From vans with cinemas in the back to electric signs flashing warnings about maggots, clean teeth and spitting, you couldn’t ignore health in interwar Bermondsey. ‘Here Comes Good Health!’, a new display at Wellcome Collection, explores Bermondsey Borough Council’s innovative public health work through leaflets, photos and pioneering educational films.
'Here Comes Good Health!' was the vision of husband and wife Alfred and Ada Salter (MP and Mayor for Bermondsey, respectively). It was an imaginative programme of public health propaganda activities from the 1920s onwards that sought to bring hygiene messages to a community where privation was the norm and catastrophic but preventable illnesses such as diphtheria were rife.
Under the direction of the Salters and Dr DM Connan, Bermondsey's Medical Officer of Health, the Council customised a set of ordinary vans to become 'cinemotors', powered by adapted lampposts to project a series of films that extolled the virtues of cleanliness and warned of the dangers of disease.
Four of these films can be seen in the display via a recreated cinemotor. Crowds of up to 1000 people gathered for screenings, which - despite the silent inter-titled films - were noisy affairs, with children singing along to the captions and audience participation encouraged by speakers who introduced each film.
In a manifesto, 'Better than Cure' (1927), Connan set out the importance of visual imagery to engage the public, making full use of the new technologies of film and "the cult of brevity" (his description of advertising). The Bermondsey project reflected this with scrolling electric signs - a precursor to modern day billboards - installed outside public conveniences, and 'illuminated propaganda tables', containing backlit education slides, placed in health centre waiting rooms.
Messages were integrated into the civic life of the Borough: floats at the May Day Parade included medical and dental demonstrations; public spaces, including churchyards, were co-opted as parks and playgrounds; and garden tuberculosis shelters, allowing sufferers to sleep in the fresh air, were provided free of charge by the Council.
The ambitious vision of the Department of Public Health in Bermondsey can be seen in the original plans for their Grange Road Health Centre, which outlined a grand architectural beacon of modernism. As with the Salters' hope that Bermondsey would be rebuilt as a garden suburb (some 5000 trees were planted between 1919 and 1926), the reality was somewhat scaled down; however, the purpose-built solarium it contained was the first in the country and was soon replicated in other London boroughs.
The photographs and films in 'Here Comes Good Health!' reflect an inspired and forward-thinking commitment to community health. The eccentric-seeming devices and methods deployed by Bermondsey Borough Council were locally driven but, in many cases, years ahead of their time.
Alfred Salter was commemorated with a statue on the banks of the Thames. Sitting on a bench, he looked across at a young girl playing with her cat. The young girl was Joyce, the Salters' only daughter, who died of scarlet fever. Her death was the great motivation for the Salters' determination to improve public health.
Sadly, the statue of Alfred was stolen at the end of 2011. 'Here Comes Good Health!' marks his memory with the records of his extraordinary work in Bermondsey.
Angela Saward, Curator, Moving Image and Sound at the Wellcome Library, says: "The films made by Bermondsey Borough Council for its populace have, alas, receded over time into relative obscurity. This new display gives visitors the opportunity to appreciate some of these films in a sympathetic context.
"The films, together with other health propaganda materials on view here, were highly influential in shaping health policy at the time, as well as well-loved by the citizens of the borough. Many of the principles of healthy living are now more or less universal, and we are fortunate to live in an age where many of the privations outlined in the films are a distant memory."
The material on display in 'Here Comes Good Health!' comes from the holdings of Southwark Local History Library and Archive and the Wellcome Library, who have newly digitised four of the public health films of the Bermondsey Department of Health with material preserved by the BFI.
'Here Comes Good Health!' runs at Wellcome Collection from 23 February to 3 June 2012.