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 141.

    I too have never felt moved to comment on the BBC site, but this series was utterly compelling. I've lived in London for most of my adult life and had never heard of Arnold Circus before, despite many visits to Columbia Rd.
    I found out about the series too late to see it all, and only saw the Arnold Circus and Portland Rd episodes - please can we have repeats and "please can we have some more". Well done Beeb.

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    I believe this has been one of the very best series on recent television. A fascinating insight into the social history and development of "everyday" places. It makes one look more enquiringly at each street corner you pass and wonder what was there before in terms of characters and events. More, much more of this please and remember there are streets outside of London with just as much character and interest. Well done. Great research, great graphics and use of old photography and a wonderful collection of characters. As good as it gets and not in the same universe let alone planet as trashy time wasting Eastenders.

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    I watched the Deptfors episode of the series and was surprised to see a familiar photograph flash up. It was of Gypsy Lee, my grandmother's aunt. Having spent years trying to trace my Lee ancestors with obvious gaps where they disappeared from records, it gives me another place to look.

    I have found the whole series of "Secret History" fascinating and had never really given much thought to how decisions made by a few people in the name of "progress" can affect so many people.

    I hope they go on to make another series because I'm sure there are many other Streets that have changed beyond recognition in the last 100 years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    I've just finished watching the last in the series - Arnold Circus.
    This series has been absolutely brilliant - the music, narration, editing, research, the history and the people.
    It is sad to realise how many Londoners have been priced out of the communities in which their parents and grandparents used to live, though this is only part of the fascinating story.

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    Super series. Please make more.
    I suggest Hatherley Grove as a place with strong contrast between the two sides and a big change in the demographic on one side since the 1960s

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    I watched this series with great interest.As a Londoner myself,I had particular interest in the Bermondsey episode,because the house in Reverdy Road was occupied by Dr George Joseph Cooper,who was my paternal great-grandfather.Imagine my shock when the sign "Dr Cooper-Surgeon"was shown on the programme......

    I loved all the series.They have been so long in coming to television and I really hope that there will be further series made in the future.

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this. Been recommending this gem of a series to all my friends.

    The central narative threads through this story told by real people make it superb.

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    Was a GREAT documentary series but It'd be great to see you cover more areas of London. Places like Dalston, Finsbury Park, Islington, Golders Green, Camden, Mile End?

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    Joseph PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE do one on the LAMBETH WALK... Many Thanks Ian (London Taxi Driver)

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    This was a very good series. Congrats to production team. My only reservation is that twice I phoned the number at the end of the prog and requested the accompanying guide. And I haven't received anything. Some problem at OU?

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    It`s taken me a while to post about this series - it`s brilliant ! So interesting getting inside peoples families, their homes and their histories. Beeb, no one does it like you ! Another six of the same please.

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    After working in housing for 33 years I found this series fascinating, absolutely brilliant piece of social history. A new development of 24 Housing Assoc. houses has just been built in our village - all let to people with local connections - just ripe for a programme to be made.

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    Comment number 153.

    I thought the whole series was excellent. I was born near the Callie so it was of personal interest but the fact so much air time was given to that annoying business man and his foolish friends, it spoiled the episode for me. Nearly turned it over but wanted to see where I was born so persisted even though he loved the sound of his own voice too much and why we had to look at him trying to excercise. Surely you could have found other people of more interest than him. The other episodes were great.

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    I missed the original broadcast days as I was on holiday, but thank goodness for my Humax!! What a brilliant set of programmes and a fascinating insight into social change over the years. I was born in 1948 and lived in Brixton till I was six when we moved to a brand new council 3 bedroom flat in Hutton, Essex. I can still remember my mother talking about how much of a change it was from the two roomed 3rd floor flat we had moved from.

    For me the programme about Deptford High Street has been the most interesting to date showing how social changes have affected a single London street over the years, But Portland Road and it's 'invisible' dividing barriers also showed what affect large amounts of money can have on a single road. As one of the 'interviewees' said, Lowry would have had a field day painting these new social scenes. Looking forward to the last two that I have left to watch.


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