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 question...is "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.
See Deptford Misc
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.
Thanks to Deptford Misc for this link: www.dfpbooks.co.uk/index.html
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."