In praise of… BBC2’s The Secret History of our Streets

The third episode of BBC 2’s ‘The secret history of our streets’ airs this evening at 2100 and the series so far has been a must see for EH professionals. The episodes start by exploring Charles Booth’s colour coded Victorian poverty maps where red (well to do), pink (working class – comfortable), dark blue (very poor) and black (the poorest and semi-criminal) often co-existed alongside each other. The maps reminded me that dubious associations between poverty and criminality are, sadly, nothing new, but also that the fear of the poor was one powerful motivator for public health improvements among the emerging Victorian middle classes.

The first episode focused on Deptford High Street and its environs and was particularly powerful for several reasons. The role of EHOs in shaping the urban space by defining ‘the slum’ became very clear. The programme also unearthed previously secret inspection reports that indicated the power of the modernisation forces at play and how the ‘slum declaration’ decision making of EHOs was far more complex than the ‘public health good’ I was taught about at University. The first episode was also powerful because we heard the perspectives of one family that was cleared from Deptford; their story was one of constant change but also powerful and inaccessible local authorities and family breakup after the clearance.

The second episode was interesting but not so relevant to EH professionals, but I hope the remaining four episodes will continue to explore the tensions and power struggles that have always characterised development and environmental health interventions.

For those in the UK previous episodes can currently (in June 2012) be watched via the BBC iPlayer and the series includes a website produced with the Open University for those wishing to learn more:

Lastly, the programme reminded me of one of my favourite environmental health history books, the Blackest Streets (a Booth poverty map reference) by Sarah Wise and an exploration of the life and death of one of London’s last slums. For a summary and review, go to:

With best wishes, Rob


One thought on “In praise of… BBC2’s The Secret History of our Streets

  1. I missed the third episode on Caledonian Road because our digital TV signal is rubbish and computer dongle very unreliable. Our signal is now much improved (thanks to a booster perched carefully on a pile of EH books – another benefit of publication!?) and last week’s episode on the mega inequalities that have always shaped Portland Place was another classic.

    The human side of each person’s story was particularly warming, even (at times) the investment bankers living there. I’m sure the series was produced by a production company commissioned by the BBC, but the episodes remind me of the value of the BBC as a public service.

    This week’s episode is on Reverdy Road in Bermondsey, but next week will I’m sure be another EH ‘must see’ because it explores the Old Nichol slum area in Shoreditch, now the Boundary Estate, that Sarah Wise wrote about so beautifully in the book I refer to above.

    We would welcome your comments on the series, particularly its insights into environmental health, warts and all.

    With best wishes, Rob.

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