14 Aug

Map of the Week: Booth’s London

By Nigel Jaffe

If you’ve ever used Google Maps’s route planner to find directions, you’ll know there are plenty of filters you can manipulate according to your preferred travel plans, adjusting your view of the map to show bike routes or traffic congestion with the push of a button. Meanwhile, toggling between Google Maps and Google Earth distorts the map even more radically, with computer-generated street maps taking the place of a picturesque, “Blue Earth”-style satellite image of the globe. 

Today’s Map of the Week examines a filter that’s only available in one city, replacing the maps of today’s streets with analogous drawings from the late 1800s. Visit this page to navigate through social reformer Charles Booth’s “Maps Descriptive of London Poverty,” a meticulously thorough and detailed depiction of how income and socioeconomic class were distributed on a block-by-block basis at the end of the century.

Booth color-codes his map according to seven socioeconomic zones, ranging from “vicious, semi-criminal” to “Mixed” to “Upper classes. Wealthy.”

Upon opening the map, the full spectrum of colors is instantly on display. The yellow (wealthy) clusters tend to neighbor stretches of red (well-to-do), while black areas are usually located at the heart of districts of blue (poor) and brown (mixed). The similarity of colors at each end of the spectrum—darker colors for poorer classes and warmer/lighter colors for richer classes—makes it so that general trends are easier to see: neighborhoods with a warmer overall tone are wealthier on average than those with a cooler aesthetic.

Though the maps were drawn more than 120 years ago, they are remarkably similar to today’s satellite-generated street maps. A testament both to Booth’s attention to detail and London’s unchanged geography, even the smallest alleys (e.g. between Chapel Street and Chester Street below) are locatable on either map.

The effect is easy to see when the slider at the bottom of the screen is toggled, fading Booth’s map to reveal the modern one underneath. The only difference in many cases is the style, with Booth’s socioeconomic filter shading the map in a similar effect to some of Google Maps’s navigation options.

Booth was a successful businessman whose personal concern for social issues led him to analyze census returns and eventually conduct his own inquiry into poverty in London. His survey gathered information about the occupations of locals from the School Board visitors, as well as observations made while accompanying policemen on the streets.

The result was several volumes of research, published in four editions as Life and Labour of the People in London, that included the Maps Descriptive of London Poverty 1898-99. More information about the specifics of Booth’s work, including digitized notebooks from his studies, can be found here.