Here Comes Good Health!

22 February 2012

Today sees the opening of Here Comes Good Health, a new exhibit at Wellcome Collection about the health propaganda films made by Bermondsey Borough Council in the 1920s and 1930s. Above, you can watch one of the films on display: Some Activities of Bermondsey Borough Council (1931). Angela Saward tells us more about the work of a pioneering London council.

This film was made as a comprehensive cinematic catalogue of the public health and social welfare efforts of the London borough of Bermondsey, situated to the South East of the city. Selected films were back-projected from the rear of a cinemotor van (in the first instance a converted disinfection van) as well as other public locations such as schools, clubs and other institutions. The cinemotor appears at the end of the film. Evidence suggests that their reception was at times rowdy: the vans were gaily painted and children would cheer at each slide.

The catchy intertitles encouraged audience participation; Where there’s life, there’s soap(1933) was written in poetic doggerel and was all about the benefits of good versus bad personal hygiene. According to the annual Ministry of Health report for Bermondsey of 1937, the films held by the borough had an audience of 42 464 people that year (the 1931 census put the total population at 111 000 inhabitants). The same films were shown repeatedly and became a familiar fixture to many local people.

Health propaganda in terms of education and general awareness was considered to be key in moderating bad and promoting good health. It could be a matter of choosing life over death and people needed to actively engage with the available health prevention measures.

Evidence from an intertitle in the film suggests that the death rate reduced from 21 people per 1000 to 13 within a 30 year period. In fact, after 1911, the trend in England & Wales was for a reduction in mortality rates overallMortality rates in 2001 were very similar to those of the 1930s even taking account of boundary changes (Bermondsey is now part of Southwark), and population numbers dropping after the Second World War.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly which initiative had the greatest impact between 1920 and 1939, the hey-day of Bermondsey’s civic activity as there was such a panoply of universal free services available to the local population. At a time when universal healthcare was exceptional, Bermondsey offered the hard-working population engaged in its dockyards and factories  maternity welfare, dental surgeries, a solarium (artificial sunlight treatment), a tuberculosis dispensary and a foot clinic. These are all shown in session in the film. Other amenities such as regular refuse collection are presented as well as an electricity showroom which extolled the virtues of ‘clean’ energy with the demonstration of vacuum cleaners and electric cookers available for hire.

This genre of film-making is explored in greater depth by Elizabeth Lebas in her book which surveys municipal film, Forgotten Futures: British Municipal Cinema 1920-1980. There is a chapter devoted to Bermondsey, “When Every Street Became a Cinema”. Lebas describes  the  prevailing ideology as “missionary as well as socialist”; the Public Health Department was staffed by social visionaries and also very ‘hands-on’ men and women. Indeed, rather than hire a professional, commercial organisation to script and shoot, resident radiographer, Mr C. F. Lumley took the role of cameraman in a number of films. (A compilation of films of a more amateur nature attributed to him shows important events of 1937 and 1938.)

The films were, at least originally, silent and have been edited together using simple, no frills editing. Illustrative scenes are intercut with explanatory intertitles in between. The intertitles are onscreen for a long time; perhaps to encourage debate and discussion but also, perhaps due to lower literacy levels of the time.

The films have been recently digitally remastered with material preserved by the British Film Institute. The films form part of the plethora of health educational materials across a selection of media; illuminated ‘propaganda tables’, electric signs flashing warnings, leaflets and pamphlets all used in the service of the Public Health Department of the borough. A selection of these, together with the four films highlighted in this series, will be running at Wellcome Collection from 22 February to 3 June 2012.

Angela Saward is Curator, Moving Image & Sound, Wellcome Film

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:

You can learn about the Wellcome Film project on the Wellcome Library website . 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.