Friday, June 8, 2012

Not so secret history: Turning The Tide

It seems as though there was no one in Deptford who didn't watch The Secret History of Our Streets last night and wasn't moved by its content in one way or another.

Some were moved to tears, others were furious at the council and some were angry with the programme makers. A great many people who had been interviewed, even handed over family photos and talked at length about their love of the place, were naturally disappointed to have ended up on the cutting room floor. The rector of St Paul's was one such – there wasn't even a shot of his beautiful church. Old Archie – who obviously had a great life story to tell – stayed in the cut but Harry Hayward of DAGE got dropped, and where was Johnny's Hardware store and Fred's auntie and (fill in your own missing people)?

Others wondered why there was no mention of the positive things that are happening right now – why paint such a negative picture? (Answer: The clue is in the word "history"). Anyway, we hear John Price didn't really want to take part but was pleaded with when the programme makers 'uncovered' the evidence of the unneccessary 'slum clearance' which provided the hitherto missing glue for their narrative. Of course, a fairly prosperous family background of market trading promised useful cine footage as well (you had to be moderately well off to have a cine camera in those days).

By missing a lot out or skimming over broader issues (pre-war poverty, war damage, industrial decline, immigration etc), the programme delivered a powerful message about a singularly devasting episode in Deptford's history.

But much of the story which unfolded can already be found towards the end of Jess Steele's excellent book on Deptford, "Turning The Tide, The History of Everyday Deptford", first published in 1993 and essential reading for any Deptfordian. (ISBN 1-898536-00-7)

On page 195, Steele says "Perhaps most upsetting is the admission that by no means all of the streets cleared for the estates were slums...". Steele did not print a picture of the same report that was shown in the film nor lend it the same weight, but it was obviously not a secret in 1993, so could not have been that difficult to track down in 2012.

Of course the vintage and home cine film footage included in the Secret History film engaged our senses in a way a history book cannot. But going back to the book reveals a different picture and most strikingly shows how film can manipulate your senses beyond your reason. A particular casualty of truth in the film would appear to be Nicholas Taylor, the architect and councillor involved in the demolition of so many of Deptford's homes. Taylor is portrayed, through some clever editing, as a man with no heart, in league with the dystopian London planners, made to hang (as a commenter on the BBC's blog suggested) for the crimes of the past. Turning The Tide, on the other hand, reports a man who was extremely unhappy with the process. (See below).

The film also gives the impression Deptford was prosperous from Booth's day all the way to the full employment of the 50s then suddenly took a turn for the worse when idealistic planners wrecked the place. In truth, Deptford's fortunes have ebbed and flowed. Somewhere along the way in this tale-telling, the truth was lost.

People debated on the BBC blog, and on local blog Brockley Central, Shipwright's Palace pointed out further inaccuracies:  

"Wholesale clearance of individual dwellings for London County Council blocks began in Deptford as early as the 1890s around Watergate Street, Hughes Field, Deptford Green "For the Erection of Dwellings for the Working Classes". A second wave occurred in the 1930s such as Crossfields Estate and again immediately post-war in Tanner's Hill. The 1950's-70's clearance was a third wave.
The High Street (Butt Lane) was originally a residential street, largely developed during the eighteenth century, not Victorian as described."

However, the main point to be made here is that the programme makers presented us with "a secret" that came across to many viewers as a shocking 'big scoop'. But if we'd only read our history books, we'd know this stuff already. In the process, they have also tarnished the reputation of a man still living, Nicholas Taylor, whose heart may have been truer than the filmmakers'.

Nevertheless, if anyone has been woken up into realising how plans are made for us whilst we're asleep, then the film team must be congratulated for raising the profile of an issue that is central to Deptford at this time.

As Jess Steele points out "Lewisham does not even have a museum...If our history had not been treated with such indifference and ignorance we would have less need of full-scale regeneration...We have to turn this tide of neglect." p222

Turning The Tide
Steele admits at the beginning of her penultimate chapter that in trying to cover the history of Deptford from Roman times onwards, a topic as huge as the slum clearances and the building of council estates could only be roughly sketched and really demanded another book.

An historian born and bred locally, she was also an activist involved in ensuring the regeneration funds pouring into the area in the 90s went in the right direction. She found Nick Taylor to be a useful guide.
Nicholas Taylor, a young architectural journalist and Lewisham councillor in the early 1970s, had been writing polemical articles against tower blocks for a decade. Now he looks back at his fellow-councillors and remembers a kind of old Labour machismo which was excited by the scale of the buildings, by their 'phallic penetration of the skyline'....Taylor points out that "these little gardens and yards, full of washing and children and animals and all the stuff of daily life, were ruthlessly eliminated".  (p.193)
Taylor also defended the residents who had moved into Milton Court in 1971: "this estate is horrendous; there is a madness in the design". Old Deptford councillors "never understood why people weren't grateful for these estates. How dare they form a TA and start attacking the council when they'd hardly moved in?". (p.194)

Taylor had, however, been in favour of demolishing some of the old houses in the area Milton Court was built on, since they were so badly built – cracking apart and subsiding on poor foundations – and were in danger of falling down anyway. Not because they were 'slums'. Steele goes on:
Nevertheless "the replacement of companionably unhygienic slums by soulless tower blocks with broken lifts" (Macgregor 1987) has haunted the memories of Deptford people and planners. Perhaps most upsetting is the admission that by no means all of the streets cleared for the estates were slums...How many other houses were lost in Deptford through the ignorance and indifference of Lewisham planners? Cllr Taylor tells of taking other Lewisham councillors on a Saturday morning coach tour round Deptford, a part of their borough some of them had never ventured into...(p195)
Steele quotes a piece in the The Sunday Times (Peter Way): "Having destroyed a community, devastated trade, and broken up a good deal of workable low level housing the planners have just completed one of the alternatives: an awesome complex in which people are refusing to live..."

Steele also goes into the politics of how Deptford became part of Lewisham (rather than Greenwich), quoting the Deptford MP Sir Leslie Plummer, who said, "When Deptford was a civilised borough and community, the people of Lewisham were practically running around in woad...(whereas) we launched ships, and brought an empire to Elizabeth 1. We were not common scullions and cooks (like those in Lewisham who claimed King Alfred had burnt his cakes there); we were navigators who girdled the globe and brought riches and treasure to this country." p.197

Another chapter is devoted to the two World Wars where she describes how the area was affected through its proximity to the docks – from which one can gather that a process of rebuilding and rehousing had been going on for some time. She also details the economic ups and downs that occurred between Booth's time and the late 20th century which caused Deptford's fortunes to rise and fall accordingly – with focus on the charitable work and voluntary efforts that helped to shape the positive places and things we see today (The Albany for instance).

In her final chapter Steele tackles the subject of racism which also has a resonance that this film could not tackle, and which she describes as "an elastic and manipulable ideology, surviving by adaptation to specific circumstances. Its logic is filled with useful blindnesses and justifying amnesia". (p211)

Epilogue ('History dying and demolished all the time')

In her epilogue (written in 1993), Steele quotes another local activist of that time, Richard Walker:
The main "whether inherent design faults and the continuing ghettoisation of the inner city underclass can be addressed by capital investment, administered through Lewisham Housing Department, major architectural consultants and big construction firms. Are these not merely the 1990s version of the agents who built these estates in the first place?" (p228)
The problem of housing the underclass was handed over a few years later to Lewisham Homes aka Lewisham Council (Crossfields chose this option in consultation) and to various Housing Associations, but the present call to 'build new housing' has the same ring of the old triumvirate: a local authority (whose planning committee has no training in planning), and architects working with giant construction firms.

Clearly an update from Jess Steele, or her equivalent, would be welcome.
In some ways the neglect of Deptford has been a blessing. We have many beautiful buildings in the High St...Other buildings all over the borough have scraped past the redevelopers precisely because the area was deemed so worthless...(p225)

If anyone has other books or useful resources on this topic they can recommend please leave a comment.

UPDATE 12-06-2012
See Deptford Misc 

UPDATE 14-06-2012
Thanks to Deprford Misc for link to Martin Taylor speaking about his father in Guardian letters
Also, copies of Turning The Tide are available at Creekside Centre at normal retail price.

UPDATE 19-06-2012
Thanks to Deptford Misc for this link:

UPDATE 19-06-2012
South London Press carries a story from Nick Taylor himself in their Tuesday paper. Unfortunately it's not available to view online without subscription. Taylor says:

"I had nothing to do with these decisions. I was one of the first campaigners in England against the 1960s policy of bulldozing houses and replacing them with tower blocks....the first thing I did when I was elected to the council in May 1971 was to stop the demolition of the houses in Gosterwood Street, Etta Street, and the remaining half of Rolf Street. When I was elected in 1971, the High Street was in a terrible state and I played a major part in saving the street, bringing it back to a flourishing life, bring the market back into it in 1975, so that it is now renowned as one of the best places in London for its vibrant and varied shops and stalls." (Er, steady on, Nick).

Nick's son, Martin, is quoted as saying, "My father and I are furious and extremely upset. He has spent his life working for the good of Deptford and is devastated at the way in which the film makers have portrayed him."

A BBC spokesman says: "The film includes a line which clearly stated the contributor in question wasn't on the council when the decision to demolish Reginald Road was taken."


  1. Just sitting here reading that very book in preparation for possibly writing a post, although not sure what I could add to this!

    1. Your point of view will always be welcome, Dame, I'm sure you'll find more to add and expand on.

    2. Voila!

  2. This is excellent Sue. Nicholas Taylor was made the stage villain of the piece, was he the only one who came forward or did others end up on the cutting room floor? I thought the influence of the LCC/GLC in driving these schemes through was underplayed. And if he was so 'bad' how come he and Colin Ward encouraged the self-build movement in Lewisham?

    I did quite a lot of research at LMA and elsewhere into the history of planning the huge Downham estate - the lack of gratefulness at being rehoused somewhere 'better' and the same desperate loneliness at being apart from their families, far from work and no boozers.

  3. thank you for a considered and balanced view of the programme - commentors on other blogs have done less well!

  4. Very interesting.
    If there was a lot of content that didn't make the programme can I suggest that we use this opportunity to get it out into the public sphere? It would be a shame not to.
    What I mean by this is pictures and video that anyone has. I would love to collect it all up and then post it on somewhere like (which currently has very little for the Deptford area).
    I started making an online map last night for the series and using it to curate tweets and other interesting stuff. I may well pursue this if I have time and there is other people interested in contributing in some way.

    What do you think? Coordinate getting all the content we can together and building up an online story coming out of the programme? I'm on @AndyJack8 or here on my Gmail.

  5. Hi Andy,

    Have you contacted the production company? (email us here - - and we'll send you an email address for them if you need it.) They'll know better than any what material wasn't used.

    1. Hi Marmoset,
      I never did anything in the end other than a Storify with stuff I could already find.
      After watching the last episode I wonder if the guys Kings X pictures are available anywhere. I thought they were fantastic
      Storify is here in case anyone is interested. I included this brilliant post.

  6. The best post I've read so far on local blogs, thanks for that.

  7. @Andy - Presume you've read the comments on the BBC blog? There are lots of people who have written in who may be able to contribute personal stories and pictures…

    @Goldcat – yes! Taylor worth a programme to himself.
    Interesting BBC blog comments – notably No. 28: Geoff Woolfe, ex-environmental health officer for Lewisham, and No.44: ex-Green cllr Mike Keogh, friend of Taylor

    1. Thanks for the link to the BBC blog, worth a programme in itself the comments are so interesting and insightful. I think the LCC may have invented institutionalised paternalism. A myth persists that people from Deptford were 'slum-cleared' to Downham in the 20s and 30s but the homes were targeted at people who could afford the rents, which were high.

      Deptford made me feel at home, particularly the market and the high street, when I moved to south London (from Fulham, believe it or not) nearly 30 years ago - and still does.

  8. David and I live in Admiral St,which was part of Deptford New Town,built in the mid 1800s,to house people away from industrial Deptford.These houses did'nt have bath rooms or inside toilets until 1970,when Lewisham council modernised them,instead of demolishing them.The occupants were given the choice of moving away to the likes of Milton Court estate or stay in the area.It became a conservation area.Many of the original families stayed.Jaime the researcher on the BBC programe came to our house and was given this information and shown a map of the High St in 1959 depicting a thriving community.My Aunt aged 92 born in Baildon St saw the TV programme and was amazed how narrow the story was and that it did'nt mention the war time bombing which accounted for a lot of the house clearance after the war.So Hitler as well as Lewisham council were responsible for the destruction of many parts of Deptford.It was an interesting but grim film.It was also not the whole story and it should have had a broader view of Deptford.This was offered to the film makers but they chose to reject it.Fred Aylward

    1. Well said Fred.. I'm a blow in from Dublin - but I do feel there are many more stories to be told here! Paul

  9. Thanks for pointing out what Jess Steele wrote - I just went back to my own copy. I'd remembered that she was positive about Councillor Taylor (a man I knew slightly in the 80s & 90s due to Labour Party involvement - and I've seen once or twice in church in Deptford since) but ists interesting to go back and re-read. I'm not sure she does say quite what the programme did, there is a difference between pointing out that they demolished good houses and finding the report that says that there was no reason to destroy specific buildings that were destroyed anyway, showing that someone or other chose to act against the advice of the council officers (it might have been the senior officers of course)

  10. Reginald Road was originally called Downing Street......Now there's a clearance that might gain considerable support in Deptford!

  11. Really interesting, Sue.

    Funnily enough Jess Steele's book is clearly now hot property. Cheapest on Amazon is now £40. Thank heavens for the library...

    1. Creekside Centre has a few copies left I think.

  12. If you want a more complete and balanced picture, have a peek at the book written to accompany the series: The Secret History of Our Streets: London
    by Joseph Bullman, Neil Hegarty and Brian Hill - I think that some of the stories that didn't make it into the programme survive there. n.b. I review the episode at

  13. Are you one of the shareholders of Deptford Forum Publishing Sue ?? Set up to publish Turning the Tide ??
    I thoroughly agree that Nicholas Taylor was badly served - a shame considering no other council officials appeared willing to talk.
    I remember him as a very hard working and passionately concerned representative and a real human fighting bureaucracy for others. And unless he's moved - living in a council house. Just because someone has a posh accent doesn't make them middle class ...Just think of the reverse ...all the middle classes locally feigning lower social strata accents !!
    As for the program I thought it powerfully got across what Deptford people who were there at the time already knew and have been saying for years (long before Ms Steele discovered it) that Deptford was shafted good and proper. What was of keen interest was the discovery of missing archive record proving this...IS there any link to the missing archives taken from the New Cross library (pre_art HOuse) before it was squatted for raves ?? The story was that French people amongst the squatters had run off with irreplaceable documents on Deptford's History.....I will not mention now respectable names amongst those behind the squat..But it is itself perhaps worthy of research re: the Secret History of who is writing our history...

  14. @Anonymous above, No! Alas have no shares in DFP, even forgot to mention them in post. I hear the price has soared on Amazon. I also hear Creekside Centre have a few copies in stock...

  15. You can watch ' Hide & Seek' here-
    Lots of slum clearance shots.

  16. I am reasonably new to the Deptford area but I was interested in seeing the programme and really enjoyed it and am thankful for BBC i-player! However, the beginning of the programme spent time referring to Charles Booth's London, in which he had painted streets in different colours on his maps. The various colours referred to the wealth (or lack of wealth) what I don't understand is that for example Reginald Street which was mentioned frequently apppeared as a wealthy street but the people who lived there were re housed when it was demolished and I assume they were rehoused by the council. So di the Price family for example own their home of were they council tennants. After all a lot of the new tower blocks were not very popular and were filled up with people from lower down the social scale. Would love an answer. Thanks.

  17. I was Nick Taylor's Conservative opponent when he was elected for Ladywell Ward in 1971, subsequently I was elected to Lewisham ouncil and served from 1974-82. I was opposition spokesman on Housing and well remember Nick's coach tour around Deptford. Nick is a man of great integrity, energy and determination, he fought a hard battle against the old Labour councillors from Deptford who were totally opposed to saving what they regarded as slums. A thorughly decent man who was msirepresented by the programme. Councillor Nicholas Bennett JP Conservative member London Borough of Bromley.