Find thousands of books, manuscripts, visual materials and unpublished archives from our collections, many of them with free online access.

The empty bed.

  • Videos

About this work


This film is about the consequences of not immunising your children against diphtheria. The poignancy of 'the empty bed' only becomes clearer as the story in the film unfurls. The opening intertitle states that 'two doctors made this film... to save 16,000 children'. The intertitles offer an apology if anyone is upset by its contents of the film. The story then begins with Mrs Smith, who appears to be a working class housewife. She has 3 children; Mary, Jack and William. Mrs Smith then becomes concerned about Jack who is having problems breathing and goes to see Dr King in his surgery. Dr King then visits Jack, diagnosing a bad case of diphtheria. He gives Jack an injection to his abdomen. He organises a swab and the laboratory technician is shown preparing the culture and placing the samples in an incubator. Jack goes into hospital; Mrs Smith is seen in the waiting room looking upset. The surgeons operate on Jack; placing a metal tube in his throat so that he can breathe. Jack is in the hospital bed; steam is directed across him to aid his breathing further (he has laryngeal diphtheria). The boy in the adjacent bed is paralysed and is fed through his nose. Overnight Jack's condition deteriorates. Meanwhile back in the laboratory the samples are viewed, discovering diphtheria germs (a still image is used). Jack dies, freeing the hospital bed for another child with diphtheria... the viewer is then asked whether they want their child to take his place? Later, Mrs Smith visits Dr King and he reminds her that her children could have been immunised 3 year's previously. Mary and William are then taken to the surgery to test for their natural immunity to the disease. Both are immune. A typical non-immune reaction is shown; a sore is seen but the film notes that this is temporary. Footage of a genuine clinic follows with children being immunised (they require 3 injections over the course of 3 weeks). They are shown having recently been immunised; they are happy and smiling. The laboratory is then visited with more shots of a technical nature showing how the samples are created. A gun is then pointed at the viewer with the message that diphtheria germs are as dangerous as getting shot at! A toy gun with a small sign saying 'toy caps', it then seen which suggests that immunisation would neutralise the potential danger. There is a sign for the diphtheria immunisation clinic with more views of children receiving their inoculations. The closing message is 'YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED'.


[London] : [Bermondsey & Camberwell Borough Councils], [1937]

Physical description

1 Digibeta (16:31 mins) : sil, black and white; PAL.
2 DVDs (16:31 mins each) : sil., black and white; PAL.


This video was made from material preserved by the BFI National Archive.
Film supplied courtesy of Southwark Local History Library & Archive.
BFI National Archive gives 1942 as the date of the film; however, the film is listed in the 1937 Medical Officer of Health Report for Bermondsey (p. 75) and screened four times in the borough.
One of about 29 films made by the Public Health Department (about 7 of which no longer exist) which were shown for many decades on a regular basis to the residents of the borough in various municipal settings.

Creator/production credits

No onscreen credits. Directed and produced by Dr King Brown and Dr Guy Busfield, Director of Camberwell Research. This film was a joint production between Bermondsey and the London Borough of Camberwell.

Terms of use


Copyright note

Bermondsey Borough Council 1937



  • English

Where to find it

  • Copy 1

    Location Access
    Closed stores


  • Copy 1

    Closed stores
  • Copy 2

    Closed stores

Permanent link