85,000 films of archived footage have been uploaded to Youtube in an unprecedented move by British Pathé. The renowned newsreel archive has some genuine treasures from Brixton’s history ranging from powerful historical pieces to bizarre short films.
‘Let’s go shopping Caribbean-style’
Granville Arcade is shown in full technicolour splendour in this 1961 film about the joys of the food and fashion which Brixton has to offer. ‘Let’s go shopping Caribbean-style’ the announcer entreats us, before making toe-curling generalisations about ‘housewives’ and orientalist statements about Brixton’s Jamaican community. But the footage is incredible for anyone familiar with Brixton – from the thriving market stalls to the bustling streets.
‘Our Jamaican Problem’
But there are other more serious films to be seen. Watching a 1955 film entitled ‘Our Jamaican Problem’ is startlingly uncomfortable. But aside the entrenched racist tropes such as describing immigrants disembarking from a boat in the UK as ‘a pathetic sight’ (even though the film is broadly trying to defend the benefits of immigration) it provides real insights into the lives of Brixton’s inhabitants in the 50s.
‘Somerleyton Road houses many of the 3,500 immigrants who have settled in Lambeth,’ the narrator tells us, ‘not exactly the paradise so many expected.’
There are some touching and telling moments: ‘At number 49, Mr & Mrs Austin live comfortably with their children. They are lucky, for many of their fellow immigrants have been crowded 6 or 7 to a room with a weekly rent of 30 shillings each.’
The images of a crowded nursery in Coldharbour Lane, housing the children of Jamaican workers is just one element in this incredible historical record.
The most galling aspect of the film comes in the form of a ‘plea for controlled immigration taken to the Colonial Office by Lambeth’s Mayor, Cllr White.’
This is countered somewhat by a brilliant speech by Bill Strachan – a Jamaican immigrant who became an Officer in the Royal Air Force during WWII and subsequently worked for Lambeth Council. Strachan raises the cultural and economic benefits of immigration, concluding: ‘we don’t want any special privileges or anything more than any other British worker has in this country.’
‘Peaceful reconstruction will begin after tea’
For a brilliantly surreal video, watch The Battle of Brixton (1957). It’s a wonderful tongue-in-cheek account of a student clash involving flour-bombs and ritual de-pantsings.
You can find more Brixton videos from British Pathé’s collection here.