The Secret History of Deptford High Street

Starting at 9pm tonight on BBC2, a new series called the Secret History of Our Streets examines the way that some of London's high streets have changed since the 19th century. The series kicks off with a look at Deptford High Street. The makers say:

In 1886 Charles Booth embarked on an ambitious plan to visit every one of London's streets to record the social conditions of residents. His project took him 17 years.

In Booth's time, Deptford High Street was 'the Oxford Street of South London'. Today, marooned amid 70s housing blocks, it is one of the poorest shopping streets in London. 

Featuring compelling accounts from residents, including one family which has been trading on the high street for 250 years, the film tells the story of transformation and endurance as the people themselves tell the history of their own past and the street they lived in.

Thanks to Monkeyboy for the reminder.


The programme just aired. Anyone with even a passing interest in the place where we live should watch it. Beautifully filmed and excellently researched, with some fantastic interviewees, it was a fascinating and in many ways depressing story.

Its thesis was that the "slum" clearance by local government that displaced communities was wrong-headed (planners were guided by modernist ideas which portrayed cities as machines) and hobbled the pubs and shops which once served the people who lived there.

Undoubtedly, the filmmakers' argument is right. But in their desire to make their point, they were guilty of the same mistake the planners once made - ignoring the signs of vitality right under their nose in the rush to declare the area a failure. The film told a story of decline, which it seemed to suggest was total and irreversible. No hint was given of the exciting qualities that endure: communities may have been displaced but in the Crossfields estate and elsewhere, community spirit remains; the high street may be poor, but it is still busy and plays home to a great market; most of the pubs may have gone, but it still plays home to a fantastic theatre, library, galleries, cafes and restaurants, while the pubs that remain are excellent.

London life ebbs and flows, as the series illustrated so beautifully. Deptford has suffered, but it is still a wonderful place, which will one day repair the damage done to it. The destruction of beautiful streets and successful neighbourhoods was depressing, but also a reminder that Deptford was once great, and will be again.