William Booth On Poverty

On Monday the 22nd of October, 1883, The Pall Mall Gazette published the following letter from the founder and head of the Salvation Army, William Booth, concerning the recent publication of The Bitter Cry of Outcast London.


I heartily join in your protest against the abominable state of things when so many thousands can exist in a condition of the utmost physical and moral misery and degradation, without its being so much as perceived by the intelligent and well-to-do persons of society.

But we have arrived, alas! at such a state of refinement that I fear not even the “bitter cry” will induce a score of well-to-do Christians to go and look with their own eyes upon the misery around them.

I fear that even the earnest endeavours now being made to direct attention to the outer miseries which surround so many families may help to cause the inner and deeper wretchedness of their condition to be forgotten.


The root of the difficulty, however, is not material but moral.

It is sad enough that millions of children should be growing up in homes where all regard for decency and morality, let alone comfort, is of necessity set aside; but it seems to me sadder still that all this should be going on in a country where anyone might really raise himself above that lowest level were he only influenced as he might be for good.

I will not ask you to admit to your columns any stories of the happy Toms and happy Elizas of whom the Salvation Army is composed. I will only say that I am personally acquainted with thousands who have been down to the lowest depths – homeless, penniless, ragged, disgraced, hopeless – and who are now well known to be respectable working people living in decent and in many cases even comfortable homes, without need of any charitable help – nay, ready to help others up.


The mere regard for the safety of life and property should dictate to all civilized peoples the improvements of the dwellings of the poor and of the conditions of their existence.

But I dread, lest, at a time when so much attention seems to be obtainable for any theory and so little energy for any action, it should be imagined that the destruction of a number of human kennels and the erection of a quantity of model dwellings, coupled with improved sanitary inspection and improved wages for the poorest, will meet the horrible emergency.

I will engage to show anyone who will take the trouble to see it, in the most recently built towns or portions of towns, streets full of wretchedness and moral degradation as great as can be found in even the worst East-end rookeries.

Missionaries visiting the residents of a London slum in the 19th century.
A London Slum In The Late 19th Century


In the outward appearance of such towns, there will often be no sign of the extreme destitution to be so largely found in great cities.

But what of that?

The most wretched of the great city began, generally speaking, in the country town or village, where, with – it may be – great toil, they used to have suitable food and clothing until drunkenness and other vices had finished their work and had driven them gradually downward to the position they now occupy.


No legislation, no social arrangements, can possibly prevent the continuance of this process, and nothing can be more ridiculous than to attempt to deal with the great social difficulty as though it had no deeper cause than a want of bricks and mortar.

The first and great thing to be done by those who would improve the condition of the wretched is to get at their hearts.

I and my associates are deemed fanatics for our methods, and we are content for this to be so; but let those who despise and condemn us – if they would do good to the degraded – apply this heart leverage in any way they think proper.


But do not let them waste time and money in the endeavour, by mere physical appliances, to lift up those who are sunken and sinking mainly for want of that within which can lift, and has lifted the slave, and the want of which must sooner or later abase the prince.

Let a little of the brotherly love which leads the poor, despised, and slandered Salvationist out into the streets on a dark winter’s night to lead others into the warmth and comfort he has found be diffused among the more educated portions of the community; and before there would be time for the erection of a large block of industrial dwellings, tens of thousands of families now overwhelmed in vice, dirt, and disgrace might be raised into real happiness.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,

The Salvation Army, Head Quarters, Queen Victoria-st., Oct. 17.