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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  • Comment number 1.

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

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    Comment number 2.

    Cant wait to see this. My family come from No 47 which is and has been a fishmongers for over 100 years. And my father was born upstairs in 1899! Could this be the oldest continually occupied business? Especially that is still selling the same "goods". I believe the current owner is some relative of mine but he doesnt feel able to reply to letters...maybe after this programme? My "uncle" Alec and auntie Bibby ran the shop for years and Alec was, I think, one of the first, if not THE first to "come out" as a gay transvestite.

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    Comment number 3.

    My husband was on call the other night when he thought he saw an otter at Glasson dock in Lancaster, whilst he was driving along. I have been followed along the canal, in Lancaster, by either a mink or weasle ( it was black and running along the ice of the canal). how do you tell them apart by a silhouette???

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    Comment number 4.

    The London County Council middle class planners with their arrogance plotted against working class communities under the guise of slum clearance,similar age properties in Kensington and Chelsea where never considered for slum clearance.
    Social engineering at its worst.

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    Comment number 5.

    Brilliant film with thought provoking comments from residents. However why on Earth did you find it necessary to give subtitles for any contributor from the Carribbean or Africa? They were all easy to understand. One man has been here since 1976! and the African had a very cultured accent, what is not to understand? I feel insulted on their behalf. this may be new policy for the BBC? I noticed the same thing while watching the Julillee Pageant.

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    Comment number 6.

    What a fantastic documentary, The BBC doing what they do best. This just goes to show how wrong the town planners were.

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    Comment number 7.

    What a fantastic programme. It was such a good example of how council planners can wreck a whole community with their shortsighted arrogance. Its obvious that the heart was ripped out of this community and families split up. You can never rebuild that. I can't wait to see the other episodes.

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    Comment number 8.

    Excellent programme and very well documented.
    Amazing how the arrogance of a few people in power can ruin an area and lives..

    Shame that lessons have not been learnt - planners are making the same mistakes today allowing cheap poorly designed blocks to be built... They need to have some pride and study historic architecture! Half these new blocks will not survive 100 years. The rendered fronts are ugly and environmentally unfriendly... Speaking of Deptford, look at the monstrosity built on Brookmill Road at the road kink. Appauling!! I wonder who took a backhander for that!

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    Comment number 9.

    I concur the above...I use to go there as a child and occasion pop down there for fis. I know some of the shop owners. Town Planners are back again as Deptford gets a reconstruction of the station and top end of the market new the bridge shall have some new builds!

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    Comment number 10.

    Interesting programme but i think very hard on the councillor. Obviously his words were edited to make him hang for all the crimes of the past. And when they were showing footage with the clip of Canary Wharf (is that visible from Dept' High St - no), then the camera swings to show Deptford. This was shown in black and white but filmed post 1988 it must have been in colour, so why take the colour out. Another trick to make things bleak. Come on, this programme had a one sided agenda - we're not mugs we now how TV works.

    The best was showing the transformation of the crap road which survived and has become gentrified, showing the old homes could have been made up nice (like in Spitalfields. It would have a much better programme to have shown Battersea and the like where the old houses survived BUT the working class community is not there either. What happened?

    At least the programme touched on the usual un-spoken subject of immigration. Its all part of the story.

    As for me, i was a toddler in the east end in early 60s and we were living in a slum getting ill from the rising damp etc, thank god we got a lovely council flat and moved out of the east end, and despite all the talk, we're far better for it - no doubt!

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    Comment number 11.

    Thank you for this fantastic documentary - one of the finest I've seen for years. Social history and journalism at its best.

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    Comment number 12.

    This is the best programme I have seen in such a long time. I am really looking forward to the others. The subject matter is fascinating anyway, but it was treated in such a brilliant way and you let the people speak for themselves, even the religious fanatics. Most TV documentaries seem to want to string us along with inane commentary designed to spell out the "message" behind the programme, but this lets us feel and decide for ourselves, making it far more powerful. Thank you.

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    Comment number 13.

    Great programme. Social engineering at it's worst.

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    Comment number 14.

    I watched the latter part of the programme with tears steaming down my face for the lost communities and the people's lives that had been so disrupted unnecessarily. The planners responsible should have been pilloried and jailed for what they did, not honoured and knighted (as many were). So many city centres were destroyed in the 1960s and 1970s, replaced by soulless concrete and steel and turned into the urban wastelands that blight all our lives into the future. Those responsible should hang their heads in shame.

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    Comment number 15.

    This was an excellent documentary that was superbly put together. The fact that roads can be slumps one decade but then be worth up to million a few decades later is fascinating. The director put a lot of thought into telling the story through the people who lived there. Can't help but feel there should be some financial compensation for the people who were wrongly evicted from homes that could now be worth potentially a fortune.

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    Comment number 16.

    Incredible! Thank you to the producers, researchers and residents – it’s history that makes us and sustains us. How thought provoking. Couldn’t make you more socially aware. Thank you for inspiring me to think differently about people and their communities. Can’t wait for the rest of the series. Would have loved to have seen spitalfields on your series list – BBC please don’t stop at six, keep uncovering the rest of our capitals streets!!!

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    Comment number 17.

    An impressive start - beautifully researched and raised all sorts of questions

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    Comment number 18.

    I Live in Albury street...I was wondering what was the "quirk of planning" mentioned in the Programme that saved most of It?
    Found the Programme both shocking and entertaining.
    I always assumed the war had taken away most of the streets.

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    Comment number 19.

    I am a London Tour guide and Deptford is one of the many areas where I lead walking tours. The people I take there are always fascinated with this area's history so I was looking forward to watching this programme and adding to my knowledge of Deptford High Street . However I was extremely disappointed. The producer had obviously set out to give a negative view of the street. Whereas I agree with the sentiment that the old houses shouldn't have been demolished there are many positive things the film makers could have shown and chose not to. They selected a stall holder bemoaning the fact that his customers were no longer English but they didn't how how vibrant and busy the street market can be. There was no mention of the recent attempts at regeneration with a new school, individually owned shops and good cafes like the Deptford Project. Where was the beautiful baroque St Paul's Church, recently restored and one of the most attractive churches in London? Where was the Albany Arts Centre with its interesting programme of music, drama and arts projects? And no mention of the street art by Deptford's thriving community of artists. We had a glimpse of the restored Albury Street with its early 18th c houses at the end of the documentary but this was the only positive. Deptford has had many problems over the years which cannot be denied but this was a totally unbalanced view of a street with a fascinating story to tell.

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    Comment number 20.

    Never been moved to comment on-line before - this programme was just stunning. Can't wait to see more. As an amateur genealogist I get so sad when looking up addresses of ancestors and finding 60's monstrosities where families formerly lived for generations. I'm a Londoner, descended from a wide range of typicals including Covent Garden porters & flower-sellers, Whitechapel brickies, Islington waiters, Greenwich carpenters, Dalston box-makers, washerwomen, labourers, seamstresses etc. and it just breaks my heart to see their histories being erased with the beautiful streets and houses they lived in. I salute John Price and his family - he's dead right, there was no need to demolish Deptford. Please God we can now start to love and appreciate our streets and their histories (if it means Americans buying our homes for £7k+, the so be it, as long as they aren't allowed to ruin them).

    Bless you, John, & can't thank you enough for lending your voice to this programme. Of course, thanks also to BBC and programme-makers!

 

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