This episode of the series opens with a rather clever filming of the Charles Booth map of poverty, zooming in and out to animate it and interspersed with contemporaneous photos and slightly later film footage. The focus is on one house: a sign of the street’s stability: it has had a doctor in constant occupation since 1890. Putting aside this interesting fact, the story of the street’s local doctors is a continuous thread woven through the programme. Their role within the local community was vital in early years and later on individuals such as Dr Alfred Salter, local doctor, local councillor and then MP, played a vital part in campaigning for a change in policy, using their local knowledge to do so.
As mentioned in my review of the book accompanying the series, Reverdy Road is a story of relative stability, with a change in its character only occurring in recent years, with the boom in property prices across London, trickling down to this relatively unfashionable part of London – Bermondsey. The programme unabashedly presents the road in Victorian terms: inhabited by the ‘respectable’ working-classes. The programme illustrates this delightfully throughout by getting both children and adults to read out snippets from diaries and letters. They also present facts about their predecessors at the same address, quoted verbatim from the census, the Booth notebooks and so on to illustrate what might have otherwise been a dry social history. You get a sense of how the area was inhabited: by people in regular employment, able to pay the relatively high rents, with occupations such as music publisher, errand boy, sanitary inspector. Snippets of information add to the richness of the story: one women mentions her clever brother, who managed to ‘move up a class’ and out of the area to Surbiton. Another tells how his mother had never travelled beyond the district.
Like in other episodes, the second world war is a turning point for the street and the modernisation of housing (indoor bathrooms) and housing allocations bring change even to this quiet corner of London. We are introduced to descendants of the original land owners who sold off the houses to the council as they couldn’t afford the post-war housing act’s requirement for indoor sanitation and the like. This section is out of kilter with the rest of the programme: their visit to the street and tour round one of the houses looks like a condescending inspection by Lady Bountiful.
It could be said that a happy story is a less interesting one, but this episode is immensely absorbing. It gives one a sense of how a house, a street and its neighbourhood can work really rather well for generations of people. The sad coda is that it is unlikely that the children of the current working-class population will be able to remain in the area. The right-to-buy and subsequent sale of council houses in the 1980s and onwards means that now the market prevails and the street has become unaffordable to the type of people for whom it was built.
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
Southwark Local History Library: http://www.southwark.gov.uk/info/200161/local_history_library
Booth maps on the internet and further reading: https://urbanformation.wordpress.com/further-reading-on-mapping-urban-form-and-society/