Today it is one of the poorest parts of London with residents struggling to get by on low incomes, many shops look shabby, 70s tower blocks are ridden with crime and street drinking is an all too apparent problem. So it may surprise some that Deptford High Street was once one of the richest part of the capital and on par with fashionable Oxford Street.
This captivating riches to rags story is powerfully told in the first episode of The Secret History of Our Streets, part of the BBC’s ‘London Calling’ season. Taking the landmark map produced by Charles Booth in 1886 recording living conditions of inhabitants in the capital, the programme features archive footage and interviews with residents to chart over 125 years of social history.
In many senses the story of Deptford High Street in south London mirrors an important national history – the destruction of close-knit communities up and down Britain through the clearance of slums. But a running theme through this programme is the question of whether the condemned houses really were unfit for human habitation. Were the terraced properties bulldozed by the authorities in Deptford, and elsewhere in Britain, really slums?
Of course many people were living in terrible conditions after World War Two with whole families forced to bunk up in single rooms. Yet documents unearthed in 2012 and featured on the BBC programme revealed that many of the properties in Deptford were not beyond repair – council officers that visited the homes noted that demolition was not the only option. Unsurprisingly these comments were not made public at the time.
In fact, some contributors to the programme alleged that it was the authorities themselves created the slums. When residents moved out following the purchase of their homes demolition teams would move in and those in neighbouring properties who refused to leave would suffer. Roofs were damaged and water pipes cut. If people weren’t already living in slums they after the bulldozing had started.
Councillors and planners at the time also said that people were happy to move out – and with shiny new kitchens and bathrooms why wouldn’t they? But contributors to the programme and archive interviews from the time tell a different story. Deptford residents enjoyed the community spirit that came with living in terraced streets. They popped in for a coffee with neighbours and children had somewhere to play. By contrast, many told of the misery of living in the 1970s high-rise tower blocks or of being pushed out of the area and away from friends.
Booth’s map of 1886 showed how rich and poor people were living literally streets away from each other. Yet the Deptford after the slum clearances was largely one of extreme poverty. Those that had “made it” could not be persuaded to stay and the local council struggled to fill the new homes with local residents. So to fill the vacant spaces a new wave of immigration brought in only those on low incomes.
It’s telling that houses in a street (Aldbury Street) in Deptford that miraculously survived demolition are on the market for £750,000 today. And for a street that was labeled as the lowest of all slums in the 1960s. Just imagine what Deptford would be like today if many more streets had survived demolition.