The Secret History of Builders

Booth poverty map

The BBC’s new documentary series The Secret History of Our Streets is a fascinating watch for anyone who is interested in the social history and the domestic architecture of London. But the series (which screens on Wednesdays at 9pm on BBC2) is also a must-see for builders and anyone interested in the way that we have renovated and altered our homes over the years.

The programmes take Charles Booth’s famous poverty maps of London as their starting point, delving into the history that is to be had on the streets of areas such as Deptford and Camberwell. The last episode on Camberwell Grove was a wonderful lesson in how trends change. The post-war years showed everyone ripping out fireplaces, boarding over panelled doors and putting false ceilings or plaster over decorative cornices.

Skips now sit outside these properties as new owners tear out all the 1960s ‘modernisation’ in favour of a return to the Georgian glory of the stunning buildings on the Grove. Fashion, it seems, is a boon for the building trade. Coloured bathroom suites seem to be making a bit of a comeback, so bathroom fitters should prepare for tearing this out again in a decade or so.

Tonight’s episode is about the Caledonian Road (where I lived when I first moved to London), which runs north from King’s Cross for over one mile. A book on the series is now available.

1 Comment

  1. Bel Mooney wrote compellingly about this recently. As a designer, I know it's perfectly possible to modernise while respecting the age and architectural integrity of a property but there's a childish preoccupation, these days with novelty, fashion and change even though the only decent buildings we have now are the ones previous generations put up for us.

    Everyone, it seems, is into "modernising" old houses and the seriously minted middle classes are running amok around our architectural heritage. My neighbours are a perfect example of just how much damage loadsa money can do to a nice old house. They obviously read somewhere that duck egg blue kitchens and "open plan" are all the rage and now the lovely old brick extension with its graceful casements and rich quarry tiles are rotting in a landfill somewhere along with the floorboards and parliament doors and it's only a matter of time until they start on the sash windows. Why? If you want this stuff buy a new build. Don't buy a Victorian town house and then vulgarise it.

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