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Social conditions in the 19th-century port

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Charles Booth

'Life and Labour of the London Poor'

Dilapidated housing at Snowfields in Bermondsey.
View full size imageDilapidated housing at Snowfields in Bermondsey. © NMM.

Not all writing on the slums was as sensationalist as Mearns's. The first volume of Life and Labour of the London Poor, Charles Booth's 17-volume study, appeared in 1892.

Booth's study was the first to examine the problems of poverty in general rather than by looking at specific individual harrowing cases as Mearns had done. Booth divided the poor into different categories depending on earnings and occupation.

Booth's surveys caused a storm in liberal circles. His scientific, if somewhat cold approach, left the public in no doubt about the degradation that existed in the East End. In one part of the survey he described a typical dock labourer's family, in the folloqwing words.

Illness and poverty

The Penang at West Ferry Road
View full size imageThe Penang at West Ferry Road, Millwall. © NMM

Quotation marks left

This is the poorest case on my list, but is typical of a great many others. The man, Michael H___, is a casual dock-labourer aged 38, in poor health, fresh from the infirmary. His wife of 43 is consumptive. A son of 18, who earns 8 shillings [40p] regular wages as carman's boy, and two girls of 8 and 6, complete the family.

Their house has four rooms but they let two. Father and son dine from home. The neighbouring clergy send soup 2 or 3 times a week, and practically no meat is bought. It figures the first Sunday only… Beyond the dinners out, and the soup at home, the food consists principally of bread,

Quotation marks right
margarine, tea and sugar.


Booth described their home:

'The poor docker's baby'.
View full size image'The poor docker's baby'. © NMM

Quotation marks left

I suppose the two rooms in which the family live will be those on the ground floor - bedroom (used sometimes as a parlour) to the front, kitchen, where they eat and sit, to the back.

In the kitchen the son will sleep, his parents and sisters occupying the front room. Neither of these rooms will exceed 10 ft square.

This accommodation cost 17 shillings [85p] a month. On firing, &c., the H___'s spent 10 shillings and 4 pence. [52p] in the 5 weeks - as much as, and more than many with double the means; but warmth may make up for
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lack of food, and invalids depend on it for their lives.
Old Mill Lane (now Brookmill Road)
View full size imageOld Mill Lane, Deptford c. 1895. © NMM

Poor food

He then described their food:

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Allowing as well as I can for the meals out, and the charitable shop, I make the meals provided by Mrs H___ for her family to cost 1 penny [1/2p] per meal per person (counting the two little girls as one person). A penny a meal is very little, but is expended chiefly in cheap bread, cheap butter, cheap tea and cheap sugar... This diet is somewhat varied, so as to bring in some fish, a little bacon,

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and a few eggs, besides the charitable soup.

Landing frozen meat from Sydney in the South West India Dock, Millwall, London, on board the Catania.
View full size imageLanding frozen meat from Sydney. The dockers could not afford to eat the goods they handled at work. © NMM

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