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Charles Booth In Spitalfields

March 26, 2021
by the gentle author

In celebration of the beginning of spring, we are having a sale with all titles in the Spitalfields Life Bookshop at half price. Enter ‘SPRING’ at checkout to claim your discount.


Click here to visit the Spitalfields Life online bookshop


In the East London volume of Charles Booth’s notebooks of research for his Survey into Life & Labour of the People of London (1886-1903) is an account of his visit to Spitalfields in spring 1898. He walked through many of the streets and locations of the Spitalfields Nippers around the same time Horace Warner took his photographs. So I have selected descriptions from Booth’s notebooks and placed Warner’s pictures alongside, to compare their views of the same subjects.

Spitalfields Nippers is included in the sale

March 18th Friday 1898 – Walk with Sergeant French

Walked round a district bounded to the North by Quaker St, on the East by Brick Lane and on the West by Commercial St, being part of the parish of Christ Church, Spitalfields.

Back of big house, Quaker St

Starting at the Police Station in Commercial St, East past St Stephen’s Church into Quaker St. Rough, Irish.Brothels on the south side of the street past the Court called New Square. Also a Salvation Army ‘Lighthouse’ which encourages the disreputable to come this way. The railway has now absorbed all the houses on the North side as far as opposite Pool Square. Wheler St also Rough Irish, does not look bad, shops underneath.

Courts South of Quaker St – Pope’s Head Court, lately done up and repaired, and a new class in them since the repairs, poor not rough. One or two old houses remaining with long weavers’ windows in the higher storeys.

New Square, Rough, one one storey house, dogs chained in back garden…

Pool Sq

Pool Square, three storeyed houses, rough women about, Irish. One house with a wooden top storey, windows broken. This is the last of an Irish colony, the Jews begin to predominate when Grey Eagle St is reached. These courts belong to small owners who generally themselves occupy one of the houses in the courts themselves.

Isaac Levy

Grey Eagle St Jews on East side, poor. Gentiles, rough on West side, mixture of criminal men in street. Looks very poor, even the Jewish side but children booted, fairly clean, well clothed and well fed. Truman’s Brewery to the East side. To Corbet’s Court, storeyed rough Irish, brothels on either side of North end.

Washing Day

Children booted but with some very bad boots, by no means respectable….

Pearl St

Great Pearl St Common lodging houses with double beds – thieves and prostitutes.

South into Little Pearl St and Vine Court, old houses with long small-paned weavers windows to top storeys, some boarded up in the middle. On the West side, lives T Grainger ‘Barrows to Let’

Parsley Season in Crown Court

Crown Court, two strong men packing up sacks of parsley…

Carriage Folk of Crown Court – Tommy Nail & Willie Dellow

The Great Pearl St District remains as black as it was ten years ago, common lodging houses for men, women and doubles which are little better than brothels. Thieves, bullies and prostitutes are their inhabitants. A thoroughly vicious quarter – the presence of the Cambridge Music Hall in Commercial St makes it a focussing point for prostitutes

Detail of Charles Booth’s Descriptive Map of London Poverty 1889

Click here to buy a copy at half price

11 Responses leave one →
  1. March 26, 2021

    I bought the Horace Warner book when it came out and thought I knew it well. But studying the Pearl St photo of the crowd in a semicircle, the person with the stick: is that a woman dressed as a man? I can’t be sure. Reminded me of Nan in Sarah Waters’s Tipping the Velvet’, a young woman passing as a man. Or am I completely wrong?

  2. March 26, 2021

    The have nots ! In times when we were the most powerful country in the world with our Empire
    and riches in tact.

    Mans in humanity to man – such godless behavior !

  3. March 26, 2021

    Spitalfields Nippers, a sublime book and probably one of the best that I have. Don’t dither, get a copy

  4. March 26, 2021

    A very special and fine Book — I love it so much!

    Love & Peace

  5. paul loften permalink
    March 26, 2021

    The mention of the roughness of the area is so true. Both my mother and father would tell me tales of their childhood and youth in Spitalfields the 1920s and 30’s that would make me realise just how good I had it as a child . Now I tell my children about my rough childhood in East London the fifties and they think life can only get better. I wish.

  6. Adele Lester permalink
    March 26, 2021

    I’ve often wondered about Booth’s descriptions of the poor of the East End. A reflection of the way people looked at the immigrants at that time, and unfortunately still the sentiment in so many of the present day ‘richest countries’ of the world. The more things change…. etc. etc.

  7. Richard Smith permalink
    March 26, 2021

    To look at the pictures is to speculate what sort of lives these folk had. One can only marvel at their resilience and their capacity to carry on. Bless ’em all.

  8. Cherub permalink
    March 26, 2021

    I borrowed a copy of Charles Booth’s London from my local public library back in the late 1980s. The lives of a lot of the poor children he wrote about really distressed me and he often recorded that the father was a drinker so there was no money. It was really tragic and made me very grateful that post war Britain had a welfare state. My parents grew up in the depression and remembered the humiliation of the means test. My father told me his mother would pawn his father’s best suit on a Monday so they could eat, then she’d redeem the pledge on Saturday so his father would be dressed for church on Sunday. It was a terrible hand to mouth existence for many, but people got on with it, didn’t complain and there was a huge sense of community – sadly something that has been so lost today. Parents who grew up like that instilled a good work ethic and strength of character in their children.

  9. Scott Denny permalink
    March 26, 2021

    For those of you who would like to read a little more about Charles Booth this is a good source.
    Here’s something on the subject by the Gentle Author:

  10. April 13, 2021

    This was reality of one of the richest countries in the world, and this can be echoed in that time in Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds, et al throughout Britain, children’s deaths due to abject poverty, education was ignorance, but due to many heroes and heroines society changed

  11. May 8, 2021

    Terrific photos if tinged with sadness at the poor children. That is when benefits were needed.
    Nowadays you get a car, house etc for some minor ailment !

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