At the end of WW2 there was massive homelessness around the country – a pre-war shortage of housing had been made worse by the destruction of houses through bombing and a total halt in the building of new housing. Demobilisation of thousands of servicemen jacked this up into a crisis… As a result there was mass squatting of empty houses, and army camps and depots, around the country.
“Down in Brighton, VE day was celebrated with a merry scrunching of crowbars as dozens of hotels and big houses being kept empty for post-war summer visitors were taken over by homeless people. “Vigilantes” seems a strange name nowadays. I think the idea was that they were vigilantly scouring the streets for empty places and opening them, not letting a single home go unused. They were otherwise known as “The Secret Committee of Ex-Servicemen”. By the beginning of July there were 1,000 people squatting in Brighton alone and the movement was spreading to towns all along the south coast as well as to Essex, Birmingham, London and Liverpool. There were big meetings, lots of public support and massive press coverage. Churchill persuaded the press to stop mentioning what was happening – he reckoned it was spreading the idea introduced requisitioning powers (but not duties) for councils to take over empty property and made anti-squatting propaganda part of his campaign in the 1945 election…
The Vigilantes included anarchists with experience of anti‑fascist and other struggles in the ’30s. They didn’t bother much with conventional politics or lobbying. There was still very little council housing and their campaign was mainly against private landlords. They demanded that privately-owned empties be taken over for immediate use by homeless people. Their way of making the demand was to do exactly that! This phase of the campaign may have been brief, but it struck a chord which lasted…”
From May 1946 a new phase began: the squatting of empty army camps, of which there were hundreds around the country:
“People were waiting to see what the new Labour government would do and what use would be made of Churchill’s requisitioning powers. It was soon clear the answer to both was “not a lot”. Meantime, thousands were homeless in a housing crisis so vast that it was on a similar scale to the one we have now!
There was – at least initially- no planning and no politicos involved in this. All over the country there were redundant army and air force camps with Nissen huts and other accommodation which was less than brilliant, but a lot better than the conditions many people were having to live in. It was Mr and Mrs Fielding from Scunthorpe who finally got fed up and did the obvious thing. They moved into the officers’ mess of their local disused anti-aircraft battery with their children. Their friends joined them. Others heard about it and came along too. Two other local camps were taken over, and the movement spread, first to Sheffield and then virtually everywhere in England, Scotland and Wales. An organisation was formed -the Squatters’ Protection Society. By September, the government reckoned there were 45,000 people squatting in 1,100 camps, but this has to be bullshit. It works out to about 40 people per camp but most occupations were by one or two hundred people at least and some -like the famous “squat city” in Bristol- were nearly a thousand strong. Other places started being taken over -schools, hotels, even a greyhound stadium, and the movement just kept on growing.
Of course, there were mass evictions, but most eviction attempts seem to have failed. Time after time council workers and even police refused to carry them out or were seen off by sheer force of numbers (which meant a lot more than 40 people!). The government was in a tizzy. That great socialist orator and supposed tribune of the people, Nye Bevan, and others could only trot out the familiar crap about people “jumping the housing queue”. It was just too big and too energetic to repress -though they tried.
Life in the camps had to be improvised and communal… people organised water, furniture, food and child care…
Eventually… the state had to give in and try to absorb and co-opt the movement. Councils started to organise “methodical squatting”. This was exactly the same as the “short-life licencing” of more recent times. “O.K., we’ll let you live here after all -as long as we’re in charge” had become the line adopted by bureaucrats stamping their little feet, by 1947. So most of the squatters got to stay for several years before being eventually rehoused. Councils also started to use the camps themselves for “official” short-term housing, moving in thousands more people. The last of the camps was not closed until 1961. In Oxfordshire, over a hundred families from one of the original 1946 occupations were determined to stay together and were eventually housed in the new village of Berinsfield in 1959….”
“There was some camp squatting in London, mainly in east and outer London, but the opportunities were fewer and the camps smaller than in other places. London’s turn came later.” This was in September 1946.
“2 o’clock on a humdrum Sunday afternoon [September 8th]. In a tightly organised operation, squatters seized Duchess of Bedford House, a luxury block of 150 flats in Kensington. Within 10 minutes over. 1,000 people were inside, including 460 families, complete with bedding, water and food. Later that day a further 500 people took over a similar block in Marylebone, as well a big houses in Holland Park, Campden Hill and Upper Phillimore Gardens. On Monday, it was a second block in Marylebone and on Tuesday about 200 people took Fountain Court, another luxury block in Pimlico. Wednesday saw two very big ones done -Abbey Lodge near Regents Park and the 630-room Ivanhoe Hotel in Bloomsbury St(later renamed “The Marlborough”, and these days the ‘Bloomsbury’).”
The Communist Party was heavily involved in these London actions, though there has been argument over how dominant they were in the squatting movement nationally, initially they rubbished the early autonomous squatters; they then jumped on the bandwagon when it became obvious how strongly the movement was taking off, tried to take things over and made attempts to repress or marginalise independent activity. Sound familiar? While the squatting in the camps was more the practical meeting of a basic need, the London actions were more political propaganda acts, launching a campaign to force the Government to requisition empty private housing for those in need. It did trigger some squatting of smaller houses in the London suburbs.
The Ivanhoe Hotel, on the corner of Bloomsbury Street and Great Russell Street, was squatted on Wednesday September 11th. Empty for some time, it had been used during the war to house Irish labourers repairing bomb damaged buildings. The squatters here used a diversionary tactic to get in to the Ivanhoe… One group drew police who were on their back off to another building some distance off, while another group moved in on the hotel (possibly though according to James Hinton, they got in through an underground tunnel the police had no idea was there). 12 families broke in through boarded up doors; by this time the cops had got wind and turned up, blocking up the doors and reboarding them, to stop other squatters getting in. An attempt by others to force their way in was prevented by the police.
The Police put a cordon round the hotel; although food and bedding could be thrown in from the outside by supporters, people could not go in or out, so the squat became a siege. There were confrontations between supporters outside and cops, here and at other buildings: horses were used here to disperse large crowds blocking the streets (usually by sitting down). Within a few days five Communist Party members involved in planning the squats had been arrested for conspiracy and incitement to trespass. CP member and squatting activist Johnny Marten was nicked on September 12th for talking to the squatters from outside the hotel: according to the Evening News, “he was then escorted by the police to Tottenham Court Road police Station. Followed by a crowd, some of whom shouted ‘is this what we won the war for?’
On 14th September, a huge rally in Leicester Square, followed by a march, supported the squatters and the demands made by the CP. Later that day, the government’s legal moves became clear as five CP “ringleaders” were arrested and charged with “conspiring and inciting trespass” (they were later bound over). Finally, High Court injunctions were obtained against the squatters and they subsequently left voluntarily in a “general evacuation,’ on Friday 20th September. There were no actual evictions. The squatters mostly went to a “rest centre” organised by the London County Council, from where they were eventually rehoused.
“The role and tactics of the CP have been controversial ever since… Though the CP was prominent, these actions were certainly much more than the “CP stunt” they have sometimes been presented as. Most people involved had nothing to do with the CP, and the whole thing looks much more like an opportunistic attempt to exploit a movement which had already been established by the Vigilantes, the camp squatters and the Squatters Protection Society, and continued long after the London occupations were over. They did, however, show up the allegedly radical socialist government in their true colours and force them to step up the housing programme.”
In many ways the Communist Party bottled it at the crucial point, as Andrew Friend points out:
“It is difficult to judge at this distance the degree to which the Communist Party controlled the organisation of the London occupations. It is clear that having placed itself in a position of leadership it failed to mobilise popular or trade union support and that this must be seen as a major factor in the sudden collapse of the occupations.
During the summer of 1946, trade unionists in several northern towns had blacked work involving the wrecking of buildings as a deterrent to squatting. Direct labour force workers in North London had organised work parties to divert building materials to two squatted camps. Miners in Yorkshire had imposed an overtime ban when mine officials had tried to evict a family squatting in a colliery house. During the week of 9-16 September, officials of the building trades unions were inundated with resolutions supporting squatters, and demanding requisitioning and an end to the black market in repairs. De Havilland workers in West London announced they would strike if force was used to evict squatters. On the day the High Court injunction was granted, the London Trades Council, theoretically representing 600,000 Workers, backed the squatters.
These events show that there was not merely sympathy for squatters among organised workers – the two groups overlapped far more than they do now – but that there also existed the potential for workplace action in support of occupations of residential property. Yet at no time did the CP call for industrial action to get services connected to further the demand for wider requisitioning. This is surprising considering that in 1945 the Communist Party, with a membership of 45,000, was at the height of its influence in the trade union movement. Tactics were confined to organising the Leicester Square demonstration and sending delegations to Atlee, Bevan and the town halls. This meant that once the authorities’ hard line in defence of property had emerged, the squatters found themselves increasingly engaged in conflict on the authorities terms, whether in the courtroom or behind cordons. When the court orders were granted, there was no attempt to organise resistance to the evictions. The conspiracy charges had instilled the desired effect of intimidation despite the scale of the Leicester Square demonstration that had been organised at such short notice.”
Apologies to Jim Paton from ASS for ripping parts off his excellent summary of the 1945-6 squatting movement writ way back in 1995.
Some newsreel film of the Ivanhoe Hotel Squatters can be seen here
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online