Here Comes Good Health!

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By | Events and Visits, From the Collections

Here Comes Good Health! is a new exhibit in the Lightbox which showcases some of the health propaganda films and other health promotional activities devised by Bermondsey Borough Council during its hey-day of civic activity between 1920-1939. Originally, the films were taken out into the streets of Bermondsey and back projected from a specially customised ‘cinemotor’ van. The films were also shown repeatedly in schools, clubs and other institutions so they became familiar fixtures. However, after the Second World War, the films became relatively obscure. The display includes the rear of a recreated cinemotor together with seating so that the films can be viewed in a sympathetic environment. The films are also available to view online via Wellcome Film and YouTube. The four digitised films in the exhibition have been acquired with permission from the Southwark Local History Library and Archive and the British Film Institute where the film masters are held.

The health manifesto Better Than Cure, 1927 by Medical Health Officer, D. M. Connan set out the proposed programme of activities in Bermondsey together with its rationale. It had been proven that ‘propaganda’ films had already been successfully brought to other interested audiences (the London General Omnibus Company and the Conservative Party had received large audiences). The issue for Bermondsey was scientific content:

the number of suitable films to be obtained on any of the subjects mentioned is very small [preventable diseases, housing, personal hygiene, food and diet and industrial diseases]; we have seen a considerable number of films for sale or hire dealing with some of these subjects, and in some cases the cost has been prohibitive and to others the films themselves have been made by people who obviously had no special medical knowledge and were in many respects quite unsatisfactory for our purpose.

After proving the concept with a prototype van, they embarked on making their own films. By 1938 there was a total of 33 films on the catalogue, according to one of the Medical Health Officer annual reports, although only about 20 were made under the aegis of the borough. Some of these are now lost. A key feature of all the Bermondsey films is the addition of a section of the film devoted to science and great pains were made to use the correct biomedical terminology. In Health and Clothing 1928, the nature of cotton and wool clothing is compared with their absorbent qualities, which are then demonstrated onscreen; weights and measures underline the empirical facts. In Where There’s Life There’s Soap 1933, the importance of sebaceous glands and hair follicles is explained using poetic verse. This latter film was designed for younger audiences to better understand cleanliness.

Some Activities of Bermondsey Bourough Council 1931 was the most frequently screened film by the Public Health Department and over the course of its 26 minutes it provides a catalogue of available amenities; the magnificent municipal buildings of the borough’s flagship health centre at Spa Road, the Gardens and Beautification Department, leisure services such as well-tended public gardens, play areas with swings shown teeming with children and the horticultural estate at Fairby Grange. The net effect of this it to give the impression of an area of pleasant empty boulevards with very few people and scarcely any vehicles. New housing was low-rise and airy with large windows; a typical street had young trees planted along the road. This was somewhat distant from the truth but was instrumental in creating civic pride.

The rapid drop in mortality in the borough is pointed out in the film; this achievement was attributed to the successful activities of the Public Health Department as a result of tackling infectious disease. (In fact, after 1911, the trend in England & Wales was for a reduction in mortality rates overall.) Biomedical science had significantly contributed to the accurate diagnosis of a number of infectious and potentially fatal diseases such as diphtheria and tuberculosis. A bacteriological laboratory is seen in this film with the technician peering down a microscope. The perils of contracting diphtheria, a serious yet preventable disease is shown in another film in the display; The Empty Bed 1937 (a joint production between Bermondsey and the London Borough of Camberwell). Part fiction, part fact, the boy in the film dies horribly because he was not immunised (hence the empty bed), although a considerable part of the film is taken up with scenes of laboratory work and the immunisation of children.

Mass immunisation was only tackled nationwide as a result of the Second World War a few years later; the Ministry of Health also aimed to win hearts and minds using film in its health propaganda; an example of the government-led diphtheria campaign can be viewed online. Incidentally, behind the scenes, the Wellcome Physiological Research Laboratories at Langley Court, Beckenham in 1945 were engaged in producing anti-toxins during wartime and commissioned a film expressly to illustrate this important contribution to the war effort, although it is probable that the film appealed to a limited audience.

Together with diphtheria, the other scourge of the period was tuberculosis. Bermondsey developed the novel treatment of rentable outdoor garden tuberculosis shelters that allowed sufferers to sleep outside. Apparently, this regime was not popular, perhaps for want of outdoor space. A film made by Bermondsey was entitled Consumption (Tuberculosis of the Lungs) and claimed to tackle the subject ‘optimistically’. Another film from the US of the period, Tuberculosis, shows a child being taken to a ‘preventorium’ or sanatorium in the countryside to avoid further infection and receive a few months of ‘intensive health training’. The government-sponsored film Defeat Tuberculosis, 1950 shows how much progress was made in the proceeding years through the case study of two sisters with examples of treatments and the National Health Service’s radiography campaign for people to have chest x-rays.

Another key initiative in evidence in the film was mother and baby clinics; the Maternity and Child Welfare Department had 12 centres, holding 84 health sessions per week. Provision for this was in the community; the clinics were well-attended and the film shows a baby being weighed and checked. A fuller sense of maternity services in London can also be gleaned from another film from London Maternity: a film of Queen Charlotte’s Hospital, 1935 . This film has mid-wives on bicycles, younger siblings awaiting the birth of a new baby sitting on the steps of a tenement building and, despite its light tone, bleak shots of grave stones emphasising the mortality rates as a result of infection. At the end, a life-like doll being used in a training session for nurses is suddenly dropped on the floor. Bathing and Dressing, 1935 part one and part two made not far away in Shoreditch by the National Council for Maternity and Child Welfare and Carnegie Welfare Centre, may well have been a familiar feature in other London-based Public Health Departments as well as mothers-to-be; it shows the care of a new-born infant.

Bermondsey was unique in developing such a varied programme of health propaganda (the word had none of its contemporary pejorative sense). Throughout the inter war years the socialist visionaries in the Labour-run council and its Public Health Department worked under the leadership of husband and wife Alfred and Ada Salter, MP and Mayor for Bermondsey respectively. Under their direction and Dr D. M. Connan, Medical Officer of Health, the task of healthcare provision and its promotion was approached with missionary zeal. The films were specially shot by the Public Health Department to fulfil a specific need; to promote the health and social welfare services available to the local hard-working population typically engaged in the dockyards and food factories of the borough. Health propaganda was designed to modify behaviour and offset some of the social problems experienced by low and unstable income coupled with the ever present threat of debilitating ill-health. Universal healthcare was not available until after the introduction of the National Health Service, the wonders of which are set out in the Central Office of Information sponsored animation Charley your very good health, 1948.

More details about the display are on the Wellcome Collection website:
The films run from 22nd February until the 3rd June 2012.

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:

Angela Saward, Wellcome Film

You can learn about the Wellcome Film project here. 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.

Phoebe Harkins

Phoebe Harkins is Library Communications Co-ordinator at the Wellcome Library.

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