TV Review: ‘The Secret History of Our Streets’. Episode 1: Deptford High Street

Review – The Secret History of Our Streets: Wednesday 6 June on BBC Two 9.00pm-10.00pmBBC – BBC TV blog: The Secret History Of Our Streets

Following the success in 2010 of BBC Four’s maps series: Power, Plunder and Possession, which told the history of the use of maps for politics and power and The Beauty of Maps – broadcast that year too, BBC2 is about to show a six-part series created in conjunction with the Open University, which tells the story of six streets in London, using the 19th century Booth maps as a starting point for what is, in effect, a social history of the 20th century. Using a variety of archival sources as well as personal testimony, it claims to have found a “new way to anatomise the lives of Londoners”, describing the ebb and flow of life across the city with Booth’s survey of poverty – its maps, notebooks and published books – as a source for the character of life as it was lived on the streets in the past. Here I will review the opening episode and I plan to follow this with weekly previews of the remainder of the series.

Unlike the accompanying book, which starts with the rather positive story of Reverdy Road and its stable social context (see series book review at, the first episode of Our Secret Streets is about Deptford High Street, whose 110 year story is more turmoil-ridden. The episode opens with the map, showing how Booth classified the street as red: ‘Middle-class. Well-to-do’ (see image below). A telling fact is glossed over – Booth stated on several occasions that his Middle-class streets varied sharply according to location (after all, this wasn’t the focus of his study) and in east London for example, he stated that the streets coloured red were not the ‘servant-keeping classes’, and had at the most only one domestic servant. This was the case in Deptford as well. Although the shopkeepers were “the aristocracy of Deptford”, Booth described the entire parish as being poor, other than the high street itself. This is evident from the poverty map, which shows Deptford High Street to be the eastern edge of a firmly prosperous district, that falls markedly down into deep poverty as soon as you get to the parish of Christchurch and is consistently so all the way to the docks.

Figure 1: Booth map 1898, courtesy LSE Archive

Whilst there is mention of how some of the backs streets of the area were (one interviewee states): “a den of thieves”, the main line taken by this week’s episode is that the decline of the flourishing market place (see photo below) and thriving place-based community is due to the intervention of the post-war planning system.

Figure 2: south view of Deptford High Street

The case for the prosecution against the modern planning is made very forcefully. Starting with Abercrombie’s post-war plan for zoning London into ‘rational’ districts of industry, residential etc (Figure 3) and continuing with the “efficient” tidying of the “muddle” of the old order, the programme shows how the style of living with (as one person testifies) “your family all round you” was transformed by the programme of slum clearance that took place. Much of this is shown to be unnecessary and the programme builds up to the villain of the piece: the environmental health officers who were sent to assess whether a property was to be condemned for demolition, or would be passed as fit for purpose. A shocking revelation towards the end of the programme shows that judgement was made more on the basis on the style of life inside the house than its built fabric itself.

Figure 3: London – social and functional analysis (1945)

The move of many members of the local neighbourhood to the “clean, neat and antiseptic” New Towns is shown to have effectively destroyed the local community. The result was the loss of the stability of the place itself, which saw a massive influx of replacement immigrant and impoverished population – the only people apparently willing to live in the high rise buildings that replaced the terraces (the reputation of modernist architects doesn’t come out of this programme unscathed either). The episode ends rather sadly, with a home movie of a family wedding projected onto the flank wall of a partly demolished terrace, watched wistfully by one of the last remaining members of old Deptford. The strongest message of this episode is here: the damage wrought on its close-knit community. Top-down planning and lack of consultation on what the community actually wanted meant that community cohesion was torn asunder.

Despite the sombre tone and rather didactic nature of this opening episode, this is a highly recommended programme that wears its learning lightly.

Next week: Camberwell Grove – a story of middle-class gentrification.


· Young M., and Willmott P. (1957) Family and Kinship in East London. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin (Pelican Books).

· Charles Booth Online Archive:

· Readers may also be interested ‘Charley in New Town’, an amusing short film produced by the Central Office of Information for Ministry of Town and Country Planning to persuade Londoners to move out of the overcrowded city to the New Towns:

· Open University accompanying booklet:

· Clip from BBC Four programme featuring the Booth maps

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.

5 thoughts on “TV Review: ‘The Secret History of Our Streets’. Episode 1: Deptford High Street”

  1. The programme on Deptford High Street, while cleverly directed and compulsive viewing, was full of serious misrepresentations about the postwar history of Deptford – no mention of the large areas bombed in the blitz and no mention of the departure of heavy industries, culminating in the closure of the Surrey Docks, and no mention of its huge revival since 1971. The ‘dazzling story teller’ (to quote the director’s BBC blog) who starred in the programme, was not representative of 90 per cent of Deptford people, being an owner-occupier and a trader ; his family owned most of the featured terrace in Reginald Road, but there was no interview with any of their tenants (unlike the same director’s much fairer programme on Portland Road, Notting Hill). No mention was made – because this part of my contribution was cut – that the Reginald Road terrace was isolated in the middle of two large bombed sites. The big site at the back and and at the side towards Deptford High Street was full of dilapidated prefabs (not shown, not mentioned). The programme made it appear that I was a ‘demolisher’, when both my writings (the book ‘The Village in the City’ of 1973) and my actions (as a councillor from 1971) demonstrated the exact polar opposite. The bit filmed with me, at my insistence, in Rolt Street – also cut – showed dramatically where we stopped the bulldozers at my first Housing Committee meeting in June 1971 and then saved swathes of surviving Victorian terraces. (The decision to demolish the remaining bomb-damaged houses in Reginald Road, as acknowledged in a voice-over postcript, was taken years before I was involved.) Much more important than my own treatment was the trashing of the whole Deptford community in the programme, giving an impression of unrelieved poverty and lawlessness, ignoring the post-1971 revival, giving a very odd portrayal of black immigrants and arousing widespread resentment. The local blogs, for and against the programme, can all be found by googling ‘Nicholas Taylor Deptford’ ; our own website ‘deptford ptrs’, organised by my son Martin, contains a comprehensive rebuttal of the programme, including an article from Building Design in June 1977, which gives the true story of the revival, and a blog (now closed) with about 70 very interesting unsolicited contributions, well worth reading. Have a look also at Jackie Sedak’s Regeneration blog, where she had the guts to rewrite her original article in favour of the programme (stored in her Archive as ‘Do as I say, not as I do’), and publish a suitably remorseful attack on it entitled ‘Re-casting Villains’ – this was after she received powerful postings from young architectural writers whom I do not know personally but who know what I actually wrote and did.

  2. Thanks for your invaluable contribution. I don’t know if you’ve seen the article in today’s Building Design, reinforcing some of your points:

    “One doesn’t have to be a wholesale apologist for post-war planning to find this an overly crude analysis. Throughout, architects and planners were cast as faceless bureaucrats, intent on uprooting working-class communities. Their plans were never put in a context of homelessness, bomb damage or unregulated slum landlords.”

  3. “his family owned most of the featured terrace in Reginald Road, but there was no interview with any of their tenants”

    Nicholas Taylor is not the only person to make this observation; similar sentiments have been expressed in a number of Deptford Public Houses since the programme was broadcast. Some of us have also questioned how the purchase of said houses were financed. See:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s