Walking is a huge part of being a Londoner, along with extreme manners and temperamental whether, walking is what we do. The city demands exploration; it calls out your name and it never disappoints. Today, I am taking a walk in New cross, partly to explore the streets, mostly to get a sense of what this part of the city feels like to explore. I have always lived in West London and can navigate Hammersmith with my eyes closed. However, East London is still a new territory to me, even though I have been studying in the very area I researching for the past three years I haven’t always thought about its story. Furthermore, as a historian, I am always interested in stories, and to make this walk more interesting, I will be comparing the part of London I see today to the one Charles Booth lived in. Booth was a successful business men who embarked on one of the greatest surveys ever conducted in the city of London. He deserves credit and respect from us all for revolutionising the way Britain treats its most disadvantaged citizens. Historians and (some) politicians understood the huge debt owed to him. He was responsible for showing us the perfect example of how demonising and ignoring the poor can lead, from disease to crime to weak economy.
Booth went as far as to create a map of London where he divided it’s four million citizens into eight (colour) categories. His map/s can be views and used freely on the internet and it can be used for current research, like the one I’m conducting today! I started my walk using the diary entrances of one of his researchers George Arkell who walked around New Cross to report on the conditions in which people lived, their houses, their jobs, income, hobbies and how this poverty problem can be fixed. He used the colour code system to determine the income and thus the crime level of this area I started my walk from New Cross Station and walked all the way around the back ending up at the main building of Goldsmiths University.
The first thing I noticed on my walk is how simultaneously different and similar everything seemed to how it used to be in the Victorian era. As a modern observer and an historian, I can see the tremendous amount of changes this area has been through. And while Booth’s social reform had a huge impact on the condition in which people lived, London is well known for preserving the past in a way only a historian can understand. New Cross, for example, has had many changes in the last century, and three of the most important elements that changed this area is immigration, war and social reform. Other, minor yet equally important factors are things like lighting, sanity and safety. Arkell had to be escorted by a police sergeant for his own safety and for guidance because this was a time where google maps didn’t exist.
Walking through these streets is a very useful experience when comparing modern London to the one in the past. It is a jarring reminder that the work of humanists, especially historians is of great value for future generations. Not only because London is changing every day and by the 22nd century it will most likely have extraordinary changes as well. I say this because without our records and descriptions of our time, future generations will not have the access to what the human experience was like, despite what technology can and will achieve in the next century.
It is undeniable that Booth and his researchers helped start a revolution, he was instrumental in the changes we see today. This however did not stop some areas from lagging behind. As I walk down Amersham Vale, I can still see the huge difference between the houses here and the houses in, Kensington, for example. The divide between the classes is still visible today. However, the poor now have food on the table, healthcare, protection and other lifesaving advantages.
As Booth was conducting his research, he made it abundantly clear that his motives are to reveal the truth on the parts of London the great British empire didn’t like to talk about. It was the capitals dirty little secret! Except, it wasn’t little, it was estimated that 30% of Londoners lived in abject poverty. As historians compare and argue about the two centuries, it is clear that that number has dropped to small single digits (arguably). In fact, as I took my walk following in the same footsteps Arkell took I can see clean pavements, well presented houses, families walking safely, and quiet, so much quiet! The streets are noticeably less noisy than the main road, despite their proximity to the train station.
It is also interesting to read what the description in the notes and compare it to what the street looks like today. For example, Arkell notes as he walks along New Cross Road that the Empire Theatre of Varieties was due to open soon – that it was just completed. Today the theatre is nowhere to be found. This is a prime example of what walking in two different centuries means to historians. Even though I am standing exactly where Arkell took his walk, this street is vastly different than how it used to be and future historians would appreciate our prospective as much as we appreciate Booth’s work.
Other examples are more poignant than interesting to discover. Take the example of New Cross Woolworths, which was attacked in 1944 by the Nazis costing 168 people their lives. This was thanks to the great advancement of weaponry Booth did not know in his life time.
As far as we know, no one has produced a research as comprehensive as Booth’s. His involvement in social reform is as instrumental as historians insist it is. However, it is obvious, and not shocking considering when Booth conducted his research that he had preconceived notions of what the streets and the people in them were like. For example, he associated the extremely poor (black codes in his maps) as criminals! This may seem rather harsh considering how we’ve evolved to think of the poor (or some of us did) however, this was extremely common in the Victorian era, despite all the enfranchisement and ‘good’ laws passed, the poor were still demonised. Booth research was also beneficial in attracting public/voters’ attention into the dire situation thus bringing further changes and introducing new laws by an otherwise reluctant government to do something to help the people who needed help desperately. One of the most important contributions to the poor Booth made was the Old Age Pension Act (1908) in which his involvement was instrumental.
Booth and his researchers made sure to note everything they witnessed as they walked down the streets of London. It was as if their obsessive noting of everything around them was exactly why cameras were invented! Today, to conduct a similar report we can save valuable time describing places when we can show them using our modern technology. And while the modern walker does not need to describe the width of the street or the shapes of the houses here and how clean they kept their windows. It is still valuable to provide prospective and add them within an appropriate context.
Booth was the good fortune he acquired to conduct a never seen before research that changed the way Britain (and even America) treats its poor. And while there will always be those who object or thinks the government may be rewarding laziness, most people agree that children and old people should be helped. This is a long way from how Britain used to operate in the late Victorian era where the laissez faire approach was practised and accepted. However, it must be stressed that Booth alone did not bring the dire state of the poor in London to light. There were other factors, for example, the health reform and improved sanitation of the city has Cholera and the upper-class fear of disease to thank. Furthermore, wars and Britain (the empire) performance in war was the driving force behind many legislation regarding the government involvement in providing food, because poverty could never produce a strong army.
Today we have Booth to thank for many reforms that went on to save lives and improve the living quality of millions of people. However, it is not just the handouts to the poor that did that. It can also be argued that looking after people when they’re young can lead to a generation of educated healthy workers able to afford good houses, food etc. Moreover, New Cross is the perfect example of how successful that experiment has been, and while we cannot compare it to the ‘posh’ areas of central London, people are not starving here, the houses are beautiful and comfortable, there’s a big Asda where people can go buy affordable groceries, and based on the accounts of Booth’s researchers it doesn’t smell as bad as it used to. Finally, Social reform has been instrumental in keeping Britain as one of the biggest economies in the world. And we don’t need to leave Europe to find an example of what a country that neglects its citizens can become.
Bellow are more pictures I took from my walk.