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The Secret History of Our Streets: London

Leo Hollis is fascinated by a history of six London streets, and what it tells us about the city’s development

Published: June 13, 2012 at 11:14 am
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Reviewed by: Leo Hollis
Author: Joseph Bullman, Neil Hegarty and Brian Hill
Publisher: BBC Books
Price (RRP): £20


Says one of the contemporary residents of Camberwell Grove: “We become the irrelevance; the house is actually what people are really interested in.”

Camberwell Grove is an elegant row of Georgian villas in south London that has experienced the turbulent troughs and pitches of the city’s history. Today, it is a wealthy enclave, richer than ever before in its life. Is this the story of all London streets?

Our Secret Streets is a fascinating book, written to accompany a TV series, part of the Olympic season that, for once, allows the BBC to focus on the capital without being accused of metropolitan bias.

It tells the story of six London thoroughfares over the last 120 years, from the 1880s poverty maps of Charles Booth to the present day: Reverdy Road, Bermondsey; Deptford High Street; Arnold Circus in Shoreditch; the Caledonian Road in Islington; Portland Road in Notting Hill; Holland Park in Kensington; and Camberwell Grove.

Apart from Arnold Circus, the heart of the famous Boundary Estate, the locations might be dismissed as places of interest for estate agents alone, but the rich detail of the too-often-overlooked rewards the attention.

What makes a city? So many histories of London focus on the monuments and public centres: cathedrals, palaces, parliament. Yet it is the mundane streets that make up the majority of the city, and where most ordinary people reside.

Many urban planners and theorists today believe that if we can make our streets liveable spaces, then the rest of the city will follow. This theory is put to the test across the centuries in this book.

This is a project designed for CGI; one can imagine a portrait of the contemporary streets slowly morphing into a previous life. Thus Arnold Circus descends into the slums of Old Nichols; the glistening millionaires’ town houses of Portland streets recede into the pigsties of mid-Victorian Notting Dale.

Yet no visual effects can compete with the actual voices of the past speaking to us from the page.

Charles Booth stands at the centre of this book. In the 1880s the philanthropist was determined to measure the levels of poverty throughout the city and sent teams of researchers into every street, alley and court to count and record the life of the people within. The research collected not just numbers but also names, personal accounts and descriptions of each neighbourhood.

In most instances, the six streets have survived the 20th century, and sometimes even prospered: Portland Street and Camberwell Grove have become the preserve of the 1 per cent; the social housing schemes of Reverdy Road and Deptford High Street, originally conceived as places to protect the poor, have become unbalanced since the ‘right to buy’ policies of the 1980s; the once grotty Caledonian Road is now under threat from developers.

The story of these streets hint at some major issues facing London today. While so much space is given over to the glories of the financial city, Westminster and the Olympics, the problems with housing are often forgotten.

However, the book isn’t clear on what makes a good street. It is still stuck in the mindset that rising house prices must be good, despite showing how hard it is for the poor to get a purchase on the city, and charting the expanding inequality found in all neighbourhoods.

What is to be done? Like the politicians, the authors here can’t quite decide.

Maybe their point is that it was always so. 


Leo Hollis is the author of The Stones of London: A History in Twelve Buildings (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2011)


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