same, houses flat-roofed. And so into De Beauvoir Crescent which is not so good in the character of its inhabitants.  The houses on the south side which the map marks purple are much the same as the rest marked pink. All of them look purple. Then Eastwards across the south end of De Beauvoir Road to look into the dark blue shown in the map next to the canal.


De Beauvoir Town has seen better days. Small houses and large gardens are its features. It is a residential neighbourhood, though here and there factories have been built into the back gardens. A great number of small jobbing builders also live there. Generally speaking, its inhabitants tend to get poorer as they approach the Balls Pond Road on the north and the canal on the south. The district is singularly free of Jews. Flanagan said he did not know of any. “People will not neighbour with Jews and Jews will not intermarry with Christians.

Speaking of women’s drinking, Flanagan said that the Kings Arms was the “cowshed” par excellence of the district. The Kings Arms is in the High Street. It is an old established house and has been lately done up. This was confirmed by a Mr Young, one of the guardians, who has a perambulator shop nearly opposite. He said 11 AM and between 6 and 8 pm were the great hours for women’s drinking. All classes go in. No one seems the least to mind being seen. Their tipple is gin. He has watched a butcher’s stall just opposite and notice that every buyer of a joint was taken off there for a drink. Monday is the chief cowshed day. Sometimes in a poor street you will hear an old woman say to a gay married woman: “Come along my dear, you just put your husband’s clothes away, he will never find it out. Besides, everyone does it.” That is how the women of the lower classes begin drinking. As factory girls they don’t indulge themselves at all regularly in this way.

In the lower middle classes he thinks the drinking habit is started in the courting days. A young man now always takes his young woman into a public house. So does the young married man. Young married couples will often spend many hours of the evening at the public house. It is dull at home but bright and amusing out. Thus the taste is acquired, which afterwards becomes a habit.

This transcription © Paul Bolding

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