Here Comes Good Health! is a new exhibit at Wellcome Collection about the health propaganda films made by Bermondsey Borough Council in the 1920s and 1930s. In their attempt to create healthy lives for Bermondsey’s residents, the borough’s health department touched on subjects well beyond germs and medicine. Patricia Dark looks at a film that’s all about what you wear.
The Wellcome Films YouTube page describes Health and Clothing (1928), one of the Bermondsey Borough Council public health films, as ‘mildly diverting'; at first glance, from more than 80 years’ distance, it seems a generous description. It opens with shots of kittens and of a baby in the arms of a district nurse: as the caption notes, animal babies are born dressed and human babies are born naked. Ponderous demonstrations of Tudor and Victorian women’s fashions follow, then a hapless toddler boy is stripped – twice – so his summer and winter clothes can be weighed and compared. Later scenes point out the properties of healthful clothing: light, warm, absorbent, loose, easily washed, non-flammable, and weatherproof. Sheep being shorn reinforce the point that wool is the fibre of choice. Finally, the film extols the virtues of modern fashion: healthy, cheap, and easy to make at home.
It leaves modern viewers with more questions than answers. Why is Health and Clothing so overwhelmingly feminine? What does clothing have to do with health? Why would the public health department advocate fashion? The answer lies in the background to the films: Bermondsey itself, and the conditions in which many viewers lived. Clothing and cleanliness, like almost all aspects of household life, was a feminine concern. Even for women who worked outside the home, keeping a clean, tidy, respectable house was a priority. The film’s particular stress on light, simple, easy-to-care-for clothing – especially for small children – would resonate with its audience.
Bermondsey’s housing stock conspired against the borough’s housewives, even years after Health and Clothing was released: much of it was wretchedly overcrowded and appallingly unsanitary. A Daily Express reporter found a family of seven living in one room eight feet square in 1924: a passage two and a half feet wide provided space to dry washing. Howard Marshall of the Daily Telegraph visited Cherry Gardens Pier in 1933: he found 4 families – 18 people in total – living in five rooms, with one tap between them. In 1939, the News Chronicle reported that Wolesey Buildings provided a single sink for 4 families – up to 30 people – that provided each family’s cooking, bathing, and washing water. Wolesey Buildings did have a communal washhouse, but it was derelict. Housewives there, as elsewhere in the borough, either did laundry in their tiny, overcrowded flats or spent more money to send it out to a laundry.
In these conditions, as the Daily Express put it, “[c]leanliness [was] utterly impossible; decency [was] utterly damned”. Dirty clothing irritated skin and provided perfect breeding grounds for parasites like body lice, which transmitted deadly diseases like typhus. But it was also demoralising – a tangible sign of the all-too-often futile struggle of the “honest…ambitious, God-fearing” people of Bermondsey against misery and despair. For the reformers of the Bermondsey Borough Council, clothing was a symbol: of the decent conditions everyone deserved to live in, and of the dignity and decency of the working class.
Snide stereotypes and cheap jibes were simply wrong – given the opportunity, the residents of Bermondsey took as much pride in their surroundings as more prosperous Londoners, and worked harder to beautify their homes and themselves. In 1930, an Evening Standard article called Bermondsey “[t]he most optimistic place in London”; alongside the riot of flowers in windowboxes and front gardens, the reporter singled out the “factory girls…” who “wore their trim little coats and their close-fitting frocks with what the modistes call ‘an air’.” Peter Ritchie Calder of the Daily Herald visited the Vauban estate – once one of the worst slum areas in the borough – in 1934. His report fairly glows with cleanliness – a young mother wearing a “spick-and span overall” hanging out “spotless” laundry on the drying-green, an elderly lady’s white lace curtains – and the power of pride, belonging, and the “moral pressure” of respectability.
Health and Clothing, then, is more than a mildly diverting film, or even a didactic one. At its heart, it is a celebration of the modern: modern dress, modern ideas, and a modern Bermondsey that its residents can be proud of.
Dr Patricia Dark is Local History Library and Archives Manager at the Local History Library, Southwark Culture.
The Bermondsey Borough Council films have been recently digitally remastered with material preserved by the British Film Institute and form part of Here Comes Good Health!, an exhibit running at Wellcome Collection from 22 February to 3 June 2012 together with other health educational materials. The films and photographs in the display have been supplied courtesy of Southwark Local History Library and Archive. For more details contact Southwark Local History Library and Archive, 211 Borough High Street, London, SE1 1JA. T: 020 7525 0232 E: firstname.lastname@example.org.