Brixton, South London: for many years one of the heaviest squatted areas of the capital. Occupying empty buildings and making use of them was for several decades an integral part of life in this area, not only housing hundreds of thousands, but giving home to hundreds of alternative projects and spaces – from bookshops, cafes, workshops, meeting places, to gig venues, art galleries… the list is endless.
The first record of squatting we are aware of if from March 1969; only a few months after the first actions of what is generally thought of as the squatting movement.
‘Squatters seized an empty five-storey office block in London’s Brixton Road on Saturday, 29 March. About a dozen squad cars, black marias and motor cycle police surrounded the building just before 9 a.m.) minutes after the “invasion squad” otherwise known as the South London Squatters, had got in through a back way.
A detachment of police headed by an inspector from the nearby Brixton police station and a plain-clothes man clambered over a ten-–foot hardboard fence at the back of the concrete and glass building and tried to get the squatters to leave quietly. They refused. A few minutes later large banners appeared over the balconies of the block reading: ‘Homes not offices’ and ‘Enough room here for eighty families’. Plus a red flag.
The building is next to Brixton Register Office. Astonished wedding guests watched as police tried to get the squatters out. According to a leaflet handed out by supporters outside, the building – 40,500 sq. ft of it – has been empty for three years. ‘Why can’t Cathy come home to this’!’ the leaflet asks. ‘We have occupied this building to expose the housing shortage. A building this size could be converted at only £1,000 a unit to house eighty homeless families. Eight million sq. ft of office building stands empty in London alone – enough to house all the homeless in Britain.’
The operation, the first carried out by the group, was surprisingly simple. The glass in a door at the back of the building was cut and Hey Presto! The next they heard were the sirens.
Said Ray Gibbon, travel agency manager and father of two, of Shakespeare Road, Heme Hill, “We intend staying here until 5.30. Then we’ll leave quietly after we’ve made our point.”
The squatters, all local people, passed their time listening to the radio, playing football and putting records on a record player they’d brought with them. At lunch-time fish and chips and bottles of beer were hoisted up by rope from outside. Rubbish was put in a Lambeth Council paper sack they had brought in with them. ‘We want to be as tidy as possible,’ said Mr Gibbon.
During the day, the squatters gave out over 7,000 leaflets in the Brixton shopping centre. One West Indian bus conductor said, ‘Give me a heap man. I’ll give them out to the lads when I get to the garage at Croydon.’ The leaflet said: ‘Some people try to blame immigrants for the housing shortage but we know we had lousy houses in Britain before we ever saw a black face or heard an Irish accent. The real for the housing shortage is that a small group of people make millions of pounds out of our need for a decent home.’
Source: radical newspaper Black Dwarf 1969: Republished in David Widgery, The Left in Britain 1956-1968 (London: Penguin, 1976) David has this down as 1968, but this we think is wrong, as Saturday 29th March was a Saturday in ’69, not ’68, and the squatting movement had not got going in March 1968 to the point described in the article above. However, if we are totally wrong on this please let us know.
From these beginnings grew a massive scene, or myriad scenes rather: there’s much more on squatting in Brixton
Part of past tense’s series of articles on Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981.
Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to…
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: The Impossible Class
12: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
13: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
14: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
15: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
16: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
17: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
18: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
19: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton in the 1990s
20: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
21: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
22: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
23: Brixton, Riots and Memory, 2006/2021
24: Gentrification in Brixton 2015