Charles Booth (30th March 1840 to 23rd November 1916)


Here I am in a pretty churchyard in Leicester by the grave of a man who created a wave of goodness that helped millions of poor folk. The phase “poverty line” is used regularly now and it was invented by this man. It’s the social reformer Charles Booth whose research and tireless work influenced government policy to reduce poverty, helped bring about the Old Age pensions and brought about free school meals for the poorest children.


He needn’t have cared for anyone as his dad was a wealthy ship-owner in Liverpool. Life could have been caviar and chorus girls especially when his dad died and Charles inherited £20,000 when he was just 20 (a fortune in 1860.) He inherited the family company and could have sold it but he created a successful glove manufacturing business with his brother with offices in Liverpool and New York. He learnt the shipping trade and invested in steamships.


How did he become a social reformer? Aged 25 he canvassed as the Liberal parliamentary candidate but failed and realised he could lever influence on people by educating them. He helped carry out a survey in his native Liverpool and found 25,000 children were neither in school or work. He created massive changes when he started mapping areas of London, marking areas from "well-to-do" down to "semi-criminal". It showed that poverty was much worse than authorities knew. Though he wasn’t religious he was profoundly concerned by social problems. He realised philanthropy was limited and he needed to change the way government looked at the root of social problems. He did this from goodness. He was busy running a business but decided to use his own money to open the government’s eyes.


Charles is now regarded as one of the “great and good” Victorians who helped turned the axis of goodness a few millimetres and to make sweeping differences to thousands of lives without financial reward for himself. People who knew him described a kindly man with energy, enthusiasm, courage, patience and good temper. Though not aggressive in his business affairs he was respected for his fairness and honesty.


When he saw that philanthropy and charity had their limitations he devised, organised, and funded one of the most comprehensive and scientific social surveys of London life that had then been undertaken. He showed the country that it wasn’t unusual to find a small terraced house with 12 children living in it with one cold water tap, few beds, no bed sheets, no curtains and no heating except the fire used to cook food. The children shared shoes, barely washed, had rats scuttling across them while they slept, went to bed hungry and often died before reaching adolescence. He also looked at the far end of live too and added his voice to the cause of state old age pensions to prevent destitution in old age.


If you ever watch programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? or Heir Hunters his “Maps Descriptive of London Poverty” - coloured street by street to indicate the levels of poverty and wealth -are regularly referred to. As Charles’s maps got more detailed politicians and police took note of them and small incremental changes were made to lift people out of poverty. Mortality rates fell, lives improved and lengthened.


Charles’s selfless work confirmed his place in British life and even though he tried to stay out of politics he served in many capacities in public life. He battled for the poor all the time. This was when people really were poor, when a couple may have ten children and expect four would die. Aged 53 he served on the Royal Commission on the Aged Poor and aged 64 he was made a Privy Councillor. No retirement for this man and aged 67 he served on the Royal Commission on the Poor Law and spoke publically and wrote for the need for pensions to alleviate poverty amongst the elderly. He must have felt he has passed a line when the Liberal government passed the Old Age Pensions Act in 1908. After this he was made a fellow of the Royal Society and there were honorary degrees by the Universities of Cambridge, Liverpool and Oxford.


So how did Charles end up lying in a cemetery in Leicestershire? In later life he and his wife Mary had fallen in love with a country house in Thringstone in where they’d held many parties and gatherings for their children. Here he built England's first community centre (and founded a cricket club.) He was at their country mansion when he suffered a fatal heart attack aged 76.


I had a stroll into the town and soon found the green plaque on the wall of the community centre. I was dressed as a vicar (better not go into that) and while in the shop and sitting on a bench consuming a sandwich I was surprised how many people said hello (normally I’m fairly invisible.)


The London street maps Charles worked on for years are worth a look…








If you see a war grave you’ve just got to salute haven’t you…


Nearby is the plaque in Thringstone town…



The home where Charles died of a heart attack (now a Catholic prep school)…


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