The Poet’s Bridge in Rotherhithe

by Wes White, Library Development Officer

On Tuesday 5 December, the footbridge over Salter Road was named ‘The Poet’s Bridge’ in a short ceremony which also involved the unveiling of twin weathering steel plaques at its centre. The specific poet for whom the bridge has been named is David Jones, whose epic war poem ‘In Parenthesis’ was described by TS Eliot as “a work of genius” and by WH Auden as “a masterpiece”. It is a quote from this poem that now decorates the bridge:

“The returning sun climbed over the hill, to lessen the shadows of small and great things”

Jones was a visual artist as well as a wordsmith. These words are rendered in the shape of Jones’ calligraphic script and accompanied by a reproduction of his woodcut ‘Holy Ghost as Dove’. The panels were designed by the artist Parm Rai and finished at the workshop in Deptford. The work was funded by Southwark Council through the Bermondsey and Rotherhithe community council.

Plaque with shadows

The local area is significant in Jones’ life and in his writing. A section in his other great written work, ‘The Anathemata’, is titled ‘REDRIFF’; and this features the voice of Eb Bradshaw. In real life Eb was Jones’ grandfather – he was parish clerk of St Mary the Virgin in Rotherhithe, and a maker of masts and sails in the Surrey Docks. Furthermore, a character in ‘In Parenthesis’ is given no name but simply referred to as ‘the man from Rotherhithe’. Before the naming ceremony, Anne Price of the David Jones Society speculated that this character might stand for the author himself. It is therefore very appropriate that David Jones should be commemorated here.

The new name for the bridge, though, can also stand for all poets, and the bridge already has a lyrical history going back to the start of this millennium. Every spring half term for the last seventeen years, the staff of the nearby Rotherhithe Primary School have taken to the bridge to read poems aloud. Headmaster Mickey Kelly – who conceived of and organised the naming of ‘Poet’s Bridge’ with assistance from the ‘Cleaner, Greener, Safer’ fund – describes “letting the words hang in the Rotherhithe air”.

The lines quoted from ‘In Parenthesis’ refer to the minutes before the ‘zero hour’ of the battle of the Somme – the moment when the whistle would trigger the attack in the battle of the Somme – when “the world falls apart at last to siren screech”, as the poem has it. Whilst harking forever back to this moment, the words find new meaning on the bridge, where light shines through the stencilled iron and casts shadows where we walk.

Sign, looking over bridge

Southwark’s Public Health Pioneers part 2: The Peckham Experiment

In part 1 of this post Southwark’s Archivist, Patricia Dark discussed the state of the borough’s health in the interwar period and introduced the work of Bermondsey’s public health pioneers. In part 2 we’ll discover what was going on at that time in the south of the borough.

Peckham had its own Pioneer – the Pioneer Health Centre, better known as the Peckham Experiment. It was the brainchild of two doctors, George Scott Williamson and Innes Pearce. Both were essentially academic physicians, and the Experiment grew out of their work on thyroid disease in the early part of the 20th century. For Williamson, “health” was something that existed separate from and in opposition to illness – understanding what it was and how to maximise it was simply impossible only studying pathology. Pearce’s work in an infant welfare centre in Stepney convinced her that any study of health – and any grassroots effort to improve health – had to be informed by, and grounded in, the family.

The initial phase of the Experiment began in 1926, in a house in Queen’s Road, Peckham: Pearce and Williamson worked with a group of birth control campaigners to measure whether access to health information would usefully empower people to improve their and their families’ health. It was a private members’ club, where – uniquely – the basic unit of membership was the family, not the individual. Members had access to medical workups, pre and postnatal care, and other specialist clinics, as well as a children’s nursery, space to socialize, and advice and help with other problems.

This initial phase ended in 1930, as it became clear that health information wasn’t enough to make people healthy – they had to have access to healthy, health-promoting environments. While the experiment could not reach into individual homes, it could influence members’ free time. Fundraising and design for a place where members could meet their physical, social, and mental health needs began, and the new centre opened in 1936.

The new centre operated on the same lines as the old – a private members’ club, whose basic unit of membership was the family; “family” including the partners of adult children, as Pearce and Williamson viewed premarital counselling as a crucial part of the process of creating a new family. The fee was a shilling a week per family and an annual health overhaul for each family member.

The health overhaul was crucial, both to collect data for the experiment and to inform and empower users. Centre staff took a detailed medical history, physical examination, and a full set of laboratory tests, before a one-on-one consultation; a member of medical staff explained the results and provided information on any appropriate diagnoses and potential treatments. However, although the Pioneer offered referrals, it didn’t treat members; autonomy of the individual over their own life was both a paramount value of the staff and a cornerstone of the experimental design. Someone who did not want to seek treatment for a problem – or who had a problem for which there was no current treatment – would receive information and support to help live with it.

The health centre’s building was built between 1933 and 1935 by Sir Evan Owan Williams, the engineer famed for Manchester’s Daily Express building. It was built using modern structural techniques which allowed a maximal amount of open space; for the most part, the centre was open-plan. This allowed families to separate and engage in different activities, while (for instance) parents could still monitor their children without hovering – it also allowed staff to unobtrusively observe members. As the experiment progressed, however, the open-plan design helped create a community – one where adults supervised, guided, and admonished any child, and children could interact and learn from a much wider and more varied group of adults than their own nuclear families.

PC00739

The new centre in St Mary’s Road

The heart of the building was a swimming pool with a glazed roof. The centre’s café was to the side of the pool, separated from it by a wall with lots of windows. This gave mothers a place to chat – and provide informal support to each other – while keeping an eye on their children. There was also a gymnasium with a variety of apparatus: these were the two most appealing places for children in the building, but on opening they were allowed to use neither unsupervised – and their resulting frustration caused havoc in the newly-opened building. One member of staff, Lucy Crocker, discovered the solution – to allow children unsupervised use of these treasured places, provided they obtained signed permission from a staff member who was familiar with their abilities. This gave the researchers a chance to view them in their natural environment, as it were – they found that, not only did older children tend to watch out for younger ones, but more surprisingly, most children quickly found their own level of skill, and instinctively acted so they wouldn’t hurt themselves.

While sports and physical activities were a key part of the centre’s offering, it also offered space for reading and study, including a library, and space for a variety of classes and cultural opportunities. Crucially, staff did not plan and organise classes – that was the sole responsibility of members. However, staff would find space, tools, and materials for any group of members who wanted to learn, teach, or practice a skill, run an event, or hold a class. The one iron-clad rule was that nobody could claim space in the building for their private or group use without getting consent from other members.

To us, the Pioneer Health Centre seems like a bigger brother to a leisure centre: members could join exercise classes, or competitive leagues in sports and games like badminton, darts, and snooker. But the reality was that for many member families, the centre became an extension of their own homes: a place to hold parties, entertain friends, and even find a spouse! Knowledge and skills were passed between families and generations: fathers often used woodworking classes and clubs to make Christmas presents or hone DIY skills, and there were a variety of sewing circles to help new mothers clothe their babies as cost-effectively as possible – sharing child-rearing advice in the process.

The Centre’s heyday was the decade before the Second World War. Concerned at member families’ lack of access to high-quality nourishing food, the centre bought a farm in Bromley. Its small dairy herd, poultry farm, and arable fields provided organic milk, eggs, and produce at affordable prices: Williamson and Pearce were founder-members of the Soil Association. The farm also provided a place for members to work in the open, and space for camping. The centre also ran a school that attempted to apply the egalitarian, autonomous philosophy of the centre into practice in the realm of education.

However, the outbreak of war – and especially the beginning of the Blitz toward the end of 1940 – brought the centre’s life to a screeching halt. The farm was requisitioned by the RAF, and the centre was closed, as the very glass-heavy construction was both dangerous during an air-raid and difficult to black out. Although it reopened at the end of the war in 1945, it closed again, permanently, in 1950. Partly, this was due to financial problems – Peckham had been heavily bombed, and the building was in dire need of repair and equipment, leaving little money to run activities or recruit staff. Changes in the local population also didn’t help: Peckham had been heavily bombed, and the resulting displacement meant that many long-standing, active member families no longer lived in the area, while the population that now did was less able to spare the money for dues.

After the creation of the NHS in 1948, the centre petitioned unsuccessfully for central government funding. From Whitehall’s point of view, the centre was not free at point of service, and did not have an “open door” policy. On the centre’s side, the NHS was concerned only with the treatment of disease, not the cultivation of health, and the autonomous nature of the centre did not mesh well with the top-down bureaucracy of the NHS. Some members felt that the government felt threatened by a group of people who could organize and run such a large undertaking – especially one geared to personal autonomy and self-help – without the need for leadership.

However, the centre did have an impact. In part, that impact was shown by one shocking statistic: the annual health overhauls showed that only 10% of the membership were genuinely healthy. 30% of members had at least one illness, while the health of another 60% was impaired to some degree by symptoms of illness – often symptoms they didn’t realise they had.

This suggests that it is possible to function – even function well – in daily life when not completely healthy (or even unhealthy). However, the atmosphere of the centre – one where each individual’s right to make decisions about their own life was paramount, and where those choices were respected and validated – may well have helped people remain active and involved in their communities. Moreover, the sheer depth and breadth of activities available, and the support members had from staff and other members to access them, ensured that as many members as possible could stay active and involved – and therefore healthy. These are lessons that modern public health officials may do well to remember.

Southwark’s Public Health Pioneers part 1: Bermondsey

by Archivist Patricia Dark

Since the passage of the Health and Social Care Act 2012, public health has been a core function of local councils like Southwark. As Professor Kevin Fenton, Southwark’s Director of Health and Wellbeing, told the Spring 2017 edition of Southwark Life, this means that “…local councils have had responsibility for helping to improve the health and wellbeing of local people… not only through commissioning health services but also taking every opportunity to promote health through work with schools, housing, transport and many other areas.”

The basic idea behind this approach is to make sure that public health efforts reflect a local area’s specific concerns and priorities. A “one size fits all” solution doesn’t work for health – different communities have different levels of education, different cultural backgrounds, and even different patterns of disease. Public health awareness needs to be tailored to local cultural expectations, focus on the issues that are most likely to be harmful, and provided in language that everyone can understand. Very often, local authorities are best placed to adapt to local conditions, tailor messages to local cultures, and to serve local needs.

Two realisations underpin this shift toward joined-up, locally-based public health: first, that it’s simply cheaper and easier to keep people healthy than it is to make them healthy once they are sick, and second, health is more than not being sick. The preamble to the constitution of the World Health Organisation, which was ratified in 1946, defines health as “…a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Someone who has a chronic illness or disability who can continue doing the things they enjoy – who is able to have a full, fulfilling life – is likely to be happier, and mentally and emotionally healthier, than someone who cannot; conversely, someone who is not sick or infirm, but is unable to do the things they enjoy – for instance, because they lack transportation, high-quality housing, or easily accessible leisure facilities – is unlikely to be able to have a full, fulfilling life, and is therefore more likely to be in poor health.

So what does that have to do with heritage? As strange as it may sound, quite a lot! This new local focus also looks back: to the interwar period and some really pioneering work done in Southwark to improve the health of local communities. To understand how radical interwar public health in Southwark was, we need to look at what living conditions were like, and how they affected public health.

Historically, many areas of the modern borough of Southwark – including Bermondsey, Rotherhithe, Walworth, Camberwell, and Peckham – had grossly overcrowded housing that was in poor condition. During the industrialisation of the Victorian era, swathes of existing housing stock was demolished to make way for factories or transport infrastructure, notably railways; if it was replaced (often it wasn’t), it was by cramming new houses into front or back gardens, or spaces that had previously been stables. Beyond that, a housing crash in the early 20th century ensured that new housing was in short supply. To raise money, both landlords and tenants divided and sub-divided what began as single-family homes, splitting them into flats, then single rooms.

Dixs Court and Sultan Street

Sultan Street and Dix’s Court in the 1930s

This meant that most of what’s now Southwark was vastly more crowded than even today. In 1901, for instance, the population density of the metropolitan borough of Bermondsey was 97.62 people per acre – in 2012, the population density of London as a whole was 4 and a half times less than that, at 21.39 people per acre. In 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, 15 million Britons – fully 39% of the country’s population – lived as families in less than 1 room. In the worst cases multiple families – had one room to eat, sleep, and live in. Entire streets were filled with rows of badly-ventilated, poorly-lit “back-to-back” houses off dead-end courts, with little space for children to play, adults to get air, or even to dry laundry. There was no privacy, and little peace.

Damp and dilapidation added to the problem. The most populated areas of Southwark are close to the river, in the Thames floodplain: until the creation of the Thames Barrier in the early 1980s, storms and tides caused regular Thames floods. Houses lacked damp-proofing, and in Bermondsey – most of which was below mean high tide level – foundations were constantly wet. This meant that many houses, most of which had lathe-and-plaster interiors, had enormous damp problems.

Damp problems were made worse by the general disrepair of housing stock. At the outbreak of the First World War, three-quarters of the country lived in privately rented housing, so, just like today, rogue and negligent landlords were a problem: in some cases, a landlord might not even know they owned a property. Lack of building supplies, skilled tradesmen, and capital on landlords’ parts – an unintended side-effect of rent controls – meant that even good landlords found it hard to keep properties in good nick.

Poor quality, overcrowded housing meant poor sanitation. Most working-class housing pre-dated running metropolitan water, and so lacked specified bathrooms or indoor toilets. Subdivision of single-family houses meant the kitchen became another all-purpose living space for a family, while other living spaces lacked plumbing of any kind. Alternatively, the kitchen could be shared by the entire house. In either case, finding the time, space, heat, water, and privacy to have a bath could be all but impossible. In some flats in Bermondsey, 5 families – up to 30 people – shared a single outdoor toilet, accessible only through the kitchen on the ground floor. In all these cases, keeping house, clothes, and people clean was a vicious uphill battle – which meant the families dwelling there were constantly exposed to a variety of germs and vermin.

Southwark’s working-class families faced other hurdles to staying healthy. The first was that a high proportion of jobs involved casual manual labour – for instance on the docks. Although dockers were highly skilled, they were usually hired for short periods – a single ship, a week, or even by the day. Wages weren’t high – and more importantly, they were unreliable, making it very difficult to budget or plan spending. Because of this, families often had to eat as cheaply as possible. Eating cheaply was usually monotonous, but also lacking in balanced nutrition; then as now, fresh fruit and vegetables were often prohibitively expensive. In the interwar period, cheap food could even be dangerous: cheap milk usually came from cows who hadn’t been tested for TB. Bovines often don’t show signs that they’re ill, and can silently carry TB, shedding the bacteria in their milk. A child drinking that milk could acquire the infection, often in the bone – which could cripple or even kill.

All of the problems with housing, sanitation, and nutrition we’ve discussed created a population whose general health and immune function wasn’t very good at the best of times: to put it simply, social conditions created a population who got sicker, quicker, for longer. Even more importantly, these conditions meant that the health of individuals and communities was on a knife-edge: any sort of hard times – a father out of work for a single family, a strike for a community – could and did create serious illness and suffering.

Different areas of the modern borough were healthier than others. Specifically, Camberwell as a whole was healthier than either area to the north – probably because of its relatively well-off, relatively spacious southern end – and possibly even healthier than London as a whole. However, it’s important to recognise that even relatively healthy Camberwell had death rates that are far higher than modern British ones andthat we would now associate with the developing world. Interwar Southwark was a deeply unhealthy place, that much is clear – and people at the time knew it.

Alfred and Joyce Salter

Dr Alfred Salter and his daughter, Joyce

And some pioneers decided to fight back. In Bermondsey, Alfred and Ada Brown Salter, respectively a prominent local physician and an equally prominent social worker and labour activist, lived in Storks Road – near where Bermondsey Tube station is now – with their daughter Joyce, born in 1902. Joyce was a ray of sunshine for all of Bermondsey – everyone knew her and was fond of her. But in 1910, when she was 8, Joyce caught scarlet fever for the third time. Nowadays, we call it a “Group A strep infection”, and it’s easily treated with antibiotics. But then there weren’t any – even sulfa drugs were nearly two and a half decades away. Joyce had all the love and good wishes her family and community could give: Ada and Alfred had to hang signs on their gate to update the borough, or else well-wishers would knock or ring at all hours. But that wasn’t enough, and she died in June 1910: people in Bermondsey said that their ray of sunshine was gone.

Joyce was Ada and Alfred Salter’s only child. When she died, they turned their grief into anger and their anger into action. They met with Evangeline Lowe, Ada’s best friend, and made a simple vow: the three of them would run for office at all levels of government – borough, county, and Westminster – and win. Then, together, they would do their best to, in the words of Bermondsey Labour’s 1922 manifesto, “…make Bermondsey a fit place to live in. We shall do everything we can to promote health, to lower the death rate, to save infant life, and to increase the well-being and comfort of the 120,000 people who have to live here, Bermondsey is our home and your home. We will strive to make it a worthy home for all of us”.

That meant new housing, demolishing the old, crumbling back-to-backs. New parks, like the one in St James’s churchyard, in Thurland Street, which opened in 1921: Arthur Carr, the chairman of Peek Frean’s, gave it a beautiful covered slide, the Joy Slide, that delighted local kids into the 1970s. New plants – trees planted along every verge, flowers in the parks grown in the council’s nursery in Fairby Grange, Kent, and flowers for everyone in Bermondsey with a window box to grow them in.

st-james-churchyard-1922-ada-salter-and-the-joy-slide

Ada Salter and other dignitaries pictured with the Joy Slide, 1922

Health care was another major plank in Bermondsey’s revolution. Fairby Grange was also a mother-and-baby and convalescent home: originally the Salters bought it for Alfred’s patients and conscientious objectors, but quickly donated it to the council. There was an aggressive anti-TB campaign, featuring mass X-ray screening in clinics or via a mobile service, and paid-for beds at a sanatorium in Switzerland. Bermondsey also launched an aggressive public health information campaign. Potential learning experiences were everywhere: a backlit slide-table while waiting at a clinic, leaflets into homes, even bookmarks with health slogan slipped into every book the library service issued! The public health service put floats into parades and made its own public information films. The 1925 Medical Officer of Health reports that the borough had started school exams in hygiene and home nursing – starting as early as possible to improve health.

In our next post we will look at the work of the Pioneer Health Centre in Peckham