Posted by: Colin Wiles12/07/2012
The excellent BBC series “The Secret History of our Streets” ended last night with a look at Arnold Circus and the Boundary estate in Shoreditch. It should be essential viewing for every student of housing (which means everyone from the age of 18 to 80) since it embraces all the key issues that have shaped our housing world for the last 150 years.
Each episode started with the work of the indefatigable Charles Booth, a rich industrialist who set out to map the social history of London over a twenty-year period from 1880 to 1900. H.M.Hyndman, the leader of the Social Democratic Foundation, had claimed that 25 percent of Londoners lived in poverty. Booth felt that this was an over-exaggeration and set out to prove Hyndman wrong by carrying our careful statistical analysis of London’s streets, going from door to door gathering data - Beatrice Potter/Webb was one of his assistants. But he found that the true figure was closer to 35 percent. Booth’s work was therefore the spur to social reform and intervention by local and national government. His colour-coded maps, now kept at the LSE, are works of art.
The opening episode on Deptford High Street was a classic. A 1943 public information film (from 6.40 onwards) showed a monocle- wearing Patrick Abercrombie (one of my bête noires) gazing out over the rooftops of London and decrying the streets and buildings all “jumbled up together in a hopeless confusion” (but that’s exactly what makes London so interesting today!) This was pure Mr Cholmondley-Warner as he declared: “All these bad things must go and the sooner the better.” What followed was effectively an act of class war, as middle class planners and “experts” swept away huge swathes of perfectly good housing in Deptford, along with the vibrant communities that lived in them, to be replaced by ugly, soulless council blocks. The programme also provided evidence that the council had deliberately distorted its housing reports, finding unfitness where none existed. People were paid piffling amounts of compensation to move away from properties that would now be extremely valuable. Meanwhile, the same properties in Chelsea of Fulham were left untouched. (However, I thought ex-Lewisham councillor and architect (and colleague at Camden when I worked there in the eighties) Nicholas Taylor was very unfairly treated by the programme. He appeared to take the rap for the Council’s slum-clearance when in fact he was an advocate of rehabilitation. His book, “The Village in the City” is an excellent read.)
In the last episode we saw the awful slums of the Old Nichol in Shoreditch, movingly portrayed in Arthur Morrison’s “A Child of the Jago”. The benefits of municipalisation were highlighted, as the area was compulsorily purchased by the London County Council who built England’s first council housing scheme, the wonderful Boundary Estate set around Arnold Circus, in 1900 (if you haven’t visited, go now.) The same happened at Reverdy Road in Bermondsey where, in 1960, a far-sighted council bought up an entire estate of 787 Victorian terraced homes for just £375,000 and created a mixed community that still survives, albeit under pressure from rising prices and gentrification. The estate was sold to the Council by its aristocratic owners because of the 1957 Housing Act, the same Act that de-regulated rents and led to the villainy of Peter Rachman in Notting Hill, portrayed in the episode about Portland Road. The impact of legislation upon individual lives and communities was made plain here, like the 1980 Act and its Right to Buy, which led to flats on the Boundary estate being sold, arguably with some benefit to the community there.
The series also highlighted the waves of immigration that have swept through London over several centuries, starting with the Huguenots in the eighteenth century, followed by Jews, West Indians and Bengalis. The squatting and short-life movement of the seventies and eighties was covered in the Arnold Circus episode, where Bengali families living in awful slums were shown taking up residence in empty GLC properties, with help from local white activists, and winning support from Horace Cutler, the GLC leader, in due course. It confirms the point that communities change, people move on. Visit Brick Lane today and you will be struck by the division between the indigenous Bengali community and the arty, white incomers, which turns the very notion of the word “incomer” on its head! The same is happening in Brixton.
These programmes makes you realise that we need to take a long view of housing history. What may seem like an insoluble problem today usually sorts itself out over the long term, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. But above all the programmes show that housing is about real people trying to make their way in the world, and we should never forget it. Every house and flat portrayed here had a rich personal history. We saw some great characters like Dave from The Farm on Camberwell Grove, Eileen Christie the pub landlady on Caledonian Road, the raffish and Council-dodging landlord Andrew Panayi who owns half of the properties on the Caledonian Road, Mrs Finkelstein who grew up on the Boundary estate and Dr Max Gammon and his family on Reverdy Road. It is people who should be at the heart of all our housing and planning decisions.
This was great TV. If you missed it, please go and watch it on iPlayer.
(Note: Graham Findlay at the CIH has alerted me to a wesbite set up by a resident of Deptford who challenges some of the issues raised in the first episode. See here: http://deptfordptrs.com/Default.aspx )
From Inside out
An independent look at the housing sector and beyond from Colin Wiles