The Guardian newspaper recently published a fascinating article that considers the part that poverty played in the recent riots in English towns (‘England riots: suspects mapped and poverty mapped’, Simon Rogers 6th December 2011 http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2011/aug/16/riots-poverty-map-suspects). It looks at the use of the Indices of Multiple Deprivation (IoD) – a device used by government and others to allocate funding or target initiatives to deprived areas. The Index uses six measures to determine the levels of deprivation in any given area. These include: comparative data on employment, income, population density and calculates a set of averages relative to national statistics. It sounds pretty complicated and for someone like me, who struggled with maths at school, it makes my head hurt. However, it is very interesting both in thinking about the relationship between poverty (however we might define it) and criminality or anti-social behaviour, and because it uses a technique first pioneered in the 1880s.
In 1885 the leader of the Social Democratic Federation, Henry Hyndman, claimed that twenty-five percent of London’s population was living in extreme poverty. His socialists were agitating for revolution and this condemnation of Victorian society came at a time of economic depression, unemployment and wave upon wave of concern about criminality, immigration and the state of the poor. One individual, Charles Booth (a successful businessman from Liverpool), decided to see what truth there was behind Hyndman’s wild accusations. In 1886 he began an investigation into the lives and living conditions of the capital’s that was published as ‘The Life and Labour of the People in London’.
Booth and his army of investigators (including the prominent female social reformers Beatrice Webb and Clara Collet) visited homes across London and asked a series of questions about the economic circumstances of the households. They looked at three indicators: poverty, industry and religion and they made special studies of the Jewish population, educational provision and certain trades that were associated with poverty. Booth then used the data he had collected to create poverty maps of the Victorian capital (which he updated in the late 1890s with information gleaned from new information gathered by researchers who accompanied policemen on their patrols around the city).
The maps ( http://booth.lse.ac.uk/) are colour coded, just as the maps used by our modern government are. Booth coloured the most affluent areas yellow; commercial streets were red while the most impoverished districts were easily identifiable by swathes of blue and black. Black streets represented the ‘lowest class: vicious, semi-criminal’ while dark blue was ‘very poor, casual. Chronic want’. Thereafter it went on a sliding scale upwards through light blue, purple, pink, and red to yellow. I use the maps in class with students and it is fascinating to pore over them and see how London has (or hasn’t) changed in the last 120 or so years.
What Booth found was that the extent of poverty was actually worse than the socialists had claimed and this prompted reformers and housing organisations to target particular hotspots. There were genuine concerns about the conditions that some people were living in and a wider fear about the dangers posed by poverty and crime. So it is interesting for me to see that similar investigations are being used to explore the relationship between current levels of relative poverty and the outbreaks of violence and looting we witnessed in the summer of 2011. It is also interesting to compare Booth’s poverty maps with those produced today. Today Spitalfields and Bangaltown in Tower Hamlets is ranked 521 out of 32,482 in the country, meaning that it is one of the most deprived areas in Britain. It is accordingly coloured red on the IoD map. In 1889 it was also amongst the worst areas in London and many streets are dark blue or black on Booth’s map. If takes a wider overview the east side of London was darker in colour in the 1880s when compared with the brightness of the west. Today the situation is little altered, great swathes of red and dark orange characterise the deprived areas of Hackney, Tottenham and the east end while Highgate, Finchley and the west end are shades of blue (representing wealth).
Looking at The Guardian’s analysis of the rioters it shows that the rioters and the offences they committed can be located in the poorer areas of the capital (and indeed elsewhere). Alex Singleton (a lecturer in urban planning at Liverpool University) agreed that riots have multiple causes but notes that ‘if events such as this are to be mitigated in the future, the prevailing conditions and constraints effecting people living in areas must form part of the discussion. A “broken society” happens somewhere, and geography matters’ (The Guardian 6 December 2011). Charles Booth would surely agree.
For the historian looking backwards the maps also reveal the extent to which poverty and geography are linked and show how difficult it can be for individuals to escape from the environment in which they are born. I am constantly impressed by the students that find their way to this institution, many of whom are the very first members of their families to do so, and many of whom come from areas that can be described as deprived. They often tell me they want to make a better future for themselves by coming to university. For those left behind however the situation looks bleak; poverty in 2011 is not the same as poverty in 1888, but the deprivation indicators and the recent riots demonstrate that we ignore these statistics at our peril.
- Damian Pickard
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