Rowntree A-Z

Charles Booth (1840-1916)

Philanthropist and social researcher. Pioneer in influencing government policies on the reduction of poverty that led to a range of social reforms in the early 1900s, such as the introduction of the Old Age pensions, and free school meals, and ultimately to the foundation of the welfare state. He put into question the methods of collecting statistical data on poverty and he introduced a far-ranging report on poverty across London, that was published as Life and Labour of the People of London in 9 volumes between 1892 and 1897.

Booth corresponded with Seebohm Rowntree and advised him on his study of Poverty in York in 1899. By means of this study Rowntree showed that poverty was not a phenomenon unique to London, but he was able to refine and develop the definition of the poverty line and to introduce the concepts of primary and secondary poverty.

There are a number of parallels between the two men, both being of industrial families and both sharing a concern for social problems and inequality. This was a time when systematic data gathering didn’t exist, lax regulation, income tax and NI were insecure, and labour was casual, and there was considerable migration from Eastern Europe etc. Little was known about the stats of the economy, so Booth’s work was really pioneering. Both men seemed very modern in their approach, looking at the gradations of poverty (Booth’s categories were: the wealthy, well-to-do, comfortable, poor and comfortable, poor, very poor, semi-criminal).  Booth looked at how boundaries affect people in a a cheek by jowl existence, and he examined the co-location of relative wealth and poverty in London.

The same flashpoints are still with us today: London as being disproportionately unequal, over-represents the top of a metropolitan economy. Law, medicine, real estate are groups that do well. Booth was interested in the ‘middle’ sections of society, the so-called ‘Precariat’.  Zero hours conversations, the gig economy, self-employment and migration are all back in contention, and although they have a different language, essentially a lot of these questions were first raised by Charles Booth and his peers, laying the foundations for the the modern social sciences and social policy makers of today.

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