BBC Two: The Secret History of our Streets
A couple of weeks ago I saw the first episode of a new BBC Two series, The Secret History of our Streets and have felt particularly energised by the rich seem of history that it has unearthed to me. Here in London, I often catch myself staring with wonder at a tired old building or a small urban detail that reveals a glimpse of the local history. Take my own house in South London for example. Within just a short distance there is a grand old chestnut tree growing on the site of a whole row of houses that was utterly destroyed by a German V2 rocket attack. I often meditate on what those streets were like when people lived there and how they would be now had they not have been destroyed. Perhaps like any other street, but perhaps not.
The Secret History of our Streets aims to answer some of these questions by examining the poverty maps that cartographer, Charles Booth and his team drew up of London in the 19th century. The maps depicted every London street referenced to a colour-coded system, which reflected the social conditions in the area at that time. The series goes on to take an in-depth look at Booth’s recordings and it carefully documents how several individual streets across the city have changed through to the present day. It presents a wealth of records, films, photographs and most importantly, the anecdotes and memories of the residents and their families to chart the intriguing life of a single London street.
Although the Booth maps are a good reference point, each episode effortlessly diverges into an absorbing piece of social analysis. I was surprised at how emotional the series has made me feel. On many occasions I felt an acute sadness for the loss of certain aspects of society and on other occasions, I was bewildered by the sheer power of our communities today.
This is curiously addictive viewing and it has brought many questions to the surface for me in terms of the city I live in. Being from a tiny Northern village, I sometimes feel a little disconnected with London, but this series has reminded me that I am part of a community here whether I like it or not and to an extent, I’m also part of its ongoing history too.
If you only watch one episode, make it the one about Deptford High Street as I think the tale it tells is both heart-warming and heart-breaking. Possibly more of the latter actually.