The social surveys of Booth and Rowntree

Charles Booth
Charles Booth

At the end of the 19th century, a number of investigations were carried out by philanthropists and wealthy businessmen, responding to concern that poverty was a national problem.

Two important figures, Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree, sponsored major investigations into the extent and causes of poverty.

Charles Booth

Booth conducted research in London, between 1886 and 1903. After interviews with the poor, doctors, teachers and priests, he came to the conclusion that 30% of people in London lived in poverty.

Booth claimed that people were in poverty if they earned less than 21 shillings per week. He produced a collection of reports entitled ‘Life and Labour of the People in London '.

His findings proved that poverty led to illness and death and that the poor were not to blame for the condition they found themselves in.

Seebohm Rowntree

Seebohm Rowntree
Seebohm Rowntree

Seebohm Rowntree conducted research in York between 1899-1901. He reached the conclusion that 30% of people in York lived in poverty and that they needed to earn 21s per week to stay out of poverty.

If they earned less than 21 shillings per week, he said that they were living below the ‘poverty line’.

Rowntree produced a report entitled ‘Poverty, A Study of Town Life’. He claimed that people could not help being poor and that large families helped to cause poverty.

The findings of both Booth and Rowntree identified key points:

  • up to 30 per cent of the population of cities were living on or below the poverty line.
  • people could not pull themselves out of poverty by themselves
  • Booth and Rowntree both identified the main causes of poverty as being illness and unemployment
  • age was also a major factor: both the very young and the old were most at risk of poverty

When these social surveys were published, they not only shocked the British public but changed popular opinion on the cause of poverty.