Soon after the Centre for Hearth Tax Research started working on the 1666 London hearth tax, I had an idea in the back of my mind to compare and contrast an analysis of wealth and poverty derived from the hearth tax with the work and findings of the nineteenth century social analyst Charles Booth. First things first, why did I think this was a good or plausible idea?
For those unfamiliar with the work of Charles Booth, between 1886 and 1903 he researched and published a seventeen-volume study of wealth and poverty in London entitled Life and Labour of the People of London. Booth’s study was pioneering in many ways but probably his most notable achievement (and the one that has endured longest in the minds of the public) were his ‘Maps Descriptive of London Poverty’ in which he brought together socio-economic analyses and geographical locations to produce maps of wealth and poverty. As you can see in this example, Booth maps his data down to street level and uses a series of colours to denote levels of wealth and poverty; broadly speaking, the pinks and reds indicate prosperity and the blues and blacks identify poverty and (for Booth) criminality.
It has, for many years, struck me that the maps produced by Booth, and the rationale behind them, are not that different to those produced by the Centre (see below an example map from Essex).
When we first began analysing the 1666 London hearth tax it was exciting to realise the extent to which the administrators and collectors of the tax had recorded the names of streets, alleys and courts in great detail, as you can see in this example from book 3 (see below). This led me to suppose that mapping the hearth tax data down to street level might be possible, thus finally facilitating a comparison with Booth. However, it quickly became apparent that this would be problematic for a number of reasons. The most fundamental problem with comparing the hearth tax with Booth is that the hearth tax documents which contain the most detailed street-level information are predominantly those recording City of London parishes, whereas Booth excluded the City of London from his study because, by his time, he believed that far fewer people resided there.
The second problem with mapping the hearth tax to street level, is that the closest suitable street-level maps for London in sufficient detail to equate with the 1666 hearth tax are the ward and parish maps published in John Strype’s 1720 updated version of John Stow’s Survey of London. So, although very detailed for the time, the Strype maps document a post-fire London while much of the hearth tax data is pre-fire. It quickly became disappointingly clear that any systematic, large scale street-level comparison of the 1666 hearth tax with the data and maps of Charles Booth was not going to be feasible. But what about opportunities for smaller and more focussed comparative case studies?
A quick analysis of the London and Middlesex hearth tax database revealed that, outside of the City parishes, one area for which a good amount of street-level information was recorded in the 1666 hearth tax records was the hamlet of Ratcliff in the parish of St Dunstan Stepney. This area also initially offered exciting potential for mapping the hearth tax data to street level. Not only had it been documented in good detail on Strype’s 1720 map, but the map itself even provided a very useful table of streets, courts and alleys in the district. However, more disappointment was to follow. Comparing the locations listed in the 1666 hearth tax records for St Dunstan Stepney with those recorded on Strype’s map revealed a far from perfect match and there was not enough similarity between the map and the records to equate them to street level.
On the plus side, though, there was just enough apparent connection between the two sources to more broadly equate portions of the households listed on the manuscript with the wider areas demarcated by letters on the table given on the map. Although not ideal and by no means a street by street demarcation, this was, at least, something to work with and so I located and outlined those alphabetical zones onto Strype’s 1720 map.
I then analysed and tabulated the hearth tax data for each zone and mapped it into the corresponding area on a series of maps maintaining the percentage bands used by the Centre for Hearth Tax Research for the maps produced for our Hearth Tax Project series of volumes. So, having gone to all this trouble to map the data from the 1666 hearth tax records into something as close as possible to street level, what could be learned from the results?
The first thing to say is that Ratcliff Hamlet appears to be a relatively prosperous place, and significantly wealthier than the mean average map for St Dunstan Stepney would suggest. 61% of the households recorded in the hamlet had three or more hearths and in some zones it was as high as 75%.
The level of prosperity is also indicated by the relatively low percentage of households which did not pay the tax; just 34% across the hamlet but as low as 18% is some zones. This is in marked contrast to parishes such as Hammersmith, Whitton, Teddington, Hampton and Shepperton which occupied similar riverside positions in the west of London. It might be expected that those parishes in the west would be wealthier than those in the east, but those mentioned all had far higher percentages of unpaid households that Ratcliff.
If we look at the zoning of the prosperity and poverty in the hamlet, we can see something of an east/west division, with the larger houses and merchant classes occupying an area which follows White Horse Street down through Butchers Row and past Ratcliff Cross to the river. To the west of this, there appear to be a higher concentration of smaller properties and higher percentages of non-payment.
Now, turning our attention to Charles Booth’s survey of the area, undertaken around 1886/7, we find a very interesting point of comparison. When seeking to classify the people he was surveying, Booth created eight classes ranging from A for the ‘very poor’ up to H for the ‘well to do’. Essentially, classes A, B, C and D were the very poor and the poor, while classes E, F, G, and H were the comfortable and the well to do. Booth estimated that in Stepney in 1886/7, 38.1% of households fell into the category of poor and 61.9% of households were comfortable or well off.
It can be argued that this division between the poor and the better off is roughly equivalent, in hearth tax terms, to the division between households with less than three hearths and households with three hearths and more. Comparing this with Booth reveals a startling similarity. For Ratcliff in 1666, the figure for households with less than three hearths was 39% and 61% for households with three or more hearths; remarkably close to Booth’s figures for the same area over 200 years later. This would appear to suggest that, overall, the socio-economic make-up of the Ratcliff / Stepney area had not altered that much in the intervening period.
Another interesting comparison can be made if we look at Booth’s map for the area and consider it in relation to the alphabetical zones created for applying the hearth tax data. In 1666, the pattern of prosperity and poverty appeared to be an east/west divide centered along the main north/south route through the hamlet. However, in the late nineteenth century, it appears to have been more of a north/south split between prosperity and poverty. The main arterial east/west routes through the area, the Commercial Road and the London and Blackwall railway, seem to have been acting as a dividing line, separating the well to do to living to the north from the poorer households to the south and along the dockside.
So, attempting to map the 1666 hearth tax down to street level in any sort of systematic fashion presents many problems in itself, although it might be much more fruitfully pursued in some of City parishes were streets are more systematically recorded in detail. These parishes cannot, though, be compared with Charles Booth’s data and maps, so it would appear that large-scale street-level comparisons between Booth’s work and hearth tax data are, frustratingly, something of a non-starter.
However, with some creativity and persistence, smaller and more focused studies can be undertaken and even the very rudimentary attempt outlined here has revealed interesting insights about enduring longer-term levels and patterns of prosperity and poverty in particular areas of metropolitan London. Who knows what else might be discovered with more time and resources!
Dr John Price is the Research Officer and Project Manager for the Centre for Hearth Tax Research at the University of Roehampton. He is also Senior Lecturer in Modern British History at Goldsmiths, University of London.