Charles Booth, the son of a wealthy businessman, was born in Liverpool on 30th March, 1840. Booth's father was a Unitarian and head of the Lamport & Holt Steamship Company. When Booth was twenty-two his father died and took over the running of the company. Booth was an energetic leader and soon added a successful glove manufacturing concern to his expanding shipping interests.
In the 1860s Booth became interested in the philosophy of Auguste Comte, the founder of modern sociology. Booth was especially attracted to Comte's idea that in the future, the scientific industrialist would take over the social leadership from church ministers. One of the consequences of reading Comte was that Booth began to lose his religious faith.
In 1885 Charles Booth became angry about the claim made by H. H. Hyndman, the leader of the Social Democratic Federation, that 25% of the population of London lived in abject poverty. Bored with running his successful business, Booth decided to investigate the incidence of pauperism in the East End of the city. He recruited a team of researchers that included his cousin, Beatrice Potter.
The result of Booth's investigations, Labour and Life of the People, was published in 1889. Booth's book revealled that the situation was even worse than that suggested by H. H. Hyndman. Booth research suggested that 35% rather than 25% were living in abject poverty. Booth now decided to expand his research to cover the rest of London. He continued to run his business during the day and confined his writing to evenings and weekends. In an effort to obtain a comprehensive and reliable survey Booth and his small team of researchers made at least two visits to every street in the city.
Beatrice Potter later recalled: "It is difficult to discover the presence of any vice or even weakness in him. Conscience, reason, and dutiful affect in, are his great qualities; what other characteristics he has are not to be observed by the ordinary friend. But he interests me as a man who has his nature completely under his control, and who has risen out of it, uncynical, vigorous and energetic in mind without egotism."
Over a twelve year period (1891 to 1903) Booth published 17 volumes of Life and Labour of the People of London. In these books Booth argued that the stare should assume responsibility for those living in poverty. One of the proposals he made was for the introduction of Old Age Pensions. A measure that he described as "limited socialism". Booth believed that if the government failed to take action, Britain was in danger of experiencing a socialist revolution.
Whereas many of his researchers, including Beatrice Potter, became socialists as a result of what they discovered while investigating poverty, Booth became more conservative in his views. Strongly opposed to trade unions, he was unhappy with the sympathetic treatment they had received from the the Liberal government that took power after the 1906 General Election. Booth now renounced his early support for the Liberal Party and joined the Conservative Party.
Charles Booth died on 23rd November, 1916.
(1) In her diary Beatrice Potter recorded her first impressions of Chales Booth (9th February 1882)
It is difficult to discover the presence of any vice or even weakness in him. Conscience, reason, and dutiful affect in, are his great qualities; what other characteristics he has are not to be observed by the ordinary friend. But he interests me as a man who has his nature completely under his control, and who has risen out of it, uncynical, vigorous and energetic in mind without egotism.
(2) Beatrice Potter attended the first meeting of Charles Booth's Board of Statistical Research on 17th April, 1886.
Charles Booth's first meeting of the Board of Statistical Research at his London office. Object of the Committee is to get a fair picture of the whole of London society - the 4,000,000 - by district and employment, the two methods to be based on census returns. At present Charles Booth is the sole worker in this gigantic undertaking. I intend to do a little bit of it while I am in London, not only to keep the Society alive, but to keep me in touch with actual facts so as to limit my study of the past to that part of it useful in the understanding of the present.
Gustave Dore, Wentworth Street, Whitechapel (1872)