Britain's National Disgrace Reel History of Britain


Britain's National Disgrace

Melvyn Bragg reveals archive footage telling the history of modern Britain. This episode concentrates on the slums of London's East End in the 1930s.


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Transcript


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Just over a century ago, the motion camera was invented,

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and changed forever the way we recall our history.

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For the first time, we could see life through the eyes of ordinary people.

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Across this series, we'll bring these rare archive films back to life

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with the help of our vintage mobile cinema.

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We'll be inviting people with a story to tell to step on board

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and relive moments they thought were gone forever.

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They'll see their relatives on screen for the first time.

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Come face-to-face with their younger selves and celebrate our amazing 20th-century past.

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This is the people's story, OUR story.

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Our vintage mobile cinema was originally commissioned in 1967

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to show training films to workers.

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Today, it's been lovingly restored

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and loaded up with remarkable film footage preserved for us

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by the British Film Institute and other national and regional film archives.

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In this series, we'll be travelling to towns and cities across the country

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and showing films from the 20th century

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that give us the Reel History of Britain.

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Today we're pulling up in the 1930s.

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To hear stories about a time when millions of men, women and children, our relatives,

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were slum dwellers living in squalor.

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We're in Columbia Road in the East End of London.

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Look at it, gentrified, well-heeled, on the up and up.

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But in the '20s, '30s, '40s and into the '50s, this was one of the slum regions of London.

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Coming up, two cousins see how their grandfather suffered in the slums.

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That's the terrible part, I always think - it's not that long ago that people lived like that.

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A reminder that love can matter more than money.

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They say how could you have had such a great childhood

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and loved it so much, when you lived in such dire poverty?

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And an incredible story about life in the workhouse.

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We've all got to die sometime

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and that world will leave with us

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unless it's recorded.

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Today on Reel History, we've come to Columbia Road in the East End.

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There's a famous Sunday flower market here these days, and it's a popular residential area.

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But only 80 years ago, around 20,000 families

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lived in poverty in this part of London.

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During the Industrial Revolution the population of Britain's cities exploded

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and the nation's housing stock struggled to keep up.

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Up to four million people lived in slum squalor across the country.

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Many families were crammed into one or two rooms.

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They were cold, damp, vermin-invested

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and lacked basic sanitation.

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Often as many as 60 people shared one lavatory.

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Many children didn't survive.

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And in the worst areas, almost one in five died

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before their first birthday.

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We've come to the East End of London

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to hear how people lived like this not that long ago.

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'Joining me here today are former slum residents

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'and their families from all over the country

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'with stories to tell about the harrowing conditions they endured.'

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Many of them will be seeing the films we are about to screen for the first time.

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They'll be showing us family photos and revealing what life was really like

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for millions of slum-dwellers in the 1930s.

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Carole Taylor and Pat Couch are cousins.

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Their mothers were sisters who grew up in a family of ten children

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in a Stepney tenement block.

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This is Carole with her mother Adelaide,

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and this is Pat with her mother Kate.

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'They've come here today to see remarkable film of Adelaide and Kate's father, Charles Norwood,

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'the grandfather they themselves remember as children.'

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He was matter-of-fact about everything, really.

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That was his attitude always, wasn't it?

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I think they had to go with the flow because they would go under.

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-They wouldn't cope at all.

-He was 83, was he, when he died?

-82.

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And he still lived in the East End the whole time.

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-It's quite touching to think that it is not that long ago, is it?

-No.

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That's the terrible part, I always think.

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It's not that long ago that people lived like that.

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Carole and Pat are about to watch their grandfather

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taking part in a pioneering documentary made in 1935.

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FILM: 'A great deal these days is written about the slums.

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'This film is going to introduce you

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'to some of the people really concerned.'

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Housing Problems was one of the first documentaries

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to use a technique that seems obvious now,

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but was almost unheard of at the time,

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asking the opinions of ordinary people.

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Among them was Carole and Pat's grandfather.

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These two rooms which I am in now,

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I have to pay 10 shillings a week for and I haven't room to swing a cat round.

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I've also got five other neighbours alongside me in the same predicament as myself.

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I'm not only overrun with bugs, I've got mice and rats.

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If we want to wash the baby we have the use dish

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and us it in the same room as where I am.

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Carol and Pat's grandfather was living like millions of other families

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in appalling, cramped conditions.

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So how do they feel hearing him talk about his life in the slums?

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It was a bit choking really, but, yeah, it is like having him

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sitting in the sitting room with you.

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Yeah, nice.

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I've had no luck since I've been home.

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It's obvious if you've got a big family

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and you're living in a couple of rooms, you've got a pretty hard life.

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Pat and Carole's grandfather worked guiding boats into the docks on the Thames.

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Watching him as he once was,

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a young working man before they were born,

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is an emotional moment for his granddaughters.

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You really feel for them, living like that. It's sad, really.

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Not that they had any choice, really, but it's still not nice to watch.

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When you see them rats and god knows what, they just take it in their stride, didn't they?

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It's nice that you're hearing the people speak.

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-You've got photographs.

-Not quite the same.

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But to see a moving picture, and then actually the voice as well,

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that's really lovely.

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Yes, it does. It brings it alive.

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More Granddad, really, than just a photo. Yeah.

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Carol and Pat even glimpse their grandmother

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filling pans in the street, and they are about to hear a shocking revelation

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about the greatest tragedy their grandparents ever faced.

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I have had no luck since I have been here.

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First I lost one youngster in one.

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Then I lost another youngster, and another one seven weeks after.

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It was sad, but it was a common occurrence.

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-It is terrible to say that.

-It happened all too often.

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People, I suppose, more or less expected they wouldn't all survive for one reason or another.

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-They were so close, those buildings.

-Any disease was not going to go nowhere, was it?

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We've never had it put in front of us like that with that film. That does bring it home.

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They used to say they had a hard life, they was poor.

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But until you see it like that,

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it doesn't really work out in your mind, does it, properly?

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Seeing the film today has left Carole and Pat with one regret -

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that their mothers are no longer alive to take part in Reel History.

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When I see that film, I think it would have been nice

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if this film had been done... say 20-odd, 25 years ago,

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and then it would have been the right people sitting here.

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-How did you feel when you actually saw him up there?

-Upset.

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-Quite upset to think that the family...

-What they went through.

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-It is sad, really.

-That the family went through all that.

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It is upsetting, isn't it?

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And how they survived.

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-Well, some didn't. Three, he lost, didn't he, Granddad?

-Yeah.

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The film Carole and Pat have just watched was made

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by two pioneering documentary film-makers, Edgar Anstey and Arthur Elton.

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They were determined to shame the Government into doing more

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to improve the slums.

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'Joining me on Reel History are Arthur's daughter Julia

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'and Edgar's son John who have joined us in the East End of London.

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'They are both fiercely proud of their fathers' efforts

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'to give slum dwellers a voice.'

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What impact did the film have?

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I think getting the people to speak for themselves

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was really, for the first time,

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to give the working classes a voice that would be listened to,

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and in a sense, validated their own experience.

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It was certainly seen as an important opportunity

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to get a message across to... to the Government, I suppose.

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Working on the film with Anstey and Elton was Ruby Grierson.

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Here she is as a baby with her large family in 1905.

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The great thing here is that her older brother, John Grierson,

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grew up to become one of the best-known film-makers of all time,

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and inspired a new age of social documentary.

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I have a story that Ruby Grierson, John Grierson's youngest sister,

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who also worked on the film, she is supposed to have said to him,

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"You've got the microphone, you've got the camera,

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"now tell the bastards what it's like to live in the East End."

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John and Julia are now going to watch their fathers' film

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with the families of some of the people who feature in it.

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Well, I must have dozed off with the baby.

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Thinking it was the dog on my head, I looked up,

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and instead of that it was a big rat.

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I screamed, and ran out and left the baby.

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The people in this film knew all about rats.

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They were a serious threat to public health,

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spreading dangerous diseases like salmonella, Weil's disease and TB.

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And the residents of Stepney shared their fears with the camera.

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-'This is what Mrs Hill has to say.'

-I tell you, we are fed up.

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If anybody comes to see you, they feel bilious when they get down the stairs because it is crooked.

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You go up the stairs, you don't know whether you are coming down again or not.

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The same with the passage, that's the same, on the crook.

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Everything in the house is on the crook.

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There is not a straight thing in it.

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The housing problems, it seems to me, has this immediacy, because

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you actually hear these people, who are not sorry for themselves,

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they are just telling the camera what their life experience was.

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And I find that very moving.

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But it wasn't just prominent film-makers

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that documented the lives of the slum dwellers.

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I am meeting the writer and poet Bernard Kops,

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who has written about his own life in these slums.

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Bernard Kops' family were European Jews

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who came to the East End at the turn of the last century.

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His whole family of nine lived in cramped conditions.

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They didn't have money,

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but he had brothers and sisters and a lot of love.

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-How are you?

-Fine. Lovely day.

-So this is your patch, really.

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Yes, from the age of 11 onwards,

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I lived just round the corner from here.

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I had a marvellous childhood.

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People laugh at this, because they say, how could you have had

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such a great childhood and loved it so much

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when you lived in such dire poverty?

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I worked it out like this later on.

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I thought, the reason why I was happy was that

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I had sisters who used to fight to hold me.

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When I was born, I was the boy, the young one.

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My sister Phoebe would say, "You have held him ten minutes now, it is my turn."

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So I think that alone was very important,

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I was born with such should confidence.

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Did you think, I have got to get out of this?

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-Yes.

-And how did you get out of it?

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I had a very important meeting with a neighbour.

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He was well educated, he'd won a scholarship.

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And he gave me a book.

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It was the collected poems of Rupert Brooke.

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And it turned me on to reading. I became voracious to read.

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At the same time, I became voracious to get away,

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so those two things came into one.

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'It is uplifting to think that, despite the poverty and misery,

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'people like Bernard do have happy memories of life in the slums.'

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All around the country in the 1930s, slum dwellers made the best of it,

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and my next guest on Reel History today coped with more than most.

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91-year-old Stan Hardy from Dulwich has come along

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to share his own extraordinary past as a child in the Peckham workhouse.

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He believes people need to know how tough life could be.

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For the first time, Stan is about to see his old life on screen.

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What memories will it bring back for him?

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It brings me back to the terrible conditions

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in which so many people lived.

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Kids scavenging around the streets for, you know...

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Real scavengers. I was probably one of them as well.

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A bit of a shock to be reminded how brutal things were.

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Stan's early life was indeed brutal.

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He had an absent father,

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and his mother was forced to start a job in service when he was newborn.

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There was only one thing for it -

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she took him to the workhouse, and left him there.

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I was carried into

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the Peckham workhouse when I was just two weeks old,

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and my mother left me in the workhouse,

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and I remained in the workhouse for some three years or more.

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Workhouses, commonly known as poorhouses in Scotland,

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date back to the 17th century. They were grim places.

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A last resort for Britain's destitute,

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which offered shelter and employment for those unable to look after themselves.

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Only still photographs remain of the institutions everybody feared.

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They were officially abolished in 1930, but incredibly,

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there were almost 100,000 people still living in the workhouse in 1939,

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and almost 6,000 of these were children like Stan.

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When people became destitute -

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in other words, they couldn't afford to look after themselves,

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they had lost their accommodation,

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there was only one place to go, or one of the only places to go was the workhouse.

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There was certain brutality in the workhouse,

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particularly if you didn't have a parent to keep an eye over you.

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I can remember being bashed around quite a bit,

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and as I was bashed around, I used to grip my hands like that.

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The more they hit me, the harder I did, so I used to make my hands bleed

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because I wasn't going to let them get away with it.

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Stan did return to live with his family in the slums of Brixton,

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and these films take him right back to that place.

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My family was five adults and myself.

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We were in one of these multi-occupied houses,

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and there were about 15 people in our house, with one outdoor toilet,

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which nobody used because they had two savage Alsatian dogs

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who would have eaten us alive if they could run free.

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Hygiene was a tremendous problem, with rats and mice and bugs,

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terrible bugs, these red little things that get into your skin.

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You'd see them coming up the wall, and people used to bash them

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so you see all these blood spots on the wall.

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Figures from the 1920s when Stan was just a kid,

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shows that every year almost 50,000 people died

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as a direct result of their squalid living conditions.

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One of the great killers was TB. 30,000 people died a year with TB.

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My poor brother Jimmy, he died of TB when he was only 18 years of age,

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so I have sad recollections of that.

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The films have reminded 91-year-old Stan of his childhood hardships.

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But has this been a worthwhile experience for him?

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It was really an emotional journey back,

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which I didn't quite expect.

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Because it showed in stark detail how we lived in those days,

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and I have to say that some of the people lived even harsher lives than I did,

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and that is saying something. So it was an emotional journey back.

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We have all got to die sometime,

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and that world will leave with us

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unless it's recorded.

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'Today on Reel History, we are hearing about

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'the appalling conditions people like Stan endured less than three generations ago.

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'Millions of families lived in slum communities in cities across Britain.

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'But despite the squalor, community spirit did endure,

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'as remembered by childhood friends Roger Packer and Brian Davis,

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'who grew up in the St Philips Marsh area of Bristol in the 1940s.'

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Both men knew real poverty.

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Roger's grandfather was an ironworker, seen here at a works outing in 1938.

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Brian was one of ten sons raised by a widowed mother.

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When did you two meet?

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When we were about four or five years of age. We grew up together.

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We have been friends ever since.

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We have got a picture of us when we were at school together.

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Can we point out the suspects?

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That is myself, and that there is Brian.

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And we've been friends ever since.

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This is a photograph of my family in the 1940s.

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My dad died in the '40s,

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and my mother was left to bring up ten boys in this house.

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The Bristol Evening Post came and took a photograph at that time,

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and said, how was she ever going to bring up these ten boys?

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-But she obviously managed it.

-She has done a very good job.

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Roger and Brian are about to be taken on a journey back in time

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to see the sort of life they knew as children.

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But how will they feel now, seeing it as adults?

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Watching the films,

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Roger remembers a strong sense of community despite the hardships.

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I can remember a lot of times like that, with the housing,

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the poor kiddies, the youngsters who didn't have anything at all.

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The little cobbled streets, narrow streets and houses.

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Nobody had no more than the next person.

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You could go out on a night-time,

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and you could just leave your front door open.

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Nobody would pinch anything cos nobody had nothing to pinch.

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And for Roger's friend, Brian,

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these films remind him of his cramped early home life.

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We had these bedrooms to fit 12 every night.

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And so we used to try to fit these people in

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in this bedroom.

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It was done by two double beds in the back room,

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two double beds in the front room, top to tail in both.

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When they were around the fire eating in one room, that was us.

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And ten of us used to get in that room, and we had a big fire

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with a guard going round, and that was the only heating in the house,

0:23:560:24:00

so everybody used to try and get their bit in front of the fire.

0:24:000:24:05

Brian has never forgotten his humble beginnings,

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but he thinks it helped give him the drive to work for a better life.

0:24:130:24:19

There is nothing good about being poor.

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I think somebody once said, it is nothing to be ashamed of,

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but it is nothing to boast about, either.

0:24:240:24:27

One of the things I particularly wanted was not to be poor.

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With her ten boys to bring up single-handedly,

0:24:340:24:37

Brian's mother was at the front of the queue when the clearance of her Bristol slum began.

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We were one of the first, because of our conditions, to move.

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But it was a bit of a shock.

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I mean, the street I lived in had 35 houses up one side,

0:24:510:24:55

35 terraced houses the other, and I could tell you even almost today

0:24:550:24:59

who lived in every one of those houses.

0:24:590:25:01

So we knew everybody.

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And for us to be the first out was quite something of an occasion.

0:25:050:25:09

The 1930 Housing Act gave local authorities power to demolish homes

0:25:090:25:14

unfit human habitation -

0:25:140:25:17

a process known as slum clearance, which occurred nationwide.

0:25:170:25:22

In Leeds, 10,000 homes were demolished.

0:25:220:25:25

In Sheffield, close to 15,000, and in Bristol,

0:25:250:25:28

almost 20,000 people were rehoused, just like Brian's family.

0:25:280:25:32

Sometimes I think we are the blessed generation, because when we left,

0:25:340:25:37

we really could, financially, and job and everything else, go up.

0:25:370:25:42

Whereas it is slightly different now.

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That was one of the nice things about it.

0:25:440:25:47

We always thought we could get better than this. And it was a lovely feeling, that.

0:25:470:25:51

Today, I have been hearing about the awful living conditions,

0:25:540:25:57

the poverty and disease, and the remarkable people like Brian and Roger

0:25:570:26:02

who, against all the odds, survived the slums and thrived.

0:26:020:26:05

But amazingly, some slum dwellers didn't want to leave their homes.

0:26:090:26:14

I'm off to meet housing expert and writer Michael Collins to try to find out why.

0:26:140:26:20

Despite the state of the buildings people lived in,

0:26:200:26:22

there was that sense of community, there was a neighbourhood

0:26:220:26:26

and a culture that had grown organically.

0:26:260:26:29

A lot of people felt that was sacrificed if they moved away or moved to these new places.

0:26:290:26:35

The 1930s saw the clearance of more slums than at any time previously,

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and the building of 700,000 new homes.

0:26:420:26:45

So when you had some of the new homes built,

0:26:510:26:55

a lot of the people that had occupied the slums didn't want to move to the new places,

0:26:550:26:59

and they kind of almost embraced the idea of staying put.

0:26:590:27:03

And there is a quote, that the slum dweller loves his slum too much.

0:27:030:27:08

Ultimately, it was Hitler and the widespread bombing

0:27:190:27:23

of our major cities during the Second World War

0:27:230:27:25

that flattened many slums and left no option but to build new homes.

0:27:250:27:30

It still took until the 1960s, but the arrival of high-rise housing

0:27:300:27:34

finally consigned Dickensian slum conditions to history.

0:27:340:27:39

You may think there's been quite a bit of nostalgia in this programme,

0:27:420:27:46

but this country is full of it.

0:27:460:27:48

Whatever class, background, whatever place we are, we are nostalgic.

0:27:480:27:52

But let's leave that in the past.

0:27:520:27:54

What happened here was that a disgrace of life, the slums, was erased.

0:27:540:27:59

We still have housing problems today, but we recognise that

0:28:020:28:05

decent housing is a basic human need, and that's progress.

0:28:050:28:10

Next time on Reel History, we are hitting the road to Somerset

0:28:130:28:17

for the rise of the motorway in the '60s.

0:28:170:28:20

It was all so very free.

0:28:200:28:22

There was no speed limits,

0:28:220:28:25

so you can see if you could get some speed out of it.

0:28:250:28:28

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:470:28:51

Email: [email protected]

0:28:510:28:54

Melvyn Bragg, accompanied by a vintage mobile cinema, travels across the country to show incredible footage preserved by the British Film Institute and other national and regional film archives, and tell the history of modern Britain.

This episode comes from Columbia Road in the East End of London and looks back to the 1930s, a time when millions of people across Britain lived in the squalor of urban slums.

Two cousins, Pat and Carole, come face to face with their grandfather, who was captured in a remarkable 1935 film of Stepney tenement slums. Childhood friends Roger Packer and Brian Davies talk about the sense of community which existed amongst the slum dwellers, and Stan Hardy shares his incredible story about his years in the workhouse as a young boy.


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