Magazine article History Today

Forbidden Britain

Magazine article History Today

Forbidden Britain

Article excerpt

There is a widespread and often unquestioned assumption that many of the major social problems in Britain today are far worse than they were before the 1950s. In fact there is a growing body of evidence which suggests that juvenile crime, riots, child sexual abuse, government work schemes for the unemployed, extra marital affairs and homelessness were all part of the British way of life long before the last war. They often have a secret past and were much more common than has previously been thought. Much has remained hidden because of government censorship of information and ideas considered to be damaging or dangerous.

Feature film or newsreel coverage of all these issues was either banned or closely controlled. The press did cover subjects like riots, juvenile crime and extra-marital affairs in some detail, but the reporting was often extremely biased and distorted. In the race riots of May and June 1919 for example, the overwhelming reaction of the press was to blame Britain's black community for the violence directed at them. The most taboo subjects like incest and child sexual abuse were considered so shocking they were rarely reported or even spoken about. In the new BBC2 series, Forbidden Britain I have tried to reconstruct the secret histories of these subjects by using little known documentary evidence, archive film - some of which was censored - and, most important of all, personal testimony.

Little is known of the lives of homeless people during the first half of the century. Like today, the poorest and most despised section of the homeless population were those who lived and slept rough on the streets. They were known as vagrants and their numbers were always underestimated, for their existence was a serious embarrassment to officialdom. George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933, was one of the few attempts to expose the plight of the homeless at the time. Children were the most invisible of all those living rough - in the 1930s the official view was that there were no homeless children. The problem which had so obsessed Victorian social reformers had supposedly been solved. in reality thousands lived on the streets, ignored or undetected by the authorities. For some, poverty and violence drove them to run away from home. From the age of seven onwards, Alf Gregory, born in 1930, began to live rough in the countryside around Chesterfield:

We were very, very poor and me father, what money he had, he'd booze it in pubs, and he were violent, he'd belt me with this big leather Army belt, so I'd just go and sleep in fields. I think they informed police I were missing and Chesterfield police would pick me up and I'd be in a dirty, dishevelled state. Police would take me back home but when they'd gone dad would hit me again and again I'd go. As far as surviving with eating I mean you picked this up from other children, cos there was some other children the same as me. There were no pesticides in those days so things out of hedgerow you could more or less eat. we could eat fungi and hawthorn leaves, they were called bread and cheese, and beech nut, dandelion, certain flower heads, chrysanths, we'd eat them. In the winter we'd go begging and scrounging in Chesterfield and I'd do some odd jobs for a few pennies. At night I used to sleep in the graveyard of Trinity Church wrapped up in an old carpet or something. It were a very eerie place and before I went to sleep I'd recite the Psalm of David out loud, |Yeah though I Walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I shall fear no evil', and I always believed that would keep me safe. The NSPCC inspector, he'd take me to slipper baths and wash me, and buy me a nice breakfast or cup of tea in Bowden's cafe then give me sixpence and send me on my way. Then when I were twelve I was finally picked up and sent to children's home.

Many who ended up homeless and destitute in pre-war Britain came over from Ireland escaping the subsistence economy of impoverished villages. …

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