Hidden Histories: Common Land and Squatting in Hackney
This walk was made on 17 July 2011 by about 40 people, some of whom had personal experience of squatting in the London Fields and Mare Street area of Hackney, London, from the 1970s to the present. It was researched and organised by Melissa Bliss with contributions from others including Past Tense.
This seemed like a good time to highlight the squatting history of the area: the government had recently signalled its intention to criminalise squatting; the Olympics, only 12 months away then, had led to a massive increase in property speculation; and the London Fields area was experiencing rapid social and structural change.
We selected 8 sites on the walk which showed different aspects of squatting in different decades. There were many other squatted sites we could have chosen so this walk is not comprehensive.
This account is not comprehensive and we are always looking for more information about this area.
Two more radical history walks were done around the same time in other parts of Hackney, (one from Dalston to Stoke Newington, and another around Stoke Newington), put together by some of the people involved in this walk: we are working on re-constructing them, and will post them up on this blog at some point.
A brief history of squatting in the London Fields area
Squatting in London Fields goes back decades. The earliest references we found were in the late 1960s but it is likely there was individual and organised squatting before then.
London Fields has experienced a high level of squatting for several reasons:
• Housing need caused by poor housing and rising rents which priced people out of private rented accommodation
• Loss of housing through bombing and neglect
• Intensive top down planning intervention – wartime requisitioning, slum clearance and compulsory purchase – leaving whole areas to become run down and left empty
• Deindustrialisation as businesses moved further out of London leaving empty industrial buildings such as factories, workshops and warehouses
• Organisation among squatters which led to large scale squatting and, for some, licensing
By the end of the Second World War Hackney had lost about 5,000 homes and 7,000 people were on the housing waiting list. The London County Council (LCC) accelerated its slum clearance programme, buying up properties and moving people out of London. The Metropolitan Borough of Hackney used compulsory purchase powers to buy up properties which had been requisitioned during the War: 1,767 properties, containing 3.317 homes, including around the west side of Mare Street .
Hackney’s population has declined since the 1910s until 1981. Between 1931 to 1961 it declined by about a third. Despite this there was also considerable homelessness due to poor housing stock and rising rents. Organised squatting increased in the 1960s.
During the 1970s there were continual struggles around housing centred on homelessness, slum clearance and redevelopment plans. Rapidly rising house prices in the early 1970s led to a shortage of cheaper private rented housing and speculators leaving properties empty.
The Greater London Council (GLC) and London Borough of Hackney (LBH) had plans to develop the Broadway Market and London Fields east side areas respectively to preserve local employment. But they proceeded so slowly that the areas were blighted and many properties were left empty. Squatters moved in.
Organised and individual squatting increased. Public sector landlords and property owners responded in a variety of way: smashing up properties, licensing squatters or encouraging squatters to regularise themselves in housing co-ops or housing associations.
Smaller changes like the removal of caretakers from housing estates by the early 1970s allowed squatters to move into flats undetected.
From the mid 1970s the GLC took some moves to regularise squatters by getting them to form housing coops.
In 1977 the Conservatives regained control of the GLC and started selling their housing to individuals through the policy of homesteading and housing associations. They also gave squatters an amnesty and offered them tenancies in hard to let properties.
In the 1980s LBH suffered a number of crises including severe funding cuts from central government and, perhaps most crucially, when GLC was abolished, being forced to take on the GLC housing stock, much of which was in poor repair. This doubled LBH’s housing. Cuts in funding from central government and internal council crises meant the council was unable to deal with its housing. In 1981 Hackney had 2,300 empty properties.
During the 1990s the Council was able to regain more control over its property. Many homes had been lost to right to buy and funds were coming through from central government and the European Union to redevelop the area.
In the 2000s squatting continued in the area but in a less organised way and more commonly in industrial buildings. As the area became gentrified, land values increase and less properties were available for squatting. There were also occupations in protest at the ways in which regeneration was being brought about, in particular with the sale of Council properties to property developers and speculators.
Squatting continues in the area but mostly in building awaiting redevelopment, often from industrial to residential uses.
LONDON FIELDS LIDO
1998 – 2003
The Lido was built 1932 by the LCC, partly as compensation to Hackney for military use of Hackney Marshes during the First World War. Like many other lidos in London it lasted well till the late 1970s when it was transferred by thy GLC to LBH. It then began to be run down by the Council, closing finally in 1988 amid plans to turn it into a car park.
In 1990 Tower Hamlets managed to bulldoze Victoria Park lido and replace it a car park. This spurred local people on to continue to fight to save London Fields Lido, even standing in front of a bulldozer in 1990 to prevent demolition. Local people led campaigns to reopen the Lido and cleared away vegetation. The children’s paddling pool which was closed in 1999, was reopened by local people for summer seasons.
In 1998 the Lido was squatted for housing, a café and communal events. London Reclaim the Streets held their weekly meetings here for a while. In August 1988 there was the Carnival of the Dispossessed, a benefit for Reclaim The Streets. The Lido was squatted for a second time 2002-2005. Here’s a nice story of that time from Ms Marmite Lover.
[Your past tense typist remembers the time well. Especially the benefit for RTS mentioned. Which might have been much less pleasant… A couple of days before, the deep end of the empty pool reflooded up to a depth of several feet, as the drain leading from the lido had become blocked. Since the deep end was the prospective stage for the upcoming gig, this was bit of a problem, unless a floating stage was an option… Your friendly neighbourhood squat plumber/radical historian was woken from his sleep in a far off part of south London, grabbed his drain rods and was rushed to the spot, and after some expert rodding the somewhat skanky watter drained away, in time for the pool to dry out and the gig to take place.]
LBH, rather late in the day discovered an enthusiasm for the Lido it was eventually evicted, and finally reopened it in 2006. it is now a source of pride for the Council which uses it frequently to promote the borough. But it would not be here now except for the concerted campaigns by local people and squatters.
Walk through London Fields and Trederwen Avenue to Brougham Road
1970s – ?1987 Housing
Dave Morris spoke about Brougham Road, using this text he wrote in 2008
“Well I was squatting in 64 Brougham Rd from 1974-1980. I was a postman in Islington. The house was very run down, with an old outside toilet and a sink for a kitchen. But we decorated the inside with posters, murals, press cuttings and inspiring slogans etc.
I shared the place with Alan, a really decent and quiet young bloke who became an alcoholic in the late 1970s. Alan once got nicked when drunk at a train station wearing my post office jacket and wheeling about a post office trolley with bags of letters on it. This led to a raid on the house and some laughable police hysteria about him and me being in an anarchist train robbers gang… I testified in court that I had known nothing about it (and that probably nor did Alan), but he still got 6 months suspended (Mentioned in Albert Meltzer’s autobiography, I Couldn’t Paint Golden Angels). After I left I think he went downhill, and last I heard he tragically got run over by a bus.
The other bloke we shared with was Des Kelly from Ireland who I recall was writing a book… I have a mad photo of him trying to ride his bike UP our staircase. I did bump into him in Hackney 15 years later but can’t remember what he was doing them.
Spanish Elizabeth was next door I think. Zoundz folks moved into my place or next door after I left. I vaguely recall a guy (Bruce?) living at No 66 who did animation and who told me he was working on an amazing path-breaking new film called ‘Star Wars’.. it didn’t sound to me like it would get anywhere with a crap name like that…
There was a very strong Broadway Market Squatters Association (with maybe 50+ homes in it from the area) which met regularly for mutual solidarity and campaigning. I remember we decided to boycott an amnesty offered by the GLC (London Authority) to squatters if we would accept licenses… the Association saw it as a sell out and divide and rule – we were all pretty militant and independent. But eventually many did accept licenses and then formed housing co-ops in order to keep together and survive.
There were lots of radical feminists in the area, many squatting – I admired them a lot.”
There’s a link to a great article on the 1970s London Fields women’s squat scene, written by a participant.
“Some were involved in the Women In Manual Trades group. Former German urban guerrilla Astrid Proll did apparently spend some time in the area and many people in the area helped form the Friends of Astrid Proll to campaign for her after she was arrested.
Astrid’s sojourn there inspired a song by Nik Turner of Hawkwind fame
I think a building which had been squatted at the south end of the street sometime in the early 70s became a collectively run playcentre..
There was a revolutionary socialist guy who was a tenant in the tower block at that end of the street and had had some run ins with NF fascists.. I vaguely remember getting involved in anti-fascist stuff in the area, painting out nazi slogans etc…
There was a good community, with squatters, tenants, feminists, anarchists and all age groups and nationalities all mixing and getting along pretty well.
There was famous graffiti on a wall at the end of the street by the market which survived for over 10 years: Broadway Market is not a sinking ship – its a submarine.’ It has been restored in recent years, but unfortunately gentrified a lot. It was amazing to go back there last year after decades away and visit Tony’s cafe which had been there when I was there I think, been evicted in order to be ponced up, and then re-occupied as a high profile squatted political centre opposing gentrification in the area (by some anarchists and ‘Hackney Independent’ activists.. see the Hackney Independent website for full info on this).”
More about Brougham Road
At some point the streets west of London Fields passed into the hands of the GLC – possibly after the Second World War. The GLC had plans to redevelop the wider Broadway Market area to encourage employment but left properties empty for a long time.
The east side of Brougham Road was squatted from at least the early 1970s. Some became licensed through Patchwork Housing.
A building was occupied and run as a nursery by a black group, becoming the Market Nursery, whose patron was Benjamin Zephaniah. The Market Nursery is still going in Wilde Close.
Behind Brougham Road was the old Dalston Bus Garage (on the site of a military barracks) which closed in 1981 and was replaced by Ash Grove bus garage. The bus garage was occupied by travellers in 1981-82. This may have been “uber hippy travellers the Ukrainian Mountain Troupe, who had occupied an abandoned bus garage near Brougham Road in Hackney” according to Alistair of Kill Your Pet Puppy…
This area was later redeveloped as housing by LBH: Suffolk Estate (1960s-1971) and the Regents Estate (1980-88), Grand Union Crescent & Dublin Avenue (1980s).
LBH approved the GLC’s development plans for the Broadway Market Area in 1975 but not much happened other than the building of Ash Grove bus station on Mare Street and Ada Street Workshops (1992).
Walk along Brougham Road and Benjamin Close to Broadway Market. No. 34 is straight ahead, No. 71 is to the left.
1970s – 2000s
Main speaker: Jim Paton
Broadway Market used to be a thriving shopping street and market. This declined until the 1970s when many of the shops were closed and the properties shuttered with corrugated iron. Some of the properties were owned by the GLC and LBH but some were privately owned (for example, in 1983 Prudential Insurance owned no. 53-61). The GLC’s plans to develop the area stopped other development happening.
Flats in the blocks around Broadway Market were also left empty, rented under the hard to let scheme and squatted including Warburton House and Jackman House.
The Council has various schemes to revive the area but little came of them. The GLC built Ash Grove bus station on Mare Street and the Ada Street workshops in the early 1980s.
In the early 2000s LBH was determined to revive the area by selling of the shops and flats above. Some leaseholders were able to buy their properties but many were sold at auction to overseas investment companies at less than market prices. Two sales were particularly contentious.
No.34, Francesca’s Café, was run by Tony Platia for over 30 years. He asked the Council if he could buy the property several times but was turned down. In 2004 the building was bought by Dr Roger Wratten along with the properties on either side of the café and other properties and land in the local area (including 2, 4, 6, 30, 32 Broadway Market; land to the rear of numbers 26-36 Broadway Market; 27 Marlborough Avenue). It seems that Wratten grew up in No. 36 next door.
Tony was evicted at the end of 2005 and the property was occupied to prevent the building’s demolition and as a protest against the wholesale sell-offs. The café was finally evicted in February 2006.
Tony now runs a juice stall in the market (which started in 2004). No. 34 still stands derelict.
No. 71, Nutritious Food Gallery, was run by Spirit who lived above with his family from 1993. When he starting renting it from LBH, the building was semi-derelict and he spent his own money doing it up and running a successful food shop. As leaseholder Spirit should have been given the first option to buy the property. But in 2002 when he went to the auctioneers and left a cheque he believed he had bought he building. But it was later sold at the auction to an offshore investment company for less money than he had offered. This company then raised his rent by 1200% with the clear intention of getting him out. Spirit attempted to pay this rent but ran into arrears and was finally evicted in October 2006.
No 71 is now the FIn and Flounder, a posh fish shop
[At this point on the 2011 walk, ‘some words’ were exchanged with the hipster fish shop owners who had bought Spirit’s old shop. Some people on the walk knew Spirit and took the piss out of the fishy folk. But are such middle class who buy into gentrification just tiddlers, just prawns in a larger game? Cod knows…]
Walk through Broadway Market & London Fields to the Warburton Estate garden
WARBURTON HOUSE & DARCY HOUSE
1970s – 2000s
Darcy House was the LCC’s first block in Hackney (1904), on the site of Dr Carbureting’s Asylum (1830s-1850s) and Pacifico’s alms houses for Sephardic Jews (about 1851). Warburton House was built slum clearance in 1935-38.
The Warburton Estate is typical of several estates in the local area (like Goldsmiths Row and the Haggerston Estate). Under the GLC it became run down and flats emptied. Some were squatted and some were let under the Hard To Let scheme.
2011: It rained heavily.
Walk through Mentmore Terrace, Sidworth Street to junction with Lamb Lane
LONDON FIELDS EAST:
Mentmore Terrace, Sidworth Street, Lamb Lane, Gransden Avenue
Sidworth Street was the site of a V2 bomb during the war and in the 1960s and 1970s industrial unties built. In 2010 one block (13018) was squatted as Urban HapHazard Squat. Some building around Sidworth Street and Mentmore Terrace are currently squatted, some with the knowledge/permission of the property owners.
Properties round here bough by local council after WW2 (bomb damage & slum clearance) and in the 1970s. During this time there were several traveller sites on Lamb Lane, Gransden Avenue and Mentmore Terrace. In the 1980s a site on Gransden Avenue/London Lane was being considered as a permanent local authority traveller site.
Walk down Lamb Lane (note Elizabeth Fry Way) & Mare Street
195 MARE STREET: NEW LANSDOWNE CLUB
2009 (September) – 2010 (August) Communal / social centre
This building was built in about 1697, probably for a wealthy merchant, Abraham Dolins. It is the second oldest house and third oldest building in Hackney (after St Augustine’s Tower and Sutton House). For the first 160 years (1697-1860), it was a merchant’s family home. For the next fifty-odd years (1860-1913), like many big houses around this area, it was turned over to institutional use. It became the Elizabeth Fry Refuge for Reformation of Women Prisoners. It housed women released from jail where they learnt the skills to go into domestic service. For ninety years (1913-2004), it became a liberal/radical social club – the New Lansdowne Club. During this time a new building was built out the back with a bar and a stage. After a long period of decline it finally closed in 2004.
In 2005 it was bought for a Vietnamese community and cultural centre but stood empty since then.
In 2009 the building was squatted as a very active social centre. Events included London Free School, benefits, skills sharing and film nights.
In May 2010 this company went bust and ownership passed to the Dunbar Bank which finally evicted the centre in August 2010. Currently (July 2011) on sale for £1 million.
“Opened at the end of 2009, it got evicted in August 2010. In the meanwhile, it hosted a considerable amount of weekly workshops and skill-sharing, but also theatre plays, gigs, movies, benefit parties, meetings, art exhibitions and performances, gardening and even a pantomime! The building is one of the oldest house in Hackney, its front part is the oldest (grade II listed) and there is a more recent back part that includes a stage. At the time squatters moved in, it was owned by some developers company who simply wanted to demolish part of it and build flats. But the developers got bankrupt and their bank, Dunbar Bank, took over. They evicted the squatters, redone the facade and nothing else, and are now selling it out…”
This was then squatted and open on Sundays – we dropped in to get dry, drink tea & play music. An ex-diving shop, it was owned by property developers. [Not sure what happened after this- Ed]
Some people went on to Well Furnished – 11 Terrace Rd, opposite Well Street
Well Furnished was unfortunately evicted not long after (26th of August 2011). It was “located in Well street, Homerton, a vibrant area where locals seem to have established strong links with each other. The St John Hackney Joint Charities Trust owns a lot of properties on this street and have decided to increase the rents by up to 300%, forcing people to leave their buildings. The WellFurnished collective occupied some of these buildings in early summer 2011, and organised lots of events: benefit cafes/dinners/gigs, exhibitions, painting/dancing/yoga workshops, meetings etc.”
Walk down Mare Street to London Lane / Belling Road
LONDON LANE/ELLINGFORT ROAD
1980s – 1994
The Victorian terraced housing in this area was not built to a very high standard. After the Second World War the Council compulsorily purchased some buildings in the area.
In the mid 1970s LBH planned to create an Industrial Improvement Area between Mare Street and London Fields in an attempt to stem the loss of employment. The Council compulsory purchased more buildings and got rid of existing residents and businesses. It was not keen to hand housing over for short life in case it slowed down development.
Squatters moved into the empty buildings and travellers into the yards (the earliest reference we found was to 1979 but may have been earlier). Artists organisations Acme and Space persuaded the Council to hand over some buildings for studios and living but many of the other properties were squatted. Space leased a building in Martello Street since 1971 and Acme had buildings on Martello Street and Mentmore Terrace.
In 1985 the Council proposed demolishing all the buildings in Ellingfort Road, London Lane and Mentmore Terrace. Between 1885 and 1992 some of the short life housing co-ops left and more houses were squatted.
In 1995 the Council announced its intention to create a fenced off industrial area between Mare Street and the railway, taking in London Lane, Ellingfort Road and Mentmore Terrace. In 1997 the Council got EU funds for this scheme but it was bitterly opposed by local people who wanted a mixture of housing and small scale workspaces.
Some of the squatters had by now acquired ownership of their properties.
Some of the people living in the two streets, both squatters and people in housing co-ops, got together to form a housing coop to take on the redevelopment. In the end eight houses were handed back to the Council for development for live/work units and the rest remained as a co-op.
A former resident said “21 Ellingfort Road was the home of two Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Sister Belladonna and Mother Mandragora. Sometimes they hung out on the street in full habit and no one batted an eyelid and came home on the 55 bus in full habit too. We once went to the ‘pub with no name’ next to the hackney empire in full habit to a gig”.
Walk up Mare Street to the Town Hall
282 Richmond Road, squatted in 2002 as a community art space
Great Eastern Buildings on Reading Lane built for railway workers) deteriorated, run as a hostel, squatted ?around 2005.
270 Mare Street – former Methodist Hall
1988 and 1995–1996
Spikey Thing with Curves
no 270 was possibly originally the Mothers’ Hospital of the Salvation Army 1884-1913, then a Mission Methodist Hall.
In March 1988 it was occupied after the mass eviction of many squats on the Stamford Hill estate.
In 1995 and1996 it was squatted as a social space, Spikey Thing With Curves. A large mural was painted on the outside and parties were holed there.
HACKNEY TOWN HALL
The Town Hall was the site of many demonstrations against Council policies. In the 1980s squatters were many and organised, and about 90% of squats in council properties so there was regular conflict:
- 1987: “Hackney Squatters Army””disrupted every monthly council meeting
- 1988: Stamford Hill Estate evicted, Town Hall & Methodist Hall opposite occupied by evicted squatters.
- May 1989:The Town Hall was occupied after squatted centre Lee House eviction was resisted.
- In 1993-94 Council started cracking down on squatting, offering short life & tenancies to some, evictions to others.
- A 1994 protest against the Criminal Justice Act here ended in arrests and heavy charges.
Some info handed out on the walk:
Totally Independent (Newsletter of Haringey Solidarity Group) Issue 20 Summer 2011
Leaflets from Hackney Housing History project
The Radical History of Hackney blog
Kill Your Pet Puppy: many interesting pages, this one on Brougham Road
Lost Boys of the Lido | Ms Marmite Lover:
Hackney Society: New Lansdowne Club