Today in London’s penal herstory, 1784: Sarah Scott killed during Clerkenwell Bridewell ‘riot’.

Clerkenwell Bridewell was a prison and correctional institute for prostitutes and vagrants located in the Clerkenwell area, immediately north of the City of London, between c.1615 and 1794, when it was superseded by the nearby Coldbath Fields Prison in Mount Pleasant. It was named ‘Bridewell’ after the Bridewell Palace, which during the 16th century had become one of the City of London’s most important punishment institutions, aimed at disciplining the increasing unruliness of London’s lower classes through hard work, moral lessons and brutal physical abuse. The Clerkenwell institution served a similar purpose.

If the original Bridewell served the City of London, Clerkenwell was opened to cope with the large numbers who lived just over the City’s northern border, in the county of Middlesex, in the growing and disorderly suburbs outside the City’s control.

Both men and women were imprisoned here, in separate wings, (though married couples could get a joint cell!)

Next-door to the Bridewell was another prison, the New Prison (open 1617-1877). With the House of Detention, the Bridewell, the Clerkenwell Workhouse, the Quaker Workhouse (just north of the Bridewell), the madhouse & the charity school, this small area was a close network of institutions for coercion & repression in the late 18th century.

Prison escaper supreme Jack Sheppard famously broke out of the New Prison with his squeeze Edgeworth Bess in 1724, descending down the wall by rope, only to find they had landed in the yard of the neighbouring Bridewell, and had to promptly improvise an escape from there as well… In June 1780: the Clerkenwell Bridewell was broken into & all the prisoners released, during the Gordon Riots.

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On 1st August 1784, a ‘riot’ broke out at about six in the evening, in the women’s section of the Clerkenwell Bridewell prison. During the disturbance, William Stevenson, a member of the London Watch, shot a prisoner, Sarah Scott, dead.

There was some disturbance in the prison of Clerkenwell by the prisoners, concerning the distribution of their provisions, which were either detained longer, or not given at the usual place…”

According to witness John Woodward, at Stevenson’s later trial:

“I was a turnkey at this prison, there was a disturbance, I think it was on Friday; on Friday night I let the women down as usual to serve them their fines, but there was a great disturbance, and I thought proper on the Saturday to serve them through the hole, as well as the men, and that would keep them from the men, and so I did, it was very quiet; on the Saturday, the men had broke a hole through their wall into the women’s wall; we were obliged to set up all night, and have workmen all night to mend that hole up again: on Sunday evening, about six o’clock, I went to serve the women as usual, and thought they would take it quietly again; when I came to bring in the basket, Ann Charnock, one of the women, began to blaspheme and swear that they would have it down as usual, I expostulated with them that it was the Governor’s orders, which I must obey; I thought within myself, if I let her down the rest will be quiet, and take their fines as usual; she slew at me and drove me from the gate, the rest began to swear they would have the gate down: Forsyth, another servant of our’s, came to my assistance, and she began to sly at him, however between us we got her into the lodge, we told her we must punish her for her impudence, and we put her on a small pair of irons, to cool her and calm her; she caught me by my coat; and I did not see them take the arms.
– Whilst you was in the lodge was there a great noise and disturbance in the gaol? – Undoubtedly.
– Did you hear any thing particular? – I heard nothing particular, I cannot say what kind of noise it was.
– Was there any stones, or any thing else thrown? – There were stones thrown whilst I was in the yard, undoubtedly, plenty, a great many.
– Where did they get them from? – Pulling the wall down, and pulling up the pavement, here are some of the stones.

(A quantity of stones almost as big as a man’s head produced.)”

A prisoner later gave evidence at the same trial, which makes it sound like not so much of a threat:

“- You say the women were very riotous at this time? – Yes, they did make a great noise.
– In consequence of this Charnock was ironed? – Yes.
– That did not appease them, I take it for granted, that made them still more riotous? – Yes.
– In consequence of which they abused the turnkeys, and used them extremely ill? – They did call them very bad names.
– Did you see any stones thrown? – I never saw but one piece of stone or brickbat, but whether from the men’s side or women’s side I cannot tell, that fell just by the water tub, which is almost before the governor’s window.
– Did it fall near the turnkeys? – No, not near them.
– What was the purpose of throwing it? – I cannot tell.
Did they throw it at one another? – That I cannot tell, I was not on their side.
– You do not know whether it was thrown at the turnkeys or not? – I do not know, the order that was given, was to arm and to go down the yard and quell the riot, and after the soldiers had been desired to fire, the prisoner said, he would fire if they forced him to it, he said, he would fire, I heard one woman say, if you will fire you must.
– During the minute, from the time he said he would fire to the time he fired, they were perfectly peaceable? – Yes.
– There was no riot in the gaol at the time? – No.
– When was it they first broke through the wall? – That I believe was on the Saturday.
– That had furnished them a tolerable quantity of materials to batter with? – I cannot tell.
– Was all the materials and rubbish moved? – I cannot tell.”

William Stevenson, a member of the London night watch outside the prison, was called inside in response to the riot. Three soldiers arrived, coincidentally, to visit a woman prisoner, but instead, they were taken to the keeper’s lodge and given a blunderbuss each by Brown, a screw. As they were being led into an internal courtyard William Stevenson snatched a blunderbuss out of the hands of one of the soldiers, William Rickwater. Once in the courtyard the soldiers were ordered, by a Mr. Forsyth, possibly in charge of the prisoners at hard labour, to fire into the women’s section, but they refused. Stevenson announced that he would do it and he fired through a wicket gate, despite efforts by Rickwater to stop him. His shot killed Sarah Scott, “a prisoner, committed… for six months, about half of which was expired, and was standing at a wicket gate within a partition wall of the prison”. Scott had two children, and was also seven months pregnant.

This quelled the rioting, but this was not the end of the matter. William Stevenson was charged with murder, of “Sarah the wife of Samuel Scott , in the peace of God and our Lord the King, then being, feloniously, wilfully, and of his malice aforethought, did make an assault, and with a certain blunderbuss, value 5 s. which he the said William Stevenson then had and held in both his hands, charged with gunpowder and two leaden bullets, against the said Sarah Scott , feloniously and wilfully did shoot and discharge, and with the said leaden bullets so discharged and shot off, by force of the gunpowder aforesaid, from the blunderbuss aforesaid, in and upon the face, near the left eye of the said Sarah, feloniously, wilfully, and of his malice aforethought, did strike, penetrate, and wound, giving her, the said Sarah, in and upon her face, near her left eye, one mortal wound of the width of three inches, and of the breadth of two inches, of which the said Sarah instantly died.”

William Rickwater, the soldier who had refused to fire on the rioters and whose blunderbuss Stevenson had used, gave evidence against Stevenson, at the trial at the Old Bailey, in September 1784:

“I am a bricklayer and a soldier, I was at Clerkenwell Bridewell on the 1st of August, at six in the evening.

What happened then in your presence? – I went up to the gate, and knocked at the gate, one of the turnkeys opened the gate and said, soldier, come in.

Court: How many were there of you? – Me and two more, when I got in I went to the lodge, there was one Ann Charnock at the lodge, very much disguised in liquor, they were ironing her, Brown was assisting them; the woman was used very ill, they were pushing her down.

Court: What business had the soldiers there? – I went to see a comrade’s wife there, one Mrs. Harding.

Then you was not sent for as a party of soldiers? – No, my Lord, not at all; then Brown, the turnkey, unlocked the place where the fire arms lay, and gave me and my two comrades a blunderbuss each; he says, soldier, go backwards, in the mean time, as I was going out of the lodge, the prisoner Stevenson catched the blunderbuss out of my hand, and immediately I took my bayonet up and went backwards with them, I went first, and Stevenson the prisoner followed me, and my two comrades followed him, we went to the women’s gate.

Mr. Peatt. Where is the women’s gate situated? – At the upper part of the yard, beyond the men’s.

How far is that from the outward gate? – As nigh as I can guess it is four or five roods, but to say the truth, I cannot resolve the question.

Is it the length of this Court? – About the length of the boards before the bench to the door of this Court.

Is that gate in a partitioned wall? – Yes, it divides the partition wall between the gate and the passage that goes to and fro to the prisoners, the women’s gate is at one part of the yard, and the men’s at the other, there is a free passage between them.

Court: Then the women’s gate is on one side the passage, and the men’s on the other? – It is a common yard, the same as you may go up any other yard, the doors are both on one side: we went up to the gate, there was some women knocking with their hands at the wicket of the women’s gate, the wicket was shut.

Court: Do you mean a woman prisoner that was knocking? – I believe there was nobody but the women prisoners there, but I cannot resolve the question for certain.

What happened then? – Some person opened the wicket, I cannot say who it was.

Some persons within? – No, my Lord, without-side, it was some person belonging to the party that was with us; when the wicket was open, some person said, soldier, why do not you fire; I cannot say who said so.

Mr. Peatt. Did it appear to you that there was any danger of the walls being beat down, or any thing of that sort? – No, only women talking together, like a couple of companies talking in a tap-room, gathered together, not as any ways riotous at that time, in the mean time the person, after he had said, soldier, why do not you fire, made an uncommon expression to mention before the Court, he said, if we would not fire he would; he repeated them words twice, and I said, for God sake do not fire on them; he made the expression, with the same oath, that be would fire immediately up the women’s yard, and immediately turned it round, and presented it right at the body of Sarah Scott , she stood by herself; when I saw his intent, I caught hold of the blunderbuss, to draw it from the wall as far as I could, to prevent his firing and doing any mischief.

Did you succeed? – I did not, he immediately at the same time pulled the trigger; I had the blunderbuss in my hand at the same time, and after he pulled the trigger, the body of the deceased stood but a very trifling time, and fell, and a couple of girls caught her, she was all over a gore of blood, as if you had poured water; she leaned her head on two women near her, I said to him you have killed the woman; he said, I do not care; immediately he returned to the lodge, and the other two soldiers; I gave the bayonet to the turnkey at the women’s gate, and asked him to let me go in among the women, he let me in, and I went and saw the body lay all over a gore of blood on the ground, she was soon after moved up the yard; I saw as much blood and brains lay after they had removed her, as would fill the crown of my hat, it lay in such quantities.

Did any thing material happen after that? – Nothing at all that I saw, the prisoners were very quiet at the time, and as far as ever I saw afterwards: the woman was with child, I saw her the day before.

Mr. Silvester, one of the Prisoner’s Council. Now you have told us the whole? – Yes, Sir, as far as I know.

Exactly as it was from the beginning to the end? – Yes.

You had been there the day before? – Yes, Sir.

You was not acquainted with this Sarah Scott ? – No.

When you came there the gaol was perfectly quiet? – All but this woman that was drunk at the lodge.

Then did not you think it very odd that they should put arms into your hands? – Yes, Sir, I supposed there was some riot, but I found none; I had the arms from the lodge.

Did not they tell you why they gave you the arms? – No.

Nor you did not ask any reasons why? – No.

Nor they never told you? – No.

And every thing appeared to you perfectly quiet? – Yes, I saw no other.

What is this man? – I do not know, they said he was one of the watchmen of the street.

Was not he one of the turnkeys? – Not that I know of.

Was he called in to assist? – I do not know, he was there when I came in.

What did they say when they came in? – Nothing at all; Mr. Brown, said, soldier, come in, this is Ann Charnock . I never saw any stones thrown, nor did not perceive any thrown at the time; what was done before or after I cannot resolve.

Nor the men upon the wall endeavouring to make their escape? – I never saw any thing of the kind, as God is my Judge.

Nor none of the men had got into the women’s apartments? – I never saw any thing of the kind.

Then your business was merely to see Mrs. Harding? – Yes, Sir, I went from her husband, he was in New Prison gaol, for having some words with a man.

Then you mean to say there was no riot or disturbance or any remarkable noise in the gaol? – Not in my presence, no further than this, Ann Charnock .

How came you not to ask some of these turnkeys? – I supposed it to be such, by giving us arms, but I found none.

You say Stevenson ordered you to fire? – No, Sir, I beg your pardon, I said somebody ordered me to fire, somebody said soldier, why do not you fire? we made answer, we will not fire.

What did they say fire at? – They did not mention at any thing at all, they said, soldier, why do not you fire; the door was shut, but the wicket was open.

How came it open? – Some person on the outside belonging to the party we were with opened it.

Did you see them open it? – I saw some person open it, who it was I do not know.

Did he open the gate? – No, Sir.

Will you upon your oath say it was not forced open by the prisoners on the inside? – Yes, if required I would at that time, what happened before we came in I do not know, and as to asking me questions I cannot answer, is of no use, for I think I have a just God to answer to when I go into another world.

You know many of the gentlemen that reside in that prison? – No, Sir, only by sight.

You did not see them that day? – Yes, I did.

Were they in the women’s apartments? – I believe Mr. Hopkins was, but who else was I cannot say; I do not say clearly that there was not, or that there was; I saw some man, but whether he was a prisoner or not, I cannot say.

Was he in irons? – No, Sir, there was no man in irons as I saw.

Can you tell us how many men were there? – I cannot; there were people to see their acquaintance as well as me; I saw the men prisoners walking to and fro in their yard, their wicket was open.

Then this blunderbuss did not go off till you had got hold of it? – I had hold of it up to the muzzle, in order to prevent it.

Not to list it up? – No.

How could you see him pulling up the trigger so easily? – Because the man had it in his hand.

Do you mean to swear that he pulled the trigger? – No, Sir, I swear that he had the blunderbuss in his hand; I tried to pull it back, but I could not, at that instant it went off.

You never saw any thing of a stick poked through the wicket? – No.

Was you the man that washed your hands in the blood; or who did? – Upon my soul, I cannot resolve the question; I never saw any thing of the kind acted.

Gently, gently, soldier, was you there when the justice came? – That is the gentleman that came in and looked at the body.

Aye, was Hopkins or any of the witnesses there then? – I cannot say.

Did you see any man run his hands into the blood of this poor woman, and say, this is delightful work, I will sleep in these hands? – I did not.

Will you say it never did happen? – I never saw it happen, and more than that, that gentleman said it was too partial to fire on them as soon as they did, he said, they need not be so hasty as they were.

How came you not to knock it up in the air? – I know the nature of a blunderbuss and firelock too well, I tried as far as my endeavours lay to prevent it, I tried to pull it back but I could not; those fire arms will not go off with a shake.”

Despite all the evidence given against him, Stevenson was, however, acquitted. When was the last time a screw or copper was convicted over any one of the many deaths in custody?

Not so much changes over 200 years.

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In 1847 the new Clerkenwell House of Detention, also known simply as Clerkenwell Prison, was built on the site of the two former prisons.

Later, the site was occupied by the former Hugh Myddelton School (1893-c.1960), in Bowling Green Lane, – which has itself now been converted into flats. The Victorian vaults of the House of Detention can still be accessed from Clerkenwell Close.

Today in London anti-fascist history, 1985: Anti Fascist Action founded, ‘to fight fascism physically & politically’

Anti-Fascist Action was an important organisation that took a position of fighting the far right on the streets as well as combatting their ideas politically wherever they arose. Founded in 1985, AFA effectively ceased to exist around 2000-2001.

Here’s an account of Anti-Fascist Action in their own words, published in 1999, as the organisation was in effect winding up – or as they saw it, moving on to other arenas of the struggle against fascism…
Some thoughts in AFA and their winding up follow their text.

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From the day Anti-Fascist Action (AFA) was founded fourteen years ago, we have always been best known for the use of physical force against fascists on the streets. While being rightly proud of this record the present situation requires that militant anti-fascists develop a political strategy that is just as effective as the physical one has been in the past.

There has never been a blueprint for militant anti-fascism, either political or physical, and AFA has had to develop its own strategies. As the general political situation changes anti-fascists need to move with the times. In Britain, where the main fascist threat comes from the British National Party (BNP) who have withdrawn from ‘street activities’, there is a danger that if anti-fascists don’t follow the fascists in to the political mainstream then we will be outflanked.

Some anti-fascists think that adopting a political strategy means the physical side of the struggle has been abandoned, but the key to AFA’s future success lies in our original founding statement which commits the organisation to “physical and ideological opposition to the fascists”. The physical side of the strategy has been implemented so successfully that the fascists were forced to withdraw from the streets in 1994 – now is the time to develop and implement a political strategy with the same level of enthusiasm and commitment.
To understand the position we are now in it is helpful to look at the history of AFA as it has developed over the years.

1977 – 1985 The beginnings…

Although AFA was formed in the summer of 1985 the roots of the organisation can be traced back to the anti-fascist squads in the late 1970s. The squads were the physical force wing of the Anti Nazi League (ANL) which had been launched in 1977 to counter the growing threat of the National Front (NF).

The NF had made inroads into the white working class, and in 1974 they set up the NF Trade Unionists Association and were actively involved in a number of industrial disputes. This growing support among the white working class led to increased opposition from the Left and the Trade Union movement and when the National Party (a split from the NF) won two council seats in Blackburn, in May 1976, it was clearly time to turn the growing anti-fascist protests into something more dynamic.

By 1977 organised opposition to the NF reached new heights, in particular at Lewisham in south London where an NF march came under heavy and sustained physical attack from several thousand anti-fascists.

Shortly after this the Anti Nazi League was formed by the SWP arid every fascist activity was now opposed.

The ANL strategy combined imaginative propaganda and physical opposition. Popular bands, sporting celebrities and other individuals with a high profile were used to endorse the anti-fascist message, making sure it had a wider appeal than the usual left-wing campaign. Hundreds of thousands of leaflets were dished out, badges sold, stickers and posters put up. The message was simple but effective; the NF=Nazis.

In the 70s this message was still effective, bearing in mind that the Second World War had only ended 30 years previously, and Britain was very much out of step with the rest of Europe where the Far Right were small and isolated and could only dream of reaching the level of support that the NF had. Indeed the French FN sent activists over to Britain to study the methods of the NF which they have subsequently put to good use.

The propaganda on its own would never have been enough, and the ANL squads provided the necessary physical opposition. The previous years had seen the NF pursue a traditional fascist strategy of trying to control the streets. Left-wing paper sales were attacked, public meetings smashed up and demonstrations harassed.

Between 1977 and the general election in 1979 the ANL squads systematically turned the situation around – attacking fascist paper sales, meetings and marches. The damage that was done to the NF at Lewisham was methodically reproduced around the country. The middle classes would no longer turn out in public, women and old people found it increasingly dangerous to attend activities and anti-fascist successes in the street battles drove away many more. The tide had turned and the fascists were starting to become isolated.

Many original members of AFA learnt their ‘trade’ during this period and saw how the effective combination of mass propaganda, carnivals, stunts, and physical confrontation could be However the political situation was about to change dramatically as the Tories won the 1979 general election, playing the race card as Thatcher talked about understanding people’s fears of being “swamped” by an alien culture; the NF vote collapsed.

The NF split into 3 smaller organisations and entered a period of reorganisation, but anti-fascists remained active. The first problem to be dealt with was the closing down of the ANL, the only active anti-fascist organisation. The ANL’s main sponsors, the SWP, had themselves entered a period of reorganisation and started to close down all the campaigns they had launched which had succeeded in drawing in significant numbers of working class people, like the ANL.

With regard to the ANL, the SWP’s argument was that now that the NF vote had collapsed and the organisation disintegrated, the Tories were the real enemy. The squads were to be disbanded and the organisers, many of them SWP full-timers, were withdrawn. The only problem was that many of the activists refused to go. Although the NF was in decline the fascists were still active, and now that their electoral prospects had disappeared there was a new intensity to their violent attacks on the ‘opposition’. Apart from attacking political opponents they also maintained high profile paper sales at places like Brick Lane and Chapel Market (in London), held demonstrations, recruited among the disillusioned young working class at football grounds and around the punk/Oi/ska music scene. As well as maintaining this high level of activity they provided the political justification and motivation for the rapidly increasing level of racist attacks.

This provided the ‘squadists’ with the necessary reasons for keeping up the momentum that had been built in the anti-fascist movement. The fascist gangs could be confronted and beaten and the squads were able to attract working class support. The importance of challenging the racists and fascists in working class areas should not be underestimated, and when the middle class leadership of the ANL/SWP, with absolutely no understanding of the situation on the ground, decided to expel the `squadists’ in 1981, the future became much clearer. The so-called ‘squadists’ were never just `streetfighters’ and had always had wider political ambitions – and becoming independent of the conservative Left started the process of challenging the traditional left-wing blueprint of how to achieve progressive social change which now sees AFA in the forefront of a new attempt to build a genuine, independent working class movement.

The early 1980s was a period of intense anti-fascist activity, without the media coverage of the late 70s and involving smaller numbers. Nevertheless, the battle for the streets was still being fought. The ANL still existed in name up to 1982, but the occasional activity they called would simply be a protest march on the other side of town from the fascists. While this sort of non-confrontational activity had no effect on the fascists, it also failed to attract anyone else to the anti-fascist movement.

Increasingly, independent groups of anti-fascists were taking the initiative, with solid bases in Manchester, Hatfield and London. In Manchester eight anti-fascists were jailed in 1981 for taking a firm line on fascist intimidation while in London a year-long campaign saw the NF driven off their prestigious sales pitch at Chapel Market. Hatfield, a small town north of London, was an example of how anti-fascists, based in the community, could win popular support for their views and when the ska band Madness played there in 1980 a large contingent of fascist skinheads who had travelled up from London were severely beaten by the locals who turned out in force.

At this time there were also high profile campaigns in support of young Asians in Bradford and Newham who had been arrested for defending themselves and their communities from racist attacks. Although there was no national co-ordination there was militant opposition to the racists and fascists. This increased level of militancy inevitably led to growing police interest in those responsible, causing further problems for anti-fascists who were in danger of being isolated and picked off.

While militant anti-fascists were having increased success on the streets there was no political strategy running along-side that would have allowed them to fill the political vacuum that was being created with the removal of the fascists. Getting rid of the fascists seemed sufficient. After the ‘squadists’ were expelled from the SWP in 1981 a decision was taken to form a new organisation in order to stay politically active. This group was Red Action and was the link between the anti-fascist activists in Manchester, London and Hatfield. Militant anti-fascism was consistently promoted in the Red Action paper and not surprisingly it was Red Action who, out of practical necessity, were soon to initiate the launching of a new, national anti-fascist organisation.

1985 – 1989 AFA’s Early Years

As the fascists started to reorganise (the British National Party was launched in 1982) and with racist attacks increasing, it became clear that anti-fascism needed to be put back on a wider agenda and a new national organisation was required. One incident in particular led to its formation.

In 1984 the Greater London Council organised a large open-air rally and concert as part of their campaign against unemployment. Halfway through a group of 70 or 80 fascists appeared and attacked the audience and the bands on stage. Initially taken by surprise anti-fascists quickly reorganised and drove the fascists off. A retaliatory attack was launched on a fascist pub that evening to make up for the earlier lack of preparedness. The point was that the fascists were getting bolder, attacking large left-wing activities in broad daylight, and Red Action decided this had to be dealt with.

A leaflet was drawn up and circulated to anyone interested and as a result of this discussions took place with a variety of groups about launching a new anti-fascist organisation. A conference was called in the summer of 1985 and attended by 300 people representing a wide range of groups. The militants, represented by groups like Red Action and the East London Direct Action Movement, made a crucial mistake at this conference because although it was their initiative, acting on information received that the fascists would attack the meeting, they spent the whole meeting outside on stewarding duties. This meant that from the very outset the political orientation was being dictated by others.

Political naivety played a part as well, the militants wrongly assuming that regardless of what was decided in meetings everything could be rectified on the streets, and when the fascists were themselves ambushed after the meeting this seemed to underline the point. Despite this error, which wouldn’t be resolved until the relaunch in 1989, the new organisation quickly set about achieving some important results.

The first activity took place in November 1985 when AFA took over the assembly point for the annual NF Remembrance Day parade. These parades were an important part of the fascists’ activities attracting several thousand at their height, providing an annual focal point for their supporters and frequently gaining media coverage. On this occasion the fascist stewards were unable to remove AFA and the NF march had to assemble elsewhere and was delayed for an hour. Not that dramatic but a signal of intent for the future.

It is worth looking at the Remembrance Day marches over the next few years because they illustrate the differences within AFA. Although the larger left-wing organisations did not join AFA (eg. SWP, Militant, Communist Party, etc.) it was made up of some smaller socialist and anarchist groups, various groups active within the race relations lobby like the Newham Monitoring Project and the Refugee Forum, Searchlight, and non-aligned individuals. It ranged from militant anti-fascists who had seen the effect of physical confrontation on the fascists to groups who wanted to put pressure on the government to change various laws and fund particular projects.

Initially the contrasting agendas worked together and when AFA called a National Demonstration on Remembrance Day 1986 over 2,000 people responded, making it the biggest anti-fascist mobilisation since the 70s. It made the front page of the Daily Mail on the Monday morning which was a significant step in putting anti-fascism back on the agenda. The struggle between fascists and anti-fascists, fought on the streets around the country since the collapse of the ANL, had been almost completely ignored up to this point.

The following year another march was called, basically because the previous one had been so successful and after the NF march a large contingent of fascists would make their way to Trafalgar Square to attack the Non-Stop Anti-Apartheid picket outside South Africa House. The AFA march was a way of getting a large number of anti-fascists into the area to confront the NF, which was successfully achieved.

By 1988 there was an argument about a third march; around the question of what was the point of having the march. The march was getting smaller, the media had lost interest, and it was becoming an annual event with no discussion about its effectiveness. The militants were keen to oppose the NF on Remembrance Day but felt a march wasn’t the best way.in the interests of ‘unity’ the militants-went along with the march again, and scored another notable success against the fascists afterwards.

By 1989 the Remembrance Day march caused a split. The liberals called a march which attracted less than 300 (compared to 2,000 in 1986) while the militants took over the fascists’ assembly point and controlled much of the surrounding area. A number of fascists were prevented from reaching their march and the NF were seriously delayed. Such was the pressure they were under, coupled with the defeats they had suffered in Trafalgar Square over the previous 2 years, that for the first time the NF didn’t try to attack the anti-apartheid picket afterwards, presumably relieved just to get out of the area in one piece.

For the militants this episode highlighted a key component of anti-fascism – to be effective. There is no blueprint but any mobilisation must have a specific purpose. While the liberal agenda called for protests against fascist violence, for more police involvement, and for the State to deal with the problem of a growing Far Right, the militants were developing a strategy that would stop the fascists being able to operate openly and challenge them in the constituency they had most success in – the white working class. Rather than appealing to the victims of fascism the militant strategy was aimed at the potential recruits.

The first four years of AFA’s existence weren’t negative, the decline of the NF Remembrance Day parade being one example of AFA’s success. In 1986 an NF march in Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk was so thoroughly disrupted that the then NF leader Nick Griffin (now a senior BNP figure) actually stopped holding demonstrations altogether.

Another area of fascist activity was the NF’s White Noise Club, set up to promote fascist bands, but ‘financial mismanagement’ soon saw the bands break away from the NF to set up their own Blood and Honour organisation (B&H). By 1988 they had established themselves in London’s West End, getting two shops just off Carnaby Street to stock their merchandise and using local pubs as meeting places. At this time the European situation was changing rapidly with the Far Right gaining support in many countries. In Europe the fascist skinhead scene was an integral part of these moves and many European delegations arrived in Carnaby Street to meet Skrewdriver and B&H supremo Ian Stuart.

AFA set up Cable Street Beat (CSB) in 1988 to address the problem of B&H and of fascists attacking gigs by bands they considered a problem – the Pogues (Irish), Desmond Dekker (black) and the Upstarts (socialist). Some high profile gigs were organised and got national media coverage which allowed AFA/CSB to highlight the growing problem of fascism at home and abroad, and to promote a strategy to deal with it – no platform.

The key date in the campaign against B&H was 27th May 1989. The fascists had booked Camden Town Hall for a thousand strong rally, which at £10 a head would raise a fair bit of money. AFA discovered the venue and got it banned, despite opposition from Searchlight who wanted to monitor the event, and called a counter-demonstration at the fascists redirection point, Speakers Corner. Hundreds of fascists were attacked and chased off and never made it to the rearranged gig in Kent, and later that evening one of the fascist shops was attacked and ransacked. So on one day B&H’s boast of being in control was cruelly exposed to an international audience and the last of their shops was forced to close down. Shortly afterwards lan Stuart moved to the Midlands. Their efforts to operate openly and move into the mainstream had been defeated.-

The other important point about 27th May was the hundreds of anti-fascists who rallied to AFA’s call to confront the boneheads. This highlighted another internal problem which was having an organisation but no structure that could accommodate activists. AFA had been ‘run’ by individuals who represented only themselves. This meant that in London, for example, half a dozen individuals could outvote the two Red Action delegates who represented 100+ stewards!

Apart from the lack of democracy there were other hostile agendas at work, and at the very first national conference in 1986 a Searchlight-led anti-anarchist smear campaign was launched which led to Class War being suspended and all the other anarchist groups and Red Action walking out in solidarity. Red Action returned later to prevent the initiative being lost altogether. The following year there was an attempt to get Red Action expelled on a host of trumped up charges. These were defeated but clearly signalled that there was a fight on for the future direction and effectiveness of anti-fascism.

The 1987 conference also saw a proposed name change for the organisation, from AFA to Anti-Racist Anti-Fascist Action (ARAFA). The significance of this was that it was an attempt to change AFA from having a very practical, sometimes physical, strategy designed to fight fascism that was meeting with growing success to a more conservative lobbying group, grant-funded and establishment friendly. This strategy is still familiar today, one of putting race above class. This move was also defeated.

By 1989 these internal disagreements had come to a head over the Remembrance Day march and the good response to the May 27th mobilisation showed there was a receptive audience for militant anti-fascism.

London AFA called a conference and relaunched itself around the original founding statement with the additional point that we were not fighting fascism to maintain the status quo but from a pro-working class position. On this basis the anarcho-syndicalist Direct Action Movement (DAM) rejoined (after the Class War walkout) along with the Trotskyist Workers Power. The liberals withdrew.

So with Red Action, the DAM, Workers Power and non-aligned individuals AFA started to reorganise. Branches were set up to accommodate activists and a structure implemented that meant AFA was run from the bottom up; in other words controlled by the activists. AFA was now democratic and had an agreed strategy.

While the Left spent most of the 80s failing to ‘kick out the Tories’ the militants in AFA recognised that it was the Far Right who had the potential to recruit in the white working class. The first step in trying to build any progressive working class movement was to remove the fascist influence from these areas. Only then, once the space was created, could the Left fill the vacuum. The Left’s failure to prevent the fascists from physically dominating them meant that anti-fascism assumed a key role.

The early AFA years had succeeded in getting anti-fascism onto a wider agenda and as the Far Right started to grow in this country and especially Europe it was an important achievement. This period had also shown that it was not possible to have an effective anti-fascist organisation with two contradictory strategies. The liberal anti-fascist strategy is ‘Anyone But Fascists’ (ABF), as seen on the Isle of Dogs where a Labour council’s corruption and indifference to the local working class population led to the situation where the Far Right, in the absence of any credible left-wing alternative, was able to get a councillor elected in 1993 (the BNP’s Derek Beackon).

The ABF response was to campaign vigorously for the Labour Party in the next election, which succeeded in unseating the BNP, but leaves the situation unresolved with Labour back in power who were responsible for the problem in the first place. The militant strategy is more ambitious: create an independent working class alternative to Labour and the BNP.

Although this example is more recent, it summarises the contradictions that existed in the 1985-89 period. It is often wrongly assumed that the difference between liberals and militants is simply about the use of physical force, but in AFA’s case it was a political difference.

With three national organisations on board it was now planned to expand AFA’s field of operations. Although there were other AFA groups around the country the only group outside London organised around a militant strategy was in Manchester. Of the other groups the two best known were Tyne and Wear Anti-Fascist Association (funded by the local council) and Leeds, both active but following a Searchlight pro-State agenda.

1990 onwards

Almost as soon as AFA had been relaunched the BNP initiated their Rights Far Whites campaign (RFW) in 1990. Starting in London’s East End when a white boy was stabbed by Asians, it soon spread around the country and focused on the bad conditions experienced by an abandoned white working class. The BNP started to work in local areas, dealing with local issues, and by August 1990 they won 25% of the white vote in a local election in the East End. While the electoral strategy showed a level of support for the Far Right, because the BNP held public election rallies and meetings it allowed AFA to play havoc with their organisation on the ground.

In September 1990 3 AFA activists were jailed for a total of 11 years for an attack on a prominent fascist skinhead; clearly meant as a deterrent. The level of fascist violence against AFA was also increasing, with a bomb being thrown into an AFA public meeting in east London in November 1990. (No one was injured.)

The BNP had completely overtaken the NF as the dominant fascist party now and their activities started to cover the whole country. In Scotland they became active focusing on support for Ulster Loyalism rather than the traditional anti-black racism south of the border.

As the temperature increased it was obvious the rest of the Left would become involved. Left-wing paper sales, especially the SWP, were being regularly attacked throughout the country and as the fascists continued to pick up support the Left would suffer if AFA was seen to be the only organised opposition. Initially AFA’s attitude was to approach these groups with a view to co-operation. Although there was no intention of surrendering AFA’s independence or strategy it was felt the increased forces available to these groups could, if working to an agreed plan, increase the pressure on the fascists and help to stop the State picking off the militants. AFA’s approaches were rejected out of hand by the entire Left.

Despite this, 1991 saw AFA’s most ambitious campaign to date being launched in east London, which had been made a national priority by the BNP. 60,000 leaflets were distributed on the estates, work was done with schools and community groups, the Unity Carnival attracted 10,000 people, the fascist paper sale at Brick Lane was put under pressure, the BNP were forced out of local sympathetic pubs and in November 1991 a 4,000-strong AFA demonstration marched through Bethnal Green – the supposed BNP heartland – completely unopposed. Young white Eastenders had seen the ‘lefty’ stereotype challenged and the BNP turned over, and contact was made with groups of young Asians. As 1991 drew to a close the situation looked promising, but all that was about to change.

The Left did get involved, but not with AFA, and having withdrawn from anti-fascist politics since the 1970s they now launched their own anti-fascist [organisations]. Instead of filling the political vacuum they simply tried to duplicate what AFA was doing. The SWP relaunched the ANL, Militant set up Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE), and the Labour Party, Communist Party and black careerists established the Anti-Racist Alliance (ARA).

April 1992 saw the national relaunching of AFA which was now vigorously pursuing the strategy particularly in Scotland and the North West. The BNP were very active around Rochdale, Oldham, and Burnley, towns just outside Manchester’s fascist – free zone. The success of AFA in disrupting the BNP’s efforts can be seen by the response of the police who arrested two AFA organisers the night before a planned activity in Rochdale. They were released without charge once the day was over.

The level of confrontation was very high during this period, which included the now famous Battle of Waterloo in September 1992. B&H and the BNP were working fairly closely together at this time and had hoped a successful gig (pre-gig interviews were arranged with the Press on Waterloo Station) would enable B&H to operate openly with all the political and financial advantages this would have created for the fascists. The anti-fascist victory once again put paid to their plans.

AFA had deliberately adopted the single issue approach because when it was relaunched in 1989 around a pro-working class position the political composition of the organisation ranged from Trotskyist to Anarchist, Stalinist to Social Democrat. To keep the necessary unity on the streets for the important battles at the time there had to be an agreement that AFA’s role was to create the space for a progressive working class organisation to fill; it wasn’t AFA’s job to fill it. By the time the BNP had won a council seat in 1993 it was becoming increasingly clear that no one was willing or able to fill the vacuum. This was underlined by the Left’s support for Labour in the subsequent election 6 months later which saw the fascists lose their seat. The wheel had turned full circle, the Left had capitulated.

Although the BNP lost their council seat they actually increased their vote by 30%. This continuing electoral success led to a radical change in policy by the BNP, and in April 1994 they called what in effect was a ‘cease-fire’. They issued a statement saying that there would be “no more meetings, marches, or punch ups.” They would now concentrate on a Euro-Nationalist electoral strategy, hoping to emulate the success of the French FN.

The intensity of this period proved too much for some of the groups in AFA. For some the physical demands proved to be too much, but politically it was becoming clear that AFA would have to break with the traditional Left and this also caused problems. It was Labour’s indifference to the white working class that allowed the BNP to appear as the radical alternative, and yet most of the Left wouldn’t break with Labour. Those that did had absolutely no credibility; to illustrate this point the Communist Party of Great Britain (formerly the Leninist) got 1/10th of the BNP’s vote when they stood in Tower Hamlets in the 1992 general election.

The situation in London was slightly different from the rest of the country, partly because the BNP felt they could build on the political base they already had without the public activities, and partly because AFA was more established. The battle on the streets continued elsewhere for about a year. After B&H got smashed in London on May 27th 1989, Ian Stuart moved to the Midlands to run the B&H operation from there because the fascists were relatively strong.

By 1994 the tide had turned and both east and west Midlands were being fiercely contested with AFA setting its own agenda. In the North West the experienced BNP organiser ‘retired’ at the beginning of 1995 due to the continual pressure from AFA and later that year the BNP’s public activities ceased in Scotland and the Midlands. To some it may seem that the war had been won, but the reality was that the conflict was simply moving into a new arena.

The BNP’s change of strategy inevitably meant that AFA needed to adapt to the new situation, but the emergence of Combat 18 (C18) kept the prospect of street confrontation alive. Although it is now clear that C18 were set up by the State, primarily to examine links with Loyalist paramilitaries, there was also an attempt to divert AFA away from addressing the major political issue of the BNP’s growth by getting involved in ‘gang warfare’ with C18. Although they had previously existed as the BNP’s stewards group from the outset they were promoted by Searchlight and the media as something new and extremely dangerous.

Something didn’t add up. C18 published hit lists and bomb manuals that broke every law possible and yet they were allowed to continue. It was clear the State were pulling the strings and it was also clear that Searchlight and their supporters were heavily involved.

AFA helped discredit the myth of C18 on the ground, in particular by disrupting the Ian Stuart Memorial concert in 1994 and a UVF march in Central London in 1996, but the role of Searchlight in promoting them showed a greater allegiance to the State’s agenda than the anti-fascist movement.

As pressure on the street forced the BNP to make political adjustments, by 1994 AFA was also making changes. AFA recognised it was a three-cornered fight against the fascists, the State and the conservative Left. The damage that groups like the ANL did to anti-fascism has already been mentioned, but when they started claiming responsibility in their propaganda for AFA victories like Waterloo it was felt they must be publicly attacked. A 4-page leaflet called ‘Don’t believe the hype’ was produced to answer their lies and expose their strategy as being counterproductive.

From this point on AFA was quite prepared to attack the conservative Left. In the past AFA had been reluctant to get involved in what were seen as being internal arguments, but the result of this was that AFA was either written out of history or completely misrepresented. When John Tyndall (BNP leader) stood in an east London by-election in the summer of 1994 AFA produced a leaflet which took ‘anti-fascism’ as far as it could go. It described the BNP as being ultra-conservative and showed their policies as being to the right of the Tories.

In an area where people don’t vote Tory this was the best propaganda AFA could produce, and yet it was becoming increasingly clear that AFA was fighting the fascists with one hand tied behind its back. No progressive working class forces were moving in to fill the political vacuum that existed in working class areas aid just being ‘anti’ BNP was not enough. On top of that the police actually prevented AFA from distributing this leaflet while the BNP were allowed to canvass door to door. Militant anti-fascism was being criminalised.

As the BNP’s public activities petered out, where there were clashes the police came down hard on AFA. An AFA mobilisation in Kirkby in the Midlands (April 95) was attacked with extreme force by riot police, one activist’s leg being broken in 5 places. In Edinburgh shortly afterwards a plainclothes police squad attacked a small group of AFA activists and only revealed their identity when they started losing. Ten AFA members were arrested.

More recently public AFA activities have been subjected to heavy policing -suspected activists stopped in the street and photographed, special squads assigned to monitor AFA, coppers on the street armed with mugshots of suspected organisers, AFA groups surrounded on the street and held for hours.

Interestingly, an anti-fascist protest in Central London (May 98) called by the ANL but not supported by AFA, had a very low key police presence; precisely because AFA wasn’t there. So although there is very little public fascist activity, when there is, a great deal of time and money is spent by the State to prevent AFA from making an impact.

Politically AFA addressed the problems thrown up by the BNP election successes, particularly in east London, by developing a new strategy. ‘Filling The Vacuum’ was agreed in May 1995 and still remains the key to the future. Essentially `Filling The Vacuum’ recognises the limitations of only being ‘anti’ fascist and not being ‘for’ something else. Now it is up to the anti-fascists to take the initiative and fill the vacuum in the absence of anyone else. The alternative is to allow the fascists a free run.

The ‘single issue’ aspect of AFA, introduced in 1989 to maintain unity as we entered an intense period of street activity, has run its course. Although AFA will always maintain its independence, militant anti-fascists must now see it as their duty to ensure that the vacuum is filled. The election of a Labour government in 1997, with the Tories discredited and divided after 18 years in power, gives the BNP the opportunity to pose as the radical alternative.

The battle for the streets has been replaced by the battle for hearts and minds, and it is in the direct self-interest of militant anti-fascists to get involved. The ‘revolutionary programmes’ of the Left are not relevant to working class people and the fascists know this. An independent working class movement can fill the vacuum if it addresses the concerns of ordinary people as its priority.

In different parts of the country AFA activists have got involved with, or initiated, campaigns around working class issues. This is the territory that the BNP have chosen to work in, as the Front National has successfully done in France, and this is where the new chapter of anti-fascism begins.

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Some thoughts on AFA, and on the decision to effectively move on from AFA ‘s single issue stance.

It’s worth pointing out that the above article, while giving a good overview of Anti-Fascist Action as an organisation, its origins and development, was written at a very particular time – when dominant forces within the organisation had decided to move away from AFA’s ‘single-issue’ concentration on combatting organised far right activists, and towards a strategy of winning working class support away from rightwing ideas to a left wing class-based program. This led to the founding on the Independent Working Class Association. The push towards founding the IWCA came largely from red Action, who had been instrumental in founding AFA, and remained a dominant group within it throughout its existence. But some anarchists and other activists also joined the IWCA, which did attempt to organise within a number of working class communities for a number of years tough now seems largely defunct. Red Action had a vision of a clear strategy of departing from the practice of what saw as a leftwing scene paralysed by dead ideas, dominated by middle class activists, and identified in many working class minds with the problems they encountered in daily life. Despite many positive activities in some areas, the IWCA did not live up to this vision; though the rise of first the BNP in its electoral period (post-1993), the EDL, and subsequent far right activists and groups, have to some extent confirmed the fears that motivated its creation. To what extent is Brexit and current surge in rightwing, racist and British (English?) nationalism an outgrowth of the failure to challenge these ideas effectively from the left?

AFA and the IWCA were always going to struggle to challenge rightwing ideas in the working class across the board; despite the best intentions of groups of activists whoever they are, ideas are usually wider spread in general society than can be pinned down to the influence of fascists. AFA had an undeniable impact on keeping organised far right groups from gaining a foothold on the streets, but fascists swim in a sea, and the sea of racism was larger and more pervasive. The 1999 analysis that running around constantly after boneheads was not completely addressing the problem was not off the mark; but just as a few hundred anti-fascists cannot be the answer to rightwing organising, leftwing organisations generally are not going to be able to adequately tackle that whole mindset, which has a long history, tied up with British imperialism, the island mentality, a clever ruling elite that always played ‘native’ working class sensibilities against migrants. Where anti-fascism and/or left ideas have been most successful is where they have developed organically, evolved through struggle, grounded in people’s experience of daily life. If that made for a more collectively-self organised and self-conscious working class which resisted fascism because it identified its fundamental anti-working nature – those days have gone, and can’t be easily rebuilt, and not by small groups of lefties. No matter how (rightly) critical of other lefties they may be…

Some of us also who has involvement with Anti Fascist Action and anti-fascism in the 1980s-90s ended up with some criticisms with some AFA practices, and with how it was organised. All of us, I think, had no problem with the AFA core programme – that you had to oppose fascism physically on the streets, as well as ideologically in working class communities. That seemed to us to make sense.

AFA at its most dogmatic saw itself as having the key to all problems with fascists; Red Action generally saw itself as the guiding spirit of AFA, and was intolerant of dissenting opinions. This led to a number of rifts within AFA ranks (later than the early disputes with liberal types detailed above) not mentioned in the above text. Many of these were with thoughtful, long term anti-fascists who came to view some of AFA’s practices critically and tried to discuss problems. The critics from within were in almost all cases NOT arguing for abandoning the physical confrontation plank – instead that force alone in the streets was not enough. Some Red Action members responded to this with denunciation, threats and bullying. A leading irony of several of these disputes was that non-Red Action activists were often accused by RA cadres of wanting to water down AFA’s physical approach to the Nazis, of being liberals, of wanting to be the ANL – usually for basically suggesting a more political approach, in ways which in a number of cases pre-figured the direction RA too when launching the IWCA…

AFA was obviously dominated by a culture, a kind of left hooligan culture if you like, which was useful when you’re actually trying to fight fascists physically…! In practice though it also meant AFA was overwhelmingly a club for men, largely white. Not to say there weren’t women involved, or black people, and AFA did make a point of working with some black groups against fascism. But voices of women and any black members or those who were not hard or experienced streetfighters were often isolated within AFA or felt alienated from it.

AFA’s structure became increasingly authoritarian and centralised. from the beginnings of AFA in 1985 it had shrunk down from being an alliance of a wider range of political strands, with some groups and individuals who had been involved early on, falling away or being kicked out. By the early 90s it was dominated in practice mainly by members of three groups, which is red action, the anarcho-syndicalist Direct Action Movement, and Trotskyist group Workers Power. Many of those who turned out for AFA mobilisations or did anti-fascist work along AFA lines were not aligned with these organisations however; and a number of non-aligned AFA activists came to feel too much power was held by them – the groups had political delegates to the AFA London Organising Committee for instance, beside delegates from devolved local groups – the LOC basically made or passed down decisions for local groups to implement. A Stewards Committee was also set up, which had final word on aspects of AFA work, notably security and physical confrontations, again giving power to the 3 dominant groups.

AFA activity also tended to become all consuming; to the exclusion of other struggles. You couldn’t be part time. There was quite a lot of pressure to be committed full time to the exclusion of other political activity, and people who were also involved in a variety of other struggles and saw anti fascism as only a part of their activities, did tend to be shut out of decision making, and be considered lightweights.

Red Action in particular opposed attempts to overturn the power imbalances and tight control by a small group. Independent AFA activists who complained about the domination of the 3 groups were effectively told to join one or another of them, shouted down and smeared.

These were political, organisational problems, including information being kept tight to some people’s chests, and some areas being considered important to work in, not others. Obviously, some of that information came from confidential sources; possibly even infiltrators in fascist ranks. So closedmouthness sometimes make some kind of sense. But some of the some of the way information was disseminated to people, on a hierarchical basis, did leave some of us feeling out of the loop, and when we were in our area feeling like info had been kept from us it left us confused and pissed off.

There were many problems between Red Action and anarchists, non-aligned anti-fascists, in London and elsewhere. For those involved in AFA on a daily level, there was lots of friction. Red Action did tend to swagger around try to intimidate people who were supposed to be comrades; their view was effectively that they did all the work – untrue – and that anyone who opposed the centralised and authoritarian structures and suggested a more democratic or decentralised structure was out to wreck AFA, were liberals and splitters etc. Although in AFA their closest allies were anarchists (mainly DAM members) the Reds were also constantly denigrating anarchism, particularly in their paper…

These issues caused tensions and splits in North London AFA a couple of years later, with most of the non Red Action members leaving AFA completely to form an independent group.

The IWCA had its own success in some areas on London and beyond for a while, though it fell victim to RA’s basically Leninist tendencies, admitting all sorts of Stalinist losers; the IWCA also had some similar problems to AFA with RA bullying, leading to at least one London branch leaving to form an independent group.

Part of the problem arose from AFA’s origins and founding basis – the idea that the white working class, in some areas susceptible to fascist influence due to disillusionment with social conditions, alienation from Labour & the left, could be won away from fash ideas by showing that the nazis were beatable on the street, and undermining their claim to be the hardest political thing in town. This was meant to go in hand with an ideological thrust – arguing the anti-working class nature of fascism in those communities. All well and good, but in reality, AFA ended up downplaying the extent of racism that permeates many working class people’s thinking. In AFA’s earlier days (1985-89) there had been an attempt to construct a kind of anti-fascist patriotism of sorts, attempting to portray the fash as essentially anti-British, trying to lay a wreath at the cenotaph for Remembrance Day (a fave event for National Front organising)… Though AFA was always much wider than this, and arguments were always going on around this.

The other problem AFA had was the sense of ‘parachuting’ – that they came in as a mob from outside and sorted the fash out then left. Although only half true, there was enough truth in this to make it worth discussing. Security dictated a certain approach; but realistically this kind of intervention is no substitute for community organisation on the ground. Sometimes you can’t wait for that to develop organically, true. The flipside was that when you’d left the area there was often retribution, and this was usually targeting of black people, racial violence, the usual schtick. This was another hotly debated tactical question among anti-fascists, and within AFA there was a consciousness of the problem.

As we write, racism and support for far right groups are rising again. So are there any lessons to be drawn from the glimpses of fascism and anti-fascist response we have briefly detailed here?

It’s not easy to translate lessons across time and space. The UK’s organised fascism has changed and evolved; organising resistance has changed correspondingly over the decades. the rise of a more ‘respectable’ far right and alt-right presence and the populist harnessing of racism into Brexit etc poses questions about tactics and strategy. Still, we think there are some ideas and thoughts that come out of seeing AFA and other anti-fascist movements in action, in the 1980s-early 90s, which may be useful in considering how to oppose the current rise of the far right. These are thoughts, incoherent if anything, not intended to be a lecture or a program, but a stumbling towards something.

Firstly anti-fascism works best when it takes the form of an organic, community-based resistance; when it emerges from communities, rather than being a separate ‘movement’, imposing themselves on a situation from outside. (NB: AFA at its best was much more useful and successful than this).

Successful anti-fascism is at its best when it is based in a wide, diverse spread of people – look at all the wildly different contingents, local, national, from the left, counter-culture and feminist movements and beyond, who turned up to oppose the National Front march through Lewisham in 1977. But at its best, resistance to fascism comes most effectively from communities targeted themselves by fascism – Jewish communities of the East End of London in the 1930s, Asian communities who built the Asian Youth Movement and many other self-defence groups in the 1970s, from Bradford to Birmingham and many other parts of the country, to defend their communities against racist attacks. It’s not to say that people can’t stand in solidarity with one another – but these initiatives created militant anti racism, which to some extent stands in contrast to other strands of anti-fascism, coming from left scenes, sometimes isolated and self-defining as a separate movement. AFA emerged from committed activists and no-one doubts the organisation’s record. But even AFA tended to think of itself as ‘THE militant anti-fascism’ in a way that often blinkered people to other ways of organising. Other anti-racist groups who coalesced around opposition to fascism, meanwhile, laid themselves open to the charge of bottling the fight and diverting attention and support from grassroots self-organisation: at times, you would have to say, this was deliberate, or at least an inevitable result of their hierarchical and centralised ways of thinking, of considering people not involved in their brand of politicking as not capable of collective action on their own behalf.

At its most problematic, AFA did have an element of separation, of going into an area to ‘do the business’ and then coming out again. It’s not it’s not to say that AFA’s efforts in themselves didn’t have many positive aspects, inspiring others, denting fascist efforts and preventing events from taking place: overall, AFA did have an important impact.

Some further info:

Links: Heroes or Villains gives a good intro to the history of anti-fascism in Britain.

For some AFA actions see Bash the Fash, by Kay Bullstreet

ANTI NAZI LEAGUE: A Critical Examination 1977-81/2 and 1992-95 is good on the ANL’s two periods of existence and AFA’s origins.

Anti-Fascist Archive generally is very useful

Some Books worth reading: Beating the Fascists, The Untold Story of Anti-Fascist Action, by Sean Birchall

No Retreat: The Secret War Between Britain’s Anti-Fascists and the Far Right
by Dave Hann, Steve Tilzey

Anti-fascist action: an anarchist perspective, by an ex-Liverpool AFA member.

Some of this post duplicates (partly) a post we wrote about South London AFA’s opposition to the British National Party in Camberwell in 1991 and related matters.

Today in London’s striking herstory, 1890: Sweet Victory! East End chocolate factory workers win strike

In 1890, women working in a Mile End chocolate factory went on strike. The chocolate workers’ strike boosted the growth of women’s trade unionism in late Victorian England.

In the aftermath of the 1888 Matchwomen’s Strike in and London Dock Strike in 1889, trade unionism flourished, especially among previously un-unionised workers, often labelled unskilled or semi-skilled. Between 1888 and 1892 union membership doubled from 750,000 to 1.5 million. London’s East End, where both these seminal struggles had taken place, saw a particular spike in union growth – inspiration spreading also because people probably had direct contact and knowledge of the 1888-9 events, taking place in front of their eyes…

Among the many strikes and disputes that broke out was a short sharp stoppage by East End chocolate makers in 1890. Though not high profile, this struggle was victorious, and encouraged others organising among London’s tens of thousands of young women workers.

Although Factory Acts had been passed in the UK through the 19th century to prohibit children working in factories, older children and ‘teenagers’ (a term or concept not yet developed then…) were often exempted.

In the late 19th century, girls of 13 and upward were often employed in confectionary, jam, and other small food factories (while young boys were more likely to be found in rope-works, foundries, paper mills…). The work was often hard, with long hours; as the work was often classes as low-skilled, wages were generally low – compounded by the general attitude among employers (and some trade unionists as well!) that women’s work, and especially young women’s work, was less important or deserved lower rates of pay. Employers also felt they could treat women worse, with poorer conditions, more strict rules and bullying.

A meeting aimed at young women working at Messrs Allen’s chocolate factory was held on 10 July 1890, at the offices of the Women’s Trade Union League, at 128 Mile End Road. Earlier attempts to help workers in the mainly small confectionary factories of East and South London had come to nothing. On this occasion, however, “twelve girls came, and their dread of being followed, watched and subsequently discharged was pitiful,” wrote Black. They were mainly earning around 17 shillings a week, employed packing chocolate into boxes

The next day, Women’s Trade Union League full-time organiser Miss James (a former confectionary worker) visited Allen’s factory in Emmot Street, to distribute handbills and at explaining the objects of the union.

However, arriving at Allen’s, she found that a lockout had already started.

“To her amazement she found the girls standing about in a crowd, though it was not yet seven o’clock. They surrounded her, telling her that they were ‘out’ and asking anxiously, ‘What shall we do?’ ‘Is there anybody who will help us?’

Miss James led them to the office of the Women’s Trade Union Association, where the Union secretary, Clementina Black, was working. Black described how:

“In a twinkling the room was full and over-full of girls, and the street outside was full of those girls who could not come in, and of the fringe of onlookers which gathers so speedily in that great boulevard of the East End, the Mile End Road.”

Six of the young women workers gradually told their story. Their working conditions were hard and management vicious. The workers were banned from leaving the factory in the dinner hour, forbidden to eat between eight and one on weekdays and between eight and two on Saturdays. This meant the women spent all day from 8am to 7pm inside the factory. They also suffered numerous petty fines and fines and deductions from their pay.

The current dispute had been sparked by a fine imposed on one woman had slipped and fallen on the job. The forewoman had issued her with a fine of half a crown for falling over: refusing to pay, she had been summoned to the office the next morning, and threatened with the sack unless she paid up. In response, the other women working on the shop floor had stopped work and demanded her reinstatement. No work got done that day…!

At 5pm, factory owner Mr Allen himself came down to investigate, and locked the women out; told the women to “put on their hats and go home”.

Clementina Black called on well-known union organiser John Burns for help. A meeting for all the factory girls employed at Allen’s was held at Mile End Liberal and Radical Club; a committee was elected and a register drawn up. All those present also joined the union.

The following Monday, John Burns and Miss James accompanied the strikers to the factory gates before 8am, and a “business-like system of picketing” set up. Only eight factory workers went in to work, though occasionally “a clerk would peep out” to see what was going on.

A strike committee room was set up in nearby Skidmore Street, and a “polite note” was sent to Mr Allen requesting for a meeting for negotiations. Some 200 women were on strike by then, many aged around 16 or 17.

Since the Women’s Trade Union League was not able to use its union funds to support strikes, raising money to support the 80 or 90 young women who were out on strike became vital. Funds were mainly raised by personal appeals to other trade unions and workers directly. Very quickly workers began to contribute. Burns himself collected more than £50 in an hour at the London County Council offices; at the Woolwich Arsenal and in the docks, men lined up to donate coppers to the cause. An envelope postmarked House of Commons also arrive – containing £5. Soon the union organisers were able to issue tickets allowing the girls to get lunch and tea.

Many young women working at Messrs Allen’s other East End factories, at Canal Road and Copperfield Road, also wanted to join the strike. Not wanting to escalate the dispute, John Burns persuaded them to carry on working as normal, but promised that they should be called on to join the strike if necessary.

By the Wednesday, Allen had replied to the letter sent by Burns, declining mediation and saying that he would rather deal with his workers directly. “On this, a deputation of girls was elected, and a letter sent in, asking Mr Allen to see them.” They demanded:
– reinstatement for the young woman whose dismissal had sparked the strike,
– a right to leave the factory at lunchtime,
– an end to fines,
– an end to the practice of suspending those who were absent for a further two or three days,
– a promise of no punishment for those who had joined the union.

Allen now changed tack and agreed to meet John Burns before beginning talks with the workers. Burns and Allen engaged in a three-hour discussion which left no-one in doubt that the dispute would soon be over. A further series of meetings between Burns, Allen, Black and the striking factory workers themselves followed, which eventually worked out a solution largely favourable to the women.

Allen agreed to all the demands except the abolition of fines for lateness, though he agreed to reduce them, and to withdraw these at the end of the year as long as workers’ attendance did not suffer as a result.

An agreement was finally signed on 22 July, and work at the chocolate factory resumed.

Emmot Street, the location of this factory, seems to have disappeared, unless it has become Emmot Close, which lies just south of Mile End Road, to the west of the Regents Canal. This seems possible, since Copperfield Road (site of another of Allen’s factories) is just round the corner over the canal, and while another local road named as containing an Allen factory – Canal Road, also doesn’t exist, there’s a Canal Close one street away. Looks like there might have been a cluster of Allen factories within a few streets.  

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Related: Another, slightly later strike among women workers in South London at the Corruganza Box factory

The 1911 Bermondsey Strikes, taking place during another upsurge of working class workplace organising that in many ways echoed the ‘new unionism’ spike, also began among women working in confectionary and jam factories.

 

 

 

Today in London striking history, 1966: A series of guerilla strikes begin at the ENV Engineering Works, Willesden

E.N.V. was an early manufacturer of aircraft engines, originally called the London and Parisian Motor Company, their first model appearing in 1908. E.N.V. engines were used by several pioneer aircraft builders and were produced in both France and the UK until about 1914. They subsequently specialised in camshafts and bevel gear manufacture.

The castings and forgings for its engines were made in Sheffield where the company was originally based, then taken to France for assembly. The reason for this was that there was much more aeronautical activity in France than in England in 1908, but the French were taxing imported machinery.

The French works were in Courbevoie in the Paris suburbs. By 1909 there was more aviation activity in England and E.N.V. decided to begin full manufacture at home, at Willesden, North London. At that time a separate company was formed to produce the aero-engines in Willesden,

In 1964 ENV became part of the Eaton, Yale and Towne group, losing its identity in 1968: the Willesden Works closed in the same year.

ENV’s works in Willesden became a hotbed of rank and file union activity, which peaked in a series of strikes in 1966.

Militancy in the factory is discussed in this article, written at the time of the campaign against the works’ closure, in late 1967.

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A Working-Class Defeat: The ENV Story
(Winter 1967/68)
Joyce Rosser & Colin Barker

Nicked from International Socialism (1st series), No.31,Winter 1967/68, pp.21-32.

Authors’ intro: We are grateful to the shop stewards of ENV and to others in the North London labour movement who gave us so much of their time and help in writing this article. None of them will agree with
everything we say, and we should like to pay tribute to them for their patience with us. All responsibility for this article must necessarily be ours.
We hope we have not done them too great an injustice.

  1. Before the Attack

The initial emergence of ENV as a militant factory seems to have taken place in the period after the War, and particularly in the latter years of the Labour Government. In the context of a Government wage freeze, supported by the great majority of union executives, shop-floor action in support of local wage claims gradually developed.

Under a predominantly Communist Party leadership, the factory had a whole series of small stoppages, go-slows, overtime bans, etc. In general these actions were successful, and there was little managerial resistance to shop-floor demands, provided that the stewards and workers backed these up with action or the threat of action. The workers themselves were prepared to go on strike, as experience had shown that the strike-weapon was both effective and relatively speedy in operation.

In November 1951, however, there was a more serious dispute. One of the shop stewards wished to have a meeting with the works manager, but a foreman refused to arrange this. When the convenor, Bill McLoughlin, took this up with the management the foreman physically threatened him. The factory struck, demanding the foreman’s removal. This strike lasted 13 weeks, and ended with a Government-appointed Court of Inquiry. The issue was one of some importance, for it was the first time that so explicit a challenge had been made to the management’s own prerogatives of choosing their staff. There is some dispute as to whether this was in fact a good issue on which to lead a protracted strike. It is unlikely that, if the men had realised quite how protracted the struggle would be, they would have agreed to go on strike over this issue, in the absence of a long period of preparation, agitation, etc on the issue of managerial functions in the months before the stoppage. The experience of the previous few years had led them to suppose that all strikes would be brief, and no attempt was made to point out to them that no management was likely to give in as easily on an issue of this kind, intimately touching as it did their power within the factory. On the other hand, the strike was over a question of trade-union principle, and this was the central issue. In this connection, it is possible that the Communist Party at this time were anxious to have strikes called in the motor industry, in line with current WFTU (World Federation of Trade Unions, the Communist Trade Union international) policy, and that the Communist stewards at ENV were to a degree more concerned with having a strike than with the principle of the thing.

The strike was made official, after six weeks, and then only by the AEU (Amalgamated Engineering Union). The T&GWU (Transport and General Workers’ Union), however, decided to pay strike-pay to its members, although it did not recognise the strike. Only a small proportion of the strike fund, which amounted in all to some £14,000 by the end of the strike, came from the official unions; the majority of the funds came from factory collections organised by the ENV stewards themselves, not only in the North London area, but all over Britain. Teams went out to Birmingham, the West of England, Scotland, etc, and it was largely through the efforts of the strike committee in organising their own financial support that the strike was maintained for so long. One interesting feature of this collection was the fact that it was by no means from the largest, or reputedly most ‘militant’ factories that the greatest support came: Fords of Dagenham gave the ENV stewards only £25, and the Austin factory at Longbridge gave only £50.

In about the tenth week, the strike began to crumble a little, as about 100 of the men went back to work. (Up to the tenth week at most half a dozen had blacklegged.) In the 13th week the Court of Inquiry reported, and recommended that there should be a return to work on the following terms: that the foreman should be removed from any contact with trade unionists, and that McLoughlin, the convenor, should be replaced in the post by another steward. The strike committee decided to accept these terms, with one dissenting voice (who urged that it was for the stewards and not a capitalist court to elect the convenor).

The obvious candidate for the post of convenor among the remaining stewards was the deputy convenor, Sid Wise, an ex-member of the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party, and for a short time, with Gerry Healy, a member of the Socialist Outlook group. The Communist Party stewards, however, not wanting a Trotskyist convenor, proposed in his place Harry Ford. Much later Harry Ford was appointed safety and security officer by ENV, and was sacked in the summer of 1967 after he had played his part in the breaking of militant organisation in the factory (feeling against him after his promotion to management was considerable: one of his jobs was the setting of traps round the factory to catch the numerous cats that infested the place, and workers went around releasing the cats. Harry Ford complained of ‘lack of cooperation.’)

The two years after this big strike found the rank and file in the factory much more reluctant to take strike action. Until 1950-51 ENV had held a virtual monopoly in the manufacture of gears but from then on the car manufacturers (Austin and Morris in particular) started to make their own and the ENV management, fighting for a place in new markets, toughened their attitude.

From 1953 to the end of 1957 there were numerous strikes, almost without exception confined to particular sections of the factory. The most important activity during this period was the formulation of an eleven-point plan for fighting redundancy. This plan, whose main architect was Sid Wise, provided for a sliding scale of demands. It was discussed on a number of occasions at factory meetings in the middle of this period, and was accepted by the men as their policy on redundancy. It was not to be put to the test, however, until 1957.

A little before Christmas, 1957, the management informed the stewards that they would have to make ten per cent of the workforce redundant. The stewards were extremely concerned about the situation: it was just before the holiday period, the motor industry as a whole was in difficulties, and they were extremely doubtful about their ability to fight the management on this issue. True, they had a plan for dealing with redundancy, but although the men had given their support to the eleven-point plan in a period of prosperity, there had been doubt about it. Many of the men had felt that, although the plan was a good one, the management could not really be expected to pay a man for doing nothing.

At a factory meeting, however, when the stewards informed the men about the position, there was a demand from the men themselves that the stewards remember ‘our eleven-point plan.’ Many of them argued that it was better at least to ‘have a go with the plan,’ since there was nothing to lose anyway. The meeting instructed Geoff Carlsson, recently elected as convenor, to inform the management that they would not accept redundancy.

When Carlsson told Mr Pailing, the senior manager, that the men would not accept redundancy and that there would be a major strike if the management sacked anyone, Pailing walked out in a rage. The stewards told him that the furnaces would be closed down, and, after Pailing’s anger, fully expected to find next morning that the gates were locked against them. However, the management clearly decided that they would box clever, and informed the stewards that it was now their problem, and they would have to solve it themselves. Effectively this meant that the stewards would have to reorganise a considerable part of the production-arrangements, and the management no doubt expected that this would frighten the stewards into acceptance. They were unlucky.

The stewards’ committee accepted the responsibility and began the process of reorganisation. The men were put on to four and four-and-a-half day weeks, and were transferred from departments where there was a shortage of work to departments with enough to do. It took several months to sort the whole factory out, and the reorganisation was a process of continual improvisation. Although the reorganisation led to a certain amount of tension and jealousy, since it proved impossible to guarantee that everyone would suffer the same degree of inconvenience, the factory did stay united for nine months. For the whole of this period, although a number of men left voluntarily because of the work shortage, not one man was made redundant.

There was one incident which illustrated some of the conflicts and problems. Some men were supposed to be moved into one department, but the three men already working refused to accept them. Havelock, the manager, approached the stewards and asked them what they intended to do about their ‘three brothers.’ Carlsson told Havelock that he would either have to listen to the three men, or listen to the whole factory: if the three would not cooperate, then the management would have to sack them. This was done. As soon as the three men had been sacked, the stewards demanded that they be given a second chance. The three were visited and invited back to the factory; one refused, and two returned. This must be one of the few cases in which stewards have, in pursuit of a militant line, had men sacked; the essential thing in this case being, of course, that circumstances had turned the reorganisation itself into a dispute, and failure to cooperate with the majority was equivalent to crossing a picket-line.

The struggle over redundancy had several implications. Firstly, this was a period of fairly widespread struggles over redundancy. At BMC in the summer of 1956 there had been a strike over mass sackings. The labour movement was actively discussing policies for redundancy in various ways. Within the AEU, Communist Party militants were fighting for the acceptance of a rather dubious ‘right to work’ policy, whose principal demand was that workers should be retained on a firm’s books until ‘suitable alternative employment’ had been found for them; this rather legalistic approach left unanswered the whole question of what was ‘suitable’ and what was ‘alternative.’ In this general context the example of ENV stood out as one of the very few factories in which redundancy was actually fought successfully; managements in other local factories found that their stewards were less amenable, and were quoting the ENV example when sackings were demanded.

Secondly, the way the struggle had been conducted raised, although in only a partial way, issues of workers’ control within the factory. ENV management had to accept a situation for nine months in which the workers’ shop-floor representatives took over control of manning scales in the different shops, and organised production within the factory to an extent previously unheard of. It should be noted that this was done without any of the blueprints for workers’ control that are currently being offered on the Left, but was a process of continual improvisation in response to concrete problems in the factory.

Thirdly, the lesson was not lost on management. As we shall see below, when the ENV management finally set about the systematic destruction of the stewards’ committee they at no time attempted to remove the stewards on the pretext of a redundancy, for they knew that if redundancy were threatened the men would fight it. Given the history of the factory, the management’s choice of weapon – the (completely false) assertion that they were going to close the factory down – becomes more comprehensible.

Towards the end of 1958 trade picked up again and there was a return to the earlier pattern of national wage claims and disputes. In 1959 the stewards attempted to bring the factory together for a unified wage claim. The pattern of wage advances within the factory up to that time had been uneven, each shop fighting by itself for its own particular claims, and the whole factory’s wages going up by fits and starts through a process of leapfrogging and comparisons. The stewards, fearing the effects of differentials among the workers, proposed that the factory should fight as a whole, but at a factory meeting a majority of the men turned this idea down.

Six of the most militant shops then went out on strike on their own, in support of their own wage claims. This was not especially successful, since the balance of forces within the factory was now altered: the six most militant departments were outside the gates, and the weaker ones were still inside. As was traditional, the labourers immediately blacked all the work from the six shops on strike. There then arose a division on the stewards’ committee (composed for the occasion of the stewards from the shops remaining inside the gate). The majority of the stewards unfortunately argued that the question of blacking should be put to a factory meeting; the minority of militants urged that this was not necessary, since the labourers were already, on their own initiative, blacking the six shops’ work. But the majority argument was carried, and at a factory meeting (not including the men from the six shops) the blacking was rejected. The labourers then began handling the work again, and, with the factory’s strength evaporating rapidly, the men from the six militant shops had to make the best settlements they could.

Two years later there was again a similar danger that the factory might be divided. Under the National Agreements in the engineering industry piece-workers are supposed to be able to make an average minimum bonus of 45 per cent, or about 8£d per hour. In fact this agreement is completely out of date, at least for all but the most backward factories. At ENV average bonuses ranged from six to eight shillings an hour. But the existence of the agreement provided the ENV workers with a handy weapon; when working a go-slow they could justifiably argue that they were fulfilling the terms of the National Agreements and making the requisite 45 per cent bonus. The tactic was known as ‘working time-work.’

In the grinding shop a go-slow of this kind ran for a number of weeks. The grinding shop was of some importance in the factory’s production flow, and there were pile-ups of work from some departments and shortages in others. The action of one shop could seriously disrupt production throughout the factory, and this could easily create resentment, especially when, as in this case, the grinders were among the highest-paid groups already. In cases like these there was usually a certain amount of grumbling among the men in other shops, although it must be added that this grumbling never actually stopped them from giving the required support. Faced with the grinders’ protracted go-slow, and refusing to meet their demand for more money, the management approached Sir William Carron, president of the AEU, who informed the stewards that they must abide by National Agreements. The stewards’ answer was that they were abiding by these agreements, but Carron replied – in the spirit if not the letter of what the employers had intended – that the grinding shop must resume normal production. The stewards ignored this instruction. As the pile-ups and shortages continued, the rest of the factory decided to go on ‘time work’ as well: At this the management put out a notice stating that the grinding shop must resume normal working by 11 a.m. that day, or be sent home, and that the rest of the factory had until 2 p.m. to return to normal working, or be clocked out.

When these ultimatums were ignored, the whole factory was in fact clocked out. On the stewards’ instructions the men stayed at work. The foremen refused to give them any work-cards, so the men simply carried on with the jobs that were already in the shops. This went on for several days, with the management pretending that it had no workers, and the factory buzzing with activity. No wages were paid, and no record was kept of times on jobs. After a few days the management decided to come to terms, reached a settlement with the grinders and paid the whole factory back pay at a standard, consolidated time rate.

  1. An ‘organised’ factory

The above stories should make it clear that ENV was a highly organised factory from the trade-union point of view. Although there is always the danger of exaggeration, it seems clear, that it was one of the best-organised in the London area. It was the very fact of its high level of organisation, indeed, that was responsible for the major managerial offensive that developed there over the years 1962 to 1967.

In calling ENV an ‘organised’ or ‘militant’ factory one or two things have to be borne in mind. In the first place, the organisation was developed by the stewards and the men within the factory, with very little reference to the official union structure outside. The union outside was of very little importance; indeed, in general the stewards only had recourse to the union officials as a ‘face-saver.’ In situations where a return to work was necessary at the end of a dispute, and there was little possibility of going back on the terms the stewards and men wanted, then the officials might well be called in, to advise the men to go back. In this way the officials rather than the stewards would carry the blame for the element of ‘defeat.’

Secondly, one of the most important aspects of its ‘militancy’ as a factory was ENV’s readiness to help other sections of the labour movement who were in dispute. The stewards claim – not without justification – that the first place in London to which workers would turn for help was the ENV stewards’ committee. Any group of workers coming to ENV could be assured of an immediate donation from the stewards’ funds, and in a number of cases there were regular collections taken on the shop floor in support of disputes in other factories. Some of these collections were very considerable. During the 13-week strike at British Light Steel Pressings, Acton, in 1961, for instance, collections taken among the 1,100 workers at ENV amounted to over £1,500. During the strike of predominantly coloured workers at Marriott’s in Southall in 1963 a weekly collection of a shilling a head was maintained for 30 weeks – amounting to £1,717, or 18 per cent of the national total contribution.

This readiness to help other workers in dispute contrasted strongly with other so-called ‘militant’ factories in which assistance, particularly on this kind of scale, is very much the exception, or is subject to various conditions and qualifications. Mention has already been made of the poor response from a number of factories during the 1951 strike at ENV itself. One of the stewards, at that time a CP member, recounts how he visited the Austin factory at Longbridge and was only able to persuade the convenor there to help the ENV workers when he produced his Party card. During the Marriott strike, indeed, this kind of political exclusiveness led to serious divisions among groups within the Party itself. Due to the involvement of the Socialist Labour League in the dispute, the Southall District Committee, under CP influence, would do nothing to help the strike, declaring it ‘Trotskyite.’ And when Reg Birch and Bill McLoughlin of the London Committee (also Party members) wished to do something to help the Marriott strikers, they were verbally attacked by the Southall Committee. [1] At ENV, although there were serious disagreements over the way the strike was conducted, differences of this kind did not at any time inhibit the basic principle of solidarity with other workers in dispute. Even after it was felt that the strike should have been called off, ENV stewards and workers took part in the Marriott demonstrations, contributed to the strike fund, etc.

Thirdly, and most important, the term ‘well organised’ within the factory refers especially to the relationship that was built up and maintained between the workers and their stewards. Throughout the whole history of the factory this relationship was one of close support. Had this not been so, it is difficult to see how the 1957-58 fight against redundancy could have been kept up. Workers would not take orders from their foremen without reference to their stewards. On average a full meeting of the factory in the works canteen was held at least once a fortnight. What is more important, the calling of factory meetings was something decided by the stewards themselves without reference to management. In fact there was an agreement with the management to the effect that in the event of anyone working during a factory meeting they would not be paid wages. This came about as a result of a threat not to start work after a meeting if anyone had been working. As soon as an issue arose, a meeting would be called; there was no question of delaying a meeting to suit the convenience of the management or their production schedules. In effect, therefore, the very calling of a meeting amounted to a stoppage of production. Through this use of regular meetings the membership in the factory was kept fully informed of all developments in negotiations with management, and their feelings were communicated directly to the stewards. Thus the all too common phenomenon of a stewards’ committee that adopts a militant posture towards management but loses contact with its rank and file was avoided.

The stewards too met frequently. Apart from numerous ad hoc meetings on particular issues, there were regular meetings twice a week of the entire stewards’ committee. These meetings took place on Tuesdays at lunchtime and again after work. Unlike many other engineering factories, it was the policy of the ENV committee to refuse payment from the management for time spent at stewards’ meetings, apart from one hour’s wages every other Tuesday evening when the meeting began an hour before the normal working day ended. (This is a small point, but there are many factories where the stewards do, in a sense, gain material advantage from their positions: they receive payment for time spent at meetings, often after other workers have gone home; they perhaps administer overalls-cleaning schemes and receive a small payment for this. At ENV this kind of practice, which can tend to divide the steward from his ‘constituents,’ was rigorously opposed by the stewards themselves.)

All the various aspects of ‘organisation,’ of course, have a serious purpose: better wages and conditions. And at ENV wages were higher than elsewhere in the North London District, considerably higher than the District average and probably above the level in any other organised factory in the area. In February 1967, when the chairman and convenor were sacked, the average skilled man’s pay for a 40-hour week was just under £28. Like other militant factories, the atmosphere on the shop floor was very friendly. Also, ENV was probably unique in the engineering industry in that women workers got the same pay as men. One sign of the good conditions in the factory was the remarkably low rate of labour turnover: in the late 1950s the management told the stewards that on average 6 men a month were leaving (a rate of 6 per cent a year) of whom the majority were labourers. Of the others who left, most went because they were retiring or moving to another district. In fact the rate of labour turnover, most unusually, was higher among the clerical and administrative staff, and among the management themselves than it was among the men on the shop floor. There can be no doubt at all that militancy at ENV, as elsewhere, paid off in terms of good wages and conditions.

At no time did the stewards meet the management on any kind of formal ‘works committee’ with an agenda laid down by the management. All notions of joint production committees’ and other similar devices to get the workers’ representatives to take responsibility for the failures of capitalist production were strongly resisted as ‘stooge’ committees. Moreover, within the factory there were no rate-fixers allowed; in some departments there were even agreements totally banning the use of stop watches. The management had production departments and production advisers and other similar machinery of control, but in point of fact it was generally the men on the shop floor themselves who determined the amount and speed of production. To some degree this exists in every workshop, but at ENV this type of embryonic control was developed to quite a high degree: the workers had established tight ceilings on their earnings, which they varied as they saw fit, so that they could easily be used as sanctions against the management in case of dispute. At one point the management claimed that 55 per cent of the workers in the factory were on what was termed ‘dispute production.’

In the kind of environment that developed over the years at ENV, in which managerial control over a whole range of issues connected with discipline, production and so forth was hopelessly ineffective, it became possible for individual workers to develop their own special side-lines in open view of the management (some of whom did not even realise what was happening). Thus one man in the factory spent a large part of his time mending watches and clocks for his own customers – who included members of the management – while receiving a high average wage from the firm for his long hours of non-production. A labourers’ rest room gradually developed into a full-scale cafe, complete with a bar, tea-urn and sandwiches. In another part of the factory there was a highly organised cut-price shop. Proprietary rights to these ‘informal institutions’ were passed on from generation to generation. And one legendary worker had a dispute with his foreman, in the course of which he announced that he was not going to work for ENV any more. He came to work each day for six months, but for the whole of that time did nothing at all for the firm, spending his time making fancy metal goods for his mates. The wretched foreman let it pass for a couple of days, but then found that he could do nothing out of fear of his superiors. The possibilities for workers who wish to exploit the contradictions of bureaucracy are enormous! Another worker, who had been on a go slow the preceding week, refused to go home for his holidays without his correct pay, locked himself in the shop stewards’ room and phoned the national press. The management pleaded with him to come out, but he refused, and finally the money was pushed to him through a small hole in the window.

There were many more stories of small individual struggles against the management at the factory, as no doubt every other factory has its stories; what is important about them is that the majority would have been impossible without: a background of a very high level of organisation and control within the factory by the workers and their stewards.

  1. Problems of Organisation

The very fact of having a militant factory creates new problems for the shop stewards. In the first place, there is a constant tendency for the majority of the workers to assume that the situation is a stable one and to depend on their stewards for everything. This attitude threatens the whole strength of union organisation in a factory, which hangs on the maintenance of a continuous pattern of mutual interdependence between workers and stewards. Faced with a foreman attempting to get him to do something he did not want to do, a worker would immediately take the problem to his steward without attempting to handle it first himself. Stewards were relied on to help with all manner of personal problems, the writing of letters, marital questions and so forth. Much of this of course is a sign of the worker’s trust in his steward, but at the same time if it develops too far it tends to separate the stewards from the men as a special race apart.

Maintaining a high degree of organisation, and keeping the initiative in dealings with management, is not a simple matter of just going around ‘being militant’ but requires strategy and continual adaptation. No stewards who wish to maintain their organisation intact can afford to fight on every small issue that comes up for fear of wasting their strength and alienating sections of the factory. Issues for struggle have to be selected to some degree, and estimates made continually of relative strengths and weaknesses. Where, as happens all the time in a highly organised factory in a period of relative working-class political inactivity, workers ‘lean’ on the union there is a constant danger that the essentially fragile strength of the stewards vis-à-vis the management may be exposed. And this kind of problem is endemic. At ENV, for instance, there was a shop in which the men regularly finished work three quarters of an hour early, cleaned up the shop and then stood about waiting for the hooter with their coats on, deliberately provoking the management. The management knew very well that the men had finished their work for the day, and appealed to the stewards to get the men, not to carry on working, but to pretend that they were! On rare occasions men would come in drunk – an open invitation to the management to discipline them – and the stewards would have to get the other workers to keep them concealed until they had sobered up. Again, a rather unpopular worker urinated on the bins of work outside his shop instead of going to the lavatory, and was sacked. The stewards, feeling quite unable to call a strike over the man’s sacking, pleaded for suspension as an appropriate measure, and were relieved when the management agreed to alter the sacking to a suspension.

None of this in any way implies a weakness on the part of the ENV stewards: any militant, acting in a non-revolutionary situation, has to estimate all the time precisely how far he can push without exposing his weaknesses; an unimaginative excess of ‘militancy’ can weaken an organisation quite as much as the lack of it.

There are also various problems concerning relations between groups of workers within the one factory. Differentials are one: although the stewards resisted attempts to widen differentials, it was much more difficult to get them narrowed. Yet the existence of differentials can weaken the fighting capacity of a factory. If a highly paid shop goes on strike there is a danger that others in lower-paid departments will resent the cut-backs in production that follow, even though the higher-paid group are opening the way for further wage claims for the rest of the factory. Over the period from 1950 to 1965 differentials were probably maintained, more or less, in percentage terms, and of course widened quite considerably in cash terms. It must be noted, however, that this potential source of division, although it did on occasion lead to grumbling, did not at any time actually lead to serious divisions in the factory when one section needed support. For the whole of the period, some shops stayed in front of some of the others. In particular, the Hard Test shop were earning a significantly higher wage than the rest; they had a unique agreement whereby the whole shop’s wage was determined by one man’s production – with the result that whenever there was a dispute, all the men but one could go slow, cutting production by 80 per cent without loss of pay, while the one man maintained their earnings level by ‘highly organised scabbing!’ The management tried for years to get this agreement annulled, but without success. Although percentage differentials were not permitted to increase, attempts to reduce them were not very successful. The holiday bonus was changed from a differential to flat-rate system at a factory meeting, but generally it was not possible to overcome the feeling of the ‘skilled’ men (many of whom were in fact up-graded) that their differentials should be maintained. At the same time, the ENV factory did have an unusually high proportion of up-graded men, and the stewards never accepted the argument, regrettably still all too popular among some sections of the Left, that ‘skilled’ men had to have their position especially protected, at the cost of other sections of the class.

Within the AEU and other engineering unions there is, formally, a rule that overtime must not exceed 30 hours a month. This is a rule which is much more honoured in the breach, even in the majority of the organised factories. At ENV it was fairly rigidly adhered to, on the grounds that higher pay should be won through negotiations and not through extra work. The stewards won an agreement with the management whereby, if one man was asked to work overtime, the whole factory was immediately guaranteed three full months’ work. No evening or Sunday overtime at all was permitted, nor was overtime on the night shift. This policy tended on occasion to cause some dissent, especially among the labourers, who compared the hours they were permitted to work with the hours worked by labourers in other local factories. During overtime bans it was the labourers in particular who had to bear the brunt, but still the stewards insisted that if the labourers wanted more money they ought to win it by bar-gaming. The labourers were fortunate in their stewards, however, and their rates were higher than those obtaining in other local factories; thus the unity of the factory was never seriously impaired by this potential division.

Despite the fact that on many occasions the strength of the organisation within ENV was available to help other sections of workers in dispute, it would be a mistake to imagine that the ENV stewards were very popular in other factories. They were admired for the level of their organisation and militancy, certainly, but at the same time this admiration was touched with a degree of jealousy among less successful militants in other factories, a problem that was compounded by political differences between the leading elements among the ENV stewards (in the latter days) and the majority of the District Committee. They made several attempts to get a representative on to the District Committee, but on each occasion were blocked for political reasons. When they succeeded in getting Ron Johnson on, he was virtually isolated by other delegates for most of the time. When the final battle was joined by the management, there were reports of local militants remarking, ‘It serves them right. They were too greedy.’ Thus, through no wish of their own, the ENV stewards were really quite isolated from other local militants. Such a position of isolation is especially dangerous for a highly organised factory like ENV, which tended to stand out for local managements like a sore thumb. In the North London area, ENV was something of a symbol to all the enemies of militant factory organisation, not only the local managements and the Government but the union bureaucracies as well.

Thus for some time it was apparent that sooner or later the management at ENV, with the backing of other local employers, the majority of the AEU executive and others, would initiate action against the ENV organisation. The same thing had happened at other organised factories in the London area: the British Light Steel Pressings strike in 1961 and the Ford debacle in the winter of 1962-63 were the most obvious examples. There is a danger, therefore, in such a situation that the stewards will grow over-confident, over-estimate their actual strength and work on the assumption that they will be able to hold the situation in the factory static for as long as they like. This very much bothered a couple of the stewards’ committee, Carlsson and Hogan, who were convinced that sooner or later they would have to accept some form of increased productivity, if only to avoid a major management offensive against their whole position. Carlsson and Hogan did, therefore, work out a serious plan for presentation to the management, which would allow for the introduction of new work methods, etc, while keeping the advantage with the stewards. The cardinal point of the plan was a proposal to reduce differentials and demand a higher consolidated rate in such a manner that the lower-paid workers would get much larger rises than the higher-paid. The plan was worked out in the explicit expectation of an attack by the management, and rested on the recognition that some kind of change was inevitable. What mattered was that the stewards should anticipate the management and seek to keep such changes under their control. However, when Carlsson and Hogan presented their ideas to the stewards’ committee, the plan was turned down with very little discussion; the stewards most vocal against it (calling it a ‘sell-out’) were in fact the least politically aware of the stewards, and also the least militant.

Given the failure of this attempt to control the pace of change within the factory, it became almost inevitable that the management would initiate some kind of attack on the stewards. The form that it took was not however arrived at all of a sudden: the managements (who changed with great rapidity over the period 1964-66) tried a number of approaches without success before they worked out the final formula that led to the defeat of the ENV organisation. It is worth remarking in general, however, that in a factory which is both more highly organised than other local factories (and in which wage costs are consequently higher than elsewhere, and management control weaker) and which is isolated more or less from the rest of the local labour movement, the management is bound, sooner or later, to demand changes. The problem for stewards in this situation is one of finding a way of reacting in a realistic manner to preserve the essentials of their organisation, often while accepting that some concessions will have to be made. In a sense the final defeat of the ENV stewards is a measure of their failure to manage this. It is to the story of their defeat that we now turn.

  1. The American Takeover

In 1962 the giant American firm of Eaton, Yale and Towne bought the ENV factories at Willesden and Aycliffe. It seems that they were anxious to get a foothold in the aircraft industry and in the Common Market. Later they bought another factory in Manchester. They immediately set out to change things and in particular to destroy the power of the trade-union organisation at Willesden.

Initially they used a succession of British managers for these tasks. These were frequently given time limits in which to produce results – if they failed they left. During the next four years there was a very high turnover of managers at the factory as new men and new methods were tried. These managers were carefully watched by American managers, some of whom actually worked at ENV. Townsend, who later smashed the factory organisation, worked for six months as General Manager before taking over completely.

Some managers tried to win the support and cooperation of the workers by stressing that in the long run the interests of management and workers were the same; both would benefit from a prosperous factory. They made special approaches to the shop stewards. An American who worked for a year at Willesden as a ‘tool specialist’ took the stewards on trips to other factories and attempted to make friends with the workers. He later became Managing Director of the Manchester factory. Another manager called Hill tried the same approach, stressing that he was also only an employee and that he was really on the workers’ side. He would show his trade union card to everyone and was continually attacking the other managers. Another kept telling the stewards that he was working in close touch with George Brown (whom he assumed the stewards would support) and that the management were keen to do what the Labour Government wanted (which they were!).

A Dr Jarrett from CAV (a part of the Lucas electrical group) was then made Managing Director. He started productivity bargaining throughout the factory. As he said, ‘We want you to earn more money … this is the socialist approach of equality.’ Hill commented, ‘I’m a bit of a Communist myself and Dr Jarrett has got a real socialist plan.’

These crude approaches were hardly likely to fool anyone. Some of the managers brought in were just hatchet men with no experience, including ex-naval commanders and the like. Similarly approaches and offers made specially to the shop stewards were also rejected. For instance, they were offered a proper office, that the management deduct union dues from wages, and some stewards were offered supervisory jobs (as mentioned above, one ex-convenor accepted).

Jarrett introduced into the factory Emersons, the Work Study firm which had been responsible for the Fawley agreements. A meeting was arranged with the shop stewards at which the Emersons’ representative outlined their plan. Jarrett then said that he expected the shop stewards would like to ask questions; but the stewards walked out and refused any cooperation. They threatened that the workers would go out if the Emerson people as much as came on to the shop floor. So although Emersons had an office in the factory for several months, they never did a thing. This is the only known occasion on which Emersons have failed to get any concessions whatsoever.

It was also Jarrett who started productivity bargaining in the factory. The management had issued several statements about the unsatisfactory state of affairs at ENV and how they were losing orders. They stressed that everyone would benefit from greater productivity at the factory – ‘High wages and high productivity go together.’ They also produced outline proposals for a new wage structure, both simplifying it and making it fairer.

The productivity campaign had a certain appeal for the workers, because the management were saying that there was to be more money but no redundancies. Also there was discontent about the existing pay structure and differentials. Even though the stewards realised that productivity deals represented a disguised form of attack on union organisation and working conditions, the plausibility of management’s offer made it difficult for them to refuse participation, unless they were to cut themselves off from the rest of the workers. So the stewards participated in the central and shop committees which were set up. The management were then very desultory over productivity bargaining.

Many of the lower managers were reluctant to suggest changes as they did not want to carry the can if things went wrong. So most of the proposals and suggestions came from the shop stewards’ side. But after many months only a few agreements had been reached and there was no agreement on the new wages structure. Some of the agreements which were concluded revealed both the strength of the shop floor organisation on these issues and the general incompetence of the management. For instance the packers agreed to a reduction from 16 to 12 men when in fact there had been 12 all along and also agreed to help with loading and unloading lorries which they had also always done. For these ‘concessions’ they got 1s an hour extra. The stacker-truck drivers agreed to become ‘mobile’ for an extra 1s an hour. Before this agreement each driver had regarded himself as attached to a particular shop and would only take loads from his own shop but would not bring them back. The failure of productivity bargaining to produce any real result meant the end of Jarrett who admitted at one time that he had been given a deadline of only a few months to produce results.

In 1966 there was a dispute in the milling shop and work from this shop was blacked. The management then sacked a worker who refused to be moved to this department. At this time the management seemed anxious to provoke a strike and get the workers outside; the stewards on the other hand were trying to avoid this, preferring to choose their own issue and occasion for a major fight. A factory meeting was held over the sacking and three shop stewards went to see Jarrett. He refused to meet them, so the meeting decided to go en masse to Jarrett’s office; ‘If he won’t see three of us, he’ll have to see all of us.’ About 1,000 workers marched singing through the office to Jarrett’s office. Jarrett declared he would have a meeting the next day but this was not accepted. Finally he said that the man would not be sacked or suspended. This incident led to the resignation of Jarrett a few weeks later and was also referred to later by the management as an example of the ‘anarchy’ existing in the factory.

  1. The Final Offensive

On Jarrett’s resignation in June 1966 Townsend assumed full control and became Managing Director. Only a few weeks later he notified shop stewards that things had gone too far, the company was losing money and there were too many disputes. He announced that the management were not prepared to negotiate with the stewards until normal working conditions were resumed. He had asked the Engineering Employers’ Federation to approach the Executive Councils of the unions to arrange an informal Joint Composite Conference to be held at the Willesden factory. Until that Conference was held there were going to be no more negotiations with the stewards.

It seems probable that in the meantime Townsend had had a secret meeting with Carron at the Confederation of Engineering and Shipbuilding Unions Conference. Some of the stewards saw a letter from the management to the AEU headquarters trying to arrange this meeting. Carlsson made this public in the local press and was never disciplined for it. Townsend obviously wanted to make direct contact with Carron. There were other examples of contact between the ENV management and the AEU head office: the management for instance, used to collect all references to ENV stewards and workers in the press and agendas of factory and stewards’ meetings, and send them to Carron.

The joint Composite Conference was held on 4th July. Amongst the representatives of the AEU were Carron, Boyd, Berridge from the Executive, Reg Birch (then Divisional Organiser) and District Officials. Carron and Berridge warned the ENV stewards before the meeting that they must be prepared to compromise. National officers of the ETU, TGWU, ASPD and ASW were also present. ASSET were not informed and when Mike Cooley of DATA tried to attend the meeting he was refused admittance because the Conference was just for representatives of manual workers, not staff unions. All ENV stewards attended as did the top ENV management, some of whom were flown over from the States.

Townsend opened the Conference with a prepared statement illustrated with charts showing the company’s position. In his words he was ‘astounded, amazed and shocked.’ According to him the company was losing money and customers. He admitted that in the past there had been weak management at ENV and it was natural that the stewards would take advantage of this. But, he went on, ‘The main reason why we are here today is labour relations; the management will not put up with the actions of the shop stewards and therefore are refusing to negotiate with them.’ He complained of the ‘mass of domestic and verbal agreements’ at the factory, and of the fact that ‘two unauthorised mass factory meetings have taken place, one culminating in the march of an unruly mob through the Executive Offices … this is anarchy and will not be tolerated in the future.’

He went to warn the union executives that although he was asking them to support the management’s actions in making these changes, ‘if the unions are unable to do this, we will take the necessary steps ourselves.’ Even Carron could not accept Townsend’s approach: ‘If you insist on going forward in the way you are, then you must expect a revolution.’ Of course, Carron was merely defending procedure, not threatening anything. He insisted that whatever proposals the management had must go through stewards and local officials.

Townsend then went on to outline the management’s proposals which were presented in the form of two documents called Management Functions and Interim Agreement. The effect of the proposals would have been to wipe out all the gains and benefits won by the trade-union organisation at the factory over the previous 20 years.

Firstly, the management intended to check all domestic and verbal agreements and would renegotiate them in a revised form that would make them clear. Of course these agreements were one of the strengths of the shop-floor organisation, especially the purely verbal agreements which could be interpreted as necessary whenever a dispute arose. The management had often complained that they did not know of the existence of half of the supposed agreements.

Secondly, standards were to be set up by ‘modern time-study methods’ and would include multi-machine operation. At the same time that the new standards were applied a graded wage structure of between five and nine grades would be introduced. Payments to time-workers were no longer to be linked to pieceworkers’ earnings and when an established piece-work rate was in dispute, payment would continue at the established rate until agreement was reached through procedure. Townsend admitted that the management had not yet decided whether in the long run the factory would continue to operate on piece-work or on measured day-work.

Amongst the other management proposals were things like mobility of labour, shift working as required, tea breaks to be limited to 10 minutes, and so on. Also the management would be able to transfer work to other factories as it wished. Towns-end mentioned that if these proposals were not accepted the factory might have to close.

Carron and the other officials made it clear that they were not prepared to agree to this. If the management wanted to change the agreements they must operate through the procedure, which meant first of all discussing it with the shop stewards. Carron reminded Townsend that the employers had as much obligation to go through procedure as the work people. The employers accepted this point.

However after this Conference the ENV management still refused to meet the stewards. So at a factory meeting it was decided to have token stoppages in protest. A series of guerilla stoppages to start on 20th July was planned. Each evening different shops were to be told by the stewards to go out the next morning for a few hours. At this stage it seems clear that the workers were prepared to resist the management. In fact the workers were prepared to resist the management right up until closure was announced.

On the day before these stoppages were due to begin a conference was held at the Employers’ Federation headquarters. At this the ENV management agreed to resume negotiations with the stewards the following morning. However the meeting finished late and so it was impossible to inform the workers at Willesden about the decision.

On the morning of 20 July, as planned earlier, the stoppages started. The management now announced that they knew nothing about the agreement made the previous day. This is one incident quoted by the stewards to illustrate how it was impossible to trust the ‘new’ (i.e. American) management – at least the ‘old’ management did keep their word. This resentment of the methods of the new management was one of the reasons that the stewards used the contrast between the British and American managements and made it a political issue.

Anyway, on this morning the storemen and electricians were already out as planned. They were due to come in at 10 o’clock. When they tried to return to work the management would not let them in and locked them out for the rest of the day. Carlsson, the stewards’ chairman who went out to see them, was stopped at the gate but pushed his way in. Shortly after this the management threatened to sack a stacker driver who refused to pick up a load as a protest in support of the workers locked out. A factory meeting was held and it was decided that if some workers were out then they would all go out. They planned to come back the following morning.

The next day the workers came back to find the electricity switched off, and everyone being herded into the canteen. On the platform were half a dozen managers and two representatives of the Electoral Reform Society. When all the workers had entered the canteen the doors were locked and Townsend made a speech about the crisis the factory was facing. He said that it came down to a choice – either the factory could stay open upon new conditions or it would be closed. He told the workers that they must now vote on whether they were prepared to accept the management’s proposals. Ballot boxes had been placed by each door and as each worker left the meeting he was to take a form and put it in the box. The ballot would be run by the Electoral Reform Society.

After Townsend had spoken Carlsson made a speech from the floor in which he condemned the methods being used by the management and insisted that the proposals must go through the shop stewards. He launched attacks upon the recent change in behaviour of several of the managers on the platform, but excluded Wilson, a popular representative of the ‘old’ management. Mitchell, the convenor, then spoke and said that he was walking out of the meeting and wanted everyone to follow him

stewards and some workers left the canteen, but immediately after they had gone the management locked the doors behind them, leaving the majority of the workers inside. So the stewards and other workers forced the doors open, upturned the ballot boxes, and the meeting broke up. During this meeting police in black marias were stationed near the factory and a manager phoned for them to come round to the back gate. The press and TV came down to the factory immediately after the meeting. Possibly it was a mistake to walk out of the meeting rather than argue the case out in full in front of the workers, showing that there was an alternative and then letting them refuse to vote in the management’s ballot. However the next day a factory meeting was held to which the press were invited and the workers voted unanimously in support of their shop stewards and against the management’s proposals.

At this meeting the workers passed a unanimous resolution stating that they would rather accept closure than any worsening of their pay and conditions. This resolution was continually re-affirmed at further meetings throughout the following period, and to the time of writing (late October 1967) still represents the attitude of those who remain at ENV.

Townsend announced that this sort of ‘intimidation’ would not put him off and he was going to organise another ballot, but this time it would be a postal one. Again it was organised by the Electoral Reform Society, who used the same pre-paid envelopes which they had used in an ETU ballot. Apparently the ETU did not object to paying for this ballot; they said they were not interested in taking the matter up. On another occasion one ETU official remarked that the ENV stewards ‘deserved to be shot’ if the management’s story was true.

Reg Birch protested about the postal ballot, but Townsend refused to drop it. However a few days later the ENV management called it off themselves because of ‘interference’ by the stewards – ‘once more the stewards had wrecked it.’ The vast majority of workers had returned the ballot forms to their shop stewards.

At about the same time a factory meeting was held at which the stewards attempted to settle outstanding disputes. This was done in order to prevent management having an excuse for locking workers out. Several disputes were settled as a result of this meeting. Negotiations were going on between shop stewards and management over the management’s proposals. On all major issues ‘failure to agree’ was recorded and the issues were passed to local officials.

On 24 August all ENV workers received letters saying that the Willesden factory was going to close. There was to be a phased close-down to be carried out over the next few months. The management gave as the reason the financial position of the factory which was, they said, aggravated by the government’s economic policies.

The major issue for the next few months was whether this announcement was genuine or only a bluff. The majority of workers and stewards tended to believe that the closure was genuine; only the convenor and chairman believed consistently that it was a bluff and that they must act accordingly. Yet there was plenty of evidence that the picture the management painted of the financial situation at ENV was inaccurate. Firstly, the aircraft sections at ENV were always busy and work from other departments too was deliberately being transferred to Aycliffe and Manchester or abroad- Secondly, the Annual Reports of the company showed large profits and increases in orders. Finally the management’s account of the effect of government policy was clearly misleading. For instance ENV as a manufacturing firm would stand to gain considerably, not lose, from the Selective Employment Tax.

Looking back it is now easy to say that it was a bluff but at the time the great majority of workers and stewards were not sure. The ENV management’s campaign had had a long build up over the previous years, with frequent announcements of ‘crises.’ Now they stressed continually that the factory was to close, and without any qualification. And of course even if one did not accept the firm’s reasons for closure, there was still the possibility that if in the last resort they could not defeat the trade union organisation in any other way, they would close down the factory, even if only temporarily. Whether this would have been possible is more difficult to say; the fact that the aircraft sections had plenty of work throughout the next six months suggests that the management would have found it very difficult to transfer all the work that the factory was doing.

The other issue which became of increasing importance was that of redundancy payments. The workers started to think of these payments and what they were going to spend them on. Since most of the workers had long service, the sums involved were quite considerable – many of them over £500. The management argued that if there were a strike, this would count as misconduct and would mean that the workers would lose redundancy payments. The stewards denied this and got lawyers to back them up, but this type of rumour had a considerable influence.

  1. The Campaign Against Closure

At the beginning of September the unions challenged the management’s case at the longest Local Conference on record. McLoughlin, an ex-ENV convenor, now local AEU official, opened the union’s case. He rejected the management’s figures which showed falling profits and losses of orders, and quoted Eaton publications which gave a glowing report of trade prospects. The President of the Employers’ Federation, who had just been to the USA at Eaton’s expense, then said that the closure was definite, and even if the management’s earlier proposals were accepted by the workers, it would not make any difference. He stressed that this was the result of the government’s economic policy.

At the end of this Local Conference, a failure to agree was recorded and in October 1966 the issue went to Central Conference at York where there was still no agreement. The night before the conference Carron stated that he did not see why he should take up the reference since both the management and he had been criticised sharply by Carlsson, and he had to be reminded that the jobs of more than 1,000 workers were at stake. After the closure was announced the ENV stewards began organising their campaign. In their publicity, they attempted to show that the closure announcement was only a bluff to defeat the workers’ organisation. They also attempted to get support by arguing that the ENV management’s policies were against the Labour Government’s policy of increasing exports. They argued that the bulk of the goods produced at ENV were exported and that the balance of payments figures would suffer if the factory did close and the work was transferred out of the country. The ENV stewards got the support of Brent Trades Council which organised meetings and marches about ENV. Marches were held in Willesden and Wembley. The issue was also brought up at meetings of the Shop Stewards’ Defence Committee, which had originated months before out of a legal dispute concerning the ENV convenor, Mitchell.

Deputations of ENV stewards and workers went to the TUC conference at Blackpool and the Labour Party conference at Brighton where they held demonstrations. A group of workers went to the Farnborough Air Show and picketed the ENV stand in order to illustrate the conflict between reports of the factory closing down and attempts to get new orders.

The stewards issued regular statements to the press about ENV. They told the press that work was being transferred from Willesden to factories in the USA. But although some of the journalists were interested in the stories, nothing appeared. The stewards found out that some of the journalists had been warned by the AEU head office that if they did print the stories about ENV then they would not get any more stories from the union.

The stewards organised lobbies of MPs and tried to get support and questions asked in Parliament. When they first tried to contact the MPs, many of them, especially the Left-wingers, agreed to help. But very few of them did so. Russell Kerr, who expressed great interest, later walked into one of the ENV meetings by mistake, much to his embarrassment as he had done nothing. The MP for Uxbridge, Ryan, promised to help but never turned up. But perhaps the worst case was that of the two Willesden MPs, Laurie Pavitt and Reg Freeson. They had been in close touch with the factory for years and had often held factory gate meetings there. ENV had raised canvassing teams to go out for them at election times. When the closure was announced, the stewards arranged a meeting with both of them. Pavitt and Freeson came and announced that they could not interfere as they had just discovered that ENV was not in their constituencies! In fact it was just inside the boundary of North Hammersmith, and so the ENV stewards were told to go to their own MP, Tomney. Pavitt and Freeson then went off to a meeting with the ENV management and didn’t see the stewards again.

When a meeting of MPs at the House of Commons was called to discuss ENV, only four turned up. Two of these, Stan Orme and Norman Atkinson, who were AEU MPs, said that they could not stay because they had been advised not to listen as the AEU Executive was going to advise them on the case. The only MPs who did consistently try to help were Sid Bidwell and Bill Molloy. Bidwell and Molloy were warned for taking the matter up and Molloy lost his chance of promotion.

In general the Left wing MPs were useless on an issue like this. A few were genuinely sympathetic, but where they were required to be more than ‘social workers with connections,’ they were too frightened to come out openly.

A few questions were asked in the House of Commons but these were mostly ‘safe’ questions, about the value of exports which would be lost and so on. The fact that the gears which ENV made for defence purposes could not be made elsewhere in Britain and would have to be made in the USA or on the continent was never mentioned, although at the time it would have created quite a controversy.

It was known that the ENV management had already had meetings with members of the government. One of the American managers went to a meeting with Austin Albu and he took a copy of the Shop Stewards’ Defence Committee’s pamphlet on Incomes Policy with him.

The ENV stewards and the union officials had a meeting with Douglas Jay and then with Shirley Williams, both at the Board of Trade. Mrs Williams said that they seemed to have a good case and if any union asked for an investigation it would take place. Only the DATA representative took up this offer, but nothing happened.

The results from this type of campaign – contacting MPs, questions in the House, and so on – seem to have been nil. One serious criticism which has been made is that it diverted attention away from the factory and took up effort which could have been used in trying to get opposition organised inside the factory. In point of fact, the campaign outside was only an alternative because there was no action within.

Regularly after the closure was announced, calls for a factory strike were put to factory meetings. The shop stewards recommended strike action as they knew that this was the only way they could win. Yet the strike calls were always turned down by large majorities. Among the workers and some of the stewards, doubts about whether the closure was a bluff or not persisted. Most workers were prepared to let the stewards attempt to avert the closure but they were not willing to risk sacrificing their redundancy pay. In the meantime they were anxious to increase their earnings in order to increase the amounts of these payments.

During this period the management were transferring work from Willesden to Aycliffe and Manchester in order to lay off Willesden workers. This was well known at the time. One criticism of the stewards was that they should have foreseen the situation arising out of this transfer of work months before and should have prevented it. When the Manchester stewards offered to black this work, the Willesden stewards turned down their offer on the grounds that since there was no opposition in their factory it was not fair to leave it to Manchester when they themselves were doing nothing. In this way they deliberately passed the buck back to their own workers.

In October the management announced that they wanted another stock-taking and therefore some workers must do overtime. Since they were proposing to lay off workers because there was not enough work, the factory banned overtime. As a result some sections were locked out and others went out in support. The management then locked out the entire factory for a week, with the exception of the storekeepers. When the management tried to do the stocktaking themselves the storekeepers walked out.

During the lock-out a meeting of ENV workers was organised at Hammersmith Town Hall with 800 workers attending. (However the following day, Saturday, when a march was held in Willesden only 14 people turned up, and these were mostly stewards.) At the Hammersmith meeting Birch and Cooley spoke, as well as the ENV stewards. A solicitor also explained that any strike action would not lead to loss of redundancy pay. The meeting supported the fight against redundancy and closure. The stewards had previously agreed that those workers who wanted to leave ENV should be allowed to go as this would make the rest of the factory stronger, but no vote was taken on this at the meeting.

But after the Hammersmith meeting, nothing happened. The men returned to work the following week. Resolutions for strike action at factory meetings were still turned down. Although various proposals for departmental strikes were discussed and sometimes agreed, they never came to anything. In the continued absence of any action from within the factory, the stewards attempted to get an official strike.

At the end of October the AEU District Committee took the rare step of calling for an official strike at ENV. However this had to be endorsed at the next AEU Executive meeting. When this took place Reg Birch moved that the North London District Committee’s decision be endorsed, but could not even get anyone to second the motion (Hugh Scanlon, who was at the meeting, just kept quiet.) So the official strike came to nothing at all. No attempt was made to strike in the few days before the EC met, since unfortunately the majority of the workers wanted to wait for the EC’s decision. Thus the chance for a strike was missed, although some of the stewards now think that the majority of the workers would have come out then. One difficulty was that it was getting near to Christmas and hence there was a greater unwillingness to strike. Quite a few of the workers could remember the long 1951-52 strike which began before Christmas.

In November the first group of workers were sacked. Each week more followed. A large number of stewards and other militants went in the first weeks, often in spite of their seniority. Early in the new year the management offered to make a deal with some of the remaining shop stewards, especially Carlsson. If they would get the workers to agree to the management proposals then they would not be sacked. This Carlsson insisted on reporting to a full factory meeting. The factory refused to make any deal of this sort. After this, both Carlsson and Mitchell were sacked.

It was now clear to everyone that the management’s only interest was in getting rid of the militants and then keeping the factory open. Soon after the sackings of Carlsson and Mitchell, they announced that ‘due to changed economic circumstances’ they would be keeping the factory open with a labour force of between 400 and 500. The workers who remained at ENV, however, stuck strongly to their earlier decisions and refused to make any concessions on pay or conditions. At the time of writing, eight months after the chairman and convenor were sacked, the management has still not succeeded in changing one agreement. The new ENV stewards, as we went to press, had just won back control over overtime at a Local Conference, where the management was forced to stand by the agreement that forces them to ask the shop stewards for permission before they could approach any worker to ask him to work overtime.

  1. Assessment of the Fight Against Closure

Once the ENV management had announced their intention of closing the factory, the problem that faced the shop stewards was that of finding some realistic way of opposing the management and carrying the men with them. It must be remembered that only a minority of the stewards – and an even smaller minority of the men – were convinced from the start that the management’s declaration of imminent closure was in fact a fraud. As we have seen, the men were already planning how they would spend their redundancy pay, and the stewards’ efforts to convince them that a strike would not affect their right to redundancy money were not entirely successful against a barrage of management propaganda.

In the period before the actual announcement of closure, the stewards, aware that a wholesale attack of some kind was about to be launched, followed a policy of ‘clearing the decks for action.’ They urged workers to settle outstanding departmental disputes in order to avoid giving management the opportunity to provoke a strike before they were ready or on an issue of management’s own choosing. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems perhaps that the management would not anyway have risked provoking a major stoppage at this stage, for they had not seriously begun to shift work from the Willesden factory elsewhere (indeed some sections of the factory remained busy throughout 1966 and 1967). At this stage it seems that the management’s hope was still that they would make some kind of breakthrough in the negotiations, through their attempt to divide the stewards from the rank and file by devices like the ballot. However one unfortunate result of the ‘clearing the decks’ policy was that some of the men, not fully realising the way that the management were shaping up for a major struggle, began to think that the stewards were ‘going soft’.

It has been suggested that during this period the stewards should have pursued a militant policy on all fronts and tried to secure a large-scale strike before the closure was announced, in order to keep the initiative. Some critics have condemned the ENV stewards for not turning the dispute into a major political campaign in the North London area. But this criticism ignores the current level of consciousness in the labour movement. Certainly any realistic review of .the movement’s experience over the past three years suggests that the formula, ‘incomes policy equals political struggle’ is quite wrong, over-simplified and Utopian. The campaigns which have been successful have depended on the presentation of issues in very low-level ‘trade union’ terms: the role of the State has been seen as an additional cause for working-class indignation, rather than as the central element in a larger pattern. Outsiders see only the abstract possibilities – down on the ground in North London, the real response of other workers looks quite different. Of course, this does not mean that every issue must be reduced to the lower common multiple. A campaign of solidarity must operate on at least two levels – aiming to rebuild, through activity in fragmented day-to-day struggles, a meaningful labour movement, and to re-group the existing militants and formulate a more coherent and revolutionary political programme.

If a campaign outside the factory was, in the concrete conditions of the moment, almost fruitless, the campaign among the workers within the factory was also difficult. For, although the stewards knew very well that a management offensive was imminent, it was not easy to communicate this general awareness to the men until the management showed its hand.

The actual announcement of closure quite seriously disoriented the stewards’ committee. For one thing, there seemed to be no precedent for this – how, after all, does one fight a closure? Furthermore, as we have already seen, it was only a minority of the stewards who believed that the management was bluffing. And in face of the management’s repeated insistence that it would be shutting up shop in Willesden (and for economic reasons not directly connected with the shop stewards) it was by no means easy to win the other stewards over to a realisation of the actual state of affairs. (We might add, too, that it is by no means impossible that if a more successful fight had been waged by the stewards the management would have closed the factory for a time.) The belief that the management were serious in their stated intentions was in fact not really dissipated until early 1967, by which time a number of stewards had already been ‘made redundant.’ It took the management’s offer of a ‘deal’ to Carlsson and Mitchell to convince even some of the most militant and ‘political’ spirits on the stewards’ committee.

Unless this background is understood, it is difficult to attempt a fair criticism of the policy of the leading stewards. They were, and through no fault of their own, faced with a situation of undoubted difficulty, being the only ones who saw even that a fight was necessary. There was by this time, it is true, an IS [International Socialists, pre-cursor organisation to the modern Socialist Workers party. Ed] factory branch with about 12 members, most of them stewards. This met fortnightly after work. But it would be a mistake to see this as a highly conscious organised group. Throughout the ‘fifties and early ‘sixties, Geoff Carlsson had been completely isolated politically in the factory. The bulk of the stewards had been members of the Communist Party or had accepted a Party lead, although disillusion had gradually been setting in. It was not until well into 1965 that it proved possible to recruit the militant stewards to IS. Inevitably, given the political histories of these comrades, the development of the branch had hardly begun when the attack came. In a very real sense, as one of the ex-CP stewards remarked, the IS branch ‘came too late.’ Partly as a result of this immaturity of the branch, the group did not act in a very organised way on the stewards’ committee.

Given the failure of their repeated attempts to get a majority of the workers voting for strike action (although the minority in favour grew steadily) the question that arises is whether a minority or departmental strike of some kind was possible. In the past, faced with different circumstances, the stewards had encouraged the development of a tradition at ENV of abiding always by majority decisions. This stress on factory democracy – by no means present in all ‘militant’ factories – was of course very valuable. This kind of democratic procedure is particularly well fitted to a situation where workers and stewards are on the offensive, for then the more advanced can afford to wait for the more backward to catch up. In a defensive struggle, whose terms are set by the management, however, an unwillingness to lead, even from a minority position, is a definite weakness. And it is on these grounds that we feel the ENV stewards were open to criticism.

In a real sense, the stewards lost the initiative. It is not for us, at this remove, to specify that on such and such an occasion they ought to have pursued a particular line of action. What we do feel, however, is that they should have done something. Various suggestions have been made, from a ‘sit-in’ by the militants to a departmental walk-out. And many ideas were discussed by the stewards, but in each case they seem to have weighed the advantages to such a degree that they partially paralysed themselves. They were – quite rightly – afraid of being ‘adventuristic,’ but adventurism is better than nothing. In a way, the stewards’ legitimate fear of substituting themselves for the majority of the workers was, we feel, carried too far. Action cannot be determined mechanically by the existing level of consciousness; a spark of action could, perhaps, have altered the workers’ consciousness too. The stewards had a large fund of goodwill that they could rely on, and they should have risked more than they did. At the most general level, they saw only that substitutionism was a danger, but did not see that the theory of substitutionism (with which IS has often been identified) implies no rejection of the need for leadership. [2]

Would they have been defeated anyway? Almost certainly. But for socialists and militants this is not the sole question. What was sad about the defeat at ENV was that it was so quiet. For the stewards to go down without a fight was to miss the opportunity to generate any kind of campaign that could assist in the further linking of the militants in the engineering industry. Even if for example the pickets on the Myton and Sunley sites in London go down in defeat (as seems sadly probable at the time of writing), other militants in the building industry will have gained from their struggle, and from the solidarity movement that was built around it.

At the same time, the extent of the failure should not be exaggerated. An employer can be defeated fifty times, and he will still be there. A stewards’ committee cannot survive one major defeat. And in no sense was it a ‘sell-out.’ No concessions were made to management. Even today, fifteen months after the management’s final attack began, none has been made. One worker, still at the factory in October 1967, was amazed at the very idea that there had been a defeat: ‘We’ve never given them anything!’

And the positive elements remain. For years ENV provided a powerful instance of the possibilities of strong factory organisation. And it was, in a very real sense, the centre of militancy in North London engineering. Its defeat, as other militants in the area recognise, was a serious loss. The memory of the years of the struggle at ENV will serve for some time to come as an example to all those who are involved in the struggle for workers’ control and a new socialist movement. The unhappy manner of the final defeat should not be allowed to obscure that.

Footnotes

  1. This kind of division among the Communist Party’s industrial membership in the engineering industry undoubtedly played an important part in the development of the later split in the Party’s ranks over the question of the AEU Presidential election, the Shop Stewards’ Defence Committee and ultimately the expulsion of Reg Birch from the Party.
  2. See T. Cliff, The Revolutionary Party and the Class: Trotsky on Substitutionism, IS 2, Autumn 1960.

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past tense note:

NB: Regarding the question raised in the final section, Assessment of the Fight Against Closure,how, after all, does one fight a closure?” it is interesting that at this point factory occupations by workers as an attempt to prevent closures had not yet come to the fore. Occupations were to be a major tactic in the 1970s and into the early 1980s. Here’s one account of such an occupation only five years after ENV, at Briant Colour Printing

Today in London guerilla gardening history, 1906: unemployed occupy empty land in Plaistow

A short history of the 1905-6  unemployed agitation in West Ham and the Triangle Camp events

One issue the ongoing Covid-19 crisis/lockdown flagged up was the issue of food distribution. Not just – how do people unable to leave their homes get access to necessities like what to eat, a question in itself, massively inspiringly addressed by a plethora of new mutual aid groups, exiting support networks, community organisations and so on (a post for another time?) –

– but also, how does food get to the shops, to the depots, the market and supermarkets? Where does it come from and are food supply chains sustainable in the face of international crises, such as pandemics (not to mention the old Brexit chestnut. Remember Brexit?)

An old socialist slogan used to be ‘England Should Feed its own people’  – Not in a nationalist way, not ‘fuck outsiders’, but in a self-sustainable way – food shouldn’t be a commodity available only for a price, shipped across the world, but as locally sourced as possible, under the control of those who produce it, and available for all of the basis of need. The urgency of this is hammered home not only by the looming climate emergency, but also by the stark realities of global distribution, supply and demand: more and more, the wealthier countries consume the products produced for crap wages in unliveable conditions elsewhere. How long is that sustainable?

19th century radicals identified the dispossession of the labouring poor from the land during the enclosures, and the divorce of the industrial working class from the growing of food, as a huge grievance, but also, the tin end of the wedge to a social system that could only exist by stealing the resources of others (via imperialism, colonialism…)

Campaigns like the Chartist Land Plan, the Land League, and so on, were attempts to re-link the urban industrial workers with access to and control of land.

On occasions, workers in the cities also attempted collectively to address the issue directly – by seizing or squatting land and attempting to work it and grow food.

one such attempt took place in the early 20th century in East London, the Triangle Camp occupation.

Here’s an account written by Nick Heath, stolen by us:

The first decade of the 20th century was devastating for the British working class with rising unemployment. In 1902 with the demobilisation of soldiers after the Boer War there was a surge in the number of unemployed. Unemployed Committees were set up in 1903 by on one hand an alliance of Radicals and the Independent Labour Party with the National Unemployed Committee, and on the other by the Social Democratic Federation, who set up their own London committee.

The SDF was the largest Marxist grouping in Britain at the time, using a combination of revolutionary rhetoric to disguise an actual policy of electoral reformism, above all at the municipal level. It had indeed a long record of unemployed agitation stretching back to 1883. As its top hatted and autocratic leader H. M. Hyndman said in his autobiography: “Nearly all our principal agitations, demonstrations and collisions with the “authorities” have arisen from efforts in this direction.”

In the (then) borough of West Ham in East London, the Stratford and Canning town branches of the SDF began a campaign among the unemployed. West Ham had been a centre of general socialist agitation for years. In 1897 a coalition of Radicals and socialists had formed a Labour group on the council and started advocating progressive measures like a direct labour scheme for the council works department, trade union wages for council workers, labour clauses in council contracts, the setting up of council housing, etc. After they won 29 seats in the council elections of the following year they proceeded with these schemes with the building of public baths, hospitals, council housing, electrification and sewage schemes, and an independent works department. In addition the secularist paper The Freethinker was put on open display in the libraries.

As a result of these measures the churches allied with conservative elements, including ratepayers associations, to create a Municipal Alliance, headed up by prominent Nonconformist churchmen. In the 1899 elections the Alliance won 9 of the 12 wards and stayed in power until 1910. In the meantime the SDF, with Will Thorne at its head, worked to increase the number of their councillors.

The alliance was itself forced to introduce relief programmes and set up a Distress Committee because of the rising levels of unemployment and the mobilisations that were happening.

The SDF unemployment campaign began in winter 1904 with a house to house distribution of bills, weekly open air meetings at The Grove and a mass meeting at Stratford Town Hall with the tamest of the SDF speakers, Hyndman and Lady Warwick.

However, other forces were at work in West Ham, far more radical and revolutionary than the SDF. The anarchist agitator Charles Mowbray had been living in the borough at off and on from at least 1901 according to the census of that year, and he had much experience of agitation amongst the unemployed. Mowbray organised the West Ham Unemployed Committee with other anarchists like Tom Hare, an unemployed painter.

As a militant who had been often victimised Mowbray was frequently unemployed himself and could speak passionately about his own situation and that of so many others. He was involved in agitation in the north of the borough of West Ham in December 1904. A heavy fog had descended on the area and lasted a fortnight, aggravating the employment situation with the laying-off of many dockers. At a meeting on December 17th at the town hall addressed by Herbert Gladstone, a deputation led by the SDF members and local union activists, Arthur Hayday and Jack Jones (who incidentally both ended up as Labour MPs , before which they had both supported the First World War) insisted on a conference with the speakers present. The situation became acute a few days later with a number of working class families becoming destitute. Hayday and Jones organised a procession to protest at places of worship in West Ham on Christmas Day, but they were threatened with arrest if this was carried out. The local Liberal candidate for West Ham North, C.F. G. Masterman, then met with Hayday, Jones and Charles Mowbray at the Liverpool Street Hotel. Masterman noted that Mowbray insisted on keeping his overcoat on throughout, it then becoming apparent that he had sold or pawned his jacket because of his straitened circumstances.

On 9th August 1905 after a week of open air meetings, where police, included those mounted on horse, attended, Hare, McGregor and Mowbray met with the Council and demanded a special meeting for the unemployed which was rejected by the Mayor. At a meeting at Stratford Town Hall attended by 1500 where there were speeches from Richard Bullen, unemployed carpenter, for the Independent Labour Party and McGuire for the National Democratic League, Tom Hare said that the ten to twelve thousand unemployed in West Ham would not keep quiet for much longer. They were trying peaceful measures but if they did not bring success they must try violent means. Soldiers, the police, and the landlords stood between them and the things that would satisfy their needs and cried “Hands off!” when they asked for food and clothing- but the time was approaching when the working class would say: “Never mind about hands off; if you stand in our way we shall say ‘hands on you’. Though he was an anarchist it would only be time to talk about violence when they had exhausted pacific means. If however they were not listened to, he would advocate it with all his might. (Long sustained cheering).

Mowbray said that they had been told that if they used violence they would alienate sympathy. They had been quiet- where was the sympathy (Cries of “There is none!”) They were nearly tired of begging for something (“Hear! Hear!)

The following week there was another fiery meeting on Friday August 25th with two of the three speakers declaring that they were anarchists. One of them, Monk, said that: “I will sail very close to the wind but not quite… All I say is that I am not afraid of prison”.

As one paper reported: “through pouring rain a large number of the unemployed workmen of West Ham marched recently to the Stratford Town Hall” in October 1905. Mowbray addressed a meeting of 1,200 where “songs, recitations, and speeches were given”. It was decided that 200 “heads of family” would march to the West Ham Workhouse the following week, and this duly happened with Mowbray at the head of the march. Mowbray said the intent was to tear down the gates and demand abolition of the Poor Law in the district and for the adoption of direct labour by the council. The campaign fizzled out but the authorities had noticed the building anger among the East London working class. As a result the ruling Alliance introduced the Unemployed Workers Act, and set up a Distress Committee.

Mowbray and co. were still agitating in the following year. At a meeting in July he declared that “Working men did not own so much as a flowerpot of the ‘Glorious land’ they fought for in the African War” (The Boer War). Speaking alongside Harry Baldock for the West Ham South ILP and Teresa Billington National organiser of the Women’s Social and Political Union he talked of the current state of distress of the unemployed in Canning Town which would be likely to lead to increase in crime, together with riot and disorder. He said it was useless to vote to put Will Thorne in Parliament as that body only protected the landlords (This was an election year and Thorne, the leading SDFer in the area, was running for the West Ham South seat supported by the Labour Representation Committee).

The SDF ‘s unemployed activists carried out occupations of land in northern England at Levenshulme, Salford, Bradford and Leeds, all somewhat short affairs but attracting some notice.

Increasing unemployment and agitation to the left of the SDF put pressure on the SDF base itself. As the plumber Ben Cunningham, SDF councillor in South West Ham, admitted, it was discontent among the West Ham working class that pushed the SDF rank and file to take action. On Friday 13th July 1906 he and 14 unemployed workers marched on to a piece of land between St Mary’s Road and Passage in Plaistow. It lies just south of the line between Plaistow and Upton Park stations. It had been a gravel pit, later filled in with dust and refuse and measuring about 3 acres. It was unused municipal property (the previous day the Council had discussed whether to allow the Unemployed Aid Society to use the land for the unemployed but this quickly developed into a fight between two councillors over insulting remarks about the unemployed). West Ham was well under way to being urbanised but quite substantial tracts of open land still existed in the area. By the end of the day 20 unemployed were cultivating the land, and by Monday cabbages were planted. The occupiers received all in all a thousand plants from donors, including broccoli and celery. Cunningham was appointed Captain, and Bill King, chief gardener or ‘Minister of Agriculture’. King decided the ground should be divided up into four triangular plots which gave rise to the name Triangle Camp. A structure made of canvas and poles was erected and dubbed The Triangle Hotel, manager Benjamin Cunningham. A sign was put up reading “You Are Requested Not to Spit on the Floor of This Hotel”.

Collections began and a lot of money was contributed, the occupiers selling a programme to raise money. One collector, James Cleaver, a 60 year old labourer, was arrested for begging by the police. The Mayor, alderman Byford, wrote to Cunningham informing him that as a Justice of the Peace he was going to take action against an illegal act. Cunningham wrote back: “with all respect to your worship’s opinion I don’t consider that I have acted illegally in taking possession of disused land which rightfully belongs to the people.”

On July 26th the authorities turned up led by the Corporation official George Blain with a large body of police. The occupiers were supported by a crowd of three to five thousand, many of them unemployed. This was a golden opportunity for collections to be taken up by the Triangle Campers. Blain, a road foreman, asked the Campers to leave the land, but this request was turned down and Blain and Co. beat a retreat. The crowd was then addressed by Madame Sorgue, the French syndicalist orator and by Herbert Thomas, an SDFer who had come down from Tottenham to support the action, who exhorted it to revolution.

George Bernard Shaw refused to “finance a revolution” whilst the writer H. Rider Haggard, author of King Solomon’s Mines and She, called on Cunningham to desist. As for Thorne he distanced himself from the land occupation whilst the SDF paper Justice gave it little coverage. All these so-called radicals were revealing the true worth of their expressed ideas.

In late July Justice Bicknell granted the Mayor of West Ham writs against the Land grabbers.
On August 4th Blain and other officials returned with a large body of police, and started clearing the camp. Cunningham refused to leave and was carried off after which the other Campers left the. The Hotel was pulled down and put in the adjoining field, where the men had gathered, along with their bedding. A second group of men then occupied the land, but fled with the return of the police at night.

On September 4th Cunningham and others tried to go back on the land again but 120 police, ten of them mounted, along with 30 council officials, stopped this and only Cunningham and three others got onto the land, where they were wrestled to the ground.

Cunningham for his part was sent down for contempt of court and stayed in Brixton prison until he apologised and was released on October 11th. George Pollard, of Plaistow, a gardener of 35 years was charged with assaulting Blain by striking him on the face on Tuesday September 4th. Thomas Evans was accused of assaulting Alfred Robert Taylor, a Corporation clerk on the same day.

George Pollard and Thomas Evans appeared at West Ham Police Court. Pollard was arrested by constable Greenwood and was reported to have said: “I did not give him half enough. I went on to the field with the intention of stopping there. If all those who had promised to go on the land had gone, we should have stopped there”. In court he refused to take off his hat, and it had to be removed by the police. He stated that he was an anarchist-communist, that he had been looking for work from morning till night without success, that he had six children , yet could get nothing from the Corporation and that: “While we have capitalists, be they Christian or otherwise, we are bound to have distress”. The Court chairman replied that he “really could not listen to this rigmarole. You are charged with an illegal act. Can you say anything to justify it?” Pollard asked him not to interrupt so much. The chairman went on to say that “this sort of thing” must be put down to which Pollard replied “you won’t put it down”. Pollard was sent to prison for 6 weeks hard labour. The bench expressed sorrow for his wife and children to which Pollard riposted: “I take your sorrow for what it is worth”. Evans was fined twenty shillings or fourteen days imprisonment in default of paying the fine.

The magazine Liberty Review reported on the “Anarchist heroes” Pollard and Evans and their sentencing and that: “These are the kind of heroes who are supposed by numerous sentimental dreamers in this country to be heralding a social revolution.”

Cunningham was disowned by the SDF. He ran again for the council elections as an independent Labour candidate, but came a poor third. He was never again elected.

As Martin Crick says in his history of the SDF: “The SDF had been willing to take advantage of the efforts of its local activists but once the attempts proved abortive the Federation returned its gaze to the national arena”.

As to Thorne, here we have someone who advocated violence against the blacklegs during the dockers’ strike of 1889, who often still used revolutionary rhetoric. As Richard Hyman noted in a review of a biography of Thorne which appeared in International Socialism:
“The lesson is the strength of the pressures, inherent in even the most militant trade unionism, towards accommodation with capitalism. Concern for organisational stability leads to caution in policy and action; committed to caution, the leadership develops a manipulative attitude towards the rank and file; ‘socialism’ is relegated to the rhetoric of the conference platform, a goal of the distant future, typically interpreted in gradualist terms which do not threaten the capitalist social order; militant action by the membership which might disturb established relations with employers and governments is opposed and if possible suppressed. Only a clear understanding of these tendencies and commitment to a revolutionary alternative can provide an effective safeguard against such degeneration”.

The first decade of the 20th century was an important one but little research has been carried out on the workers’ movements of those years, unlike for previous decades which are now fairly well covered. The unemployed actions smashed the stigma of the undeserving unemployed to some extent, where it was their fault that they were out of work. The year 1906 saw the Liberals sweeping to power, along with a whole group of Labour MPs. These prove to be timid in the extreme and the likes of John Burns and Thorne were seen as examples of former militants who were now estranged from their original ideas. The sympathy for direct action and anti-parliamentarianism began to grow, whilst on the other hand the Labour Party became a part of the political scene and trade union leaders became more and more involved in accommodation to the Labour MPs and their Liberal allies.

Nick Heath

Sources:

Banks-Conney, Diana Elizabeth. Political culture and the labour movement: a comparison between Poplar and West Ham 1889-1914
Crick, Martin. The History of the Social-Democratic Federation.
Masterman, Lucy. C.F.G. Masterman
Young, David Murray. People, place and party: the Social Democratic Federation 1884-1911
The Plaistow Landgrabbers

The Triangle Camp land squat story inspired another more modern reclamation of land in Plaistow

and not so far away, a bit further east – guerrilla gardening and DIY food growing are even today being carried out in Essex, as people think about a ‘resource based economy’, self-sufficiency and taking back disused land…

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NB: Other similar attempts have been made, through time. There were Surrey’s True Levellers, or Diggers, during the English Revolution.

Another group who had some success in squatting land and holding onto it to use for themselves were the poor labourers of Ickenham, West London, who in 1834 dug up and allotted themselves several parcels of land. This was a collective act on the part of these people who had made their own claim to land in the face of the condemnation of the Ickenham manor court, who complained that

‘William Bunce and others being persons who receive Parochial relief in this Parish have lately dug up part of the Waste on Ickenham Green for gardens but no permission has been granted to them for that purpose by any tenants of this manor & such persons arc therefore trespassers but no proceedings are to be taken against them for the present’.

The manor court wasn’t sure how to deal with these Digger-like squatters. The recent ‘Swing Riots’ of 1830-31 had shaken authority, and the disturbances had come perilously close to Ickenham with troubles in Heston…  the court may have thought forced evictions were politically undesirable at that time.

The labourers were still occupying their gardens on the wastes in October 1836 when the court insisted again that they were trespassing. But instead of ordering evictions, the court ordered that the labourers pay rent to the lord of the manor at “one shilling per rod of land as a demonstration of their acknowledgement as tenants at sufferance.” However it was only a year later that the labourers attended the court and agreed to pay this acknowledgement; they were allowed to keep their allotments until the next court.

Ten years later, they still occupied the allotments, and were disputing with the manor court over the rents. By this time the labourers’ group which now numbered nineteen. The labourers had claimed from at least 1844 that they could not afford to meet the rents. By 1847 they had gained the title of tenants. By 1859 the labourers or their descendants were now tenants paying £1 per year for their gardens. Some success at squatting land and holding on to it and establishing a claim was possible! The nominal owners were not always able to remove them, and had to face up to reality and grant them some rights…

Today in London festive history, 1996: Reclaim the Streets Re-Wild the M41 motorway, Shepherds Bush

1996 was proclaimed (by the car industry) “Year of the Car”.
Reclaim The Streets turned that into ‘the Year We Squatted a Motorway’.

July that year saw RTS mount what was probably their most ambitious and gloriously subversive action – squatting a stretch of motorway. The short M41 link in Shepherds Bush – the shortest motorway in England then – was turned into a party zone for an afternoon and evening. The sight of thousands of people running onto an empty motorway shut off by large tripods is an image that stays with you…

The M41 was a hangover from a previous era of uninhibited road-building in the 1960s, similar to (if not worse than) the early 90s program that had sparked RTS’s existence. This was the West Cross Route of the Ringways project, a plan to encircle the capital with concentric rings of motorway and dual carriageway, with radial motorways and links roads fanning out in various directions. Two major elements of the Ringways scheme got built – the M25 and the North Circular Road. The South Circular expansion got bogged down; so did the third and innermost proposal, the ‘Motorway Box’ which would have formed an ‘inner ring road’; this was to have meant the demolition of thousands of homes and the relocation of over 100,000 people. In the north of the city new eight-lane motorways on raised concrete pylons were to be erected through Dalston, Highbury, Camden, Canonbury, Kilburn, Shepherds Bush… The South Cross route of the new autobahns would have driven through Barnes, Balham, Battersea, Clapham, Brixton, Camberwell and Peckham to Kidbrooke and Greenwich.

The M41 was one of only two sections of the Ringways actually ever built (along with the A102 in East London) – massive popular opposition scuppered the rest. Locals in all the neighbourhoods threatened with mass demolition got together and fought the ringway proposals in the later 1960s and early 1970s. In 1971, opposition movements coalesced into the London Motorway Action Group. The massive economic cost and opposition eventually led to the vast majority of the ‘Motorway Box’ being shelved in 1973.

The Party

Following on from two successful street parties in 1995, Reclaim the Streets set their sights on taking over a motorway. 

Thousands of partygoers were invited to gather at Broadgate near Liverpool Street, on Saturday 13th July. “a good humoured crowd gathered in the sunshine, buzzing with anticipation, as a handful of baffled policemen did their best to look like they were in control of the situation.”

Leaflets were distributed asking people to “follow those with pink armbands” and to “expect the unexpected”. At 12.30pm word spread that it was time to go and a three hundred strong Critical Mass set off, while the main group, aided by undercover organisers, moved underground to the westbound Central Line. “A huge roar went up as the first of the ribbon holders was spotted heading into Liverpool Street tube station, quickly followed by the surging crowd. The sound and spectacle of a multitude of drummers echoing down the tiled corridors and a kaleidoscopic range of hair and face colours proved a little too much for a party of Japanese tourists who stood by the escalators, jaws wide open in stunned amazement. This wasn’t in the tourist book!”

Fourteen stops and six packed tube trains later the crowd emerged at Shepherds Bush; the party commuters emerged to see the entire Shepherds Bush roundabout completely gridlocked and the exit surrounded by police vans. The cops, who had merely watched to his point, blocked off the roundabout exit to the M41. Some people, thought this was the actual party site, and began dancing there.

“Some guy felt inspired to jump up and down on a traffic box stark naked, gesticulating wildly at the unamused massed ranks of officers. Unfortunately, further down the road some potential road ragers were frothing madly at the hold-up. I argued with some guy who was effin’ and blindin’ loudly from his huge shiny car.

After some debate he came up with the conclusion that he didn’t mind if he was held up because of traffic, but being held up by *people* was an absolute outrage!

The crowds continued to build to a soundtrack of drums and car horns (not all sympathetic) until we embarked on what could only be described as a military-esque pincer movement.

The mass split into two, one heading directly to the roundabout, the other slipping round the backstreets to meet up at the opposite entrance to the roundabout behind the police blockade.”

At the opposite end of the motorway the blockade crew, aware that people had arrived, went for it; outmanoeuvring police spotters, they ran onto the road, crashed  two cars to block the road, and quickly threw up three tripods across the southbound carriageway. At the foot of the convoy two sound system vehicles drove on, chased by dozens of cops on foot, who managed to surround the vehicles on the empty motorway.

“The drivers were pulled out and arrested by smug police officers, certain that they had stopped the party. But the police had under-estimated the creativity of the crowd. Hearing that the road had been taken people began finding alternative ways onto it. Like a river breaking through a dam, the trickle grew into a flood. One large group walked far around the police line, coming up from behind and simply running past it onto the street! Others found ways through back streets and climbed onto the road further up… At the blockade, those not already arrested had clambered onto the sound system trucks and witnessed the amazing sight of thousands of people running up the motorway towards them. Police faces dropped quickly and as the crowd neared they began backing off. The arm-twisted, quick-cuffed arrestees, on a nod from a sergeant were swiftly de-arrested… and the vehicles were soon swarmed with partygoers. The sides of the lorries were opened and the sound systems kicked off. The people roared. The party was on!”

Within ten minutes the whole road was completely jammed with (in the parlance of various Sections of the 1994 Criminal Justice Act) a ‘large number of persons pursuing a common purpose’, enjoying the space and freedom to dance to ‘repetitive beats’ and take in the glorious sunshine.

With the crowd invading one side and the tripods and cars on the other, both sides of the motorway were now taken over… people set about transforming the landscape. Huge banners were unfurled from lamp posts… A huge sun, colourful murals; while others proclaimed ‘Destroy Power!’ ‘Support the Tubeworkers’  [who were in dispute] and the old Situationist slogan: ‘The society that abolishes adventure, makes its own abolition the only adventure’… musicians, stalls, bands, street performers and sound systems started playing… kids played contentedly in the ton of sand that had been dumped in the road. Graffiti was painted all along the concrete walls on the side of the road…

“A struggle ensued when police tried to stop other decorations and equipment being brought in from a nearby estate. One van containing the p.a. rig for live bands was impounded, but once again, faced with an active crowd, the authority of the police dissolved.”

A complete living room was set up in the fast lane, with people relaxing on a selection of sofas, playing guitars and reading newspapers, while their dog slumbered on the rug..

“Three thirty foot ‘pantomime dames’ glided through the party throwing confetti. Food stalls gave away free stew and sandwiches; graffiti artists added colour to the tarmac; poets ranted from the railings; acoustic bands played and strolling players performed. The tripod sitters, isolated by a police line from the party, negotiated their inclusion and joined the mass of people. The police retreated to the ends of the road settling for re-directing traffic and arguing amongst themselves.”

Some 7,000 turned up – “as far as the eye could see there were people dancing on the road and crash barriers with DJs and sound systems doing it for love not lucre. This was rave music as it should be heard – defiant, proud, full-on and communal – without a bomber jacketed doorman in sight!”

“Despite the vibe being very friendly and totally peaceful, a few of the police (as ever) did their best to get themselves a ‘situation’ or two, using the old tactics of intimidation and confrontation.

I went up with a small posse of 15 to help out the guys sat on the tripods, and we found ourselves in the ludicrous situation of being surrounded by over 90 (yes ninety!) officers – including several officers from an armed response unit with a helicopter hovering above!”

At the height of the festivities, beneath the tall pantomime dame figures on stilts, dressed in huge farthingale Marie Antoinette skirts, people were at work with jackhammers, hacking in time to the techno, to mask the sound to the officers standing inches away, digging up the surface of the road until large craters littered the fast lane. Collectors were later seen comparing ‘chunks’ of motorway!” As far as I know a trade in ‘bits of the M41’ has never sprang up like the ‘bits of the Berlin Wall’ you can buy (I bet if you put them all together it’d be larger than the possible total concretage of the actual wall, like the bits of the true cross found in various catholic/orthodox churches….) Tree saplings – rescued from the path of the M11 link road – were then planted in the craters –

– quite simply brilliant, literally rewilding the motorway.

“As the sun set on an extraordinary day fires were lit on the road, litter was collected and the banners removed. The sound systems announced another free party elsewhere in London, then at 11pm the music went off, and the trucks drove off to the cheers of a grateful crowd.

For nearly ten hours the M41 vibrated, not to the repetitive roar of the car system, but to a human uprising; the living sound of a festival, and as one activist put it to a disgruntled copper, ‘Think yourself lucky, we could have gone anywhere: Buckingham Palace, Downing Street, thousands of people climbing up Parliament.’ “

The police later traced down two people who hired one of the drills used to dig up the road surface. One was visited in the early morning and arrested. After searching his house and confiscating some belongings, including teenage diaries (very embarrassing), police could not find the other “suspect.”

All this would be laughable, as neither of them actually did any digging.

On the same day, police visited the (tiny) office of Reclaim the Streets and took computers containing among other things, the data base… Luckily all important information had been encrypted.

Shortly after the M41 party, one Jim Sutton turned up and got involved in Reclaim The Streets, proving useful and practical, as he had a van he could shift gear in etc; always willing to drive here to there… Only his real name was Jim Boyling and he was an undercover policeman from the Met’s Special Demonstrations Squad (SDS), protege of previous spy opportunity Bob Lambert

Interestingly for spycops nerds to examine Jim’s record – even after his involvement, it looks like his intel was not really used to prevent actions, in common with a lot of other SDS and other infiltrators. It’s true that exposing an undercover in return for stopping actions like street parties might have been weighed up and someone supervising might have felt the continuing source of inside info more valuable than busting one day’s activities/disruption. Perhaps they were waiting for ‘more serious disruption’: though June 18th definitely comprised this… But also – this isn’t Line of Duty. The Met and their secret arms have their own distinct interests and strategies, and allowing odd days of street blockading, occupations, even more serious sabotage etc, can be employed as an argument for more resources, greater powers and so on. They are also not homogenous, and struggles over strategy occur within the police too. Jim did commit perjury in court, testifying in defence of arrested RTS activists, and went on to drive for activists involved in sabotage of genetically modified crops, as well as exploiting several women for sex and fathering two children. Ever so sadly exposure from former ‘partners’ and activists has led to him being sacked from the police for misconduct – an unusual act for the cops. But then his usefulness was long at an end, publicity was bad, and the police hierarchy will shaft officers on the ground, dump them without even a thought, even undercovers, in the wider interest of their own PR and continuing operations. Prospective spycops take note.

The West Cross Route/M41 was downgraded from motorway to an A-road in 2000… What a comedown…

Here’s a fascinating account of organising the M41 party:

“I have a pain in my stomach. As the fog of sleep gives way to daylight, dawn and the strangeness of someone else’s house are the first things of which I’m aware. I don’t want to remember why. But my memory, usually unfailingly bad, lets me down again. It’s strange, this morning has been the object of so much nervous pondering over the last six months. Will it be raining? How will the police intervene? Will I panic? Will we panic? And now, as future and present collide, it’s as if there never was a past, there had always only been this day. I’ll explain. There’s a group organising what we hope will be a massive illegal street party. We want to fire an arrow of hope and life into the heart of our dying city. We’re going to take back the M41, reclaim it, steal it back from the machine. But occupying a motorway is no easy business. You can’t just walk up saying, “Excuse me, could you go away, we’re going to have a street party here.” We’ve been planning this for about five months. Everything has been looked at in detail. Every possibility scrutinised and coordinated. Even the likelihood (certainty?) that we’ll miss something. Backups for mistakes, contingencies for backups. It’s our own Frankenstein’s monster. Our own Catch 22. Once we’ve realised it’s essential to stop, to back out, it’s become impossible to do so. This is the basic plan. The crowd meet up at Liverpool Street station, the meeting place we’ve advertised in advance. Then when there’s around two thousand people, they’re directed onto the tube by people in the crowd. Then they’re taken right across London to Shepherd’s Bush where they’re directed out of the station in groups of eight hundred, and onto the motorway. The basic plan is quite simple but it’s the smaller details that really hold it together. The crowd block the northbound traffic, but for technical reasons they can’t stop the southbound traffic. That’s our job. At exactly the same time as the crowd arrives at Shepherd’s Bush, we have to drive onto the south lane, block it (by crashing two cars together and putting up tripods), and drive trucks carrying the sound systems, bouncy castles, etc. onto the road to meet the crowd. I’m in the group driving the trucks from their secret location to two points. One about two miles away, and then on signal, to another one about quarter of a mile from the motorway. A short wait, one more phone call, and we drive onto the road, block it and unload all the gear. That’s the plan anyway. I make Andy some tea. I’m staying at his address because it’s one the police don’t know. We guess they might bust the main organisers the night or morning before the event. It sounds paranoid, but it turns out to be sound thinking. I leave the house on my bike around 9.00 am. I don’t exactly feel calm but I’m on automatic, I’m pre-programmed. It’s a beautiful day. The bleached blue of sky cuts strange shapes against the jumbled horizon of a city full of question marks. I hope we can answer, I hope we can pull this off. After half an hour I arrive at the factory, our secret rendezvous. A group of Spaniards are squatting it and holding parties every now and again. Ian, a man with siesta in his blood, has sniffed them out and for the last few weeks we’ve been storing equipment and practicing the erection of our fortyfoot tripod which is to be used for blocking the road. The Spaniards hung out, sitting cat-like in the sun, looking sexy and listening to weird mixes of Mozart and techno. I think they liked us, the way you might like a furry alien. We must have seemed strange. Coming in at all hours, dropping things off, being very secretive. Then we’d rush around the courtyard, putting up creaking tripods in minutes with military precision. Well almost. Sometimes the contrast was ridiculous. Their endless dreamy siestas, us charging up and down shouting and sweating. One morning we caught the tail end of one of their parties. There were about 20 Spaniards lying around tired and happily stoned listening to very ambient, end of party music. We were there in the courtyard putting the upper section of our tripod on for the first time. Twenty bodies melting into the furniture haphazardly strewn around, us 12 maniacally constructing. Just as we lifted the last 20 foot section into place, the DJ started playing a dramatic remix of the Space Odyssey 2001 soundtrack. I realised that they were willing us on, hoping we’d succeed in our bizarre project. It’s quiet when I arrive. The sound crew are in the warehouse. They’ve been packing the trucks all night and their techno sculpture is now complete. My arrival is greeted with tired hostility which turns to laughter when they realise it’s me. But it’s the laughter of people bemused, worried even. The sound system people treat us with some suspicion. It’s not surprising. Ask anyone from a rig what they do and their answer will be reasonably clear. Ask someone from RTS and the answer will be as clear as the Thames on a foggy night. Ours is the politics of the margins, the margins where words fear to tread. But a shaman needs an audience, a religious site, and they know that we’ll try our best to provide it. Soon the RTS road crew (yeah I know) arrive, and yet despite enjoying the feeling of comradeship, the feeling of purpose, this feels like the spinning point around which months of fantasy become a terrifying reality. The two trucks are parked behind each other in the bigger of the two warehouses. The front truck contains one sound-system and three tons of sand (a beach for the kids). The other truck has a huge sound system and four 20 foot tripods, which together make the 40 foot tower. After some last-minute running around looking for that crucial remix, petrol for the generators, and so on, everybody is on board. Two drivers, two co-drivers, and the sound crews happily hidden in the back with their systems. It’s one of life’s rarer moments. Everything’s organised, we’ve taken our responsibilities seriously, and everything is going to plan. I feel like I’m going to burst but there’s also a sense of calmness that preparation allows you. Dean and I are in the front tuck. Dean’s driving, the others are waiting for us to move off. “Shall we…?” I venture. “Give us the keys then.” “Oh yeah, the keys.” I am water. The plug has been pulled. I’ve forgotten the keys. I’VE FORGOTTEN THE FUCKING KEYS. The keys to the truck. The truck with the stuff. The truck in front of the other truck. The other truck with the rest of the stuff. The truck with the tripods for the blockade, the truck with the sound systems, the beach, the everyfuckingthing. Two trucks. Eight sad tons of useless metal. One small piece of brass, a shudder of electricity, compression and life. But the key, the key whose ninety degree shift gives meaning, is four miles away. I slip from a rigidity of shock to a catatonic nothingness. It takes half an hour to drive to Muswell Hill. We’ve got to be parked up in three quarters of an hour. Without these two trucks there will be no blockade, no sound systems, and probably no street party. People are getting out, wondering what the hold-up is. I’m sitting in the cab shaking, unable to move or speak properly. This event confirms all my most firmly held doubts about myself. That: (1) I am, and always have been stupid. (2) I am not worthy of love, friendship, or trust. (3) That I will have a miserable life. Dean is staring at me from the driving seat. His eyes say it all. I know he’s thinking that I’m totally stupid, utterly untrustworthy and deserving of a miserable life. People, having discovered what’s going on, are pacing the courtyard like a troop of headless chickens. I pull back into my vacated self and maniacally start scraping every pore of my bag in the forlorn hope that…. A woman arrives in the courtyard in her car. It’s an old Fiesta, which to us shines with the perverted curves of a sports car. Like zealots we explain our plight to this goddess of fortune. She hands us the keys and a ghost of sadness shadows her face as we leave in the car, that in a strange, human way she kind of loves. Turnpike Lane passes in a blur as we speed towards the Hill. Somehow we get to the flat in 15 minutes. I charge up to the top floor. There are the keys. I run back to the car, clenching the key in fearful grip, a tiny sliver of brass thawing the ice that has entered my body. Dean’s smile mirrors my relief, and we race back towards the factory, our fragile hopes of success alive again. We arrive at the factory ten minutes over the 30 minutes we had in hand. A phone call to Liverpool Street establishes that the crowd has started to gather. I ask them to give us an extra ten minutes to get in place. Now we have to drive the trucks across London, park up in a quiet industrial estate and wait for a phone call which tells us to move to a final pitch less than half a mile from the motorway. We drive across London, every now and then spotting a group of people obviously heading for the meeting place at Liverpool Street station. I’m too vain not to feel a sense of pride, and too scared for it to make me feel anything but more nervous. We join the Westway, which rises majestically out of the chaos like a giant silver-backed reptile winding over the city. I feel young, like a child on a great adventure, the blue skies echoing our new found mood. London seems to be waiting, almost conspiring with us, as if somehow it’s a living participant in the day’s events. We pull off the motorway and drive to our first pitch. The industrial estate is virtually deserted. A jumble of silent, blank warehouses. Our cars, which are to crash and block the road, are parked at the back of the estate. With the cars are the four people responsible for the block: Louise, John, Anna, and Beth. You can tell they’re nervous. You would be if you had to stage-crash a car on one of London’s crowded motorways. A tailback of a thousand overheated motorists and you caused it. On purpose. We’ve bought the two cars for 100 pounds each. Scrap on wheels and it shows. One has died on us. NO amount of mouth-to-exhaust can bring it back. Blocking the road with one car is going to be difficult. Luckily we have a backup car. I call Des, the driver, who starts heading over. Now it’s just a case of waiting and hoping. Waiting for the call to say “move”, hoping that Des arrives before the call. So, of flesh and beating hearts we wait among the silent and formless warehouses. People are out of the trucks and lolling about in the sun. The phone rings. “Pete, it’s Des. I’ve run out of fucking petrol.” Maybe it’s right and proper that a group who claim to be against car culture should be jinxed when it comes to using them. Anyway, we’re going to have to manage the road block with just one. These problems aside, I feel surprisingly confident. It feels like some kind of miracle to be in this nowhere place waiting to pounce. If we can get this far, anything is possible. Every now and then the mobile rings. Things are OK at Liverpool Street. The crowds have started moving off and are heading towards us on the tube. And we wait. I feel like we’re on some strange island, isolated from a world we can only dream of. And then this guy wanders over, wearing a big coat and black clothes to match his long black hair. He seems vaguely pissed or stoned or both. “So, what’s happening?” “Errh… nothing much.” I sound nervous as hell. “So, what’s in the trucks?” It may have been a casual inquiry, but it’s like someone has thrown a bucket of icy water over us. I’m staring at the others and trying to look relaxed at the same time. Lee tries to shake him off, “What’s up, what you doing down here?” “Oh, my truck’s broken down. I’m parked up round the corner. Is that a sound system in the back?” Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. This is getting stranger. I’m feeling panicky again. My next words sound hollow, “Yea we’re doing a party in Hampshire tonight, should be good.” He ignores my synthetic voice and carries on, “Oh right, did you hear about the Reclaim the Streets party?” The words hang in the air like branding irons. He mutters something indiscernable and wanders off, leaving us to our paranoia. Then, as if to balance things, Des arrives. He’d managed to hitch to the petrol station and back to the car in under 20 minutes. Recent strangeness is soon forgotten as we explain the practicalities of the road-block to our new arrival. The crowd is on the way. We wait some more. The mobile rings again. It’s John. “The first tube’s gone past Marble Arch!” Now we have to move to the final pitch. It’s only just down the road, but we want to be as close as possible when the final call comes, so we can time our arrival just right. The next parkup is next to a riding school squeezed in behind a block of flats. We pull up and park in a line next to some bushes. This time there’s no lolling about, no jokes, just the weight of our nervous anticipation. If the plan goes well we shouldn’t be here for more than five minutes. The mobiles are going mad. There’s a call from Dee, her gentle nervous voice sounding strange amongst the aggressive chaos. She says there are police vans crawling all over the location, but that her group is in place. She’s part of a group of ten hiding behind a wall next to the motorway. When our cars crash, we pull the trucks up next to the wall and they all jump over, get the tripods out and put them up. We thought the police might work out where we were going by looking at the map and the direction we were heading. Our hunch was that by the time they’d worked it out we’d be too close for it to make any difference. Still, their arrival is like salt water to our already flayed nerves. In the distance we can hear police sirens above the low grumble of traffic. What is usually the slightly annoying sound of somebody else’s problem, today strikes fear into our hearts. There are probably only two or three of them, but to us it sounds like thousands. Then Clive calls. Clive is the spotter at Shepherd’s Bush, who will give us the final go ahead. He tells me that there’s a thick line of police blocking the crowd in at Shepherd’s Bush and they can’t get through onto the motorway. His words crash through me like a vandal in a greenhouse. In the background I can hear the noises of the crowd. It almost sounds like the party’s started. I tell the others, a desperate gloom envelops us, and our collective mood shifts with the speed of a retreating tide. I have spent months telling myself that even if we failed it will have been worth it. I could never have carried on if I’d thought everything hung on success. Now I see I’ve been conning myself. I feel sick. Everyone looks crushed. Jim calls. “Pete is that you?” “Yeah, fuck’s sake what’s going on.” “We can’t get through. We’re going to have to have it at Shepherd’s Bush. You’ll have to go round the back.” Even through the electronic echo I can hear the tension in his voice. He knows as well as I do that Shepherd’s Bush is a dire location. A strip of dog-shit covered lawn squeezed between two hideous shopping parades. It seems pretty unlikely that we could drive through the police cordons, and even if we could, would it be worth it? How could all those coppers get there so quickly? Why can’t the crowd break through the cordon? The hopeless, pointless, questions of loss drown out my thoughts. A mood of desolation fills me like the first cold rains of winter. It’s over. We fought the law and the law won. Sitting there in that truck in the London sunshine with those people feels like the end of hope. We start looking at the A-Z trying to work out a back route to Shepherd’s Bush. There’s no enthusiasm, this is a job now. Jen calls. She was to call if things were going badly. This call signifies a last ditch attempt to rectify things. When Clive sees there’s no way through he calls Jen. She’s waiting at the nearest station. She runs down the tube and tells people coming from Liverpool Street that there’s no way through. They then get out and approach the motorway through some back streets. “There’s a hundred or so people heading down through the back route.” By this time a small group of us are gathered round the front truck, analyzing all the information as it arrives. Everyone looks at everyone else. Hope releases tiny vascular muscles and blood lights our pale faces. A straw is floating out there on the stormy waters. This is the moment the plan comes alive. It’s like the question of artificial intelligence. I viewed the plan a bit like that. It was so complicated (too complicated) and intricate that I felt it might develop a life of its own. For months we’d worked on it in meetings without end, a tangled mess which often threatened to pull us under. Now, on the day, the plan is boss. Dean takes the initiative. “Come on, let’s fucking go for it.” The change of mood is instantaneous. A recklessness born of desperation, grabbing at straws that can give us our dreams back. This is it. The beginning. It’s like being interviewed for a job you don’t want – you can take it easy. An action that can’t succeed. I feel almost relaxed. As the convoy pulls off I’m hit by a wave of guilt. We may well be consigning thousands of pounds worth of other people’s equipment to the scrap heap. Appallingly, I ignore these moral qualms – my sense of relief is too great. It will take us a couple of minutes to reach the location. I swing between elation, “Thank fuck we’re doing something,” and profound doubt, “We’re doing this because we can’t face not doing it, we should be going to Shepherd’s Bush.” The cab is silent. Too much emotion, too much tension, words, forget it, they come from another dimension. I realise I haven’t called Dee. With fingers of lead I fumble desperately with the mobile. “Dee, we’re on the way.” “Oh, OK. I think we’re ready.” She doesn’t sound confident. We circle the final roundabout which leads onto the M41. There’s a riot van waiting on the roundabout. My sense of fatalism sets like concrete. We drive past, followed by the two cars. We take the second exit and follow the gentle curve of the slip road onto the motorway, a black unflowing river, the motorway of dreams. The slip road is held aloft by giant concrete pillars. A thin concrete wall bounds each side; on the left behind the wall there’s a skateboard park and our twelve hidden activists. Behind us the cars are slowing down to block the traffic, they hit each other, stop, and the road is sealed. We pull up next to the skateboard park and jump out. The tripod team are scrambling over the wall to join us. Now things just become a frantic chaotic blur. As we heave the tripods out of the truck I can see coppers coming through the blocked traffic towards us. Three tripods are up within 45 seconds and we’re trying to join them together. It’s like trying to communicate in a gale, we can’t hear each other above the adrenaline. The others look at me for direction, but my map has blown off in the wind. Only Dee knows what’s going on but she can’t raise her voice above the din of maleness. People climb the tripods. Incredibly the road is blocked. I look round and see the M41 stretching away from us like a desert. Utterly empty. No thousands of people, no hundreds, no-one. In the distance I can see the two trucks parked up on the hard shoulder. They’re already surrounded by coppers and still no party goers have arrived. I don’t think any of us know why, but we just start running towards the trucks. We arrive and find that Carl from Express Sounds has managed to dodge the police and get to our side of the wall. He looks dazed and wanders about aimlessly. He’s probably just lost his sound system. Just over the wall the police are arresting people and rifling through the lorry cabs. On the one hand I recognise that the street party is probably over, deep down I’m bracing myself for the humiliation of failure. On the other hand we’re all clutching at every straw, filled with a belief that even now it might still be possible. We realise that we’ve got to get onto the truck roofs. The police will want to move them, but the longer we can keep them there the more the chance of the mythical crowd appearing. The police are concentrating on their conquest. Flushed with the joy of victory they fail to see us skulking just feet away on the other side of the wall. They’re already arresting the drivers and searching the trucks. We see a space, a lucky moment when their attention is distracted. We haul ourselves over the wall and launch ourselves at the trucks. As we begin climbing I’m struck by a trembling fear that some unseen hand will grab my leg. But the police are too slow and two of us find ourselves standing on the thin aluminium tops laughing with relief. The coppers have handcuffed the drivers and sound crews, more of them are arriving all the time. Three hundred and thirty yards to the south, a wall of police vans and cop infantry has formed what looks like an impenetrable barrier blocking access from the roundabout. Anyone who managed to get through the cordon outside the tube station would be faced by this. And then we see it, our mythical crowd, shimmering mirage-like at the roundabout. They’ve managed to get through at Shepherd’s Bush. Ian and I start jumping and screaming at the crowd, our hopes alive again. Then, like a giant beast stumbling, the police line falters, and somehow the smallest breach seems suddenly to threaten the stability of the whole. The faltering becomes panic, police vans drive madly all over the place, and then the crowd bursts through. At first a trickle, the odd person sprinting onto the silent tarmac beyond the police line. Then, with sheer determination and weight, the dam bursts and 3,000 people charge onto the waiting road. At this point I look down and see a senior police officer walk over to the people under arrest and pinned to the wall. “De-arrest them.” If he hadn’t, we would have. I almost feel sorry for him. Within moments what was empty motorway, hot strips of tarmac, utterly dead, is living and moving, an instant joyous celebration. It is our moment; everyone and everything seems incredibly and wonderfully alive. Seconds later a sound-system fires up and our fragile dashed hopes become resurrected in the certainty of the dancing crowd.
(‘Charlie Fourier’)

Watch M41 – the film

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For another view:

This is the text of a leaflet written for distribution at a 1996 Reclaim the Streets occupation of the M41 motorway, looking at the limitations of such occupations in the broader context of the capitalist restructuring occurring at the time.

Returning to Upper Street a week or two after July ’95 “Reclaim the Streets” was unsettling and strange. Heavy traffic now roared through the area where a children’s sandpit previously was and where a settee and carpet had been too.

Reclaim the Streets is a hundred times better than the average boring demo, trudging along between rows of cops to a “rally” where we’re talked at by no-hope politicians and union bureaucrats. By seizing territory and using it for our own purposes, our own party, it’s already a victory (whereas every union/Leftist campaign is already a defeat).

Still, Reclaim the Streets has its limitations, most obviously in time and space. The actions are usually strictly timed; the minority who held on after the official end last time were abandoned to our fate; a police riot. And it was bizarre the way in Islington last year diners carried on their meals outside Upper Street restaurants only a hundred metres from the blocked off street and police lines.

The use of space in the street party was highly imaginitive. The kids sandpit and grown-up’s settee in the middle of the road were a good bit of fun, demonstrating the opposition between rising traffic and human relaxation and play. The action was also one in the eye for the ‘radical’ left-wing Labour council of Islington, who try to make themselves real representatives of the local ‘citizens’. Still their attempts to do this don’t always go to plan.

At the anti-Poll tax demo at Islington town hall in early 1990 the council showed their direct democratic principles and closeness to their electors by miking up the council chamber and relaying the sound to a PA outside so anti-Poll tax demonstrators could hear the process of democracy. This backfired quite a bit though as what we could hear was the Mayor saying things like “Can the demonstrators in the public gallery stop throwing missiles into the council chamber”! Fuck their democracy and their pseudo-radicalism! We weren’t letting them screw the Poll tax on us! We were penned into a small area just outside the town hall, surrounded by cops. The first violence I saw was when a few youngsters (10 to 12 years) started throwing bottles at the cops. When the cops dived in to arrest them we couldn’t do much to save them, just throw a journalist in the cops way to try and slow them down. The main trouble started when the demo was breaking up. I didn’t see exactly what happened, but a mini-riot started and we were chased all the way from the town hall down to the Angel: to the exact spot where Reclaim the Streets was last year and where the cops started chasing us from, when that finished!

There is more to the conflict between state and protesters over roads than just a growing environmental consciousness. The expansion of the road network has been a key element in capitalist political strategy for over two decades.

The defeat of fascism, and victory for totalitarian democracy in the West, and Stalinism in the East, marked a new phase in capitalism. Both east and west did their best to integrate the proletariat (people without social power or social wealth) through high employment and a high social wage (unemployment benefit, free healthcare and education etc.). This strategy was always a bit creaky in the east with its weak capital, but in the west combined with consumerism it helped bring relative social peace through to the late 60s.

But even in the rich west, not every section of the proletariat could be bought off, even temporarily. The first break with the post-war deal came from sectors normally ignored by, and incomprehensible to, the workerist left. First of all came the struggles by blacks, including many of the poorest and oppressed amongst all proletarians. Then developed a new wave of women’s struggles. Certainly both of these had their contradictions; they took time to find their feet and also the racial or gender basis, rather than specifically proletarian, made them especially wide open to co-optation. But even so these were important struggles, the first thrashings of a waking giant. As the sixties progressed, struggles spread amongst students in many countries. After several days of rioting around the Sorbonne in Paris in ’68, these “marginal” struggles kicked off a weeks-long general strike and occupation movement with strong revolutionary overtones. This strike sent reverberations around the world, with related struggles echoing in Mexico, Italy, Poland, Britain, Portugal, Spain and many other places over the next few years.

These struggles shook capital to its foundation but never became an authentically internationalist revolutionary movement. Capitalism’s knee-jerk response was to move investment from areas of successful proletarian struggle to more placid zones (or more fascistic ones). This original “flight of capital” was quickly developed into a coherent strategy. Industries or industrial areas with strong traditions of struggle were deliberately run down. Mass unemployment was used to slash wages, including the social wage. This was blamed on “the recession” as if this was some natural disaster. Capitalist production was dispersed and internationalised so as to make any revival of proletarian class power more difficult.

This dispersal of production naturally leads to greater need for communication, transport and co-ordination between the different elements of production. This strategic attack has had a major effect on the composition of the proletariat. In the UK for example, since 1981 job cuts in mining and utilities have amounted to 442,000; in mineral and metal products 435,000; in transport 352,000; in construction 307,000. All cuts in traditional areas of class power. The biggest growth areas have been information technology with 916,000 more jobs; as well as social work with 450,000; hotel and restaurants 334,000; and education 247,000. The biggest cuts have been in traditional industry, the biggest growth in IT, connecting together the new dispersed production system. This reorganisation has been carried out with the deliberate aim of atomising our struggles. So instead of using efficient rail transport, the new model has relied instead on road transport with massive state investment in road programs. The use of road transport against class struggle became crystal clear at the News International dispute in Wapping in 1986. The typographers’ jobs were replaced by computer technology and the rest of the printers sacked and replaced by scabs. Up till then, the Sun and Times had been distributed using British Rail. But Rupert Murdoch knew he couldn’t rely on BR’s workers to distribute scab papers. Part of his winning strategy was to use his own fleet of lorries instead of rail transport. Part of our struggle against Murdoch was the blocking of roads around Wapping to try and prevent the papers getting out.

Road building is a conscious strategy of capital against proletarian struggle. Reclaim the Streets sits in a long line of struggles including Wapping, The Poll tax, even May ’68.

Capital’s strategy has undeniably been fairly effective. Workers struggles in Britain reached an historical low a couple of years back. Most workers’ struggles remain trade union style disputes in the ever diminishing state sector. The newer sectors of the workforce have yet to make any major collective struggle. For the workerist left, this is a truly depressing time. But the increasingly politicised struggles outside the workplace; the interlinked struggles of the anti-roads, anti-Job Seeker’s Allowance, anti-Criminal Justice Act etc., are much more than so called single issue campaigns. These struggles are consciously linked and determinedly expansive. Their effectiveness is certainly limited, compared to the potential of a wave of wildcat strikes or riots, but who can say that these struggles won’t play the same role as the struggles of the blacks’, women’s and students’ movements in the 60s; first skirmishes of a new revolutionary movement.

This is a version of a leaflet that was written in Summer 1996, for the ‘Reclaim the Streets’ party on/occupation of, the M41 motorway in West London, UK. For various reasons, the leaflet was not produced at that time. This slightly revised version is made available here as the comments on restructuring and recomposition have a continuing relevence.

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What the (undistributed) Antagonism leaflet said about roadbuilding is interesting – but also links in to some thoughts we recently had about the M41. Roads have not only been used to defeat workers’ struggles; they are also a massive source of capitalist accumulation, of profit in themselves. The roadbuilding program of the early-mid 1990s – the trigger for the rise of Reclaim the Streets – was a hugely profitable policy for some of the UK’s biggest companies. In the end it was defeated by resistance – from the myriad anti-roads campaigns, from Twyford Down, through Oxleas Wood to the M11 and on to Newbury; there were lots of defeats, but the fightback, in the end, forced the road lobby onto the back foot and the government to pull the plug.
It was the same in the 1970s – the Ringways project was delayed and cut back so long by campaigns against the various routes, that the economy eventually ran out of steam.

The planners of all these projects always thought that massive destruction and obliteration of inner-city communities, or bulldozing through woods and fields, would be easily achieved… Massive destruction and upheaval did devastate cities in the post-WW2 decades, furthering the work of wartime bombers: building of new estates and highways made cities that functioned for car use, but isolated people in environments that quickly fell into decay or became alienating and ghettoised.

Roadbuilding has also been used to simply destroy areas – to just evict and disperse people seen as troublesome, unprofitable, rebellious, or just too poor. Some of London’s main roads were driven though ‘rookeries’ and slums in the 19th century with the deliberate aim of removing the thousands who lived in them – making profit for the road builders and shaving pounds for the well-to-do ratepayers; although quite often the inhabitants simply ended up in more crowded slums nearby… 

Today the planners and developers need to be more subtle – the outcry when you bulldoze neighbourhoods is huge, so they do things on a smaller scale, usually now picking off council estates one by one. But added together, demolition and ‘regeneration’ are affecting hundreds of thousands of people across the city.

Campaigns against roadbuilding and the attendant destruction of older housing and communities in the 1970s, typified by the Ringway protests, were among the first stirrings of a stand against wholesale demolition in favour of conservation, but also of a human level grassroots sense of community asserting against hitherto all-powerful planners and politicians. Although sometimes voicing a kind of reactionary, anti-progress, middle class nimbyism, often in fact the campaigns were quite broad, if usually limited to the immediate rolling back of the project at hand. The 1990s anti-roads campaigns were similar, but transformed in one way, by the wandering eco-warriors who went from camp to camp, linking up one campaign with another, spreading and sharing experience and ideas.

Twenty years after the Ringways, Reclaim the Streets went out into the some of the same roads, with different and wider aims – to push for a redefinition of urban space itself, focussed on the road, and how it’s used, but looking to use the streets as a route to a bigger challenge – to capitalism and its control over our daily lives. If the anti-roads campaigns that RTS emerged from were mostly themselves defeated, the campaign itself was more eventually able to halt some of the government’s road expansion program. RTS’ challenge to capital was always going to be more difficult – it could only ever be the start of a conversation, a sharing of ideas and spreading of tactics.

We have written a little bit elsewhere comparing RTS and 2019’s Extinction Rebellion street demos and occupations, which echoed RTS while simultaneously large, and yet ideologically sometimes more hidebound. 2019 and XR now seem a long time ago! – what with virus lockdowns, Black Lives Matter, the last five months have seen first streets emptied – of cars, though not entirely of people, and then a resurgence of urgent street action against racism and violent racist policing, which we are still in the midst of. It would be interesting if the awareness of impending eco-disaster, the explosion of mutual aid covid-19 encouraged, the BLM movement, and the growing coming together of campaigners against gentrification and for a sustainable housing system, find common ground and common cause. Poignantly, as we partied on the M41, we danced in the shadow of Grenfell Tower…

Interestingly lockdown, and the partial relaxing of lockdown, have seen a re-colonisation of streets and urban space in some areas – less cars, more bikes, people sitting on the street; as pubs re-open and people ‘bubble up’ we’ve seen people sitting out in the roadway, on the steps, on the corners, again, in places where it had kinda died; it’ll be interesting to see if this continues. Can it be built on? There are lots of campaigns in many localities to re-design streets to reduce car use and encourage more human shared space; to reduce pollution and accidents as much as anything.

Taking over motorways is really fun – for me I will never forget the M41 party, and would love to repeat it. But I will always also remember seeing people sitting on the road in the street I lived in, during the Brixton RTS party two years later, when we’d closed the whole of central Brixton. Both felt brilliant, but the Brixton party was more direct to me – we’d taken over the streets I lived my daily life in, and showed the potential for our own areas… This is the true lesson of RTS for me, and the arena where change in roads and cars, the future, capital, work, play, locality and life can be effected, on a daily level.

But every once in a while, you also have to squat a motorway and plant some trees in the tarmac…

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One of the biggest local victories against roadbuilding in the 1990s was the abandonment of the planned East London River Crossing – however, a new plan in the same area is being fought now in Silvertown.

Here’s an Archive of Reclaim The Streets parties (not by any means complete) 

 

 

Today in London housing history, 2009: six people die in Lakanal House fire, Camberwell

“It began with a faulty electronic appliance starting a fire in a flat. But the flames spread across the outside of the building, taking hold on cheap composite panels, not compliant with building regulations, which had been fitted during a refurbishment. Terrified residents called emergency services and were told to stay put in their homes, where they later died.

In the aftermath, questions were asked. How did risk assessments miss this? How did the system of building regulation allow the refurbishment to take place? How couldy this happen so close to the wealthiest part of one of the wealthiest cities on earth?

In social housing right now it seems history repeats itself twice as tragedy. Because this is not a description of the Grenfell Tower disaster, but Lakanal House – a fire eight years earlier …” (Inside Housing)

Lakanal House was built in 1959: a 14-storey tower block containing 98 flats. Southwark Council had previously scheduled the building for demolition in 1999, although later it was decided not to demolish it.

On 3 July 2009, a fire broke out a flat on the ninth floor of Lakanal House, caused by faulty television.

One single central stairwell was the only way in and out of the building – this filled quickly with thick dark smoke, making escape – and rescue – difficult. Around 150 people were evacuated or rescued from the flats. The Fire Brigade rescued a number of people from the flats. Many were taken to Guy’s Hospital, King’s College Hospital and Lewisham Hospital with injuries including smoke inhalation.

The fire killed three people in their flats – three people died of their injuries in hospital. Nine other people were treated at an emergency centre set up by Southwark Council. One firefighter was also admitted to hospital after being injured while fighting the fire.

The dead were three adults and three young children: Dayana Francisquini, 26, and her children, six-year-old Thais, and Felipe, three; Helen Udoaka, 34, and her three-week-old daughter Michelle; and 31-year-old Catherine Hickman.

The Fire Brigade had responded with a total of eighteen fire engines attending, setting up an operational command centre was erected on the seventh floor. People within the flats calling 999 were told to remain in their flats instead of attempting to flee, based on the theory of ‘compartmentation’ – the idea that the structure of the building meant the fire could not spread from flat to flat, so staying in their flats would help protect the families while the blaze was contained. This was supposed to be safer than braving the smoke-filled stairwells and corridors.

However, the flames spread from flat to flat and between floors on the outside of the building, as cladding and insulation caught fire. The exterior cladding panels had burned through in less than five minutes.

Catherine Hickman spent 40 minutes on the phone with 999 responders who urged her to stay in her flat; at the end of the call the responder could no longer hear her breathing.

A Fire Brigade investigation into the fire later helped bring to light that it had already been identified, before the blaze, that the structure and layout of Lakanal House posed a risk of enabling a fire to spread, if one should occur in one of the flats.

An inquest into the deaths at Lakanal House found that the rapid spread of the fire, due to the igniting of the exterior cladding, had trapped people in their homes. As in the case of the Grenfell Tower fire eight years later, residents were advised to remain in their homes in the event of a fire. The inquest also concluded that substandard renovations had removed fire-stopping material between the flats – a problem not uncovered by any Southwark council’s fire safety inspections carried out before the fire.

The layout of the flats made escape in case of an emergency difficult. The two-bedroom maisonettes were based on a two-storey interlocking design. The flats are entered from the right or left side of a central access corridor. On the access level, there are two bedrooms and a bathroom. There are stairs to the upper level where a lounge and kitchen stretch across the full width of the block. This means that the lounge for each flat is above one of the bedrooms of that flat and one of the bedrooms of the flat on the opposite side of the access corridor. The flats were built with fire exits from the lounge and the kitchen to ‘exit balconies’ on either side of the building, and also a fire exit from the largest bedroom into the central access corridor, separate from the front door.

The block had no central fire alarm system – not required by virtue of the then Building Regulations Approved Document B for England And Wales.

Southwark Council claimed after the fire that it had recently spent £3.5 million on refurbishment to meet current fire safety standards.

Residents evacuated from the flats sheltered in nearby community centres, helped by donations and solidarity from other locals and people much wider afield. Some of the residents found alternative accommodation with relatives although the majority were provided with accommodation by Southwark Council. Lakanal House was boarded up. Refurbishment work commenced in 2015, and the block had reopened to residents – many of those who lived there prior to the fire found it too painful to return, however. Southwark spent millions on refurbishment of several blocks after the event.

A number of tower blocks of a similar design exist: Marie Curie House, also nearby, is of identical design to Lakanal.

Despite many calls for a proper investigation and inquiry into the causes of the rapid spread of the fire, no public inquiry has ever been conducted into the Lakanal House fire. At the inquest it was concluded that no realistic prospect of any corporate manslaughter charge was possible, despite many clear failings by the council. However, London Fire Brigade eventually brought a case against Southwark Council to court, eight years later. The Council pleaded guilty in February 2017 to four charges concerning breaches to safety regulations. It was fined £270,000, reduced from £400,000 because it had pleaded guilty, plus £300,000 costs.

Less than four months later, Grenfell Tower caught fire, and the blaze spread in a very similar way, up flammable cladding & insulation on the outside of the building. Again, people were told to stay in their flats as this should protect them from fire better than trying to escape down the stairs.

This time 72 people died.

But might Grenfell never have happened, if proper notice had been taken of events in Lakanal? Recommendations for changes in construction and fire regulations, and to how fires are dealt with by the emergency services, after Lakanal House burned were never acted on at national level, leaving thousands of residents living in potential death traps.

After the 2013 inquest into Lakanal, Coroner Judge Frances Kirkham wrote to Southwark council, the London Fire Commissioner, and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, with a series of recommendations to prevent a similar disaster occurring in future.

She made more than 40 recommendations, including that more guidance should be given to residents in high rise blocks, including clear advice on how to react if a fire breaks out and what to do if circumstances changed – for example if smoke starts coming into a flat.  She also recommended that block layouts should be given to emergency workers responding to fires.

The Department for Communities and Local Government, led by then-minister the (Right Corrupt and Frankly Disgusting) Eric Pickles, was asked to publish national guidance on the confusing ‘stay put’ principle and ‘get out and stay out’ policy.

The government was also asked to provide guidance on building regulations and check the safety of materials and whether refurbishment work can reduce existing fire protection, and to consider retrofitting sprinklers across high-rise blocks.

The government published a response committing itself to publishing new building guidance and committing to make fire safety and priority. This was a smokescreen – no review ever came.

Grenfell repeated Lakanal – but on a scale many times worse. The impact has been massive – on residents, families, friends, communities. A wave of support and solidarity for the affected; an upsurge in social housing tenants organising, especially in blocks with similar issues. Huge lip service has been paid by politicians, corporations and councils, in response to the outpouring of outrage. A Public Inquiry has been quickly set up this time. But yet again campaigners and those most involved in the after-effects have been saying for nearly three years that this should never have happened, warnings were there before the fire, and the evacuated have been increasingly marginalised by the authorities. Cynics (AKA people with some experience of the housing system) have been expressing the view that despite everything, they suspect that things will go back to the way they were before. Deaths, outrage, inquiry, recommendations, burial, silence, normality. Repeat.

Why? How can people die in horrific fires – caused by the institutions supposedly there to look after their interests, and by the large corporations contracted to carry out the building work… and no-one puts into practice any lessons learned? How does it happen again: much, much worse? Will it happen again?

Could it be because the people in charge of housing and housing policy overwhelmingly do not live in social housing, have never lived in social housing, will never live in social housing, and consider those that do as at best a nuisance to be ignored or ‘managed’, or an impediment to the proper and ‘vibrant’ commercialisation of inner city land, to be shifted, shafted and short-changed? Housing is for profit not people’s need, and the people had better get used to that?

Some say we need another way of living…

Justice for Grenfell

Grenfell United

Today in London’s anti-racist history, 1981: Southall youth burn down the Hamborough pub after racist skinhead provovations

On Friday 3 July 1981, several ‘Oi’ (streetpunk) bands were set to play a gig in Southall, an area of west London with a large South Asian population. The line up at Southall’s Hambrough Tavern included the 4-Skins, The Last Resort and The Business. Oi may not itself have been a solely fascist movement, for sure, not all its bands and adherents were racist. It was quite distinct from the White Power music scene around bands like Skrewdriver. But gigs by Oi bands did often attract skinheads with neo-nazi sympathies, and their presence in an area like Southall was asking for trouble. (The 4-Skins in particular had close links to nazi groups like the British Movement).

Southall was one of the most racially diverse areas in London: in five wards surveyed in 1976, 46 per cent of the population had been born in the Commonwealth: many were Sikhs from the Punjab.

This was an area where racists attacks had taken place: in 1976 a National Front-inspired gang had stabbed teenager Gurdip Singh Chaggar in Southall, prompting the formation of the Southall Youth Movement. After the killing, Kingsley Read of the National Party was quoted as having remarked, ‘One down – a million to go’. Chaggar’s killers were never convicted. The failure of the state to take action gave the later events at Southall their edge. The widespread belief that the police were generally sympathetic to the National Front, and institutionally (and in many cases personally) racist, was heavily reinforced in April 1979, when 1000s of police swarmed the area to protect a National Front election meeting. 100s of the demonstrators who came to protest the NF provocation were battered by the Met’s paramilitary Special Patrol Group, and anti-racist teacher Blair Peach was killed when police hit him over head. After the killing, a whitewashed inquest covered up evidence of police involvement, and a report which found a wide range of racist and fascist sympathies among the SPG officers – and identified the officers suspected of killing Peach – was suppressed (until 2010).

Rage in Southall was matched only by the solidarity of youth in the area. They knew police would not defend them against racists. One incident which particularly angered young Asians in Southall was an attack on Satwinder Sondh, by three white racists who carved swastikas on his stomach. The police did not believe the victim and charged him with wasting police time. Racism had been institutionalised in Southall Police Station for years.

The Southall Youth Movement formed in 1976, emerging from a meeting at the Southall Dominion theatre the day after Gurdip Singh Chaggar’s murder, where various groups of local youth came together in anger.

For the background to the Asian youth’s anger against racism – watch Young Rebels – The Story of the Southall Youth Movement – a great film made by Southall young people more recently interviewing people involved in the events of the 1970s and 1980s. Many of those who formed SYM had experienced ‘bussing’ in the early 1970s- Asian schoolchildren from Southall were transferred to schools across the borough of Ealing, dispersed after protests from white parents. Most were sent on coaches every day to school where they would be the only Asian child or one of a few, and all faced racist attacks and abuse on daily basis. School, police, authorities, did nothing. Many of their parents were keen to keep their heads down, not cause or attract trouble, to respect authority – a theme that emerges was youth feeling their parents had accepted racism and violence, but that they were not going to knuckle under…

The Southall youth organised self-defence and kept their memories sharp. So, when in early July ‘81, reports of racist incidents involving skinheads heading to the gig in the Hambrough spread through Southall, the youth quickly took to the streets.

The Hambrough landlord had helpfully warned shopkeepers near the venue that racist skins were coming and they might want to close up early. However, when one went to the police his warnings were ignored… Busloads of Skins on their way to the pub arrived in the area all day{ they harassed people, shouted NF slogans, smashed windows of Asian shops, abused an Asian shopkeeper, and kicked an Asian woman and threw a shopping trolley at her. This kind of racist provocation was routine in many areas with Black and Asian populations in the 1970s and early 80s. This time, though, the racists would not get it all their own way.

An angry crowd gathered and marched on the Hambrough. The police formed a cordon around the pub, protecting the skins (many of who  were sieg heiling and shouting abuse) and tried to disperse the ant-racist crowd by using truncheons on them. Petrol bombs were thrown and the pub was set on fire.

The police then herded the skins out towards Hayes, barricading the route behind them to prevent further attacks on them, but allowing many to fan out into the area and carry ut random attacks on Black and Asian people. Police also harassed and arrested passers-by.

A running fight between police and the angry local youth ensued. Cars and police vehicles were overturned, and a police coach was burnt out. Walls were demolished to provide bricks for ammunition. 61 policemen were injured and at least as many civilians; there were 70 arrests, 68 of black or asian people.

There’s some footage of the riot on youtube in the course of an old documentary about Oi

After the riot, police said they had no evidence that the white youths were members of the National Front, but locals begged to differ:

“The skinheads were wearing National Front gear, swastikas everywhere, and National Front written on their jackets,” said a spokesman for the Southall Youth Association. “They sheltered behind the police barricades and threw stones at the crowd. Instead of arresting them, the police just pushed them back. It’s not surprising people started to retaliate.”

The police claimed later they had been tipped off that there would be racial violence in West London, but their informant sent them to Greenford instead, two miles away. (Wonder if the tip off was deliberately misleading? And who was the informant? A copper with NF links? An – as yet unexposed – Special Demonstration Squad undercover officer embedded in the nazis?) Conveniently leaving the area free for skins to rampage?

The morning after the riot, some 6,000 people from Southall gathered around the ruins of the pub. “It became a shrine for the Asian community,” said Borough Councillor Shambhu Gupta…

The week of the Hambrough riot saw riots sweep across the UK, from Liverpool, to Brixton, Hackney, and many other parts of London and elsewhere… here’s a commentary on the 1981 riots written shortly afterwards: Like a Summer with 1000 Julys

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In the aftermath of the Hambrough incident, the Oi band the 4-Skins struggled to book gigs – understandably! – which contributed to their breakup in 1984. Some enlightening (?) debate can be read here on whether they were a racist band…

Here’s also a post linking to an article on the reggae and punk scene in Southall and its involvement in anti-racist movements.

There’s some photos of anti-racist demos in Southall here

Spotlight on London’s squatted streets: Villa Road, Brixton

Villa Road, Brixton, was once one of the UK’s most famous squatted streets; many of the houses that remain in the road today are part of housing co-ops which trace their origin to the squats of the 1970s.

Brixton, late 1960s: A century and a half of social change had transformed a prosperous suburb into a mainly working class area. Much of the old Victorian housing had been sub-divided and multiply occupied, and was in a state of disrepair and over crowding.

In response the local Planners came up with a massive crash programme of redevelopment; of which the Brixton Plan was the central plank.

Imaginative depiction of ‘Brixton Towers’ plan for the Villa Road area

The Brixton Plan was also partly a response to the GLC approach, in the late 1960s, to the newly merged/enlarged boroughs, asking them to draw up community plans, to redevelop local areas in line with the GLC’s overall strategy for “taking the metropolis gleaming into the seventies”. Lambeth planners came up with a grandiose vision for Brixton, typical of the macro-planning of the era, which would have seen the area outstrip Croydon as a megalomaniac planners’ high-rise playground. The town centre would have been completely rebuilt, with a huge transport complex uniting the tube and overland railway station, Brixton Road redesigned as a 6-lane highway, (part of Coldharbour Lane was to have been turned into an urban motorway under the Ringway plans…)

Lambeth had already obtained Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) on areas to be redeveloped – all over the Borough large-scale demolitions were scheduled for replacement by estates. The Brixton Plan called for houses in the Angell Town area, now covered by Angell Town Estate, Villa Road and Max Roach Park, to be removed.

All over the Borough CPOs were imposed, and indeed resisted by many local groups that sprang up to try and inject some sense into the plans. Blight and decline tend to become a vicious circle, especially in housing. They pointed out that many of the houses marked for demolition were not run down, and had plenty of life in them, that there’d be no Housing Gain (a bureaucratic term for how many more people would be housed after redevelopment than before), and that complex existing communities would be destroyed. The active opposition to Compulsory Purchase and demolition often came from owner-occupiers, who supposedly had  ‘a greater stake’ in the houses, although in most CPO areas tenants outnumbered them 2 to 1… But most campaigns were aware of the danger of becoming just a middle class pressure group and attempted to involve tenants as well. Planning processes ignored tenants: only the objections of owner-occupiers or those who paid rent less often than once a month were allowed in any Planning Inquiries. But alternative plans were drawn up to include tenants co-operatives/take-over by Housing Associations as well as owner-occupancy instead of destruction. The Council of course, feeling as ever that it knew best, tended to treat residents objections and proposals with contempt or indifference. Its policy was to split tenants from owner-occupiers in these groups, presenting the owners as fighting only for their own interests, and offering tenants a rosy future in the new estates… they also, as you’d expect, tried to keep these groups and others in the dark about planning decisions. Where the Council owned or acquired houses, the inhabitants, many in sub-divided multi-occupancy, were promised rehousing (eventually, for some); but imminent demolition meant Lambeth spent little effort following up needed repairs and maintenance, tenants became frustrated and pushed for immediate rehousing.

Lambeth’s planning dream however, quickly turned into a nightmare, with a tighter economic climate and the end of the speculative building boom of the 60s. Much of the Brixton Plan was being cut back: the government refused to fund the Town Centre Development in 1968, as it would have taken up 10% of the total town centre development fund for the UK! The five huge towers, the six-lane dual carriageway, the vast concrete shopping centre and the urban motorway never materialised, and companies involved ran out of cash and ran to the Council for more (eg Tarmac on the Recreation Centre). The building of new housing slowed down. The Council had aimed at 1000 new homes a year for 1971-8 – this target was never met.

By the early 70s much of Central Brixton was in a depressed state. Many houses were being decanted, but for many reasons, large numbers of the residents found themselves ineligible for rehousing; one reason was the overcrowded state of many of the dwellings, with extended families, sub-letting, live-in landlords, etc: many people were not officially registered as living there, and so council estimates of numbers to be rehoused or the ‘housing gain’ were often wildly inaccurate.

Homelessness was on the rise. Two main results of all this were a rapid increase in the number of squatters in the area, and an upsurge in community, radical and libertarian politics in the Borough. Villa Road became a centre of both.

Squatters were increasingly becoming a thorn in the Council’s side. Dissatisfaction with Lambeth’s planning processes and its inability to cope with housing and homelessness gave focus to a number of dissenting community-based groups. Activists in these groups were instrumental in establishing a strong squatting movement for single people – the main section of Lambeth’s population whose housing needs went unrecognised. Many had previous experience of squatting either in Lambeth or in other London boroughs where councils were starting to clamp down on squatters, reinforcing the pool of experience, skill and political solidarity. The fact that a certain number of people came from outside Lambeth was frequently used in anti-squatting propaganda. In response to Council tirades on squatting, squatters’ propaganda focused on Lambeth’s part in homelessness, what with the CPOs, refusal to renovate empties, insistence on buying houses with vacant possession, its habit of forgetting houses, taking back ones it had licenced out. They pointed out that many of the squatters would have been in Bed & Breakfast or temporary accommodation if they weren’t squatting – many in fact HAD been for months (in some cases years) before losing patience and squatting.

A strong anti-squatter consensus began to emerge in the Council, particularly after the 1974 council elections. The new Chair of the Housing Committee and his Deputy were in the forefront of this opposition to squatters, loudly blaming them for increased homelessness. Councillor Alfred Mulley referred to squatted Rectory Gardens as being “like a filthy dirty back alley in Naples.”

Their proposals for ending the ‘squatting problem’, far from dealing with the root causes of homelessness, merely attempted to erase symptoms and met with little success. In autumn 1974 All Lambeth Squatters formed, a militant body representing many of the borough’s squatters. It mobilised 600 people to a major public meeting at the Town Hall in December 1974 to protest at the Council’s proposals to end ‘unofficial’ squatting in its property.

Most of the impetus for All-Lambeth Squatters came from two main squatting groups – one in and around Villa Road, the other at St Agnes Place in Kennington Park.

In parallel many tenants and other residents were organising in community campaigns around housing, like the St Johns Street Group around St John’s Crescent and Villa Road… Direct action against the Council by groups like this led to tenants being moved out, the resulting empties being either trashed, to make them unusable, squatted, or licensed to shortlife housing groups like Lambeth Self-Help. Tenants’ groups in some cases co-operated with squatters occupying empties in streets being run down or facing decline.

Following the failure of the Council’s 1974 initiative to bring squatting under control, the Council tried again. It published a policy proposing a ‘final solution’ to the twin ‘problems’ of homelessness and squatting. It combined measures aimed at discouraging homeless people from applying to the Council for housing, like tighter definitions of who would be accepted and higher hostel fees, with a rehash of the same old anti-squatting ploys like more gutting of empties. The policy was eventually passed in April 1976 after considerable opposition both within Norwood Labour Party (stronghold of the ‘New Left’) and from homeless people and squatters.

Villa Road, and later St Agnes Place, were to be the main testing grounds for this new policy.

The demolition of squats in Brixton Road, early 1970s.

In Villa Road, just north of Brixton’s town centre, empty houses cleared for the Brixton Towers plan had been gradually squatted between 1973 and 1976. The houses had in many cases been gutted or smashed up by the council as they became empty, or had been squatted, to be rendered totally unliveable in, in an attempt to deter squatters from moving in or staying. This was a policy used across the borough. In some cases this got highly dangerous: squatted houses in Wiltshire Road (which adjoins Villa Road) were smashed with a wrecking ball while an old woman was still living in the neighbouring basement, while squatters were out shopping (puts a new slant on that old chestnut about squatters breaking into your house while you’re down the shops eh, after all this time we find out that it was the COUNCIL!). There was said to be a secret dirty tricks committee in Lambeth Housing Department thinking up demolition plans and ordering them done on the sly.

However sabotage of houses didn’t deter people moving into Villa Road:

“We would go along perhaps late at night and get in the houses and get the electricity sorted out and then help the people to clear out the houses and make them habitable really. When we moved into the houses, they had had council wreckers in them who had broken a lot of the fabric of the houses. They broke the toilets and they poured concrete down them. The broke a lot of the windows, they tore up floorboards and pulled down ceilings. And we all set to fix them, and when I look back on it, the sort of things we did were quite astounding. Because they had poured concrete down the drains, it meant that you had to dig up the connection to the main sewers out in the street. We just used to dig up the whole lot and connect it up to the mains. What do you remember about that house, 39, when you got there?
-How terribly filthy… it was, and…
-No floorboards…
-No, no floorboards.
-There was an old guy who had shell-shock, caught him living there.
-That’s right.
-The basement was full of excrement,
-because he had mental health problems.

-It needed a lot of cleaning up. We went out skipping
– skipping was going round and looking in the skips that were on the streets and… collecting whatever it was you needed. So that was, you know… There were two activities, skipping and wooding. Wooding was going out and reclaiming all the wood from the houses that were being demolished, and, you know, you basically built your environment. In winter, the ice was on the inside of the windows. Heating was like one bar, one of those long fires mainly for bathrooms, I think. We used to cook on that as well, beans on toast – total fire hazard. The wiring was totally bent and, you know, illegal, the gas was. It was, you know… I remember seeing a huge rat coming up from the basement at one time. Yeah, it was pretty rough.”  

As houses were slowly renovated, Villa Road became home to several hundred people, residents who created lots of alternative projects: An informal economy evolved, though partly subsidised by the various DHSS giro payments of residents (some of who used to drive the van the good quarter mile to the dole office or post office to sign on or cash in, by some accounts!) The communal arrangements included a food co-op, (based on vegetables skipped from New Covent Garden market in Nine Elms), a ‘pay what you can’ street café, a medical service run by Patrick and Maureen Day, who were both qualified GPs (‘Check up for

Villa Road graffiti, 1977.

the price of a smoke’, and an adventure playground for kids A women’s group formed c.1975-6; a musical collective was set up around the same time (at least 3 bands formed here too) The street had its own newspaper, the Villain, edited by squatting activist (and now transport guru, cycling advocate, and Labour Party politician) Christian Wollmar…

As with elsewhere in the squatting movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s, there was a mix of people from a variety of backgrounds, though a core of the original group that kicked of the occupation of the street included a number of   white, middle class graduates, some of who had been to Oxford and Cambridge universities.   Politically, there was an early contingent from left groups like the International Marxist Group, though spiced with a typically 70s hotchpotch of new age therapies and, er, cults…

No 31 Villa Road, was, for a while, the base for the more IMG-oriented types.

“There were two influences on us. One was obviously Marx. We were Marxists, we saw ourselves as Marxists. We were in things like Marxist reading groups and we studied Marx. But we were also influenced by people like Laing and Cooper and were into the death of the nuclear family. This rejection of the nuclear family was born of an intellectual analysis which saw the family as an essential unit of a capitalist society. We felt it was necessary – or should be possible – to have supportive, economically viable, emotionally rewarding relationships, familial sexual relationships, with people without creating, or commodifying as we like to call it, commodifying the family unit. We had a lot of theories around the family unit being the building block of capitalism. These beliefs made life complicated at the squatters’ resource centre that Paul helped to run. If people within a sexual relationship had or wanted… to have an intimate physical relationship, whether it was sexual or not, with other people, then that had to be acknowledged and it had to both be acknowledged by both partners, but also allowed to happen. It was agonising, because you were supposed to say it before you do it, not just come back and say, “Oh, by the way, I’ve bonked Bill.” You would…have to explore the feelings you had, the pressures – emotional and sexual – on you and the other person with the group or with the people it directly impacted on before you did the deed. I mean, I don’t know anybody who like thought they want to get married. I certainly didn’t think I wanted to get married and I consider myself proud never to have got married. And it is quite different again now, but, yeah, I mean, nuclear family… a lot of us had come from pretty unpleasant nuclear families. And that does open up ideas for how you might live. It seemed that the nuclear family was really in crisis. And…you know, the idea of a stable couple having children was not really part of most people’s experience in that particular kind of sub society, you know. And it also implied a degree of isolation from others. I mean, there was a great collectivist vibe at that time. How you live together was very much open to question, and I think we…partly just out of necessity, but we tended to live in communes, and that seemed as if that was the way that that could work more generally in society.”

No 12, however, became the base for the ‘Primal screamers’… Jenny James was a follower of both communist sexologist Wilhelm Reich, and Californian psychotherapist Arthur Janov, who had developed a therapy known as primal scream, in the course of which patients relived the trauma of their own birth.
Despite having no formal training, Jenny set up a primal therapy commune in Donegal in Ireland. At the same time, she established a sister commune in a squat at number 12 Villa Road.

‘Villa Trek’ cartoon, spoofing Star Trek

“The idea was that therapy should not be the preserve of the moneyed bourgeoisie, but should be available free of charge to anybody. I was called the black sheep of the… Oh, I’d brought the therapy movement into disrepute. This came from the big, posh therapy centres. What it boiled down to was I wasn’t asking money. Anyone can do therapy if they go through things themselves. They don’t need some posh training. It was just a question of human empathy and, of course, knowing yourself really well, being honest with yourself. And so I just opened the doors. It was primal scream and it did involve…screaming. Letting… Which was… Sorry, I’m not laughing at that. It was very genuinely felt. It was about letting out your inner anguish. Um, it was noisy. SHE SCREAMS That’s what I say to you! Ah…! It is extremely organic and well worked out. Nothing’s false. It is something that comes out. When things do really come out from very far down in the body, they can sound quite animal-like.”

They can be quite scary. What wasn’t nice was that they were all naked while they were doing it. When you’re six, and there’s a big group of people rolling round the floor naked, you’re thinking, “What is going on here?” There was my friend’s mum – she was the one that did it – Babs. You just think, “It’s so strange,” cos you’re playing out in the garden, you pop in for a drink, and someone’s in the kitchen naked.”

From a Villa Road songsheet

“Our one-to-one sessions were extraordinary and incredibly valuable. I wouldn’t ever regret any of that or want it to be any different. Um, but the downside was the group. Living… The thing was, we’re all there, we’re all feeling really vulnerable. We’re all looking for ourselves. We’re all looking for friends and support and home and family and answers. So everybody was vulnerable and everybody was at different stages of this exploration, this journey. And there was no account taken of that in any structured way or in any way really. Throughout the years, what would happen is, now and then, some of the stronger characters would actually cross the metaphorical line. They’d cross the line, come in, get involved. We had a lot of lovely-looking women in our commune. -They’d form relationships. They’d start to look at it.
-So was that what drew them in?
-The women?
-I would say that was probably obviously a first hook, if you like. But then they’d see and it was very interesting what we do. They’d see that and they’d see that it worked. They’d get interested. It was a deeper way of living. I remember that, um, the primal screamers… The story was… I think it was probably true, too. ..that the primal screamers sort of sent vixens out onto the street to seduce the handsome boys who were on the left, and to get them to scream instead of, you know, agitate or something. I don’t think it was that organised. It sounds a bit of a conspiracy theory to me.
– You weren’t lured in by a woman?
– I was lured in by a woman, actually. So, you never know, do you? I don’t think she was acting on orders. I think she just fancied me. It always reminded me of that film, The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, in that one would wake up and discover that somebody else from the street had been captured by the primal scream.”

Other women formed a women’s group: “I think over time we had several different Marxist reading groups going on. The one I remember in Villa Road, the one I remember going to, was an all women’s Marxist reading group. Through that, I think we started to think about redefining our role as women. We were doing consciousness raising. We would go away for weekends and have weekends away and stuff. We did things like…we had a book called Our Bodies, Ourselves, which was fantastic. Women learned about how to have orgasms through Spare Rib and vibrators, which was absolutely fantastic. And, um, I think, yeah, that was brilliant. We read books, sort of Marxist books, I suppose. We did self-examination, which was quite popular in those days.
-What does that mean?
-You know, when you examine… I remember one meeting that we had a speculum, because Maureen’s a doctor. So she could have them, and we examined ourselves and learnt about our bodies. Which bit of your body? You’re getting me so embarrassed! We, you know, we tried to find out where our cervixes were, which was a journey in itself. Do you remember examining your cervix? No, I didn’t do any of that. But, yes, that was going on. Lots of use of mirrors.”  

Some on Villa Road saw their inner world as the route to changing society. Luise Eichenbaum had come to London from New York as a trained psychotherapist, attracted by British feminist writing. From her squat in Villa Road, she set up the Women’s Therapy Centre with Susie Orbach, believing that therapy could be harnessed to left-wing goals. “For me, psychoanalysis and psychotherapy absolutely came right out of my political activity, because, as a feminist, we really understood that in order to change one’s self, you couldn’t just say, “I no longer want to be this person, the person I was raised to be, “the little girl raised to be a certain kind of feminine character, “who defers to people, who is submissive, who feels insecure, who doesn’t feel entitled and so on.” We knew that we no longer wanted to be that person, and so, if one wanted to change deeply, we had to look to the unconscious. I think people came to see that bringing change wasn’t just about changing physical social aspects of society. I think people started to recognise that change actually maybe has a psychological dimension, an internal dimension, as well.” 

To some extent, the Villa Road community attempted to govern itself outside the scope of the law beyond:

“Would you ever have called the police?
-No.
-What did you do instead?
-Well, where there were instances of theft and so on within the street, then those were dealt with at street meetings. One incident I remember, we jailed the guy for a week, I believe. Everyone was losing their stereos and, um… we eventually managed to catch this young, black guy, who was, I think, 15 at the time. And, um, so…he said that he had been thrown out of home, that he had nowhere to go and he was stealing all this stuff so that he could survive. And so in typical Villa Road fashion, we held a street meeting, emergency street meeting, what to do about him. And we decided that we would give him a home, give him somewhere to live and we would give him money. And so he lived with us then.”

As with other squatted streets of the era, the leftist political slant of many occupants led them into taking part in solidarity action with other struggles that were going on. Villa Road residents regularly joined picket lines at strikes like Grunwick, marched in support of striking firefighters…

In response to tenants’ campaigns, the Council pressed ahead with attempts to evict through the courts, all the houses in Villa Road, which it proposed to demolish, to build a park (a part of the Brixton Plan that had survived), and a junior school (which even then looked to be in doubt). Families could apply to the Homeless Persons Unit; single people could whistle. In reply, squatters, tenants and supporters barricaded all the houses in Villa Road and proceeded to occupy the Council’s Housing Advice Centre and then the planning office.

“The barricades came about because… the, um, Lambeth Council wanted to demolish the whole of Villa Road. This had been their long-term plan. They couldn’t do it because we were living in the houses. But they, I think, probably served eviction orders on us and we decided that we were going to stay, and so, we thought, “Well, we’ll barricade ourselves in. “The bailiffs will come, but if they can’t get into the houses, they can’t evict us.” So that was another form of direct action. We would scour Lambeth, looking for wood, sheets of corrugated iron, barbed wire. There were a lot of building sites that went short of things in those days! And the ingenuity of people to get all these materials together was phenomenal. The barricade in front of 7 and 9 Villa Road was very beautiful, because we painted it. It was a carefully tended barricade. “Victory Villa” was the big sort of slogan. “Property is theft.” That was another of the slogans on the barricades. We were all into that. … The first thing I and the two chaps who moved in with me began to do was to sort out the barricades on our house. We had, um… It was like triple barricades of corrugated sheets and joists, and then more corrugated sheets, then joists and props, all put together with six-inch nails. Then on top of the barricade was barbed wire and a gutter, the plan being that we would fill the gutter with petrol and have bits of burning tyre, so we would have a sheet of flame to meet the bailiffs, before they could even get to the house itself. And we also had this huge, great, big wooden ball, like, um, on the ball and chain, but this was made of wood with big six-inch nails stuck in it, on the end of a rope, that you could swing and it would lazily move in front of the house as another disincentive to come anywhere near us.”

In June 1976, 1000 people attended a carnival organised by the squatters in Villa Road. The following day, council workers refused to continue with the wrecking of houses evicted in Villa Road, after squatters approached them and asked them to stop. Links with local workers were helped by squatters’ previous support for a construction workers picket during a strike at the Tarmac site in the town centre, and for an unemployed building workers march. They all walked off the job, and “the house became crowded with squatters who broke out into song and aided by a violinist, started dancing in the streets.” There was a similar incident in a squat in Radnor terrace in Vauxhall, the day before. The local UCATT building workers union branch had passed a resolution blocking the gutting of liveable houses.

In November 1976, the Villa Roaders launched an ‘Agitvan’ to tour the streets of the Borough spreading the word about life in Villa Road… These links between squatters and building workers were built on into 1977: as squatters, tenants, residents in temporary and Bed & Breakfast accommodation co-operated on pickets of the Town Hall over the Council’s housing policy.  When Lambeth Council attempted to push through its demolition policy by destroying the squatted street at St Agnes Place in January 1977, Villa Roaders went off to support the occupants:

“Very early in the morning, we found out that the council were moving in bulldozers, there were large busloads of police turning up at the end of the street, and all the rest of it. We all shot off down there. Quite a lot of the residents had already climbed up onto the roofs, basically saying, “If you’re going to knock the house down, you’ll have to knock us down with them!” Got all the council workers digging up the pipes, down at the front. They filled the drains with cement, and took out water and gas pipes. They really went to town to make sure they were uninhabitable. In this picture, you can see a protester. He’s one of the squatters who tied a rope round his waist… There was a few of them. ..and actually walked across the top of this, what’s left of the main framework of the house. We, together with the lawyers from the Law Centre, managed to get an emergency High Court injunction by midday or one o’clock that day, forcing the council to withdraw their equipment, ‘and to leave us alone.’ St Agnes Place was saved, and the council was publicly and humiliatingly defeated. Lambeth Council had to rethink its approach.”

Later in the year Lambeth Housing Action Group was set up, with Tenants Associations, Squatting groups, union branches sending delegates; they pledged to co-operate with Lambeth Anti-Racist movement as well…

Villa Road was still under threat – in fact the barricades stayed up for another two years…

The following account of the battle to save Villa Road was nicked from Squatting: the Real Story, published in 1979.

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Victory Villa Challenging the planners in South London

(Squatting: the Real Story, Chapter 12) by Nick Anning and Jill Simpson

The Planners’ Plan

The area around Villa Road is still rather quaintly labelled ‘Angell Town’ on the maps; a legacy of a past which includes the old manorial estate of Stockwell and the eccentric landowner John Angell who died in 1784.

To those who live here now, this is part of Brixton in the London Borough of Lambeth with the market and the Victoria Line tube station a few minutes walk away.

Planners’ vision for central Brixton, late 1960s

But the change wrought in just a few years by Lambeth Council’s planners has been far more radical than that gradual transformation. The majority of houses which stood in 1965 have been demolished and Villa Road too, would have disappeared if the planners had had their way. The fact that most of it still stands is the result of a protracted battle between the squatter community and the Council’s bureaucrats and councillors.

The origins of this battle can be found in The Brixton Plan, an intriguing document produced by Lambeth in 1969, and in the events that led up to its publication. Indeed, Villa Road’s very existence as a squatter community arises from the Plan, its initial shortcomings, its lack of flexibility in the face of economic changes and the refusal of leading Lambeth councillors and planners to engage in meaningful consultation. Their intransigence in refusing to admit that the plans might be wrong or open to revision was a further contributing factor.

The Plan had its roots in the optimistic climate of Harold Wilson’s first government in the early sixties. The Greater London Council (GLC) asked the recently enlarged London boroughs to draw up community plans in line with the GLC’s overall strategy for taking the metropolis gleaming into the seventies. Lambeth responded eagerly to this prompting, only too anxious to establish itself as one of the more enterprising inner London boroughs.

The scale and scope of its redevelopment plan was tremendously ambitious. Lambeth was to be transformed into an even more splendid memorial to the planners’ megalomania than neighbouring Croydon with Brixton as its showcase. Brixton town centre was to be completely rebuilt, incorporating a huge transport interchange complex where a six-lane highway, motorway box, main line railway and underground intersected.

Brixton’s social mix was to completely change with middle-class commuters flocking south of the Thames, to bring renewed prosperity and to rejuvenate business and commerce. Ravenseft, the property company which gave nearby Elephant and Castle its unloved redevelopment, expressed interest in the plan for Brixton. Tarmac, the road building firm, was given permission to build an office block on condition it helped to fund a new leisure centre. The Inner London Education Authority talked of new schools and a new site for South West London College. The dream seemed possible.

The plan would involve demolishing the fading bastions of Brixton’s Victorian and Edwardian splendour, epitomised by the very name Villa Road. These houses were to be replaced with modern homes for the working class of Lambeth. Angell Town was zoned for residential use, Brixton Road was to become a six-lane expressway and three proposed new housing developments (Brixton Town Centre, Myatts Fields and Stock-well Park Estate) would completely remove old Angell Town from the map. About 400 houses were to be demolished and their occupants ‘decanted’. Some low rise, high density modern estates were to be constructed but at the core of the plan was the construction of five 52 storey tower blocks. Brixton Towers was the apt name chosen for this development which, at 600 feet high, was to be the highest housing scheme outside Chicago. A large park was planned, in line with the GLC’s recommendations, to serve the 6,000 residents of the new estates. The scheme was a tribute to the planners’ megalomania.

The aim seems to have been to establish pools of high density council housing with limited access, restricting traffic to major perimeter roads where a facade of rehabilitated properties would give a false respectability to a disembowelled interior. Stockwell Park Estate, the first of the three estates to be completed, has already proved the disastrous nature of this type of development. Completed in 1971, it has suffered from dampness, lack of repairs and vandalism. For several years, its purpose-built garages remained unused and, until recently, it had a reputation as a ‘sink estate’ for so-called ‘problem families’.

In the heady climate of the sixties, this type of ‘macroplanning’ was taken as approved by the ballot box and by public enquiries. It was assumed that the professional planners ‘knew best’ and the majority of Lambeth’s 300,000 population were unaware of, let alone consulted about, the far-reaching nature of these plans.

First stirrings

In 1967 Lambeth Council obtained a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) on the Angell Town area, despite a number of objections at the public enquiry. The familiar pattern of blight set in. Residents, promised rehousing in the imminent future, no longer maintained their houses as they were soon to be demolished. Tenants in multi-occupied houses found it increasingly difficult to press the Council for repairs and maintenance, and tried to obtain immediate rehousing. The long years of Labour dominance in Lambeth were interrupted with three years of Tory rule but this was of little consequence to the monolithic plan. It drew support from Conservatives and Labour alike, although a radical caucus in the Labour Party known as the ‘Norwood Group’ began to voice misgivings during Labour’s spell in opposition. By the time Labour regained control in 1971, Angell Town was a depressed and demoralised area, as voting figures for the ward in local elections showed. Though staunchly Labour, turn-out in Angell Ward has been the lowest of all Lambeth’s 20 wards since 1971, averaging only about 25 per cent of the electorate.

The newly returned Labour administration of 1971 contained a sizeable left-wing influence through the Norwood Group and had high hopes of cutting back the massive 14,000 waiting list for council homes. However by now they were prisoners of processes originating with the Plan. Population counts in clearance areas were proving inaccurate, mainly because live-in landlords, multi-occupiers and extended families were reluctant, through fear of public health regulations, to give full details of the number of people in their houses. As ‘decanting’ took place from development areas, more and more people began to find themselves ineligible for rehousing, or were given offers of accommodation unsuitable for their needs. Most houses were boarded up or gutted, adding to blight. Homelessness grew rapidly.

Despite the Labour Group’s optimism, the building programme slowed down. Lambeth’s target of 1,000 new homes per year from 1971-8 was never met. Many people, particularly Labour Party members, began to realise that sweeping clearance programmes destroyed large numbers of houses in good condition as well as unfit ones. With a tighter economic climate and a Conservative Government opposed to municipalisation in office, some of the steam had already gone out of Lambeth’s redevelopment plans by 1971, only two years after the publication of The Brixton Plan.

The neighbourhood council

The Norwood Group of councillors both paralleled and reflected the upsurge of radical, libertarian and revolutionary politics in Brixton during the early seventies. Dissatisfaction with Lambeth’s planning processes and its inability to cope with housing and homelessness gave focus to a number of dissenting community-based groups. Activists in these groups were instrumental in establishing a strong squatting movement for single people in the main section of Lambeth’s population whose housing needs went unrecognised.

The St John’s Street Group was one of several street groups set up in 1972 under the wing of the Neighbourhood Council. Its membership included residents of both Villa Road and St John’s Crescent as the two streets were suffering from blight arising out of the same plans. Most of the immediate area was scheduled to be pulled down to form part of the new Angell Park. Villa Road tenants wanted rehousing while those in neighbouring St John’s Crescent were campaigning about the poor state of repair of their properties. The Street Group began a series of direct actions (eg a rent strike and the dumping of uncollected rubbish at the nearby area housing office) to put pressure on the Council. As a result, many Villa Road tenants were rehoused and their houses boarded up. Most also had their services cut off and drains sealed with concrete to discourage squatting. More sensibly, a few of the houses were allocated on licence to Lambeth Self-Help, a short-life housing group whose office was round the corner in Brixton Road.

Squatters enter the fray

Some of the Neighbourhood Council activists moved into No 20 Villa Road, one of the houses handed over to Lambeth Self-Help, in early 1973. That summer another house in Villa Road was squatted. No 20 became the centre of St John’s Street Group activity, providing an important point of contact with the Neighbourhood Council, Lambeth Self-Help and unofficial squatters. In 1974, other houses on Villa Road were squatted, mainly by groups of homeless single people. Many had previous experience of squatting either in Lambeth or in other London boroughs where councils were starting to clamp down on squatters, reinforcing the pool of experience, skill and political solidarity which was to be the strength of the Villa Road community. The fact that a certain number of people came from outside Lambeth was frequently used in anti-squatting propaganda.

Meanwhile, the Labour Council was moving to the right and a strong anti-squatter consensus had begun to emerge, particularly after the 1974 council elections. The new Chairperson of the Housing Committee and his Deputy were in the forefront of this opposition to squatters. Their proposals for ending the ‘squatting problem’, far from dealing with the root causes of homelessness, merely attempted to erase symptoms and met with little success. In fact, the autumn of 1974 saw the formation of All Lambeth Squatters, a militant body representing most of the borough’s squatters. It mobilised 600 people to a major public meeting at the Town Hall in December 1974 to protest at the Council’s proposals to end ‘unofficial’ squatting in its property.

The rightward-leaning Council took all the teeth out of the Neighbourhood Councils and the one in Angell Ward, torn by internal disputes, ceased to function by the end of 1973. That was not to say that the issue of redevelopment for Angell Town was not still of major interest to the local residents. The Brixton Towers project had been dropped, throwing into question the whole plan. Furthermore, the programme of rehousing and demolition was proceeding slower than expected forcing the Council to consider its short-term plans for the area. It came up with the idea of a ‘temporary open space’ which was to involve the demolition of Villa Road and St John’s Crescent.

According to a Council brochure published in June 1974, this open space was to be the forerunner of a larger Angell Park with play and recreation facilities. Walkways linking the park to smaller areas of open space (‘green fingers’) alongside Brixton Road were to be built and a footbridge over that busy road was to link it with the densely populated Stockwell Park Estate.

The justification for the plan was that the high density of housing proposed for the nearby Myatts Fields South and Brixton Town Centre North estates required open space of the local park variety within a quarter of a mile radius. What was not publicly admitted was that the construction of these estates would involve a much smaller increase in the area’s population than had been originally envisaged. Instead of 3,000, the figure was now admitted to be nearer 800, hardly enough to justify the creation of a park that would involve the demolition of much good housing. In any case, money for the open space, let alone the park, was not to be available until autumn 1976, and in June 1974 housing officials declared that the Council would not require Villa Road houses until summer 1976.

Arguably, this amounted to a legal licence to occupy the houses. Probably the Council would have had little further trouble from the Villa Road squatters had it not been for two factors: the continuous programme of wrecking and vandalising houses in the vicinity and the Council leadership’s adherence to a hardline policy on squatting and homelessness. The combination of these two factors increased militant opposition to the Council’s politicians and bureaucrats which culminated in a full-scale confrontation in the summer of 1976.

A week of action in September 1974 led to more houses being squatted and saw the first meetings of the Villa Road Street Group (not to be confused with the by-then defunct St John’s Street Group). The members of the Group had come together fairly randomly and their demands were naturally different. For instance, there were Lambeth Self-Help members for whom rehousing was top priority; single people who demanded the principle of rehousing but wished to develop creative alternatives; and students and foreigners who were in desperate need of accommodation but whose transient presence or precarious legal status kept them outside the housing struggle which was taking place around them.

By the end of 1974, 15 houses in Villa Road and one in Brixton Road (No 315) had been squatted by Street Group members who now numbered – about a hundred. Like in other squatted streets common interests drew people together and gave the street its own identity. The Street Group became a focus for the organisation of social as well as political activities. For instance, in the summer of 1975, a street carnival attracted over 1,000 people. A cafe, food co-operative, band and news-sheet (Villain) were further activities of the now-thriving street.

But it was a community living under a permanent threat and a stark reminder of that was the eviction of No 315 Brixton Road in April 1975. The house along with two others which were too badly vandalised to have been squatted, were pulled down as part of the Council’s preparation for the footbridge linking the proposed park with the Stockwell Park Estate. The dust had hardly settled after the demolition when the Council announced the cancellation of the footbridge plan. The site was left unused for five years and then grassed over.

Events like this tended to harden the opposition to the Council in the Street Group. Another five houses had been squatted during 1975, including those with serious faults which needed a lot of sustained work like re-roofing, plumbing, rewiring and unblocking drains.

The population of the street was now approaching 200. Three houses in St John’s Crescent which had been emptied in preparation for demolition were taken over with the help of the departing tenants. Several other houses in the Crescent and Brixton Road were wrecked and demolished by the Council, still intent on implementing its temporary open space plan.

Squatters were increasingly becoming a thorn in the Council’s side. Following the failure of the Council’s 1974 initiative to bring squatting under control, the Council tried again. It published a policy proposing a ‘final solution’ to the twin ‘problems’ of homelessness and squatting. It combined measures aimed at discouraging homeless people from applying to the Council for housing – like tighter definitions of who would be accepted and higher hostel fees – with a rehash of the same old anti-squatting ploys – like more gutting. The policy was eventually passed in April 1976 after considerable opposition both within the Labour Party from the Norwood Group and from homeless people and squatters.

In a sense, Villa Road, and later St Agnes Place, were the testing grounds for this new policy. Although the Council had agreed to meet Villa Road Street Group representatives in February, its position was unyielding. Twenty-one of the 32 houses in Villa Road were to be demolished within four months and the street would be closed off for open space. Moreover, the Council told the Street Group that when the houses were evicted, families would be referred to the Council’s homeless families unit but single people would just have to ‘make their own arrangements’. The future of the remaining 11 houses was less certain as they were earmarked for a junior school that, even in 1976, was unlikely ever to be built.

The Trades Council Inquiry

It was clear that the Street Group could not fight the Council without outside support. There was already considerable local dissatisfaction with the Council for its failure to change the plans for the area and the Street Group, in an attempt to harness available support, organised a public meeting in April 1976 to discuss courses of action. At the meeting, which was well-attended, it was decided to initiate a Trades Council Inquiry into local housing and recreational needs. This idea was supported by a wide range of people and groups including the vicar of St John’s Church which overlooks Villa Road and the ward Labour Party. A committee including two Street Group representatives was set up to collect evidence and prepare a report.

The Trades Council Inquiry report was to be presented to a public meeting of 200 people at St. John’s School two months later. Lambeth’s Chief Planning Officer, its Deputy Director of Housing and an alderman came to hear their critics and see the meeting vote overwhelmingly in favour of the report’s recommendations. These were:

  • No more demolitions, wreckings or evictions.
  • Smaller, more easily supervised playspaces should be created from existing empty sites, rather than clinging stubbornly to a plan for one large park.
  • Money saved by stopping evictions, wreckings and demolition should be spent on repairs on nearby estates or rehabilitation of older property.
  • The Council should recognise the strong community in the area and take that as the starting point for allowing active participation by local people in the planning process.

The Council’s representatives made no concession to these views except to suggest rather insultingly that the report might be admissible for discussion as a ‘local petition’. They firmly rejected the meeting’s recommendation that the Trades Council Report should be considered at the next Council meeting.

Whilst the Inquiry had been collecting its evidence, there had been a further series of confrontations between squatters and wreckers. The Trades Council had passed a resolution blacking the wrecking of good houses and the Council was forced to find non-union labour to do its dirty work. The squatters managed to take over one house in Brixton Road before it was wrecked (No 321) but another (No 325) was gutted by workmen under police protection. The culmination of these battles between squatters and wreckers was to be at St. Agnes Place in January 1977, an action which attracted widespread national publicity.

Both these wreckings and the Inquiry attracted local press coverage and support for the squatters widened. Several Norwood councillors, prompted by a letter from the Street Group, began to give active support as well as inside information on the Council’s position. Links with the local labour movement were helped by squatters’ support for a construction workers picket during a strike at the Tarmac site in the town centre and for an unemployed building workers march.

To the barricades

With careful timing, the Council made its initial response to the Inquiry’s report the day after it was released when all the houses occupied by the Street Group (except those on the school site) received county court summonses for possession. The court cases were scheduled for 30 June, a couple of weeks away, and the Street Group’s response was immediate: a defence committee was organised to barricade all threatened houses, coordinate a legal defence, publicise the campaign, set up an early warning system and much more.

benefit poster for Villa Road defence campaign

At the court hearing, the judge criticised the Council for its sloppy preparation and only eight out of fifteen possession orders were granted. Although this was a partial victory, the barricades obviously had to remain. The Street Group embarked on a series of militant actions with support from other Lambeth squatters aimed at forcing the Council to reconsider the Trades Council Inquiry’s findings which it had rejected at a heavily-picketed meeting and at getting the Council to offer rehousing to Villa Road squatters. First, the Lambeth Housing Advice Centre was occupied for an afternoon in July and, a month later, following the breakdown of negotiations, the Planning Advice Centre received the same treatment. This did not prevent the planning and housing committees from formally rejecting the Trades Council Report but both occupations achieved their primary objective in getting Lambeth round the negotiating table. The Street Group’s initial position was for rehousing as a community but as the talks continued, it was decided to agree to consider individual rehousing. Staying in Villa Road on a permanent basis was not an option considered seriously by either side at this stage. After the second occupation and a survey of empty property in the borough by the squatters, the Council representatives said they might be prepared to look for individual properties for rehousing. The Street Group’s minimum demand was rehousing for 120 people knowing full well that any offer of rehousing would breach both the squatting and homelessness policies.

In October, the Council made an offer of 17 houses to the Street Group but the houses were in such a bad condition that the sincerity of its motives could clearly be questioned. The Street Group had no option but to reject them despite the strain that living behind barricades was causing. The defences could never be made impregnable and the difficulties of living permanently under the threat of immediate eviction was too much for many people who left, sometimes to unthreatened houses up the street. They were generally replaced by even more determined opponents of the Council and morale in the street was further boosted by the occupation of the remaining tenanted and licensed houses in the threatened part of the street whose occupants were all rehoused.

After the rejection of the offer, no further word came from the Council though it seemed clear that it was reluctant at this stage to send in the bailiffs. A war of attrition set in, marked by two interesting developments.

First, a sympathetic councillor was selected to stand in the by-election of November 1976 caused by the death of an Angell Ward councillor. The selection was a success for the Street Group’s members in the ward Labour Party whose votes were decisive. It was a rebuff for the Council’s leader whose nominee failed to win selection and helped to chip away the right’s narrow majority within the Labour Group, contributing directly to the leftward movement that eventually put the Norwood Group with a left-wing leader in power at the local elections of May 1978.

Secondly, in October, the Department of the Environment (DOE) held a public inquiry over the Council’s application to close Villa Road. Several local organisations, including the Street Group, presented evidence against closure. An inquiry which should have been over in a day stretched to ten. Each point was strongly contested since the Street Group realised that if the Council was unable to close Villa Road its plan for the park would need drastic modification. The DOE inspector promised to make his report a matter of urgency.

The turning point

As the Council still did not have possession orders on all the houses, it now restarted court proceedings against all the squatted houses (except those on the school site) – this time in the High Court. The Street Group hurriedly drew up a detailed legal defence, arguing a general licence on the grounds that official negotiations with the Council had never been formally terminated. Villa Road’s case was strengthened by statements from two Lambeth councillors. The hearing opened in January 1977, marked by a picket, street theatre and live music outside the High Court.

Judging by its legal representatives’ response at the preliminary hearing, the Council had not anticipated any legal defence and the case was adjourned twice. The Council’s reason for going to the High Court instead of the county court was that a High Court order for possession allows the police to assist directly in carrying out the eviction. A county court order did not give the police power to intervene except to guard against a possible ‘breach of the peace.’ Events at nearby St. Agnes Place in January had set an ugly precedent and showed the Council was now prepared for full scale battles with squatters. Over 250 police had arrived at dawn in St Agnes Place to preside over the demolition with a ball and chain of empty houses although the demolition was stopped within hours by a hastily initiated court injunction by the squatters.

In the event, the St Agnes Place affair put Lambeth Council at a moral disadvantage and had an important effect on events in Villa Road. Labour Group leader David Stimpson had staked his hardline reputation on an outright confrontation but the failure to demolish all the houses and the resulting bad publicity put his political future in doubt. To make matters worse for Stimpson, the DOE inspector’s report on the public inquiry into the closure of Villa Road was published around the same time. It ruled against the Council: Villa Road had to stay open until revised plans for Brixton Town Centre North were devised ‘in consultation with all interested parties’.

The remnants of The Brixton Plan had already started to crumble around the Council when Ravenseft, one of the major backers, had pulled out the previous summer. With the unfavourable report from the DOE inspector and news that the construction of the school planned for the top end of Villa Road was to be deferred indefinitely, the planners had to go back to the drawing board. The Brixton Plan was even more of a pipedream than it had been in 1969.

By the time the High Court hearing resumed in March, the Council had been forced into a position where it had to compromise. The judge encouraged the Council and the Street Group to settle out of court as, in the end, the granting of a possession order was inevitable. After some hard bargaining, the Street Group got a three months stay of execution to 3 June 1977 and costs of £50 awarded against it, a considerable saving on the estimated £7,000 the case had cost Lambeth.

June 3 passed uneventfully as did the first anniversary of the erection of the barricades. Indeed, they were to stay up almost another year until in March 1978 the squatters felt confident enough of the Council’s intentions to take them down. No attempt had ever been made to breach them.

With the DOE inspector’s decision not to close the road and the absence of revised plans for the area, the possibility now emerged that the fate of the two sides of the street could be different. The south side (12 houses) backed onto a triangle, two-thirds of which was already demolished for the open space. On the other hand, the north side (20 houses) backed onto a new council estate and its demolition would add little space to the park area even assuming that permission to close Villa Road were obtained. Therefore, the Street Group decided to accept demolition of the south side provided that everyone was rehoused, and to push for the houses on the north side to be retained and rehabilitated, ideally as a housing co-op for the existing squatters. Negotiations were resumed on this basis and Lambeth kept talking: clearly, it didn’t want a repeat of the St Agnes Place disaster.

A new Council

The first tangible gain for the Street Group came in March 1978, when two short-life houses were offered to people being rehoused from the south side. But the most important event came two months later, when a new left-Labour Council was elected with Ted Knight, a ‘self confessed marxist’ and Matthew Warburton, a first time councillor, as leader and housing chairperson respectively. It was a significant victory in that it represented as radical a shift in policy as a victory by the Tories – in the other direction, of course. Squatters in both Villa Road and St Agnes Place had contributed directly to the leftwards swing and the new leaders had pledged to adopt more sympathetic policies.

Lambeth housing department officials now pressed for the demolition of houses on the south side, to make way for the new Angell Park, and suggested that all Villa Road Street Group members join Lambeth Self-Help Housing. It appeared that a new atmosphere of negotiation was being created but the same housing department officers did the negotiating and the Plan had not been totally abandoned. Eventually the Street Group agreed, very reluctantly, to the south side of Villa Road being vacated, with all occupants being rehoused in property with at least 18 months life. Demolition was to begin on 24 July 1978 and the fourth annual Villa Road carnival was made spectacular by one of the vacated houses on the south side being burnt down as a defiant gesture of protest. All the houses accepted for rehousing were in the borough, though some were in Norwood, several miles away.

The Street Group, left to its own devices, requested details of the Council’s plans for the rehabilitation of Villa Road north side. It’s main aim was to keep the north side houses. Inspired by the growth of housing co-ops in other areas, the Street Group decided to propose a co-op for Villa Road. In January 1979 an ‘outline proposal’ was sent to the housing directorate suggesting four possible types of co-op but with an expressed preference for a management co-op. In this type of co-op, the Council continues to own the property whilst handing over responsibilities for rent collection, maintenance and management to the co-op. Rehabilitation is financed either by local or central government. It was felt that other types of co-op involving the sale of council housing stock were politically unacceptable.

The co-op proposals were presented to the housing committee in April 1979 and formal approval was given for the chairman to continue negotiations with the Street Group for setting up a co-op. The climate had certainly changed and although squatting was still regarded as a ‘problem’, the Council now negotiated rather than evicted, at least with large groups. Lambeth officers were reluctant to embark on this scheme which was entirely new to the borough and instead suggested a joint management/ownership co-op. Houses in Villa Road would form the management wing, and the ownership branch would be in a nearby Housing Action Area. This was to ensure that four or five houses in Villa Road could be used to accommodate large families from Lambeth’s waiting list. It seemed ironic that Lambeth was now short of large houses when the previous administration had operated a policy of systematic demolition of such houses. The planning machine had done a complete U-turn.

The Street Group now had to change its tactics. Instead of militant campaigns with barricades and regular occupations of council offices, it had to get down to the nitty gritty of filling in forms to register as a friendly society and as a co-op, finding a development agent (Solon Housing Association was eventually selected) and working out detailed costings for the rehabilitation. It was no longer a matter

Remaining houses on the north side of Villa Road, early 1980s

of just saving the houses, it was a question of getting the long-term best deal for Street Group members and Lambeth’s homeless.

After Solon had submitted detailed costings in January 1980 (it worked out at about £7,000 per bed space), the housing committee agreed, the following month, to support Villa Road’s application to the Housing Corporation (a quango through which government money is channelled to housing associations and co-ops) for funding to rehabilitate the houses. Lambeth would grant Villa Road a 40 year lease. The recommendations were not passed without dissent. Some of the old anti-squatting brigade were still on the committee, intent on eviction without rehousing for Villa Road squatters. But Street Group members now no longer had to live day to day under threat of eviction – they could dream of still living in Villa Road and collecting their pensions.

Not everything was different. Two houses on the corner of Villa Road, Nos 64 and 66 Wiltshire Road were demolished in April 1980. They had been squatted in October 1976 following an unsuccessful wrecking attempt by the Council. They had provided housing for some 20 people for three and a half years and were now being pulled down to make way for the Angell Park play centre scheduled to start in June 1980. Yet three months later, not a brick had been laid. At least now Lambeth offered all the occupants short-life or permanent rehousing.

The first scheme was rejected by the Housing Corporation but a different plan was submitted in July 1980 involving the conversion of the houses to accommodate 12 or 13 people each, rather more than the number already living there. Conversion costs were appreciably lower (under £4,500 per bed space) and the scheme had, in the words of the manager of the housing advice centre, ‘top priority’ from the Council with support from both council officers and councillors.

Victory Villa?

The change in relationship between Villa Road, a squatted street in Lambeth, and the local council between 1974 and 1980 from a harsh anti-squatting policy to negotiations for a housing co-op could not have been more dramatic. But what else has been achieved by six years of squatting in Villa Road? The squatters arrived late in Angell Town and it would be nice to imagine that had they arrived earlier, they would have posed an even greater challenge to the lunacies of the planners. But, in the event the achievements of the squatters have been significant, both for themselves and for the immediate community:

  • Homes have been provided for the equivalent of 1,000 people for a year in houses which would otherwise have been gutted or demolished.
  • About 25 people have obtained two year licences and 15 have obtained council tenancies from Lambeth.
  • About 160 people are in the process of obtaining permanent housing as a co-op, remaining together as a community. Working with Solon’s architects, they will be able to have a considerable measure of control over the rehabilitation of the houses, retaining many of the collective arrangements and physical adaptations which have developed over the years.
    • Twenty elegant 19th century houses have been saved from demolition and a useful street prevented from being closed.
  • Control of Lambeth Council has significantly shifted partly thanks to the Villa Road squatters.

And, less tangibly, although few people stayed in Villa Road for all the six years of struggle, a cohesive street community was created which many people enjoyed living in. Squatters in Villa Road, like those in other streets in Lambeth which won concessions from the Council (St Agnes Place, Heath Road, Rectory Gardens, and St Alphonsus Road) challenged the complacency and smugness of the bureaucrats and won. That was the real victory in Villa Road.

What happened in Villa Road could have happened just as easily in other blighted streets in Lambeth or elsewhere. The squatters organisation, their use of direct action and their insistence that planning and housing are two sides of the same coin challenged the complacency and smugness of the bureaucrats. Villa Road’s real victory was to prove that plans are not inviolable, and that people can affect and be directly involved in planning processes that determine their living conditions. Considering what Villa Road was up against, that is no small achievement.

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Some of those moved from the demolished ‘south side’ houses in Villa Road were rehoused in council-owned shortlife property – including the flats in mansion blocks on Rushcroft Road, next to the Library in central Brixton. They would face 20 years of mismanagement, bad repair, and uncertainty from Lambeth Council and then and London & Quadrant Housing Association (after the flats were off-loaded onto L&Q)… and then eviction in the early 2000s as the Council decided to flog off their flats off to developers. However, many of the flats cleared of short-lifers were then squatted again – a mass eviction of 75 squatters took place as late as 2013.

The houses on the north side of Villa Road mostly remained, becoming a housing co-op which survives  – although many of the original residents moved out gradually, lots of other ex-squatters, subversives and other ne-er-do-wells have passed through since then…

 

 

 

 

In 2006, the BBC screened one episode of a series called Lefties which interviewed ex-Villa Road residents, you can watch it on youtube:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Erp2utEgZp4

 

Some of the above info was gleaned from the transcripts from this program.

Read a slightly longer account of the growth of squatting in Brixton, with more details on the Brixton Plan,

 

 

Today in London smashing herstory, 1909: Suffragettes love the sound of breaking glass

Emmeline Pankhurst and other women’s suffragists founded the militant Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903; having come to the conclusion that the existing pressure groups campaiging to extend the vote in the UK to women had failed, taking a too cautious approach, and a new militant organisation was needed that would take the extreme measures needed to win women the franchise.

The WSPU went on to break new ground in direct action, with mass campaigns of criminal damage, window smashing and arson; many of its activists were jailed several times, (including Emmeline and her three daughters, Christabel, Adela and Sylvia), and force fed in prison repeatedly when they went on hunger strike. Both their ‘militant’ activity and the more ‘constitutional’ wing of the movement built up considerable pressure for reform up to the outbreak of World War 1; women’s suffrage became the dominant issue in British society, dividing opinion and provoking violent repression, attacks from hostile crowds of men, as well as increasing support.

In 1908, WSPU actions became more militant and more ‘aggressive’. In June that year throwing stones to break windows of government buildings was first adopted. In October, the WSPU issued a general callout for people to join in its attempt to ‘Rush’ the House of Commons, which attracted thousands of participants and led to 37 arrests.

These actions raised the WSPU’s public profile; they snap led to an increase in donations which allowed the organisation to hire more paid staff across the country. 

Calling for public participation in mass actions effectively appealed to women, over the heads of the politicians and the ‘normal’ political process, with the intention of creating a public order crisis which would intimidate the government into giving women the vote. This approach was universally condemned: even pro-Women’s Suffrage newspapers like the Manchester Guardian labelled it counter-productive. It enraged the authorities, who increased penalties for arrested suffragists and slapped them with heavier charges like ‘incitement to riot’.

In 1909, undeterred, the WSPU upped the ante on the previous year’s activities…

In May, WSPU employees and militants mobilised a large crowd – press estimates ranged up to 10,000 – which attempted to storm Sheffield’s Drill Hall where an important meeting was being addressed by H. H. Asquith. A major riot nearly ensued, although the crowd did not get into the meeting. Christabel Pankhurst hailed this event as a triumph, writing that ‘the women who were barred out from the Prime Minister’s meeting called upon the general public … and to this appeal there was a wonderful response’.

Following this, the WSPU organised its ‘Women’s Exhibition’ at the Princess Skating Rink, Knightsbridge, between 13 and 26 May; the next major action was the thirteenth mass ‘deputation’ to parliament, scheduled for 29 June. Emmeline Pankhurst and other leaders of the Women’s Social and Political union had planned to deputation to see the Prime Minster, Asquith, to demand legislation regarding extending the franchise to women. A large public meeting followed by a procession to Parliament accompanied them. But a spot of sabotage was scheduled to follow if the deputation was refused access to the PM (as was expected to happen).

“On 29 June [1909], the usual meeting in the Caxton Hall began with martial music played by the new fife and drum band; the musicians wore purple uniforms, adorned by green sashes and white braid.   Subsequently, a small initial deputation set out, led by Mrs Pankhurst and composed of eight women, two of whom were elderly.”

Along with Emmeline Pankhurst, the delegation included Maud Joachim, Mrs Saul Solomon’, Miss Margesson. Mrs. Haverfield,  Mrs. Menzill, wife of Colonel Menzill, and granddaughter of the late Lord Wllborne; Mrs. Frank Corbett, sister-in-law of the late member of the house, and Miss Neligan, who was 79.

The police conducted the little group to the door of the Commons, where Chief Inspector Scantlebury, the stout, red-faced head of the police attached to Parliament, gave Mrs Pankhurst a large envelope. The envelope contained a letter from Asquith’s private secretary, stating that the Prime Minister would not receive the deputation. Mrs Pankhurst threw the letter to the ground, saying that she would not accept it – she and the ladies accompanying her were subjects of the King and had come in the assertion of a right.’ As the police began to push the women away, Mrs Pankhurst lightly struck Inspector Jarvis in the face three times.   He told her she was striking him for a purpose, and that he would not be perturbed… After Mrs Pankhurst gave Inspector Jarvis two stronger blows and another woman knocked off his hat, arrests were obtained.

A prolonged melee followed in which 3,000 police were engaged, and 108 women and 14 men were arrested… The scrimmage was watched by a number of MPs, some of whom climbed the railings of Palace Yard to obtain a better view.” 

Labour MP Keir Hardie did suggest inside the chamber that the delegation should be allowed in; to little avail.

At the WSPU HQ at Clements Inn, the action had been planned meticulously in advance; down to advice to women taking part that they should expect to be roughed up by the police, and designs for wearing ‘cardboard corsets’ to help protect them from batterings in the melee. Grace Roe, interviewed in the 1960s, remembered that she “rigged up one of these in the bath and fitted it to my shape and put in cotton wool to protect my breasts and then put on my hockey outfit and set off…” Vera Horne rode around the Square on a horse passing messages and instructing groups to advance on the House until the police nicked her.

After mounted police had cleared Parliament Square, phase 2 of the action began. Small groups of six suffragettes emerged from 30 small offices that the WSPU had rented for the day and made dashes on the House of Commons. Grace Roe was one of these groups, and noticed an open gate at Palace Yard – she and others ran through to try to enter the Commons but were aught by police halfway down the yard.

Simultaneously, attacks on government buildings began:

“At nine o’clock, a group of thirteen women, using small stones wrapped in brown paper, began to break windows at the Privy Council, Treasury, and Home Offices. To avoid injuring anyone within, pieces of string had been tied to the stones, which were swung against the windows while held by the string, and then dropped through the holes. The window-breakers were arrested immediately.”

Despite their determination, the deliberate action of criminal damage didn’t come easy to some of the saboteurs; one noted

“To women of culture and refinement and of sheltered upbringing the deliberate act of throwing a stone, even as a protest, in order to break a window, requires an enormous amount of moral courage. After much tension and hesitation, I threw my stone at the window… I was immediately arrested and marched off by two policemen.”

This was the largest disturbance so far in the WSPU’s militant sabotage campaign (the previous record for arrests had been in 1907, when 74 women were nicked). At first, the WSPU disowned the action, but later gave it their approval. (This was a WSPU tactic at the time – to assert that militancy was all carried out by the rank and file of the organisation and the leadership[p had no control at all over it… in reality Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst had a tight grip on what was planned and carried out, in many cases… This was largely a diversion to try to avoid arrests of WSPU leaders for conspiracy or incitement, but also, no doubt, a bit of deniability was involved, in case anyone did anything the leadership felt was going too far, or aroused unpopularity in the wrong quarters?)

The 108 women and 14 men arrested were taken to Cannon Row Police Station. In court next day, the WSPU’s leaders announced their intention of testing in law the right of petition. This kept the issue alive for several months until the courts could decide. As a result, action against those arrested for public order offences was suspended, but the window-breakers were tried on 12 July, and imprisoned when they refused to pay fines.

At this point a new weapon was introduced: the hunger-strike, pioneered by Marion Wallace Dunlop between 2 and 5 July. Since the autumn of 1908, the WSPU had declared that suffragettes would not tolerate ‘second division’ conditions in prison but would demand ‘first division’ treatment, on the grounds that they were political prisoners.The WSPU now announced its intention of enforcing the political prisoner demand before the window-breakers were tried, and when committed to Holloway they refused to put on prison dress and broke their cell windows. Two of the prisoners were also accused of biting and kicking the wardresses. The WSPU leadership hailed this redistance to normal imprisonment as the beginning of a ‘Prison Mutiny’, which they threatened would spread to other prisoners and other gaols. As Christabel Pankhurst said on 19 July, ‘If the suffragists broke down the awe of prison rules and regulations it would work through the prison population like a fever, and that would be a very serious matter indeed.’
Following Marion Dunlop‘s example, all the window-breakers went on hunger-strike and were released over several days at the end of July.