The Secret History Of Our Streets

Wednesday 6 June 2012, 14:00

Joseph Bullman Joseph Bullman Co-Producer

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Charles Booth's survey of London is the most ambitious social survey ever conducted. Starting in 1886, it took Booth 17 years to visit every one of its tens of thousands of streets.

When he was finished, he'd produced a series of stunning social maps, which colour-code each of London's streets according to the class of its residents - from yellow for the Servant Keepers, all the way down to black, for Vicious and Semi-Criminal.

Drawn map of Deptford High Street, London

Charles Booth's descriptive map of Deptford, London

I remember sitting in a greasy spoon near Borough Market in London, and putting the idea for The Secret History Of Our Streets to my friend the director Brian Hill.

I told him we should go back to Booth's original study, to find out what had happened to the streets he'd visited 130 years earlier. Brian saw the potential instantly.

We were determined that the people of each street would tell their own story, collectively, for themselves.

But handing over the story to the residents was a challenge, because most knew only fragments of the street's story.

There were no 'experts' in Deptford High Street and historians don't specialise in single streets.

The Deptford High Street we found is one of the poorest shopping streets in the country. But when Charles Booth had arrived in the 1890s it was the Oxford Street of south London - so prosperous that many of its working class shopkeepers kept domestic servants.

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The storyteller John Price remembers his family history

When our young cub researcher walked in to John Price's Bent Can discount shop on the high street, John right away told him to "F*** off!" What did he know about Deptford High Street?! And young people today "don't know nuffin!"

The young researcher advised us to steer clear of John's shop, as he had gone so mad.

But experience taught me that the best documentary characters can often seem that way, so I asked my assistant producer Jaime Taylor to go in again, this time wearing a crash helmet. Jaime had more luck.

Over the weeks, we got close to John. He turned out to be a dazzling story-teller... The kind of person who was so good at conjuring up a lost past that he ought to get paid just to stand in his shop and talk. (Which he does anyway, the Bent Can acting as a kind of hang-out for hundreds of larger-than-life Deptford characters.)

John told us his family had been trading on the high street for 250 years, and that the side-street he'd been born on, just a few paces from his shop, had been "torn down cos it was too violent."

His family had spent two years living in their house, surrounded by rubble, because they didn't want to go.

John Price as a boy, poses with his extended family in a black and white photo

The Price family of Deptford: John is the boy at the front

Nearly all the Victorian terraces that had once fed into the high street had been pulled down in the 60s and 70s and there was no official account of the mass demolition.

Jaime spent weeks in the London Metropolitan Archives, going through thousands of uncatalogued papers, thrown in boxes, half a century earlier.

To our astonishment, these hand-written notes seemed to confirm what John and the Deptford people had told us.

That the street was full of solid, well maintained homes. No need for demolition...

John Price's strange comment had thrown up a story that needed to be told.

And through the series, every time we drilled down into the history of a single street, our researchers kept coming up with stories which seemed to re-write the history of London.

George Andrews looks up at a row of terraced houses in Portland Road

Episode four: George Andrews in Portland Road

On Portland Road, Notting Hill we found multi-million pound houses once occupied by a family of eight in each room.

On Caledonian Road, Islington we found a road whose history was shaped by a prison.

On Reverdy Road, Bermondsey we found the aristocratic landowning family that built the street more than a century earlier.

I reckon that anyone who watches this series is gonna end up walking down their own street, looking over their shoulder, and thinking 'how did we end up here?'

Joseph Bullman is the co-producer of the series The Secret History Of Our Streets and the director of episodes one and four.

The Secret History Of Our Streets is on BBC Two at 9pm on Wednesday, 6 June.

For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

BBC Four has launched The London Collection, a selection of archive BBC programmes which you can watch in full on BBC iPlayer.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    A fascinating and really well-made quality programme. The one part of this issue I would have been interested to see a little more about is the actual town planning and layouts of the developments in the modern estates they built. Having been at college in Deptford in the 90s (at a college now demolished to make way for newbuilds) I was always struck by how random and nonsensical the new street systems seemed to be in roads leading off the highstreet. So many odd dead-ends and empty spaces, bleak roads that just trickle off into nothingness. I would have been very interested to see more about what thought processes went into deciding how they were building the 'better' modern Deptford as well as why they destroyed the old one. I find this particularly interesting because Deptford is a horrible, horrible mess of a place, sliced through with massive multi-lane roads, and the new streets and estates just seem to be dropped around with no reference to any of the structure of the area, no evidence of a plan to make this a world where people would actually live. When so much of the planning of the 60s focussed so heavily on functional spaces, with influences like the Radburn plan and the pedestrianisation of the new towns, why, for instance, was the Pepys estate built without thought for pedestrian access to the high street area? In my opinion Deptford is the absolute worst example of 60s rebuilding I've ever seen. I don't think the utopian dreams of 60s planners were uniformly bad or ill-judged, but in the case of Deptford, they were definitely a disaster.

    Although, I was struck in the programme by the descriptions of the high street in its hey day, with hundreds of people around the stalls and fights breaking out etc - and this was used as an example of how wonderful it used to be - where as when we saw jostling at the market in the modern footage, it was an example of how nowadays the place is full of hate. Deptford high street is still a place with a busy market and a huge amount of humanity out on the streets - had the beautiful old buildings stayed and the place been gentrified, is that neccessarily better? How long would the market have lasted without the multicultural community and the relative poverty? If it was a cleaned up, sanitised, area with expensive restored houses, how many of those old families would still be there, and how many would have cashed up and shipped out? You can go down to Greenwich where the houses weren't demolished, and yes it looks lovely, but it's not the same community that lived there for generations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    Deptford High St...Brilliant documentary giving the voice to the people to tell their story. My grandmother who died over 30 years ago lived a few streets away and I lived with her for a time in the 1972/3. She shopped in Deptford High Street and told me about the 'old days' when my grandfather swam in the Thames as a boy and the passageways and alleys leading to the river. I remember seeing cargo ships in Deptford Creek in the days of working London Ports and the men waiting outside the hostel ... sadly many of my photographs of the area disappeared and it was not until the mid 70s that I went back and photographed the area again.

  • Comment number 83.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

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    Comment number 84.

    Just watched this excellent and moving documentary on iplayer. Brilliant to see a programme that gives voice to everyday people, rather than a sanitised soap, a celeb-driven talent show or the jingoism of the Jubilee. sentimental and harsh, it exposes the veneer of gentrification which the pernicious development of docklands and the faux bohemian arts regeneration are a part of. It was unashamedly biased and John is a natural performer, commanding the stage as he does so often in his shop. It was not perfect by any means, the uncritical inclusion of late-night evangelists (I believe a recent documentary exposed these churches for the rackets they are) harrassing drunks at the anchor was uncomfortable viewing.

    I've lived off Reginald Rd in a 1980's council flat, visible in the programme, for the last decade. I grew up in the 70's and 80's in what is now called St. Johns but is on the borders of Deptford, Brockley, and Lewisham but have always identified with Deptford. Apart from a few years working abroad this is where i've always lived. Like Deptfordboy, I'm proud to say I'm from Deptford. That's where we went to school and the high st. was an adventure though not always a safe one. Now it is a struggle most days. The plethora of betting shops, a multi-cultural community that largely sticks to it's own. The desperate people, drunks, junkies, care in the community, even TB cases have broken out. The urban cultural grazers and the young arty slummers love it for it's 'character' but the majority don't live here and even if they do it's usually only for a couple of years until they move on up to the more affluent suburbs. What this programme gives is a specific historical and material perspective.

    But hold on. I had a middle-class upbringing, am an artist, and studied geography at Queen Mary College. I grew up in a big, if rundown, Victorian house. Why am I not banging the drum for modernism, gentrification, regeneration. Partly because I've seen a lot of waves of regeneration that have had little impact. Gentrification can be summed up by the The 'modernism' of the sixties was a snobbish paternalism by an arrogant elite, imposing their ideas of urban living on an historically established community. A modernist vision can work but only on a blank canvas and London has never been a blank canvas. The clearing of existing housing in working-class area was a political decision, it literally paved the way not only for large housing estates but for fast roads right through to the city and west end. A2, A201, Deptford Church St. is a dual carriageway. Many children have been injured or killed on these urban clearways just crossing the road. In the 70's and 80's these roads were super-fast, with no crossings or traffic calming measures.

    My father was a GLC architect in the 70's until it's abolition. He and his colleagues spent most of those years trying to rectify the mistakes of the 60's by renovating and improving scores of council estates, including the Pepy's estate and incidently the roof of the youth centre which was melodramatically shown in black and white, and my mates teased me about the leaks when we played there. In the 80's it was a very rough estate but the flats are spacious and decent. I used to enjoy sleeping over in the

    Thanks for making a brave programme. Looking forward to camberwell grove

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    A great programme. However. does anyone remember the other streets apart from Reginald Rd, where the inhabitants struggled with no electricity as it was never laid from the day the houses were built until the time they were pulled down.As well as no bathrooms , there was the original stone sink in the scullery and a cast iron cooking range in the back room. Gas was the order of the day for everything. Never the less there were very happy family memories and the destruction should never have taken place. Deptford had a lovely architectural character ruined by the "blots" on the landscape which are now there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    I'd just like to say how excellent this programme was. " To entertain, educate and inform" (or words similar) are part, I believe, of the BBC's charter and this one did all three. Congrats to all involved.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    Great childhood memory's, 1950 to late 60's... Saturday morning pictures, pie mash, Sayers court park, long very hot safe summer school holidays, karry's the great ice cream shop in Edward street, the smell from lots of fish and chip shops, johnny the bird man in Edward street who's macaw we taught to swear, the fish stall in Douglas street cutting up eel's, jubbls, the toffee apple man, playing in the bombed out houses, mr softy and mr wippy, laurie grove baths, collecting old  news papers for money, knock down ginger, Clyde street and John Evelyn schools, the nitnurse, the old slipper baths in Clyde street, Bag wash, sikh door to door carpet salesman, friday bath night in an old tin bath, outside toilet with izal or old news paper to finish off, the Corona pop delivery man, 27th deptford cub's, the blacksmiths in grinling place, horse drawn coop milkfloats closely followed by the local gardeners shovelling up the horse droppings, wearing your Sunday best, the new fine fair supermarket top of the high street, the new wimpy bar just in the broadway and the new "frothy coffee" , rag and bone men exchanging a goldfish or toy windmill for any old cloths and last but not least local celeb's  Father Frost and Charlie the tramp.

    As for the high street at Christmas,  it was simply amazing and going there with your mum could be at least a 2 hour jaunt, with all our mum's chatting and catching up on local gossip.

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    This programme was so well made and thought provoking. Using real people's stories and memories brings the realities of what a huge impact postwar town planning has had on our cities and communities. I was brought up myself in a late 1960s housing estate in Tulse Hill, South London which I know was built on a road of what were huge victorian detached houses. It made me feel angry at the arrogance and myopia of the idealists who planned to destroy the whole of London to create a so called Modernist London. But worse were The LCC and local councillors who decided to use South and East London as their test area, who condemned and bulldozed streets of repairable housing and broke up families and communities and erecting sub standard housing that in the end, as was pointed out by the original town planner himself, nobody wanted to live in. The denouement at the end where a couple are shown around a beautifully restored C17th house on the market for £750,000 must deal a blow to the stomachs of those who had lived in similar houses in the area which were destroyed. It's a very powerful documentary. I am looking forward to next week's episode on Cmaberwell Grove as it's where my Mum went to school. Thanks again to the superb BBC for such brilliant programme making.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    Sorry I forgot the most important person of all, local midwife Elsie Walkerdine, who delivered 4000 Deptford babies, including my sister and we are talking all home births.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    Completely enthalling programme. My Grandad was an Ovenell, as mentioned in the programme, and I spent many hours listening to his stories of Reginald Road, Idonia Street, the cockles and winkles and the two Ovenell families in Deptford. Even though I have old photos, this just completely brought it all to life for me, so thank you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    This was a fascinating episode, but the programme makers would have done well to read Nicholas Taylor's book 'The Village in The City' published in 1973, before taking the easy short cut and representing him as they did.
    In it he makes a careful and intelligent analysis of urban communities and discusses in detail the rights and wrongs of various methods of urban renewal. It was a pivotal period in attitudes to slum clearance and redevelopment and his insights of 40 years ago still have value today.

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    I live in this area, and one of the things that most struck me is that a whole host of new people have moved in and recreated a way of life not at all dissimilar from that described. The main difference, however, is that it is now fabulously multi-cultural.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    Having lived and worked in Deptford during the 70s and 80s I was really looking forward to this programme. I genuinely would not have recognised Deptford from this patronising programme. I can only think that the filmmaker went in with an agenda of his own. Did he visit the market on a Saturday when it is packed, or the second hand market on a Wednesday? Why not mention that it has been called “the capital's most diverse and vibrant high street”. It is hard to know what was the most distasteful element of the programme, the racist nature of the way minority ethnic people were portrayed and subtitled or the way Cllr. Nick Taylor was set up. I have worked with him in the past and he was a bloody good and committed councillor. I am sure that he along with others made mistakes about development, but we can see that in hindsight. And it was largely his influence that prevented Lewisham having the huge tower block estates that blighted other boroughs. But mostly it just missed the buzz of the place with all races, art students, young families the music scene etc I loved being there and still visit whenever I get the chance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    As with most utopian visions, handle with care. The modernist urban planning movement pioneer Le Corbusier dreamed "The house is a machine for living in." He sought efficient ways to house large numbers of people in response to the urban housing crisis. He believed that his new, modern architectural forms would provide a new organizational solution that would raise the quality of life for the lower classes. Unfortunately some of the vision was lost in translation, cheap building materials, poor attention to detail and soft landscaping as system built estates in the 1960s were a byword of a way to house poor people very cheaply.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    Excellant documentary. My grandparents lived at 26 Reginald rd. I remember going down to visit on Bonfire night and Christmas as a young boy in the early '60s. My parents moved to Battersea when they got married (in Deptford) in 1942. My father was a fireman during the war, stationed at Deptford, experiencing the Docks at the height of the Blitz. I vaguely remember a bomb site opposite their house so there would have been some bomb damage. I would not normally comment on a programme, but did feel obliged in this instance, and was both moved by and glad to be informed as to what had actually happened to the area. Some years ago I did go to Deptford to retrace my steps to Reginald rd... The film was very well put togehter, the editing excellant.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    This is the first time I have posted a comment about a BBC programme. What an excellent programme - I was gripped by it. I too felt angry about the wrongful demolition of people's homes and its impact on their lives.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    I was very disappointed with the outcome of the programme and found it unbelievable and slightly irresponsible that you failed to show or mention any of the positive and unique developments which make Deptford what it is today.

    - The Deptford Project (Cafe in an old tube carriage)
    - Deptford Lounge
    - Big Red Pizza Bus (Old Routemaster)
    - Laban Dance Centre
    - Thriving market
    - Creekside studios and it's various galleries
    - The Deptford x annual art festival
    - The regeneration to the station area
    - Future developments (New square, High Street, Convoys Wharf)
    - Independent Deli's, Shops and Cafes

    It must have been difficult to ensure none of these places were included in any of the footage because it's impossible to walk around Deptford without seeing them. I can only think the producer deliberately chose to leave these out in order to leave his simplistic conclusion intact. Expected something more balanced and accurate from the BBC.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    I went back to Deptford this weekend and it's once great high street after many years, for a visit. 
    I see  Labour's social engineering is still alive and well and this time it doesn't involve a, " slum clearance".

    Even Charles Booth wouldn't venture down there now in case he was  mugged.

    Thank god all the descent family's have now moved out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    It was an excellent programme and I look forward to the next in the series.
    I just wondered, though, whether your 'cub researcher' was paid or an 'intern', meaning unpaid? I noticed that when it came to digging through LMA documents you went in-house and used your assistant producer instead of the 'cub researcher'; why not use a researcher when you had one?

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    Very well crafted, excellent choices for narratives, acute history of places. Funny, nostalgic, dramatic, sad and mystical: that spooky spice - that pastor praying in the streets surrounded by the devil - I loved that and the other bits, really well done! I hope you tell about other places too. :-)


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