Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Secret History or A Fisherman's Tale?

The BBC's 'Secret History of Our Streets' programme about Deptford has been much commented on. Crosswhatfields? points out that much of the ground was covered by Jess Steele in her 1993 book Turning The Tide, The History of Everyday Deptford. (Available via Amazon or any good library).The Deptford Dame pointed out that far from being the history of Deptford High Street, it was the history of Reginald Road. I do not accept that it was 'history' in any credible sense of the word. It is well worth reading the comments on both blogs.

It is not unfair to characterise the story told by John Bullman and Century Films as:

Settled white working class area full of salt of the earth types earning an honest crust destroyed and dispersed by nasty middle class Cholmonderly-Warner types who then shipped in people who have to be sub-titled on television because of their skin colour.

The reality is somewhat different.

Church records show Black and Asian people being baptised in Deptford in the first half of the 18th

Century. Anthony Black 'an Indian from Madras' was baptised in St Nicholas Deptford on 28 January 1704.The Deptford St Paul Baptism register records on 17 April 1737:
     "John S[on] of John Greenwich (Negro) Joyner Butt Lane"
The father may well be the same John Greenwich who was apprenticed to Deptford Joiner John Berry in 1730.

The Continuing Search for Black, Asian and Non European People in Early Modern Kent (pdf) contains details of many more baptisms, marriages and burials.

In the 19th Century waves of Irish, Italian, but particulary German immigrants settled in Deptford. After World War I locals with German names anglicised them. William Albert Schultz who had twice been Mayor of Deptford became William Albert Scott.

Bomb damage
During World War II Deptford not only suffered during the Blitz, but was on the receiving of Hitler's V1
Flying Bombs and V2 Rockets: SE8 SE14 The makers of Secret History remarked on how the High Street emerged from the war unscathed, but glossed over the extent of damage in surrounding streets. After the war the Attlee government introduced rent controls to stop private landlords cashing in on the housing shortage. The rent controls made it uneconomic for the big insurance firms such as the Prudential to continue to be residential landlords. In Deptford the Evelyn family sold the housing between Evelyn Street, Edward Street, the railway and Abinger Grove to the council in 1963.

Last weeks programme told us that the Price and Ovenell families owned many of the houses in Reginald Road and gave viewers the 'impression' that the houses had been bought with the income from 2 or 3 market stalls. The programme makers' idea of research was apparently sending an assistant producer to the London Metropolitan Archives to 'discover' records extensively referred to by Jess Steele  nearly twenty years ago. If they had employed a competent researcher they might have discovered a more likely source of family wealth. A basic, perhaps the most basic of all, research tool for anybody researching London in the last 200 years is 'The Times' Digital Archive 1795 - 1985. Search for Reginald Road Deptford and this pops up: 
Art Thefts Organised
A judge at the Central Criminal Court was told yesterday that there appeared to be a highly organised group, possibly of several gangs stealing valuable paintings in England.

Earlier Judge Edward Clarke, QC had sentenced two people to three years' imprisonment after they had been convicted of dishonestly handling a Watteau painting "Les Noces" valued at £150,000. They were Joseph Edward Tyrell, aged 45, builder, of Conduit Road, Plumstead, SE, and Pamela Doreen Price, aged 39, a stallholder of Reginald Road, Deptford, SE.

The judge told them: "This sort of offence must be discouraged...whether the people who take part are rich and unscrupulous art dealers or people who form the necessary link in the chain of disposing of property of this enormous value."

On the direction of the judge, the jury found Mr Tyrrell and Mrs Price Not Guilty of burglariously entering Sir John Soane's Museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields, Holburn, and stealing the painting.

Detective-sergeant Hill said an organised attempt was made to steal the painting and pass it on for export.

In reply to the judge, Sergeant Hill said: "Inquiries in the last 18 months indicate it is not just the work of one highly organised gang but possibly of several gangs. The whole operation appears to be highly organized."

The prosecution said in a statement Mr Tyrrell was alleged to have said that Mrs Price had asked him to help her dispose of the painting.

The Times, Thursday, Dec 18, 1969; pg. 4; Issue 57746; col E

Film Research
One of the most irritating aspects of the programme was the extensive use of stock footage, that had nothing to do with Deptford. Good Film Reseacher will find footage of just about every town and city in the UK from any decade in the last 100 years. Any professional film researcher would have pointed the programme makers in the direction of the 1972 Children's Film Foundation production Hide and Seek starring Gary Kemp. The script and the acting may be a bit naff, but it was shot on location in Deptford and shows the extraordinary extent of demolition in a way that The Secret History Of Our Streets completely failed to do. It is available on DVD from Amazon.com for $9.99 + shippin.

The Director of the programme told Broadcast Magazine that "We wanted these films to be a Who Do You Think You Are? for a street – but without the celebrities." Mr Bullman apparently fails to comprehend that Who Do You Think You Are? is based upon a solid base of professional research. 

UPDATE: 9.40pm 13 June 2012

The Guardian has published a letter from Nick Taylor's son explaining how his father was stitched up by the programme.


  1. Great work, Bill!
    Among other things: source of income for many on the high street very dodgy. Codfathers allegedly millionaire property owners (mostly in Spain, so perhaps devalued presently?)
    ...Price family owned most of Reginald Rd, why cry about the losses of a property developer who was probably overcharging on rents.
    Misleading film archive of Lewisham high street and Catford mixed in too – Hide and Seek a great film for Deptford footage – but there's a problem on the rights (too expensive?).

  2. That's great, maybe save me the trouble of writing a similarly withering critique! Indeed Jess Steele's book mentions that part of Reginald Street was destroyed in the war (not by the Council), and replaced with pre-fabs.

    Would have been a better programme if they had actually talked to some of the people who live in Reginald Street now, maybe contrasting/comparing their experience. I don't say it's exactly utopia SE8 but there are people living there now with their own stories and no doubt home movies too.

    I'm sure the people who made the programme were all good liberals who would be horrified at accusations of racism, but they only dignified the white interviewees with back stories and names, and it was the interviewer who says something crass like 'where are all the south londoners' as if all the non-white people were from another planet. The narrative of the programme would be very comfortable for the BNP: change=decline=immigrants

    Babylon also has some good footage of late 70s Deptford.

  3. BLA BLA BLA; Instead of finding solutions lets blame each other. Firstly it is the 'documentary' on TV, hence not as best coherent as should be in letter in book and with references. Secondly could you please confirm that you have never broken a law? As I feel unless you do that you can't be happy about this article. ( and believe me finding the happiness is a great virtue) And last, but not least just because you are profiting from something does not mean that you have to be smeared. You know that guy on Deptford High Street was not 1%. Easy innit!

  4. Sue,
    It might be expensive to use footage from a well known feature film, but Hide and Seek was a Saturday morning job, which I would presume would be unlikely to incur a much higher charge than stock footage.

    The English Dogging League or whatever the NF / BNP call themselves this week, took the programme to heart before the final credits.

    Do try reading a post to the end before commenting on it. Who Do You Think You Are? may come across as very light easy viewing, but it is based on extremely thorough genealogical research.

  5. Nice One Bill,
    My feelings exactly, although so much more eloquently argued. Thanks :)

  6. I think no matter what they had said in the program we could find holes in it or dismiss it for this and that. I think wholly it was a shame that it's was so depressing. There so much good stuff happening in sunny Deptford at the moment shame that people see it in a darker light through this. BUT was nice that this corner on London is featured into the wider world, but little stay a secret as to how good it soon will be.

    The BBC make these things on such a shoes string these days, i work in TV and research in so costly in time and money its a shock they manage to do any.

  7. Sky,

    The programme was 'low-budget' in its production values (some of the editing was simply amateur), but that is because of the people who made it, not the availability of finance. If you follow the link in the update to Martin Taylor's Guardian letter you will see that he refers to "hours of interviews" with his father. Unlike Morecambe and Wise you could see the join where bits of interviews with Nick Taylor were hacked about with to distort his views. Other people in Deptford were extensively interviewed and then not used. Skimp on research, shoot hours upon hours of footage and then hack it together to create a pretence of narrative is neither professional nor cost effective.

  8. Bill, ITN I think, own the rights to Hide & Seek, I recall the Aylward Bros weren't allowed to show it freely, but suspect Bullman's budget a bit bigger than Aylwards. Babylon also great film.

    Thanks for spotting and linking Martin Taylor's letter to Grauniad. Must borrow, ta.

  9. It will come as no surprise to anyone else who survives on selling ideas for a living that I submitted exactly the concept used in Secret History Of Our Streets to the BBC (via a production co.) several years ago.
    In my outline I even pitched it – in words echoed by the series producer – as 'Who Do You Think You Are for neighbourhoods'.
    At the same time I suggested a history of London music fronted by Suggs (not Jools). Back then, I was told both had been rejected. Well look at them now...

  10. Hide and Seek now showing on Youtube.

    1. There are many films called 'Hide and Seek' on youtube, but not as far as I can see this one. Email me at address given top right if you have a link.

  11. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xdbMjEjOXF8

  12. Hello, followed this link from Twitter, thanks. Really interesting info, highlighting how some if even only a few facts can be pasted and moulded together with less reliable info to put what may only be one side, or a predetermined and preferred side, of a story.

    Its a shame as well because aspects of the "story" had real resonance with housing and social solutions in cities such as Sheffield. We flattened the East End with some relish and ended up with Park Hill. The Western Park museum has a large section on East End living in the 1950's and before, and luckily judging by testemonies on the Sheffield History website most of the tales told seem an accurate (as far as that's possible for me to assess) reflection.

    Would be interesting to find myself watching a similar show about an area of Sheffield - ironically the recent DocFest showed a German documentary called A Working Man's Club in Sheffield" with a slapdash approach to editing and some choice footage; but that was made in the early sixties, so there should be no excuse now....