Changing, Always Changing: Brixton before the Riots, part 1

“I think the old man told me he was eighty years old, and that when he was a boy, the green hedges ran from the pastures of Kent, Sussex and Surrey through Brixton to the abattoirs in Smithfield. He remembered the drovers driving their sheep down the heavily verdured Brixton Hill. He was sitting on the rear nearside three-seat of a 109 bus and I was wedged between the stairs and the entrance to the lower saloon. He sat with his legs wide apart, his hands resting one above the other on the curved handle of his stick. It was a warm, sunny afternoon, the type which encourages conversation! He looked away from me and muttered, ‘Changing, changing, always changing!’” (Donald Hinds)

As an introduction to our series of posts on riots, radical politics and underground culture in South London’s most disorderly suburb, here’s a kind of introduction to Brixton’s early history (pre-the 1960s). It’s only a sketch, its vastly inadequate, and could do with being fleshed out a lot. We’ll add to it when we can…

Although Brixton has been used as a name for the northernmost Hundred (the administrative district as the Saxons organised them) for a thousand years, there was no real village or even hamlet in Central Brixton until the 1800s. The area now covered by Brixton was divided for centuries into lands belonging to various Manors, and estates owned by gentry such as the Angell family, the Archbishops of Canterbury, the Dukes of Bedford etc. A network of roads ran through the estates, with a smattering of coaching inns along what are now Clapham Road and Brixton Road, respectively the major roads to the South West of England and the South Coast. Until the 18th Century there were small groups of houses at Stockwell Green and Coldharbour (now Loughborough Junction). The whole area was farmland, commons and woods. Brixton ‘Town Centre’ as it is now known was waste land, part of Rush Common (which was then much larger).

From the mid-eighteenth century, well-to-do people started to move out from London, to the comparative peace and quiet of what was then North Surrey. They built houses along the main roads. Houses spread south from Stockwell, as landowners enclosed waste and Common land and divided it into plots for building, or sold off their lands altogether. In 1800, a long terrace called Brixton Place was built along what is now Brixton Road, between Beehive Place and Coldharbour Lane. A well-to-do suburb sprang up; many of the houses had rooms in the basement or attic for live-in servants.

This rash of building swallowed up many fields and also open spaces, some of which had a history as gathering points, places to meet. One such space was Stockwell Green, an open space which lay around half way between Brixton and Stockwell tube station. By the nineteenth century fairly small, the green space was used for local recreation – some of which apparently got quite rowdy. Possibly the disorderly nature of the Green was linked to Stockwell’s position: the village was known as a smugglers’ stronghold, located as it was on the smuggling routes from the south coast via Croydon…?

As the area got built up, the increasing more up market local residents started to object to the ‘nuisance’ caused by plebs hanging out on the green. In the 1850s, a local gentleman named Mr Barret, bought up the land, built railings around it & planted it over. Other locals who objected to this enclosure broke down the fence to resume their partying. In 1855 a committee of worthies erected a new fence, excluding the public. Eventually a case went to court in 1874, but the Green was built over and lost. Other local green spaces faced pressures for enclosure and taming: like the famous Kennington Common were not lost, but were landscaped, in the 1850s, fenced in and the crowds that had met there for radical demonstrations or enjoyed unruly games there were excluded (There were complaints in following years that the rowdy crowds had moved to Clapham Common). The notorious fair at Camberwell Green was shut down and the space similarly landscaped in the same decade.

A few decades later Brockwell Park, once the grounds of a private house, was saved from creeping development and builders by a public campaign, begun in 1889 to buy the land for a park.

The river Effra, which flows through Brixton to Kennington and the Thames, was also covered over as a sewer in the nineteenth century, though it had once been navigable by boat allegedly as far as Brixton…

The arrival of the railways in Brixton in the 1860s, as in other London suburbs, changed the social nature of the area. Partly for profit and partly to get parliamentary approval, railway companies had to provide cheap workman’s fares, which meant workers no longer had to live in crowded lodgings in the centre of London, they could now travel in to work. Wages for skilled workers were also rising in the late nineteenth century. As a result, around Brixton station, new streets of terraced housing for clerks, artisans and skilled workmen started to spring up, more closely packed together.

But in the late 19th Century, Brixton was still seen as reasonably up-market, and with the development of the shopping area around Brixton Road, which became “the Oxford Street of South London” with pioneering stores like Bon Marche, Britain’s first department store, it was the place to be. Electric Avenue famously was the first shopping street lit by electric lamps in 1888. But the process of social change accelerated as trams and horse- and then motorised buses spread; more and more houses were built. Around 1900 many of the earlier leases on the big suburban villas lapsed, and most were pulled down and replaced by flats or smaller houses.

Several cinemas were built, of which only the Ritzy is still going as a cinema, although the
Academy was built in 1929 as a spanking new posh picture theatre. Its rival, the Empress Theatre, in Brighton Terrace, behind Red Records, had previously been a Music Hall. In 1906 a strike of music hall performers against big employer Fred Karno, led to a demo outside the Empress which then marched to Karno’s office in Camberwell. They won a 5 shilling a week pay rise. The Empress eventually became a Bingo Hall, then closed (to be squatted in a mass squat by 40 odd people in Summer 1989, for about 4 hours before the cops stormed in and kicked everyone out. It was later knocked to build flats.) Variety artists were still fighting their corner here 50-odd years later:  Dale Martin, boss of Joint Promotions, of Brixton, was one of several wrestling promoters opposed by Variety Artists Federation in a 1962 dispute, over terms of wrestling employment… The VAF were supported by Trades Councils, who called upon boroughs to refuse to let halls (such as Camberwell and Dulwich Baths) to Joint Promotions. (A larger VAF strike followed a few months later).

The street market began in Atlantic Road in the 1870s: originally, like many street markets, it began unofficially, and Lambeth Vestry (the precursor to the Borough Council) tried to ban it in 1881 because of the crowds it attracted. The market was originally held in a wide open space between Atlantic Road and Coldharbour Lane, but  it was moved into Station Road (1921) and Electric Avenue (1949): the open space was built over by a widening of the road in 1935 (though the space in front of the Ritzy/ the new Windrush Square alterations have revived an open space here). Market and cinemas gave the centre of Brixton an increasingly working class character, although the area continued to be considered South London’s top shopping spot into the 1930s. (These days, the long West Indian character of the market is being eroded, and the long-term direction is for the market to be gentrified out of all recognition.)

Radicalism and strike action

The increasing working class presence was reflected in the appearance of radical organisations… Although in the radical upsurge of the 1870s there doesn’t seem to have been a Radical Club in the area in those years.

There was a later Star Radical Club at 8 Mayall Road, by 1889, at which William Morris was advertised as speaking on ‘Socialism’, on the 24th November. The Sociali Democratic Federation had a branch in Clapham.

By 1907 the revolutionary communists of the Communist Propaganda Groups had a Brixton branch. The Groups were set up originally by the Clerkenwell-born anarchist-communist Guy Aldred; this was the first time the word ‘communist’ had been used in the name of a British organisation.

Brixton was not, like say Deptford or Battersea, a major centre of working class activity: during the May 1926 General Strike the area was said to be very quiet. There was a recruiting centre here for special constables (the mainly middle class volunteers used to break the Strike), many were sent to other areas where there was more trouble, such as Camberwell. Brixton and Streatham were said by the South London Press (setting a fine example by running a scab edition) to have a full bus service running by Tuesday 11th May, in contrast to more organised areas: Lambeth Trades Council were a bit belatedly organising a Joint Transport Committee meeting on the 11th to try and put a stop to this. The Trades Council did hold a “very successful demo” on May 9th in Brockwell Park, attended by 20,000 people. Strikers also played several games of cricket in the Park – though not with the police; no Plymouth-style football-with-the-enemy here.

Although Brixton was quiet, there was fighting in Clapham High Street on the evening of Friday 7th May, when a number of lorries occupied by strikers and sympathisers tried to block the traffic… foot and mounted police charged crowds and cleared the street. There was also fighting in the Vauxhall on  the 8th of May. Local people built barricades on south side of the Bridge… police fought strikers in the streets, chasing them through back streets near Embankment, where women rained down bottles on the cops heads! Groups of strikers gathered outside pubs… Graham Greene was a special on Vauxhall Bridge, was a student then. Later in life he thought better of it and said he should have been on the other side.

In the era of defeat and depression in the late 1920s and early 1930s, local unemployed were active in trying to force concessions from the local Board of Guardians, who grudgingly gave out ‘relief’ (ie dole). In 1932 the Public Assistance Committee, based in Rushcroft Road (beside the library) was besieged by a crowed of the unemployed. Rushcroft had already developed into a Speakers corner for local socialists.

From the First World War, the standard of private housing for rent began to decline; not only was the Government forced to order a freeze on private rents (mainly due to pressure from huge wartime rent strikes in Glasgow, the East End and elsewhere), but few new houses were being built privately. Landlords squeezed more and more tenants in to maximise profits. In Brixton many houses had been split up to provide flats or boarding houses, especially for music hall/theatre performers and backstage workers, who could easily get back to Brixton late from work in the West End, and also workers in Brixton’s many shops. (The theatre veterans could still be found in the 1990s: my 87-year-old neighbour in St Matthews Estate in the mid-90s had been a stagehand, her flatmate was a minor music hall star.) By the 30s, the posher residents had mainly moved out into rural areas.

Local authority and London Country Council housing meanwhile grew, after the Housing of the Working Classes Act, 1901. From the first LCC block in Briscoe’s Buildings (now Renton Close, in front of the prison), many blocks were built in Tulse Hill, Loughborough Park, Cowley Road in the 1930s.

Fascists in Brixton

Brixton’s already cosmopolitan community were not prepared to tolerate the incursion of race hate mongers. Fascist groups sprang up in the late 40s in many parts of London… They used to sell their literature and speak in the street… They achieved some success and support in Bethnal Green, Hackney and West London, but South London was always a thorn in their side… they continually failed to gather much support for their racist and anti-semitic crap darn sarf.

Brixton may have become a BUF target as there was a small but obvious Jewish community there. The fascists came on occasion to hold public meetings in the street; some places in the area they used to speak in were in Brockwell Park, on Clapham Common, in Brixton Station Road, and Rushcroft Road (The end of Rushcroft Road by the library operated as a speakers corner of sorts: in the 1930s, the National Unemployed Workers Movement held street meetings there, as did other leftwing groups).
In 1948, Oswald Mosley’s post-war far right outfit, the Union Movement, were holding 5 meetings a week in Brixton and Clapham; but they were usually bussed out under escort by the police, due to angry hostility from local people. The mainly Jewish 43 Group, which was breaking up fascist rallies and meetings, infiltrating their HQs and harassing their papersellers, formed a South London branch around this time.

One Union Movement meeting at this time ended badly for the would-be stormtroopers. They arrived in Station Road to find 43 group activists had nicked their pitch and were holding a lively anti-fascist meeting. The narked Nazis set up round the corner, but as Jeffrey Hamm, one of Mosley’s extreme-right-hand-men, was speaking, his giving a nazi salute enraged hostile local onlookers who rushed the platform. The Union Movement goons were defended by the police, who escorted them to Stockwell tube, but they were ambushed by 43 Group commandos at Victoria and battered.

After another stormy Union Movement meeting, several hundred locals spontaneously marched to the Labour Party rooms, to try and demand action against the fascists from local MP Marcus Lipton… (he was out).

The Mosleyites were still active in Brixton in May 1952, when 50 marched to Rushcroft Road to hold a rally.

After the Wars

Although Brixton didn’t suffer as much bomb damage as many other areas of London in World War 2, the post-War housing shortage had long-term affects all over London. Much of what was damaged was rebuilt as council housing. Throughout the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, new estates, either GLC or Council-built, replaced whole neighbourhoods of terraces. Meanwhile many privately rented houses continued to decline, as leases ran out, few repairs were done, no private stock was being built, and rent freezes continued to piss off greedy landlords. Other houses were sold to owner occupiers or compulsory purchased by the Council for slum clearance. Many streets of private housing began to decay.

Brixton became an area where cheap housing could be found. The area was used to a transient population, even a slightly disreputable community, such as the music hall workers who had always found digs here. The area was even then home to a wide variety of races.

‘Dark Strangers’

Attitudes to renting rooms to those not easily tolerated elsewhere were looser.

This was vitally important in the 1950s to the future of Brixton, as Jamaican and other Caribbean immigrants coming to London began to settle in the area. The first 1948 pioneers arriving on the Windrush were temporarily housed by the government in a Deep Shelter on Clapham Common; nearby Brixton was one of the first areas some of them found places to live. The ‘50s especially was an era where the “No Irish No Blacks No Dogs” policy was vigorously pursued by many private landlords.

Lambeth however positively welcomed the new arrivals, officially at least. Once fledgling communities were established, newer arrivals tended to gravitate there, where neighbours, friends, and people they felt at home with, already lived.

The area around Somerleyton Road and Geneva Road (now lost under the Moorlands Estate) became the heart of the early Caribbean settlement in Brixton, known as Little Jamaica. The housing rapidly became overcrowded, as people unable to find accommodation elsewhere accumulated; the Council was suspected of collaborating with this, turning a blind eye to overcrowding to avoid black people getting rehousing in council properties. In 1951, white residents were petitioning the Council to put a stop to the growth of the small black community, claiming it was having an adverse affect on the neighbourhood… By 1954, councillors had decided to pressure the Colonial Office to set up transit and reception centres nationwide, in an attempt to channel some of the Caribbean migrants elsewhere.

Discrimination in housing met with a community response from the outset… Afro-Caribbeans pooled savings in the ‘pardner’ or ‘sou-sou’ system, where a group (often hailing from the same island or town in the West Indies) would save collectively, and lend out a lump sum in turn to each individual to buy a house or flat… At inflated prices, and inflated interest rates, which led to more overcrowding and multi-occupation. Which later brought the Public Health Act down on their heads.

This overcrowding was perceived from the outside by racist whites, as “look at the way they live!”, the old self-fulfilling prophecy.

The new arrivals were for years pushed into the most menial jobs, nursing, transport, factory work, as bus conductors, like Donald Hinds:

“We had just passed Raleigh Gardens with its well shaded area where the houses stand well back from the street behind tall trees and a blush of greenery, as if hinting at a snobbish past… where Sir Walter Raleigh might have lived and entertained the great Queen Bess, I wondered about Hawkins, Drake, Raleigh, Gloriana, England, Africa, the West Indies and slavery. Was I angry with the ‘guardian’ spirit of colonialism, cynically bringing two or three of those illustrious people to view the prospects of Brixton on the banks of the River Effra, for a people who were to come after them; but whose antecedents they uncompromisingly shackled into slavery, all those centuries ago before the River Effra was forced underground?”

Tensions in pubs and clubs, with hostile whites, the impossibility for many black people to get licences, led to the growing up of a largely separate social culture from white society.

A sense of the experience of Caribbeans living in Brixton is evocatively summed up by Donald Hinds:

“We stood with our backs to the Labour Exchange in Coldharbour Lane, and looked slightly to the left towards the grim tenements of Somerleyton and Geneva Roads. Those decaying edifices, the refuge of people from the Caribbean, stood with their backs to each other as if they had been engaged in a feud for generations, now with the bitterness weakened by a plague of dry rot and neglect, they wished to hide from each other the excrescences of time! West Indians did not create the ghetto. They were caught, as in the statutory scene in films, where if you are discovered standing over the corpse, you must be the murderer. Rice and peas and ‘scobeech’ (escoveitch) fish, or souse pork cooked on gas rings in passages and on top of landings, of course, did the walls very little good, but still, no-one has proven that Fish an’ Chips cooked under the same conditions would have improved the situation. The kernel of the fact was, that those old houses were goldmines to their owners in the final years before the council’s compulsory purchase order was enforced. When one’s white fellow workers were paying less than twenty shillings per week, the going rate for a single room [for Caribbeans] was fifty shillings. Quite often where two or more people shared a room, each occupant was required to pay thirty shillings or more. In these days of spacious if still unsalubrious accommodation, the rooms shared in the fifties are remembered as being quite small, with a double bed, always a double bed, a hope, it seemed, that a man and a woman would eventually share the room. There were wardrobes, a big one and a small one, a dressing table. The tenants provided their own radiogrammes. On top of the wardrobes were always stacked suitcases. We were a transitory people!”

As Hinds points out, West Indians came here seeking a better life…

 “Now the rapidly contracting world was offering the subsistence farmer and the yardboy the chance of breaking out of the economic swamp water they and their fathers before them had been trapped in.

Initially at the invite of British Government departments:

“Advertisements were being placed in Caribbean newspapers emphasizing Britain’s need for workers, and the South London Press could be bought at Hildalge’s Drug Store near West Parade in downtown Kingston, Jamaica…”

“When I was demobbed I came to Brixton because a friend who got out of the service before me had found a place to live in Vassall Road… He was able to find me lodgings in the house where he lived. At that time there were no more than three propoerties in Brixton which were owned by coloured people. One was in Mostyn Road, one in Geneva Road and the other in Somerleyton Road. I helped a buddy when was demobbed a few months later. He in turn got digs for another friend, and within a year eight of us boys were living in Brixton. From then on the thing must have just snowballed…” (Larry Wilson)

We were not ignored nor were we welcomed… What should be done with less than 100,000 blacks dressed in baggy cotton suits and dresses, straw hats and brightly coloured headkerchiefs? Officialdom glanced hypocritically at black immigration: ‘They are British citizens, free to come and go, as they please.’… The West Indies, which had been created for exploitation, have always looked elsewhere for its own economic salvation! Earlier in the century British Caribbean migrants had helped to build the Panama Canal, and had planted the bananas in the Central American Republics, and the sugar cane in Cuba. During the Second World War, West Indians were recruited to work on the farms in the USA. Others went northeastward to fight in Hitler’s war. Nothing here laid claim to privileges, but coming from a corner of the empire where the four senior colonies, Barbados, Jamaica, British Guiana and Trinidad were collectively linked to Britain by four hundred years of colonialism, it was crushing to be considered ‘dark strangers’!”

The migrants brought with them a street culture which they transplanted to the chilly streets of Brixton – a collective, outdoor toing, froing and talking that to this day is still seen as threatening by the more uptight respectable British…

“My guide to Brixton had warned me that, as soon as I had finished my business at the Labour Exchange, I should go immediately to my room in Geneva Road. It was a shared room, but at that time of the day the others would be at work. His cautious counselling was wise for at the time it was being pointed out that groups of ‘coloured’ men (coloured, was such a polite descriptive word then) numbering fifty to hundreds were sitting on walls, standing around, leaning against fences and generally making the place look depressingly untidy. But few looking on understood the crushing loneliness, which could prompt a man to cross a busy street to talk to another man for no other reason than the man was also black. A distinctive minority will forever be in exile. So they congregated outside the Labour Exchange to talk, to remember and to forget…

But we were an outdoor people! We hailed each other from a distance and stood around in groups chatting and waving our hands in the excitement of it all. We talked about jobs or the lack of them, of rooms with less than four occupants, or of someone who was about to buy a house and did not want more than two people sharing rooms – a major social advancement at the time… more young men were sending for their women and older men for their wives… the cinema and the Saturday night parties were balms to the aching souls…

 With a colour bar excluding them from many pubs and clubs, the Carribbeans built their own social life:

“The Saturday night party was the universal form of immigrant entertainment… These parties were indeed noisy, robust with a tantalising touch of eroticism as bodies touched in a slow grinding mento. In the beginning drinks were free. The parties were smaller then, and everybody was known to the host, and the following weekend he would be at one of his guest’s party. By the end of the fifties, it no longer made economic sense to adequately provide drinks for nearly a hundred people. Most of these ‘guests’ would prefer a more personal choice by buying their own drinks… Drinks were sold and the parties became illegal. Police raids were intensified as more and more neighbours complained about the noise next door. It seemed that if you were enjoying yourself after midnight, you were beating your wife, up to no good, indulging in illicit pleasure and generally beyond the law. The neighbour was always worried about the soul of the people next door…”

A.G. Bennett sarcastically commented that it was always someone else that was racist, never the person refusing you work or a flat:

“Since I come ‘ere I never met a single English person who ‘ad any colour prejudice. Once, I walked the whole length of a street lookin for a room, and everyone told me that he or she ‘ad no prejudice against coloured people. was the neighbour who was stupid. If we could only find the neighbour we could solve the entire problem. But to find ‘im is the trouble! Neighbours are the worst people to live beside in this country.” (Bennett, Because They Know Not)

“Living besides reluctant neighbours in the years between the birth of Rock ‘n ‘Roll and Punk has eroded many myths. The Banana Boat Man, the migrants who crowded the decks of the S. S. Empire Windrush, the S.S. Auriga and the S.S. Castel Verde, are middle aged or near retiring now… Was all this then, any more than a threat, at best, a pattern, woven on the fabric of British society? And now pushed into the mounds of time as bulldozers have wrecked the houses from Crawshay Road, Ackerman, Bramah, Villa and Geneva Roads?” (Hinds, op. cit)

The ‘race riots’ of 1958 in Notting Hill, and Nottingham, whipped up by Mosleyite fascists (back with a new boogeyman since their defeat in the late 40s), fear of the new migrants finding easy root in xenophobic communities afraid of competition for jobs and houses,  teddy boys looking for people to fight, and and resenting  “too many white women paying too little attention to the colour bar!” White mobs rampaged through Black-dominated streets and attacked people von the street, houses, clubs and shops.

Although there were not disturbances in Brixton in 1958, prominent Black radicals who lived in Brixton like Claudia Jones were involved in the aftermath, supporting Notting Hill West Indians arrested for trying to organize resistance, and eventually launching the Carnival as a way of building cross-community relations. But the 1958 riots also left a legacy, among the generation who lived through that time of fear, who in many cases continued to fear that a violent white backlash would come again. For some, the memory lead them to keep their heads down and try to work hard and fit in so as not to attract hostile attention.

Other communities enriched the irrepressible life of Brixton: of old there had been a sizable Jewish community (the old synagogue in Effra Road was only converted into the Eurolink Business Centre in the 90s, after years of dereliction); Irish, for many years, as in all of inner London’s working class communities; Portuguese in Stockwell Road; later squatting brought all sorts of people in from all over. Aussies, Kiwis, Spanish, South Americans, Dutch, Italians, later Yugoslavs, Poles, Yanks, South Africans.  In the 80s there were always a number of young squatters dodging military service, from all over Europe (France and Spain especially), but also from Israel, South Africa, etc. More recently it’s Nigerians, Somalis, Poles… The area was always full of transients, people on the way somewhere else, settling here for a while. London is a city of shifting sands anyway, for many.  But due to its international reputation and the libertarian/alternative scene there was a constant wash of young rebels, refugees from various crap regimes or mind-numbing suburbs/small towns. The chaotic pub life: sometimes bizarre, you never knew you’d get talking to next.

Thoughout the 1950s and 60s, the gradual withdrawing from the empire and loss of the colonies led to a falling back for many white British people on their feeling of racial superiority to “the coloureds”. Hence the rise of racist attacks, race riots, as in Camden in 1954, Notting Hill and Nottingham in 1958, the murder of Kelso Cochrane in 1959; and support for fascist groups like Oswald Mosley and co. In some areas tenants & residents groups organised to keep blacks out of social housing, afraid “they” would spread into ‘white’ areas. Public health laws were also invoked to attack multi-occupation.

In response to racism many Black Communities kept their heads down and tired to simply weather the storm.

Meanwhile Black culture grew and developed, in many ways isolated from parallel white British society. Later this would produce the illegal clubs, the blues, that came to dominate the social life of black Brixton, and gave birth to the Frontline.

Bass Culture

The Blues, the toasting and verbal duelling of the MCs in the 1950s, mixed with the new sounds of ska and reggae coming in from Jamaica in the ‘60s, gradually evolved into a complex culture of sound systems, DJs and MCs.

Brixton, like a number of London areas, hosted a web of wildly interesting music scenes, which merged into each other, splintered off into new genres and cross-fertilised with new influences… In the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, Brixton ‘soul boys’ got down to some serious ska, at the Ramjam Club

Named for Geno Washington’s Ram Jam band, a regular headliner here – the club was at 390 Brixton Road, in a basement under a gas showroom… (Interestingly the original Fridge nightclub, now internationally famous, started in the same building in 1984, but on the first floor…)

 “Every Sunday between 3 and 6 o’clock we used to go to this club in Brixton, the ram Jam Club… and listen to [ska, reggae and rocksteady] and socialize…” (Linton Kwesi Johnson)

(In a postscript to this: a late ‘60s white nazi skin gave this account of conflict with the ‘soul boys’ to Roger Hewitt: “[Skinheads] formed a big massive movement. We had control of a place called the Locarno, it’s up Streatham. There were thousands of skinheads come from all over the place. And the Old Bill never touched us. And one night the nig-nogs came up. They were called “soul boys” then, the niggers them days, and they came, about five hundred of them, from a place called the Ram Jam. Do you know Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band? Well that was their scene—Brixton. And our area was Streatham—a white man’s area. And we run that place, doing the Skinhead Moonstomp and all that. And they came up and reckoned they wanted to take it over. Our place. So we said, “Fair enough.” The word got around London and thousands of skins drove down. By nine o’clock there was 1,000, 500 in. By ten o’clock there were 3,000 skins. The nig-nogs started then and we ran them all the way to Brixton and we walked through Brixton after that. We didn’t touch their area before but we ran through Brixton and you couldn’t see a nig-nog on the street. Any nig-nog walked on the street was dead. We could smash em to pieces. That’s the way it should be today.”

Did this really happen? Such skinhead rampages weren’t uncommon – in Brick Lane a few years later, for example.)

An alternative view exists of these tensions between Locarno and Ram Jam; according to ex-Black Panther Danny Dacosta: “Ram Jam was quote a ‘black club’ and Locarno was ‘ a white club’. So we shouldn’t really mix. I think that what happened is that guys were looking for girls, as they do at that age, and the Locarno had an abundance, and the guys were reasonably successful which caused resentment with the local guys. And of course the bouncers and the security people, now they sided with the local guys against us. So when we were eventually banned from going in, I suppose that was one of the first actual demonstrations, yes, unofficial, you know, there was nobody really behind it but we just felt so incensed that we were being denied entry that we were boycotting it, you know. So we went up there and dissuaded people, black guys going in… and I suppose maybe that’s where it started.”

The Locarno later became Caesars, which is still a huge and popular nightclub on Streatham Hill.

As unemployment grew in the 1970s, black people were among the first to get laid off, a generation grew up that had NEVER had work; the alternative economy of growing/dealing hash rocketed, and this fed into and was fed by a burgeoning self-created musical subculture.

Reggae and Rastafarian Culture, hitting London in the early 70s, formed a powerful unifying cultural force for some blacks, in the face of the police oppression, educational bias and racism they faced… The MCs created a social commentary in their toasting of their oewn lyrics over the instrumental dub b-sides of imported Jamaican singles, often dealing with the harshness and conflict of streetlife, relations with the boys in blue etc…

“Very, very important, the only thing that pull us together is our colour and the music; and the only thing that take us away from the day to day jobs of life was the music on a Saturday night… we form a band way back then, called the Black Volts, in Battersea. We used to rehearse in places like Brixton. In those days it was the Black Volts and another band from Battersea called Matumbe, and we used to play all the local clubs… We used to entertain black people and I mean it was strictly Reggae, trying to play the type of music that was coming out of Jamaica. So we did that for about ten, fifteen years. I remember the first Reggae promotion to be done in south London, with live band from this country, was done by us in conjunction with Matumbe. We hired a church hall in Lavender Hill and we decide to promote our first show, and we put on that show and we were playing things like “Liquidator”. And the whole community turned out because, in those days, once you have a get together, everybody turned up and, believe it or not, we didn’t make a penny. But it was one of our most enjoyable experience because we had about four or five hundred people in there, even though they knock the door down and they didn’t pay. But they had a great night and the experience was our first as far as playing live, and it stay with me until this very day. I suppose it will stay with me for ever. … You walk around in south London and everybody used to call to you, “I saw you on Saturday. Wicked! Wicked!” and we develop and we start to play and we just take off from there… there weren’t that many bands. They had people like ourself and Matumbe in south London. You had the Cimarons over in Harlesden… that was before people like Aswad and Maxi Priest and all these people come about. So we were the predecessor, we set the standard for these guys.” (Mike Nesbitt)

As migration from Commonwealth countries increased in the 1960s, there was pressure for legal controls on immigration. The 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act restricted immigration from ex-colonies. While making clucking noises at racial violence on the streets, the State nationalised racism, determining that the proper authorities would be the ones to regulate any need and supply of cheap workers. There was a growth in discrimination at work against black people, as fear was whipped up… There is no doubt that the growing institutionalisation of racism led the police to feel freer to attack black communities, on more organised levels.

But Black and Asian political and campaign groups also began to organise against Immigration Acts, racist attacks, and inequality…



Coming tomorrow: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Resistance and Black Power in 1970s Brixton


Part 2 of past tense’s series of articles on Brixton; before, during and after the riots of 1981.

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


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