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The claim that Bermondsey might ‘be entitled in a few years to be regarded as one of Britain’s health resorts’ might seem pretty far-fetched. That claim made in 1928 – when the borough was one of London’s poorest and, in the words of the same speaker, ‘one huge slum’ – seems ludicrous.

Bermondsey: aerial view, 1926

Bermondsey: aerial view, 1926

But that was the ambition of Bermondsey’s new Labour council and its pioneering officials. And that was the goal of Alfred Salter – constituency MP, borough councillor and popular local GP – who articulated the dream.

Alfred Salter

Ada Salter

Salter, with the indispensable support and industry of his wife Ada, was the driving force behind what became known as Bermondsey’s Revolution. He and his Labour colleagues believed ‘with Ruskin that “there is no wealth but life.”’

The means to defend, extend and enhance life that the Council mobilised were varied.  We’ll look at those too but this entry focuses on one area in which Bermondsey can claim to be unique – the design and scope of what was called (unashamedly in those days) its propaganda for health.

The campaign began in 1924 with a report by the borough’s then Medical Officer of Health, Dr King Brown, unpromisingly entitled, ‘Education of the Public in Hygiene’.   Behind the bureaucratese lay a missionary zeal shared with the Council leadership to improve working-class lives and conditions so systematically undermined by ‘Capitalism and Landlordism’.

The Council embraced the report and King Brown’s successor, Donald Connan, pioneered a breadth and range of public health education unequalled in the country.  The knowledge that so much ill health was preventable – even in the cruel circumstances prevailing in Bermondsey – fuelled the campaign.

TB, rickets, rheumatism, heart disease, venereal disease, diabetes and a range of infectious and industrial diseases were targeted.   Improved lighting and ventilation in homes were encouraged.   Self-help measures around diet and personal cleanliness were powerfully advocated.

The first school lecture was given in February 1925.  There were 440 further by 1933.  School certificates in hygiene were first awarded in 1930 and extended to a practical and written Diploma in Home Nursing in 1933.

Talks were given to any and every local group or organisation that would take them and leaflets produced on a range of subjects – 30 different pamphlets were in circulation before the war.  ‘Electric signs’ and advertisements were also employed.

Bermondsey health poster

But ‘from the start it was recognised,’ states Dr Connan, ‘that the scheme could not be complete without street preaching and, to conform with the general plan, this had to be illustrated by lantern slides and films’.

Bermondsey health show

The campaign’s intention to reach local people and the inventiveness of that approach is best seen in the ‘cinemotor’ vans that the council designed and built to show films in the streets and open spaces.  Three customised vehicles were in use by 1939, taking their electricity supply from street lamps modified for the purpose.  (There is an imagination at work here rooted in realities which couldn’t be more prosaic yet more pressing.)

Bermondsey cinema show

As the programme developed and its resources grew, a successful pattern emerged.   Dr Connan recounts: ‘Our usual procedure with an audience is to give a short talk illustrated by lantern slides, then show a film, invite discussion, and finally give a pamphlet on the same subject’.

What his formal language doesn’t capture is the excitement that these shows could generate at a time when so much of life was lived on the streets.  Naturally children were the most enthusiastic – shouting out or singing the captions to the slides and silent movies – but they helped to gather a crowd and in the end as many as 100 to 250 people might gather to watch.

The shows took place generally in the spring and autumn as the films couldn’t be seen in the brighter days of summer.  Not that the British weather always cooperated: in 1927 only 19 outdoors showings were possible; in the warmer, drier year of 1930, there were 70.

Most films were made and shot in the borough – adding to the sense of local identity and pride that the Council promoted so successfully, crafted and created by council employees, notably Connan himself, Mr Bush, the Chief Administrative Officer and Mr Lumley, its Technical Officer and Radiographer.  (These unsung heroes of municipalism deserve their name-check.) The Direct Labour Department made the sets.   Sound was added as the talkies arrived.

By 1938, the Council had a catalogue of 33 films of which 20 had been made by the borough.  When the scheme ended, a total of 30 films had been produced locally of which 16 survive.

Where there's life AWhere there's life BWhere there's life C

Some advertised the public health services and achievements of the council.  Others such as Where There’s Life, There’s Soap (1933) and The Empty Bed (a stark warning of the risks of not immunising against diphtheria, made in 1937) conveyed straightforward advice on healthy living and disease prevention.

The Empty Bed AThe Empty Bed BThe Empty Bed C

If the films were didactic, they were generally gently so – advisory rather than admonishing.  The 1930 film, Oppin, was unusual in being more direct in its criticism of the exploitative conditions prevailing in the Kent hop fields where many East Enders traditionally worked in the late summer.

If – to modern eyes – they appear guileless, that was deliberate.  For Connan:

The success of the films depends upon the plot which must be devised in such a way as to ensure a simple continuity of ideas throughout. The principle followed in preparing the pictures has been to make them self-explanatory…To enforce the lesson the greatest care has been given to subtitles. These must be simple and accurate, and while conveying a considerable amount of information, they must be concise and pointed.

If this seems patronising, remember that Bermondsey’s revolution was proudly home-grown and, literally in this case, won in the streets.  Its architects – whether middle-class Christian socialists such as the Salters, dedicated professionals such as Donald Connan or the working-class rank and file of Bermondsey Labour Party – wanted life and a fuller life for their people.

By the late thirties, they could look back on a record of solid achievement – a quantifiable improvement in all the key indices of health and a more intangible, qualitative shift in Bermondsey’s sense of itself and the expectations of its people.

There were wider social changes in this period, of course, but the advocacy of reforming local councils and the practical measures they implemented were a part of that change.

By 1935, Connan could already look back on one notable improvement in people’s circumstances.  He began by noting ‘a high degree of personal cleanliness is almost universal’.  But he went on to say that:

Possibly the most striking change is that which has taken place in the clothing of women and girls. Examples of medieval armour formerly worn are now rarely to be seen, and silk and artificial silk garments are almost as common in Wolseley Buildings [a Bermondsey tenement block] as they are reported to be in Berkeley Square.

Perhaps the Council’s film, Health and Clothing, made in 1928, played its own small part in this.

Health and Clothing AHealth and Clothing BHealth and Clothing C


The original images used here and much supporting archival information will be found in the Southwark Local History Library which anyone interested in learning more of Bermondsey’s past should visit. 

A major source for further information of Bermondsey’s public health campaigning is the Wellcome Trust’s online exhibition Here Comes Good Health!   You can view some of the films there and see additional photography.   Images above are taken from their site under the Creative Commons attribution.

Fenner Brockway’s Bermondsey Story: the Life of Alfred Salter (1949) is the best text on ‘Bermondsey’s Revolution’.  D.M. Connan, A History of the Public Health Department in Bermondsey (1935) provides the insider’s view and the direct quotes above. See also Bullman, Hegarty and Hill, The Secret History of our Streets (2012) for additional information on Bermondsey history.

Elizabeth Lebas’ book, Forgotten Futures: British Municipal Cinema, 1920-1980 (2011) contains a chapter – ‘When Every Street Became a Cinema’ – on Bermondsey.