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4 | Institutions and the public</br>Frame from the film Housing problems, 1935

Some Activities
of Bermondsey Borough Council - 1931

One of the Film Work of the London Metropolitan
Borough of Bermondsey

Elizabeth Lebas

Created in 1900, the London Metropolitan Borough of Bermondsey relatively geographically isolated and also had a distinctive economy of docking, warehousing and food manufacture, which placed great pressures on land use. A Parliamentary and municipal stronghold of the Independent Labour Party since 1922, the Borough had by the late 1920's a very comprehensive and unique of social welfare. A policy based on the principles of Guild Socialism, an idea of Social Democracy based on local power and organisation, fervently promoted by Dr. Alfred Salter, Member of Parliament from since 1922.



Some Activities of Bermondsey Borough Council
London (1931)

Written and produced by
Mr. H.W. Busch
Photography by MR. C.F. Lumley
Bermondsey Borough Council's Health Propaganda Department
Technical information 30 minutes, b/n, mute with captions
A copy of the film is at the British Film Archive (London). 
© British Film Archive (London)
Detail sheet by Elisabeth Lebas

Watch the film online | Complete version
'Some Activities of Bermondsey Borough Council' will be available soon on the Planum's Vimeo space! In the meanwhile, you can get a look to the other videos of the collection!


Detail sheet by Elisabeth Lebas


Between 1923 and 1948 the Public Health Department of Bermondsey County Council made some 30 known films of which, not counting incidental footage, 16 have survived. Although Glasgow Corporation was the first local authority in Britain to commission a film of its activities (Glasgow's Castlemilk and Housing Programme, 1922), Bermondsey Borough Council was the first to make its own films. From 1923 to the early 1950's it showed its own films as part of a campaign of public health and personal hygiene and as an advertisement for its municipal achievements and services. Some of the most important film are: Health and Clothing 1928, The Story of Our Food Supply 1928, Maternity and Child Welfare 1930, Consumption 1932, Where There's Life, There's Soap 1936. The production team consisted for the most part of three individuals, Dr. Conan, the Borough's Medical Officer of Health, Mr. Bush, its Chief Administrative Officer and Mr. Lumley, its Technical Officer and Radiographer, with the assistance of the Borough's Direct Labour scheme, constructing film sets. All three not only produced the films but also showed them as part of lectures often also accompanied by lantern slides. Between the wars, three cinema vans, each new model more purpose-built than the previous one, patrolled the streets, public gardens and the courtyards of public housing blocks of the Borough between May and September. Films were also shown for free in town halls, clinics, schools, youth clubs, working-men's clubs, political associations and trade unions.


Housing was also considered as a house inspection campaign had been instigated at the same time as the anti-tuberculosis campaign. It is important not to force Bermondsey Borough Council films into present categories amenable to academic disciplines. They are not 'planning' films. Nor are they 'documentary' films, as the term 'documentary' had yet to be coined by John Grierson. They are 'public health' films, as the Central Council for Health Education would have called them in the 1930's. Bermondsey Borough Council's Public Health Department termed them 'propaganda' films because they were part of a propaganda public health campaign. Contemporary film distributors called similar films 'instructional films'. It is this mixture of the political and the pragmatic which gives them their very particular identity: an identity which can only be appreciated in terms of the formation of civic society between the wars.


In 1931, Some Activities of Bermondsey Borough Council , a newsreel-style film, was made from a compilation of previously made footage, to resume the Council's various services and activities. In the film, a great cleansing takes places: a sort of 'putting one's house into order' as slum housing is ritually demolished, streets are cleaned, communal laundries are run, old mattresses are fumigated and milk is pasteurised. It isn't only women who are cleaning. What can't be cleaned is radiated as we find ourselves in the eerie light of the purpose- built Solarium (the first in Britain) watching children in loincloths circling round a lamp. Electrification comes to the home via the electricity power sub-station behind the Town Hall (still there) and via the Electrical Appliances Shop run by the Borough's Electricity Department. Mesmerised, we watch a demonstration of the carpet vacuum cleaner for hire. The penultimate images show the Tuberculosis Dispensary, the Laboratory, the Dental and the Foot Clinics. Images of life and death, food and detritus, sickness and recovery, body and technology are compiled, compressed into a reminder of the contract of literally, a new body politic. The last image is of the back of the little cinema van receding into the distance of that recently 'beautified' tree-lined street. The films were last shown to Bermondsey audiences in 1953. Since their restoration and copying, they have recently been shown again in the area: to old-age pensioners who saw them as children, to local history groups, as art installations. Clips have been shown on television, at academic conferences, in university classes, at exhibitions and more recently by municipalities themselves.