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Charles Booth (1840 - 1916)

Charles Booth by George Frederic Watts
Charles Booth was a shipping line owner whose revolutionary inquiry into the conditions of the London working class and tireless campaign for the introduction of old age pensions helped lay the foundations of the modern welfare state.

Born at Liverpool on 30 March 1840, the third son of Charles Booth and Emily Fletcher. Charles Booth Senior was a wealthy corn merchant who, in 1860, left to each of his five children the sum of £20,000. In 1862, the young Charles combined his fortune with that of his eldest brother Alfred, investing it in the construction of two steamships, the Augustine and the Jerome, with the aim of building up a fleet to carry merchandise to and fro across the Atlantic. From this relatively modest enterprise grew the Booth Steamship Company, a huge concern which gained interests in many parts of the world, especially in the Amazon River trade of South America, and of which Charles was Chairman until 1912. The construction of the great harbour of Manaus in Brazil occurred as a result of the Booth enterprise.

In 1871, Charles married Mary Macaulay of London, one of the distinguished Macaulay family, whose grandfather, Zachary, had been instrumental in bringing about the abolition of slavery and whose uncle was the great historian, Lord Thomas Babbington Macaulay.

Charles Booth always seems to have had an inherent concern for the welfare of working men and as a young man he became a Radical and campaigned for the Liberal Party in Liverpool. But he quickly became disillusioned by the fray of local politics and found that his efforts to bring about change through these channels were of little effect. Thereafter, Booth was never a keen partisan to any political ideology and remained independent in his actions. However, it was while campaigning for the Radical cause in the General Election of 1865 that Charles made house to house visits in the Toxteth slums. Here he encountered ignorance, poverty and squalor on a scale he had never before imagined and which deeply shocked him.

Park Lane Toxteth Late 1800s

Like many other better off Victorians, Charles had hitherto been unaware of the terrible living conditions suffered by so many of the working class. There were those who were anxious to play down the problem of pauperism, fearing that an acknowledgment of such would fan the flame of revolution and overturn the social order. Many blamed the poor themselves for their misfortune and saw poverty as a consequence of their own fecklessness and personal inadequacies. In any case, very little had ever been written about poverty and with so many contradictory views being aired about the nature and extent of poverty in England at that time, Booth sought to discover an accurate picture of existence among the working masses of London, using statistical methods of study.

In 1886, he launched his monumental inquiry, a survey to which he was dedicated without intermission for the next seventeen years. The results of his investigations were published in seventeen volumes between 1889 and 1903, entitled "Life and Labour of the People in London".

The years of painstaking work necessary to compile this survey involved not only Booth, but also a large body of assistants, including his wife's cousin, Beatrice Potter (later Mrs Sydney Webb) and Mary Booth revised and corrected it. Booth's granddaughter, Belinda Norman-Butler, estimated that the inquiry must have incurred a personal expense to Charles well in excess of £40,000. Called by 'The Times' the grimmest book of its generation, the survey revealed that approximately one third of London families lived in abject poverty, on about £1 per week or less, and a successive inquiry by Seebohm Rowntree in York produced similar conclusions.

In 1904, Booth was appointed a member of the Privy Council by the Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, and his influence was instrumental in the passing of the Old Age Pensions of 1908, though Booth criticised this Act for granting pensions not to all, but only to those whose incomes fell below a certain level. In February 1910, the Labour Party, then in its infancy, presented Booth with an illuminated address in the House of Commons, 'To you more than any other man' they wrote, 'this first instalment of justice to the aged is due'. Other recognition of his work came from the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Liverpool, which awarded him honorary degrees, and at Liverpool a professorship of Social Science was subsequently established in his name.

In later life, Booth moved to Grace Dieu Manor near Thringstone, Leicestershire. Here he built England's first community centre, and founded Grace Dieu Cricket Club. Booth was buried in the churchyard of Saint Andrew's Church in the village, and a memorial dedicated to him stands on the village green.

Mary survived her husband by more than twenty years and died on 25th September 1939 aged ninety two years. It is said that news of the outbreak of war was kept from her. She was laid to rest with her husband.

In 1920, a tablet designed by Sir Charles Nicholson was unveiled to Mr Booth's memory in the crypt of Saint Paul's Cathedral, London. The Reverend C Shrewsbury, Vicar of Thringstone, accompanied members of the Booth family at the unveiling ceremony, which was performed by Sir Austen Chamberlain, then Chancellor of the Exchequer

Transcript of Charles Booth’s Memorial Tablet in St Pauls Cathedral

BORN 1840 DIED 1916

Throughout his life having at heart
the welfare of his fellow citizens and
believing that exact knowledge of
realities is the foundation of all reform,
he devoted himself to the examination
and statement of the social, industrial
and religious condition of the people
of London. Those who knew him loved
him and drew inspiration from the
energy of his leadership and the
originality of his mind.



Liverpool Central Library
Liverpool Records Office
The National Archives
Image Charles Booth, George Frederic Watts, c. 1901

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