Britain's National Disgrace

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Episode 7 of 20

Duration: 29 minutes

Melvyn Bragg, accompanied by a vintage mobile cinema, travels across the country, to show incredible footage preserved by the British Film Institute and other national and regional film archives, and tell the history of modern Britain.

This episode comes from Columbia Road in the East End of London, and looks back to the 1930s, a time when millions of people across Britain lived in the squalor of urban slums.

Two cousins, Pat and Carole, come face to face with their grandfather, who was captured in a remarkable 1935 film of Stepney tenement slums; childhood friends, Roger Packer and Brian Davies, talk about the sense of community which existed amongst the slum dwellers; and Stan Hardy shares his incredible story about his years in the workhouse as a young boy.

  • BFI Key Films For This Episode

    BFI Key Films For This Episode

    'Housing Problems' was a groundbreaking documentary when it was produced in 1935 by Edgar Anstey and Arthur Elton.

    Its method - ordinary people talking straight to the camera about their lives - was an innovation in documentary at the time . Using the voices and stories of working class men and women to demonstrate the slums' dreadful conditions, arguably made it more powerful.

    John Anstey, the son of Edgar, and Julia Elton, the daughter of Arthur watch their fathers' film in this episode. Both are extremely proud of the work that their fathers did and suggest that the film was a wake up call to the British government because it brought home the seriousness of the problem to those in power.

    BFI key films for Britain's National Disgrace
  • My Grandfather's Experiences of Living in a Slum

    My Grandfather's Experiences of Living in a Slum

    Cousins Carole Taylor and Pat Couch saw their grandfather Charles Norwood being interviewed as part of our key film 'Housing Problems'.

    Both express their shock at the matter of fact way that their grandfather talks about having to deal with with two infant deaths within a short time, the death rate in these slum areas being very high indeed.

    Carole and Pat were glad to see their grandfather, but shocked by the conditions he and others lived in not so long ago.

  • Using Education to Get Out of the Slums

    Using Education to Get Out of the Slums

    Bernard Kops' parents were Jewish immigrants who came to the East End at the turn of the 20th century.

    Bernard felt that he was quite fortunate to live in the slums because the sense of camaraderie was great and he was supported by the love of his sisters. He did become aware of the importance of reading so he educate himself to get out.

  • Abandoned in the Workhouse as a Baby

    Abandoned in the Workhouse as a Baby

    One of the people in this episode is Stan Hardy who was abandoned as a two-week-old baby by his mother (pictured) who left him at Peckham Workhouse.

    In 1930 the workhouses were officially shut down but in reality by the end of the decade almost 100,000 people lived in them, including 6,000 children - including Stan.

    Stan tells us about the noisy and appalling conditions that existed. He also tells the emotional story of how his brother Timmy died of TB aged 18 years old. TB was rife in these horrendous conditions killing around 30,000 people a year in the 1930s.

  • Slums Across the Country

    Childhood friends Roger Packer and Brian Davies joined us to help us look at slum areas in Bristol. Although our episode was set in the East End of London most of Britain’s big cities had slum areas in them. The plan was to clear them but in many areas World War Two intervened.

    Roger and Brian became friends from about the age of four. There both lived in the St Philips Marsh area of Bristol and clearances there started after the war. Brian was one of ten boys that his widowed mother had to look after – he is the middle one on his mums left in this picture.

    Both have fond memories of living in the area but admit it was crammed and dirty.

    Roger believes that there was a strong sense of community and both men agree that while living in the slums was not something to be ashamed of, it was nothing to boast about either.

    Both men were driven to improve their lot after their start to life in the slum areas.

    More about St Philips Marsh


Melvyn Bragg
Melvyn Bragg
Series Producer
Dympna Jackson
Series Producer
Dympna Jackson
Executive Producer
Ruth Pitt
Executive Producer
Ruth Pitt


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