Tag Archives: Bermondsey

Soundtracking the past

Bermondsey Borough Council’s innovative interwar public health work is on display in our ‘Here Comes Good Health’ exhibition. But what do these films look like to young people today? Alexander Green joined the Cuming Museum’s Youth Panel as they set out to create a new soundtrack to one of Bermondsey’s silent films.

One Friday lunchtime during February half-term I found myself anxiously waiting with Wellcome Trust colleagues from the Youth Programme and Wellcome Library in Walworth town hall, Southwark. In collaboration with the Cuming Museum, we had organised an open workshop for young people to come along and create a new soundtrack for one of the Wellcome Library’s newly acquired and digitised health education films made by Bermondsey Borough Council. We were confident that a few of the regular members of the Cuming Museum’s Youth Panel would give up a day of their holidays, but were still unsure exactly how the day was going to come together.

The Bermondsey films were produced in the 1920s and 1930s by Bermondsey Borough Council’s Public Health Department. Shown to thousands of people across the borough for over 15 years, the films aimed to educate the public about the importance of health and hygiene and encourage uptake of medical services and treatments. Here Comes Good Health!, a display about the health education efforts of the borough is currently running in Wellcome Collection until 3 June 2012.

We began the day by investigating the context in which the Bermondsey films were produced. Reading through original sources, including leaflets and newspaper clippings provided by Southwark Local History Library, we developed a bleak view of conditions in Bermondsey at the time. One report spoke of an “all-night war with rats”, while others described terrible conditions of overcrowding with multiple families sharing the same room. We then watched the film Some Activities Of Bermondsey Borough Council and discussed the council’s work to try to improve health; how new medical facilities were developed for the people and how the borough’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr D M Connan, saw education as central to the improvement of  health.

While watching the films we talked about how they can seem quite distant from our lives today. Not only do they present a very different vision of urban life to the one we are familiar with, but the modes and conventions of representation in the films distance us. To a modern audience the pacing seems slow, the intertitles remain on the screen for a long time and – obviously for this period in film history – there is no colour or sound. Watching the films in a silent darkened room can often be quite a sombre experience. However, these films were never originally shown in silence; the film programme was introduced by a member of the Public Health Department and while the film was rolling the audience was free to ask questions, converse or interject. Contemporary reports even describe children making up tunes  to accompany the intertitles! The films were also presented in informal settings, not just in school halls and cinemas. Projected on the back of the touring cinemotor vans they were shown all across the borough, from courtyards and street corners to playgrounds. In the late 1930s soundtracks were created for some of the Bermondsey films using a specially purchased gramophone recorder; however, these have now been lost.

With this in mind, the Youth Panel decided they would create a similarly lively atmosphere in their soundtrack. They devised a concept around showing the film to a contemporary group of students, questioning and reacting in the same way schoolchildren might have done when the films were originally shown. The film we were working with was Where There’s Life There’s Soap. Aimed at a younger audience, the film combines comic moments, such as a man with a boil bigger than a chicken egg, with shots of animals from London Zoo washing to illustrate the importance of personal hygiene and cleanliness. In their soundtrack the Youth Panel worked to bring out these comic elements and recapture some of the lively atmosphere that would have characterised the film’s reception.

Throughout the day the Youth Panel members displayed an amazing level of energy, focus and engagement. Even with this level of commitment, it was still an ambitious project to complete in a day. The original film had a running time of 18 minutes but we felt that was too long for our purposes. We created a special short, cut-down version of the film which had a running time of around 5 minutes, while still retaining much of the comedy of the original. Despite this, after checking the time while recording, we only had 45 minutes to go with a third of the scenes left to cover! Fortunately, thanks to a brilliant final effort, and a last-minute deadline extension, we managed to wrap up just in time, having produced an interesting and engaging soundtrack that the Youth Panel members can be justifiably proud of.

The Youth Panel members were Toyin Ayedun, Rose Stephens, Tejiri Cousin, Karen Serwaya Gyebi-Ababio and Fitzroy Ugorji.

Elvie Thompson runs the Cuming Museum’s Youth Panel; they meet at the museum on alternate Saturdays. Aimed at young people based in Southwark and aged 13 to 19 years, anyone who is interested in meeting new people and learning new skills should get in touch on 020 7525 2332.

Stanley Green is a graduate trainee at the Wellcome Trust. Here Comes Good Health is on display at Wellcome Collection until 3 June.

Here Comes Good Health: Health and Clothing

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: local.history.library@southwark.gov.uk.

Find out more about the Wellcome Library’s Moving Image and Sound Collection by searching our digitised film, video and audio or visiting the Wellcome Film YouTube channel.

Here Comes Good Health: The Empty Bed

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. For the residents of Bermondsey, diphtheria posed a serious threat, but one which could be guarded against by immunisation. Elizabeth Lebas writes about a campaign that also touched on issues of personal freedom and entitlement.

The Empty Bed was made towards the end of Bermondsey’s Borough Council’s health propaganda campaign programme and is testimony to the Public Health Department’s fascination with filmmaking and its continuing involvement in the public health issues of the day, in this film immunisation against diphtheria. The campaigns against tuberculosis and diphtheria were quite different in character, although both emphasized the importance of personal responsibility for one’s own and one’s children’s health and the right to universal entitlement to treatment and immunisation. Both were communicable diseases related to poverty and poor living conditions. The difference is that in 1937, when the film was made, diphtheria could be controlled by testing to see whether children could contract diphtheria (the Schick test – explained in a 1932 film now lost, Bermondsey’s Germs) and by inoculation against the diphtheria bacillus. Tuberculosis had then no such ‘cure’ and so nation-wide the public health authorities were all the more anxious to eradicate diphtheria.  However, although the film does not directly address this issue, focusing instead on the hapless ‘Mrs. Smith’, parents were resistant to having their children inoculated with a toxoid and the number of films made by other public health authorities encouraging voluntary immunisation (Birmingham made Diphtheria, Prevention is better than Cure (1935) which shows babies being inoculated on an industrial scale) is a covert recognition of that resistance which also related to the  issues of personal freedom and doubts about the necessity of vaccination.

The film was made by two doctors: Dr. King Brown, former Medical officer of Health (MoH) for Bermondsey and with Dr. Salter, originator of the Department’s film project when in 1922 he produced School in the Sun for the Council. (This film is about the sunlight treatment available to tubercular children at a sanatorium in Switzerland run by Dr. Rollier, a leading light in the European anti-tuberculosis movement regularly visited by members of the Public Health Department.) By 1924 Dr. King Brown had ceased to be MoH and he disappears from the Bermondsey archives until this cinematic project with Dr. Guy Bousfield, director of laboratories  for the neighbouring borough of Camberwell.  In the summer of 2011 the Southwark’s Local History Library received a letter from Dr. Bousfield’s grandson in which he explains in some detail incidents and characters in the making of The Empty Bed; apparently the filmmakers either played themselves or their close friends – Dr. King Brown played Dr. Salter while the surgeon and his female nurse assistant are, according to the letter’s sender, actually Dr. Bousfield and his wife.

The film is both a moral tale and a documentary: harsh things happen to those who do not hear the immunisation message. At the same time it explains clearly and accurately the function and procedure of immunisation and even hints of its transformative qualities. As the happy girls and mother skipping out of the immunisation clinic demonstrate, vaccination is about taking control of one’s health.  This message, first conveyed by Bermondsey’s Public Health Department,  is still central to public and personal health today.

Elizabeth Lebas is the writer of Forgotten Futures: British Municipal Cinema 1920-1980 which surveys municipal film, a tool for urban and social reform in twentieth century Britain. A chapter is devoted to the work of Bermondsey Borough Council, “When Every Street Became a Cinema”.

The 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: local.history.library@southwark.gov.uk.

Find out more about the Wellcome Library’s Moving Image and Sound Collection by searching our digitised film, video and audio or visiting the Wellcome Film YouTube channel.

Here Comes Good Health!

Today sees the opening of Here Comes Good Health, a new exhibit at Wellcome Collection about the health propaganda films made by Bermondsey Borough Council in the 1920s and 1930s. Above, you can watch one of the films on display: Some Activities of Bermondsey Borough Council (1931). Angela Saward tells us more about the work of a pioneering London council.

This film was made as a comprehensive cinematic catalogue of the public health and social welfare efforts of the London borough of Bermondsey, situated to the South East of the city. Selected films were back-projected from the rear of a cinemotor van (in the first instance a converted disinfection van) as well as other public locations such as schools, clubs and other institutions. The cinemotor appears at the end of the film. Evidence suggests that their reception was at times rowdy: the vans were gaily painted and children would cheer at each slide.

The catchy intertitles encouraged audience participation; Where there’s life, there’s soap (1933) was written in poetic doggerel and was all about the benefits of good versus bad personal hygiene. According to the annual Ministry of Health report for Bermondsey of 1937, the films held by the borough had an audience of 42 464 people that year (the 1931 census put the total population at 111 000 inhabitants). The same films were shown repeatedly and became a familiar fixture to many local people.

Health propaganda in terms of education and general awareness was considered to be key in moderating bad and promoting good health. It could be a matter of choosing life over death and people needed to actively engage with the available health prevention measures.

Evidence from an intertitle in the film suggests that the death rate reduced from 21 people per 1000 to 13 within a 30 year period. In fact, after 1911, the trend in England & Wales was for a reduction in mortality rates overall Mortality rates in 2001 were very similar to those of the 1930s even taking account of boundary changes (Bermondsey is now part of Southwark), and population numbers dropping after the Second World War.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly which initiative had the greatest impact between 1920 and 1939, the hey-day of Bermondsey’s civic activity as there was such a panoply of universal free services available to the local population. At a time when universal healthcare was exceptional, Bermondsey offered the hard-working population engaged in its dockyards and factories  maternity welfare, dental surgeries, a solarium (artificial sunlight treatment), a tuberculosis dispensary and a foot clinic. These are all shown in session in the film. Other amenities such as regular refuse collection are presented as well as an electricity showroom which extolled the virtues of ‘clean’ energy with the demonstration of vacuum cleaners and electric cookers available for hire.

This genre of film-making is explored in greater depth by Elizabeth Lebas in her book which surveys municipal film, Forgotten Futures: British Municipal Cinema 1920-1980. There is a chapter devoted to Bermondsey, “When Every Street Became a Cinema”. Lebas describes  the  prevailing ideology as “missionary as well as socialist”; the Public Health Department was staffed by social visionaries and also very ‘hands-on’ men and women. Indeed, rather than hire a professional, commercial organisation to script and shoot, resident radiographer, Mr C. F. Lumley took the role of cameraman in a number of films. (A compilation of films of a more amateur nature attributed to him shows important events of 1937 and 1938.)

The films were, at least originally, silent and have been edited together using simple, no frills editing. Illustrative scenes are intercut with explanatory intertitles in between. The intertitles are onscreen for a long time; perhaps to encourage debate and discussion but also, perhaps due to lower literacy levels of the time.

The films have been recently digitally remastered with material preserved by the British Film Institute. The films form part of the plethora of health educational materials across a selection of media; illuminated ‘propaganda tables’, electric signs flashing warnings, leaflets and pamphlets all used in the service of the Public Health Department of the borough. A selection of these, together with the four films highlighted in this series, will be running at Wellcome Collection from 22 February to 3 June 2012.

Angela Saward is Curator, Moving Image & Sound, Wellcome Film

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: local.history.library@southwark.gov.uk

You can learn about the Wellcome Film project on the Wellcome Library website . If you would like to make use of this archive footage in your own projects, please visit the Wellcome Library catalogue to download the original files, which are distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales licence.