BBC Two series explores social history of London using the Booth maps as a starting point
On Wednesday I watched the first part of the new BBC Two series The Secret History of Our Streets. The episode is currently available on the BBC iPlayer if you would like to watch it for yourself. The first in the six part series focused on the human story of Deptford High Street. We are told that over the course of the last 125 years the area has lost both its wealth and the tight, familial community that gave life to it. The story is one of demolitions, compulsory purchase orders, modernist concrete monoliths and a community ravaged by post-war social experimentation. It isn’t the most uplifting viewing, but the insight into an area only a handful of miles from the affluence of London’s banking district is quite fascinating.
There will be five more programmes in the series all focusing on a particular street. Coming up next will be Camberwell Grove.
The series starting point is the Charles Booth maps and notebooks which were produced as part of the the survey into life and labour in London (1886-1903). Beatrice Potter (later to become Beatrice Webb and founding member of the LSE) attended the first meeting of Charles Booth’s Board of Statistical Research on 17th April, 1886 and recorded the occasion in her diary:
“Charles Booth’s first meeting of the Board of Statistical Research at his London office. Object of the Committee is to get a fair picture of the whole of London society – the 4,000,000 – by district and employment, the two methods to be based on census returns. At present Charles Booth is the sole worker in this gigantic undertaking. I intend to do a little bit of it while I am in London, not only to keep the Society alive, but to keep me in touch with actual facts so as to limit my study of the past to that part of it useful in the understanding of the present.”
Extract taken from Beatrice Webb’s diaries in LSE Digital Library
The study was certainly an ambitious undertaking covering 4 million people and over 10,000 streets, but for a self-confessed ‘man of investigation’ it must of been personally very satisfying.
Deptford: District 45
It was 13 years into the study that the researchers turned their attention to Deptford and what they found will likely be quite surprising to the modern reader. The Booth maps, an early example of social cartography, used colour coding to indicate the income and social class of its inhabitants. This ‘Poverty Classification’ applied to 19th century Deptford shows that the High Street was considered ‘Middle class. Well-to-do’ (Red). However, some of the side streets such as Hales street were classified by the Booth study at the very bottom of the scale both ‘Vicious, semi-criminal’ and ‘Very poor, casual. Chronic want’. (Black and Blue). In modern day Booth style maps the area is considered to be at the wrong end of the deprivation scale (but far from hopeless as many of the lively local bloggers will tell you). This is quite a turnaround over the course of the last 100 years and it is exactly that which the programme is exploring.
Through the recollections of local people and retired council staff we begin to understand how this came about. The questions still remain around why, with some believing ‘they’ just had it in for Deptford. The episode suggested to me that it was the case of the State wanting to sweep away the past in a brave new post-war world. This involved embracing modernist architectural ideas of a machine-like city, ordered and efficient, and one we might consider today as quite dehumanised and robotic.
Parts of Deptford were classified as slums and in the 1960s and 1970s demolished to make way for housing estates that are still a familiar site across London today. Apparently, by a quirk of fate, some homes were spared demolition and still remain. From an online view of two streets in the Deptford area – and mentioned in the programme – we can get an idea of what changed. For example, Albury Street appears to still have the buildings of Booth’s time whereas Reginald Road clearly hasn’t. I know which type of housing I personally prefer to both look at and live in…nowadays.
Booth at the LSE
At LSE we hold a considerable collection of material relating to the Booth study and we also host the Charles Booth Online Archive where it is possible to view a digital version of the map and compare it with a more recent street map. It is also possible to view some of the digitised police notebooks and see for yourself what the researchers recorded on their guided tours of the community.
We are also currently undertaking an innovative project with Edina, part funded by JISC, to mobilise the Booth maps and digitised notebooks for delivery to mobile devices such as iPads and iPhones. The PhoneBooth project will enable people to retrieve nearby notebook entries for reading in the actual location to which the historic observations occurred. If your street existed 100 years ago and is on Booth’s maps then you will be able to find out whether the area was a den of iniquity or, perhaps part of a well-heeled suburb. You will also be able to read the police commentary on the inhabitants and understand in what ways, if any, your part of London has changed since the epic Booth study.
I’m looking forward to the next installment of the series now and particularly the conversations about the programme on the web. The first episode encouraged a lot of blogging and tweeting which is certainly adding a lot more to the BBC’s interpretation as well as exposing many more stories and memories from ex and current residents alike.
The PhoneBooth project blog contains more detailed information about the pedagogical and technological aims of the project and includes updates on progress.
PhoneBooth will be available in July/August 2012.