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Charles Booth’s Inquiry of London


Between 1886 and 1902, Charles Booth, a successful businessman and social activist, worked on creating the first real study on the social life of London. Booth wished to discover how many people in London were living in poverty and to expose the problem as a real issue, instead of just an estimate by the politicians of the times, which they used to further their own personal agenda.


(Charles Booth, from

London of the 19th century was a strange mix of poverty and extravagant wealth. By reading Booth’s detailed notes as he walked the streets, you get to see the social divide expressed in the landscape of London City. Color coded maps break down the city into the rich playground, and the poor slums. Each color signified a different poverty level.

These were:

Black: Do not go there. You are likely to robbed and taken advantage of by the
extremely poor people who live there.

Dark Blue- The people who live here, live in poor housing, constantly have no
money and generally go without the basic necessities of life.

Light Blue- People who live in this area are poor but have a wage coming in;
about 18-21s a week.

Purple- The people who live here are a mix of the very poor, the moderately
poor, and the well off.

Pink- These people earn enough to live comfortably and do not usually have to
do without.

Red- The people who live in these areas are middle-class. Made up of shop
owners and merchants, they have money to spend on the luxuries of life.

Yellow- The people who live in these areas are upper class and lucky from


(Color coded map of London, from Wikicommons)

These maps show a living, breathing London, and the various notes taken by
Booth, adds to the emerging picture. There were the dirty, unsafe streets,
filled with vagabonds, thieves and prostitutes, while at the other end of town,
there were stately homes, restaurants, shops and well dressed men and women, with money to spend.

Occasionally the outward signs of poverty spilled into these areas in the form
of beggars, hoping to take away a small piece of the wealth around them, or in
houses of ill-repute, which serviced the young lords with wild oats to sow. To
create his map of London’s poverty, Charles Booth followed policemen around on their usual routes. These policemen were familiar with the characters on their beat, and pointed out the trouble areas, where various illegal activities took place. Booth took copious notes, and to read them is like stepping back into a time capsule, allowing you to walk the streets as they once were, and experience  the good and the bad.

Using excerpts from these notebooks, I hope to introduce you to a good area of London and then the bad side of town, to experience the social and economic differences of London of the 19th century from the words of those who actually experienced it as it was.

Wealthy Side

Tragel to Bridge Park
“…Practically all yellow, quite new. White, no signs of grey…modern type of
architecture, bricks, low window, green doors, ornamental brass knocker ect.”

The Poor Side
Old Street
“As to the changes in the neighborhood, Machel said that warehouses had
encroached upon dwellings to such an extent in the past ten years that the poor working class who used to live in the district had been driven elsewhere to Toltenham and Walthamstow. Some motel dwellings had been put up but the class that came to them was different to which had left…Of the working classes that remain there is a considerable mixture of criminals, principally pickpocket and housebreakers who worked in either the east of the city or west London. It is also a centre of the receiving of stolen goods. This and Clarkenwell adjoining may be called the `melting pot,’ of London. Practically all silver and jewels that are stolen come here for disposal and are either broken up and melted or dismantled….The housebreaker or ware-housebreaker is a higher class of man than a pickpocket. Pickpockets `do’ a little every day but a housebreaker is often a respectable citizen for a month or two while he makes his plans…”

If you are interested in finding out more about Charles Booth, or reading more
of his notebooks, the Charles Booth Online Archives can be found here:

Series 3 of Downton Abbey, or A Look at England in the Early Twenties


Downton Abbey S3

English society immediately after the Armistice and the Paris Peace Conference was not exactly as it was before, but it was not yet what we know it became (all that jazz). On a whole, the English were rather subdued and befuddled, with some making an attempt to turn the clocks backward to August 3, 1914, while others marched hastily forward, determined to escape the bonds of Edwardian manners and mores. Still others adopted a wait and see mindset, suspicious of the possible changes in the world and the chance it might be snatched back. For those at the very top, the Great War had ravaged them most ferociously, not simply due to the high casualty rates for officers, but the combination of death duties and high taxation. In some cases, the ownership of the country estate passed through multiple hands before 1918 (for example, George Wyndham inherited Clouds, his father’s Wiltshire estate in 1911, George died in 1913 aged 49, his son Percy “Perf” Wyndham died in September 1914, and Clouds was passed to his cousin, Richard Wyndham, who fortunately survived the war), or passed from grandfather to grandson. In both cases, death duties were enormous and crippling, and many great manor houses were shut up, converted into schools or hotels, sold to the nouveau riche (denounced as “war profiteers”), or razed to the ground and the land sold to developers.

For the middle and working classes, life after the war was that of economy, economy, economy. Their way of life was not hit as hard as that of the aristocracy, but the demobilization of troops by January 1919 and the abrupt return to civilian life “produced a demand for food and clothing which sent prices soaring higher than ever, since production had still to re-adjust itself from war to peace conditions.” The fact that so many ex-soldiers and soldiers’ widows were provided with pensions and allowances, meant the law of supply and demand prevailed, and inflation rose to an alarming level in November 1920–176% higher than the cost of living in July 1914! There was also an acute shortage of housing. Before the war, young men and women could not afford to set up their own home, and so delayed marriage, but now the combination of wartime marriages and the halting of building between 1914 and 1918 created another high demand, and the cost of building materials soared with the prices for food and clothing. The irony of war was that for the first time, middle and working class men and women had substantial income in their pockets, but the prices for basic necessities continued to rise and rise because they had money!

However, unemployment went hand in hand with this inflation, and though the numbers of unemployed were relatively stable between March 1919 and November 1920, it shot back up to a million in January 1921 and to over two and a half million by June of that year. These unemployed were at first fiery and bombastic about demands for jobs (as well as Lloyd George’s promise of making England “a land fit for heroes”), and solutions ranged from tariffs against imports to quota systems in a effort to stimulate home trade. The railways were also hit hard immediately after the war, and they experimented with cheap rail fare–some as low as that seen twenty years before. All of these were only short-term solutions to the shortage of work, and the cynicism and pessimism over the promise of peace and the changes wrought by the war settled over the working class (and is why the Labour Party replaced the Liberal Party as the party of social change and progress).

Nevertheless, all was not doom and gloom! Women, though they were considered “surplus” due to the large number of deaths and maiming of the men of their generation, made significant strides in this short period of time. Oxford admitted women in full membership in 1919, with Cambridge following in 1921 (women’s colleges only), the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 gave women admission to the legal profession, the Higher Civil Service opened to them, and let us not forget the Representation of the People Act of February 1918, which gave suffrage to all men and to women over 30, with another bill following that November, which made women over twenty-one elgible to stand for Parliament.

Society and fashion also bounced back. The Social Calendar–the London Season–came to a halt during the war years, though country sports remained vital, but once the aristocracy and the upper classes threw off their gloom, they plunged back into events with alacrity. And this was in spite of their being hard-up. This time, however, there was a new Prince of Wales to follow: the slender, dashing, and fashionable Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, who adored all things modern and especially American, and partied even harder than his grandfather. In a way, society in the early 1920s was almost–if you squinted–a replica of the lavish Edwardian society, except for one inescapable fact: it was now all about the young, and young ladies just out and young men ran wild through country house parties, Ascot, dances, night clubs where you could hear the latest jazz, and sporting events, finally free of chaperones and their parents. The subtle shift away from the middle-aged to the young that was apparent around 1913 had now reached fruition, and the latest fashions–slim silhouette, filmy fabrics, light corsetry–reflected this. The fashion world was truly revitalized by the introduction of artificial silk. Now every woman could wear “silk” stockings and delicious, shimmering underwear, as well as frocks that looked just as expensive as the Paris models (or copies) worn by the Duchess of Blank and the Countess of X.

Life in general went at a breakneck pace, with aeroplane races, motor races, and anything else that went fast, becoming wildly popular with crowds. In August 1919, three aeroplanes started from Hounslow to inaugurate a regular daily passenger service from London to Paris, and in November, an air mail service between London and Paris began. By October 1922, air travel between London, Brussels, Paris, and Cologne was possible, and many daring aeronauts tested the limits of the “heavier-than-air” machine with transatlantic flights. The despair of inflation, unemployment, and poverty was also lifted somewhat by royal weddings in 1922: the Princess Royal and Lord Lascelles in February, and Lord Louis Mountbatten to Edwina Ashley (granddaughter and heiress of Sir Ernest Cassel, the private financier to Edward VII) in July. In large, the early twenties were mostly a time of great transition, where the vestiges of pre-war society remained, even as the changes brought by the war loomed closer and closer.

Further Reading:
Ourselves, 1900-1930 by Irene Clephane
Scrapbook for the Twenties by Leslie Baily
The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age by Juliet Nicolson
The Long Week End; a social history of Great Britain, 1918-1939, by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge
Children of the Sun: A Narrative of Decadence in England After 1918 by Martin B. Green

Breaking into Gilded Age New York Society


Hotel St. Regis, restaurant

Breaking into The Four Hundred became an art, as C. W. de Lyon Nicholls details in his book The Ultra-fashionable Peerage of America:

Marriage outright into the smart set is far and away the surest method of effecting an entrance into it; few visiting lists, for example, having undergone a more radical change than that of Mrs. Drexel-Dahlgren since her marriage to Mr. Harry Lehr. Another expeditious method is by means of a business deal, benefiting one or more members of the smart set—not a hard cash bargaining for social promotion, although men have been known to form business partnerships for this express object; but, to illustrate—a short time ago a railroad transaction secured admission for a family into an influential section of the “magic circle.” There are delicate ways of conveying the expression of one’s social needs, and the ultra-smart are endowed with a fine sense of noblesse oblige, provided one is manipulating events so as to fill their purses.

If you are socially ambitious, do not set up your domicile on the upper West Side, but fix your abode as near as possible to “Millionaires’ Row,” the Fifth Avenue court end of Central Park—not necessarily an unduly ostentatious house which will egg everyone on to asking the dread question, “Who is who?” but letting the show-place come a few years later, after you are well placed socially. A grandiose house on a conspicuous thoroughfare, with no suitable guests to fill it, like the gigantic edifices of the Bank of Italy and Ministry of Finance in Rome, is an exclamation point strongly provocative of irony.

Your household gods suitably enshrined, employ a press agent at once, but be wary of too much publicity, for in the main, the role of inglorious obscurity is the one you will need to play, until you know the ropes better. At the same time you can afford to pay the press agent well for having it inserted in the personal columns of a big daily which caters to fashionable folk, that you sail for Europe on such a date, or have returned from your country house for the season; so that, at least, you will not be hampered by persons protesting, “I have never heard of those people.”

A particular phase of newspaper publicity to fight shy of is that involved in allowing the women of your family to become enrolled as members of certain clubs and charities, and having their names bundled out in the third-class society column of a certain Sunday paper with lists of “detrimentals” of the first water, numbers of them turning out to be veritable mill-stones hung about the neck of social aspiration. A woman of fashion and a clubwoman are two mutually excluding entities—two totally distinct creations of Almighty God, although the latter often tries to palm herself off as the former.

The next move for the social aspirant will be to cultivate the acquaintance of some fashionable woman whose finances are on the wane, but whose temperament requires the expenditure of large sums of money, and who is, moreover, a walking American Debrett and Burke, in short, a running commentary as to knowing who are the people one can receive. Form the acquaintance of an occasional visiting nobleman, if fully assured he is not an imposter, and that he is received by persons who might be made, possibly, to fall in line some way for furthering your campaigns. Minister well to his gastronomic needs, for in all probability, he has taken lodgings sans meals. But avoid making yourself unduly conspicuous in public print with these people of title, for should any one of them turn out to be a scapegrace, the satirical periodicals will show you up as a nobody caught in the flagrante delicto of snobbishness and hanging on by the eyebrows.

If, on the other hand, a titled European is comfortably wealthy and persona grata at the houses of the highest fashion, do not waste much time and effort over him, for in all probability he will front you as soon as he has ascertained your exact social status. With reference to your own countrymen all along, give a wide berth to certain soi disant society folk of the upper West Side, who will get your name in the newspapers morning, noon and night and three times on Sunday, until it becomes case-hardened on the lists of the socially impossible.

And, above all, be philanthropic with your purse, although, perchance, the heart responds but feebly. Conditions have changed a good deal since William D. Howells wrote his “Traveler in Altruria,” and fashionable charities as an adjuvant to social climbing are growing more difficult to be worked, and the Church still more intractable for these ends; but there is a dernier ressort; join the Countess Leary‘s charities.

Do not, I beg of you, make a national one night stand theatre comique of yourself and family by making the grand tour of hiring cottages at Newport, Lenox and the other ultra-smart resorts before society has given the slightest recognition to your claims. Invoke the aid of old Father Neptune; secure a yacht, as sumptuous a one as you please, and, socially speaking, if your bark sink, ’tis to another sea. If ignored or snubbed at Newport, spread sail for Narragansett Pier or Bar Harbor, felicitating yourself that the social thud is not barbed with the added poignancy of one’s having been a cottager in a place and not being received. Besides, there is no more acceptable way of entertaining and of putting people under heavy social obligations to one than by giving yachting parties.

Go abroad early and stay late, in the London season, stopping at the Carlton or at Claridge’s, at all events, dining and supping frequently at the Carlton. Secure the services of a high-class social promoter; such a person can be corralled by judicious advertising from the ranks of the nobility for a sufficient price. Only a short time ago an English woman, backed by an eminent peeress, guaranteed to several Americans court presentations to Edward himself at five thousand dollars a head! Arrange with the promoter to have a dinner given in your name at the Carlton in honor of a distinguished peer or peeress, with covers laid for no other Americans besides yourselves, and see that the event is given the widest possible exploiting on both sides of the Atlantic. If, during your European sojourns, you fall in with fashionable Americans, try, by delicate and becoming advances, to ingratiate yourself with them, leaving it entirely to them, however, to take the initiative of keeping up the acquaintance on American soil. Strenuously avoid even the semblance of future building upon them, or banking on the name after your return home.

Should it finally be your good fortune to receive an invitation to the church for a wedding in a really fashionable family, for which invitations have been sent out by the thousands, make a costly and artistic present. More than likely it will receive mention in the newspapers through the kind offices of society reporters, whom your husband has treated to champagne galore, and one or two of whom have perhaps shown their gallantry by inserting your name in their columns among lists of guests at smart entertainments, at which you were neither present in the body nor honored with an invitation. At all events, the general public, which is hot-headed, upon reading of your extravagant wedding gift, will jump to the conclusion that you were, of course, bidden to the reception. Provided the marriage is not altogether a cold-blooded one of convenience, a feeling toward yourself closely simulating gratitude may well up in the hearts of the bride and her family. This clever little stratagem was resorted to by an aspiring family of wealthy Newport cottagers invited to the church for the Oelrichs-Martin wedding, and to this day is yielding a good bonus in social returns.