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 http://tinyurl.com/c8ms2nn), 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: http://booth.lse.ac.uk/
· 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: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/films/1945to1951/filmpage_cint.htm
· Open University accompanying booklet: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/society/order-your-free-booklet-tourists-guide-our-secret-streets
· Clip from BBC Four programme featuring the Booth maps