Thursday, 7 June 2012

The Revised Plan 2

This little photo shows the site of Popplewell's Row in Gainsborough, just after the row had been demolished in 1964. By this time, as you, constant reader, will know, we had recently been rehoused from here to the new council house on the Middlefield Lane estate. If you look at the photo of me in my pram in my post of 6 December 2011 here, you will also see the spire of Trinity Church in the background, which means I would have been sat more or less in the middle of that pile of rubble above.

Tonight, I watched the first instalment of the BBC2 series The Secret History of our Streets, that concentrated on Deptford High Street, and the streets that ran off it. In the 1880s, so the BBC website blurb for this series goes, Deptford High Street was 'the Oxford Street of South London'. The blurb goes on to state that 'Today, marooned amid 70s housing blocks, it is one of the poorest shopping streets in London.' It was a compelling programme, not least because at one time it threatened to spill over into an odd, evangelist-driven, psycho-geographic study of the area (it's only a matter of time before BBC historical productions really take up the dérive as the next big stylistic trope for their programmes). It was also based on some deeply personal accounts of a huge extended family that lived together in one of Deptford's streets, which then led to an examination of the bigger story of Patrick Abercrombie, the LCC and Lewisham Council's role in clearing these streets at around the same time as Popplewell's Row was demolished. 

The last twenty minutes or so of this programme however were pretty astonishing because it went on to decisively give the lie to the notion that modernity was essential at this time because these streets were slums and had to be cleared. In the case of one street, the health inspector's report from the early 60s couldn't find any reason to condemn it as a slum ("My Mum had lovely curtains" exclaimed one former resident of the street). It was demolished regardless. 

This blog is intended to extol the virtues of the post-war council estate - for me as a kid it was excitingly new and modern - but this programme tonight led me to wonder what Popplewell's Row was really like. If you look carefully at one old aerial photo of the houses there that someone posted on the excellent Gainsborough Flickr group's set of photos here you'll see the row centre-left of the view, and that it has an architecturally interesting central bay with an arch. What was really wiped away in the name of progress? And where is the health inspector's report for Popplewell's Row?


  1. We should be careful of looking at 1960s decisions through 2010 spectacles. At the time, these houses were unhealthy largely due to smoke pollution blotting out the sunlight. It is difficult for people today to appreciate how bad things were in places we associate with the middle classes, like Islington, and the town centres. Smoke pollution in the 1960s made these horrendous environments. Nobody would choose to live in them then. Subsequent gentrification was subsequent to pollution.

    1. Thanks for this Richard. You make a good point about the environmental conditions involved here, and one that, to be honest, I had not thought about until now. You're right, we should be careful about looking at 1960s decisions through 2010 spectacles just as, it seems, we should be careful about doing this through 2010 mediated spectacles - see this letter about that programme: