Today in London’s policing history, 1798: the Wapping Coal Riot

On 2nd July 1798, officers of the West India Merchants and Planters Marine Police Institute, the UK’s earliest organised police force proper, launched their first patrols of the crowded waters of the River Thames, based at a HQ at Wapping New Stairs.

The new force was at first privately funded, and had been launched by Patrick Colquhoun, a Scottish businessman and statistician. Colquhoun had made his name and money in the lucrative commercial trade in Virginia, and later made more cash trading linen. When the American Revolution broke out, Colquhoun took the side of the British government against the rebellious colonists, and helped fund a Glasgow regiment to contribute to the war effort.

The British defeat saw him relocate back his energies to Britain. Colquhoun was interested in statistics, and collected economic data, which he used to lobby the government on behalf of the employers in various industries, particularly cotton and muslin (his background in textile dealing had made him a lot of contacts). He wrote numerous pamphlets and treatises promoting legal reform and changes in business practice – usually in the interests of powerful employers. Colquhoun was increasingly in political and government circles, and he aspired to a government position. In the late 1780s he was appointed a Magistrate in the East End.

The London docks were then the East End’s major industry; vast amounts of cargo were unloaded here, from all over the world. This was how the capital was supplied with food, cloth, sugar, raw materials… anything to supply what had become the most powerful and richest city in the world.

But there was a major problem for the dock owners and traders whose goods travelled through them – theft. Merchants were losing an estimated £500,000 worth (million in our money) in stolen cargo annually from the Pool of London on the River Thames. Many ships were unloaded on open docks or on the open river, accessible to looting; however, organised or individual theft by dockers, sailors and other workers was responsible for large amounts of disappeared cargo. There were any number of ways of making items vanish for resale on the many East End markets. The authorities had relatively little manpower to exert any force to prevent or detect theft or track missing goods down.

In 1797 Colquhoun, John Harriot, an Essex Justice of the Peace and master mariner, and utilitarian philosopher of repression Jeremy Bentham collaborated on a plan to remedy the losses to thieves. Harriot and Bentham drew up a proposal for a new police force on the docks, and Colquhoun went to work to lobby the West India Planters Committees and the West India Merchants to fund the new organisation, and applied to the government for permission to operate. The merchants stumped up £4,200 (about £543,000 in today’s moolah), and the state agreed to a one-year trial of the embryonic force. On 2 July 1798, the Thames River Police began operating with Colquhoun as Superintending Magistrate and Harriot the Resident Magistrate.

The very idea of a police was considered an affront by many in England; English folk of various classes held it outraged ‘the liberties they held dear’. Some in positions of power and wealth also thought the idea of a government-controlled police force ( as it existed in France) would be an expensive burden on the public purse. Colquhoun cleverly re-framed the political debate on policing, drawing on his economic statistics to try to demonstrate show that a police dedicated to crime prevention was not only “perfectly congenial to the principle of the British constitution” but also had potential to be cost effective.

The new force began with about 50 men, whose job was to police more than 30,000 workers in the river trades. Of these workers Colquhoun claimed a third were known criminals and “on the game”.

Whether these figures were reliable, the new river police inevitably received a hostile reception from the riverfront workers. For many of the workers on the docks, lighters and ships, and in the warehouses, a little bit of lightfingeredness supplemented what was usually low and irregular pay. Most of these jobs were casual, badly paid, seasonal; survival for these men and their families was generally a matter of daily worry. Meanwhile huge profits were being made on the tobacco, food, sugar, coal and myriads of other imports. The merchants at the top lived in luxury the dockworkers could only imagine. The temptation to help yourself to some of the profits passing through your hands had grown by tradition and struggle into a perk of the job. A lot of cracking down on ‘theft’ took the form of changing (or enforcing tighter interpretations of) perks and traditional right to take offcuts, spilled goods etc, which workers had established over decades of struggle and negotiation. Workers fighting to extend those perks ,and bosses pushing to restrict the, was part of a constant war between workers and employers; the creation of the river police could only be seen as an attack on a part of the workers’ income. And the London dockworkers were often prepared to fight to protect their interests.

The embryonic Thames River Police was organised very differently from what we might think of as a modern police force. The men who made up the river police were described as watermen, surveyors and lumpers – dockworkers enlisted to also police the job. There were only a very few constables in the force (five initially) – they were mostly employed patrolling the dockside. The rationale behind employing workers to police their workmates was that a considerable amount of crime, committed by those people employed in unloading vessels arriving in the Port of London, could be prevented if you could guarantee the honesty and integrity of those men employed in ‘lumping’ cargoes off the ships. ‘Lumpers’ employed in unloading vessels under the protection of the Marine Police Office were those with a reputation for honesty – and they were paid above the usual rate. These men were seen to be as much a part of the Marine Police Office as, say the watermen, surveyors or even the magistrates themselves. A clever process of internalising policing into the mentalities of workers, setting some workers to spy on others.

The River Police was aimed not only control of the mass and endemic nicking of goods arriving at the docks, but also breaking any form of organisation by the workers. It was paid for by the bosses, and expected to serve their interest, and workers getting together was on its radar as part of the ‘crime’ it had to keep an eye on. Colquhoun was a magistrate, and the East End magistrates had powers over labour and wages; they set wage levels, and even had a hand in organising the trade itself, for instance organising coalheaving gangs. Rival views as to how this was to be interpreted had played a crucial and divisive part in the 1768 ‘river strike’– a cataclysmic strike for higher wages that had ended up in pitched battles, murder and hangings… Alderman William Beckford, an East End magistrate, had backed gangs of scabs collected to fight strikers and smash the strike; Beckford was also a major importer of goods through the docks. The same men were employers, law enforcers and politicians, and use these connections to their own profit, and to attack working people on a multitude of levels – as well as being slave traders and plantation owners in the West Indies. Beckford, for instance, was known as the ‘king of Jamaica’ for the size of his plantations, and was determined to protect the profits from his goods from the Caribbean that came through the docks.

Like Beckford, Colquhoun was deeply involved in both the East End dock trades and the Atlantic triangular trade. Historian Peter Linebaugh identifies Colquhoun as a crucial product of, and contributor to, the economic and social power networks that drove the Atlantic trades.

“He was a planner of the trans-Atlantic cotton economy compiling stats of the workers, wages, factories, and imports in order to assist the prime minister and cabinet of England maximise profits from the cycle of capital in England, India, America, Ireland, Africa. That work was interrupted by the revolutions in France and Haiti. In the 1790s he criminalised custom. He led the hanging of those committing money crimes. He led the apprehension of those in textile labour who re-cycled waste products to their own use. He organised political surveillance by spies and snitches of those opposing slavery. In addition to his Virginia cotton interests he owned shares in Jamaican sugar plantations.” There was a direct link in terms of goods arriving from Caribbean and the interests of planters, shippers, etc, in seeing maximum of profits from them and less ‘attrition’ by working people. The West India merchants and planters were major contributors to the funds raised to pay for the new police.

Transport of coal was at the heart of the docks, and theft of coal a crucial battleground. Houses, industry, offices – coal was vital for heating and came into the docks on a colossal scale. Possibly more than any other commodity, coal was ripped off by the dockworkers, often on an individual scale. Coalheaving was dirty, hard and backbreaking work, paid badly. As the 1768 strike had shown, the coalheavers were often the most volatile group of workers, with a potential for collective action and violence.

Coal was also to cause an early battle between the dockworkers and the new River Police. Harriott and Colquhoun were both determined to stop the ‘coal markets’, selling of nicked coal from the docks, which were openly held in the streets of Wapping.

On the evening of 16th October 1798, three men stood trial at the Thames Magistrates Court, which was attached to the Marine Police Office. They were two coal heavers and one watchman’s boy, all accused of theft of coal (in fact of having coal in their possession and giving no reasonable explanation as to why), and were all convicted and each fined forty shillings. As they left the building, some friends arrived at the court and paid the fines. Upon leaving, one of the three, Charles Eyers, was met by his brother, James, who said “Damn your long eyes, have you paid the money?” Charles said “Yes, I have.” James then took his brother by the collar, dragged him toward the door and said “Come along and we shall have the money back or else we shall have the house down!”

Constable Richard Perry later testified: “I opened the door to let Charles Eyers out, when there was a voice cried, you b-y long thief have you paid the money? I saw there was a riot going to be, and I shoved the door of the office to immediately: then there was another voice said, here goes for the forty; with that the fan-light of the door was instantly knocked all over me, I suppose with a stick, they could not have reached it without; I went into the Magistrate’s room, and immediately the next light was beat, shutters and all, into the office, by large stones, I suppose twenty pounds weight, such stones as the streets were paved with; they then proceeded to the next light, that was beat in also with great stones.

– Q. Was the street quiet at this time?
– A. No, there was crying and shouting, and a great noise, and saying they would have the b-y Police-office down; they then proceeded to the third window, and beat that in also, and a large stone came in, which took me over the shoulder, and passed Mr. Colquhoun, the Magistrate.”

Within a very short period of time a hostile crowd – some reports reckoned it at around 2000 men – had gathered outside the police office and stones and rocks were being directed against the windows. There was talk of burning down the police office, with the police inside.

The action that was to follow was to leave two men dead and another wounded.

The police inside the office secured the building. When a large stone smashed through a window, officer Perry took a pistol and fired a shot into the crowd, that shot killed a rioter (who was never identified at the trial). The crowd seemed to quieten and withdraw slightly. Perry asked the magistrates to leave the building where he obviously felt at great risk. Having gone into the street, Colquhoun read the Riot Act to the crowd, ordering them to disperse. They did not.

Gabriel Franks, a master lumper employed by the Marine Police Office (later described as ‘not a sworn constable but occasionally assisting in the Office’) was apparently drinking in the nearby Rose and Crown pub. Hearing the commotion, he made his way to the police office with two other men named Peacock and Webb, and asked to be admitted, but was told that nobody was being allowed in or out of the building. Franks returned to the main street, possibly to observe the disturbance and gather information and evidence. He told Peacock to keep tabs on one particularly active rioter, whilst he himself went off, telling peacock he would try and secure a cutlass for their protection. However, someone obviously recognised Franks as a Police Office agent, as according to Peacock, about a minute after Franks walked off, a shot rang out from the direction of the Dung Wharf, and Franks cried out that he had been shot. The shooting from inside the Police Office that killed the rioter and the shot that killed Franks apparently happened in quick succession.

Franks did not die immediately. He lived on for several days, drifting in and out of consciousness. During this time Franks was questioned about the shooting, but had no idea as to who had fired the shot. The actual identity of the person who pulled the trigger and fired the fatal shot was never discovered; however, the motive would clearly seem to be hatred of the Marine Police, Franks being known as someone associated with the police office.  He might have been deliberately singled out as he walked towards the Dung Wharf, or, he may simply have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Could it have been friendly fire – ie was he killed by a shot from inside the Police Office? Witness Elizabeth Forester later tried to persuade the court that both Franks and the unnamed rioter had been killed by the one shot fired from the police office, but her evidence was discredited by the court. However, there doesn’t seem to have been any other evidence of rioters carrying or using firearms.

Failing to identify anyone who might have really shot Franks, the authorities plumped for a blatant frame-up on the loosest of justifications. James Eyers, whose behaviour at the court was the initial spark that kicked off the riot, was eventually arrested and charged with the murder of Gabriel Franks.

No one produced any evidence to suggest that Eyers had actually fired the fatal shot, or even seriously tried to suggest he had anything to do with the shooting. The prosecution’s case was that his actions in starting the riot, therefore he was responsible for Franks’ death, under the law of ‘common purpose’ (today this might come under the ‘Joint Enterprise’ concept). This was conveniently also useful in removing an obvious opponent of the Marine Police and setting a grim example to the coalheavers that resistance to policing would reap the harshest of rewards. Eyers greatest crime, the judge freely admitted, was that he had called for the Police Office to be torn down, “in breach of the peace, and in open violation of the laws of the land, in the pursuit of a very wicked purpose, namely, the demolition of the house in which the Magistrates administered the justice of the country, and the destruction of the Magistrates themselves…”

Eyers was convicted of murder on the 9th January 1799, and sentenced the following Monday morning to be hanged.

Despite – or because of – the riot and resulting deaths, the success of the police force in reducing theft on the docks was enough to guarantee the Marine Police’s future. After its first year, Colquhoun reported that the force had “established their worth by saving £122,000 worth of cargo and by the rescuing of several lives”.

The government passed the Marine Police Bill on 28 July 1800, transforming it from a private to public police agency – making official the police as a centralised, armed, and uniformed cadre of the state. Colquhoun later published a book on the experiment, The Commerce and Policing of the River Thames. It found receptive audiences far outside London, and inspired similar forces in places in other countries, notably, New York City, Dublin, and Sydney.

Historians of policing credit Colquhoun’s innovation as a critical development towards the creation Robert Peel’s “new” police three decades later. Along with the Bow Street Runners, the Marine Police Force was eventually absorbed by the Metropolitan Police in the 19th century. Colquhoun’s utilitarian approach to the problem – using a cost-benefit argument to obtain support from businesses standing to benefit – allowed him to achieve what previous magistrates had failed – for instance the Bow Street detectives. Unlike the stipendiary system at Bow Street, the river police were full-time, salaried officers prohibited from taking private fees.

The Marine Police Force continues to operate at the same Wapping High Street address. In 1839 it merged with the Metropolitan Police Force to become Thames Division; and is now the Marine Support Unit of the Metropolitan Police Service.

 

This week in London radical history, 1831: riots break out as House of Lords reject the Reform Bill

The long campaign for reform of the British political system went through many phases, especially in the 19th century. Between 1830 and 1832 a powerful agitation for political change revived, following a decade in which post-Peterloo repression and a measure of economic stability had left pressure on this front relatively quiet. This period marks an almost unique phase in the evolution of the franchise, as the middle and working classes formed a brief alliance, a broadly shared goal – parliamentary representation for unrepresented towns.

A cartoon satirising upper class opposition to reform.

During the 1820s, after the Napoleonic Wars, an upsurge of reform movements had been frustrated by government repression, leading to outbreaks of mass violence such as the Spa Fields Riot, attempts at insurrection like the Pentrich Uprising, vicious official responses like the Peterloo Massacre, and clandestine plots such as the Cato Street Conspiracy. Following these turbulent years, many radical energies instead went into the free thought ideas of Richard Carlile, into Owenite socialism and co-operation, into the ‘war of the unstamped press’. After 1830, though, campaigns for political reform grew up again, to become more powerful than even previous waves of battles for reform.

Many reform associations and political unions were launched, often by veterans of the 1816-20 reform wave. Many who had been seen as ultra-radicals then had become solidly liberal and respectable, seeking moderate reform and representation for newly-confident manufacturing towns, as well as free trade. In Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, for example, Whig-liberal merchants and manufacturers (predominantly from Dissenting religious backgrounds) had become increasingly wealthy and influential economically, because of massive growth in industries like textiles; they posed a more serious challenge to the power of the Tory-Anglican local elites, in a way that they had been unable to do in the 1790s or 1810s.

The early 1830s saw three main phases of agitation:
– the initial formation of political unions across the country, to support the introduction of Earl Grey’s first reform bill in March 1831;
– a wave of meetings, petitions and riots following the House of Lords’ rejection of the bill on 8 October 1831,
– finally, the tumultuous passage of Lord John Russell’s reform bill from March to the ‘days of May’ in 1832.

By 1830 two major constitutional changes affecting the franchise had already been made by the Tories: the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, which had prevented members of non-conformist protestant churches from voting or holding office, and the passing of Catholic Emancipation, removing bars on Catholic participation in public life. Both these pieces of legislation were put through parliament by the Duke of Wellington’s Tory government with the assistance of Robert Peel, his leader in the House of Commons.

But after being re-elected prime minister in 1830, the Duke of Wellington made a speech early in November pledging not only not to introduce any measure for parliamentary reform but also to oppose any reform proposals. This enraged reformers:

“The Duke of Wellington made a speech in the Lords, and declared against Reform. I hear he was hissed, and hurt by a stone. I heard this evening that a very unpleasant feeling was rising among the working classes, and that the shopkeepers in the Metropolis were so much alarmed that they talked of arming themselves.” John Cab Hobhouse (diary entry, 4th November, 1830)

London saw an upsurge in pro-reform demonstrations, which erupted into rioting.

Wellington was forced to resign shortly after. Earl Grey formed a Whig ministry which pledged to introducing a Reform Bill and he asked Lord John Russell to prepare the legislation. On 1 March 1830 the Bill was presented to the House of Commons, passing its second reading by only one vote at the end of the month. The government was then defeated on an amendment to the Bill and Grey resigned. This led to more rioting. The ensuing general election was fought solely on the question of reform and saw the return of the Whigs with a massive majority. Grey took this to be a mandate for continuing with the reform proposals.

Since the first Bill had not passed through all the required stages of debate and vote, committee and discussion by the time the parliamentary session had ended in the summer of 1831, Russell had to introduce a new Bill in the new session. On 22nd September 1831, the House of Commons passed the Reform Bill.

Reform Bill rally, Birmingham

However it was defeated by forty-one votes in the House of Lords on 8 October 1831. The House of Lords was dominated by the Tories, led by the Wellington; the Lords deliberately rejected the Bill because the legislation included curtailing the power that the Lords previously had exercised over the election of MPs.

The defeat of the Bill was greeted with dismay across the country: “On the morning of the 8 Oct. 1831 I was compelled to go down to Gravesend by the Steamer and thence to Chatham. Before I started I obtained in the City a copy of the Sun Newspaper published at half past 6 o clock, fringed with black, and announcing the loss of the peoples bill in the house of Lords by the frightful majority of 41. Never shall I forget the excitement which prevailed in the breast of every one at hearing the news. The morning papers were not out, the boat was crowded and the passengers were conversing in groups on the deck on rumours which had reached their ears. I was the only person on board who possessed anything like an authentic account, and, when the paper with a black border was seen in my hand, the passengers rushed towards me, I was instantly mounted on a chair and compelled to read the debate through from beginning to end. The excitement, the disapprobation, and approbation of the several speakers were as energetic as they could have been had they been the actual spectators of the scene which the report described…” (Mr Powell)

According to the Westminster radical tailor, moderate activist (and Home office informant) Francis Place, it spurred an immediate agitation in the capital:
“Meetings were held on the Saturday (October 8th) in many of the Metropolitan Parishes and many more were called for the Monday. The Parish of Mary-le-bone had taken the lead respecting parliamentary interference for the regulation of vestries, and had succeeded in inducing a considerable number of parishes to appoint deputies to confer together in their mutual interests, the persons who in that parish had assembled frequently appointed a committee to watch over their interests and this committee now considered themselves a political committee in respect to the reform bill. They assembled and being joined by a considerable number of the inhabitants they issued the following notice.

The Lords have rejected the bill. England expects every man will do his duty.

The parishioners of Mary-le-Bone will assemble at the Horse Bazaar at twelve o’clock on Monday next, to address the King, support his ministers and consult on the present state of affairs. Pursuant to a resolution passed at two preparatory meetings, the inhabitants are desired to devote Monday next solemnly to these objects, to suspend all business and shut up their shops.”

This call out became a huge demonstration on Monday 10th October, demanding reform, which marched in procession from Whitehall to Hyde Park:

“Long before the time appointed the capacious square of the Horse Bazaar was not only filled but an immense number of persons—said to amount to 30,000 could not gain admittance. A call became general to adjourn to Hyde Park and it was announced that Mr Hume who had agreed to take the chair would meet them there. An orderly procession of the people immediately took place and an immense number, estimated at 50,000 congregated in the open space north of the Serpentine River. They had come nearly a mile to this spot and had waited some time when two gentlemen on horseback rode among them and told them that Mr Hume thought the meeting would be illegal if held out of the Parish and as Mr Maberly had granted the use of a piece of ground in Regents Park they requested the meeting would assemble there as speedily as possible. ‘If any thing,’ observes the Chronicle (very justly)

could have cooled the ardour of the people, who however proved themselves as ardent as patriotic, it was this demand upon their patience after waiting above an hour at the Bazaar, and dragging through the Park for an hour more; but nothing daunted they proceeded in good humour, to the Regents Park and arrived there between one and two o’clock. Several waggons were placed at the lower part of the grounds and the assembled multitude which before the chair was taken must have amounted to 80,000 persons formed themselves on the rising ground into a sort of semi-circle and the wind being in their faces, the majority could hear the proceedings.

Mr Hume took the Chair..

Large Placards were exhibited, one was ‘Englishmen – Remember it was the Bishops—and the Bishops only whose votes decided the fate of the Reform Bill’

The other was—

‘England expects that every man will do His Duty’

Mr Hume—said it was no ordinary occasion which had called them together, and in the great and important measures they were about to discuss, every man from the King to the Peasant had a deep interest. He knew they would act peacably and orderly, and would not despair, as long as they had a Patriot King, a liberal ministry, and a majority in favour of the measure. They would tell the petty pitiful majority of the house of Lords that they had rights as Englishmen as sacred as their own and that an oligarchy which had usurped their rights should be compelled to relinquish their tyrannical power which they had so long exercised against the people. He respected the words of Lord Grey that he would stand by the people and the King so long as the King gave him his confidence, said he reposed confidence in his sincerity, and though ministers had not been so active in promoting the bill as they ought to have been, he hoped they would profit by experience and not coquet with the Tories, since it was vain to expect the tories could be induced to approve of measures favourable to the people. He said there must be either reform or revolution (immense cheering and cries of we will have it). It was because in case of a revolution the working and useful classes would be the greatest sufferers that he wished to effect a reform by constitutional means and hoped to avoid such a revolution as the Duke of Wellington wished should take place. He knew the people would not be drawn in to commit acts of violence (no—no) they would protect the property of the country (we will).”

Among those who had organised the procession were the leaders of the National Union of the Working Classes, the London-based radical organisation. 

Place estimated that around 70,000 people attended, many wearing the white scarves emblematic of manhood suffrage. Although these were impressive numbers, they compared poorly with larger a demonstration in the following days at Birmingham, drawn too from a smaller population.

The procession of October 1831 was mainly composed (it seems) of ‘shopkeepers and superior artisans’, and remained peaceful.

However, rioting broke out in London later in the week:

“It was in allusion to the rejection of the Reform Bill in the month of October 1831 by the House of Lords, that the popular feeling was most strongly exhibited. Many of the newspapers, which announced the result of the division in the House of Lords, were put into mourning, and a feeling of the deepest and most melancholy foreboding soon spread itself throughout the country. The fate of the Reform Bill became speedily known, and on the Monday following (10th) marks of unequivocal sorrow and disgust exhibited themselves. In the metropolis circulars were distributed in every parish, calling meetings; all business appeared suspended; and the shops in all directions were either partially or totally closed. Mourning flags were exhibited from the houses, accompanied by placards, in which the bishops, who had formed a considerable portion of the majority against the bill, presented a source of prolific censure. In King-street, Seven-dials, the effigy of the Duke of Wellington was burned; and, in Tottenham-court-road, a placard was exhibited at a shop, announcing that arms might be had, to be paid for by instalments. On the part of the government, every precaution was taken for the preservation of the public peace. Troops were marched into London, and stationed so as to be ready to be called into immediate activity in case of necessity; ball-cartridges were distributed, and everything was done which prudence could suggest for the maintenance of order. Numerous meetings were held in the course of the week, at which the most enthusiastic determination was exhibited; and every means was adopted by the people to throw disgrace and discredit upon those by whom their wishes had been opposed. The Duke of Wellington, and other noble peers who had distinguished themselves by their opposition to the bill, were roughly greeted, and were pelted on their way to the House of Lords. The Duke of Cumberland was also nearly receiving much ill-usage from a mob assembled in the Park.

On Wednesday (the 12th of October), the king held a levee at St. James’s Palace, at which an immense number of addresses was presented. The trades’ unions assembled in vast mobs in the neighbourhood of the palace, accompanied by their flags and other insignia, and some violence was done by the mob. The residence of the Marquis of Bristol, in St. James’s-square, was made the object of an attack by them. Many of the windows were dashed in, and a considerable quantity of valuable effects destroyed; but fortunately there were many well-disposed persons in the vicinity, by whom the police were assisted, and the rioters dispersed. The mob, however, had been no sooner driven from here, than they proceeded at once to the residence of the Duke of Wellington, Apsley House, Piccadilly. This was, in turn, made the object of an assault even more severe and determined than that of the Marquis of Bristol. At about half-past two o’clock in the day, several parties were seen to approach the residence of his grace, and the foremost of the gang threw a few stones at the windows, and sent forth the most horrible yells. Some of the servants belonging to the establishment came forward and presented pistols at the mob assembled; but this only served to increase their anger. A volley of stones was instantly hurled at their supposed assailants; and a cry being raised of “They are going to fire on us — now let us go to work,” an instant attack was commenced on the mansion. Stones flew in showers on the house, and not a dozen panes of glass were left undemolished, while many valuable pictures inside were utterly ruined, and the furniture was destroyed. The police at first were in small numbers upon the spot, but a reinforcement having arrived from the Vigo-street Station-house, a vigorous attack on the mob was commenced. The employment of their staves, and the determination which was exhibited by the constables, served, in a very material degree, to drive away the assembled crowd; and, of those who were taken into custody, all were of the lowest class — showing that their object was rather mischief or depredation, than the assertion of a principle, or the maintenance of a right. At about seven o’clock in the evening, a new attempt to get up a riot was made by a mob of two or three hundred persons, who were met on their way through Piccadilly towards St. James’s Palace; but a speedy stop was put to their proceedings by the police, who had assembled in large bodies to repel any such new effort as might be made.”

However, the trouble in London was piecemeal at best compared with the response to the defeat of the Reform Bill in other parts of the country. Serious rioting took place in Bristol, Nottingham and Derby.

Rioting in Bristol, October 1831

Rioting took place in Bristol after the arrival of anti-reform judge Charles Wetherell in the city for the annual assizes on 29 October. Wetherell’s carriage was attacked and civic and military authorities lost control of the situation. There followed two days of rioting and looting in which much of the city centre was burned and prisoners freed from the jails. The riots were brought to an end on 31 October by which time £300,000 of damage had been caused and up to 250 casualties incurred.  A dozen people were killed and hundreds wounded or arrested. The Bristol riot was probably the most violent and widespread outbreak of working class violence in 19th century British history…

At Derby violence also broke out, after apparent provocation by “indecent and insulting ebullition of joy manifested by a party of those who were opposed to the Reform Bill. The bells of the churches had been tolling during the whole of Saturday evening, the news having reached the town by express at an early hour on that day, and a number of persons, amounting to a considerable crowd, having assembled at the coach-offices, awaiting the arrival of the London coaches, in order that their fears might be set at rest, they were assailed with laughter and other uncalled-for insults by their political opponents. The consequence was a retaliation on their part, which terminated in an attack upon the houses of those who had made themselves unpopular by their conduct. The windows of many of these houses were demolished, and the persons of some of their owners subjected to violence; but at length a considerable number of the rioters were taken into custody. This served only to increase their anger, and an attack being made upon the jail, the whole of the prisoners were liberated. The mob in turn were assailed by the keeper of the prison and his assistants, with fire-arms, and the result was that three of their number were killed. The soldiery were then called out, and tranquillity was at length with some difficulty restored.” The Jail in nearby Markeaton was also attacked.

Rioting also broke out in Nottingham on 9 October upon learning of the defeat of the bill. This was initially directed solely against the private houses of known opponents of reform. On 10 October a public meeting turned to violence, the attendees marched on Colwick Hall, home of John Musters, which was damaged. The next day the mob burned Nottingham Castle, home of anti-reform peer Henry Pelham-Clinton, 4th Duke of Newcastle, who was away at parliament. Lowe’s Silk Mill in Beeston was burnt on 11 October, the same day the riots ceased. The Duke was able to gather yeomanry and his own tenants to successfully defend his residence at Clumber Park.

There were other violent incidents: the Manchester Chronicle noted that since the Manchester meeting, ‘symptoms of disorder and tumult have been manifested each evening in the vicinity of New Cross, by the assemblage of numerous bodies of men’. On the Friday evening a crowd ‘demolished the windows of the residence of Hugh Hornby Birley Esq, Mosley Street’ and the cavalry were called to suppress the riot. Birley, had been hated seen his involvement in the repression at Peterloo 12 years before.

There was also agro in Carlisle, Leicester, Yeovil, Sherborne, Exeter, Bath and Worcester.

After this truculent response to the defeat of the Bill, Earl Grey was reluctant to provoke more division by ask parliament to discuss the issue of reform yet again; but Thomas Attwood and other leaders of the Political Unions organised a huge campaign to demand the passing of the legislation. Grey tried to defuse the situation by agreeing to the introduction of a third Reform Bill.
This third Bill again passed the Commons, and proceeded to the Lords on 26 March 1832. The Lords threatened to reject it again, so Grey resigned on 9th May 1832. Wellington attempted to form a ministry but was could not gain the support of leading tory MPs, including Robert Peel. King William IV sent again for Grey, who agreed to resume office but only on the condition that the king would create enough new Peers in the House of Lords to guarantee the passage of the Bill.

Whilst the politicians argued and bargained, there was further rioting. The Duke of Wellington eventually recognised the necessity of the Bill passing, and ordered the Tory Lords either to vote for the Bill or to absent themselves from the session when the vote was taken. Over two hundred Tory Lords didn’t turn up for the vote and the Bill passed through the House of Lords on 7 June 1832.

Although the legislation is often referred to as the “Great Reform Act” its terms – although far reaching at the time – were really quite moderate, and did not satisfy the huge demand for change that had been building for decades. A. L. Morton, the author of A People’s History of England (1938) argued that the most import change was that it placed “political power in the hands of the industrial capitalists and their middle class followers.” Voting in the urban boroughs was restricted to men who occupied homes with an annual value of £10; there were also property qualifications for people living in rural areas. After the  Act, still only one in seven adult males had the vote. It added some 217,000 to an electorate of 435,000 in England and Wales – an increase of about 50%. But 650,000 electors in a population of 14 million were a small minority. Nor were the constituencies of equal size – another crucial demand for many reformers. Whereas 35 constituencies had less than 300 electors, Liverpool had a constituency of over 11,000.

Caricature of the political situation in May 1832: John Bull (representing public opinion) helps Earl Grey against the Duke of Wellington and King William IV.

It has been suggested subsequently that Britain was close to revolution during the reform crises of the early 1830s, both in the autumn of 1831 and in the ‘days of May’ of 1832. Could a British revolution anticipated the revolutions of 1848 and the Paris Commune?

Contemporary commentators thought the country was on the tipping point. Edward Littleton, then a Whig MP, commented in his diary that the country was “in a state little short of insurrection”,while the Anglican clergyman Sydney Smith later described a “hand-shaking, bowel-disturbing passion of fear”.(which should really be the bottom line for how the ruling classes should always be reacting to working class collective action…) Fears among the wealthy that a general uprising was imminent, triggered a rush of gold withdrawals from the Bank of England in May 1832.

This fear was apparently shared by the Queen, whose “fixed impression, is that an English revolution is rapidly approaching, and that her own fate is to be that of Marie Antoinette” Sadly not. Some historians agree: E. P. Thompson wrote that “in the autumn of 1831 and in the ‘Days of May’ Britain was within an ace of revolution” and Eric Hobsbawm felt that “This period is probably the only one in modern history … where something not unlike a revolutionary situation might have developed.”

The more radical elements in the country had denounced the limited range of the Reform Bill from the beginning, and until

the winter of 1831-2, some had refused to engage in agitation around the Bill; lecturers in Carlile’s Rotunda labelled the Bill a ‘trap’ designed to split and betray the radical movement. The Poor Man’s Guardian ridiculed the whole Bill. But as the diehard reactionary establishment resisted any reform, it pushed the country to the threshold of mass upheaval, and the radicals became drawn in. The Poor Man’s Guardian adjusted its tactics and published a special supplement featuring extracts from Colonel Macerone’s Defensive Instructions for the People (a manual for street-fighting). By early 1832, National Union of the Working Classes ultra-radicals like William Benbow and Julian Hibbert were preparing for an armed struggle.

The Midlands and the north were in ferment: “Walk into any lane or public-house, where a number of operatives are congregated together,” wrote John Doherty “and listen for ten minutes to the conversation . . . In at least seven out of every ten cases, the subjects of debate will be found to bear upon the appalling question of whether it would be more advantageous to attack the lives or the property of the rich…”

In May 1832, during the ‘eleven days of England’s apprehension and turmoil’ which preceded the final passage, of the Bill through the Lords in May, Francis Place held his breath, anticipating uprising if the Bill did not pass and Wellington returned to power. On the evening of the day when it passed, he returned home and noted:

“We were within a moment of general rebellion, and had it been possible for the Duke of Wellington to have formed an administration the Thing and the people would have been at issue… There would have been ‘Barricadoes of the principal towns – stopping circulation of paper money’; if a revolution had commenced, it ‘would have been the act of the whole people to a greater extent than any which had ever before been accomplished”.

That none of the crisis points of the Reform Bill saga did lead to revolution, or even to any sustained revolt or uprising, probably boiled down at least in part to the unwillingness of a majority of reformist leaders to push that far. A large part of the Radical tradition (of which William Cobbett was the leading spokesman) was deeply constitutional, committed to peaceable methods of achieving change. The organised radicals prepared to use more direct tactics were in a minority. Whether or not riots could have been extended into insurrections if a more vocal leadership had been out there, in the various parts of the country, is unclear. Beyond a handful of cities the willingness of local populations to take to the streets was also limited. 

The spectrum within the reform movement, ranging from Parliamentary Whigs through middle class radicals to the NUWC, could bring temporary unity in demonstrations but little agreement as to methods and even ultimate aims. But leaders like Thomas Attwood wielded immense influence, and the middle-class Radicals cleverly assembled a program of reforms that offered a compromise which strengthened both the State and property-rights.

Influential radicals like Francis Place were as much concerned to prevent the NUWC and ‘extremists’ from gaining more traction and followers as they were to see the Bill pass. Place spent much effort undermining the NUWC and bolstering the National Political Union, by as underhand methods as he could get away with (including informing to the Home Office on radicals he considered ‘dangerous). How much did some of the moderate leaders exploit the threat of uprising and working class violence to get what they wanted, never intending to support anything wider?

But the adaptability of the British establishment was also a factor. The ability to cut the sails and compromise just enough to split the reform movement, to absorb and buy off the middle classes while giving nothing to the masses, marked the UK’s elite out of from the more rigid continental regimes. The ruling class bent so as not to break. Even the ultra-reactionary Wellington could see by May 1832 that some reform was inevitable.

The Reform Act left the many working class activists who had been arguing, agitating and rioting for change hugely disappointed. Unsurprisingly, many of the middle classes who had benefitted from the Act did not continue to campaign for an extension to the franchise. The growing working class political movements – radicals, Owenites, co-operators, trade unionists – reacted by beginning to rebuild their own movements for political reform, which was to give birth to Chartism.

Today in radical herstory, 1899: working class Suffragist Jessie Craigen dies

Jessie Craigen (c.1835-99) was a working-class activist and public speaker in the earlier phases of the movement for women’s suffrage in Britain. Craigen’s background was relatively unusual, in a movement which was at the time dominated by middle and upper-class activists. She was also a freelance (or ‘paid agent’) speaker in the campaigns for Irish Home Rule and the cooperative movement and against vivisection, compulsory vaccination, and the Contagious Diseases Acts.

 Her background is somewhat obscure. Her father was said to be Scottish, possibly a seafarer, who died when she was an infant; her mother was sometimes described as an Italian actress, and she was described in a newspaper of 1866 as a ‘Scotch lady’, though a few years later she claimed to have been born in London.

As a child, after her father’s early death, under her mother’s influence she apparently appeared on the stage from the age of four, which may have helped her acquire the skills and the confidence for her later career in public speaking.

She began in the late 1850s giving readings from plays and recitations, before moving onto delivering orations at temperance meetings, and was described on one such occasion in 1861 as a ‘clever Quakeress’ Craigen moved around the UK, living variously in Retford, Nottinghamshire and Bristol in the 1870s and ‘80s. She made a living as a paid ‘Lecturer on Social Subjects’. 

By December 1868, she was addressing suffrage meetings. A newspaper reporter wrote in 1869 at Alnwick, Northumberland, that her talks were well attended, but added with typical male snobbery, that this was because a lady lecturer was a novelty, and he recalled Dr Johnson’s comments on the subject,
… a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.’ Even by the standards of late nineteenth century England this was misogynistic, as well as increasingly inaccurate.

“The earliest published reference so far found regarding her association with the suffrage movement refers to a series of meetings she held at the end of 1870, in the north of England.  Such speaking tours were a recent innovation, for few suffragists had yet found the courage to undertake public speaking of such a kind and on this scale. She was not, however, a regular employee of the suffrage movement, nor, at this point, did she take direction from any suffrage society. This was work which she herself initiated and managed, travelling the length and breadth of Britain, accompanied only by her dog, Tiny. During these tours she held impromptu, outdoor meetings as she saw fit, and collected petitions which she then sent to London headquarters, requesting only the occasional five-pound note to cover her living expenses. By such means, she was able to reach audiences not usually addressed by the middle-class leadership of the movement during its set-piece public meetings in the halls of the larger cities.” (Sandra Stanley Holton)

She is recorded as speaking on behalf of women’s rights between 1868 and 1884. Her main supporters were the radical suffragists Priscilla Bright McLaren, Lilias Ashworth Hallett and the Quaker sisters Anna Maria and Mary Priestman, all part of closely knit family and political networks which were highly influential in Liberal circles.

Although the womens’ suffrage movement had largely arisen from individuals of the well-to-do classes, a number of these had come to realise the necessity of gaining support from the working classes.

Feminist and campaigner for women’s rights, Helen Blackburn described Jessie Craigen as a ‘strange erratic genius’ who spoke with a tone like a ‘mighty melodious bell’, recalling that she planned and carried out her tours by herself, travelling all over the kingdom from John O’Groats to Lands End, accompanied only by a dog. Blackburn also attributed Craigen’s renown as a speaker to her ‘magnificent voice’, with which she was able to gather audiences and hold them riveted, ‘from miners in Northumberland… and fishers in Cornwall… to agricultural labourers in the market-places of country towns’… “Lecturing always in the open air, at the pit’s mouth, in market places”, her method was to hire a bellringer to attract an audience and then “mount on a chair, a cart, or barrel” to speak. She found her audiences “amongst the miners in Cornwall, the agricultural labourers of Dorsetshire, the colliers of South Wales, the factory hands of Lancashire and Yorkshire, the miners of Durham and the north”. She became one of the first advocates for women’s suffrage – if not the first – to be arrested for publicly speaking out for the cause.

Descriptions of Jessie Craigen focus relentlessly on her appearance, and all agree that by conventional standards of beauty dominant at the time (and today) she was not physically attractive (unsurprisingly few accounts of men spend anything like a similar amount of time calling attention to their physical attractiveness…) Jessie was called ugly, short, stout, and badly-dressed in old and unfashionable clothes. However, pretty much everyone agreed that she was a fantastic public speaker.

The early Marxist writer and politician Henry Hyndman wrote (in his usual patronising posh way):

“Jessie Craigen was ugly, self-taught, roughly attired, and uncouth in her ways. Yet all this was soon overlooked when once the lady began to speak…She came forward, dumped down on the table in front of me an umbrella, a neck wrapper, and a shabby old bag. Then she turned round to face the audience. She was greeted with boisterous peals of laughter. No wonder! Such a figure of fun you never saw. It was Mrs. Gamp come again in the flesh – umbrella, corkscrew curls and all. There she stood with a battered bonnet on her straggling grey hair, with a rough shawl pinned over her shoulders, displaying a powerful and strongly marked and somewhat bibulous physiognomy, with a body of portly development and as broad as it was long… In two minutes the whole audience was listening intently; within five she had them in fits of laughter, this time not at her but with her. A little later tears were in every eye as she told some terribly touching story of domestic suffering, self-sacrifice, and misery. So it went on. This ungainly person was producing more effect than all the rest of the speakers put together.”

 By 1879 Craigen was appearing on platforms with the principal figures of the suffrage movement. She had, at this point, been taken up by a network of radical suffragists, formed by the kinship and friendship circles of women of the Bright family. An upsurge in suffrage campaigning began at the end of the 1870s in anticipation of a new Reform Bill, she organised meetings in the market squares and outside the local works of the small towns and villages of the north, in preparation for a major demonstration in the Free Trade Hall, Manchester in February 1880. Lydia Becker reported to Priscilla Bright McLaren a meeting that Jessie Craigen organised in one of the poorest wards in Manchester. It attracted an audience of some 600-700, “all poor working women”, who responded to the suffragists in ways to which Lydia Becker was quite unaccustomed: “If my eyes had been shut I should have fancied it was men who were cheering and clapping; the applause was as hearty and strong as at a men’s meeting”. This contact with working women took on something of a conversion-experience for Lydia Becker: “to see them look at me – oh, it was really sacred – awful; it was as if I received a baptism”.

On 3 February 1880 Craigen spoke at a ‘Great Demonstration of Women’ in the Manchester Free Trade Hall, alongside such luminaries as Mrs McClaren, Lydia Becker and Josephine Butler. One eye-witness recalled it as “a night never to be forgotten”. The dense crowd wishing to take part was almost entirely of women, some of whom were said to have walked 10, even 20, miles to attend. An overflow meeting had to be organised nearby, with Margaret Bright Lucas presiding, and even then thousands, it was claimed, were turned away. Priscilla Bright McLaren chaired the main meeting and reminded her audience that they were present in a hall built “in the cause of freedom”. Jessie Craigen’s contribution came at the end of the meeting, when she roused the audience to new heights of enthusiasm, “sending forth a voice that pealed like a sonorous bell over the vast multitude … till every one had risen from their seats in one united burst of cheering”.

Subsequently, she became one of the attractions in a series of major demonstrations which was organised in each of the larger cities around the British Isles by Priscilla Bright McLaren and her friend, Alice Scatcherd.

Craigen was also associated with the beginnings of the Women’s Protective and Provident League in 1874, forming a women’s union among the jute-workers of Dundee which survived for several decades. She also helped organise opposition for the Contagious Diseases Acts among working-class women, and she remained active on animal rights until the end of her life.

Coming from a very different social backgrounds to many of the speakers and organisers she was associating with seems to have caused awkwardness; women like Craigen, who took payment for her lecturing, were generally looked down on and considered on the same terms as personal servants by the middle-class activists who dominated the suffrage movement. Class position was everything at the time, and the attempt of suffrage activists to break down barriers barring women from playing a part in public life did not mean that similar barriers for the working class were necessarily intended to also be challenged. Sandra Stanley Holton observes that Craigen “entered a movement formally committed to autonomy and self-realisation for women, yet met among some there with destructive expectations as to her own emotional and political subordination.” Her middle class allies found Craigen’s attitudes to money embarrassing – ie , they did not need to struggle to survive financially as she did – but her need for money also made her more dependent on wealthy backers. Her unconventional appearance led to her being increasingly seen as a liability by women who wanted their movement to present a more respectable and conventional face. 

The problems with her appearance reflect the superficial demand for a woman to present as attractive and well-dressed and to dismiss her if she does not conform to that – not exactly a dead dynamic today, but all-consuming in her era. Jessie Craigen was ‘unladylike’ – “large, ungainly, and, by the standards of many in the suffrage leadership, she dressed unsuitably. She was unrestrained in her expression of passions, both political and romantic.”

However, her undoubted abilities as a speaker and affinity with the ‘lower orders’ meant she was a valuable asset to the movement. The tension between these two perceptions of her led to what seems like farcical attempts to give her a makeover: certain of her middle-class sponsors attempted to spruce up her appearance, and it was to this end that she was kitted out in stately silk dresses and lavender kid gloves during her brief heyday as a suffrage speaker.” Others, however, felt that adopting these accoutrements would alienate the very plebs Craigen could appeal to,  making them feel she wasn’t like them (so presumably her shabby appearance should be encouraged? It’s difficult to know which group to feel greater contempt for here.)

In the early 1880s, Jessie Craigen was also heavily involved in the Ladies National Association, in the campaign for repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, legislation which allowed police officers to arrest women suspected of being prostitutes in certain ports and army towns. The women were then subjected to compulsory checks for venereal disease. If a woman was declared to be infected, she would be confined in what was known as a lock hospital until she recovered or her sentence finished. Many of the women involved in the suffrage movement were also active in opposition to these laws, on the grounds that they in effect legalised prostitution under police control. The opposition was based on a blending of morality – prostitution was sinful and should not be condoned by the law – and concern for the women involved, as the Acts opened them up to abuse and exploitation by male policemen. Their campaign was ultimately successful, and the Acts were repealed after three years of operation. Its basis in moral superiority aside, the campaign was one of the fist widespread successful political campaigns organised by women in Britain.

In 1881-2 Craigen formed a romantic friendship with the feminist and suffragist Helen Taylor, the daughter of Harriet Taylor Mill and stepdaughter of liberal theorist and philosopher John Stuart Mill. Taylor was heavily involved in the Irish Land League, often hosting Irish MP and activist Charles Parnell to her home, and she drew Craigen into this movement, to the point where Craigen dropped out of the suffrage movement for a while to work on Irish causes. Visiting Ireland, she in fact began to espouse more radical views on Irish freedom than Taylor, and the pair fell out (this seems to have been partly due to Taylor’s outrage that Craigen was thinking and acting independently from her influence…)

In the 1880s the women’s suffrage movement suffered splits and splintering of forces. Jessie Craigen was involved in fierce arguments as to whether married women should be included in the proposals for women to get the vote under the upcoming Reform Bill. More cautious and moderate elements suggested leaving married women out of any proposals; Craigen and other ‘radicals’ demanded married women not be excluded. Although with her involvement the radicals largely carried the day, in te end no women were enfranchised under the Reform Bill at all.

The movement’s failed to win any measure for women’s right to vote under the Third Reform Act of December 1884 led to a sharp decline in activity. Jesse Craigen’s position, as a paid agent speaker, became more difficult and she gradually faded from the women’s rights scene.

She continued to protest on behalf of other causes however, contributing an article to the Nineteenth Century Review against proposals to build a Channel Tunnel, and when speaking at an anti-vivisection, anti-vaccination demonstration in Chelsea, in April 1894, she was described (in the usual misogynist terms) as ‘a stout, elderly lady of dark complexion, with a stubby beard and a strong moustache…’  The mingling of  the anti-vaccination movement and animal rights sentiments here is interesting –progressive social views could also merge into quackery and anti-scientific hokum… However, of course, these days, such crossovers have died out. Oh wait…

The Local Government Act 1894 had created a system of urban and rural district councils, and had permitted women to be councillors. By this time Jessie Craigen was living in Ilford in East London. In December 1894, she stood as the only woman candidate in the election for Ilford Urban District Council, on behalf of the Women’s Liberal Association. She was unsuccessful, coming fourteenth out of seventeen candidates.

She died in her lodgings 2, Grove-villas, Ilford Lane, Ilford, Essex on 5 October 1899: local newspapers described her as a ‘well-known old maiden lady’ and ‘miser’, who had shared her house with fifteen dogs. Her obituary in the Zoophilist declared that “as a woman of the people, she exercised a great influence over the working classes… We shall miss her courageous and outspoken advocacy… her racy and eloquent speeches”.

Despite Jessie Craigen being a well-known figure in her time, no known photographs or even drawings of her survive; a reflection on her class background as much as her sex. Many lesser-known activists from more affluent backgrounds, and many more men, were recorded for posterity.
This lack of any pictorial record led illustrator Kate Taylor to do some sketches of how Jessie may have looked.

A point that Kate Taylor makes in her appreciation, “People who don’t fit a certain mold rarely make history books, no matter how much heavy lifting they do” is interesting and pertinent. Jessie Craigen spread the idea of women’s suffrage extremely effectively, to many people, using the skills and talents she had evolved; however, one undoubted aspects of the ethos of a large part of the ‘suffragist’ movement was a kind of cult of beauty. Great emphasis was placed in the art, imagery and pageantry of the movement on classically beautiful figures, expressing also a myth of feminine purity and radiance: mirrored by the vicious anti-suffragette propaganda which generally caricatured activists as ugly, overweight shrieking harpies with twisted features. Whether unconsciously influenced by the male depiction of them as ugly or not, much of the mainstream message of the suffrage movement was focussed on beauty. Jessie just didn’t fit the notions that many in the movement were trying to project, despite the attempts to pretty her up. She lived a bit too early for the later suffragette photo-art and tableau used in their printed propaganda – she probably wouldn’t have been allowed in. Were her unrespectable origins – part proletarian but even worse, part bohemian theatre (horror!) also a reason for her part in the movement herstory to be played down? Orthodox accounts of the movement, generally written after some women achieved the vote in 1918, barely mention her. Many of these also leave out or play down the importance of figures like Mary Wollstonecraft – too radical, in both her personal life and her revolutionary ideals, to fit in to the respectable image many in the suffrage movement wanted to build for feminism. Maybe, as Kate Taylor writes, they felt she “her “masculine” appearance gave critics evidence of what women would become if they gained the right to vote: unladylike, messy, unrestrained.”

Jessie Craigen’s name is recorded on the plinth of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London, unveiled in 2018.

Sandra Stanley Holton’s essay on Jessie Craigen is well worth a read.

Today in London’s military history, 1759: army recruits mutiny on the Savoy barracks

As covered in earlier posts on this blog, part of the old Savoy Palace building  – built in the thirteenth century for Edmund Earl of Lancaster, on land between the Strand and the river Thames  – was converted around 1679 into a barracks, which included a military prison, which particularly held any army deserters due to be shot in Hyde Park. Later the prison also seems to have been used to house civilian convicts.

Another group seemingly confined here, though as to how regularly is unclear, were ‘recruits’ destined to be shipped to India or other parts of the ‘far east’ to serve in the military forces commanded by the East India Company.

Whether recruited into the British Army (either voluntarily or pressganged) or into the East India Company’s own private militia, many of those billeted in the Savoy – fodder for Britain’s constant wars of imperial expansion  – quickly came to regret signing up, and the barracks were the site of regular mutinies and revolts in the 18th century.

In 1759 a riot of recruits had to be quelled by troops:

“About eight o’clock in the evening, the recruits in the Savoy mutinied: a guard was sent to quell them, who as first were ordered to fire only with powder; the recruits returned the compliment by throwing brickbats, which knocked several of he soldiers down; they were then ordered to fire with ball, which wounded several of the recruits, and put a stop to the fray. But unhappily one Jones, belonging to the third regiment of foot guards, getting upon the leads of the prison to see the affair, and looking down, was taken for one of the prisoners by the sentinel, who immediately shot at him, and the ball went through his head, and killed him on the spot. Nine of the men were dangerously wounded, and eighteen more of the put in irons.” (Annual Register, 1759)

In 1761 over 200 (possibly military) prisoners held in the Savoy mutinied, and a considerable battle developed.
1763 saw a revolt by East India Company troops stationed here.

In 1776 there was another mutiny.

In 1798 military prisoners rebelled & rioted for several days.

The site of the prison and palace was cleared from 1816-1820 for the construction of the approach to the new Waterloo Bridge.

 

 

Today in London striking herstory, 1995: Hillingdon Hospital cleaners strike against casualisation

‘We’ve met people from all over the world who are supporting us: from Russia, India, South Africa, America, Germany – even Winnie Mandela! They know we are low-paid workers. They know we are mostly Asian workers. But the point isn’t that we’re Asian, black, white, women or whatever. This is a struggle of workers against greedy bosses.’

The Hillingdon Hospital Strike began on October 1st, 1995 when 56 domestic and catering workers were sacked by private contractor Pall Mall for refusing to accept a £40 per week wage cut.

The strike continued for five years.

On October 30, 2000, UNISON shop steward Malkiat Bilku led her members back to work on their original terms and conditions with no victimisations, having also won maximum compensation for unfair dismissal.

The women were ‘outsourced’ in 1986. In September 1985 at the civic centre, the District Health Authority had voted to privatise the Hospital cleaning service, with the loss of 213 jobs.

Hillingdon was one of the first private contracts after St Helier, Hammersmith to be forced through by the Tory government.

This had not taken place without any resistance – for instance a One Day strike organised by COHSE and NUPE had taken at Hillingdon Hospital on 23rd May 1985, in protest at the hospital’s privatisation programme and in support of strikers at Barking hospital.

Hillingdon Hospital Management had put a vote to domestic staff – asked them either to lose their bonus or be privatised. The staff voted overwhelmingly against cutting their bonus.

After privatisation, some 320 ‘domestic’ staff at the Hillingdon Hospital found themselves employed not directly by the NHS, but by private contractor ICC Hospital Services Ltd. ICC took over the contract from February 1st 1986.

A series of NHS reforms had been introduced by the Thatcher Government – it was still politically inadvisable to launch a frontal assault on the principles of the NHS itself – which imposed the ‘contracting out’ of specific services, like catering and cleaning, to the lowest bidders in the private sector. ‘They thought that the people could do more work for less wages,’ said Malkiat Bilku. In the process the staff lost sick pay, bonus and pension rights.

In 1989 another company, Initial, took over the contract and cut working hours. The number of staff fell to 220, though the work remained the same. Then, in 1994, the contract was passed on again, this time to Pall Mall, part of the Davies Group international conglomerate, which proposed a 20 per cent wage cut.

Greater ‘efficiency’ at the Hillingdon Hospital was being paid for straight out of the purses of these women – already among the lowest-paid in the country. To increase its efficiency still further, the hospital also announced that it would refuse admission to patients aged over 75.

Then Pall Mall went one step further. The company demanded the women’s passports – an intimidatory move, questioning their immigration status – and presented individuals with new contracts. ‘They told us, if you don’t sign this, you’ve got no job,’ said Malkiat Bilku. ‘We’d already had our wages cut, we’d already been transferred to a private company. We did not refuse to work. We did not even ask for more money. We did not ask for anything. And they asked for our passports and they wanted to force us to accept.’

In May 1995, Pall Mall announced that they were bringing in multi-skilling, intended to cut wages by what amounted to £40 a week, and change working conditions.

The 53 women refused to sign the new contracts and were duly locked out. In October 1995 the strike began, reluctantly supported by their union, Unison. Subsequent negotiations between Unison officials and Pall Mall produced a cash offer of $500 for each of the women as ‘compensation’ for the loss of their jobs.

The membership had voted for action, but the union officials did not call a strike, so the strike started off as an ‘unofficial’ action on October 1st, 1995.

The strikers had to battle with the trade union leaders for nine weeks to force them to make it official. UNISON organised a national demonstration on October 21, 1995 and Hillingdon strikers went along.

They fought to place themselves at the front of the march, as they were leading the fight in the NHS against the privateers, defying the stewards, who tried to physically remove them. At the rally in Kennington, the demonstration demanded that strike leader Malkiat Bilku be allowed to address them, which she did.

There were many demonstrations and marches that the strikers participated in. They organised two lobbies of the UNISON headquarters to demand their strike be made official. At one, where the NEC was meeting, the strikers occupied the building until the then General Secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe came down to speak to them.

Finally on November 17 1995, the UNISON Industrial Action Committee was forced to make the strike official. At the 1996 National Delegate Conference, a resolution was carried unanimously which said that the Hillingdon strike would be supported by the union until the remaining 53 strikers won their jobs back on their old terms and conditions.

But the trade union leaders resisted all calls for national action to win the Hillingdon struggle, while boasting that the strike had stopped Pall Mall cutting wages in their other NHS contracts. The irony being that, largely because of its behaviour at Hillingdon, Pall Mall had been losing numerous NHS contracts – much to the benefit of those who might otherwise have had to work for them, but not of the strikers themselves.

The strike remained official until January 16, 1997, when UNISON declared that the strike was over and told the strikers to accept the Pall Mall offer of £6,000 compensation as this was the best they would get and further, that they would not win their Industrial Tribunal.

They did allow a ballot but, as far as they were concerned, the strike was over!

Everything was being rushed through as a general election was coming in May, and they wanted the struggle out of the way so as not to ‘embarrass’ Labour. However, the strikers rejected the offer, insisting that they would continue until they got their jobs back and the Industrial Tribunal must proceed as well.

On January 16, the strikers lobbied the UNISON head office again where they found two rows of police armed with batons guarding the door of the head office.

At a strike meeting the following Sunday morning they resolved to fight back, continue their strike, and defy the UNISON leadership.
They would not return until they had won back their jobs, on the old terms and conditions.

A conference was called to announce their intention and in spite of the SWP and others, insisting that the strikers must accept the UNISON decision and call off their strike, the Conference overwhelmingly supported the strikers’ decision to continue their strike.

The strikers continued unofficially; they toured the country tirelessly for the next 18 months, winning huge support everywhere and raising enough money to pay £100 weekly strike pay to all the strikers.
They attended every demonstration and challenged Bickerstaffe and TUC General Secretary John Monks if they were there.

Just one month later, the Annual General Meeting of the London Region of UNISON voted to give £10,000 to the Hillingdon Strikers’ Support Campaign – a donation which was stopped by the UNISON leadership. They also tried to stop other branches and districts making donations.

Meanwhile, Pall Mall pulled out of Hillingdon Hospital and media giant Granada – a prominent money-spinner in the catering and media trades – took over the contract.
A High Court injunction was brought by the hospital against the strikers picketting outside the hospital, and refusing them entry. The strikers were forced to move from the hospital entrance but picketing continued (despite racist taunts directed at them from passers-by).

On the second anniversary of their strike, on October 1st, 1997, 3,000 people marched through Uxbridge, to a rally, on a working day, with a number of trade union leaders and MPs speaking at the rally.

In January 1998, the strikers won their appeal to the Employment Appeal Tribunal which meant that their claims for unfair dismissal by Pall Mall would now be heard.

Then at the UNISON conference in Bournemouth in 1998, in the last five minutes of the Conference, overcoming all the objections of Standing Orders and the attempt by the union’s bureaucracy to delay the resolution, the vast majority of the Conference voted for the emergency resolution which called to make the Hillingdon strike official again and restore their full membership.

The strike was once more back to being official, with national negotiations by the union to ‘ensure reinstatement’.

Then at their Employment Tribunal, Pall Mall admitted that they had wrongfully dismissed the hospital workers. Granada was left to meet the unfair dismissal claims.

The Tribunal ruled that the maximum compensation must be paid to all the strikers and that the employers should restore them back into their jobs at the hospital. Although this was carried, Granada did nothing. There were pickets of the Granada HQ to demand they take the workers back.

But Granada challenged the ruling and organised an appeal against this decision. Once again at the Employment Tribunal, Granada was defeated and the decision upheld. The strikers were paid maximum compensation and they also won the right to their jobs back at the hospital.

Every cynic said this would never happen but on October 30th 2000, Malkiat Bilku walked back into the hospital, to the first day back at her job after five years. She was subsequently elected as UNISON shop steward.

In 2004, she stood for the leadership of UNISON challenging for the position of General Secretary and received 30,000 votes.

Today in London financial history, 1613: North London’s New River opens – the earliest PFI?

Water, Moral Economy and the New River

North London’s New River was built between 1609 and 1613, in an attempt to alleviate, but also to cash in on, the shortage of water in the City of London.

Looking backwards, the development of piped water supplies, to replace wells and medieval conduits seems to us like an incontrovertibly progressive move. But not everyone was in favour at the time, especially those whose livelihoods were affected…

The digging of the New River subverted existing ‘moral economies’, which operated around water, its availability, and how it was delivered to where it was needed; undermining existing assumptions about the distribution of this vital resource, expectations shared by people from differing classes of society, with forms of exchange based on hard cash only. The New River’s creation was integral to the rise of capitalism, as it was then beginning to replace older forms of class relations – in fact how the river was financed was influential in that process.

But just as capitalism always finds ways to exploit natural resources, opening up markets and avenues for profit where none had previously existed, so the New River itself, and the shareholders’ dividends, were subverted, by locals who lived along its banks. Despite the New River Company’s determination to maintain control over its product – water – the new waterway was ‘unlawfully’ used during its whole existence, for the washing of clothes and bodies, for pleasure and as the centre of a disorderly social life.

…Nor any drop to drink…?

Water has always been a precious commodity, in London as everywhere else. For centuries, until the late Middle Ages, London had relied on supplies from the river Thames, smaller rivers like the Fleet or Walbrook, or from springs (of which a number could be found near to the City), or wells sunk into nearby areas of loam.

From the thirteenth century, as London began to grow rapidly in size and importance, these supplies became insufficient to support the increasing population and industry. Both the Thames and its main tributaries, especially the Fleet, running just to the west of the City wall, became also more and more polluted, since they served as both water supply AND drainage solution all in one. At any given point in the rivers, one lot of folk would be drawing water to drink, wash, clean, cook, while another would be emptying faces and urine, household waste, dead animal parts, blood, washing their clothes and themselves; there was also the dumping of refuse from ships in the Thames, run-off from the gutters in the streets… For centuries London authorities attempted (with varying success) to impose an effective control of this process, legislating as to what could be dumped, where, who was responsible for building toilets, regulating fines for littering the streets, polluting the streams, etc. In the fourteenth century the king, via the City officials, had issued a proclamation banning anyone from chucking rubbish, muck or human/animal waste into the Thames, the Fleet, and other City streams: “without throwing anything into the Thames for the saving of the body of the river . . . and also for avoiding the filthiness that is increasing in the water and upon the Banks of the Thames, to the great abomination and damage of the people.”

That so many orders were issued and fines imposed suggests they were often flouted; it’s also true that people had little alternative but to discharge waste into the rivers. There was no separate sewage system – until the mid-19th century.

The Walbrook, a small river which ran through the centre of the City, was the object of repeated clean-up campaigns and laws against dumping. These regulations though were often contradictory. By the early fourteenth century, individual toilets were built all along its banks, the stream acting as a sewer. Around 1345, those people caught with such facilities were forced to remove them. But by 1374, the authorities recognised people’s right to install privies over the Walbrook – only they were forced to pay for the right to do so, and later, as long as they dumped no other refuse into it. Eventually, however, all latrines over the stream were again abolished.

The Walbrook gradually disappeared under London as it grew and grew: by the seventeenth century, the Walbrook was completely hidden underground.

The official solution was to cart all such pollutants out of the city (and dump it elsewhere?!) or to places where it would be put in “dung boats”. Rakers (medieval bin-men) and gong-fermers (who cleaned cess-pools and gutters) bore the brunt of this enriching work.

On top of this, for the Thames, and the Fleet in its lower reaches, those drawing water had to be careful to take it at the right time in the ebb and flow of the tide; otherwise water used for cooking, ale-making etc could be too salty. One medieval complainant recorded that “the tide from the sea prevailed to such a degree that the water of the Thames was salt; so much so that many folks complained of the ale tasting like salt.”

Although the freedom of water had its place in moral ideology, (see below), there were always entrepreneurs ready to try it on for a quick buck. In 1343, residents living along the streets leading to the Thames tried to close the streets and extract a toll from everyone going to the river for water.

As a result of these issues, the Great Conduit was built (construction began in the mid-13th century). Pipes connected the spring at Tybourne with the Great Conduit House in Cheapside, from which the water flowed through pipes for a distance of a mile or more. At the terminus, the water was stored in a larger cistern equipped with cocks or taps for dispensing the water.

Later several other conduit systems were built, all fed by a natural spring, which supplied a cistern or tank, from which pipes were gradually dispersed the water to another conduit in the city.

Free as Conduit Water

These water conduits, so important to daily life before piped water, had become practically and symbolically central to the areas in which they were situated. They were places people had to go to, especially the poor, who could obtain no private water supply. They became centres of gossip, rumour, meeting points, where collective feeling and strength could become action and protest and riot could arise. A neighbourhood’s common interest was expressed here – collective sanctions against local ‘offenders’, petty crims and moral transgressors were often enacted around the conduit. The importance of water made the conduits representative of the moral economy of a neighbourhood. On top of this, water itself was subject to moral community constraints – it was seen as something that should be freely available: “free as conduit water” was a popular expression. Like bread, it was viewed as an essential; collective opposition to its commercial exploitation was common, and from this came regular direct action to maintain everyone’s recognised right to access to it.

They were also resorts of the young (especially young apprentices) and of women, as carrying water was seen their work. Apprentices resented being forced to carry water; but apprentice culture also built initiation rituals and bonding, mythology around the conduit. Women also clearly found conduits to be places to meet each other, discuss and maybe find common cause; Mark Jenner suggests this represented an alternative power centre maybe in some way, though counter to that, you’d have thought any piped water supply in their home would probably have made their work easier – if only in terms of less carrying to and fro. It has been claimed, though, that the increase in piped water supplies changed the nature of women’s work… piped water led to higher expectations of domestic cleanliness, which would have had a knock on effect on women’s domestic work. (A thorny question, to be sure; one contemporary feminist critic – this writer’s other half – ridicules the idea that lugging water from a tap in the street, no matter how many other women you might meet there, is in any way empowering. However… what makes actual work lighter can change the socialising rituals associated with traditional ways of doing that work… Obvious improvements can sometimes lead to, for instance, an isolation emerging from having a washing machine in your home, where the communal laundry might have meant meeting others, getting to know people, discussing, looking out for each other, and so on…)

The conduits became places with their own ritual – their inspection by city officials became heavily ritualised and potent. Punishments for various crimes were also often carried out near to conduits, and they were used as landmarks for giving directions, orienting you in the City.

Cockney ****in’ Tankards

Water was provided to individual households by water-carriers, sometimes known as “cobs,” which were paid to deliver water from the river or from conduits to customers. Some hawked water through the streets, in a large tankard on their shoulders; others would lug two 3-gallon wooden tubs hung from a yoke over their shoulders. The London tankard bearers or water carriers were an organised force, a fraternity who had their own guildhall in the 1490s, though they had to sell it in 1560 when the fraternity split between freemen and non-freemen. The ‘cobs’ campaigned actively around access to water and their right to carry it… sometimes using violence to maintain their rights, as they saw them, but rooting this firmly in an accepted moral framework.

Around 1600, a water bearers’ petition to Parliament reckoned the number of them and their dependents at 4000.

The petition called the authorities’ attention to some of the failings of the conduit system:

“. . . most of the water is taken, and kept from the said conduits in London by many private branches and cockes, and laid into private dwellings, being suffered also to runne at waste, to the general grievance of citizens, and all others repairing to the same…”

The water bearers complained of a number of specific cases of illicit connection to the conduits, which not only made the supply scarce but also deprived the cobs of part of their traditional livelihood. Apparently water scarcity at the conduits was leading to disputes between the carriers, jostling to fill their tankards before others in the queue:

“At the conduit striving for their turn_              
The quarrel it grows great_        
That up in arms they are at last_              
And one another beat.”

Where There’s a Quill…

The wealthy could obviously get around the hassle of collecting water from conduits (apart from the fact that they’d send their servants!). By the sixteenth Century those who could afford it usually paid water bearers to collect it for them – those who didn’t have their own wells could often pay to have a private pipe or ‘quill’ branched off the supplies to the City conduits. These big users would however often be targeted at times of water shortage, accused of hogging the flow of water or wasting it on frivolous pastimes… Private quills could be cut off by City officials, due to moral pressure exerted by the lower orders.

Beyond the class distinctions that caused obvious resentment, commercial and industrial users of water were also accused of misuse, or overuse, of the precious liquid… After much dispute, the City authorities decided to enforce peace at the taps, by appointing keepers of the conduits, whose main duty was to guard against water being hogged by commercial interests. In the early fourteenth century, an order was issued making brewers, cooks, and fishmongers pay for the water they used, at the discretion of the keeper of the conduit. (This presumably was a classic recipe for bribery, but there you go).

If the rich could, largely (though not always) legally, obtain an authorised quill, having running water piped direct to your home was so desirable that Londoners illegally tapped the conduits. In 1478, a man was brought before city officials and charged with having diverting water from a conduit where it passed his house into his private well. He was found guilty, and the nature of his punishment reflects the moral constraints on water use, which were expressed partly in the legal code, as well as informally. The culprit was “placed on horseback, with a vessel shaped like a conduit on his head. At each of the city’s conduits he was required to proclaim his crime while water from the vessel dripped over his face.”

…There’s A Riot

In 1547, during a time of water supply problems, two girdlers were imprisoned for gathering a crowd at the Cheapside Standard and issuing seditious words on the subject of water and how it was distributed. In 1561, an alleged plot by young men and water bearers to start a water riot, aimed at the destruction of the private quill of Lord Paget, which was popularly believed to have caused the Fleet Street conduit, to which it was connected, to dry up. The riot was prevented by local aldermen (the City of London councillors).

Gradually the moral economy around water distribution was eclipsed by new waterworks. The way these works were dreamt up and financed reflected the growth of capitalism and industrial development in sixteenth century England; technical innovation driven by increased need, population and industrial growth, combined with private finance and investment, in a manner relatively new to London.

As London’s size and population expanded, the city authorities grew more and more worried about how to balance the demand for water with its supply. But even more than today, the expense of beginning on large public works projects was huge, and they were reluctant to commit to such cost and effort. However, they were more amenable to allowing private individuals who were interested in making a profit to take the risk. “Capitalism had arrived in the water supply business.”

In 1574, Dutch hydraulics engineer Peter Morice was granted a lease of the northernmost arch of London Bridge, where he placed a water-wheel, designed to raise water, which was then pumped uphill to nearby parts of the City. The city’s water carriers complained about the scheme, which obviously affected their trade. The wheels also faced early design problems, but gradually became more effective, and Morice was granted a lease on two further arches. Water was lifted to the conduit house in Leadenhall Street, by 1582, then Old Fish Street, and other areas of the city. The wheels could turn both ways (to work with the ebb or flow of the tide), and supplied up to 52 pumps, forcing anything up to 132,120 gallons an hour to a height of 120 feet. Later a competitor called Bevis Bulmer set up a pump engine at ‘Bygot House” (roughly where the Millennium Bridge is now).

An artists impression of one of the water wheels that operated under the arches of London Bridge

Even these hugely innovative (and very profitable) developments were increasingly inadequate for London’s demand for water, however. Hence the New River.

Cash Flow

The New River was built by Hugh Myddleton & Partners, begun in 1609, and finished in 1613. It brought water from springs at Amwell and Chadwell in Hertfordshire, to reception ponds in Islington, from where it was piped into the City. The Company had difficulty in getting investors to support them; many thought it a bad risk financially. Various landowners along the route of the River also opposed the river being cut through their property. This opposition actually stalled the progress of the river for two years between 1610 and 1612.

King James I at New River Head – coming to check on his investments…

However, after an approach from Myddleton, king James I bought a half-share in the Company (and any prospective profits), which influenced other potential investors, cowed any prospective complainants (after all, who wanted to take on the king?). James also leaned on Londoners, backing up the New River Company’s slightly heavy-handed approach to increasing income: “attempts were made to put pressure on the citizenry to take New River water; and a letter was sent to the city asking the corporation to use its authority to require compulsory purchase of the new water supply”!) Even then, it took twenty years for the number of Londoners connected rose high enough to make a profit for the Company.

By 1638 the New River was supplying 10 per cent of water to houses in the City of London’s jurisdiction. Customers paid a yearly rent for access to water, £1 a year in 1629. This was, however, beyond the means of many even middle-income households.

But by the end of the 17th Century many people were purchasing water from new capitalist water companies… this had arisen during the century as demand increased. Hugh Myddleton’s Company rose to become an important economic force in London. In 1695, the three companies with largest capital were the East India Company (the world’s first multi-national), the Bank of England, and the New River Company. The New River Company existed as a private utility until 1904, when the whole of London’s water supply passed to the Metropolitan Water Board. But the Company continues to exist as a property company, managing its considerable land holdings.

“poor men and women that used to get their Bread”

These innovations didn’t go down well with water bearers. The Mayor and the Lord Chancellor had assured them they would still have plenty of work, but in 1592 they were said to be ‘unruly’, protesting their poverty and lack of work. In 1621 the Water bearers complained again to City officials, this time about the New River, after there was a shortage of water at the City conduits.

On Midsummer Day 1654, water bearers of the ward of St Leonard Eastcheap conducted a mock funeral to mourn the absence of water at the conduits.

They were still agitating in 1682: a petition was sent to aldermen about neglect of the conduits. In the same year “poor men and women that used to get their Bread” as water carriers were described as destitute. Clearly they were losing the battle: piped supplies were taking over and the conduits were being run down. A financially stretched City had totally privatised water supplies and resources for five miles around London. In 1693 the City leased ponds and springs at Hampstead, Hornsey and St Pancras to a consortium. The following year ponds in Dalston, Marylebone and Paddington were leased.

In 1698 tankard bearers of St Giles Cripplegate petitioned the water should be restored to the Conduits. But the conduits were on their way out. In 1730 many were demolished as a nuisance and obstruction, probably to allow building and expansion of the highways, but perhaps also to prevent undesirables gathering there (see below).

Many people, however, even some of those who could afford to buy from the New River Company, refused to do so; the old conduit system and paying water bearers to carry water had been strongly linked to charity and vertical social bonds of cohesion. Many bearers were ex-servants, charity cases, the disabled, the very poor; water carrying was in some ways a ‘make work’ scheme, a complex mix of charity and moral obligation. The idea of a water conduit was even used as a symbol for charity in literature. Taking New River water meant severing these bonds, and even many middle class householders were reluctant to do this; not just because of the unruly water bearers, but because they genuinely felt it was breaking with a tradition worth maintaining. In the early years, under pressure from this morality, Myddleton’s Company had to set up standpipes in the street for water bearers to use.

But for many people, in the City and surrounding areas, piped supplies were still totally out of the question due to poverty. The moral economy of the water supply survived into the 1820s; sympathy to water carriers and preference for carried water as against piped supply was grounded in notions of a communality, in which the conduits had become symbolic social symbols.

As the tankard bearers died out, the rituals of conduit culture were taken over by other groups – the spaces they had occupied were colonised by other collectives. For example, by the 18th Century, the Conduit of upper Cheapside had become the haunt of chimney sweeps. This was partly because it was a good place to tout for business, but also a symbolic reversal. The sweeps had overturned the milkmaids old rituals for Mayday and taken them over in an ironic reversal of cleanliness, ruralness and purity associated with milkmaids to ‘filthy urban waste’; placing themselves next to the ‘cleansing waters’ may have been a similar ironic move.

‘Very little prejudicial to navigation”

The New River also managed to alienate the users of another water course – the nearby River Lea. By 1619, the year of the Company’s incorporation, the number of tenants had increased to over 1,000 and the water provided by the springs was insufficient. It was decided to tap the Lea by diverting part of its water into the New River. A dam was built for the purpose in the Lea. But the Lea was an important waterway for trade goods to reach to London, and from the Thames inland to Essex, Hertfordshire and even further. The river bargemen were understandably upset, and they had a long history of fighting for their rights, often violently. Claiming the dam was an obstruction, but also that the Lea’s water-level had dropped as a result, making navigating it harder, they protested by removing these dams; they were however quickly rebuilt. This dispute though rumbled on for decades; around 1667 another dam between Hertford and Ware erected to divert water into the New River was sabotaged by bargemen. In 1670 the king appointed a committee (which included architect and city planner Christopher Wren) to look into the matter and make a final ruling. This proved a knotty problem, as the Lea barge trade kept food and beer prices in London low by bringing corn and malt in from surrounding counties (and had in fact braved the recent 1665 plague to keep the ailing citizens fed); bit the New River’s water supply was also now indispensable.

In the end, perhaps unsurprisingly, this committee came down firmly on the fence, on the one hand claiming their investigations had ascertained that “the pipes drain off from the navigable river (Lea) about one part of thirty parts, which seems to us very little prejudicial to navigation and which could not abate the river half an inch”, but also recommending that two jetties (instead of a dam) be built to divert water, and the Company’s pipes be reduced in size. But this pleased neither side. It may have been that the bargemen were also backed by the powerful London brewers, who relied on their cheap malt supplies, and probably had grudges against the New River Company over the amount they were charged for their water… (This dispute was actually still being debated sixty years later).

In fact, the Committee identified the culprits for the problems of navigating the Lea as being local millers who had deepened their cuts to take more water out of the Lea than they needed, and would charge to let some of this water back into the river when there were complaints about the level.

“Every stream had its mills, most commonly for grinding corn but also for fulling cloth, or in more highly industrialised areas than the Lee for tilt-hammers and for operating the bellows of blast furnaces. A artificial cut was made from the river to bring the water to a water-wheel, and in an effort to ensure an adequate supply of water at all times, the mill owner usually built a weir across the river to hold back the water and form what amounted to an artificial reservoir.

The centre of the weir was made of planks held in place by beams, which could in theory be removed when a boat needed to pass, in practice the miller was reluctant to remove the barrier and so lose his precious water, especially in times of drought. Rather than planks, some weirs had a single pair of swinging gates or one vertical one; they were known as staunches or flash-locks.

Weirs obviously constituted a barrier to free navigation but they could also confer benefits. In its natural state a river passes through alternate shallow rapids and deep quiet pools in high summer these shallows provide insufficient water to float a barge. It is just at these places that mills were usually built because they gave the sharp fall necessary for the working of the wheels. The mill weir which held back the water and forced it into the leat leading to the wheel also deepened the water upstream for some distance which was helpful to navigation. When a barge approached from below, if the miller felt so inclined he could open the weir and let a rush of water through sufficient to float the boat over the shallows. This was termed a “shoot” or “flash” for which the watermen paid the miller a fee.

It is not surprising that a continuous war was fought between the fishery owners and millers, and the watermen who required an unimpeded passage.” (The Navigation of the River Lee, (1190 – 1790), J.G.L.Burnby and M.Parker, Edmonton Hundred Historical Society Occasional Paper New Series No. 36, which recounts several centuries of disputes around navigation and other water uses in the Lea, including much trouble with the New River Company.)

Snow Justice

Of course, looking backwards, piped water supplies were a step forward in terms of public health. But until the nineteenth century, most of London’s working classes and poor were never able to afford a piped connection, and many continued to use conduits out of necessity. In the days before a proper sewerage system this could lay people open to all sorts of water-born diseases, as John Snow found, when he identified the Broad Street conduit, polluted by a local cesspit, to be the origin of a cholera outbreak in 1854 (as well as his comparative study, the year after, of cholera instances in London areas which took some of their water supply from the Thames, and those that moved away from this, which was in many ways more influential in the long term). This discovery not only helped develop understanding of cholera as a disease spread by contaminated water, not miasmas or bad air, but was also pioneering in how statistics and mapping were used to nail down the outbreak’s centre, and was massively influential in the growth of public health and the birth of the science of epidemiology.

Ironically medical journal The Lancet was a major force in doctors’ reaction against these discoveries, initially ridiculing Snow’s findings. Founding editor Thomas Wakley, in many ways a progressive and pioneering doctor (as well as being a radical MP and a supporter of Chartism) thought Snow was obstructing his attempts to clean up foul-smelling industries and improve London’s health. Wakley shared the general belief in miasmas as the cause of cholera and other diseases, and he denounced Snow and questioned his findings as non-scientific. In time Snow was vindicated. The Lancet in fact published such nonsense in its attempt to undermine Snow, and such a curt and ungenerous obituary when he died, prematurely, in 1858, that it had to belatedly apologise.
Very belatedly.
In April 2013 in fact!

Something In the Water

Piped water supplies may have gradually become more acceptable socially, but age-old fears about the vulnerability of settlements and their water supplies persisted. Poisoning the wells was a charge levelled successively at Jews, nobles, foreigners of all descriptions in times of crisis, especially in the late Middle Ages, times of upheaval, social change, war… Piped water supplies in some ways concentrated this fear on new areas of threat. The New River’s importance in London’s growth and daily existence focussed some of this sense of vulnerability.

Possible threats to the water supply led to rumour, paranoia, and often official panic. Rumours spread that Catholic agitators (the major bogeymen of English society for a couple of centuries) had secretly turned off the stopcocks on the New River, just before the 1666 Great Fire. This was only one of the many allegations about the starting and spreading of the Fire: both Catholics and Dutch protestant immigrants were variously blamed, and victimised, at the time, and to this day the Monument to the Fire still displays the sign blaming it all on the papists. And during the (in origin anti-catholic, though subsequently generally anti-establishment) Gordon Riots in 1780, the military was ordered to protect the New River and London Bridge waterworks after rumours that those damn papists were at it again and planned to sabotage the supply. Troops were stationed at New River Head, at Highbury Frame (the embankment built in Highbury to carry the River across a dip in the land: roughly it ran in an arc from the junction of Somerfield Road and Queens Drive, to the junction of Riversdale Road and Wyatt Road, and was know locally as the ‘Boarded River’), and Bush Hill Frame (in Enfield, where the River crosses Salmon Brook).

But alternatively, there was a contemporary claim that Gordon rioters, not catholics, tried to cut off water supplies from the New River: “… in the midst of horror and confusion, there was an attempt to prevent the extinction of the flames by cutting off the water of the New River…”
(Lord Loughborough’s Charge to the Grand Jury in trials of Gordon Rioters, 10th July 1780, Session House, St Margaret’s Hill.)

According to a report in the Mechanics’ Magazine and Journal of Science, Arts, and Manufactures, Volume 55, 1851, “a panic has sometimes been occasioned by a report that the New River was poisoned, as it happened during the excitement occasioned by Lord George Gordon’s riots; all the water was then for a short time red; this, on examination, was found to have arisen from a quantity of refuse madder, thrown in from a dye-house.”

In 1803, at a time of great fear of French invasion and/or radical revolution/uprising, “persons employed to supply the Metropolis with water… are mostly Irish and… have been heard to declare that in the case of invasion or insurrection they should… assist the enemies of this country by preventing the supply of water in cases of fire.”

[This kind of paranoia didn’t die out in the 19th Century: in the 1960s, sections of the media, especially in the US, became obsessed by the idea that subversives, terrorists or radical hippies could paralyse society by dumping loads of LSD in reservoirs, and that plans had even been made to do so… For some of the story behind this, it’s worth checking out this article.]

Cuttinge the bankes

Once established, the new River gradually became a part of the culture of the areas it passed through, in many ways, not all of them legit. The River’s wooden pipes fanned out from New River Head, across the fields and into the City and its outlying suburbs. For some distance the pipes ran on the surface, sometimes overhead. Tapping both these pipes, or digging channels from the River itself, to underhandedly supply your gaff with water for free was common. Similarly, at a time when most houses, especially those of the lower classes, had no water supply of their own, washing both yourself and your clothes in the River was an obvious solution – it was right there, after all, open to be used. The old moral economy, of water as a free right that belonged to all, revived, and people took free advantage.

“(There are) many abuses and misdemeanors daylie committed and onn in and upon said river (“New River”), by lewde and ill-disposed people, in cuttinge the bankes and letting out the said water, to the inconvenience and prejudice of tennantes, casting in dogges and filth, and lettinge in sewers and other fowle and unclean water, to the annoyance of the said water; breakeinge and carreinge away the bridges, vaultes and rayles standinge in upon the river, taking and carryinge water out of the said river in lickquer cartes, tubbs or barrells, and stealing branches and cockes from the pipes, together with many such abuses and annoyances . . “.

It’s uncertain from the above complaint how much of this was people lifting water for their own use, and how much was vandalism, or using the New River as they had the old London rivers – partly as supply and partly as a sewer.

“Persons Trespassing By Bathing”

But another area of conflict between the River’s owners and its immediate neighbours in pre-suburban North London was its popularity for free and disreputable pleasure-time. Swimming in the River was popular, and associated with not only rowdy picnics but a spot of al fresco sex as well.

A watch-house on the New River, built to house the New River Company’s private security guards hired to deter skinny-dippers… Still standing today.

Already a year after its opening, the New River Company had to pay two labourers to keep swimmers – and dogs! – out during the Whitsun holidays. In 1728, the schoolmaster at Enfield, Mr Davies, was warned to stop his Boarding School pupils from bathing in the River, being warned that “Sundry persons have been lately committed to the New Prison for the same.” By 1770, despite the many notice boards “affixed to posts on different parts of the River about Islington… to prevent persons trespassing by Bathing, or otherwise…”, unofficial use of the river had grown to such proportions that the following proclamation was issued: “Whereas a great Number of idle and disorderly persons have assembled together in the Fields between Islington and Newington and parts adjacent and have by bathing and washing themselves in the New River broke down the banks and done other damages to the said river and have also in a most atrocious and indecent and illegal Manner committed many other offences highly injurious to the property of the Company and to the Public in General. This is therefore to give Notice that the said Company are determined to prosecute with the utmost Severity of the Law, all such persons who for the future shall be found so offending.”

A 40-shilling reward was offered for reporting of those caught and charged, and occasional bathers were nicked, but it doesn’t seem to have put a stop to the skinny-dipping, as eleven years later an advert was inserted three times on the front of the Daily Advertiser, offering rewards for dobbing in offenders, and the fee had risen to £2. The Company claimed that bathers were destroying the banks, widening the river to a dirty lake in parts, and disturbing the riverbed, polluting the water.

Bathing was common not only in the River itself but in the reservoirs and ponds it fed. In 1783, householders near Battle Bridge (modern Kings Cross), whose houses were fed by the West Pond at New River Head, above Amwell Street, complained that their water was running “thick and unclean” which they blamed on the large numbers using the Pond as an open air bath. In response the Company Board ordered a brick wall built around the pond. On the section of the River behind the Angel, between Colebrooke Row and Duncan Terrace, the respectable folk living by its banks threatened to sue the Company if the didn’t do something about “a set of Worthless Rascals who are always, especially on Sunday, Washing their nasty rotten Hides in the New River Water near the City Road… a great abominable shame for a rich Company to suffer such indecency.”

“Behaviour Subversive to Public Decency”

The final insult seems to have been the flaunting of nakedness, especially in open view of nice middle class homes. In 1809, John Tyre of Islington was had up at the Middlesex Sessions at Hicks Hall (the old County Court in St John Street, Clerkenwell, itself located close to New River Head); after having gone bathing in the New River, he had allegedly gone for a run, naked, across Highbury Fields, in front of the ultra-posh houses in Highbury Place. He was found guilty of Behaviour Subversive to Public Decency – and sentenced to two months in Newgate Prison.

Such stiff sentences did little to curb the enthusiasm for bathing in the river, though, as in 1830 a report claimed that 800-1000 people were using the river to bathe or swim in every summer. Long term, the only way to reduce the endemic bathing problem was for the Company to supply water free to new public Baths, and to imprison the water in pipes and re-route it underground in places. The River was also fenced in severely in some places. Illegal angling was also a problem: the fishing rights for the whole length of the River were retained by the Company, who granted permits to landowners and the local worthies; however poaching of fish by undesirables was widespread.

This article is greatly indebted to From Conduit Community to Commercial Network: Water In London, by Mark Jenner, in Londonopolis: Essays in the Cultural and Social History of Early Modern London.

 

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LETS DIG UP THE NEW RIVER

Since the nineteenth century, large sections of the New River have gradually been re-routed underground, covered over by the growth of suburban streets. Much of its length is still open, and can be walked… Much more flows through pipes, or even runs above ground but is fenced off. The author of this pamphlet lives on one such stretch, where the River runs beneath a green pathway down the middle of the wide street. In my neighbourhood, the river dives and resurfaces, flitting between a secret conduit and a landscaped narrow green promenade.

Capitalism, a powerful engine driving England’s developing industrial society, played a big part in the development of the New River. Without a doubt the risks taken by capitalists objectively allowed some of London’s most important and useful features to be built. Others were built despite capital and property interests, pushed through by enlightened or foresighted local authorities, or philanthropists and private charitable institutions. Undeniable social progress, over the last few centuries, came about for a myriad web of reasons, including the drive for profit, genuine ideologies of humanitarianism and compassion, or of political conviction of the rights of working people, or a fear of the potential of the poor rising in revolt.

But capital’s needs, the drive for profit, can only produce social progress as long as it’s profitable, as long as it coincides with hard cash… It’s also easy to see how we have benefitted from some developments, long term; but for the people who lived through the actual ‘progressing’ sometimes it made their lives rapidly worse – witness the water bearers in the New River story, but on a wider scale, the industrial Revolution in England was instrumental in the destruction of myriad ways of life, forced people into factories, or workhouses, drove down life expectancy for decades, and robbed working people of security and all the fruits of their labour bar a pittance. Progress in Britain also came at the expense of mass slavery for Africans, pillage and plunder of resources all over the world, the near-destruction of whole races and species of animals. We have to go beyond ‘progress’ based on wealth and profits, to a world where all of us have free access to resources, more than just to survive, but to flourish and prosper. All of life ‘free as conduit water.”

At past tense we have long floated and battled the rapids, as part of currents that saw the possibility of a post-capitalist existence… We have long fought the forces that push all of us towards dealing only with each other through money, competition, getting ahead, the forces that rob us of our time and pay us a grudging fraction of what we earn for them… Against that we build human relations, the needs of people, our creativity, the potential we have to live totally differently to the daily grind.

But a change in society to us doesn’t just mean a bland change in economic relations; we also dream of altering the physical space around us – for use, yes, but also for beauty. The places we live, the space we inhabit, the environments around us where we work and play, are there to transform. We love to walk the banks of the canal from Limehouse to Brentford, the banks of the smaller streams that feed the Thames, the Thames banks themselves. For decades we’ve watched these banks transformed, to some extent opened for all to wander, but lined also with the increasing developments designed overwhelmingly for the rich. We walk the Thames now, yes, from Deptford to London Bridge, but at the sufferance and under the eye of the yuppie towers and ever-multiplying high-rise penthouse playgrounds. It seems a city increasingly beyond our control, rented to us part-time at extortionate rates – because they need us to run the place, make it work; but more and more they see us like the rats that carried the plague.

All this we want to change – all of existence should be free, creative, shared and open to all… Not hipster bars by trendy New Riversides, fake edge for rich kids playing at living in Hackney (until they can turn it into another reprint of whatever suburb they crawled out of)… but a freely running stream for freely dancing folk.

It’s not just landscaped paths we want… wildness is being bred out of the city, green spaces being built on unless they’re protected, or fought for… But the half-wildernesses and empty spaces, demolished buildings left to tumble, the Bricklayers Arms or Beckton after they were knocked down, and before the new estates, were claimed by people and opened up as unofficial playgrounds… In some ways this made for wilder and more fun spaces. The banks of South London’s Wandle, for instance, were more fun to wander when the path was half-wild, half overgrown factories falling down, part-reclaimed by weeds, parts where you had to scramble and trespass. The ordered council walks are probably better for baby-buggies though, and open space is a playground for dodgier elements too, who have to co-exist with kids… So it’s a toss-up, always, a negotiation about who gets to use space, who it’s for… It’s hard to consensus use of space.

We would like to see the New River open throughout its length, not only dug up, but navigable. We desire to drift by dinghy or home made raft, from Wood Green to Angel, stop off and picnic drink by its banks, run naked through Highbury like John Tyre, go skinny-dipping where the River crosses Salmon Brook.

Obviously for this to happen would means the re-instating of the River at points where roads now run… In some places where gardens or allotments grow… Some people living and working, growing there might object. Perhaps the New New River we foresee would only some about in a radically different North London, where roads and cars would be less important, in a social system where work could be transformed too, where time wasn’t driving us always to some other place for the purposes of earning enough to get by… Some of us have wandered almost every mile of the rivers of London, those on the surface and those stretches lost or buried. For some reason waters and waterways call to us, pull us along their ever-onward meandering. Maybe its cause we’re two-thirds water ourselves; though ways that are lost always have a special urge for some humans. For years a vision of a new London, teeming with canals and opened up lost rivers, new waterways and other paths, has haunted us. Snatches of the New River have been part of the inspiration for this – the stretch from St Paul’s Road to Canonbury Road, or … You can walk there, and think: London should be filled with paths like this, in every area there should be hidden paths and secret ways, dark water and willows barely weeping, kids fishing for the one fat carp that has ate the rest. They are in some ways an answer and a rebuttal of the ever-growing M25-ising of the city, as interesting and alternative space is ironed out, everything that is not for profit is slowly dried out and drained of its moisture. We have fought that process for years, a war that continues. Currently we’re losing.

Beyond that, we have stood on Holborn Viaduct and day-dreamt a Fleet river estuary re-flooded, with boats wandering up as far as the Apple Tree pub, to share a pint with some Mount Pleasant postal-workers. Or going further – the streets of the City flooded for ever, with the banks and transnational corporations long fled, new canals linking their abandoned sky-scrapers, squatted and turned into vertical playgrounds for kids (whole floors hollowed out for adventure slides and zip-wires), allotments on the 33rd floor of the Gherkin, open to the wind and weather. All of London one vast waterway, not even as stinking as Venice in the Summer (OK, so we’ll have some gong-ferming to do). The new waterways in fact could be the arteries and veins of new social networks.

But if this vision seems a long way off, remember the thousands who always reclaimed the New River in defiance of the Company. Who says we can’t dig up the hidden stretches ourselves, even if no great social change seems like it’s round the corner? Gates are there to be opened and fences climbed…

 

 

Today in radical history, 1982: a day of action during the Nurses’ Strike

‘Nurses Are Worth More’: The 1982 Health Workers’ Dispute

An account by Dale Evans, NHS worker

The 1982 pay dispute was the largest strike in the history of the NHS and greatest show of solidarity across the trade union movement since the 1926 General Strike. Unfortunately this complex and often contradictory dispute that coincided with the Falklands/Malvinas War has been forgotten. Historians of trade unionism and the Thatcher era have not recorded it. This is not hard to understand, after all nurses and other women health workers rarely count in the arena of male dominated trade unionism; their disputes – because they lack ‘industrial muscle’ are hardly noticed. But the 1982 health service pay dispute is a great story. It was a strike that involved the workforce of the single largest employer in the whole of Europe, lasted for several months, challenged new anti-trade union legislation, gained enormous public support, received solidarity action from across the trade union movement and was the largest pay dispute of the Thatcher era.

Background to the 1982 dispute

From the beginning of the NHS in 1948 nurses’ pay was regularly falling behind comparable occupations in other sectors. Nurses found themselves campaigning to catch up as their salaries were eroded by government policies on wage restraint and post war price inflation. In 1974 the Halsbury enquiry into nurses’ pay awarded them increases of between 20 and 40 per cent. The severe inflationary period of the 1970s quickly undermined the gains of 1974 and a further enquiry – the Clegg commission of 1979 – awarded nurses 9% plus additional payments. The new Tory government of 1979 implemented the Clegg awards. However, by 1982 continuing inflation and limited public sector pay increases had left the nurses’ pay lagging behind again.

There were other paternalistic and structural reasons for successive governments not taking the remuneration of nurses seriously. Nursing was overwhelmingly staffed by women and nursing was viewed as an extension of caring for a family, that is not a professional occupation. Nurses’ pay was viewed as secondary income for families where the main income was provided by men. However nearly one third of nurses were single, and in places where the economic recession of the early 1980s hit hardest nurses became the main family wage earner. The NHS policy making mechanisms were dominated by doctors and their interests came first. On a structural level the NHS was expanding. Between 1976 and 1983 the number of nurses increased by 16% to nearly 400,000. At the same time the hours worked by nurses also decreased hence increasing the overall wage bill. In 1950 they worked 48 hours per week, by 1982 this had been reduced to 371/2. Successive governments fought to contain the costs of the NHS by restricting pay increases to nurses and other non-medical employees in the NHS, by far the largest section of the NHS workforce. By 1974-75, nurses real income had increased by only 9% since the beginning of the NHS. From this peak the real value of nurses went into decline and by 1982 had decreased by 18% since the mid-1970s.

In order to redress the decline in pay for nurses and low pay for other NHS workers the unions argued for a 12% increase across the board for the 1982 pay round. However, the Tory government had already announced that public sector pay increases would be limited to 4%, but by March Norman Fowler, the Secretary of State for Social Services, issued a statement that more money was available for nurses, midwives, and the allied health professions (radiographers and physiotherapists etc.) and that an offer in the region of 6% would be made. All other non-medical staff (that is porters, cleaners, ambulance personnel, clerical staff) were to receive the 4%. To what was an obvious provocation, the health service unions had to respond.

Beginnings of the Dispute

The trade unions responded to the offer with derision; one NUPE (National Union of Public Employees) official denounced the offer as an ‘unacceptable prescription which will do nothing to alleviate the problem of low pay affecting thousands of health service workers’.

In 1981 health service trade unions affiliated to the TUC had formed the TUC health services committee under the chair of Alan Spanswick from the Confederation of Health Service Employees (COHSE). The 1982 date for the pay round was April 1; for the first time in NHS all staff except doctors were to receive their annual pay increase from the same date. This gave the unions an organisational advantage in being able to organise and negotiate for all employees on the same basis from the same date. The unions believed that their claim of 12% for all NHS staff was reasonable. The rejection of this claim by the government quickly led to industrial action by the TUC affiliated unions.

All the unions were conscious of the fact that public support for their campaign was paramount; they had no wish to alienate the public as they believed the public workers’ dispute had done in 1979’s ‘winter of discontent.’ Although an all out strike was discussed most action in the course of the dispute consisted of work stoppages by nurses and nursing auxiliaries, porters, cleaners and other staff that would not endanger patients. This was the course taken by COHSE and NUPE and the other TUC unions. The first days of action took place in May. These actions were varied across the country. In some places the NHS only offered emergency services on these days, in other areas staff worked by only performing limited duties.

At a local level unions officials received support from other public sector workers. As the summer progressed the Scottish miners came out on strike in support of the day of action. By the end of June sympathy strikes had taken place with miners, shipyard workers, factory workers and staff from government and council offices all taking part. Examples of this solidarity action came from all over the UK. Shipyard workers joined a demonstration by health workers in Glasgow, 77 schools in Nottinghamshire were affected, swimming pools in Yorkshire were closed, stoppages occurred at some of the major power stations in Yorkshire, council workers in Hackney and Tottenham also took action. By July 750 hospitals had only emergency cover. In Wakefield 4 hospitals did not have any services at all on days of action. Further solidarity action saw seamen stop a ferry leaving Felixstowe for 2 days. All of this action was in breach of the 1980 Industrial Relations Act that outlawed secondary action by one group of workers in support of another. However in August the Electricians Union managed to stop the Fleet Street printing presses rolling with a 24 hour stoppage. Sean Geraghty, the shop steward involved. was fined £1300 for contempt of court after ignoring an injunction banning the stoppage. Hundreds of health workers demonstrated in his support on the day of his hearing.

In spite of the stoppages and inconvenience to patients the dispute was widely supported by the public who perceived that the nurses were being given a raw deal. Of course patient care was compromised as waiting lists soared and operations were cancelled but this did not undermine public support.

Divisions between the unions

Outside of the TUC affiliated health service unions were the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) who represented 180,000 nurses, and other smaller unions such as the midwives, health visitors and those representing the allied health professions. These organisations were also professional bodies as well as trade unions. As professional bodies they had a regulatory role over members, provided education, and set professional standards just as the BMA (British Medical Association), and the Royal Colleges do in medicine. For these reasons the RCN did not sit easily with trade unions affiliated with the TUC, COHSE and NUPE, which had 135,000 and 80,000 nurses in their membership respectively and were also the unions representing tens of thousands of other NHS workers. This split between TUC affiliated bodies and non-affiliated unions such as the RCN was to prove crucial in the conduct of the dispute, and its final resolution.

The RCN argued that because of the public support shown for the nurses’ cause it was not necessary to engage in industrial action. Indeed its president Trevor Clay later wrote:

‘The nurses had the high moral ground through balloting at a time when the government were lambasting other unions about their lack of balloting and unrepresentative activity.’

During the days of action members of the RCN worked normally, because strike action would have been in breach of its rules (Rule 12). The RCN had only become a trade union in 1977 and in 1979 its membership had rejected the opportunity to join the TUC. A debate in 1982 concerning amending Rule 12 came to nothing.

Throughout the dispute the RCN acted independently of the TUC health unions, often meeting ministers and engaging in talks without any acknowledgement of the need for greater unity. The RCN only paid lip service to supporting non-nursing NHS staff but made it apparent that it wanted a settlement whereby porters, clerical staff and nursing auxiliaries would receive a lower pay rise than qualified nurses. Unlike the TUC unions it was willing to support the government’s idea of establishing a permanent pay review body (PRB) for nurses that would be similar to that already set up for doctors. The PRB would annually compare nurses’ pay with other sectors of the economy and make recommendations to the government.

The RCN wanted to have its cake and eat it. Its President Trevor Clay genuinely believed that its position of no strike action and talking to the government whilst constantly balloting the membership of the RCN on various matters was the most productive way to settle the dispute. This of course allowed the government to split the campaign effectively into two camps, those for and those against industrial action. Norman Fowler’s statement to the House of Commons on 18 October 1982 clearly thanked the RCN for continuing to work and lambasted the TUC unions.

COHSE and NUPE felt that the RCN was only gaining advantages with the government because of the strength of their action. Without industrial conflict the RCN would not have been invited to the negotiating table. Rodney Bickerstaffe, general secretary of NUPE, diplomatically expressed the differences:

‘I think that the RCN line ….has been that whilst they are still talking there is still hope. I don’t wish to drive any more wedges between ourselves and the RCN. It’s fine to say that whilst we are talking there is still hope, but less people would be hurt if we all threw our weight behind the industrial campaign to get proper talks.’

For both COHSE and NUPE it was a matter of principle that all the health service workers received 12%. They had major concerns about low pay in the NHS that they felt the government should address. These unions had a different approach to striking. COHSE’s 1982 conference rejected an all-out indefinite strike and supported the call for extra days of action with emergency cover only. NUPE’s conference on the other hand voted in favour of an indefinite strike with only basic emergency cover. COHSE’s position was strongly influenced by the winter of discontent. After that the union had drawn up a code of conduct for disputes whereby its members were expected to provide emergency cover and ensure that the dignity and welfare of the patients is paramount. Both unions rejected the idea of the government’s PRB, as both unions believed in annual pay negotiations based on the principles of collective bargaining.

During the course of the dispute the RCN balloted its membership on two offers both of which were rejected by the membership. From the views of the membership its seems clear that the RCN wanted to extricate itself from the dispute as quickly as possible. The members of one RCN branch wrote to the Nursing Times:

We find it distasteful that you [Dame Catherine Hall, an RCN negotiator] held a press conference without first referring the detail of your discussions with the secretary of state to the RCN labour relations committee for a vote….There is no mention in your misrepresented statement of referral back to the membership.’

And another member complained

‘I have just received my RCN News. Cutting through the waffle it seems that the College is attempting to sell us out for an extra 11/2p in the pound.’

Such was the divergence of views that the RCN issued a leaflet in which it fully defended its position against the accusations levelled against it.

The government also exploited the split to argue that the TUC unions had a political agenda, that is that the strike was not about health service pay but was to undermine recent trade union legislation and re-establish the former power that the unions supposedly enjoyed. On the 21 September the Health Minister Kenneth Clarke said:

‘The TUC hopes to smash the cash limits of the National Health Service in order to end pay restraint in the public sector and prepare the way for bigger claims for miners and others this winter. They are taking secondary action in order to challenge the Government’s legislation and defend their old immunities above the law.’

This lack of unity and the government’s endorsement of the RCN’s position undermined the strength and purpose of the TUC unions after the largest day of action on 22 September.

22 September 1982

22 September saw a huge show of solidarity for the NHS dispute right across the country; an estimated 2.25 million people took part in one form or another. In London 120,000 demonstrated, Aberdeen 12,000, Edinburgh 10,000, Liverpool 20,000, Norwich 2,000, Derry 3,000 – and these were just some of the many demonstrations that took place all over the country. Strikes were evident in many hospitals with only emergency cover provided. Some ambulance crews walked out and refused to provide emergency cover.

Secondary support for health workers was also very significant, 80% of the mines were closed as were 43 of 65 docks. Fleet Street workers stopped the publication of the national newspapers and many local newspapers were disrupted as well. There was some disruption to television programmes broadcast by Granada and Ulster TV. Local government services were affected with many schools being closed for part of the day. Supporting strike action was also taken by car workers at Ford and Vauxhall, and Post Offices were closed.

This day was an undoubted success and was the high point of the whole dispute for the TUC unions. Such enthusiasm would be difficult to repeat and the time for indefinite strike action had passed. The RCN was still talking to the government and seeking a way to end the dispute. And the government, very much buoyed by it victory in the Falklands/Malvinas war, took a hard line, proclaiming that the day of action had changed nothing. As many nurses pointed out the government could always find money for wars but not for funding the health service.

The fact that this historic day of action had failed to move the government left the unions in a quandary: what to do next?

The end of the dispute

Attempts to organise further days of action petered out. The dispute dragged on with only a few local actions occurring. COHSE called a delegates’ conference for 14 December to discuss the possibility of an all-out strike. In reality the split in the nursing profession between the RCN and the TUC unions had undermined the possibility of further action. Most of the action had been carried out by the other health workers. As one participant commented:

There was considerable resentment among the ancillaries about the nurses. The press had gone on about the nurses this the nurses that. The cleaners knew that they had stayed solid for months. Most of the nurses had crossed the picket line time after time. The cleaners felt used’.

Many of the nurses did however recognise the contribution to the dispute by other NHS workers:

‘The ancillary workers are helping us by taking action, as well as themselves…

Nurses do not have the power to fight the government on their own, they need other workers’.

By December the RCN was effectively leading the dispute with most of the discussion centred on the establishing of the PRB, which the TUC unions still rejected. The government improved its offer to 12.3% for nurses over 2 years with 7.5% to be received in the current year, and the promise of a pay review body for 1984. The RCN put the offer to its members, 80% of whom accepted. NUPE and COHSE tried to scupper the deal by recommending to its members 6.5% for the coming year without any conditions for future years. The membership rejected this. NUPE and COHSE also found themselves outvoted in the TUC health services committee where each member (14 in all) had one vote even though NUPE and COHSE represented the majority of health service workers between them. Furthermore the RCN and the other professional bodies such as the Royal College of Midwives had a slender majority on the national negotiating committee, the Whitley Council. NUPE and COHSE had been effectively outmanoeuvred. Ancillary staff received a 10.5 % deal over 2 years, receiving 6% in the current year. Both pay deals were only backdated to July even though the date for a new pay rise was the 1 April. No doubt this was an extra punishment for a workforce that had fought for a living wage.

Aftermath

The conservative government won the 1983 general election and the PRB was set up. Nurses were awarded between 9 and 14% in 1985 and 8% the following year. Work done by ancillary workers (porters, cleaners) were increasingly privatised with two thirds of contracts awarded to private contractors by the end of 1984. This section of the workforce was reduced by 40,000 by 1988. COHSE’s membership had peaked at 231,000 in 1982 had fallen to 218,000 by 1988. The RCN membership which had been 162,000 in 1979 reached 282,000 in 1988.

Sources used

The Times

The Guardian

Marxism Today

New Statesman

Nursing Mirror

Nursing Times

Christopher Hart, Behind the Mask: Nurses, their Unions and Nursing Policy, London 1994

Jonathan Neale, Memoirs of a Callous Picket, London, 1983

Trevor Clay Nurses, Power and Politics, London, 1987

Mick Carpenter, Working for Health: the History of COHSE, London 1988

COHSE (Britain Health Service Union) blog 

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Lifted from ‘The NHS is 60‘, a collection of radical articles on health, working in the health service and the history of the NHS, published in 2008 by the Radical History Network of North-East London

According to the COHSE history blog,

“Wednesday 22 September 1982 was one of the largest acts of solidarity in the British trade union history, with millions on strike and a national rally in London with 120,000 taking part. There were demonstrations in the following towns (not full list)

Aberdeen 12,000

Inverness 1,000

Elgin 500

Lerwick 400

Oban 100

Stornaway 500

Dundee 10,000

Edinburgh 10,000

Kirkcaldy 2,000

Glasgow 20,000

Dumfries 1,000

Newcastle 5,000

York 1,000

Sheffield 10,000

Barnsley 1,000

Leeds 6,000

Hull 4,000

Chesterfield 3,000

Manchester 2,000

St Helens 2,000

Liverpool 20,000

Bolton 2,000

Blackpool 400

Wigan 5,000

Leek 300

Coventry 2,000

Gloucester 500

Hereford 400

Swindon 1,000

Milton Keynes 1,200

Cambridge 2,000

Colchester 1,000

Braintree 100

Norwich 2,000

Kings Lynn 300

Harleston 500

Fakenham 100

Southampton 1,500

Bournemouth 1,000

Eastbourne 500

Yeovil 1,000

Belfast 3,000

Derry 3,000

Armagh 300

Ballymena 200

Enniskillen 350

Swansea 1,000

Aberystwyth 200

Rhondda 500

There were also many rallies/marches in London eg in Hackney and Hillingdon.”

All this week in London consumer history, 1800: Bread rioters force the City’s Corn Exchange to close

In 1799, 1800 and 1801 widespread rioting broke out throughout England. Most of these were food riots, provoked by scarcity and soaring prices during Napoleon’s continental blockade of Britain. The cost of a loaf of bread was at an all time high of 1 shilling 9 d. High grain prices meant hikes in the cost of bread – and many of the poor and labouring classes lived off a diet in which bread played a major part. Bread price rises were always likely to cause riots – and prices did depend on the quality of harvest. A bad harvest harbinged social disorder.

Britain had been at war with Revolutionary France since 1793. In order to keep the army and navy fed, much of the wheat that was produced was bought by the government. In addition the war led to difficulties importing grain into Britain, (due to blockades and disrupted harvests on the continent) which also raised the price.

A series of poor harvests in the mid 1790’s and severe weather also devastating affect; much of this was caused by unpredictable weather. Crops were either left rotting in the fields by freezing wet Winters, or scorched by unbearably hot summers.

Enclosure also had a huge impact: for many who in the past might have had some measure of self-sufficiency, owning a couple of animals they could graze on common land, for instance – these options had been restricted as access to common land had been drastically cut back in the mid-late 18th century. Many of the rural or semi-rural poor now bought much more of their food.

Bread had increasingly become the major part of the diet of the majority of British population, especially among the poor and working classes.

And the price of food was crucial in people’s daily life: anywhere between 40 and 80 percent of income was spent on bread.

Beyond this – high grain prices led to a negative impact on the economy generally. As spending on bread came first, expenditure on most other products rose and fell depending on what spare cash people had after feeding themselves. High grain prices, high bread prices, led to drastic reductions in consumer spending in other areas, which had a knock on effect on the wider economy.

So in the late 1790s-early 1800s, there was a general economic crisis. Gold was scarce—so scarce, from the normal price of £3 17s. 6d. per oz., it had risen to £4 5s., “at which price it was a temptation, almost overpowering, to melt guineas”. The cost of living increased: food was scarce and expensive ”and, as very few people starve in silence, riots were the natural consequence.”

Control over bread prices was in fact a regular fact of life. The weight of a penny loaf had also been set to reflect the local cost of wheat (this was a concession to popular feeling after a previous wave of food riots in 1757).

More widely, the ‘Bread Assize’ was supposed to regulate the cost of a loaf of bread in different areas, to prevent the cost soaring too high for the poor to afford. The Assize was administered locally, as prices and wages varied across the country; particular attention was always paid to London, not only as the largest market for bread, but because of the greater potential for disorder in the capital if bread became scarce or unaffordable. The Assize was very much about preventing social unrest. But administering it was complex, especially as it regulated only the price of bread, not grain. Any suggestion of assizing flour prices as well came to nothing. In effect, authorities subsidised bakers to keep bread prices low; but the system was criticised for being confusing and arbitrary, and for encouraging profiteering and hoarding by grain merchants, millers and bakers. Nationally, government policy was generally to allow market forces to regulate the markets, and by 1800, the Assize system was being abandoned in many areas, including London, though other local authorities continued to attempt to keep bread prices down for several decades into the 19th century.

The government attempted to address the problems caused by grain dealers allegedly profiting from high grain prices – mainly they were pushed into action by popular clamour. Laws were passed or existing rules revived, against “Forestalling and Regrating”, (ie, buying up and hoarding produce in order to sell it later when prices were higher), granting subsidies to merchants who imported oats and rye, and also allowing beer to be made from sugar to free up grain for bread making.

Legal action was in fact taken against those accused of profiteering:

“This day one Mr. Rusby was tried, in the Court of King’s Bench, on an indictment against him, as an eminent corn-factor, for having purchased, by sample, on the 8th of November last, in the Corn Market, Mark Lane, ninety quarters of oats at 41s. per quarter, and sold thirty of them again in the same market, on the same day, at 44s. The most material testimony on the part of the Crown was given by Thomas Smith, a partner of the defendant’s. After the evidence had been gone through, Lord Kenyon made an address to the jury, who, almost instantly, found the defendant guilty. Lord Kenyon— ‘You have conferred, by your verdict, almost the greatest benefit on your country that was ever conferred by any jury.’ Another indictment against the defendant, for engrossing, stands over.
“Several other indictments for the same alleged crimes were tried during this year, which we fear tended to aggravate the evils of scarcity they were meant to obviate, and no doubt
contributed to excite popular tumults, by rendering a very useful body of men odious in the eyes of the mob.”
(Annual Register, July 4, 1800)

However, calls for the government to set grain prices, or to allow local authorities to set them in the interests of peace, were resisted. The government of the era was overseeing the rapid replacement of any vestiges of paternalism in the interests of social cohesion, in favour of a strict laissez faire approach to prices and wages. The Duke of Portland, Home Secretary at the time, over-ruled local authorities who were willing to settle prices locally to appease anger.

Crowds sometimes took the punishment of forestallers into their own hands. (A case at Bishop’s Clyst, Devon, August, 1800 is featured in ‘Hints to Forestallers, or A Sure Way to Reduce the Price of Grain!’ an illustration by Isaac Cruikshank).

Crowd action to enforce what they saw as ‘fair’ prices for bread and other food stuffs reflected what EP Thompson identified as a ‘moral economy’ – the idea that a consensus existed on the cost of staple foodstuffs, broadly encompassing different social classes, on the basis that the essentials of life should be available and affordable. Moral economy was often enforced unofficially by collective action – eg crowds taking over markets or shops, and making the merchants reduce prices to a level felt to be reasonable. Prior to the industrial revolution, Thompson identifies the moral economy with a widespread system of social paternalism, which meant that authorities sometimes colluded with or turned a blind eye to such collective action, or even enforced price levels themselves, in the interests of keeping social peace. The rise of laissez faire capitalism in the last decades of the 18th century reflected a determination in parts of the ruling elites to do away with paternalism, and to allow the power of ‘market forces’ to determine prices and wages, in the interests, of course, of the wealthy. But the memory of the attacks on the wealthy in the Gordon Riots of 1780, and the fear of something like the French Revolution happening in Britain, can also be seen in the strong line increasingly taken with crowds in the 1790s.

In August and September several riots protesting the scarcity of corn, and the high price of provisions, took place in Birmingham, Oxford, Nottingham, Coventry, Norwich, Stamford, Portsmouth, Sheffield, Worcester, and a number of other areas. The form these generally took was that markets were invaded, and a crowd would force the farmers and merchants to sell their provisions at a low price, or at least one considered fair.

There were the usual suggestions of some mysterious organisation being behind the riots. Several riots and consumer’s “strikes” were advertised in advance by handbills, on a scale which argues organisation by committees with access to the printing-press. Radicals had been circulating inflammatory handbills calling for demonstrations; the City was awash with revolutionary graffiti.

In September 1800, the riots spread to several parts of London. 2000 demonstrators forced the closure of the Corn Exchange for 6 days, and targetted corn dealers seen as responsible for high corn prices.

For six days there were tumults, starting at the Corn Exchange, in Mark Lane, (off modern Fenchurch Street) but spreading to other areas.

Overnight on 13th-14th September, two large written placards were pasted on the Monument, the text of which read:

“Bread will be sixpence the Quartern if the People will
assemble at the Corn Market on Monday.
Fellow Countrymen,
How long will ye quietly and cowardly suffer yourselves to
be imposed upon, and half starved by a set of mercenary slaves and Government hirelings? Can you still suffer them to proceed in their extensive monopolies, while your children are
crying for bread?
No! let them exist not a day longer. We are
the sovereignty; rise then from your lethargy.
Be at the Corn
Market on Monday.”

Small printed handbills with similar messages were distributed around poor neighbourhoods, “and the chance of a cheap loaf, or the love of mischief,” led to a two thousand-strong crowd gathering in Mark Lane the next morning. They began by hissing the grain dealers and corn-factors going into the market, but this progressed to jostling the dealers and pelting them with mud. For some reason Quakers came in for particularly rough treatment. They also began breaking the Exchange windows. The Lord Mayor of London went to Mark Lane about 11 a.m., to plead with the crowd that their actions would make no difference to bread prices; however, they only hissed and yelled at him, “Cheap bread! Birmingham and Nottingham for ever! Three loaves for eighteen pence,” the Mayor ordered the Riot Act to be read, and the constables charged the mob, who dispersed. [The reference to Birmingham and Nottingham was a reminder of the bread riots that had recently taken place there.]

Mark Lane Corn Exchange, the main grain market in London for 240 years

The Lord Mayor returned to the Mansion House. But as soon as he had gone, the riots began again and the Mayor had to return.

When the evening fell, the riots broke out again in force. A mob assembled, which routed the constables, and broke the windows of several bakers’ shops. When they gathered procured a
quantity of wood the civic authorities intervened to prevent them starting a fire (always feared in the City). The Lord Mayor enlisted a number of companies of the Volunteers, the militia set up among the middle classes to resist an anticipated French invasion (though they mainly saw action repressing meetings of radicals and reformers) – in this case from the Tower Ward and East India House Volunteers. They were joined by part of the London Militia.

These troops blocked both ends of Mark Lane, at Fenchurch Street, and Billiter Lane, and then charged the crowd and dispersed it – some down Lombard Street, some down Fish Street Hill, and over London Bridge, into the Borough. Then peace was once more restored, and the volunteers went unto their own homes.

That was not the end of the trouble that night – the crowd that had been pushed into the borough took the chance to visit the house of Mr. Rusby (6, Temple Place, Blackfriars Road)
described above as being prosecuted for ‘forestalling and regrating’. They raided his house and ransacked it, though he had escaped by the back way into a neighbour’s house. The crowd dispersed before a party of mounted troops and Militia arrived.

On the next day the riotous population were “in a ferment, but were kept in check by the militia and volunteers.”

Whether through fear of the rioters or not, the price of wheat did fall on Monday 15th, by ten and fifteen shillings a quarter. London’s Court of Aldermen issued a statement claiming that if the mob hadn’t rioted, it would have fallen still lower, as merchants were afraid to bring their corn to market (the old line that ‘market forces will sort it all out…):

“Combe, Mayor.
“A Court of Lord Mayor and Aldermen held at the Guildhall
of the City of London, on Tuesday, the 16th of September, 1800.
“Resolved unanimously—That it is the opinion of this Court,
from the best information it has been able to procure, that, had
not the access to the Corn Market been, yesterday, impeded,
and the transactions therein interrupted, a fall in the price of
Wheat and Flour, much more considerable than that which
actually took place, would have ensued; aid this Court is
further of opinion, that no means can so effectually lead to
reduce the present excessive prices of the principal articles of
food, as the holding out full security and indemnification to
such lawful Dealers as shall bring their Corn or other
commodities to market. And this Court does therefore express
a determination to suppress, at once, and by force, if it shall
unhappily be necessary, every attempt to impede, by acts of
violence, the regular business of the markets of the Metropolis.”

A butcher was tried and convicted at the Clerkenwell Sessions, on September 16th, for “forestalling the market of Smithfield on the 6th of March last, by purchasing of Mr.
Eldsworth, a salesman, two cows and an ox, on their way to the market.” His brother was also convicted.

Rioting resumed around the Mark Lane Corn Market, however, on both the 15th and 16th, in response to which, the Lord Mayor issued another Proclamation;
“Combe, Mayor.
“Mansion House, Sept. 17, 1800.
“Whereas the peace of this City has been, within these few
days, very much disturbed by numerous and tumultuous
assemblies of riotous and disorderly people, the magistrates,
determined to preserve the King’s peace, and the persons and
property of their fellow-citizens, by every means which the
law has intrusted to their hands, particularly request the
peaceable and well-disposed inhabitants of this City, upon the
appearance of the military, to keep themselves away from the
windows; to keep all the individuals of their families, and
servants, within doors; and, where such opportunities can be
taken, to remain in the back rooms of their houses.

“By order of his Lordship.
“W. J. Newman, Clerk.”

Angry crowds were by now targeting not only markets and known merchants, but also houses where they suspected food was being hoarded. As usual at such times, rumour and Chinese whispers abounded.

On the morning of the 18th of September, crowds gathered in Chiswell Street, opposite the house of a Mr. Jones, whose windows they had demolished the previous night, and proceeded to attack a house opposite, at the corner of Grub Street. This was the house of a Mr. Pizey, a
shoemaker, a friend of the said Jones, on whose behalf Pizey was storing some barrels of salt pork. Rumours had spread that this was being hoarded for profiteering purposes, and “the mob began to mutter that “it would be a d-d good thing to throw some stuff in and blow up the place.”
Pizey sent messengers to the Mansion House, and the Worship Street office, and a force of constables was sent to Chiswell Street. The crowds dispersed.

On the 18th of September King George III issued a proclamation “strictly commanding and requiring all the Lieutenants of our Counties, and all our Justices of the Peace, Sheriff, and
Under-Sheriffs, and all civil officers whatsoever, that they do take the most effectual means for suppressing all riots and tumults, and to that end do effectually put in execution an Act of Parliament made in the first year of the reign of our late royal ancestor, of glorious memory, King George the First, entitled ‘An Act for preventing tumults and riotous
assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing the rioters”” [Meaning the 1715 Riot Act, which allowed soldiers to be ordered to shoot down crowds if they did not disperse when ordered to do so by a magistrate.]

That night, however, rioting began again. Ignoring the threat of the Rot Act, crowds gathered in Bishopsgate Street, then marched up Sun Street, through Finsbury Square, where they scattered a force of constables sent to halt them, and continuing down Barbican into Smithfield, Saffron Hill, Holborn, and Snow Hill.  At Snow Hill they broke two cheesemongers’ windows; they then swept through Fleet Market, breaking and tossing about everything moveable, and smashed the windows of another cheesemonger. From Fleet Street they turned up Ludgate Hill, smashing all the lamps on the way, and marched back into the City via Cheapside (where they apparently targeted the Mansion House, the Lord Mayor’s official residence), Newgate Street, St. Martin’s-le-Grand, and Barbican to Old Street. Here they dispersed for the night. “From Ludgate Hill to Barbican, only one lamp was left burning, and of that the glass was broken.”
Soldiers apparently marched in the mob’s wake all night trying to catch up with them but never managed to quite make it…

It’s worth mentioning that towns close to the city were also affected. On the 18th, apparently, an ‘Incitement to riot’ occurred in Kingston-Upon-Thames: Radicals allegedly distributed cards calling for cheap bread in Kingston pubs.

Riots continued on the night of the 19th of September; though not on the same scale as the previous days.

The 20th saw the final day of the tumults, this time centred in Westminster rather than the City. A crowd met in Clare Market, off the Strand, and marched for a while, but after some skirmishes with ‘the St. Clement Danes Association’ (another volunteer militia?), they dispersed at the approach of the Horse Guards. Another group met in Monmouth Street, St. Giles’s, but the Westminster Volunteers, and cavalry, dispersed them. Shops closed very early. This seems to have been the end of these food riots in central areas of London.

The 20th also saw a Food Riot in Woolwich Kent, to the southeast of London.

It is worth noting that the price of a quartern loaf was lowered under the London Bread Assize in the week following the riots.

Riots continued outside the capital. In some places the riots were put down by force, in others the price of bread was lowered. What was worrying to the authorities, however, was that the crowd in many areas was no longer divided between “Jacobin” and “Church and King” factions  – radicals and supporters of the status quo – who had been notable opposed to each other a few years earlier:

“What scarred the Gentlemen the most was to see the Union of parties their being no 
painites nor no such song as God save the King to be heard.”

Politics aside, hunger had the potential to unite the lower orders – always terrifying to those in power.

The dying down on the riots in September was not quite the end of crowds gathering in London on the issue in 1800.

In November handbills were circulated calling upon “Tradesmen, Artizans, Journeymen, Labourers, &c., to meet on Kennington Common” on Sunday, the 9th of November, with an aim to  “petition His Majesty on a redress of grievances.”

This meeting was prevented by a show of military strength. The Privy Council, sent orders to police offices and the different volunteer corps, to hold themselves in readiness in case of
emergency, and the Bow Street patrol were sent, early in the morning, to take up a position at the Horns Tavern, Kennington, to wait until the mob began to assemble. Small crowds attempted to gather, but were continually chased away by the Bow Street patrol, aided by the Surrey Yeomanry, the Southwark Volunteers, and the whole police force from seven offices, together with the river police.

The scarcity of corn still continued down to the end of the year. It had been a bad harvest generally throughout the Continent, and little imported corn arrived in England.

Government attempts to mitigate the shortages continued, though they were all a bit farcical: a proclamation on December 3rd exhorted all persons who had the means of procuring other food than corn, to use the strictest economy in the use of every kind of grain, abstaining from pastry, reducing the consumption of bread in their respective families at least one-third, and upon no account to allow it “to exceed one quartern loaf for each person in each week;” and also all persons keeping horses, especially those for pleasure, to restrict their consumption of grain, as far as circumstances would admit.

The government also introduced the ‘Making of Bread, etc. Act 1800, also known as the Brown Bread Act or the Poison Act, to prohibit making bread with any other kind of flour than wholemeal flour. Although aimed at increasing the amount of flour that could be made from a given weight of grain, this Act was very unpopular. It was claimed by many at the time that the coarser wholemeal mixtures of flour often made people ill; many said to be pretty nasty. Mixed bread was likely to be subject to adulteration than white bread – to increase profits, millers were known to dilute flour with all sorts of other substances including alum and chalk.

The Brown Bread Act immediately result in more trouble – at Horsham in Sussex, “a number of women… proceeded to Gosden windmill, where, abusing the miller for having served them with brown flour, they seized on the cloth with which he was then dressing meal according to the directions of the Bread Act, and cut it into a thousand pieces; threatening at the same time to serve all similar utensils he might in future attempt to use in the same manner. The Amazonian leader of this petticoated cavalcade afterwards regaled her associates with a guinea’s worth of liquor at the Crab Tree public-house.”

With such resistance, the Act was repealed less than two months after its passing.

It’s easy to see that the pre-incarnations of Iain Duncan Smith and Hancock were at work, too, as another measure adopted at this time was the so-called Stale Bread Act, a government instruction to bakers not to sell bread until at least 24 hours after baking, as staler bread fills you more, so people would eat less. (This was amended to 48 hours in London for a while). It was impossible to enforce although the Government tried very hard to impose it. There were fines for bakers who broke the law and rewards for members of the community who snitched on them. This was accompanied by a suggestion to promote other foods such as vegetables and herring… The Act also quickly led to complaints and the Act lasted for only one year.  The decades that followed saw people driven into more desperation as food shortages and unemployment caused dreadful suffering amongst the poor of Britain.

(Interestingly, a century later in WW1, very similar issues of lack of supply due to war, high bread prices, and mass discontent – which had led to food riots then too – caused the government to repeat the Stale bread Act, in the Bread Order of 1917.

Bread prices continued to be a focus of debate and anger. Napoleon’s continental blockade increased the difficulty of importing grain. Britain’s increasing industrialisation also had a corresponding effect on demand, as well as accelerating the decrease in subsistence.

This would be aggravated from 1815 by the passing of the Corn Laws, tariffs and  trade restrictions on imported grain, designed to keep grain prices high to favour domestic producers (in effect the large landowning interests who dominated Parliament). The Corn Laws blocked the import of cheap grain, initially by simply forbidding importation below a set price, and later by imposing steep import duties, making it too expensive to import grain from abroad, even when food supplies were short. The Corn Laws, too, provoked rioting from enraged plebs

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A couple of books worth reading:

The Dawn of the XIXth Century in England: A Social Sketch of the Times
By John Ashton.

Also Bread and the British Economy, 1770–1870
By Christian Petersen, Andrew Jenkins

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Who are the squatters?’ Interviews with 1946 London squatters

Following on from yesterday’s account of the mass squatting of Duchess of Bedford House and other buildings across central London in September 1946, here’s an article published at the time, based on interviews done with squatters at Duchess of Bedford House and then at their temporary accommodation later in Chalk Farm. 
Diana Murray Hill was one of the foremost active recorders of daily life in the Mass Observation movement. Her article is not without its patronising touches… but provides some interesting insights into the people who took up residence in the squats, why they were squatting, and their motivations. It does throw up some questions about the relations between the Communist Party as organisers and the people they housed. It also illustrates the class consciousness that the squatters shared, the belief that what they were doing was not only in their own interests but aimed at forcing wider changes in housing policy – and the willingness to co-operate and organise collectively (not only in the squats bit also in their temporary London County Council home after they left the squats). It does leave you with the question – what might have been possible if the movement had not been cut short in September 1946.

———————————————————————————

Who are the squatters?

Diana Murray Hill

(Published November 1946, in Pilot Papers vol 1 no 4.)

Who were the squatters ? For the past ten days there had been accounts of them in the papers and on the wireless. There had been photographs of them in the untenanted luxury flats which they had taken over in different parts of London; there had been accounts of interviews with them, and an article entitled “Squatters and Squatted Against” had appeared in an illustrated weekly.

Public opinion about the squatters was divided. Some people sympathised openly, coming to the flats with gifts of food and bedding. Others condemned the squatters. Another section was half sympathetic, half disapproving. They agreed that the squatters had cause to agitate for new homes, but they argued that they were trespassing unlawfully on other peoples’ property, and that, by taking such violent action, they were jumping their places on the housing lists and depriving those who preceded them on the lists of homes which they needed as urgently as themselves.

Some said the taking over of the flats was only a publicity stunt devised by the Communists, These asked ‘How could a hundred people gather together at a certain place and at a certain time unless they had been organised by some central body?’

The first luxury flats to be taken over by the squatters were those at the Duchess of Bedford House, off Kensington High Street. The Daily Herald of September 9th stated that ‘The movement started at 3 p.m. (on Sunday, September 8th), when more than a hundred families entered Duchess of Bedford House, an empty block of ten-guineas-a-week flats in the Duchess of Bedford’s Walk, derequisitioned three weeks ago. Vans arrived with furniture, and squads of police stood by. Mr. B., the caretaker, was the only man in the building when the squatters arrived. He phoned the police. Groups of helpers, many wearing Communist Party badges, assisted the squatters to move in.’

I did not make my way to the Duchess of Bedford House till the evening of Thursday, September 19th. By this time many of the squatters had been issued with writs, and the Communists who were responsible for helping the squatters move in, and who were the leaders of the squatters’ committees, had been arrested. The squatters themselves, by arrangement with the government, were to move out on the following day to new quarters at Bromley House, Bow.

I wanted to see what sort of people these squatters were. Were they sensation-mongers ? Were they weak people, easily influenced by others? Or were they simply out for fun and novelty ? How did the squatters live in their bare stolen homes ? Would they, if they didn’t get the houses they clamoured for, lose heart and go back to their old homes : Perhaps they were breaking up already, sobered by the writs and the arrest of their leaders.

The Duchess of Bedford House was a building of red brick and cement, seven stories high. At an entrance down a side road stood two policemen, their capes dripping with the rain, and a plain-clothes man. I asked if I could see the committee, for I was interested to know more about the organisation that seemed so shrouded in mystery.

‘There isn’t a committee now; they’ve all faded away,’ was the policeman’s comment as he shrugged his shoulders and jerked his thumb towards the entrance beyond him. I went down the steps of this and found myself in the squatters’ home.

Placed diagonally across the door inside was a roughly-constructed plywood counter, to act as a barrier to unwanted visitors. On top of this was a pile of Daily Workers with a saucer beside it for pennies. The people beyond the barrier looked friendly. Some working-class men and women were sitting on chairs against one wall, talking and giving a push now and again to a little girl taking a ride on a home-made rocking-horse. Others had taken a perch on some rolled-up bedding by some sacks of potatoes on the bare stone floor. One or two were studying a bulletin on the notice board. This had been freshly issued by the committee, so apparently they had not melted away’ It urged squatters to keep up their morale and to fall in with the Government’s suggestion to move out to Bromley House till homes could be found for them. Near the bulletin was the canteen tariff : ‘ Main meal-Soup 2d’, Main dish plus bread-rod., Sweet 3d., etc.’

Against the dead lifts stood a large hand-painted poster – ‘DUCHESS SQUATTERS SEND GREETINGS TO ALL SQUATTERS AND ALL WHO NEED HOUSING.’ Children ran to and fro, and in the centre of them, animatedly discussing arrangements for next day with a squatter, stood the woman who I discovered to be the chief woman organiser of the Duchess of Bedford House squatters’ She looked tired and overworked.

I asked her if I might have a look round and speak to the squatters’ She at first showed some hesitation, but, when she was convinced that I meant them no harm, she produced an escort for me.

This was Mrs. R., a squatter whose husband was on the committee. Like the other squatters I saw there, she was spruce, neatly dressed and very friendly. ‘We have to be careful who we let in,’ she told me, ‘the first few days we had crowds of reporters and people, who banged on the doors of our flats and marched straight in to ask us questions. We put up that barrier to stop the flood.’

We went first to see ‘The Kitchens.’ These consisted of slit trenches dug in a cinder yard at the back of the building. A squatter was hard at work cooking the evening meal on the fires that roared in the trenches. In a white overall she stirred her cauldron with nothing to protect her from the rain but a few scanty branches projecting over the wall. She told me she had seven children and that she did all the cooking for the squatters. ‘I shan’t be sorry when we get to Bromley House and the meals are cooked for us,’ she said, ‘but the women have been very good helping to peel potatoes and prepare vegetables, and the men light the fires for me.’ I asked what was for supper. It was soup and fish. A little boy came up with a big tin pie-dish. ‘Six portions of fish and one soup.’

‘Most of the squatters buy their own food and do their cooking in their own flats,’ she said, ‘we have a canteen three times daily for milk and bread, and they buy the rest from the shops.’

This was a surprise. From newspaper reports and from hearsay I had assumed that squatters could not go in and out of shops like ordinary people. I had assumed that they lived in a complete state of siege.

‘Oh yes,’ said my escort, ‘it felt a bit funny at first going out and not knowing whether you’d be let in when you got back. Several times when I went back home to fetch crockery and bits of furniture I wondered if I’d find myself locked out!’

I asked her where her home was, and she told me that she and her husband had been living with her mother at Westminster for the past two years. They had never had a home of their own and had no children. They have been fifteen months on the waiting list at the L.C.C. and Westminster City Council. Her sister and her husband, also at the Duchess of Bedford House, lived with her mother too, so that there were eight adults in three rooms. Her sister’s husband came from Lambeth. The Lambeth Council refused to have him on their list because he lived in Westminster, and the Westminster Council would not have him because they said he was a Lambeth man. I asked her how she heard of the squatting at Bedford House and she said some friends told her about it and they packed suitcases and came straight along.

‘Going squatting’ was an activity referred to by some there as undramatically as ‘going blackberrying.’ ‘I’m sure we’re doing a good job,’ said Mrs. R. ‘My husband was served with a writ a day or two ago, but he didn’t worry; he knew he was doing right. He just took his case to court and spoke out.’ I asked her if it was true that the caretaker had been locked up in his room. ‘No, that was all a lot of nonsense,’ she said, ‘he walks about and is quite friendly to speak to.’

We climbed up five flights of stone stairs in the half dark. Up here there was a lot of scribbling on the walls. ‘Done by the Irish builders who were here before us,’ said Mrs. R. ‘and before them I think there were Maltese refugees.’ As we plodded down again, she said ‘The heating is cut off and the lifts aren’t working. But every day the two lift men report for duty and sit in the caretaker’s office till it’s time for them to go home.’  She showed me the tiny room which the committee used as an office, the food stores where the shelves were piled up with tins of food presented free by sympathisers, the canteen, the hut outside which was used for dancing and socials. They had had a children’s party there that afternoon, and had had visits from variety artists and the Unity Theatre. They were having a good-bye party there that night, at which all the disbanded , committee were appearing.

I asked her how the children had liked being there. ‘Oh, they’re having a grand time,’ she said. It was true, whenever I saw children they showed no signs of being starved and were being made a great fuss of by everybody else’s mothers and fathers. I was told they went to school locally.

Before I went, I was taken to visit some squatters in their private flats., There was Mrs. and Mr. N. on the ground floor. They shared a flat, normally used by one, with-another family and had plenty of space to spare. Each whole flat consisted of three or four rooms, a bathroom and kitchen.

Mrs. N. was cooking on an electric heater plugged into the light. The lino-floored rooms were bare of furniture except for iron bedsteads, a chair or two, a cot and a pram. These were for the two children, a boy of three months and a girl of four. Mr. N. was a dress cutter. Both had worked in munitions during the war, and Mrs. N. had been in turn driller, miller, grinder and viewer. The home they had left consisted of two rooms in Shepherd’s Bush – a kitchen and a bed-living-room. The kitchen was three yards by two yards, so small that there was only space for a small table and two chairs, so that the children had had to eat in the bedroom. ‘We have had furniture dockets for nine months,’ she said, ‘but we couldn’t buy anything because there was no room to put it.’

I spoke to two other families who had become firm friends through squatting. Mrs. H., aged twenty-five, was a member of the committee. Like her husband, who was a painter, she was born in South Wales, but had lived in London since she was fourteen. Her husband was thirty-one, and had served overseas- for all six years of the war, in Palestine, Iraq, and the B.A.O.R. The child, aged seven, had been evacuated to relations in South Wales with her mother. When Mr. H. was demobbed in June, 1946, they both lived in one furnished room in Kilburn. They had a gas ring but no cooking facilities. They had to fetch all water from the floor above. The lavatory was shared with four other families. The rent was £1 6d. a week. The landlady refused to have their child, so she had to remain in South Wales while they still paid £1 a week for her keep.

They have been on the Willesden housing list for a year, went to see a Councillor in Kilburn and wrote to an M.P. in the Ministry of Health. The husband has gastric trouble.

‘We have been all over the place to find a home’, said Mrs. H., ‘it was when my husband was going round to look for rooms that he saw an advert in a newsagent’s about the squatters. It was Sunday, September 8th, the day it started. We had no pots or pans, and our furniture was in store, so we came straight along as we were.’

‘Our first feelings were excitement at having a flat of our own, and at seeing a bathroom, although there was no hot water. We didn’t want to leave. Everybody was so friendly – we’ve made tremendous friends among the squatters.’

Mrs. H., who is very fond of children, was later on put in charge of the children. She told me how the committee had been voted for by all the Bedford House squatters. Apart from the chief organisers there were about six men and six women. They held meetings every night to discuss any changes in the situation and to deal with any complaints or difficulties. Mrs. H. was nursing a little girl of three, who belonged to the chief friend she had made at Bedford House, Mrs. B., who was the same age as herself. Mrs B., aged thirty-five, was a retort-setter who had worked previously for a firm in Glasgow. When this firm suggested a transfer, they moved to one room in Hammersmith with their little girl. They paid fifteen-shillings a week and shared the kitchen and w.c. The rain came in to their room and the kitchen, and they had mice. They were officially overcrowded, but, as they would have been 7,000th on the Council list, they saw no point in putting their name down. They had lived in the Hammersmith room six months. The kitchen grate would not work and the w.c. would not flush. Mr. B. was born in Newcastle and Mrs. in Glasgow.

I left these two families eating their supper, which had been cooked on the usual electric ring plugged into the light. They had had to buy this, cost 15s. 9d. The H.’s only furniture was one or two government chairs found stacked up in the flats. They slept on the floor. As my escort showed me out, some of the squatters were drifting over to the social in the hut. Others were beginning to pack up their belongings ready for the move to Bow.

In the papers next morning were accounts of charabancs with gaily streaming banners,’ and ‘the bands of the -th Regiments , which were to play the squatters out on their journey to Bromley House. The weather was at its bleakest when I turned up to see them off. It was a day of gales and floods.

However, at two-thirty on that afternoon of Friday, September 20th, the Duchess of Bedford Walk presented a very different appearance from the day before. Half a dozen charabancs were lined up in the walk. A girl was pasting strips in the windows These said: ‘DUCHESS OF BEDFORD SQUATTERS – WE STILL FIGHT FOR THE HOMELESS.’

Against the curb on the other side of the walk were taxis and press cars, with attendant motor bikes. Police stood. about at intervals, and reporters greeted each other with weary but knowing smiles, some murmuring that it was ‘all a b… waste of time.’ One press car had a movie camera on its roof, and other reporters were pressing up the little private road to catch the squatters as they came out of the side entrance.

Little groups of squatters were already beginning to emerge with their children, pots and pans and sometimes a puppy or a cat. Some sat ready on the wall, and husbands answered calls of ‘More men wanted!’, as movers struggled with furniture or bedding. Two small boys, ready capped and coated, jumped up and down on duckboards which squelched in the muddy wet across the exit, till they were moved aside by the men coming out with more furniture. Bits were also thrown down from upper windows, from which many heads looked out. The furniture and bedding was stacked in the removal vans drawn up outside. The woman organiser tore herself from hasty discussions with the committee to make a tour of the outside of the block to make sure there was no litter about and that everything was left perfectly tidy.

Among the little crowd that had gathered to watch the squatters, departure were working-class sympathisers, curious Kensingtonians, and a group of mothers and relations with children. A mild-faced gentleman, with an umbrella and a library book under his arm, pottered about, watching quietly. A working-class woman sat down on the wall near the entrance saying ‘I’m a sympathiser. I haven’t got any friends or relations who are squatters, but I’ve come-from Shepherd’s Bush to see them off. It’s a shame to have all these press-men about ; the squatters won’t like that.’ Another sympathiser burst into tears saying, over and over again, ‘Poor dears ! Poor dears !’

But the squatters didn’t have it all their own way, and there were many watchers who were not sympathetically inclined towards them. A young woman, evidently employed as a domestic at the next block of luxury flats, was discussing the squatters with a middle-aged friend.
‘Well, really, how anyone has the face to behave in such a silly way beats me!’ ‘Ridiculous, isn’t it ! ‘
‘ I wouldn’t do a thing like that; not unless the Government told me to !’,
‘Well, I mean, just look at the Types !’
‘Yes, it’s only Types like that’d do a thing like that. Some lovely kiddies though.’ ‘Poor little souls, fancy bringing your kids along to a place where there’s no food! No electricity or anything! poor little souls must be starving!’
‘It’s ridiculous! Why, these flats aren’t fit to live in-they’re in an awful State! They’ve got to have a lot done to them before they’re fit to live in.’
‘It’s not as-though doing a thing like this helps them at all, it only makes things worse in the end.’
‘Of course it’s nothing but a publicity stunt organised by the Communists. I wonder they let themselves be led into a thing like that!’
‘The Communists are silly, but they have got some good ideas. I haven’t the time-for them myself, but they have got some good ideas. They’ve over- stretched themselves this time, though!’
‘As a matter of fact I do think the people should have decent homes. There was a couple with two kiddies living in some rooms I knew, and they had to be turned out when the caretaker’s friends came back. I do think servicemen should have homes to come back to.’
‘Oh, yes, they definitely should have homes. you can’t wonder some of them want to rise from the low standard they’re forced to live in in some of these overcrowded places. Still, it isn’t doing them any good to go about it in such a silly way.’
‘ That’s right. They should learn to be patient and wait.’

The squatters, oblivious to these comments, were beginning to pile into their charabancs. But where was the band ? It was late in materialising… There was a scuffling from behind the recreation hut, and from the shrubbery emerged three men in mufti carrying drums. They set down their drums in a sad row by the entrance, two small ones and a large one in the middle resting on two others. Two men were in mackintoshes and caps, the third was in a suit. They were joined by a piper in full dress and then set to to bang away laboriously.

A taxi driver, cruising by to see what he could see, remarked impartially: ‘The Government shouldn’t have promised them these things ; wot I mean, nobody can’t promise anybody anything these days!’

So the squatters moved away from the Duchess of Bedford House to their new quarters at Bow. But for the squatters there was to be no settled home at Bromley House. The builders’ workmen who were billetted there refused to move out. Their work was near Bow; they saw no reason why they should be transferred to another part of London where they would have to pay extra fares to work. They decided to stand fast, squatters or no squatters.

Here was an unusual situation; one lot of workers defeating the ends of another. What would happen next? Would this break up the squatting movement?

There were sensational accounts of workmen locking doors, guarding rooms with their bodies and crying ‘Stand by your dormitories !’ Feelings between workmen and squatters must be running high. But the next bulletin told how all day Saturday squatters had been on deputations to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Health. They had finally been promised another temporary home. This was to be at Alexandra House, Hampstead, up till now an Old Ladies’ Home. The old ladies, evidently more amenable than belligerent workmen, were to be moved out to St. Pancras.

After leaving the squatters a few days to settle down, I went up to see them in their new quarters. Having heard the stories of their reception at Bromley House, I was interested to see if the squatters were still standing firm’ They had been calm and cheerful at the Duchess of Bedford House. Perhaps, after this set-back some would have gone home and those that remained would be disgruntled.

Toiling up the slope that led to Alexandra House were two mothers with a baby in a pram and two little boys. One of these was saving to his mother : ‘Are we going back to the Hospital, Mum ? ‘ ‘
Don’t be silly,’ said his mother, ‘it isn’t a hospital ! ‘ ‘
Well, there’s nurses inside.’
‘That doesn’t make it a hospital-it’s HOME ! ‘
the little boy said, with more conviction, ‘It’s our new house ! ‘

The new house was a solid mansion, surrounded by trees, at the top of a high drive. The sky could be seen through the windows of, one wing which had been burnt out by the blitz. The lawns in front of the house were half dug up into vegetable beds.

I followed the mothers up the wide steps into a large parquet-floored entrance hall where there were comfortable arm-chairs and a circular table with a pot of flowers on it. Again my escort, Mrs. R., appeared to show me round. She took me into the large dining-hall where trestle tables were set with a meal prepared by L.C.C. staff in basement kitchens. We saw the common room with wireless and rows of ‘ pensioner ‘ chairs, the washrooms with rows and rows of basins, the rooms where the babies’ milk was prepared.

As we went I asked her questions. How was the squatters’ morale standing up to all the vicissitudes ? What had been the attitude of the Bromley House workmen towards them ? Had the squatters felt very bitter towards them ? How did they like their new home ? Had many families got fed up with the whole business and left ?

Mrs. R. seemed surprised that I expected the squatters to be changed. They were the same now as they had been before; as cheerful and as reasonable as ever. ‘Nobody’s got fed up,’ she said, ‘the Duchess of Bedford squatters are all here in full force, and we have been joined by the squatters from Melcombe Regis and Fountain Court. Only one family has left us, and that was because some people at their old home went away and there was room for them there. The others are all here, and they still feel the same as they did. After all, nobody’s here for the fun of the thing.’

‘You see we know we’re doing a good job. A lot has happened already. Two of our families have been found new homes, the Ministry of Health has launched a new housing drive and the L.C.C. people here seem anxious to do ail they can for us.’ ‘ Can you tell me anything about the families who have been found these new homes ?’

‘Yes, I know about one of them. They were squatters from Fountain Court and had seven children. They lived in one room in North Kensington. The roof leaked, the bath was in a condemned basement and the children were several times bitten badly by rats. They’ve been found a home in rooms in Westminster that n-ere in the middle of being decorated.’

We looked at the notice board in the hall. There was a list of local schools, the address of a boys’ club in Camden Town and the names of mothers qualifying for priority milk. Mrs. R. told me there had been several babies born during the squatting.

There was also a notice issued by L.C.C. housing officers. This stated that it was unnecessary for anyone at present to go to Town Halls or housing departments about their cases, as they were being dealt with by the L.C.C. Those who had not applied anywhere should apply to the L.C.C., including ex-servicemen, even if already on housing lists.

I asked a committee member who was sitting typing at a table for the official figures of the families at the Duchess of Bedford House, at Bromley House, and at present at Alexandra House. She told me that the families at The Duchess of Bedford had numbered In all fifty-five. At Bromley House, where they had only spent one night, there had been something under a hundred families, those from the Duchess of Bedford and Fountain Court. The squatters at Melcombe Regis had hung out till the Monday (the night spent at Bromley House was a Friday), when they had joined the others at Alexandra House. There were now a hundred families at Alexandra House.

‘We hope to have everybody fixed up within six weeks,’ said Mrs. R. We went to see the Gymnasium, shortly to be turned into a creche. A boy was tearing round the yard outside on his bicycle while five old ladies sat quietly by on a bench. One of the nurses that the little boy had spoken about came up to see if they wanted anything. As well as the squatters’ organisers we saw L.C.C. helpers, voluntary women helpers, some of whom lent their services for typing out notices and case histories, trained nurses and Hampstead housewives who had come to look after the babies, and an assortment of clerks who looked out of place in their striped trousers and black coats.

‘Of course there are some squatters who don’t pull their weight,’ said Mrs. R., ‘some who are dirty or untidy and some who help as little as they can. But there always will be people like that, and the majority of them have been marvellous. They all have jobs allotted them by the committee. Some help to look after the children, some keep the wash-places clean, others have duties in the milk rooms.’

We went upstairs to see the dormitories. These looked like hospital wards but were more closely packed with rows upon rows of iron bedsteads, some with children already in them or mothers sitting on them chatting. More small children’s beds were arranged together at one end of the room, some in two tiers. There were two of these vast dormitories, one for mothers and babies, another for mothers and children over three. The boys over eight slept on the next floor up in the men’s dormitory.

Mrs. R. took me through into her own dormitory where the women without children slept. Although it was removed from the others the wailing of children could still be heard.

‘That’s the trouble about this place, really,’ said Mrs. R., ‘the lack of privacy. We all really preferred Bedford House as we had our own flats there. Here you sleep together, wash together and eat together. The first night I hardly slept a wink.’

There was a doctor with some L.C.C. officials going round the dormitory. A middle-aged woman was taking off her skirt, an older one was trying to sleep. ‘ As soon as there’s any sign of illness among the kiddies they take them off to hospital ; it would be too risky to leave them here where others might catch it from them.

‘We wandered back through the other dormitories. I sat down on a bed with a red worsted counterpane marked ‘ London County Council ‘ and talked to one of the mothers. The lights were now on, and we carried on our conversation to the accompaniment of wails from the children around us.

This mother had a child of six. Her husband had had a temporary job in the Channel Islands and had been caught there when the Germans took over. She could only communicate with him by Red Cross message. She took the child to live with her mother in Yorkshire and got a job in munitions, first electro-plating transmitters and then tank links. When the islands were liberated a year ago she and her husband went to live in a room in Clapham with their little girl. They were charged 30s. for the two of them and £2 when they were joined by the child. For this they had one back room with an iron bedstead sleeping three, a small card table, three odd chairs, a second-hand chest of drawers and washstand with odd jug and basin. There was an open coal fire for which they had to provide their own fuel and a gas cooker in a tiny room downstairs. This worked on a meter, and as it was shared by men lodgers who were out during the day, the family lost on the transaction and had to pay as much as ten shillings a week for gas. Two young girls were then put in the room with the cooker which meant they had to cook on the floor above, sharing cooker and lavatory with three other families. There was no bath. They had to boil water up and use a tin one they bought themselves. They had filled up a form a year ago at the L.C.C. When she went back about it they told her it had been sent on to Kennington, but Kennington knew nothing about it. The landlady soon gave them a week’s notice as she wanted the room for men boarders who would pay more. After traipsing all over London with the child to find another room, the family bought a second-hand bed and slept the night in a hut on Clapham Common, cooking for two days on a ‘ bogey ‘ lamp.

On Sunday night, September 8th, they heard on a friend’s wireless that people were squatting at the Duchess of Bedford, and went straight there on a bus, going back later to the hut to fetch the bed in a taxi. I asked them how they had liked squatting.

‘It’s been marvellous ! No landlady to say ” Be quiet ! . . .” When I first heard the kids making a row at Bedford House I wanted to say ” Sh-h-h ! ” We used to have to walk across our room in carpet slippers. And the bath ! We boiled up water and put it straight in it ! Squatting there was an experience I shall never forget. Everybody was so kind, you only had to say what you wanted and they’d get it for you. There was no time to get disheartened, with the concerts and everything, and we felt we were doing right, although some people might not think so. You see, one half of the world doesn’t know how the other half lives. As to the way the squatters stuck together, I was surprised at it myself. People say the working classes get disheartened quickly, and even I was surprised at the way they all stood together.

‘How about Bromley House ? Didn’t that dishearten you ? What were the builders’ workmen Iike?’

’What they said in the papers wasn’t true. I think they wanted one lot of working-class to cut the others’ throats, but we weren’t going to. The workmen were all very friendly. you should have seen them all standing there by the gate with smiles on their faces! They hadn’t had anything to eat all day, because they were supposed to clear out, but they turned to and helped us. They offered some of the men beds in their dormitories, and some of them were ready to turn out for us, but we wouldn’t let them. As soon as we had had a meal the chaps who were playing dominoes in the rest room cleared out and helped us-make up our beds on the floor. I’m glad we didn’t stay there, though, it was like an institution, only suitable really for men who were out, all day. In the evening we put it to the vote whether to get out or stay, and decided to get out.’

‘On the Saturday some of the workmen joined in our deputations and came with us. to Downing Street. When we went they made a collection for our kids, it came to £5.’

I asked this mother how she liked it at Alexandra House, and she said it was nice having good food, but she didn’t like the lack of privacy or having to sleep apart from her husband. ‘We’ve been parted for the last five years’ she said, ‘and that’s quite long enough.’ I was told that there was more tension between husbands and wives at Alexandra House than between families, because of this sleeping apart.

I asked her what sort of house-she would prefer if she were given the choice. ‘A prefab’, she said, without hesitation. ‘They look so neat and you can keep them nice. With a garden in front and your own bath. Then you could have the key to your own door and come in and go out as you liked.’ Of the half dozen people I asked all, without hesitation, chose prefabs as the kind of home they would prefer.

I now had an answer to most of my questions. But downstairs in the entrance hall I picked up a copy of the Evening Standard and read a paragraph headed ‘The Squatters Retreat – Communist tactic. The squatters, who had little to do with the decision to squat, had less to do with the decision to retreat from the occupied premises. That was a decision of the Communist Party. It conforms to the classic tactic of that party all over the world. The tactic is to make an issue, force.it to the point where it appears dangerous, collect the political capital accruing and then retreat . . . We may congratulate ourselves that what might have been an exceedingly ugly business has passed off without violence!’

I had grown a little tired of hearing squatting explained away as a publicity stunt and put down as nobody’s but the Communists’ responsibility, so I decided to ask the next squatters I saw what they thought about it. On a sofa in the hall sat a couple I had not seen before. I went over to talk to them.

Mr. and Mrs. R. were both young. The husband was twenty-one and had been born in Woolwich. His wife, aged twenty-six, was born in St. Pancras. They had married during the war and had never had a home. Mr. R. was fair, open-faced and British to the backbone. At the beginning of the war he had been apprenticed to a Watford engineering firm. He volunteered in 1943. He met his wife near Watford when he was in the Army and she was in the W.A.A.F. Before that she had been a clerk in a big London store. She was neat, lively and intelligent. Part of the time I was talking to them she was nursing the baby, who found it difficult to go to sleep in the big dormitory.

When Mr. R. was demobbed in 1946 they lived for a time with his mother in Watford. There was no room for them both there, and by this time they had a baby almost a year old. They put their name down for a house, before he was demobbed, at the Marylebone Council, then at the Watford Council, then, this year, at the L.C.C. There was nothing doing; no definite date. From then on theirs was a life of wandering. They went from his mother’s to his wife’s relations at Exeter; then, when relatives there came home from the war, to more relations in Kent. When more family turned up in Kent, to Mr. R.’s brother in St. John’s Wood. Then back to Exeter and so on. While they were at his brother’s in St. John’s Wood a friend rang up and said, ‘Would you like to squat ?’ and told them about Melcombe Regis. They arrived there too late and at last managed to get in with the squatters at Abbey Lodge, the flats that were most strictly guarded by the police. The police had had orders from the owners not to let anybody in, and anyone who went out for stores or blankets was sure to find himself barricaded out on his return. There were not enough blankets to go round, and many of the men gave up theirs to the women and babies, as their friends who arrived with blankets were not allowed to leave them.

Finally the crowd of sympathisers outside, the majority of whom Mr. R. knew personally and could vouch for their not being Communists, did a sit- down ‘squat ‘ in the road, so that traffic had to be diverted. The police relented so far as to let in twenty-five blankets. Other sympathisers, amongst whom were well-to-do people in cars, rolled up with gifts of food and even hot water bottles.

The R.’s said they had a lovely flat on the first floor that would have accommodated two families. There were two bathrooms. Some resourceful squatters rolled themselves up in the rich carpet they found in the hall. Mr. R. said the squatters’ morale at Abbey Lodge was very high. Again he knew many of them personally, and of the ones he knew none were Communists. The squatters formed their own committee. The R.’s stayed at Abbey Lodge a week and then were intending to go back to his brother’s, but heard indirectly that by staying with him they might be letting him in for trouble. His was a Council-requisitioned house and if he was caught having people there he might lose his tenancy. So, hearing from a friend about Alexandra House, they came along on Monday, September 23rd.

If the R.’s could choose, they could have a prefab. on an estate at Stonebridge Park, or as near London as possible, but they would be prepared to go anywhere as long as they could have a home of their own. The chief disadvantage of squatting for Mr. R. was that he couldn’t get out to go to work and so had lost more than a week’s wages and still has the difficulty of fares to Watford, where he is in the same engineering job. ‘I know I could get money off the Communists,’ he said, ‘but I wouldn’t, because squatting is for my own benefit, not theirs. However,’ he added, ‘I feel by squatting we shall definitely shorten the time of waiting which the councils said would probably be for years.’ Then he said, with vehemence ‘If the Government go on allowing luxury flats now untenanted to be done up for luxury people they ought to be chucked out.’

His wife added, with as much feeling ‘If they don’t accommodate us from here-and we won’t shift from here till we must-we shall go and squat for ourselves somewhere else. The Communists have nothing to do with it. We would have squatted in a prefab. if it hadn’t been for taking it away from the people who wanted it.’ Mr. R. would have voted labour at the last election, but had been too young to vote.

I asked every squatter I spoke to what their politics were, and they told me either that they were Labour or no particular party. One of them remarked that, as far as they could see, the Communists were the only ones who were ready to do anything for them, and that they had been marvellous. But as to the argument that the Communists gave them the idea of squatting, they said there was nothing to it. Many of them had been squatting of their own accord before the taking over of the flats. In some cases the huts they had been squatting in had been taken away from them.

Whether or not the Communists were responsible, their enthusiasm for the squatters’ well-being made it unlikely that the taking over of the flats had been organised for publicity reasons. Those who were organising, both at the Duchess of Bedford and at Alexandra House, were extremely hard-working and never had a moment that they could call their own. They seemed to treat the Press curtly and to answer aa few questions as possible’.

The two that I pursued for information were Stan Henderson, one of the Communists arrested for organising the squatting at the Duchess of Bedford, and the woman organiser already mentioned.

From both of these I tried to find the explanation of how the squatters had so miraculously assembled at the flats on September 8th. Henderson, who was under arrest at the time, was unable to make a statement. The woman organiser, although willing to do all she could to help me, was, on every occasion, either too busy or too tired to say a word.

From the answers I was given by the squatters it can only be assumed that, as the number of the families at the Duchess of Bedford House was officially fifty-five, instead of a hundred as stated in some daily newspapers, and as all the squatters I spoke to had either heard of it through friends or on the wireless, and had gone straight along or followed the next day, there was not such a general taking-over en masse as I had been led to believe.

On October 8th I rang up Alexandra House for the last time, to try and get an answer to this question. The squatters were still there in force. Five families had now been found homes. But the same woman organiser from whom I was trying to get the information had had a nervous breakdown and had been ordered a complete rest from the squatters by her doctor. However, what was more important, before she became ill she gave me access to the squatters’ case-histories, on condition that a committee member was present when I read them.

Here are a few of them, as they appeared in the files.

Husband and wife, no children. 1 room and kitchen (lodger slept in kitchen). Roof leaked, water came in. Mice in room, rats in basement. 14/- rent. Officially over- crowded. Husband-in Nary 3 years. Demobbed May 46. Applied Kensington B.C. Was told no good as had not lived in Kensington 5 years. Must apply again in one year.

Husband, wife, 5 children (M.19, twins M.M. 13, F 12, F.7). 2 rooms, one very small used as kitchen. All slept in one room. Shared lav. In bad repair. Draughty. r4/- rent. Husband demobbed45. (Dunkirk, Invasion). Applied Paddington 1 year ago. Called again recently, no sign of application.

Husband, wife, 2 children under r4, baby expected. Room damp infested. Officially overcrowded. Shared bath, w.c. Rent 12/- Husband P.G.U. 18 months on housing list. Husband in R.A.F., France, Malta, Belgium, boarded out of RAF. with perf. G.U. On Kensington Housing List.

Husband, wife, 4 children (16, 10, 3, 9 mths.). Had two rooms, but one burnt out so living in one room. Beetles, damp and rot. In Hammersmith 17 years at several addresses. On waiting list all that time. Renewed application with each new child. Applied to Kensington B.C. for house four months ago but were referred back to Hammersmith and there told no hope. Wife under hospital treatment with fibrositis. Allen (r6), chronic sinovitis of knee. Dennis (9) under hospital treatment for rheumatic heart and chorea.

Widow, 2 children (6$ and, z). Lived in Portsmouth since 1939. Husband (R.N.) killed D-Day. She left Portsmouth 1946 when offered resident job as caretaker in London. Gave up home in Portsmouth because told job permanent. Brought furniture with her. Two months later evicted by employer, who said he did not want children. Applied to Portsmouth for house, told she could no longer be considered-as living there. Applied to Marylebone. Refused because not lived there long enough. Applied to L.C.C. County Hall 3 weeks ago.

Man, had home in Lambeth destroyed in blitz, 1941. Wife had half face torn away and died leaving baby daughter. He was discharged from Army on medical grounds 1942 and tried to make home for child without success. Remarried 1945 widow with one child, now in hospital with new baby. They had to leave their furnished room 6 weeks ago because wanted for landlady’s family. Unable to find home, slept on railway stations 4 weeks. Husband discharged army duodenal ulcers. When rest centre bombed left London so could not follow up application for house. Applied again 3 weeks ago. Refused by Westminster. Almoner of hospital where wife still is trying to find them temporary home.

Widow, 3 girls, 13, 7, 4. Three rooms basement and ground floor. Running with water and ceiling falling down. Slugs and beetles all over floor, climbing on tables and shelves. Rats. Been there two years. Sanitary inspector called, nothing done. Had to have light on all day. Dirty rubbish in cellar. Girl, 7, had bronchitis. All kids getting nervy and afraid to go to toilet alone. Mrs. – under hospital treatment for rheumatism. On Marylebone housing list.

Husband, wife, 2 c. (7, 2). 2 rooms. No kitchen, no bathroom, no sink, no water laid on. One room used as bed living-room. Husband and wife and child of 7 slept on one bed. Cot for two-year-old. 2nd room (8 ft. by 6 ft.) contained gas cooker, table, two chairs. No room for anything else. W.c. down one flight, shared with four. Wife suffers from duodenal ulcers in stomach and is on diet. On Hammersmith Town Council rehousing list. 9,760 people before them. No hope of living decently is aggravating illness. Rent 30/- per week, 10/- gas and electricity.

Husband, wife, one baby, another expected. One room. No bath. Shared w.c. with 7 others. House on bombed site. Officially overcrowded. Baby ill. Husband was in Marines, Normandy and Germany. Rent 10/- per week. On Barnes and Kensington housing list 18 months. Number on list about 5000.

Husband, wife, 1 c. (8). Husband six and a half years in Army, Lance Corp. 5 years P.O.W. in underground camp. Demobbed Feb. 1946. Wife then living with her mother, furniture stored in basement room. Mother had 3-roomed flat with 6 adults and 1 child, so, on husband’s return, moved to basement room. Plaster off ceiling, very damp. Fire needed continuously. Gas lighting. Overrun with mice. Husband on essential work as Rlwy. Loco. fireman. Night Work. Rest constantly disturbed (came back from Germanv with bad nerves.) Rent plus heating and light approx. £1/2/6 (N.B.-This family was fixed up by Council on September 18th.)

Husband, wife, 1 c. (18.mths.) (Boy (4) in L.C.C. home). Occupied one of mother’s 4 rooms, the other 3 housing father, mother, And children (17, twins of 15, 12). Baby under care Westminster Hospital all last winter. Medically advised to leave. On Westminster Council priority list 2 years. They said ‘Come back in 3 months’, but never offered anything.

Husband, wife, 1 c. (14 mths.). Husband had job as caretaker in Hampstead. Lost job when employer went to prison. Had one furnished room in same house at 15/- for short time. Then room in Chelsea with no furniture and no cooking facilities for 1 week, and slept on floor. Spent few days in a hotel but could not afford to continue. Friend offered shelter in workshop, and slept under machine with 14 mths. old baby. Applied to St Pancras 4 weeks ago.

Father, mother, 2 sons (8, 15). (Son 14, hospital, Leicester). 1 furnished room, 9 ft by 9 ft. Shared cooking facilities 4 other tenants. Rain came in. Sanitary Inspector said house unfit to live in. Recommended by Westminster M.O.H. for L.C.C. list. On list at Brixton since May, 1946, and at Finsbury Park.

Husband, wife, 2 c. (4, 9 mths.). Wife lived with mother during war. Husband in R.A.F. Four and a half yrs. When returned refused admission by wife’s parents. Wife, told to choose between him and parents. Left to find home with husband. Nowhere to go. Two attempts to find home. Turned out of room in Paddington because of children. Went to rooms in Earls Court. No Iav. accommodation. Landlord did not keep promise to put one in. Applied Barnet B.C. Sanitary Inspector called, said premises with no lav, unsatisfactory. Would not put on waiting list. Kensington would not put on waiting list.

Husband, wife, 7 children, 2-20 years. Son in Army, one girl paralysed, wd. have home if accommodation available. 2 rooms (gas cooker and sink in one room). All seven slept in one room. One wc for whole house. Been there two years. Children evacuated till close of war. Husband bad health, chest disease, pneumonia, pleurisy. Bombed out twice. poverty, struggle with large family. Soldier son refused to come home on leave because of overcrowding. Applied Kensington B.C. 6 mths. ago. Told thousands before them and discouraged from putting name on list.

These case histories, a small proportion of the total of similar ones in the file, speak for themselves.

Anyone studying them can see that in no case could any of the lodgings that were the squatters’ previous homes be described as anything but inadequate and squalid. The vast majority of the families mentioned, both in the case histories and earlier in the article, were, regardless of the size of the family, living in one room. The facilities were often shared by many others and often in bad repair.

Mice, rats, slugs, beetles were not uncommon. There were also many cases of damp and draught. Many of the families were suffering from some illness or nervous complaint which was aggravated by these conditions. Children were being shattered by them.

Three families had been thrown out of what homes they had.

Quite a number of the families had had no home at all, but had led a nomadic life over a considerable period, wandering from one place to another.

With few exceptions all had applied to local councils for new homes. The exceptions were those who had been discouraged from doing so. Many had been refused by Councils and some by their circumstances did not qualify for any list.

It will be quite clear from this that all the families mentioned were desperate and that the idea of waiting and being patient can have meant nothing at all to them. Many had waited and been patient with no results. It was therefore quite natural that during their period of squatting they should feel not only more comfortable and therefore happier than they had been for some time, but glad to have embarked on any kind of action, especially as it was shared by others like them. If only a few of them found homes it would have been worth it, and the ones who were not placed for some time were better off in institutions than in damp cellars, however much they felt the lack of privacy. Their solidarity, in such circumstances, was not surprising, and needed the very slightest jogging, if any, from any political party.

One can see how unfounded was the idea that the squatters should regret their action.

As to the most common criticism against the squatters, that by forcing the issue and not waiting their turn they were depriving other people of homes, this can be explained away by looking at their treatment by the housing authorities. There was often no apparent reason in their order on the housing lists, and more chance than design in whether they were refused or accepted.

Added to this, many of the squatters felt that in challenging the housing authorities they were not doing their homeless friends a bad turn but a good one, and that, by their violent action, they were making more immediate the consideration of the thousands of others on the same lists.

Today in London housing history, 1946: mass squat of Duchess of Bedford House, Kensington

At the end of WW2 there was massive homelessness around the country – a pre-war shortage of housing had been made worse by the destruction of houses through bombing and a total halt in the building of new housing.

“During both wars, the demands of wartime production meant that house-building was almost halted for the duration while the population needing homes grew; but in World War II there was the additional factor of damage to the housing stock from air raids, which had been minimal in World War I. According to official estimates, enemy action destroyed 218,000 homes and so severely damaged a further 250,000 as to make them uninhabitable. In addition, only around 190,000 houses were completed during the war, probably around a tenth of what might otherwise have been built. The number of useable houses, taking account of enemy action and change of use for wartime purposes, probably fell by around 400,000 between 1939 and 1945, against a rise in the housing stock of nearly two million in the six years before the war.
In contrast, the number of ‘potential households’ rose from about 12 million to approximately 13.2 million during the war. If there were around 500,000 more potential households than houses in 1939, this had grown to something like 2.1 million by the end of the war. The housing shortage had never been as acute as in 1945 – the previous peak, after World War I, was 1.5 million.” (Howard Webber).

The demobilisation of thousands of servicemen jacked this up into a crisis… Demand for housing was greater than ever; on the flip side, there were thousands of empty houses in London; mainly houses and flats that had been left vacant as better off folk moved out of London during the blitz. This had resulted in a glut of empties in middle class areas while working class communities were put under massive pressure for lack of decent housing.

Around the country, the housing crisis produced the 20th century’s first mass squatting wave. Empty army camps and depots, and some houses, were squatted all around the UK.

In Brighton, a group called the Vigilantes, or the “The Secret Committee of Ex-Servicemen” began squatting houses for the many homeless. This spread to towns all along the south coast as well, then to Essex, Birmingham, London and Liverpool. The Vigilantes included anarchists with experience of anti‑fascist and other struggles in the ’30s. They didn’t bother much with conventional politics or lobbying. There was still very little council housing and their campaign was mainly against private landlords. They demanded that privately-owned empties be taken over for immediate use by homeless people.

From May 1946 a new phase began: the squatting of empty army camps. All over the country there were redundant army and air force camps with Nissen huts and other buildings – rudimentary, but mostly better than the conditions many people were having to live in. From Scunthorpe, the movement spread to Sheffield and then virtually everywhere in England, Scotland and Wales. An organisation was formed – the Squatters’ Protection Society. Other places started being taken over – schools, hotels, even a greyhound stadium, and the movement just kept on growing. This was a largely spontaneous movement, organised from below by working class people, though both communist and Labour activists had a hand st local level in helping people squat and supporting them.

There were attempts to evict the squats, but most eviction attempts seem to have failed. Council workers and even police sometimes refused to carry them out – or were seen off by sheer force of numbers.

Life in the camps had to be improvised and communal: people organised water, furniture, food and child care… Camp committees elected by the squatters themselves co-ordinated work to house people and gather and allocate resources.

Eventually, the state had to give in and try to absorb and co-opt the movement. Councils started to organise “methodical squatting”. This was exactly the same as the “short-life licensing” of more recent times. “O.K., we’ll let you live here after all -as long as we’re in charge” had become the line adopted by bureaucrats stamping their little feet, by 1947. So most of the squatters got to stay for several years before being eventually rehoused. Councils also started to use the camps themselves for “official” short-term housing, moving in thousands more people. The last of the camps was not closed until 1961. In Oxfordshire, over a hundred families from one of the original 1946 occupations were determined to stay together and were eventually housed in the new village of Berinsfield in 1959….

There was some camp squatting in London, mainly in east and outer London, but the opportunities were fewer, partly as army camps were generally smaller around the capital than in other places.

In early September 1946, squatting entered a new phase, as several large buildings in central London were occupied.

Squatters outside the Duchess of Bedford flats

On 8 September, the a seven-storey Duchess of Bedford flats, off Campden Hill Road in Kensington, was squatted. The building was owned by the Prudential Assurance Company, but had spent much of the was being used by the Ministry of Works, who had done several thousand pounds worth of refurbishments, and had proposed to Kensington Borough Council that the buildings be used to house some of the borough’s 4000 homeless. In keeping with the attitude of the modern RKBC (Kensington was merged with Chelsea in 1965), the Borough Council refused to use its powers of requisition to take control of the building, preferring that it should return to its pre-war use for high-rent flats for toffs.

The Kensington squat came about due to planning by the Communist Party London District, but there had been pressure on them in the few weeks prior to this:

“People from many areas were pressing on the London District offices of the Communist Party, asking – no, demanding – that something should be done and the Party must take the initiative, as it had done in the past on many occasions. I can reveal that what happened on September 8th. 1946 was not the result of long planning, committee meetings and so on. It was a 48-hour effort…

On Friday September 6th. Ted Bramley, as London District Secretary, and Dennis Goodwin, as District Organiser, discussed the whole question and decided it was time to act. Leading members from the various areas were called in, including people like Bill Carritt and Joyce Alergant (Communist councillors on Westminster City Council who were later arrested for their part in the squatters movement) and Stan Henderson, Secretary of the Hammersmith Communist Party. At this meeting members were asked urgently to identify suitable empty dwellings, preferably blocks of flats. These were then pared down to a few. First on the list was Duchess of Bedford House…

On the next day, Saturday, local leaders got in touch with the many people they knew – mostly not Party members – who were living in bad conditions, told them what was to happen and asked if they would like to join in. If
so, they would meet at agreed spots on Sunday afternoon, would bring bedding,
etc. and see what happened. Nobody was led to believe that they would have a long term place.” (Jack Gaster)

On the afternoon of 8th September around 100 families occupied Duchess of Bedford House, and some nearby empties in Upper Phillimore Gardens and in Holland Park Road. According to the Times (9 September 1946), “Groups of people carrying bedding converged on High Street Kensington at 2 o’clock in the afternoon… Within ten minutes 1,000 people, about 400 families were through the doors and being directed to individual flats”.

That evening, the action was announced in a speech by Ted Bramley made at a Communist Party public meeting held in the Palace Theatre that Sunday evening. That this speech was recorded was due to the diligence of  of Detective Sergeant Gibson of the Special Branch who kindly sat in the dress circle and made a note of that speech – it subsequently formed the basis of a criminal charge against Bramley.

Sergeant Gibson’s statement:
“I was present in the dress circle of the Palace Theatre from 6.15p.m. until 9.45p.m. on Sunday 8th. September attending a meeting organised by the Communist Party..

At 8.40p.m. the Chairman of the meeting said that Ted Bramley was to make an important announcement. Ted Bramley, who is known to me as the Secretary of the London District Committee of the Communist Party, then rose and with a piece of paper in his hand, said: “At 6 o’clock this evening the B.B.C. made the
following announcement.” He then read what appeared to be a verbatim report of the news bulletin to the effect that between 2 and 3 o’clock… about 100 London people occupied three blocks of luxury flats and a number of houses in Kensington and adjacent areas. Bramley then read with special emphasis to the members of the audience: “The operation appeared to have been organised to the last detail by the London Communist Party.” Bramley then said: “I should like to point out that we only heard of the accommodation becoming available 36 hours ago and it was clear that it just what was urgently needed by the homeless workers of London. It was clear to us that there was some danger that if we remained idle or waited to discuss it, the accommodation would go to those who were in the least need of it. Within 24 hours we had contacted a representative number of London
families who were in desperate need of homes from a representative number of boroughs.
Fifteen minutes before zero hour, some hundreds of people had arrived at the appointed place, some with suitcases and some with lorries loaded with furniture,
They proceeded to occupy Duchess of Bedford House owned by the Prudential Assurance Company. There were a hundred self-contained flats, in which we placed 100 families and in which some of the 400 people were lodged. They then entered Moray Lodge owned by (apparently the Police Sergeant missed the name) and ten families were placed there.”

A picture of the squatting operation in progress was described by Police Constable Arthur Smith, during the later court case:

“At about 2.30p.m. on the 8th September did you go to Kensington High Street?
Yes.
Is that near the Underground station?
Yes.
What did you see?
I saw about twenty persons crossing the road from the station to the north side of
Kensington High Street where they tuned right into Horton Street.
Did they walk along Hornton Street?
Yes.
What happened then?
On turning into Hornton Street there was quite a crowd the whole length of the street, some 100 persons.
Were they joined by people coming from another street?
Yes, from several other streets, Argyle Street and other roads in the vicinity.
Where did they go?
They turned left into Duchess of Bedford Walk…
Were they going to any particular building?
Yes. I found them already inside the Duchess of Bedford House.
Did you notice which entrance they were using?
Yes. It appeared to me to be the first tradesmen’s entrance at the rear of the Duchess of Bedford House.
Were other doors open later on?
Yes; several other doors were open back and front.”

Smith then went on to describe how one of the defendants, Councillor Rosen of Stepney (known in the Party as “Tubby” Rosen) stood near the steps of the building and directed people into it. Bill Carritt was also there helping to organise the event. Stan Henderson was one of the squatters; they elected him secretary of their committee.

According to the Times (9 September 1946), “Groups of people carrying bedding converged on High Street Kensington at 2 o’clock in the afternoon… Within ten minutes 1,000 people, about 400 families were through the doors and being directed to individual flats”.

A number of serving soldiers and ex-servicemen and their families were among the were mainly young married couples who moved in. The police did turn up but did nothing to prevent the action, and in fact “made themselves helpful to people and an inspector arranged for a WVS van to supply hot drinks.”

Block committees were quickly set up to co-ordinate arrangements for heating and cooking. Nominal rents were collected from all the families.

When the Duchess of Bedford House was full, other buildings in nearby streets were squatted – people were also redirected to a squat at Moray Lodge, and then to the Melcombe Regis Court, in Marylebone where Councillor Joyce Alergant was waiting to welcome them. [Moray Lodge was an empty 2-room mansion, the pre-war home of Lord Ilchester, according to the Daily Worker.]

Ex-marine Arthur Hill wrote an account of the squatting of Duchess of Bedford House:

“And there I was, three piece grey chalk stripe suit, brown trilby in hand, trying to be a civilian again.

With a wife and baby, living in one room in my gran’s house, where my mum and dad also lived, life was difficult. It didn’t help at all to have Lil, the next door neighbour, a friend (?) of the family, winding things up all the time.

Constantly quoting how people were ‘getting housed by the Council’, and ‘all you have to do is keep reminding them’, so that you won’t be overlooked.

I must admit, it didn’t take a lot to wind me up. Having been barred from the Housing Department for causing trouble, I went in through the back door, through the Borough Surveyor’s Office. I knew my way round the council house better that most, as it had been used as the control centre of the A.R.P. where I was a messenger in 1939. Still protesting and asking where was the ‘Land fit for Hero’s’ that we’d been promised, and what was our new Labour Goverment going to do about it?, I got escorted out once again, with instructions not to return until sent for.

That was when I decided to pitch my tent on the Council House front lawn.
This time the police were called, and the ban enforced.

Ginger Cooley (ex-Marine oppo), often talked about our housing problems. We went to his wedding, and of course, had met his and his wife’s families, and there were a lot of them! After they had wed, he was living with his family, sharing a bedroom with his brothers, while she stayed with her parents, sharing with her sisters.

We thought they were daft to have married under the circumstances, at least we had a room, but as Ginger said, it did put them on a housing list.

Several times, when the subject was raised, he said that a Nissan hut could be made quite comfortable, and he knew places where we could go squatting. My reply was always the same, that I’d seen enough of Nissan huts to last a lifetime. If I went squatting it would have to be something better than that.

So, this was why, when early one Sunday morning Ginger phoned to say that a large group were preparing to squat in a block of luxury flats in Kensington, that I dropped everything and went.

A boy carries possessions up to a Duchess of Bedford House squat, September 1946

This was it, the BIG ONE! The first ever mass squatting. We hit the headlines! Not that we ever had time to read them…

there must have been at least 200 of us, and we went straight in. Somebody had opened everything for us, and it was just like staking a claim – and we did!

It was a block of luxury flats, halfway between Kensington (where we got married), and Notting Hill (where Carrie, my darling, came from). Ginger and I, together with our wives, took over a flat on the 2nd. floor. It was enormous, more space than the average house, and divided in two as night and day accommodation. Just the job.

Within the next week or two, other mass squattings had taken place, the other main big one being Fountain Court, Pimlico, and from what we heard they never had anything easy at all.
Because we were the first, we were regarded as a test case, and everything had to go through the Courts. The owners had file a complaint and prefer charges, but who were the owners?

Apparently the Ministry of Works had requisitioned the buildings, to house Maltese building workers, who were repairing bomb damage. They had all been moved on, and the place had been standing empty, but somebody had neglected to return it to the original owners, who the newspapers said was the Prudential Assurance Company. Because of the adverse publicity, they were denying ever to have owned it.

All this confusion was to our advantage, we were left alone for weeks, except for a few attempts to turn off our mains supplies, but we were taking turns on picket duty round the clock, and were able to thwart these manoeuvres. The support we had was marvellous, from the media, and the public in general, and especially the papers.

Carrie and I had moved in all our furniture, -we must have been daft, but we were fully committed. On her 21st.birthday, and baby Maureen’s first., we had a party, one never to forget. Family and friends, and some representatives from the unions turned up with reporters in tow. Pictures were taken, but there was no feedback, so we’ve never seen them. I suppose that they are in the archives of the papers somewhere and could probably be found, at least we do know the date!”

A couple of buildings nearby or adjacent were also squatted, as Len Smith later related: “I was in the Stepney Young Communist League, and the Borough Secretary suggested to me – very quietly – that I ought to go down to Kensington with one or two others… There were not many people to be seen until we got into an arcade where we discovered hundreds of people. Eventually the whole lot moved in a matter of seconds across the road, down a side street, round a corner and all disappeared. Following them up, we discovered that what we were allocated was a couple of buildings which were not part of the main squat. They were something separate. There were a lot of people gathered round outside the doors, so two or three of us got in, opened the doors and let the people in. Then I was sent up to the top floor to climb through a skylight, get down over the roof and into the next building and I opened the doors there. We did this for two or more buildings. After this I was asked to go and organise more assistance from Stepney, which I did. Later I organised a collection of camp beds and tinned food, etc. for the squatters at Abbey Lodge.” (Len Smith)

When the Duchess of Bedford House was full, some families were moved on to a block known as Melcombe Regis Court in Weymouth Street, Marylebone. It had been requisitioned by the Government for the use of the US army during the war, and had been offered to the St Marylebone Borough Council for housing purposes. But the Council had refused this offer, after which the block had stood empty for seven months. Tess Gorringe lived in Wandsworth in South London, and was a member of the London District Committee of the Party. She took charge of the Melcombe Regis squat for the first few days:

“I was a member of the London District Committee and on Friday September 6th,
Dennis Goodwin, the London organiser, asked me to pop over and see him in
Clapham. I went, and he said to me “Do you think people would be prepared to
squat with no guarantee about anything?” I said “yes.” He said “Do you know such
people?” I said, “Yes; I’ll pass the word around.” And that’s what we did. On Sun-
day morning, when I got up, there was drenching rain, and I thought “Nobody will
come.” But I went to Kensington High Street, as arranged, and saw this stream of
people going up to the place where we were to meet. I saw someone with a bar-
row with bedding and pots and pans. I reported to the person I’d been told to get
in touch with, and he said: “We’ve got too many people here; will you go over to
another building, we have someone will take you there, and get you in, to take
over till we get someone to relieve you.” I said: “That means setting up a commit-
tee and getting it all started?” He said “Yes.”

So I went. A building worker comrade took me to the back door of the place and
we went in through a basement window. I went and opened the door when the
people started arriving, I said “Come in, go and pick a flat, come down and register.” I was in a small room at the side. I sat down and made a register of everyone coming in.

The thing I’ll never forget was the way people co-operated. We started off with

people volunteering to do certain things. A couple of blokes came in and said
“Look, the water isn’t on and the lights aren’t on.” I said “Can you do it?” They
said “Sure we can.” And they did. They came back presently and said we might
get the central heating working and the lifts. I said “Wait a minute, let’s get every-
thing else sorted out first.”

And then people began to call on us from outside. They brought in camp beds and blankets, and a woman from a nearby flat said, “If you get anyone with babies, they can come and wash them at my place. I’ve got dome spare milk.” Very, very co-operative.

We had to put a guard on the door. The people who were an absolute menace were the press; they wanted “human interest stories”. We began to set up an organisation. People came forward to volunteer for the committee to get things straightened out.

I slept on a camp bed in the side room, and the following morning I was up at
seven, and we started the day’s think. One of the things we needed to do was to
get emergency ration cards, and to make contact with the food department so we
could get milk and vitamins and orange juice for the kids and baby food. So I had
a bright idea. I said, “Fetch me one of the press in.” It was the Daily Express man.
I said, “If you will take a group of women to the food office and bring them back
you can find a human interest story, you can interview them.” So he did. And we
made bargains with the press to run errands for us.

I was there from Sunday to Wednesday morning, and hadn’t been able to go to
work, so on Wednesday when someone came to see how we were getting on, I
asked to be relieved of the job, and they sent someone down to take over.
The thing I’ll never forget is that if I’d ever had any doubts about the problems of
working people taking on and managing their own affairs, I lost them forever
during this squatting thing. Because without any hassle, fuss, argument, they found what they could do, and collectively decided that it should be done, and then went off and did it.”

Peggy Venes helped in the Weymouth Street squatting: “I held the squatters’ ration books for milk and bananas. The WVS let us have cooking stoves on each floor for the families, and we managed to get paraffin for them. I made them sandwiches for a sing-song and get-together for talks, etc, of an evening.
When they were sent to a rest home in Camden, a deputation came to our flat to
ask me to go and sort out the sleep and food question. I carried on every day with
them, until Dr Joan McMichael took over as I was too ill to continue.”

The day after the occupation of Duchess of Bedford House and Melcombe Regis
Court, squatters took over several other blocks of flats, one of which was Fountain
Court in Westminster which had just been de-requisitioned by a Government department. One of the people involved in helping to organise the squatters was Dr Joan McMichael, then a Communist councillor in Westminster:

“We in Westminster had a tremendous problem with returned ex-service people,
We had a campaign on a resolution which got through the Westminster Council
to requisition all those houses where a conviction had been secured for their use
as brothels and use them for those on the waiting list. Although it was the Communist councillors who had moved this resolution, it got through not only on the Westminster Council but was agreed by all twenty-eight of the Metropolitan
Boroughs. But it was turned down by Bevan, presumably because of the enormous church interests in property in Soho and Covent Garden.

We knew at the time of the discussion on the London District and were also dis-
cussing the matter in the Westminster branch of the Communist Party. I had a case book of the worst housing cases in our area, and we were discussing with
them whether we should take over Fountain Court, then being de-requisitioned,
having previously been used for building workers. Many of us were present on the
Sunday when the takeover at Bedford House took place, but on Monday morn-
ing everything appeared the same as usual. I was working in Stepney and when I
came back to meet the branch at 5 o’clock I found that occupation of Fountain
Court was already taking place. Not only were people handing babies and prams
over the railings, but the police said, “Oh, don’t do that, we’ll open the door.” So
the police opened the door and ushered the families in.

We were in a particular position, of course, because I was a member of the
Westminster City Council and we agreed to call an official from the Westminster
City Council to come down and meet the squatters and discuss what we intended
to do. It was a remarkable meeting at which the official laid down all the threats
about writs and possible evacuation and about breaking the law and so on. We
gave him about twenty minutes and then we put the squatters’ case, and what they felt about it, and then we had a break for twenty minutes while everyone discussed among themselves what their reaction would be. We took a vote, and it was absolutely unanimous that we stay, there was tremendous feeling.

Then we got down to practical details. We elected a team for Red Cross if necessary, a group to run a creche so that women could go to work the next day, guards for the door so that the door was covered for twenty-four hours, and cooks – we had two volunteer ex-army cooks who said they would cook for all the squatters. Everyone was entranced with their new flats and put their names up on the flats until we were warned that, in order to issue writs, names had to be found – so everyone hastily took them down again.

Then we had a problem. The electricity council cut off the electricity. So we went
out on to the steps of Fountain Court (and every time we went on to the steps we
would always get a couple of hundred people waiting around wanting to know
what was happening) and I appealed for candles, because, I said, we had families
in pitch dark. Showers of candles arrived, groceries arrived and were stacked,
anything we asked for, the local people responded immediately. The next day we
organised a poster parade in Trafalgar Square in the dinner hour saying that
Westminster Council was endangering the lives of its citizens. So electricity was restored.

On the second day, I rang up from work at midday, and was told that the council
had refused to empty the dustbins. This was pretty serious, so I raced back at 5
o’clock and said, “What’s happened about the dustbins?” “It’s all right,” they said,
“We’ve tipped them into Buckingham Palace Road.” After that the dustmen came
round and resumed emptying the dustbins.

It all went on for ten days until the crunch came. The decision was taken with the
Party that it would be impossible to defend the squatters against forcible evacuation and therefore we should go out as a whole, as we had come in. I have a clear recollection of the filthy trick that the LCC played on us. We went up to join the Duchess of Bedford squatters, where we were held from 11 o’clock in the morning until 4 o’clock in the afternoon. We bad babies and young children and no
food, no lavatory accommodation, and so on. We arrived at Bromley House at 5
o’clock at exactly the time when the building workers arrived back from work.
They had been told there was no food, it was to be only for the squatters. After
enormous discussion we all went in together and shared the food. Discussions
went on until 9.30. The builders remained in their own rooms, but they brought
their bedding down to the hall where the women and children slept and we set up
a special clinic for milk. It only lasted one night; after that we moved into Alexandra House. The Squatters Committee continued to negotiate until every individual family was housed. We kept a record of every single family until their problem was solved. I think it was a tremendously positive achievement which redounded to the credit of the Party.

Other buildings in Westminster were quickly occupied: over the next two days 60 families forced their way into Fountain Court, Pimlico and Abbey Lodge, a block of flats near Regent’s Park.

Abbey Lodge, a block of luxury flats near Regent’s Park in Marylebone, was another of the buildings occupied on September 9th. It had been used for the RAF during the war, but had since been empty for several months. Marylebone Borough Council had 3,300 families on its waiting list, but was refusing to requisition empty flats to accommodate them, so the block was expected to be re-let shortly at exorbitant rents. Lou Kenton was the chief organiser of the Abbey Lodge squat:
“I was at the meeting of the London District held on that Friday before the squat-
ting took place on the Sunday. I was secretary of the North West Area Sub-Dis-
trict of the Party. The Party was already under great pressure to organise a squat.
Our area stretched from Cricklewood to Boreham Wood, and we knew that some
squatting had already been taking place. At the initial stages it was not the Party
that organised it, but very soon the squatters turned to the Party for help; we came
under pressure that we should do something for the people in our area. We had
already found a block of flats in Regent’s Park: Abbey Lodge. So we organised it
– took about twenty families in. Most of them were already squatting somewhere,
some were quite homeless and living rough; they were all ex-servicemen. Most
had married during the war, gone into the forces and when they came back, suddenly found themselves in terrible conditions and having to live with in-laws.

We went in as a group. We took two large vehicles with all their furniture, drove
into Abbey Lodge and two policemen and a porter helped us to get in. They didn’t
stop us, but showed great friendliness. Forty-eight hours later it changed. On the
second or third day, they cut off the water, cut off the electricity, and surrounded
the building so that none of the squatters could get in once they’d left. So we were
in a very difficult position, not being able to feed them.

The thing that struck me most about that period was the support we had from out-
side – every night there were massive demonstrations outside – and the ingenuity
of some of the squatters in finding ways of getting out and coming in. Several of
them had to go out to get to work, and very soon they found all sorts of ways, including climbing over the roofs of adjacent buildings and down the side. We were able to feed the squatters during the whole of that period in that way.

After about ten days we were informed by the Party that writs might be issued
against myself and Maud Rogerson, area secretary of another London area. We
had organised the occupation, and the rest of the squatters had asked us to stay
on to help them, and we had agreed. Now we were advised by the London District that the squat would need to end. We had a meeting of the squatters and they
agreed unanimously to leave as one body, and they instructed Maud and myself
to leave early because they knew writs were coming. This we did.

I think it had a tremendous impact on the whole movement at the time. It showed
that the Party cared. In our case, seven people joined the Party and they joined
on the day we decided to leave. They did not go to Alexandra House. The local
area of the Party looked after them; many of them were re-housed.”

Ivor Segal was a member of the Islington (London) Young Communist League,
and was asked to help the squatters who had just occupied Abbey Lodge:
“The police had a fairly heavy patrol which tried to stop supplies going into Abbey
Lodge, where the leader of the squatters was a Party member named Lou Kenton. They needed cooking facilities as the gas had been disconnected. But how?

I had a primus stove which I padded all round with corrugated cardboard and
tied securely with string; likewise a pint bottle of paraffin. Lou Kenton had removed
one of the windows, and while a policeman’s attention was diverted, Alec Miller
threw the primus and then the bottle of paraffin through the window. They both
arrived safely.

The question of food was better organised once a pulley had been fixed up be-
tween the flats and the house next door. At night, boxes of tinned food were continuously and quietly pulled across from the house to Abbey Lodge. The police
Were puzzled as to how the squatters were receiving food until one night the pulley broke and the cargo” nearly hit a copper down below.” [Apparently the house next door from which the pulley was operated was in Kent Terrace. The author and communist Montague Slater lived at the other end of this terrace, and he and his family helped organise the cooking and packing of the food which was then go in at night.] We stayed outside Abbey Lodge for nearly two weeks, giving both physical and moral support. All the time, the newspapers were reporting fresh takeovers of houses and flats. In Islington, the Borough Council started putting large houses back into repair – something they had not attempted to do before.”

On the morning of September 9th a deputation from Duchess of Bedford House went to Kensington Town Hall to ask for the flats to be requisitioned and for all amenities – gas, water and electricity  – to be supplied.

Many of the London Communist Party (CP) members involved had been active in pre-war tenants’ struggles in the East End. The London occupations had a more directly political edge than the wave of camp squatting. The Communist Party launched a high profile campaign, through the pages of the Daily Worker, and in letters delivered by delegations to Downing Street and the Ministry of Health, for the Labour government to both legitimise the existing squatted buildings and to take the initiative by Requisitioning. The CP’s demands consisted of

  • Requisitioning the occupied buildings,
  • connection of services and security of tenure for squatters.
  • the ending of the policy of de-requisitioning buildings that government had taken over in wartime
  • central government to compel councils to take over empty houses
  • stricter control on licences for repairs (i.e. that working class houses should be repaired first)

Squatters demo in Hyde Park

Party propaganda identified West London local authorities as ‘acting as though the housing emergency was over and that property developers could go ahead irrespective of the conditions in which many thousands of families were living.’ The Labour government had also allowed blocks and houses to be returned to their private owners when they could have been -re-requisitioned’ for the homeless. With around half a million on London housing waiting lists, nevertheless there was enough empty accommodation in the capital to house a good proportion.

Duchess of Bedford House was an ideal focus for this campaign; Kensington Council had refused the block when offered it by the Ministry of Works on the grounds that the flats were not suitable (i e too good for) homeless families, and the block stood in a bourgeois area where many houses had lain empty during wartime, as the upper classes had generally fled London during the Blitz. In addition, precious public resources were being spent on repairing the block for its return to the luxury end of the private rented sector.

In contrast, another of the large squats, Fountain Court, was not such a good target, as unlike the others it was already destined for the public sector, and Westminster Council had already approved a scheme of works. Tactically occupying Fountain Court was a mistake, as it played into the hands of government anti-squatting propaganda, which claimed that the block occupations were the work of queue-jumpers.

Ministry of Works officials try to break in to evict Duchess of Bedford House, 11 September 1946

The Labour government was desperate to put a stop to the wave of squatting as a whole, but the generally supportive mood of many people in the country to the squatters – especially among Labour’s own supporters – put them off from large-scale repressive measures. At a Cabinet meeting on the day of the Duchess of Bedford seizure, it was felt that criminal prosecutions against squatters could fail because juries might be unwilling to convict because of sympathy with the squatters’ cause. The cabinet itself was also divided on the issue of requisitioning homes. Aneurin Bevan, after indicating the slow progress of the rehousing programme and the seriousness of the housing shortage, requested that some London hotels about to be de-requisitioned should be used for the homeless.

But the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the President of the Board of Trade said they would have very great difficulty in agreeing as there was ‘a serious shortage of hotel accommodation in London.’ This was needed to attract trade in the interests of the export markets, and to bring in tourists and the wealthy who would spend money in London.

However, Bevan and other ‘left-leaning’ cabinet members were strongly against any concessions to the squatters. Bevan insisted on a line that no cooking or other facilities be supplied to the new squats, and he and his disciple (future Labour leader) Michael Foot wrote a vicious attack on the Communist Party in left Labour magazine Tribune (though they carefully avoided having a go at the squatters themselves, sharply aware of the public sympathy for squatting in general). They labelled squatters’ demands as ‘queue-jumping’, that would divert resources from other needy families, and claimed the CP had in practice allied itself with rightwing critics of Labour with an aim of making capital for themselves. Another leftwing Labour cabinet member, Ellen Wilkinson, said that ‘the government has to govern and cannot be faced with anarchy of this kind which is the negation of everything the Labour Party stands for – the organised meeting of people’s needs’. Ie – we know best and you should know your place till we tell  you to move…

The Cabinet’s first step was to step up police patrols around central London to keep a watch for groups of potential squatters and an eye on likely buildings. Cops with their recently issued two-way radios prowled  the West End. orders were also given to blockade existing squats and resist attempts to bring in food and amenities. Anyone leaving (eg to go to work) was to be refused re-entry. Water was cut off at Abbey Lodge and no-one was allowed to enter the building. The squatters and their helpers showed considerable ingenuity in breaking the blockade. Men went out to work across the rooftops. As detailed above, a primus stove and paraffin for brewing tea was thrown in, and food, cooked in the neighbouring house of a Party member, was supplied by means of a pulley
rigged between the two houses.

On Wednesday morning, while a crowd of 150 people gathered outside Abbey Lodge, the squatters displayed a crudely written placard for the press photographers: We Want Water and Bedding’. A Communist organiser told the
crowd:
“Their conditions in there are shocking. There is a pregnant woman, and there are babies, all doing without cooked food, and sleeping on the floor – babies sleeping on the floor! You people must help by shouting …”
“Give the babies water …’, yelled the obliging crowd, and a deputation marched off to the Town Hall, while others tossed apples, sandwiches and parcels of food through the open windows.” Eventually the police allowed some blankets in for the children. At around 11.00 pm that night, however, chanting ‘twenty-five blankets are not enough’, the crowd surged into the street – the main road on the west side of Regents Park. After marching up and down for fifteen minutes they sat down, while from the besieged building the squatters sang ‘There’ll Always Be An England’. Stewards distributed the disputed blankets among the demonstrators and for a time it looked as though they intended to stay all night. Shortly before midnight, however, the police agreed to allow the rest of the blankets in and the
Communist loud speaker van announced: ‘There’s no need to hold up the
traffic any longer. On Thursday morning the papers were full of photographs of demonstrators sitting in the road. At Abbey Lodge the police finally agreed to allow sympathisers to take in pails of water and limited food supplies. But crowds who gathered again later that day were dispersed.

Despite the security precautions, another squat was cracked on Wednesday 11th: the 630-room Ivanhoe Hotel in Bloomsbury

The cabinet’s next move was to set out to discredit the squatters as ‘queue-jumpers’. A Cabinet memorandum of 12 September records:

‘Ministers considered that further steps should be taken to bring it home to the public that the squatters were overriding the claims of many people who had been waiting a long time for houses and that the effect of their activities would be to delay the completion of rehousing.’

The Labour Government now found willing allies in the Tory press. The pro-upper class newspapers not been particularly hostile to squatters while they confined their activities to army camps – state property – which embarrassed Labour government (generally considered as the enemy by the press barons) and made it look incompetent. But squatting of private property in central London blocks was going too far: soon newspaper editorials called for stern action in defence of the legitimate rights of property owners and rallied to the government. ‘The homeless who are being duped by the Communists’ became stock characters in the reports.

The Daily Mail and the Daily Express as usual gleefully hyped up squatters as a new bogy to scare the respectable, running (largely unsubstantiated) front page stories of householders afraid to go out shopping for fear their houses would be squatted, and of a rush to buy padlocks throughout suburbia. Very similar lies have been used to whip up fear of squatting in the decades since…

The government also gave instructions to the police to guard large empty buildings in the centre of London, and all police leave was cancelled. Further instructions were sent to local authorities (both in London and other major cities) ordering them to refuse to connect services to squatted buildings, and Sir Hartley Shawcross, the Attorney General, launched possession proceedings to recover government property, and to encourage any private owners to do the same. The Met’s Special Branch (which had to admit to having had no advance knowledge that the occupations were being planned) was instructed to investigate the squatters organisation and try to determine what future plans they had.

Harry Pollitt, general secretary of the Communist Party, addresses a meeting in support of the squatters, Cranbourne Street, London, 11 September 1946

Police cordons were set up surrounding the Abbey Lodge and Ivanhoe Hotel occupations; food and bedding was allowed in, but people were barred from coming and going as they wished. The central London squats became sieges. The squat committees appealed for candles’ paraffin stoves, water and food, and supporters brought these and tried to smuggle them in – sometimes by climbing over roofs, hauling items via pulleys from neighbouring buildings and so on.

An attempt was made on 11th September to evict the Duchess of Bedford flats by Ministry of Works officials, who were forced off after being threatened with iron bars…

Although crowds of supporters gathered, confrontations between squatters and both foot and mounted police could not break these cordons, and a number of squatters’ supporters arrested. Whether or not plans had been made to squat further blocks, the government’s tactic may have worked, as no more large blocks were occupied in the latter half of the week. However some isolated privately-owned houses were squatted independently in the London suburbs. Squatters’ demands around housing and delegations to try to meet local or national authorities were ignored and rejected.

At the same time, legal proceedings were begun to evict the squats. Writs for possession were served on Duchess of Bedford House on September 12th by the Ministry of Works, demanding the building be vacated by the 17th.

On the 13th Bevan issued a government circular denouncing the squats and restating government policy, that local authorities were responsible for allocations for housing and that process could not be short-circuited by individuals taking matters into their own hands.

On Saturday 14 September, five CP members prominent in the central London squatters’ organisation were arrested on orders from the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Cabinet. They were Ted Bramley, London District Secretary and member of the London County Council, Bill Carritt and Joyce Alergant, both Communist councillors on Westminster City Council, “Tubby” Rosen, a Communist councillor in Stepney, and Stan Henderson, the leading figure
in the Duchess of Bedford squat. All five were charged with conspiring and incitement to trespass. That afternoon 12,000 people rallied in Leicester Square in support of the squatters. A large public meeting also took place in Hyde Park on Sunday 15th.

Bill Carritt, one of the five arrested, declared, “We will resist, to the last man, woman and child… They will have to carry us out bodily.” Stan Henderson announced “I shall be the last to leave, and tear gas won’t move me.” However, defiant language aside, the arrests and unco-operative government approach did put a spoke in the Communist Party’s plans. A telegram was sent out from Party headquarters around the country: ‘No more squatting’. Plans for occupying other buildings (possibly including Kensington Palace!) were put on hold.

Two days later, the five appeared in court and were bailed to reappear. The next day, the High Court granted the Attorney General an interim injunction, ordering certain named people at Duchess of Bedford House to end their trespass (names had possibly been obtained from looking at noticeboards in the blocks, see below). Downing Street issued a press release, offering a combination of carrot and stick to the squatting families:

‘Her Majesty’s Government think it right to call the attention of all those in unauthorised occupation of houses and flats and certain other buildings required for public purposes to the fact that the High Court today made orders at the instance of the Ministry of Works against various trespassers in the premises known as Duchess of Bedford House forbidding the continuance of the trespass.

A baby girl squatter from Duchess of Bedford house, taken by ambulance to hospital on 11 September 1946

The High Court has accordingly made it clear beyond all doubt that the action of those occupying the premises without legal authority is illegal. Those who have squatted in such premises no longer have any excuse for not recognising the illegality of their actions and should quit the premises at once. It will be the duty of the police to prevent further occupations. The Government will not press proceedings for damages against those who have left voluntarily. HMG will recommend to local authorities that those who now leave voluntarily should not lose such claims to priority rehousing as they may already have had.’

The day after this press release, the families at Duchess of Bedford House announced they would leave the following Friday: “Our committee had been in negotiation for other accommodation, and decided that if we were going to be picked off piecemeal, it would be better to go voluntarily in style.” (Arthur Hill)

They also asked for the London County Council to make a rest centre available for those who had nowhere else to go. Squatters occupying the other central London buildings had already left voluntarily.

The decision to leave Duchess of Bedford House in fact did not originate with the occupiers – it was decided at Communist Party headquarters: “I was at a meeting at King Street with Harry Pollitt, Peter Kerrigan, a number of other members of the E.C. I remember Harry Pollitt said at one point after everybody had expressed attitudes, “Well, what about the man who is on the spot?”
It was on this question as to whether we should withdraw at that point from the
Duchess of Bedford, the argument being that there was a great danger of break-
up and disarray of the whole thing. I remember saying at the time: “My feeling is
that the members of the Communist Party associated with this movement are held
very high esteem by the squatters, and if the Communist Party makes a recommendation that we withdraw, then I’m sure that the body of squatters will agree with them that the contrary is also the case, and if we say “Right, let’s stay”, they would agree with that also.” The argument was, you see, that we should possibly try passive resistance; I made the point that I could not see these returned warriors from the Second World War sit passively by whilst coppers mauled their womenfolk and kids about; you knew that it would end up in a bust-up.” (Stan Henderson)

James Hinton concluded later, however, that the party hierarchy also wanted to avoid a confrontation that would completely jeopardise its relationship with the Labor government. To some extent the CP’s top officers put pressure on the activists most involved in the squats to pull out.

Although Communist Party activists made much of the unity of the squatters and their willingness to in effect obey CP instructions, the decision to leave was actually not universally popular or agreed without argument: Henderson later said that a number of the Kensington squatters were up for staying and fighting the eviction, and that he had to persuade them to agree to depart: “They wanted to run up the Red Flag and fight it out.” It took a whole evening’s debate for a resolution to leave to be agreed on.

The squatters’ public statement read, “The situation created by the judgement granted today against the Bedford House squatters has received our careful attention. We deplore the inhumanity of a law which can only act so on behalf of property, and against the welfare of human beings. We came in here, not for ourselves alone, but for the hundreds and thousands of others in similar plight. Two of our cases have been heard in court today, they were by no means the worst. Our residents include a large proportion of ex-servicemen who, after years of service for their country, are homeless. In the services we fought on behalf of all, and we resent and repudiate the charge that now we are out for ourselves alone. We resent also the charge that we are a lawless mob.
The charge is made by those who a short while ago were clapping and cheering
as we marched in the ranks. The court decision makes it impossible for our elected leaders to stay here. We came in together, and we have decided to go out together, confident that we have achieved our purpose. those who were ignorant of our plight now know, and those who knew and ignored, are now shamed into a sense of urgency that London’s homeless shall be housed.
“When we march out on Friday, we expect the public authorities to show us that
human consideration that should be shown to all the homeless and ill-housed. We
ask that a rest-centre be put at the disposal of the vast majority who have nowhere to go; that our cases be investigated, and that we take our place with the other Londoners who are fighting for a decent home. We will continue to fight with
them for housing to be treated as a military operation, and for all local authorities
to bring a fresh urgency to the problem, never resting until property interests and
the black market have been completely prevented from standing in the way of
decent homes for London’s people.”

The squatting families, who had reduced waiting lists by housing themselves in empty property, were bussed around London from one temporary accommodation to another, and were eventually gradually rehoused by the London County Council.

“We made a ceremonial exit with a little band and banners waving. Before we left,
we had already met members of the builders’ committee who represented the
building workers who were based at Bromley House. They had told us they didn’t
want to leave; we said we did not want to be used as a lever. So we had already
established friendly relations with them. But later we were told that they had in
fact left Bromley House, and it was then that we said “Alright, we’ll go to it” and
so left Kensington.” (Stan Henderson)

Arthur Hill again: “The Communist Party… organised a band to march us down the road, to a fleet of coaches, and then on to our destination – the Old Workhouse at Bromley by Bow.

So that is how we ended up in the Workhouse.

Leaving the ‘Duchess of Bedford’ was closing a chapter of our lives, arrangements were made to store our furniture, and the same removal men, (friends of my Dad), took to the storage, the same pieces that they had so recently delivered.
Outside, the band played, creating a festive atmosphere, and in the mood of the moment, we all piled into

The Duchess of Bedford House squatters arrive at their ‘new accommodation’ in Bromley By Bow

the coaches, looking forward to the next stage.
Alas! Someone was out to stir trouble. As we approached our destination, every side road and turning was occupied by Police vans, Black Marias and Police cars, what a welcome! Was it Political? the Communists were’nt in favour at this time, or was it big business having a whisper in high places?
The scenario was, the old ‘Workhouse’ at Bromley by Bow, was being used as a dormitory for Itinerant workers. Mainly Irish and from the North, all working on bomb sites and housing repairs. Apparently they were told, at the last possible moment, “Go to work as usual, and when you finish for the day, you will not be coming back here, but to other accommodation, your personal effects will be moved for you” At the same time, we squatters were told, “all the accommodation has been prepared for you” Human nature being what it is, all the building workers refused to go to work, but instead of a riot, they stayed to welcome us. They did the best they could for us, in what can only be described as primitive conditions, a mattress on the floor, in what could only be called a tunnel, no windows, it was underground, arched roof of black dirty bricks. The last time I had stayed in such a place, was in the catacombs, when in transit with the Marines.
Who-so-ever engineered this scheme, came unstuck.
Because then the builders representatives and our committee got together, and a joint deputation was sent to The Houses of Parliament, to the Ministry of Works and the G.L.C. at City Hall. The reporters followed every move, they had, in all probability, been primed for other reasons, but the publicity did us a power of good. From what we heard, this was front page news, and the support for our cause nationwide. (Must look up the Newspaper archives some day). Quite suddenly, what a coincidence, there was on offer, a fresh start, at a home that had formerly housed G.I.Brides, prior to shipping out.
Now that the pressure was on, our side of the negotiation thought it was time to press for a few concessions. They won us the right to have our own committee to represent us in the home, and to have the use of the main hall, for meetings and for social functions. The building workers were restored to their original status, and so we all moved on.
At Chalk Farm, dormitory quarters, screened off into cubicles, in charge of a Master, (just like the Workhouse). A bit of shuffling around, and we sorted ourselves into some sort of order, people with families, tended to clump together, as did young couples with no other ties. The building was about 5 stories high, I say about, because it was’nt evenly disposed, sitting as it was on a steep hill, the lower floor was hall and offices, the rear half of the hall being underground. The first floor housed the original residents, mainly old ladies, the next two were ours, plus a little overlap, and above, all the staff. We barely had time to settle when a meeting was called, everybody to the hall.
As soon as we were seated, we were addressed thus,
“I am the Master of this House, and these are the rules”
With a shout, “Objection” our committee leader was on his feet, “Has’nt anybody told you ‘Sunshine’, that no longer applies, without our consent” At this, all the little old ladies started cheering, one shouted, “It’s time that miserable sod got his come-uppance”
And so began our new period of Mk.2 Workhouse…” (Arthur Hill)

“Jack Gaster was sitting behind me on the coach taking us there and, as we ap-
proached the building, we went past a side street and I said to him “Those are
police “hurry-up’ wagons stationed there; there’s something odd going on.” Jack
said to me “Don’t let anybody out for a moment; let’s see what’s happening.” We
got out and walked inside; the building was a blaze of light and the building workers were still there. They said they had no intention of leaving. We immediately called a meeting of our committee with their committee; we discussed the matter in amicable terms and came to an agreement, at our insistence, that we would not occupy their beds or their rooms. We would camp down on the floor and spend the night, and the following morning we would go on a joint deputation to 10, Downing Street. It was a betrayal by the London County Council and the Government. They were hoping to discredit the squatters movement and the builders, presumably by having a brawl which they could make a feast of.

Next morning a small deputation of us went to Downing Street and, of course, Attlee was not there. We left a written document in which we laid at his door the
responsibility for anything of a serious nature which might happen because, as we
pointed out, there were young babies sleeping on the floor in the hostel. Then
Jack arranged a meeting at County Hall in a main committee room and the end
of the table and said “Sit there”; so I sat in a big, red leather, gold ornate chair and
our committee were all around. I remember making the point that we had lost our
trump card: we had been levered out into the open; we had no Duchess of Bed.
ford to fall back upon and we were on the spot. The thought occurred to me that
we might put pressure on Mr. Bligh and this man said “Bligh of the Bounty” you
know, do you remember? I suggested that we might occupy that committee room
and refuse to be shifted and Jack said That’s a good idea”. So we sent for Mr.
Bligh who was somewhat non-plussed at hearing this proposition. We said we
wanted the L.C.C., as the Executive arm of what had been decided between the
Government and the L.C.C., jointly, to honour their word and provide us with a place where we could retain our organisation as promised and where we could
continue to function as a body of squatters.

Bligh said it was impossible. He then went out and came back within five minutes.
“By a coincidence” he said, and produced information about Alexandra House at
Chalk Farm from where, he said, some elderly ladies were in process of being
moved to other accommodation. Would we go there, he said. We said we had yet
to hear of a coincidence operating in our favour, but we said “Yes” and he said
Well then, let’s move on”. We said “No, we want to look at it first, we’ve been
caught out before”. So a deputation went out and looked at it, and agreed that we
could make a go of it, and we moved there. It was that betrayal thing which really got us, because we had been manoeuvred out and promises had been broken.”

100 families eventually ended up at Alexandra House, the Duchess of Bedford people had been joined by Melcombe Regis and Fountain Court. “This was an improvement on Bromley House. A committee was formed, chosen by the squatters… The drawback was the lack of privacy, as we all had to sleep together, wash together and eat together. The dormitories were separated, one for mothers with babies, one for mothers with children over 3 years, one for women without children and one upstairs for men and boys over 8 years old. Meals were prepared by L.C.C. staff and served at large tables. Men who were at work were given meals in the evening and the women’s committee members noticed that these were bigger and of better quality than those served to the women and children. Consequently, we saw the supervisor and told him of our findings and asked for the same treatment for everyone; this he granted and the matter was rectified.

Already a lot was happening, as two families had been rehoused, the Ministry of
Health had launched a new housing drive and the L.C.C. had agreed to deal with
all squatters’ cases instead of the local town halls. By October 8th, five families
had been found homes.

We stayed at Alexandra House for about another six months. My husband be-
came the Secretary when Stan Henderson left, and I continued on the Women’s
Committee. We proved we could handle the day to day problems of which we
had many, whilst the men were away, and always managed to solve them amicab-
ly. We were able to get a few improvements where families could be together
rather than apart, though this only meant separate curtained spaces depending
on the size of the family, but it was preferable to being apart. Gradually people
were being rehoused, those with children and particular problems being given priority.

Eventually, about Easter time 1947, those that were left were moved to an L.C.C.
halfway house at Queens Gardens, Lancaster Gate. Here we all had our own sparsely furnished room. Meals were supplied in a communal
dining room. This proved to be much better. People continued to be rehoused. We were finally offered a very derelict pokey flat at Rotherhithe which we refused, so had to leave. This was about October or November.
We did not obtain the accommodation we had hoped for, but it was a very worthwhile and enlightening experience and one we will never forget.” (Hilda and Barney Lewis)

Duchess of Bedford House was eventually returned to its owners for luxury renting after the Ministry of Works had spent £5,000 on repairing it. The owners then rented it out again to anyone who could afford the £15 a week rent (high rent in them days…)

Having been remanded twice, the five arrested CP organisers’ case came to trial at the Old Bailey at the end of October. The trial lasted for two days. “Sir Walter Monckton defended four of us; Ted Bramley conducted his own defence. To those not directly involved I have no doubt that the brilliant display of dialectics and the biting irony on the part of Sir Walter was most impressive. Pointing out that we were being tried under an Act of Richard II he asked: “Was the arm of the civil law so weak in this matter that it required the first prosecution in our history for a criminal conspiracy to trespass?” (Joan Alergant)

Although expecting jail, they were merely bound over to be of good behaviour. The judge observed: ‘I am satisfied the motive was primarily to find homes for these unfortunate people’, and he almost advised counsel for the defence to appeal the verdict. However, it is worth noting that counsel for the Prosecution admitted that the charges had been mainly aimed at denting the squatting at its most active phase, and now that the big squats had stopped the government had little interest in creating Communist martyrs.

Bob Darke, who was active in the Communist Party in Hackney at the time of the squats, but later left and wrote a detailed critique of CP tactics, took a cynical view of the Party’s motives and practice regarding the squatting movement, suggesting they had always thought the West End squats would be shortlived and used the exercise as a publicity vehicle:

“During the serious housing shortage of the mid-forties the Party worked the most sensational confidence trick in its history – the Squatters’ Movement. So pathetic were the hardship cases exploited in this deception that for a while even Fleet Street was convinced that it was normal, a spontaneous demonstration on the part of the homeless. But when the almost military-like precision of the campaign became obvious there should have been no doubt in anybody’s mind that the Party was at the back of it.
The Party never openly admitted that it ran the squatting in the West End blocks of flats, or the rash of small house squatting that spread across London. The Daily Worker covered the campaign with the same poker-face inscrutability it wears when Party members paint anti-American slogans on cars in Grosvenor Square or demonstrate against American bomber stations. If you only read the Daily Worker it always sounds as if the party has been taken as much by surprise as everybody else.
The London Squatter Movement was conducted by Ted Bramley, from the offices of the London District Committee. Bramley actually appeared in person to run the taking-over of blocks of flats in Kensington, and members of his staff occupied rooms in one of the blocks to conduct the campaign more efficiently.
In Hackney the Party was instructed to ear-mark vacant houses, to collect homeless families
(there were names enough on my lists) and move them in on the word go… Let it be understood that I was as angry as anybody else to see these flats vacant at a time when the housing situation was so desperate. And for a time I believed the Party had found the right solution to the problem, arbitrary seizing of property.
But I soon realised that the Party’s real attitude was no less cynical than usual. It regarded the various ‘Squatters’ Committees’ we had formed as no more than propaganda vehicles. The Party’s leaders knew that the authorities would not allow the situation to develop and would suppress it forcibly. It knew, in short, that the squatters’ campaign would be defeated.
But win or lose the Party was going to benefit on two scores:
1. It would get the kudos for making the only forthright effort to grapple with the housing shortage and the anomalies that existed.
2. It could use the opposition to the Squatters’ Movement as proof that the Government was refusing to live up to its Socialism.
Conclusion? ‘Only the Communist Party fights for the workers!’
And that was how it worked out. Heaven only knows how many wretched pram-pushing families were moved into flats and rooms found for them by our eager-beaver comrades, only to be moved out again by the police.
The siege of the West End flats, the blockade running of food and water by Communist flying squads, got full play in the Party press with full use of epithets like ‘fascist technique’. ‘Labour’s Tory tactics”.
For weeks after the defeat of the Squatters’ Movement the Party in Hackney was capitalising on the misery of the debacle. Homeless families, coming back to the now defunct Party Squatters’ Committee, were told ‘Go and see Councillor Bob Darke. He’ll raise your case in the Council. And don’t forget, the Communist Party has been the only political party to help you.’.”

Without doubting genuine motivation from the CP’s point of view – housing the homeless and putting pressure on the Labour Government to improve housing options – the CP both acted with its usual murkiness – trying desperately to catch up and cash in on an autonomous movement that had outflanked it – and failed to keep up the pressure when government action came at it fast and hard.

The September squats in fact might be described as stunts, which had no real lasting impact, whose importance in terms of the squatting movement of 1946 is minimal, compared to the self-organisation of the vigilantes and the camp squats.

James Hinton, who later wrote an account of the 1946 squatting wave, suggested part of the motivation was the CP’s need to re-assert a political identity. The Party hierarchy had imposed a line of opposing strikes in the last years of the war, and had supported the continuation of the wartime coalition government – this had angered some party activists and also fell out of step with the electorate (who would shortly elect a landslide Labour government). The CP desperately needed a popular cause to indicate a position to the left of labour, that would also win support among working class people; strategists may also have felt successful popular action on housing could push the government leftwards on requisitioning and house building. The CP was trying to regain or keep hold of a precarious relationship to the wartime government that it had built by having a strong organisation in armaments factories but restraining industrial action and strikes in the interests of the war effort. The end of the war meant this influence was waning. Ironically, if getting heavily involved in the squatting had been intended to rebuild this influence and give it a lever over the Labour administration, it may have had the opposite effect. (James Hinton also suggested that some behind the scenes contacts between Labour ministers and leading Communists, including Ted Bramley, in fact ceased after the events of September).

But could more have been done to spread the squatting movement in London? The CP kept tight control of the organisation  – but the lack of a truly self-organised basis to the September London squats is obvious in its sudden collapse under state pressure. There was potential for mobilising popular or trade union support for the occupations; but the CP did not really attempt this. Despite threats to spread mass squatting of houses in other cities, CP general secretary Harry Pollitt in fact issued an instruction that squatting was to cease. Party activists continued to support and aid camp squatters in some areas but no more initiatives like the London squats was taken.

Workers from De Havilland factory demonstrate in support of squatters

During the summer of 1946, trade unionists in several northern towns had refused to wreck buildings as a deterrent to squatting. Miners in Yorkshire had imposed an overtime ban when mine officials had tried to evict a family squatting in a colliery house. Council direct labour force workers in North London had also organised work parties to divert building materials to two squatted camps.
During the week of 9-16 September, officials of the building trades unions were inundated with resolutions supporting squatters, and demanding requisitioning and an end to the black market in repairs. De Havilland workers in West London announced they would strike if force was used to evict squatters. On the day the High Court injunction was granted, the London Trades Council, theoretically representing 600,000 workers, backed the squatters.

So the potential for workplace action in support of occupations of residential property existed… But the CP didn’t call for industrial action to get services connected to the squats, or to push the demand for wider requisitioning of housing. A more concerted fight in the courts could also have been put up, as the CP did have access to good lawyers – this did not happen either.

When the court orders were granted, there was no attempt to organise resistance to the evictions: in fact, as noted above, Stan Henderson for one argued down squatters who wanted to physically fight any eviction. The Party confined its activities to organising a demo in Leicester Square and sending delegations to Atlee, Bevan and local town halls.

It is also however, worth noting that, while there seems to have been mass popular support for the camp squats, to some extent feelings about the central London squats were more ambiguous. Many people did view seizing empty pubic property and empty private property as distinctly different, and support for seizing empty private houses was markedly lacking compared to very widespread approval for occupying disused army camps.

Even some of the camp squatters themselves thought occupying the Duchess of Bedford flats and other private property was a mistake, or even morally wrong. Despite a broad sense that the government should house people, and that public property was fair game, in the sense that it ‘belonged’ to all anyway, there was, it would appear, no real popular mood for expropriating the wealthy, even on a small scale.

April 1946: Schoolchildren helping the workmen construct a new estate of pre-fabricated houses in Watford, Hertfordshire.

Various commentators have characterised the post-war squatting movement as not really an example of militant workers action, or even especially political. Undoubtedly the movement was born out of practical need, not ideology. At times some of the post-war squatters exhibited individualist and reactionary tendencies – as in Buckinghamshire, where racist and nationalist sentiment against Polish emigres (many war veterans) being housed in former camps was mobilised to encourage its being squatted instead. The Communist Party to its shame snidely contributed to this, as the Poles were viewed as ‘anti-communist’ since they were refusing to return to the new ‘communist’ Poland.

The CP was to claim that the London squatting actions had helped accelerate the housing repair and building programme; while Labour denied this, it seems clear that the post-war squatting movement as a whole did contribute to pressure on the government to bring forward construction projects, and ramp up solutions like pre-fab housing. Some 6000 properties the government had been in control of were also released for housing over the following year;  in parts o London, at least, some local authorities did step up requisitioning  of empty buildings.

How much the London squats contributed to that pressure is open to debate; the potential for the mass squatting wave to spread into a large-scale campaign of occupation in cities was lost. Local authorities gained control over most of the squatted camps, and kept control over the housing allocation process; working class direct action on housing was mostly pushed back to the margins, for a decade or so…

As a follow-up to this, read ‘Who Are the Squatters?’ – an article from 1946, based on interviews with squatters from the Duchess of Bedford House and Abbey Lodge occupations…

Worth reading

We haven’t talked much about the squatted camps here, which deserves a whole other article. Another time. The following are useful reads on the 1945-6 squatting movements.

Self-Help and Socialism: The Squatters Movement of 1946, James Hinton

Housing, An Anarchist Approach, Colin Ward

London Squatters 1946, Noreen Branson (Communist Party ‘Our History series)

Squatting in Britain 1945-55, Don Watson

Squatting: The Real Story, ed Nick Wates and Christian Wolmar.

A Domestic Rebellion: The Squatters’ Movement of 1946, Howard Webber

Advisory Service for Squatters Info Sheet on the post-war squatters

The Squatters of 1946: A Local Study in national Context, Paul Burnham

The Communist Technique in Britain, Bob Darke

Who Are the Squatters? Diana Murrray Hill (published in Pilot Papers, vol 1 no 4, 1946.)

There’s some film footage of the Kensington squatters here: