Charles Booth (March 30, 1840 - November 23, 1916) was an English shipowner and social researcher, most famed for his work on documenting working class life in Victorian London at the end of the nineteenth century. Booth was concerned about social problems and recognized the limitations of philanthropy and conditional charity in addressing these problems.
His Life and Labour of the People of London provided important insights into the development of methodology of social investigation in the Great Britain, and is regarded a founding text of British sociology. It also had a strong influence on the Chicago School of Sociology which specialized in urban sociology (notably the work of Robert E. Park).
Although several of those Booth worked with, such as Beatrice Potter favored socialism as the cure for society's ills, Booth became disillusioned with the political approach, in fact becoming more conservative in his views in later life. He believed that education had more power than political methods to bring about social change. He also sought to avoid a socialist revolution by introducing reforms that would benefit the working class. Booth's work succeeded in educating people about the extent of social problems such as poverty at the time of his writing. His methodology has continued to be used to research such issues into contemporary times. Thus, he made a significant contribution to the improvement of many people and society in general.
Charles Booth was born in Liverpool, England, to Charles Booth and Emily Fletcher. His father was a corn merchant. His family was of Unitarian background, believing that social evils such as poverty were inflicted by humans, not God, so social problems could be tackled by human efforts. This opinion is evident in Booth's work on poverty.
Booth attended the Royal Institution School in Liverpool before becoming an apprentice of Lamport and Holt's shipping company at the age of 16. His father died when Booth was 22, and he and his brother Alfred took control of their father's company to which they added a successful glove manufacturing business. They were able to set up offices under the name "Alfred Booth and Company" in both Liverpool and New York using the money which they inherited from their father. Booth had a great talent for business and the company soon became rather prosperous.
The 1860s saw the development of steam shipping and Booth was an enthusiast. After studying shipping across the Atlantic Ocean, Booth was able to persuade his brother Alfred and his sister Emily to invest in steamships to create a service to Pará, Maranhão, and Ceará in Brazil. Booth himself went on the first voyage on February 14, 1866. Booth was also involved in the building of a harbor 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 for the Liberal parliamentary candidate in the election of 1865. However, he became disillusioned with politics following the Tory victory in municipal elections in 1866. This changed Booth's attitude. He saw that he could influence people more by educating the electorate than through politics. During that time Booth also became deeply influenced by the horrible living conditions in Liverpool’s slums, a fact that probably contributed toward his ultimate disillusionment with religion.
Booth joined the Joseph Chamberlin Birmingham Education League, a survey which looked into levels of work and education in Liverpool. The survey found that 25,000 children in Liverpool were neither in school or work.
On April 29, 1871 Booth married Mary Macaulay, who was the niece of the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay. The couple was unhappy with living in Liverpool and in the summer of 1875 moved to London. Mary became a valuable partner in their family business, besides taking care of their six children.
The Booths had a rich social life. Their circle of friends included Mary's cousin Beatrice Potter (later Beatrice Webb who together with her husband Sidney Webb were early members of the Fabian Society and founders of the London School of Economics), Octavia Hill, who ran a charity organization, and Canon Samuel Barnett, who with his wife Henrietta, founded Toynbee Hall. As the problem of poverty in growing Victorian cities grew worse, Booth realized the need to address the issue.
Booth was critical of the existing statistical data on poverty. By analyzing census returns, he argued that they were unsatisfactory. He publicly criticized the claims of the leader of the Social Democratic Federation, H. M. Hyndman, leader of Britain's first socialist party. Hyndman stated that 25 percent of Londoners lived in abject poverty. Booth investigated poverty in London working with a team of investigators including Beatrice Potter. This research looked at incidences of pauperism in the East End of London showed that 35 percent were living in abject poverty—even higher than the original figure. The first two volumes of his Life and Labour of the People of London were published in 1889.
After this, Booth expanded his research to cover the whole of London. 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. Additional volumes (17 in total) of his Life and Labour of the People of London were published between 1891 and 1903.
Booth used rather unique methodology in his research. He studied three different aspects of people’s lives—their places of work and working conditions, their homes and the environments in which they lived, and their religious life. The survey was then organized into three broad sections: poverty, industry, and religious influences. The investigators also collected information on the lives and employment of women, people’s leisure activities, organization of trade and industry, and the effects of migrations. The work also included the maps of London colored street by street to indicate different levels of poverty. The data provided important insights into the social and economic history of late nineteenth century London.
Booth used this work to argue for the introduction of Old Age Pensions for all, which he described as "limited socialism." Booth claimed that such reforms would prevent socialist revolution from occurring in 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, recording his thoughts and findings in his diaries.
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 the research. Booth however 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 and defer to the Conservative Party.
In 1904, Booth was made a Privy Councillor and in 1907 he served on the Royal Commission on the Poor Law. In 1908, the Liberal government passed the Old Age Pensions Act, and Booth was recognized by many as one of the progenitors of the Act.
In 1912, Booth retired from his company business, handing over the chairmanship of Alfred Booth and Co. to his nephew. On November 23, 1916 he died of a stroke in Whitwick, Leicestershire, England.
Booth’s Life and Labour of the People of London is among the rare surveys of that time for which the original data have survived, providing important insights into the development of methodology of social investigation in Great Britain. It can be seen as one of the founding texts of British sociology, drawing on both quantitative (statistical) and qualitative methods (ethnographic). Because of this, it had a strong influence on the Chicago School of sociology (notably the work of Robert E. Park) and later the discipline of community studies associated with the Institute of Community Studies in East London.
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