Case # 1: The Situation at Home: Recording/Reforming Late-Victorian Poverty

The Victorian period witnessed the rise of the industrial revolution and, with it, the mass migration of people into overcrowded cities in search of work. In London, most working-class and poor people concentrated in the East End (or slums), where impossible rents and insecure employment compounded their suffering. Children bore the brunt of this cruel new economic world.  Infant mortality rates were, in general, much higher during the Victorian period, with the average figure for England and Wales being 150 deaths per 1,000 babies under the age of one; but in poorer districts like the “Old Nichol” (see Charles Booth below), the rate was a horrific 252 per 1,000 infants under one year of age. The higher death rates in the slum were attributed to everything from sanitation (overcrowding and poor infrastructure resulted in the rampant spread of communicable diseases, like cholera, among the poor) to parental neglect or insufficient care. The long depression (1873-1896) made it even harder to find work and provide for families. Out of work and desperate, many families were sometimes driven to the workhouses (run by local, underfunded parishes), where they were blamed for their own poverty and forced to perform punitive labour, like picking oakum or breaking rocks, in exchange for a meal and bed for the night. Even worse off, of course, were the children without a stable home or parental support and thus forced to seek shelter from the extremely limited number of orphanages (Ruth McClure cites how Corum’s Foundling Hospital in London turned away as many as five out of every six child applicants [Coram’s Children [1981]).

It was in response to this environment that several independent charity organizations emerged—including Annie Macpherson’s Home of Industry, the Salvation Army, and Dr. Barnardo’s Homes—and sought to alleviate the suffering of the poor and, specifically, to uplift the children out of poverty.

London Labour and the London Poor

Henry Mayhew (1812-1887), London Labour and the London Poor: a cyclopaedia of the condition and earnings of those that will work, those that cannot work, and those that will not work. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1851. [HV4088 .L8 M4 1851a]

An early example of Victorian investigative reporting, Mayhew’s London Labour offers an impressive survey of the life and work of the urban poor. Mayhew often relied on first-hand testimonies to give readers an authentic peek into this oft-overlooked world. In this first of four volumes, Mayhew records the wide variety among the urban poor people and their jobs, including “London Street Folk,” “The Street Irish,” many different kinds of sellers (Fruit and Vegetables, Fish, Game, Flowers, etc), as well as “Women Street Sellers” and “Children Street Sellers.” Of this latter category (pages 468-on), Mayhew spends significant time on the infamous Match Girl, differentiating among those children who are “bred to the streets,” “who take to the streets,” and “who are driven to the streets.” His account set the stage for later social reformers’ writings on the working-class and poor peoples’ desperate efforts to survive under the new world of industrial capitalism.  

 Labour and Life of the People

Charles Booth (1840-1916), The Labour and Life of the People V.I & V.II, London: Williams, 1889-91.  [HV4088 .L8 B6]

Booth’s intensive, multi-volume study drew on modern sociological methods and statistics, in particular, in order to categorize and map the working-class and poor populations of London at the end of the nineteenth century. The first edition was published in 2 volumes (1889-91), but then later expanded in a second edition of 9 volumes (1892-97), and a third edition comprised of 17 volumes (1902-3). To conduct his study, Booth tasked researchers, including Beatrice Potter (later, Beatrice Webb), with gathering data on work, income, family, and housing. Booth used this data to create eight distinct classes, ranging from A: “The Lowest class of occasional labourers, loafers and semi-criminals,” to H: “Upper middle class.” His commitment to objective scientific methods often resulted in an unsympathetic approach to his subjects and set the stage for later discourses on the supposedly “undeserving” or criminal poor.   

Booth also used the data gathered from his surveys to created colour-coded maps of London, with black marking those areas with the highest concentration of poverty and crime.  Pictured here is a detail of the “Old Nichol” from the map of East London (a pullout from Vol 1), showing many areas marked in darker colours with several pockets of almost pure black. The Old Nichol (subject of Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago), at the corner of Shoreditch High Street and Bethnal Green Road, was one of the worst criminal slums and is thus marked as pure black. Thanks to Booth’s survey and poverty maps, the Old Nichol was one of the first areas to undergo “slum clearances” and relocation of the poor at the end of the nineteenth century; the effects of this clearance can be observed in the second, later map of the Old Nichol (note the relative absence of black and dark shading).

Booth himself was a proponent of social reformers like Dr. Barnardo, who claimed to rescue poor and working-class children from the streets. On pages 38-39, as part of his discussion of class A (the worst of the poor), Booth mentions Dr. Barnardo’s Home as a refuge for these street children (or “Street Arabs”). And on page 127, as part of his discussion of “Institutions,” he again speaks highly of Dr. Barnardo’s social “interventions” on behalf of these street children.  

 Labour and Life of the People

The Old Nichol, before (a) and after (b) the "slum clearances" (1893-1900)

Map 2.2 from Charles Booth's London, LSE Library, accessed on 01 May 2020,

Life and Labour of People in London

Charles Booth (1840-1916), Life and Labour of the people in London: first results of an inquiry based on the 1891 census. London Printed for private circulation by Harrison; 1893. [JB HV4088 .L8 B63]

As indicated by its subtitle, this work was an “opening address delivered before the Royal Statistical Society, Nov 1893.” In his address, Booth cites many of the same statistics outlined in his multi-volume, Labour and Life of the People, vols.1&2 (1889-91). He devotes much time to the organization of classes based on income and servants, as well as housing conditions such as overcrowding. On page 24, Booth looks at the correlation between poverty and infant mortality rates. These statistics would have provided moral justification among many reformers intent on separating children from their impoverished parents, if not removing them from the slums altogether via migration schemes.

In Darkest England and the Way Out

William Booth (1829-1912), In Darkest England and the Way Out. London: International Headquarters of the Salvation Army, 1890. [HV4387 B7]

William Booth was a Methodist preacher and, along with his wife Catherine, the founder of the Salvation Army, imagined as a quasi-military Christian movement dedicated to humanitarian aid and social reform. In Darkest England was his popular treatise outlining the army’s mission to save the “submerged tenth” of the population permanently living in poverty (Chapter 2). As suggested by its title, the book relies upon racial tropes (note the title’s allusion to Henry Morton Stanley’s Through the Dark Continent [1878; based on Stanley’s travels in Africa]) in order to characterize the urban poor as “uncivilized” or as a separate country distinct from their upper-class counterparts. Booth was a firm believer in emigration, and proposed removing the poor to farm colonies outside of the city and, if necessary, to the British colonies such as Canada. The book’s pullout map (pictured here) charts this multi-step approach to emigration and agricultural training.

Though the government did not support his plan, Booth used his charity to help families and individuals resettle in the colonies. The first group of children under 14 was sent to Canada in 1905, and the organization continued to migrate youth to the colony up until the 1940s (at which point it shifted its focus to the Big Brother program).

In Darkest England and the Way Out

William Booth, In Darkest England and the Way Out, [1890], pull-out migration map

The Poor and the Land

H. Rider Haggard (1856-1925), The Poor and the Land: being a Report on the Salvation Army Colonies. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1905. [HD1516 .G7 H2]

H. Rider Haggard is best remembered as the author of popular late-Victorian Quest Romances, such as King Solomon’s Mines (1885) and She (1886) (See Case #3). Through these works he earned a reputation as a firm supporter of British Empire, which must have then caught the eye of the Secretary of State for the Colonies who commissioned Haggard to write this report on the Salvation Army’s land settlements in North America. In The Poor and the Land (the outcome of this commission), Haggard sings the praises of the Army’s farm colonies abroad and makes a case for extending these farm missions to include the migration of youth and families to Canada. He explains that the Salvation Army already started, in 1901, successfully migrating children to the colony (xvi). He contrasts the horrible living conditions of the poor in London (xx-xxi) with the free (xviii) and “fertile” and “uninhabited” lands abroad (xxvii-xxviii). In pursuit of this proposed migration scheme Haggard corresponded directly with Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, asking if Canada might set aside a tract of land for the resettlement of “carefully selected” families from the poor (31). Laurier was positive in his reception of Haggard’s proposal and agreed to set aside 240,000 acres or 10 townships—if the project was successful, Canada would set aside even more townships (36).


H. Rider Haggard (1856-1925), Regeneration: Being an Account of the Salvation Army in Great Britain. London: Longman’s Green & Co., 1910. [HV4386 .H3]

Regeneration was written after Haggard’s government commission to investigate the work of the Salvation Army’s settlement projects in North America (The Poor and The Land [1905]). In this second study, Haggard continues his defense of the Salvation Army’s rescue work (112) and talks about resettling British citizens in Canada (80). He claims that the colony is eager for new settlers, so long as they are of good character: “Above all send us no damaged articles,” Haggard records, “You are welcome to keep those at home” (83).

Below is an image of “The Nest,” one of the Army’s homes for children awaiting migration. In his chapter of the same title, Haggard recounts some of the horrors these children have suffered in--and thus why they must flee--their London homes, including domestic violence and murder (113).


Haggard, Regeneration, [1910], "The Nest" (p 112)

Social Diseases and Worse Remedies

T.H. Huxley (1825-1895), Social Diseases and Worse Remedies. London: Macmillan, 1891. [Stauffer HV4387 .H9]

Not everyone was a fan of the rescue societies, particularly their turn to emigration as a solution to poverty.  Professor T.H. Huxley, best known for his defense of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory, was expressly critical in his writings of such migration schemes. Social Diseases and Worse Remedies was written as a series of ‘letters to the editor’ in which Huxley takes particular aim at the Salvation Army (William Booth’s In Darkest England was published the year prior), explaining that the organization is too militaristic and that it forces religion onto its recipients. On page 47, regarding the “rescue home” in Toronto, Huxley also worries about the misappropriation of donated funds to line the General’s pockets.

The Golden Land

Arthur E. Copping (1865-1941), The Golden Land: The True Story of British Settlers in Canada. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1911. [FC74 .C64]

Copping’s report was most certainly intended as propaganda literature for the ongoing migration projects into the twentieth century. The Golden Land contains several first-hand stories of Barnardo boys and girls who enjoyed happy lives as settlers in Canada.  Page 57, for example, tells the story of Mr. Gray who saved enough from his work as a farm hand to purchase his own little cabin (pictured below, page 55), or on page 63 there is the story of George Fisher who eventually found love in his adopted country. As if a spokesperson for the rescue organizations, Mrs. Fischer herself says, to the poor and prospective migrants back in in Britain, " Oh, tell them to come here. . . . There is room for them all in this beautiful country. They can easily do the same as George and me. It is so terrible to think of them like that, and us with more than plenty.  Oh, please tell them about Canada, and just make them come ! " (70).

The Golden Land

Copping, The Golden Land, [1911], "Mr. Gray's Cabin" (p. 55)

Education for Empire Settlement

Alex G. Scholes, Education for Empire Settlement: A Study of Juvenile Migration. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1932 [JV7617 .J8 S3]

Scholes’s dissertation for the University of Edinburgh was published by the Royal Empire Society as part of its Imperial Studies series. The series was designed to support the work of young scholars interested in the history of the British dominions and colonies. Scholes’s book focuses on the role of youth emigration in the “distribution and population of empire” (Preface). The first two parts of the book offer an overview of the Home Children in Canada, including Maria Rye and Annie Macpherson’s creation of this transatlantic scheme, as well as Dr. Barnardo’s work to overcome opposition to child emigration in the late 1880s. Several other rescue societies are also mentioned. The book includes tables on the number of children migrated by different rescue organizations, as well as the total expenditure rates. Later chapters also talk about the emigration societies’ activities during WWI, and the political events that eventually lead to the termination of the Canadian scheme. Scholes’s general thesis is that such emigration is good because it reduces unemployment at home by redistributing “surplus” populations, and it also builds a larger consumer demand in the colonies for British goods and manufacturing.  Published in 1832, at the end of the Canadian program, Scholes’s book suggests how support for juvenile migration was still strong at the time and that many regretted the termination of such schemes.

Case # 1: The Situation at Home: Recording/Reforming Late-Victorian Poverty