Book Review of ‘The secret history of our streets: London’

London, BBC, 2012

ISBN-10: 1849904502; ISBN-13: 9781849904506

I have been reading The Secret History of Our Streets: London (a social history through the houses and streets we live in) by Joseph Bullman, Neil Hegarty and Brian Hill. Written to accompany the forthcoming series on BBC2 (the broadcast date is – so I’m told – Wednesday 6th June and onwards), this is a beautifully produced hardback which opens with an introduction to the social and political context of Charles Booth’s study of poverty in London. Aimed at a general audience, it understandably speeds through the more arcane detail of his report, but there is sufficient there to provide context and then draw the reader in to read the six subsequent chapters, which parallel the six episodes of the series.

The streets selected for the series are meant to represent a cross-section from across London and the premise of the series is to see to what degree the social/economic structure of the streets as they were in c. 1890 are reflected in their character today. For me the most interesting aspect of such a view is to consider both spatial and social change and here the book doesn’t disappoint, providing detail, for example on how there was a doctor living in Church Cottage, Reverdy Road both 120 years ago and today.

There are also some intriguing snapshots of the past that resonate today, such as people railing against the bank holidays because of the “general mischief” that ensued, although today of course the parallel criticism is of loss of business revenue. The authors neatly zoom in to highlight particularly interesting characters, then zoom out to get a sense of the district overall. In the case of Bermondsey (Reverdy Road) we learn how the borough was highly independent in it organisational structure and individualistic to boot. In this chapter we also get a sense of the unique character of the street itself: a quiet side street with relative seclusion from the main streets of the area – see image below copied from the LSE Charles Booth Online Archive – the road is running north/south to the west of the square. I look forward to seeing how this aspect is picked up in the TV episode.

One last thing: the book is beautifully illustrated with black/white illustrations and colour plates. It is a shame though that the location of the six sites is not marked anywhere in a contextual map, so one doesn’t get a sense of the broader geographic setting of each case. This could have been done easily enough on the Booth maps, which are reproduced on both endpapers

Author: (sub)urbanite

Professor of Urban Form and Society and Director of the Space Syntax Lab, Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. Online in a personal capacity.

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