Today in London’s rebel past: Rent Strike Begins, Flower and Dean Street, 1939.

2016: housing in London spirals into a morass of high rents, inflated property prices, homelessness and housing benefit cuts… Resistance is growing…

A time to remember that those who face this before us didn’t just take it lying down… To remember some of the many tenants who organised rent strikes against greedy landlords charging exorbitant rents for run-down and over crowded housing, back in the 1930s…

77 years ago today, one such rent strike started, in Flower and Dean Street, in London’s East End.

Flower & Dean Street, just off Commercial Street in Spitalfields, was long notorious for the poverty of its residents. A remnant of the old rookery, largely cleared in the 1840s by the building of Commercial Street (an early experiment with driving wide new roads through poor areas to break up neighbourhoods considered dangerous to public order and morals…)

In the 1880s, the Flower and Dean Street area was still a ‘rookery’, “the most menacing working class area of London”. The area between Wentworth Street and Spitalfields market was labelled the ‘Wicked Quarter Mile’, by outsiders of course.

Partly to revive the moral middle class campaign to improve (ie clear and reduce the treat from) areas of endemic poverty, blocks of model dwellings were erected by early housing charities. Although there was genuine desire to improve the working class, there was also a feeling that the deserving and the undeserving poor needed to be separated, to prevent moral contamination of the former by the latter.

However, housing here remained in many ways grim – overcrowded, unsanitary and not that cheap. The private landlords who owned much of the area charged high rents for crap conditions. Not that THAT dynamic still exists in London, oh no (in the week attempts to impose controls on landlords’ ability to rent out sub-standard housing was defeated, with the help of 73 landlord MPs).

Into the 1930s and the terrible housing conditions in the area began to ignite discontent and collective action. Much of the grassroots work organizing tenants at this time was alter claimed to originate with members of the Communist Party (CP), who were strong and active in the area at the time – but members of the Labour party and other activists were also involved.

In June 1933, a mass demo successfully defended family in Flower and Dean Street against eviction.

But it was in 1938-9 that the struggle became huge, as mass rent strikes were organized in the borough of Stepney, which then included this area. The CP were heavily involved, and a useful short account of the rent strikes can be found in Phil Piratin’s book, Our Flag Stays Red. Piratin was a local CP member, who later became a CP councillor and MP. Two years of organizing among tenants in various streets and blocks came to fruition with rent strikes that erupted in 1938. Between August 1938 and mid-1939, tenants organized, refused to pay rent, and physically resisted violent eviction attempts.

In the Flower and Dean Street tenements, most of the tenants were Jewish. Their tenants’ committee was led by a woman, Clara Garrett (women were often to the fore in the rent strikes, in the East End as elsewhere). The tenants decided to strike on January 16, and turned their building into a ‘fortress’. Demonstrations and picketing went on for weeks, all entrances were guarded, and there were even street marches publicizing the tenants’ demands for lower rents and repairs. One weekend, 38 children from this East End slum dwelling demonstrated in front of the landlord’s home, in fashionable and far-off Golders Green, a well-to-do London suburb. The owner finally caved in five weeks after the strike began; this struggle served as a prototype for many other actions.

Locally, apart from Flower and Dean Street, there were rent strikes during 1938-39 in Hogarth mansions, Brunswick Buildings, Pelham Street, Montague House, Hawkins, Estate, Langdale Mansions, Brady Street Mansions, Juniper Street, Commercial Mansions, Lydia Street, Fieldgate Mansions, Duckett Street, Ocean Street, Philchurch Street, Eileen mansions, Bromehead Square, Fenton Street, Mariner Street, Anthony Street, Settles Street, and Golding Street… The rent strikes though, spread further afield, and soon there similar outbreaks in Bethnal Green, Clapham, Willesden, Finsbury, Poplar, Bermondsey, Paddington, Battersea, Highgate, Norwood and Shoreditch… And in Birmingham, Huddersfield, Liverpool, Aberdeen, Sunderland Oxford and Sheffield…

More rent strikes were also to break out in the East end during World War 2. And later, in the 1970s, many of the model dwellings built to improve working class housing in Spitalfields and Stepney had decayed themselves and become slums, and the same process would be repeated: plans were laid to scatter the residents and build new housing for a better class of inhabitant. Tenants resistance would again change the outcome… (but that’s for another day).

Further reading:

Phil Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red.

Joe Jacobs, Out of the Ghetto.

Henry Srebrnik, Class, Ethnicity and Gender Intertwined: Jewish women and the East London Rent Strikes, 1935-1940 (Women’s History Review, Volume 4, Number 3, 1995).
http://alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/pdf/East%20End%20Immigrants%20and%20the%20Battle%20for%20Housing.pdf

Sarah Glynn, East End Immigrants and the Battle for Housing: a comparative study of political mobilisation in the Jewish and Bengali communities (Journal of Historical Geography 31 pp 528545) (2005).

More very interesting stuff on rent strikes can be found at www.sarahglynn.net

A past tense pamphlet on an earlier rent strike, in Glasgow during World War 1, can be found online at http://alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/past tense publications.html

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online:
http://alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/calendar.html

More on Flower & Dean Street, the old rookery, housing and ‘regeneration’, will hopefully appear in a past tense pamphlet on Spitalfields and Brick Lane, soon…

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