TV Review: ‘The Secret History of Our Streets’. Episode 2: Camberwell Grove

Review –The Secret History of Our Streets: Wednesday 13 June on BBC Two 9.00pm-10.00pm

Figure 1: Camberwell Grove, c. 1912. From Ideal Homes: a history of south-east London Suburbs

Following last week’s first episode on Deptford High Road (see review), this week’s episode will particularly appeal to people with an architectural interest. Its subject is Camberwell Grove, a street of beautiful Georgian houses dating back to the late 18th century/early 19th. It tells the story of the ‘brand new’ class of 19th century Britain – the middle class. The street was – and still is – tree-lined with some of the best preserved Georgian and Regency houses, built for the middle classes, who escaped the city to the green edges north and south of its built-up area. We see images of when they were first built but learn also that the road is not typical of its area. Close to quite a ‘rough’ area of south London, not embedded within a zone of middle class. But, turn the corner, you enter another road and another world. Like living on the river, the street flows down the hill, creating a bucolic country scene amidst the urban setting. We learn how it started life as a grove and see some wonderful old illustrations, estate plans and maps, which show how it was formed from the farmland that existed prior to its development, and showing how the road alignments followed some of the original field boundaries. It was originally the rural edge of London, supplying its food. We also get a sense of then inhabited the newly built streets: merchants, lawyers, seeking good air and water, but still within reach of the city (half an hour away). The variety of building designs are explained, including the use of pattern books, which over time brought about a recognisable Georgian style. Notably the programme emphasises the high density aspect of this housing type, bringing: economy, elegance and profit, rolled into one. What also emerges is the adaptability of the building type – which lends itself to today’s completely different styles of living to those of a century ago – although alongside one family who have transformed their interior to contemporary ways of living, lives another who use only candles to light their living room – rather like Dennis Severs’ house in Spitalfields.

The coming of the railway in the late 19th century is presented as the catalyst of the street’s transformation from rural edge city to suburb, with a tripling of the area’s population and its street network being knitted into the built fabric of the city. Booth’s two maps of 1889 and 1898-9 and the less well-known survey conducted by the London School of Economics: the “New Survey of London Life and Labour” of the 1920s* are the perfect measure of this transformation: in the earlier survey the street was yellow and red (upper and middle class); a decade later Booth demoted it to red and pink (middle and ‘fairly comfortable’, respectively) and by the 1920s had sunk into overall poverty. (See Camberwell Grove (running north/south) in the 1898-99 Charles Booth Poverty Map. From the LSE Charles Booth Online Archive). Interestingly, this is a useful example of gentrification: an area that went into decline but following the interwar depopulation of inner London was then rediscovered post-war by middle class young people ‘venturing’ south of the river. Evidently this was a very specific strand of the middle classes, willing to go to an area that considered to be down-at-heel and away from the more conventional middle class districts. Artists particularly appreciated the adaptability of the houses for their way of life and started taking them on as restoration projects, reversing the DIY boxing-in and stripping-out of a generation before. Even a book was published on the back of these restorations – written by one of the residents of the street ‘House Maintenance and Repairs’. The new residents became politically active to fight against local redevelopment as well as London-wide road programmes that were to destroy many other districts. The pulling down of Georgian terraces and their replacement with modernist high rises became a battlefield by locals wishing to conserve and protect the architectural heritage of the area. The outcome was the formation of the Camberwell Society, still going strong forty years area.

Some bombed sites weren’t protected and were replaced by social housing. Initially high rise, but subsequent developments had to match the height and building lines of the existing terrace. Strikingly, (or perhaps not) the latter seem to be preferred by the local inhabitants. The episode ends with the demolition of the Aylesbury Estate, contrasted with new social housing built following campaigning by the Camberwell Society to provide decent social housing that would be in keeping with the local architecture: this becomes the episode’s punchline: both the demolition and the campaign for high quality new housing are “recognition that the design of where we live really does matter“.

* See Sally Alexander’s comment on the New Survey: “The street survey, completed in a week, gave a snapshot measurement of a mobile and complex set of problems which could only be grasped through a study over time. The household sample (an invaluable, under-used source) as the NSL acknowledged, was not wholly reliable: often only the head of household’s occupation was known to the School Attendance Officer, married women’s employment was underestimated and household income varied with phases of the life-cycle, family size, seasonal and casual work. A household well provided for on a Sunday, could be living on the breadline by Tuesday or Wednesday.”

Next week: Caledonian Road.


New Survey of London Life and Labour:

Dennis Severs house: See also 18 Folgate Street. Vintage and Chatto & Windus, London.

The Camberwell Society:

Alexander S. (2007) A New Civilization? London Surveyed 1928-1940s, History Workshop Journal, 64, 296-320

LSE blog:

And for the curious, a rare snippet of the New Survey map, copied for me by the LSE library several years ago:

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.

One thought on “TV Review: ‘The Secret History of Our Streets’. Episode 2: Camberwell Grove”

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