TV Review: ‘The Secret History Of Our Streets’. Episode 4: Portland Road

Review –The Secret History of Our Streets: Wednesday 27th June on BBC Two 9.00pm-10.00pm

This week’s episode of The Secret History of Our Streets is about Portland Road, built in 1850 in today’s Notting Hill, apparently in once one of London’s worst slums. The story is – as always – more complex than the headline message would suggest. A glance at the 1898-9 Booth map of poverty shows that the street is actually made up of two streets broken east-west. The smart Ladbroke Estate was constructed alongside the much more downmarket Norland Estate, home at the time of its construction to piggeries and potteries, alongside a gypsy encampment The Ladbroke Estate was always intended for prosperous, servant-keeping professionals; but today it houses the super-rich: bankers and foreign property investors.

Figure 1: Portland Road on the 1898-9 Booth Map of Poverty. Scanned from Bullman J., Hegarty N., and Hill B. (2012) The Secret History of Our Streets – London: A Social History through the Houses and Streets We Live In. BBC Books and Random House

The programme’s stunning use of maps illustrate the dramatic drop from the more prosperous southern section to the northern section, coloured light blue (poor) and darker shades of dark blue and black (vicious, semi-criminal) in the back streets beyond. By the time of the New Survey of 1929, the north end had become “Degraded and Semi-Criminal” – coloured black for the lowest class. Shortly afterwards the tenement housing was demolished and replaced by social housing: Notting Wood and Winterbourne House (see photo). Whilst the southern section slipped down the poverty scale into multiple occupancy, the council-owned housing locked in place a class situation, which has not essentially shifted to this day. The situation in the prosperous south has been dramatically different.

Figure 2: Portland Road, Notting Hill/Holland Park, W11 © L. Bailey2005

The 1957 Act, which did away with rent controls, freed up landlords to charge higher prices than before. The likes of slum landlords such as Rachman ‘encouraged’ the sitting tenants to leave and were able to replace them with incoming gentrifiers – some to convert the housing into luxury flats and others to single-family dwellings. The archive footage of some of the working-class people who were scared out of their houses and dispersed away from their stable communities is a repetition of the stories told in previous episodes – a story that of course bears repeating as long as it will be heard. Nevertheless, unlike episode 1 of this series the story told is more balanced. Some of the previous inhabitants interviewed for the episode were happy to move into decent accommodation with all mod-cons: hot water, central heating – “improving themselves, they were getting a council house” rather than the appallingly run-down “decrepit” buildings that had been allowed to fall into disrepair by landlords not wishing to – or unable to – invest in properties with little return.

This process of gentrification – the settlement in the southern section by the middle classes – is correctly presented as being a process of inhabitation by the people for whom it was intended, rather than the common misconception that gentrification is simply a general ‘invasion’ of the middle classes into a previously impoverished area.

Today “the vestiges of a disappearing culture” remain in the northern sections. But the divisions between north and south have been sharpened over time, finally to be set in concrete by the construction of a traffic barrier between the two halves of the street, creating a physical boundary that cuts the street firmly into two.

Portland Road is no longer selling any everyday goods. The shops cater simply to the super-rich bankers living in the area. It is difficult to not be sentimental about the past when one of the north-end people says there’s nowhere to buy either a paper, or a pound of potatoes although the millionaires seem as unhappy with their lives in their ‘financial ghetto’ (as one of them calls it). This might be seen as judicious editing by the producers, but this story sadly rings true.

Next week sees a return of the series to south London with the interestingly story of community stability in Reverdy Road.


Hebbert M. (1998) London: More by Fortune Than Design. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons

New Survey of London Life and Labour:

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 4: Portland Road”

    1. I was thrilled to see how my birth place was like when I was a child, I have very happy memories of playing on the steps, and running around the block. I walked down pottery lane to get to school, I love playing in the Rec nearby and getting sweets from the shop that smelled wonderful.

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