Brixton before the Riots, part 3: The Brixton Plan & Squatting

Three main elements contributed to the eruption of rioting in Brixton in 1981. In parallel with the development of Brixton’s Afro-Caribbean community, the racism it faced from the police, and the resistance this provoked, the other crucial factor was the heavily squatted nature of housing in the area, which had the effect of producing the third factor – the proliferation of radical and liberation projects.
Mass squatting in the Brixton area was a product of a combination of a failed planning project, a spike in homelessness and the emergence of the modern squatters’ movement in 1969.

The Brixton Plan

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

The Borough was faced with a rising level of homelessness: a survey in 1967 reckoned that much of the housing in the area had less than ten years life left in it, and that to house the 14,000 homeless households, and cope with those who would likely be made homeless as these homes became unusable, the Council would have to build or refurbish 4000 houses a year for the next seven years. This didn’t even take account of those on the Waiting List. Given the then shortage of building workers this target was unlikely at best. But pressure was put on the Planning Dept to come up with a solution.

Lambeth Director of Planning, Ted Hollamby, had won a reputation for small-scale housing developments that blended with their surroundings, and came from a radical background, living as he did in a ‘progressive’ architectural commune in William Morris’s old Red House in Bexleyheath. While previously working for the London County Council, he had attempted to save old buildings from demolition. He seems to have been a somewhat contradictory character, or had a change of heart. Under Hollamby’s leadership (it was said of him at the time that “The planning process is highly centralised, taking place as it does entirely within [his] head.”) the Planners came up with a massive crash programme of redevelopment; of which the Brixton Plan was the central plank.

Ted Hollamby launching a development. Behind him, 3rd from the right, then Lambeth councillor Ken Livingstone. Whatever happened to him?

The Brixton Plan was also partly a response to the GLC approach, in the late 1960s, to the newly merged/enlarged boroughs, asking them to draw up community plans, to redevelop local areas in line with the GLC’s overall strategy for “taking the metropolis gleaming into the seventies”. Lambeth planners came up with a grandiose vision for Brixton, typical of the macro-planning of the era, which would have seen the area outstrip Croydon as a megalomaniac planners’ high-rise playground. The town centre would have been completely rebuilt, with a huge transport complex uniting the tube and overland railway station, Brixton Road redesigned as a 6-lane highway, and part of Coldharbour Lane turned into an urban motorway. Interestingly that’s why Southwyck House, known universally locally as the Barrier Block, is built like a huge wall with relatively few windows in the side facing Coldharbour Lane: to cushion the noise from this subsequently never built motorway. Not just to make its residents feel imprisoned – although for years rumours have asserted the Block’s design to be modeled on a plan for a Swedish Prison. When it opened, after ten years in the building, huge problems with different contractors, it was declared unfit for families to live in. It was gleefully pointed out in 1995, when then Prime Monster John Major described council estates as ‘grey, sullen wastelands, robbing people of self-respect’ that ex-Lambeth Housing Chair Major had been on the planning committee that had approved the Barrier Block!

Artists impression of Brixton town centre as it was to become

The plan was openly to re-engineer the area’s social mix, bringing middle class ‘urban professionals’ into the area, and (less openly) to disperse black people and other undesirables from Central Brixton. The 1971 opening of Brixton tube station was seen as the first step in “an attempt to upgrade the area on a very large scale.” Plans for a new office blocks, new schools, and new housing estates were scheduled; they would entirely replace the majority of the crumbling Victorian houses in Central Brixton. Some of the planned estates was to be low-rise, high density, but the centre piece featured Brixton Towers, five 52 storey tower blocks, the highest housing scheme outside Chicago, 600 feet high. A new park would serve the proposed 6000 new residents… In effect the plan would have restricted traffic to a few major trunk roads, encircling islands of high density housing with limited access. Such schemes carried out elsewhere quickly decayed into ghettos, cut off by perimeter roads; in fact the first new estate to be built, Stockwell Park, although low-rise, turned into a nightmare for many. Its purpose-built garages were not used for years, damp and disrepair set in and it rapidly began to be used as a dumping ground for supposed ‘problem tenants’.

Few of Lambeth’s 300,000 population knew much about this plan. But pretty soon, the effects of the processes set in motion under the plan began to bite. Lambeth had already obtained Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) on areas to be redeveloped – all over the Borough large-scale demolitions were scheduled for replacement by estates. The Brixton Plan called for houses in the Angell Town area, now covered by Angell Town Estate, Villa Road and Max Roach Park, to be removed. And as part of the proposals a huge central shopping centre was to extend from Coldharbour Lane out as far as Kellett Road (this would have been built by Ravenseft, responsible for the Elephant & Castle folly). And so a huge area of Railton Road and Mayall Road was Compulsory Purchased.

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

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


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

Homelessness was on the rise. Rising property prices had led many landlords to evict tenants to sell off houses. There were also an increasing number of empty houses (officially in 1971, 5225, two and a half times the 1961 figure), many of which were occupiable and not scheduled for immediate demolition, as it could take as long as 7 years from CPO to redevelopment.

Two main results of all this were a rapid increase in the number of squatters in the area, and an upsurge in community, radical and libertarian politics in the Borough.

Incidentally planner Ted Hollamby’s trajectory lurched further from consultative architecture – after leaving Lambeth Council’s employ in 1981, he went to work for the London Docklands Development Corporation, helping to ‘regenerate’ London’s docks in the interest of big business in the face of protests from most of the local population. Admittedly he attempted to mix conservations with the massive developments, though its the bulldozing that dominated. He’s remembered fondly in Brixton for his part in the design of estates like Cressingham Gardens…

Oh My God they’ve Moving in Next Door

Squatting came to Lambeth in March 1969, when a group occupied an empty five-storey office block in Brixton Road in protest at housing shortage.

A Lambeth Family Squatters Group quickly developed, housing mainly families stuck in overcrowded or badly repaired homes or waiting for council housing.

By 1970, the Borough Council had made an accommodation with its local Family Squatting Group to licence families to stay in occupied houses. This was very much in the spirit of the times, as pressure and media attention drew public support for squatting in empty property. However, licensed squatters were soon outnumbered by unlicensed ones, mainly single people, who the Family Squatting Associations wouldn’t house, although there was also a rise people who were squatting politically, occupying empties as shared houses or communes as a challenge to property rights and conventional ways of living, This neither the original squatting groups or the Council liked at all. Lambeth’s ‘official’ squatting group became Lambeth Self-Help Housing Co-op in 1971, the Council handed over 110 houses to them to administer (172 by 1974); in this way, Lambeth, like other authorities, was partly recognising they could do little to stop squatting and might as well have it under some form of loose control, as it could take the houses back when it could afford to do something with them. Much divisions arose from the licensing of some squats; Councils slyly pitted co-ops against squatters and tried to drive wedges between them. It’s true that while co-ops saved many people from eviction, they also acted in many cases to pressurise people to leave houses when the Councils demanded them back, and helped to regulate squatters, tone down organised resistance and shovel people into paying rent for substandard houses. There was also a lot of double dealing; squatters would be offered rehousing on the day of eviction, and as the Council trashed the house around them they would be moved to a hard to let property, often unfit to live in. in some cases this house would be taken back very quickly too  – in at least some cases the day after they were moved in!

Lambeth Self-Help, like many ‘70s housing co-ops, slowly evolved from a DIY activist group towards a larger more bureaucratic set-up. By 1977 they had a paid workforce of ten; by the 1990s they were managing hundreds of homes, often Council street properties that had been in poor nick. They housed many people over the years, but like many such groups, some of the people who ran the group were either power-mad or corrupt on a small scale. Abraham Korten, who evolved to become LSH’s supremo, became a notorious power-monger; just one example being how he attempted to persuade the Council to hand over Rushcroft Road and other shortlife properties to LSH in 1999, without even consulting the Rushcroft Road residents themselves. At other times, leading co-op activists secured large properties for themselves ahead of other needy members…

As noted by an observer elsewhere: “The squatting movement of the 1970s contained a number of middle class activists… it tended to be these people who became most active in organising short-life groups and co-ops to negotiate deals with local councils… Large shortlife organizations… gradually developed a bureaucratic structure run mainly by (these) middle class professionals, who were quick to recognise a new job market for their class… Housing activists who were willing to function as an extension of the local state housing bureaucracy were soon to be seen doing the council’s dirty work.”
(anonymous leaflet, circulated within Shortlife Community Housing, (a Camden Housing Co-op) reprinted in No Reservations, 1988.)

In the mid-70s, Lambeth was widely held to be the most squatted borough in London. The upsurge created whole squatted communities and experiments: Villa Road, Railton Road/Mayall Road in Central Brixton; St Agnes Place and Oval Mansions in Kennington; Bonnington Square/Vauxhall Grove, Radnor Terrace/Rosetta Street/Wilcox Road, and Mawbey St/Brough St all in Vauxhall; Heath Road/Robertson St, St Alphonsus Road and Rectory Gardens in Clapham, and Hubert Grove, off Landor Road; Priory Grove in Stockwell… and  many more. Later on there was Lingham Road, Stockwell, the Triangle in Norwood (Berridge rd, Bristow Rd), Effra Parade, St George’s Mansions, Loughborough Park, Stockwell Mansions… and many more. Many of these squat nexi became housing co-ops and some survive in that form today. And 100s of other squats existed, on their own or in ones and twos, with 1000s of flats on estates also being squatted.

Most of these arose in streets which had been part of Compulsory Purchase Schemes, then left largely or wholly empty by planning blight. Some remained squatted (or intermittently licenced) for nearly 30 years, some became co-ops in the 70s and 80s, some gradually were evicted. Some squatters formed action groups to try and preserve their houses, of these, as with Villa Road, some partially succeeded and became co-ops, while others like St Agnes Place prevented their destruction but made no long-term deals with the Council. While many of the squatters were content to house themselves and live a quiet life, the growth of squatting as a whole bolstered a large and diverse radical scene in Brixton. Many of the squatters were alternative types, socialists, feminists, anarchists, bohemians or artists of one stripe or another, or lesbians and gay men trying to create new ways of living outside the traditional family set up…  Many others wanted little more than somewhere affordable to live. These widely varying reasons for squatting led to disputes and splits, as some of the more ‘political’ squatters took a more confrontational line while others pursued licences and formed co-ops. In may cases though, a dual approach saved people’s houses, as with Villa Road.

Many buildings were occupied for social centres, housing a dizzying spectacle of alternative projects and community spaces. There was a social centre/ squatters advice at 119 Railton Road next door around 1973-4, part of a large Frontline squatting (a Railton Road squatters group was still going in 1975). The radical People’s News Service operated from no 119.

The shopfronts (since demolished) at no 78-80 Railton Rd, in front of the St George’s Residences, included a squatted Claimants Union office, the South London Gay Centre and a women’s space, around 1974-6…

Communes, radical experiments in alternative ways of life to the traditional nuclear family, were set up…

Young, Gifted and Homeless

Gradually many local black youth began to squat. From the early 70s the younger, more militant generation faced increasing black homelessness caused by massive overcrowding in traditional West Indian households, conflict with an older and more conservative generation in some cases getting them thrown out, and a hostile housing market, inflexible council housing policies or hostels. Many local black kids were sleeping rough, on building sites, etc. As a result, from about 1973-4 many occupied council properties. The black Melting Pot organisation played a part in housing many youth, their squatted HQ was in Vining Street (and was attacked by racists in August 1983).

Many houses, especially along Railton Road, were turned into ‘blues’ clubs, home to unlicensed drinking, smoking and reggae, in defiance of the authorities. The Blues had since the fifties been a response to the exclusion of blacks from many pubs and clubs, and this scene grew as younger kids with little respect for white society and white authority reached their teens. A lot of the black squatters had little contact with squatting groups, which were usually dominated by middle-class whites; relations were often fractious (see report on the 1982 frontline riot, below). Black magazine Race Today in 1974 claimed that black people were squatting in the areas they grew up in, that they were more likely to receive support from their community, “whereas the white squatters, who are generally London’s floating bedsitter population, set up squats in different areas with no organic relation to the indigenous population around them.” Although this statement ignores many exceptions, and “indigenous population” is an unlikely term where London is concerned, there is an element of truth to this statement. Many white squatters WERE “outsiders”, and did often have little commitment to stay in an area, which they weren’t originally from. But a huge chunk of London’s population has for centuries been from elsewhere, transient, moving (often forced to move) from one area of town to another. Squatters in many cases would settle down if they could – it’s the landlords, council, cops and courts that drive them out.

Black squatters of course received their unfair share of agro from the local state and the bizzies. And the press, always up for a story about noisy blacks, spread tales of black squatters terrorising their neighbours.

Some of the black Squatters’ actions had longer term effects than anyone could have foreseen. In January 1973, Olive Morris and Liz Turnbull, two black women squatting in a flat above a disused laundry at 121 Railton Road, were illegally evicted by agents of the private landlords. They broke back in, only to be dragged out by 5 cops; Olive however escaped the filth, climbed back in and spent several hours on the roof, supported by a crowd of people outside. There was some scuffling between cops and this group, and black youth worker, Ivan Madray, was nicked; (in the way recuperation gets ya, he was later one of the “community leaders’ discredited during the riots in April 1981, accused of collusion with the police.)

The council and cops failed to get her down with offers of accommodation, and they eventually left. She re-occupied the flat, staying there for ages. Later Sabaar Collective took over the building for a black bookshop; when they left in 1980, anarchists who had used Sabaar as a postal address squatted the building, founding the 121 Bookshop, which squatted there for 19 years, getting evicted in 1999.

Olive Morris had been a member of the Black Panthers as a teenager; women were vocal and active in the Movement. As a result tensions had arisen, and women activists had begun to meet and discuss the problems; as a result a sense of the need to organise separately developed. As part of this process Olive was later a founder of Brixton Black Women’s Group, the Brixton Black Women’s Centre and the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent; she was a fearless fighter against the powers that be. She died, aged only 26, of cancer, in 1979. Lambeth in its Leftspeak days named Olive Morris House on Brixton Hill after her, council offices including the dreaded Housing Benefit Department (recently demolished).

Villa Victory

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

A strong anti-squatter consensus began to emerge in the Council, particularly after the 1974 council elections. The new Chair of the Housing Committee and his Deputy were in the forefront of this opposition to squatters, loudly blaming them for increased homelessness.

Councillor Alfred Mulley referred to squatted Rectory Gardens as being “like a filthy dirty back alley in Naples.”

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

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

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

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

The Gutting and smashing up of houses was an integral part of this strategy: houses when evicted were to be rendered totally unliveable in. In some cases this got highly dangerous: houses in Wiltshire Road were wrecked with an old woman still living in the basement, while people were out shopping (puts a new slant on that old chestnut about squatters breaking into your house while you’re down the shops eh, after all this time we find out that it was the COUNCIL!). There was said to be a secret dirty tricks committee in the Housing Dept thinking up demolition plans and ordering them done on the sly.

There was resistance to the evictions/destruction. In November 1976, a crowd of squatters barricaded Vining Street off Railton Road, jeering off bailiffs and workmen, to prevent their homes being smashed up – much of Rushcroft Road and Vining Street was already semi-derelict from neglect.  The Council had already admitted that evicted houses would lie empty for two years and more.

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

In Villa Road, empties had been gradually squatted 1973-76. In response to tenants campaigns, the Council pressed ahead with attempts to evict through the courts, all the houses in Villa Rd, which it proposed to demolish, to build a park (a part of the Brixton Plan that had survived), and a junior school (which even then looked to be in doubt). Families could apply to the Homeless Persons Unit; single people could whistle. In reply, squatters, tenants and supporters barricaded all the houses in Villa Road and proceeded to occupy the Council’s Housing Advice Centre and then the planning office.

Links with local workers were helped by squatters’ support for a construction workers picket during a strike at the Tarmac site in the town centre and for an unemployed building workers march.

In June 1976, 1000 people attended a carnival organised by the squatters in Villa Road. The following day, council workers refused to continue with the wrecking of houses evicted in Villa Road, after squatters approached them and asked them to stop. They all walked off the job, and “the house became crowded with squatters who broke out into song and aided by a violinist, started dancing in the streets.” There was a similar incident in a squat in Radnor Terrace, Vauxhall, the day before. The local UCATT building workers union branch had passed a resolution blocking the gutting of liveable houses.

These links between squatters and building workers were built on into 1977: as squatters, tenants, residents in temporary and Bed & Breakfast accommodation co-operated on pickets of the Town Hall over the Council’s housing policy. Later in the year Lambeth Housing Action Group was set up, with Tenants Associations, Squatting groups, union branches sending delegates; they pledged to co-operate with Lambeth Anti-Racist movement as well…There was a plan for a demo when the Queen came to visit on 30 June 1977: what happened? Hope she had a torrid jubilee visit…

Meanwhile some Possession Orders in Villa Road were thrown out in court. Negotiations opened up with the council, and after much trench warfare and court wrangling, half of Villa Road was saved as part of Lambeth Self Help, in return for the demolition of the southern half, with rehousing for most of the residents.

Some of those rehoused were moved to Rushcroft Road, to face 20 years of mismanagement, bad repair, and uncertainty from Lambeth and London & Quadrant Housing Association… and then eviction in the early 2000s as the Council decided to flog off their flats off to developers.

Fighting off the wreckers in St Agnes Place, January 1977. The child in her mother’s arms would go on to fight Lambeth taking the street till 2005…!

In St Agnes Place, squatters had first moved into empty houses in 1974 – some of the buildings had been unoccupied for 14 years. By December 1976 over 100 people were squatting there. In January 1977 over 250 police had arrived at dawn to preside over the demolition of empty houses, although the demolition was stopped within hours by a hastily initiated court injunction by the squatters. These houses remained squatted for decades, to be finally evicted and demolished in 2005.

The remnants of The Brixton Plan had already started to crumble around the Council when Ravenseft, one of the major backers of the Plan, had pulled out the previous summer. The planners had to go back to the drawing board. The Brixton Plan was even more of a pipedream than it had been in 1969. By the time the High Court hearing on Villa Road resumed in March, the Council had been forced into a position where it had to compromise with squatters at Villa Rd and elsewhere… St Agnes Place, Heath Road, Rectory Gardens, and St Alphonsus Road…

In May 1978, a new left-Labour Council was elected with Trotskyist Ted Knight, a and Matthew Warburton, a first time councillor, as leader and housing chair respectively. The left had been fighting to try and take over from the old rightwing Labour guard for years. Squatters in both Villa Road and St Agnes Place had contributed directly to the leftwards swing and the new leaders had pledged to adopt more sympathetic policies.

Interestingly though, watered down versions of parts of the Brixton Plan were still surfacing in the 80s. In 1983, planning officers were proposing radical alterations to the lands cape, including demolishing many houses behind the west side of Brixton Road, to build shops and offices, and rerouting Coldharbour Lane through Rushcroft Road and Carlton Mansions (handily this would have got rid of hundreds of squatters and co-op dwellers living there). Central Brixton was once again being envisioned as hosting a grandiose block of flats on top of a car park and new shops. Opposition was rallied by housing co-ops and others, through the Brixton Action Group, who described the planners as “an elusive lot who lurk in Streatham making recommendations about land use and building design which we experience years later when we are told that although our houses are viable and necessary the council regrets that the land has been zoned for office development…” Fortunately amendments were made to the plans, which took objections into account, and ended up substantially humanised.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

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

Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to…
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: The Impossible Class
12: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
13: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
14: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
15: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
16: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
17: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
18: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
19: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton in the 1990s
20: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
21: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
22: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
23: Brixton, Riots and Memory, 2006/2021
24: Gentrification in Brixton 2015

Common Land and Squatting in London Fields, Hackney: A Historical Wander

Hidden Histories: Common Land and Squatting in Hackney

Intro
This walk was made on 17 July 2011 by about 40 people, some of whom had personal experience of squatting in the London Fields and Mare Street area of Hackney, London, from the 1970s to the present. It was researched and organised by Melissa Bliss with contributions from others including Past Tense.

This seemed like a good time to highlight the squatting history of the area: the government had recently signalled its intention to criminalise squatting; the Olympics, only 12 months away then, had led to a massive increase in property speculation; and the London Fields area was experiencing rapid social and structural change.

We selected 8 sites on the walk which showed different aspects of squatting in different decades. There were many other squatted sites we could have chosen so this walk is not comprehensive.

This account is not comprehensive and we are always looking for more information about this area.

Two more radical history walks were done around the same time in other parts of Hackney, (one from Dalston to Stoke Newington, and another around Stoke Newington), put together by some of the people involved in this walk: we are working on re-constructing them, and will post them up on this blog at some point.

A brief history of squatting in the London Fields area

Squatting in London Fields goes back decades. The earliest references we found were in the late 1960s but it is likely there was individual and organised squatting before then.

London Fields has experienced a high level of squatting for several reasons:

•  Housing need caused by poor housing and rising rents which priced people out of private rented accommodation

•  Loss of housing through bombing and neglect

•  Intensive top down planning intervention – wartime requisitioning, slum clearance and compulsory purchase – leaving whole areas to become run down and left empty

•  Deindustrialisation as businesses moved further out of London leaving empty industrial buildings such as factories, workshops and warehouses

•  Organisation among squatters which led to large scale squatting and, for some, licensing

By the end of the Second World War Hackney had lost about 5,000 homes and 7,000 people were on the housing waiting list. The London County Council (LCC) accelerated its slum clearance programme, buying up properties and moving people out of London. The Metropolitan Borough of Hackney used compulsory purchase powers to buy up properties which had been requisitioned during the War: 1,767 properties, containing 3.317 homes, including around the west side of Mare Street .

Hackney’s population has declined since the 1910s until 1981. Between 1931 to 1961 it declined by about a third. Despite this there was also considerable homelessness due to poor housing stock and rising rents. Organised squatting increased in the 1960s.

During the 1970s there were continual struggles around housing centred on homelessness, slum clearance and redevelopment plans. Rapidly rising house prices in the early 1970s led to a shortage of cheaper private rented housing and speculators leaving properties empty.

The Greater London Council (GLC) and London Borough of Hackney (LBH) had plans to develop the Broadway Market and London Fields east side areas respectively to preserve local employment. But they proceeded so slowly that the areas were blighted and many properties were left empty. Squatters moved in.

Organised and individual squatting increased. Public sector landlords and property owners responded in a variety of way: smashing up properties, licensing squatters or encouraging squatters to regularise themselves in housing co-ops or housing associations.

Smaller changes like the removal of caretakers from housing estates by the early 1970s allowed squatters to move into flats undetected.

From the mid 1970s the GLC took some moves to regularise squatters by getting them to form housing coops.

In 1977 the Conservatives regained control of the GLC and started selling their housing to individuals through the policy of homesteading and housing associations. They also gave squatters an amnesty and offered them tenancies in hard to let properties.

In the 1980s LBH suffered a number of crises including severe funding cuts from central government and, perhaps most crucially, when GLC was abolished, being forced to take on the GLC housing stock, much of which was in poor repair. This doubled LBH’s housing. Cuts in funding from central government and internal council crises meant the council was unable to deal with its housing. In 1981 Hackney had 2,300 empty properties.

During the 1990s the Council was able to regain more control over its property. Many homes had been lost to right to buy and funds were coming through from central government and the European Union to redevelop the area.

In the 2000s squatting continued in the area but in a less organised way and more commonly in industrial buildings. As the area became gentrified, land values increase and less properties were available for squatting. There were also occupations in protest at the ways in which regeneration was being brought about, in particular with the sale of Council properties to property developers and speculators.

Squatting continues in the area but mostly in building awaiting redevelopment, often from industrial to residential uses.

LONDON FIELDS LIDO

1998 – 2003 

The Lido was built 1932 by the LCC, partly as compensation to Hackney for military use of Hackney Marshes during the First World War. Like many other lidos in London it lasted well till the late 1970s when it was transferred by thy GLC to LBH. It then began to be run down by the Council, closing finally in 1988 amid plans to turn it into a car park.

In 1990 Tower Hamlets managed to bulldoze Victoria Park lido and replace it a car park. This spurred local people on to continue to fight to save London Fields Lido, even standing in front of a bulldozer in 1990 to prevent demolition. Local people led campaigns to reopen the Lido and cleared away vegetation. The children’s paddling pool which was closed in 1999, was reopened by local people for summer seasons.

In 1998 the Lido was squatted for housing, a café and communal events. London Reclaim the Streets held their weekly meetings here for a while. In August 1988 there was the Carnival of the Dispossessed, a benefit for Reclaim The Streets. The Lido was squatted for a second time 2002-2005. Here’s a nice story of that time from Ms Marmite Lover.

[Your past tense typist remembers the time well. Especially the benefit for RTS mentioned. Which might have been much less pleasant… A couple of days before, the deep end of the empty pool reflooded up to a depth of several feet, as the drain leading from the lido had become blocked. Since the deep end was the prospective stage for the upcoming gig, this was bit of a problem, unless a floating stage was an option…  Your friendly neighbourhood squat plumber/radical historian was woken from his sleep in a far off part of south London, grabbed his drain rods and was rushed to the spot, and after some expert rodding the somewhat skanky watter drained away, in time for the pool to dry out and the gig to take place.]

LBH, rather late in the day discovered an enthusiasm for the Lido it was eventually evicted, and finally reopened it in 2006. it is now a source of pride for the Council which uses it frequently to promote the borough. But it would not be here now except for the concerted campaigns by local people and squatters.

Walk through London Fields and Trederwen Avenue to Brougham Road

BROUGHAM ROAD

1970s – ?1987 Housing

Dave Morris spoke about Brougham Road, using this text he wrote in 2008

“Well I was squatting in 64 Brougham Rd from 1974-1980. I was a postman in Islington. The house was very run down, with an old outside toilet and a sink for a kitchen. But we decorated the inside with posters, murals, press cuttings and inspiring slogans etc.

I shared the place with Alan, a really decent and quiet young bloke who became an alcoholic in the late 1970s. Alan once got nicked when drunk at a train station wearing my post office jacket and wheeling about a post office trolley with bags of letters on it. This led to a raid on the house and some laughable police hysteria about him and me being in an anarchist train robbers gang… I testified in court that I had known nothing about it (and that probably nor did Alan), but he still got 6 months suspended (Mentioned in Albert Meltzer’s autobiography, I Couldn’t Paint Golden Angels). After I left I think he went downhill, and last I heard he tragically got run over by a bus.

The other bloke we shared with was Des Kelly from Ireland who I recall was writing a book… I have a mad photo of him trying to ride his bike UP our staircase. I did bump into him in Hackney 15 years later but can’t remember what he was doing them.

Spanish Elizabeth was next door I think. Zoundz folks moved into my place or next door after I left. I vaguely recall a guy (Bruce?) living at No 66 who did animation and who told me he was working on an amazing path-breaking new film called ‘Star Wars’.. it didn’t sound to me like it would get anywhere with a crap name like that…

There was a very strong Broadway Market Squatters Association (with maybe 50+ homes in it from the area) which met regularly for mutual solidarity and campaigning. I remember we decided to boycott an amnesty offered by the GLC (London Authority) to squatters if we would accept licenses… the Association saw it as a sell out and divide and rule – we were all pretty militant and independent. But eventually many did accept licenses and then formed housing co-ops in order to keep together and survive.

There were lots of radical feminists in the area, many squatting – I admired them a lot.”

There’s a link to a great article on the 1970s London Fields women’s squat scene, written by a participant.

“Some were involved in the Women In Manual Trades group. Former German urban guerrilla Astrid Proll did apparently spend some time in the area and many people in the area helped form the Friends of Astrid Proll to campaign for her after she was arrested.
Astrid’s sojourn there inspired a song by Nik Turner of Hawkwind fame

I think a building which had been squatted at the south end of the street sometime in the early 70s became a collectively run playcentre..

There was a revolutionary socialist guy who was a tenant in the tower block at that end of the street and had had some run ins with NF fascists.. I vaguely remember getting involved in anti-fascist stuff in the area, painting out nazi slogans etc…

There was a good community, with squatters, tenants, feminists, anarchists and all age groups and nationalities all mixing and getting along pretty well.

There was famous graffiti on a wall at the end of the street by the market which survived for over 10 years: Broadway Market is not a sinking ship – its a submarine.’ It has been restored in recent years, but unfortunately gentrified a lot. It was amazing to go back there last year after decades away and visit Tony’s cafe which had been there when I was there I think, been evicted in order to be ponced up, and then re-occupied as a high profile squatted political centre opposing gentrification in the area (by some anarchists and ‘Hackney Independent’ activists.. see the Hackney Independent website for full info on this).”
Dave Morris

More about Brougham Road

At some point the streets west of London Fields passed into the hands of the GLC – possibly after the Second World War. The GLC had plans to redevelop the wider Broadway Market area to encourage employment but left properties empty for a long time.

The east side of Brougham Road was squatted from at least the early 1970s. Some became licensed through Patchwork Housing.

A building was occupied and run as a nursery by a black group, becoming the Market Nursery, whose patron was Benjamin Zephaniah. The Market Nursery is still going in Wilde Close.

Behind Brougham Road was the old Dalston Bus Garage (on the site of a military barracks) which closed in 1981 and was replaced by Ash Grove bus garage. The bus garage was occupied by travellers in 1981-82. This may have been “uber hippy travellers the Ukrainian Mountain Troupe, who had occupied an abandoned bus garage near Brougham Road in Hackney” according to Alistair of Kill Your Pet Puppy…

This area was later redeveloped as housing by LBH: Suffolk Estate (1960s-1971) and the Regents Estate (1980-88), Grand Union Crescent & Dublin Avenue (1980s).

LBH approved the GLC’s development plans for the Broadway Market Area in 1975 but not much happened other than the building of Ash Grove bus station on Mare Street and Ada Street Workshops (1992).

Walk along Brougham Road and Benjamin Close to Broadway Market. No. 34 is straight ahead, No. 71 is to the left.

BROADWAY MARKET

1970s – 2000s

Main speaker: Jim Paton

Broadway Market used to be a thriving shopping street and market. This declined until the 1970s when many of the shops were closed and the properties shuttered with corrugated iron. Some of the properties were owned by the GLC and LBH but some were privately owned (for example, in 1983 Prudential Insurance owned no. 53-61). The GLC’s plans to develop the area stopped other development happening.

Flats in the blocks around Broadway Market were also left empty, rented under the hard to let scheme and squatted including Warburton House and Jackman House.

The Council has various schemes to revive the area but little came of them. The GLC built Ash Grove bus station on Mare Street and the Ada Street workshops in the early 1980s.

In the early 2000s LBH was determined to revive the area by selling of the shops and flats above. Some leaseholders were able to buy their properties but many were sold at auction to overseas investment companies at less than market prices. Two sales were particularly contentious.

No.34, Francesca’s Café, was run by Tony Platia for over 30 years. He asked the Council if he could buy the property several times but was turned down. In 2004 the building was bought by Dr Roger Wratten along with the properties on either side of the café and other properties and land in the local area (including 2, 4, 6, 30, 32 Broadway Market; land to the rear of numbers 26-36 Broadway Market; 27 Marlborough Avenue). It seems that Wratten grew up in No. 36 next door.

Tony was evicted at the end of 2005 and the property was occupied to prevent the building’s demolition and as a protest against the wholesale sell-offs. The café was finally evicted in February 2006.

Tony now runs a juice stall in the market (which started in 2004). No. 34 still stands derelict.

No. 71, Nutritious Food Gallery, was run by Spirit who lived above with his family from 1993. When he starting renting it from LBH, the building was semi-derelict and he spent his own money doing it up and running a successful food shop. As leaseholder Spirit should have been given the first option to buy the property. But in 2002 when he went to the auctioneers and left a cheque he believed he had bought he building. But it was later sold at the auction to an offshore investment company for less money than he had offered. This company then raised his rent by 1200% with the clear intention of getting him out. Spirit attempted to pay this rent but ran into arrears and was finally evicted in October 2006.

No 71 is now the FIn and Flounder, a posh fish shop
[At this point on the 2011 walk, ‘some words’ were exchanged with the hipster fish shop owners who had bought Spirit’s old shop. Some people on the walk knew Spirit and took the piss out of the fishy folk. But are such middle class who buy into gentrification just tiddlers, just prawns in a larger game? Cod knows…]

Walk through Broadway Market & London Fields to the Warburton Estate garden

WARBURTON HOUSE & DARCY HOUSE

1970s – 2000s

Darcy House was the LCC’s first block in Hackney (1904), on the site of Dr Carbureting’s Asylum (1830s-1850s) and Pacifico’s alms houses for Sephardic Jews (about 1851). Warburton House was built slum clearance in 1935-38.

The Warburton Estate is typical of several estates in the local area (like Goldsmiths Row and the Haggerston Estate). Under the GLC it became run down and flats emptied. Some were squatted and some were let under the Hard To Let scheme.

2011: It rained heavily.

Walk through Mentmore Terrace, Sidworth Street to junction with Lamb Lane

LONDON FIELDS EAST:
Mentmore Terrace, Sidworth Street, Lamb Lane, Gransden Avenue

Sidworth Street was the site of a V2 bomb during the war and in the 1960s and 1970s industrial unties built. In 2010 one block (13018) was squatted as Urban HapHazard Squat. Some building around Sidworth Street and Mentmore Terrace are currently squatted, some with the knowledge/permission of the property owners.

Properties round here bough by local council after WW2 (bomb damage & slum clearance) and in the 1970s. During this time there were several traveller sites on Lamb Lane, Gransden Avenue and   Mentmore Terrace. In the 1980s a site on Gransden Avenue/London Lane was being considered as a permanent local authority traveller site.

Walk down Lamb Lane (note Elizabeth Fry Way) & Mare Street

195 MARE STREET: NEW LANSDOWNE CLUB

2009 (September) – 2010 (August) Communal / social centre

This building was built in about 1697, probably for a wealthy merchant, Abraham Dolins. It is the second oldest house and third oldest building in Hackney (after St Augustine’s Tower and Sutton House). For the first 160 years (1697-1860), it was a merchant’s family home. For the next fifty-odd years (1860-1913), like many big houses around this area, it was turned over to institutional use. It became the Elizabeth Fry Refuge for Reformation of Women Prisoners. It housed women released from jail where they learnt the skills to go into domestic service. For ninety years (1913-2004), it became a liberal/radical social club – the New Lansdowne Club. During this time a new building was built out the back with a bar and a stage. After a long period of decline it finally closed in 2004.

In 2005 it was bought for a Vietnamese community and cultural centre but stood empty since then.

In 2009 the building was squatted as a very active social centre. Events included London Free School, benefits, skills sharing and film nights.

In May 2010 this company went bust and ownership passed to the Dunbar Bank which finally evicted the centre in August 2010. Currently (July 2011) on sale   for £1 million.

“Opened at the end of 2009, it got evicted in August 2010. In the meanwhile, it hosted a considerable amount of weekly workshops and skill-sharing, but also theatre plays, gigs, movies, benefit parties, meetings, art exhibitions and performances, gardening and even a pantomime! The building is one of the oldest house in Hackney, its front part is the oldest (grade II listed) and there is a more recent back part that includes a stage. At the time squatters moved in, it was owned by some developers company who simply wanted to demolish part of it and build flats. But the developers got bankrupt and their bank, Dunbar Bank, took over. They evicted the squatters, redone the facade and nothing else, and are now selling it out…”

NAUTEANESS – 197 Mare Street

2011

This was then squatted and open on Sundays – we dropped in to get dry, drink tea & play music. An ex-diving shop, it was owned by property developers. [Not sure what happened after this- Ed]

Some people went on to Well Furnished11 Terrace Rd, opposite Well Street

Well Furnished was unfortunately evicted not long after (26th of August 2011). It was “located in Well street, Homerton, a vibrant area where locals seem to have established strong links with each other. The St John Hackney Joint Charities Trust owns a lot of properties on this street and have decided to increase the rents by up to 300%, forcing people to leave their buildings. The WellFurnished collective occupied some of these buildings in early summer 2011, and organised lots of events: benefit cafes/dinners/gigs, exhibitions, painting/dancing/yoga workshops, meetings etc.”

Walk down Mare Street to London Lane / Belling Road

LONDON LANE/ELLINGFORT ROAD

1980s – 1994

The Victorian terraced housing in this area was not built to a very high standard. After the Second World War the Council compulsorily purchased some buildings in the area.

In the mid 1970s LBH planned to create an Industrial Improvement Area between Mare Street and London Fields in an attempt to stem the loss of employment. The Council compulsory purchased more buildings and got rid of existing residents and businesses. It was not keen to hand housing over for short life in case it slowed down development.

Squatters moved into the empty buildings and travellers into the yards (the earliest reference we found was to 1979 but may have been earlier). Artists organisations Acme and Space persuaded the Council to hand over some buildings for studios and living but many of the other properties were squatted. Space leased a building in Martello Street since 1971 and Acme had buildings on Martello Street and Mentmore Terrace.

In 1985 the Council proposed demolishing all the buildings in Ellingfort Road, London Lane and Mentmore Terrace. Between 1885 and 1992 some of the short life housing co-ops left and more houses were squatted.

In 1995 the Council announced its intention to create a fenced off industrial area between Mare Street and the railway, taking in London Lane, Ellingfort Road and Mentmore Terrace. In 1997 the Council got EU funds for this scheme but it was bitterly opposed by local people who wanted a mixture of housing and small scale workspaces.

Some of the squatters had by now acquired ownership of their properties.

Some of the people living in the two streets, both squatters and people in housing co-ops, got together to form a housing coop to take on the redevelopment. In the end eight houses were handed back to the Council for development for live/work units and the rest remained as a co-op.

A former resident said “21 Ellingfort Road was the home of two Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Sister Belladonna and Mother Mandragora. Sometimes they hung out on the street in full habit and no one batted an eyelid and came home on the 55 bus in full habit too. We once went to the ‘pub with no name’ next to the hackney empire in full habit to a gig”.

Walk up Mare Street to the Town Hall

Past:
282 Richmond Road, squatted in 2002 as a community art space

Great Eastern Buildings on Reading Lane built for railway workers) deteriorated, run as a hostel, squatted ?around 2005.

270 Mare Street – former Methodist Hall

1988 and 1995–1996

Spikey Thing with Curves

no 270 was possibly originally the Mothers’ Hospital of the Salvation Army 1884-1913, then a Mission Methodist Hall.

In March 1988 it was occupied after the mass eviction of many squats on the Stamford Hill estate.

In 1995 and1996 it was squatted as a social space, Spikey Thing With Curves. A large mural was painted on the outside and parties were holed there.

HACKNEY TOWN HALL

The Town Hall was the site of many demonstrations against Council policies. In the 1980s squatters were many and organised, and about 90% of squats in council properties so there was regular conflict:

  • 1987: “Hackney Squatters Army””disrupted every monthly council meeting
  • 1988: Stamford Hill Estate evicted, Town Hall & Methodist Hall opposite occupied by evicted squatters.
  • May 1989:The Town Hall was occupied after squatted centre Lee House eviction was resisted.
  • In 1993-94 Council started cracking down on squatting, offering short life & tenancies to some, evictions to others.
  • A 1994 protest against the Criminal Justice Act here ended in arrests and heavy charges.

Some info handed out on the walk:

Totally Independent (Newsletter of Haringey Solidarity Group) Issue 20 Summer 2011

Leaflets from Hackney Housing History project

Links

The Radical History of Hackney blog

Kill Your Pet Puppy: many interesting pages, this one on Brougham Road

Lost Boys of the Lido | Ms Marmite Lover:

Hackney Society: New Lansdowne Club

The New Lansdowne Club in 3D

The Squatters Estate Agency: Ruff Tuff Creem Puff

The squatting movement that flourished in London from the late 1960s to the early 2000s, of which some vestige remains, threw up many wild and brilliant initiatives. In the 1970s, when tens of thousands of homes lay empty across the capital, thousands of these were squatted, providing homes for several generations, as well as multiple projects, cafes, gig spaces, gardens, dancehalls, bookshops, nurseries, and much more… most evicted, or turned into co-ops, legitimised, sold off…
Much of this went on completely ‘unorganised’, in the sense that people squatted autonomously, finding empties themselves, breaking in, doing the work of doing places up etc.
But acting as something of a backbone to the scene were a plethora of squatting groups, usually local organisation, often ad-hoc and shifting, who provide support, advice, lent tools, and often kept lists of empty potentially squattable buildings.

Of these, one of the earliest, operating from what for much of the decade was London’s Squat Central – West London, and especially the areas around Notting Hill and North Kensington – was the cutting edge, and sometimes notorious Ruff Tuff Creem Puff squatters estate agency. engineers, … The Ruff Tuff squatters got much information about empty properties from sympathetic telephone postal workers, council office workers as well as a British Gas official…

In their own words: an account of Ruff Tuff Creem Puff from 1978 (nicked from the anthology Squatting: The Real Story, published in 1969). Written by the agency’s own Heathcote Williams.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

The inside story of Ruff Tuff Creem Puff, the only estate agency for squatters

By Heathcote Willliams

The Ruff Tuff Creem Puff Estate Agency was founded in 1974 by ‘Mad Dog, Fluke and Flame’, Gods’ Groupies, stimulated by their squatting of the ‘Meat Roxy’, a former Bingo Hall in Lancaster Road, North Kensington, where every Saturday three or four hundred people gathered for a free ball. Electricity was re-routed from a squatted house at the back, a large double bed put in the middle of the auditorium for people to accompany the music in their lubricious fashion, and above the stage in letters four feet high there was written: CIVILISATION HATH TURNED HER BACK ON THEE. REJOICE, SHE HATH AN UGLY FACE.

At the end of the day, half the people seduced into coming had nowhere to go. It being winter, and our social consciences being intricately plucked, the Meat Roxy was established as a place to live as well, but gradually, perhaps through the loudness of the music, the roof fell in. Other accommodation had to be found for these errant space gipsies, Tuinal freaks, lushes and werewolves clamouring for shelter from the wind and the rain and the cold in the Ladbroke Archipelago.

A set of house-breaking equipment was purchased, and a small survey of the neighbourhood carried out. Empty properties sprang up like mushrooms and were cropped. The first bulletin advertising their availability was Gestetnered and published in an almost unreadable edition of 150 copies, and the Ruff Tuff Creem Puff Estate Agency (named after a Robert Crumb cartoon character) was registered as a working charity (Astral registration number 666).


Since then 23 bulletins have been published, ranging from one foolscap side to eight, and listing empty properties available in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Holland, Italy and Yugoslavia.’ A nucleus of seven or so people worked under the umbrella of the agency: whoever lived in our house became involved. The house was often watched and the possibility of prosecution for incitement or conspiracy to trespass frequently lurked on the back-burner. Office hours were round the clock.

People were sent to us from almost anywhere: social services departments, highly funded pressure groups such as Shelter or the Campaign for the Homeless and Rootless, occasionally Harrow Road Police Station, and BIT, the hip Vatican and self-help centre down the road. It was a house rule that anyone could stay for a night in the house until we found them somewhere permanent. On average, 15 to 20 people came round looking for somewhere to live each day.

We opened up places for people but often found that many of them regarded us as the landlord. They would come back half a dozen times complaining about roofs, drains and windows and it was a long time before it occurred to them that they could do anything about the place themselves. Fluke often fell back sardonically in these circumstances on the ancient Arab saying: ‘If you rescue a man from drowning, you have to look after him for the rest of your life.’ In most cases we told people where the house was, what its history was as far as we knew, explained the score in law and lent them any available equipment.

The surface problem was homelessness, and in many cases when that was solved everything was cool. We’d see the person we’d fixed up and find that their days were glowing again, and they would promise to keep us fed with any empty places that they had noticed. But in many other cases homelessness had created far worse problems. People who had no house built houses inside their heads; people who’d been chronically rejected over a long period lived in a shell and sat in the office without being able to speak. Getting fixed up with a place got transmuted into getting a fix. Being warm had changed into a whiskey-sodden rush.

One man sat in the dilapidated chair in the corner of the kitchen-cum-office for two days without saying a word and then suddenly leapt up and stuck a knife into Fluke.The knife fortunately was fairly blunt and came out without any brown rice on the end. Gently asked for some explanation, it transpired that he’d had nowhere to live for two years save a mausoleum in Highgate Cemetery. The spirits had apparently commanded this act: ‘Fluke is a good man being bad but I caught him when he was a bad man being good.’ And then there followed an indecipherable word salad based on his connections with the spirit world. It made us feel that handing out houses to people for nothing was all right but that it often wasn’t enough.

Another man, who’d just come out of Parkhurst where he’d been serving nine years for armed robbery involving £30,000 worth of platinum, crashed through the door in a feverish state and said: ‘You’re social workers, aren’t you?’ in an almost accusing manner.

The accusation was denied.

‘Hang on, hang on, look how ‘bout I get a wee bottle of something. What you drink? Wine? I’ll get some.’

He reappeared with six bottles of Mateus and a two foot square box of chocolates ‘fur the kiddie’. He said: ‘You wondering why I’m doing all this aren’t you? Well, I’ll tell you. I need your help. You have drugs here don’t you? You people have drugs?’

‘Only the look in our eyes, that’s all.’

‘No, seriously, you have drugs here? You’re hippies aren’t you? Hippies always have drugs. I’ll pay you for it . . .’

Not to let the chance of a deal go begging, Cocke Lorrell who’d just done a run of three weights, pulled out his scales and said: ‘How much do you want?’ fondling a large polythene bag filled with the stinking soul-smoke.

‘What’s that?’

‘Best Buddha Grass.’

He was mystified. The theft of those nine years of his life had meant that he’d missed Weed Power.

‘Dope,’ said Cocke Lorrell, ‘it’s grass. Dope for ever, for ever loaded.’

‘Oh, no. I don’t want that. I want some cyanide.’

There was a deathly hush. It transpired that he couldn’t stand being outside. He just didn’t know where to put himself. He tried to ‘buy a few friends’, as he put it, but ‘no one wants to know’.

He went on raving about the cyanide, convinced that if the coast was cleared with a large backhander we’d supply it: ‘I’ll pay you for it. I’ll make it worth your while, believe me,’ and he spilt a wad of £20 notes onto the table.

Cocke took him to the window (which was on the third floor) and said: ‘Look you can have this window cheap.’ ‘What you mean?’ ‘You can throw yourself out of this window for 10p’ and gave him a giant cuddle. His face began to crease into a smile. Cocke hugged him so hard and rubbed him and insulted him: ‘Your life’s not yours to take, dummy’, and then settled him down to his wine, told him the cream of his police jokes and then got him so stoned that he was wandering around the house all night in his knickers reciting Gaelic sagas. His life was a little safer than before.

One visitor called Julia came looking for a place to live, scanned the bulletins along with a large map of London that had colour-coded pins stuck into it:
• Red: ‘Squatted, but might be room’
• Green: ‘Ripe for plucking’
• Blue: ‘Empty but needs a lot of love’

Julia said: ‘I think I’ll try Freston Road it’s near where I work.’

‘Where is that?’ said Fluke, passing the time of day.

‘Oh, Hammersmith Town Hall in the Housing Department.’

Fluke looked slightly stunned: ‘How would your colleagues feel about your squatting?’

‘Oh, I don’t think they’d mind. Except for the ones who’re members of the National Front.’

And despite the existence of five members of the National Front working in the Housing Department of a soi-disant socialist council, Julia was able to half-inch lists of empty properties from the council files. She became the Mata Hari of Ruff Tuff, forcing the size of the bulletins up from four pages to eight. Other useful informants included a telephone engineer, a postman and a Gas Board official.

Freston Road in fact, became almost entirely squatted through Ruff Tuff activity and was turned into an almost ideal version of Squat City, much beloved of gutter cartoonists.

The walled-in gardens were joined together into one large communal garden which almost fed the entire street. A squatted shop opened, selling wholefoods at knock-down prices, and there was a kind of synergy present where people bopped in and out of each other’s houses, doors left open to the street. If any problem arose, the load was immediately spread around.

On rare and extreme occasions the Cosmic Joker evicts the Social Worker in the tactics of the Agency. A German once entered the office, dressed in a gold lame suit, and followed by his family all in fresh sheepskins from Afghanistan, lavishly embroidered: ‘I would like please a place with bath, and garden for the kinder, and mit telefon. I am from Endless Music. We are biggest Rock and Roll band in Germany and we have many contracts with Island Records. You give a place to us now bitte?’

Mad Dog stood up and surveyed the little scene. ‘Well,’ he said, pretending to consult the latest bulletin, ‘Yeah, I think we got just the place.’

‘Ja? gut, gut.’

‘Yeah, you take the tube to Green Park. Turn right out of the entrance.’

‘Ja, ja.’

‘And you’ll find a huge building on the right hand side. We’ll let them know you’re coming.’

‘How will I find it again please?’ (scribbling greedily).

‘It’s right on Piccadilly, near St James’ Street. It’s just been squatted. There’s a man from Ruff Tuff on the door, dressed in a huge black frock coat, with gold braid, just like your suit, and for a joke he’s got a badge on his cap with the words “Ritz Hotel”. Just tell him you’ve come from the Ruff Tuff Creem Puff Estate Agency and your rooms will be waiting for you.’

Through the good auspices of Patrick the postman, a partner in the agency, six houses were found and cracked for Chiswick Women’s Aid who seemed to need a house per week. One windy night Tony from Rough Theatre bopped in with a van, scored Gareth, Mary Jane, Mad Dog, and Jonathan Marconi, and they all tooled off to Richmond where Tony claimed there was a derelict hotel once used by the BBC in the thirties and forties to transmit the tea-time concerts of Max Jaffa and the Palm Court Orchestra.

Palm Court Hotel squatters

They found a strange haunted place by the river, strongly barricaded with two-by-four joists nailed down to the floor inside. It took about two hours to crack as they had to wait for traffic noise to cover each snap of the jemmy. The Palm Court Hotel had been a giant pigeon loft for three years and was recycled as a little palace for 30 battered wives and their offspring.

The bulletins listed anything from a hovel to a palace and had a style of their own: ‘36 St Luke’s Road. Empty two years. Entry through rear. No roof. Suit astronomer.’ Some houses in Norfolk belonging to the Royal Family were squatted after featuring in the bulletins, Mick Jagger’s unused country house found some occupants, and the Cambodian Embassy was squatted when abandoned after the overthrow of the Buddhist oligarchy of Prince Sihanouk. Two Mercedes cars were found in the garage of this weird house-cum-temple and the only way that the squatters could be evicted was if the Khmer Rouge had decided to move into the London Property Market. They were still in occupation at the beginning of 1980. Buckingham Palace with its 614 rooms often featured.

All the time while bulletins were being pumped out and houses being cracked, the gutter press kept up a shrill and hate-filled descant. Squatters are vermin, proclaimed the Daily Express. They have lice, shrilled the Evening News which employed a spy to insinuate himself with squatters and obtain free board and lodging only to trash them later in his paper for an enormous fee. The squatters are an ‘Army of Vagabonds led by dangerous left-wing agitators’, squawked the Sunday People; and it ran a three-part series on squatting, leaving the gentle reader with the impression that they were all armed, dope-infested layabouts who should be garrotted.

One of the partners in Ruff Tuff was fried by the Sunday People on their front page: ‘ The old Etonian house grabber: he jemmies way in for squatters,’ presenting him as a near psychopath who would prefer to crack his way through a block of houses on his way to the shops rather than walk round the corner. The reporter had subtly gained an interview in the Ruff Tuff office by pretending to be from Cardiff Friends of the Earth who were, he claimed, doing a survey on squatting. He was duly given an extensive rundown on the homelessness situation in London – 100,000 houses empty, 30,000 people squatting, etc – together with a brief but poetic soliloquy about Wat Tyler, Gerrard Winstanley (‘The world is a common treasure house to all . . . there is no my thing, no your thing’), and Proudhon; all little gurus of this yippie cabal.

Mad Dog saw the paper the next week and while everyone else was having apoplexy, muttered ‘Revenge is a meal best eaten cold’. Four weeks later the reporter found that as a result of his own house being put on the bulletins and described therein as the Sunday People Rest Home (‘anyone on a bad trip, tuinal freaks etc, especially welcome’), he was daily invaded by lone dementoes of every description. The real Cardiff Friends of the Earth delivered a lorry load of cement to his front garden cash-on-delivery and he was forced to change his accommodation. Whether he had to squat or not was never revealed. ‘Teach the bitch to tamper with Aristocrats Lib,’ was Mad Dog’s comment.

The cosy liberal papers stayed fairly silent. The Guardian published a couple of moody pictures of a child in front of a corrugated iron fence. The Times reporter at the battle of Elgin Avenue disclosed that he’d been unable to file any of his stories about squatting for the last two weeks. ‘It’s editorial policy,’ he told us. At the same time, The Times was quite gaily publishing some extraordinary letters in its correspondence columns, one of which suggested that all squatters should be evicted from third-storey windows.

On another occasion the stencils for a new bulletin were hanging from a bulldog clip on the wall for all to survey the new mass of available houses before they went on to BIT’S Gestetner. A man came in claiming to be homeless and was left to study the stencils while people in the office went about their business in the next room. When they came back, he’d disappeared with the stencils which he sold to the Evening Standard.

The Evening Standard tried to confirm the story on the phone the next day but got very short shrift from Fluke since it was then that we knew where the stencils had gone – stencils which represented seven people’s careful research for about three weeks.

‘This is the Evening Standard. I have to tell you that Bulletin 17 has come into our hands. I can’t tell you how but we have a photo-copy of it and we think that it contains a great deal of highly contentious material . . .’

‘Do you now? Well, listen, baby blue, if you’re homeless I’ll speak to you, if you’re not you can rot off . . .’

‘Before you put the phone down, I should tell you that we’re going to publish this material.’

‘Great! The wider circulation it gets, the better. Join the Legion of Joy. Freedom is a fulltime career.’

‘Well, you can put it like that if you like. But can I ask you this . . er . . I’m looking through it now. You recommend a certain kind of implement for breaking into houses with mortise locks on . . . I think it’s a bolster, or a raker, yes, here it is, a four-inch raker. What do you have to say about that?’

‘Listen, there are about 10,000 people sleeping rough in London, in all weathers, and a lot of them are kitty-corner to you, Fat Cat, right on the Thames Embankment. That’s what I have to say about that. You think every house was opened up by the wind? People need to know how to do it. They’re not ghosts. They can’t walk through walls. Goodbye. Sleep well in your Beaverbrook Bed.’

Next day the Evening Standard appeared with a front-page headline large enough to bruise your retina: ‘SECRET SQUATTERS PLAN FOR A MASS TAKE-OVER IN LONDON’. The bulletin mysteriously returned later that night, rolled up in the front door handle and stained with whiskey. Conspiracy to trespass was mentioned in the article and the prospect of it began to cause some consternation.

‘Conspiracy to trespass . . . We could all get five years . . .’

‘Ah fuck it, what you keep muttering that for . . . Conspiracy to trespass, it’s just some legal shibboleth. To conspire, you know what that means? “To breathe together”. Con-spirare . . . I don’t mind doing that, do you? And trespass, you know what the origin of that word is? To “pass through, to transcend”. That’s the dictionary meaning. Straight up.’

‘They won’t pay much attention to that in court. I think discretion is the better part of valour.’

‘Sure.’ The doorbell rings. ‘There’s someone at the door. Life goes on.’

Two slinky and silky gentlemen file in, one kvetching about his landlady having stolen his mattress because it had ‘perverted liquids on it’, vetting his phone calls and opening his mail, all for the princely sum of £52 per month. He looks through the new list, glancing at the antics of Windsor the black tom from time to time commenting ‘Isn’t she butch?’, and then drapes our jemmy elegantly over his arm to go crack a recommended flat in nearby Powis Square.

A silent woman with a large scar on her head asks about some houses in Orsett Terrace, Paddington. She’s escaping the violent vagaries of her husband by staying with a friend in a council flat where she has to creep in and out because the couple on the ground floor suspect her friend of sub-letting and are in constant contact with the council’s Complaints Department. She’s never squatted before. She works as a night cleaner and seems desperate. ‘Can you fix me up in that street?’ she asks. ‘They got lights in the window at night. They seem nice people.’ She’s fixed up with an introduction and a little later, her own place.

A junkie seeps in: ‘I don’t want any place where the postal district is an odd number. I don’t want N19 or Wl for a start.’

‘Paddington? W2?’

‘No. God’s told me Paddington’s bad for me.’

After similar objections to almost every place on the lists he starts metronomically rubbing the track-marks on his left arm. ‘Why are you doing that?’ says Cocke Lorrell. ‘God has told me that my left arm is bad for me so I got to keep stabbing it … with stuff.’

He stays for several hours, alternately brutalising and then nursing his diabolic acupuncture points until he coincides with someone who’s just had a cure. He is enveigled away to Cold Turkey Towers in Cornwall Terrace, having been convinced that NW1 is not really an odd number and that anyway, ‘When you get really high on mathematics you realise that there’s no such thing as one’; and for the first time, this gutter St Sebastian smiles.

A family phone up. They’re paying £42 per week for bed and breakfast in St Albans. Mad Dog screams at them: ‘In St Albans? Forty-two pounds? pounds? Where the fuck is St Albans anyway? . . . Just south of Greenland ain’t it? Well put on your snow shoes and get your asses down here toute vite.’ And then they come a few hours later, bedraggled and burnt out from rent slavery and score themselves a whole house in Richmond.

Letters also pour in demanding the bulletins: ‘Dear Sir, Madam, Hippy or Freak. I am doing important mind work and need a quiet place . . .’

‘Dear Rough Tough Creamers, please send bulletins of everywhere in the world, we are tired of somewhere . . .’

‘Dear Agency, I am living in a furnished room with my two children and paying £10 a week. Please can you help me? Please answer soon.’

There have also been death threats on the phone. One was just a tape-loop endlessly repeating: ‘Hello, hello, hello. You’re a dead man. Don’t laugh.’ Well, to quote the Illuminatus, ‘If it doesn’t make you laugh, it isn’t true.’ It didn’t make us laugh and fortunately it wasn’t. But who was it? Enraged property speculator? A hit-man hired by Megalopolis? The National Grunt? Ah well, forget it, paranoia is the gout of acid-anointed youth.

Sometimes it has been very boring, sometimes very exciting. People would say: ‘How can you afford to do it? Is there any charge for these bulletins?’ Nope. It’s time for the Gospel of Free to lurch back to life. It’s time the visionaries got it on and the realists dreamt. All we want is a Garden of Eden where none of the fruit is forbidden. Communism never started – it’s private property that was the new idea.

In most cases we thought about as much of squatting a house as picking up a butt-end off the street. Why? Because, to wax philosophic for a moment, we live in square rooms and we’re treated as products instead of Beings, in rows and rows of square rooms where we’re all meant to be the same. In streets where there are 30,000 gas stoves, 30,000 TV sets, 30,000 baths, fridges and cars, when with a little co-operation (which Kropotkin showed in Mutual Aid was the strongest force in nature), maybe one or two of each would be enough.

Some squats have broken through – Freston Road, Bristol Gardens and Cornwall Terrace – with walls knocked down so that you could walk along the street inside the building. Imagine a huge refectory table on the ground floor of every street, and a huge refectory bed on the top floor. Whether you’re a yipped-up hipped-up communalist or no, the reduction in fire hazard is strong in its favour.

Jesus was born a squatter though the Church Commissioners (one of London’s largest slum owners and property speculators) would never acknowledge it. When squatters are presented as inhuman, someone’s trying to feed into the tapes: ‘You don’t exist. You don’t own anything, so who are you? How can we recognise you?’

When people are evicted someone is playing God and saying that their life in that place is worthless. When we were being evicted from one Ruff Tuff house we said to the landlord: ‘You want your house back? Then come here and live with us.’

Squatting is acupuncture for the death culture. Freedom is not yet quite free but the squatting community can give you a good wholesale price.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

The Wise brothers, long time residents of the area, offered a slightly different take on Ruff Tuff, in their ‘Once Upon a Time there was a Place Called Nothing Hill Gate’:

“The escape clause offered by having charity status also applied to the Ruff Tuff Cream Puff squatter estate agency (the only ‘estate agency’ for squatters). Despite its ameliorative social function (Harrow Road police station would occasionally send homeless people there), it did nonetheless initiate some audacious squats. Among them, houses in Norfolk belonging to the Royal Family, Mick Jagger’s unused country home and the Cambodian Embassy in Notting Hill Gate, which was squatted for several years after being abandoned when Prince Sihanouk was overthrown. Not to mention the brilliant cracking of the huge Palm Court Hotel near Richmond Bridge on the Thames. Ruff Tuffs ‘property magazine’ containing witty descriptions of potential squats is still a delight to read (e.g. “36, St. Lukes Road. Empty two years. Entry through rear. No roof. Suit astronomer.”) Yet many people entering this squatting agency felt immediately ill at ease, overcome by feelings they were unable to put a name to. Was it because it was run by renegade aristos’ with hippy names like Mad Dog and Fluke? Was it Heathcote Williams old Etonian manner of barking rather than speaking? Or similarly his references to endless esoteric, occult mysteries which made you feel like a fool for not having a clue as to what he was talking about. The cat’s name was “Windsor” and that didn’t help either. In occupying Crown Property were they perhaps settling scores with their parents? They were friendly enough all right; never too stuck-up to say hello when they met you in the street. Yet deep down one felt set apart which palaeontologists of the English class system will instantly recognise.”

‘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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Villa Road graffiti, 1977.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Villa Trek’ cartoon, spoofing Star Trek

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

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

From a Villa Road songsheet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

Victory Villa Challenging the planners in South London

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

The Planners’ Plan

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

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

Planners’ vision for central Brixton, late 1960s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First stirrings

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

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

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

The neighbourhood council

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

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

Squatters enter the fray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trades Council Inquiry

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

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

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

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

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

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

To the barricades

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

benefit poster for Villa Road defence campaign

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

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

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

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

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

The turning point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new Council

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victory Villa?

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

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

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

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

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Today in London squatting history, 1984: the eviction of Effra Parade, Brixton.

In March 1984, Lambeth Council sent in 200 cops to evict seven squatted terraced houses in Effra Parade, off Railton Road, Brixton – houses which they planned to demolish. The squatters had been campaigning against the impending eviction, and planned to resist…

HISTORY OF EFFRA PARADE

The houses in Effra Parade were squatted in 1977 towards the end of the big wave of squatting in the ’70s. After the battle of Villa Road, Lambeth Council had toned down its anti-squat policies and many squats became housing Co-ops and got their licenses. The Effra Parade workers cottages were squatted as soon as they became empty. They became empty because the Council had decided they were unfit, and bought them under a Compulsory Purchase Order. Only 7 of the 9 cottages were squatted, 2 of them the Council re-let to tenants who occupied them for the next 5 years. The other 7 remained squats until 25th March 1984.

Effra Parade area lies just South of the Front Line; it was a heavily squatted place, sandwiched between on the North Brixton shopping centre and the Front line, and the mostly white, middle class Herne Hill & Dulwich to the South. The people there were mostly poor, from every country, extraction and background.

THE GOLDEN DAYS

Various generations of squatters inhabited the buildings. No Council repairs were done, yet they remained inhabited, the main problems were that some places had outside toilets and leaky roofs which the squatters repaired themselves. ln 1982 & 1983 the back gardens were cultivated, some of the fences removed to make bigger open areas. The squatters were happy.

BRIXTON RIOTS

However things changed rapidly in Brixton. Several people from Effra Parade were charged after the 1981 riots. Police and Drug raids followed. During the riot, the George – a racist pub on the corner – was burned down along with the Post Office & a Newsagent opposite. After the riots the Authorities responded by saturating the area with Police, Social Workers, etc and demolished completely half of Railton & Mayall Roads, the shops, the clubs, the houses…

FRONTLINE EVICTED

The Squatted Georges Residences (20 flats, saved from demolition by its squatters), behind Effra Parade survived and became a Co-op. More Black Clubs sprang up around the Frontline on the corner of Dexter Road. These were evicted and demolished for an ‘open space’ in November ’82, leading to a riot. In return a pre-fabricated ‘Afro-Carribean Centre’ was stuck up at the bottom of Railton Road and the Adventure Playground was demolished in favour of a basketball court and still play objects. Railton Road changed, but the squatters in Effra Parade still stood.

121 THREATENED

The anarchist Bookshop across the Road with its meetings and meals had by 1982 become known as a squatting self-help centre. The Labour Party responded by trying to evict the Bookshop in 1983 (upon the Personal Orders of Council leader ‘Red’ Ted Knight) but soon realised they had ‘Stirred up a hornets nest’, and fearing the worst, they dropped the eviction case.

SAVE OUR HOMES

As a second choice they decided to evict Effra Parade. Since it was CPO’d 5 Years before they appeared to have a perfect case.


The Council’s demolition date was set for Xmas 1983, but some of the squatters began writing up graffiti and made a leaflet – Save Our Homes – calling people to resist the demolition. Squatters and other locals responded. Work parties cleaned up the gardens, patched roofs etc

Lambeth Council responded with a clever move – they offered re-housing. They had no obligation to house single people at all and such an offer could not be treated lightly. 4 houses were eventually to give in and accepted the offer – while still protesting that the houses need not be abolished.

Effra Parade was split, but as soon as a place became empty, new squatters, and even ex-squatters who loved their former homes, moved in and barricaded the houses. The 3 groups which had refused to be re-housed had already barricaded up their homes. More leaflets, stickers, posters were prepared (though the Press refused to mention the fight throughout, despite many efforts). The Council’s meetings were picketed and Councillors lobbied. Several months before some of the Squatters had joined Livin’ Bricks, a local Co-op, architects had come in and examined the houses and proved them sound.

DESPERATION

By January it became clear that persuasion would not work. The destruction of Effra Parade had become a vendetta to eradicate what the Council saw as a ‘nesting ground’ of anarchist squatters. Our response was to go for a campaign of public support – surely the threat of (another) Railton Rd riot would make them think twice? A protest march was called and about 30 people marched all over Brixton through the markets etc giving away leaflets and making noise. Another march was called. Pickets went to the homes of Hazel Smith (Housing Chair) and Ted Knight. Time was running out. A new lot of graffiti went up all over the place. The last thing holding up the eviction was that in no. 105 there was still the family of legal tenants. They were given a house and told to move out quickly. The Council was desperate to get under way! Before the Spring arrived and the street life on the Front Line got busy. Underneath the media blanket extensive and urgent preparations were being made.

1ST ALARM

On Thursday 21st March the Alarm was given, the date had been given by the Boarding up teams who had tried (and been chased off) to board up No 93 some weeks earlier. About 70 squatters turned out from the Alarm Network early in the day but the evictors did not show up, a meeting was held & it was decided to hold a jumble sale & street party on the Saturday afternoon. Many people volunteered to help barricade houses.

SATURDAY 23RD MARCH

Unfortunately a day of continuous heavy rain & icy winds. The jumble sale had to be moved over to 121 Bookshop, it was very successful. During the proceedings a rumour arrived (from where we cannot say – but a million thanks!) that the eviction was set for 4.00am on Monday morning. The tip-off could not be proven completely, but a meeting decided to call a General Alarm, to hold a meeting at midnight the following day, and an all night party in Effra Parade up until the end.

THE EVICTION

SUNDAY 24TH MARCH: FREE EFFRA AREA

The Effra Parade Alarm List went into action, and squatters from all over began turning up, joining in the barricading etc. As evening fell three Anarchist flags went up over the roofs, as well as a dummy in a gas mask. More banners appeared on the neighbouring buildings & squats. Barricading was elaborate. Some front doors had been closed off completely and most of the homes had holes knocked through to each other – escape holes – but there was no escape, as, the whole terrace could easily be surrounded & cut off. All windows had been sealed up with wire, bars, boards, Akros, corrugated iron, bed-springs etc. Volunteers were already up on the roofs, gathering bricks and bottles and setting up… hooters, sirens, bells etc. At midnight the meeting was packed out, first we discussed what to do when arrested, then 25 people volunteered to stay in the houses and fight. The rest would try and hold them off in the street. The party began, with the big amp blasting reggae music into the night. Since early evening chairs had been set in the street to prevent parking and neighbours had been told door to door (most by this stage were openly sympathetic, though Lambeth Council had delivered leaflets pleading their case). Volunteer patrols began their shifts and watched the local area. Beer, soup and sandwiches were distributed. Effra Parade was full of people, blocking the street. But the only indication of trouble was the fact that the police were nowhere to be seen. It was quiet…too quiet… For one night Effra Parade was ours: ‘Free Effra Area’ – the new graffiti proclaimed.

MONDAY 25TH MARCH 1984

2.30am: 2 police buses were spotted driving down Gresham Rd in Brixton. This was taken as a pretty sure sign. The party was in full swing.

3.00am: We began closing up the houses, moving out any last things we could save. The big Akros went against the doors, those inside could not change their minds now. No sooner was this completed than the walkie talkie link reported a removal van in Chaucer Road, a crowd ran around. The lorry was stoned and chased up Railton Road.

Almost simultaneously more removal vans were spotted, as well as police vehicles approaching the area. Now it was all coming true, we began pulling down the corrugated iron on the derelict sites and flinging everything we could in the street. A derelict car was pushed out and overturned on the corner of Effra Parade and Railton Rd, blocking that end, materials were carried down to begin a second barricade on the other side. Everyone was working furiously. Meanwhile the last tenants in 105 came out, and we moved the barricade to let their cars & a few more out. Then suddenly the derelict building on the corner burst into flames, and all the hooters and bells started going off.

MASSIVE OVERKILL

Long lines of police vans were arriving at Effra Parade from 3 directions. The first move they made was to occupy the flats of St. Georges Residences, lines of police on the balconies and roofs, cutting off the rear and most communications and refusing exit or entry on all roads to the area. Almost at the same time lines of police in full riot gear – fire-proof overalls, helmet & visor, shield, truncheon, order-following stupor – came marching down Effra Parade. At the same time from the South, down Railton Road, cutting off the 121 bookshop was another ‘riot’ group.

All of us we’re stunned by the sheer array of might against us. There we stood facing each other, about 60 of us in the street, at least 200 of them. Some people were preparing to fire the barricades and fight till the end. Bricks were being thrown at the daleks.

EVICTION

Then as they came marching in, we got everyone together and retreated, out into Railton Road, just before we were cut off. By the Frontline there stood only a line of civilian cops. We went through them, past a deserted frontline and ran down Barnwell Rd, past busloads of back up cops, and back into Effra Parade by a secret route. There the houses were totally surrounded and a terrific crashing came as the helmeted cops were still trying to get in. From the roof bricks and bottles came flying … Bastards – Nazis – Murderers – Vandals – Wreckers – AAAAEEEGHH!!! we let out screams as the first door gave and the roofs were evacuated (3 people escaped by leaping into the school yard, over walls etc). Crash! Crash! Crash! – all the neighbours were out, everyone was yelling, ‘Scabs – Nazis, get out of our street!’ As each door was smashed down a line of riot police could be seen rushing in. Inside all resistance had ended and all 25 inhabitants were sitting in one room, as the incredible violence continued. Then we saw them being led out, a dejected group, through line after line of police – Yes! they were letting them go free. A wild cheer went up in Effra Parade and screaming and jeering continued for the next 2 hours, as lines of riot cops were withdrawn past us, and lines of ordinary cops moved in, then a line of bailiffs, a line of scab workers to clear the barricades, a line of Council and Housing bureaucrats next.

Fights continued along with stone throwing till dawn. In all 10 people were lifted but only 6 held. By 9.00am the street was partly reopened to the traffic with only one line of police vans, and workers erecting a 10 ft high corrugated iron fence front and back. Lambeth Council had won.

AFTERMATH

Only one person was not released on bail. He was accused of assault, hitting a cop in the face with a brick, a case of mistaken identity because he was black. That evening 25 people assembled, screaming for his release outside Kennington nick, they were followed back to Brixton, even ordered off the bus by police when the 20p fare zone was passed… then the police raced off, the Ace (beside the Housing Office) had been set alight. The demolition men were relentlessly harassed. The new fence was taken down over and over again, the back section (30 metres) was removed entirely and thrown into the Old George site, tyres were spiked, windows smashed and mystery fires kept breaking out. By the end of the week the houses were mere shells.

Soon to be yet another Housing Office (which will probably never be built in such hostile territory) and an ecological garden (the Council demolished the already existing and never used one only 2 weeks earlier by “mistake”). It looks like total defeat, but all the lost residents have re-squatted, and to at least some of us Lambeth’s labour Council have been exposed as thugs & friends of the cops.

The story appeared in the Standard (complete with ‘glue-sniffers’ story) & a few lines in the dailies. The local South London Press gave it scant attention up until then their only mention was to refer to ‘the wasteland at Effra Parade’.

On the credit side, we now know who our friends are, who will come on the alarm etc and we put up a good show, with none of us injured.

A NEW SOCIAL ORDER

On the 28th of April, a group of about twenty Effra Paraders and friends went to the ‘Alternative Fayre’ to see if we could talk to Council Leader “Red” Ted Shite about his thoughts on our eviction from Effra Parade.

The place was full of middle class hippies selling your usual assortment of quasi religious bullshit, tarots, zodiacs, carrot cake etc …

When Ted finally entered the auditorium we set right into the bastard, stopping the “discussion” completely. Various wishy-washy liberal types tried to ‘mediate’ but they got nowhere. Eventually they got everyone to stand up and wing some peace song, which we didn’t know the words to. Some sort of attempt to soothe us savage beasts with music. Anyway it didn’t work and the meeting was still held up. Suddenly the Po-Lice arrived and were about to eject us but a vote was held to see if the audience of 400 supported their use.

This vote was unanimous: no Po-Lice to be used. So we carried on hassling Shite. He was getting really wound up, especially when three of us stood up and took the microphone, explaining our cause and taking the chance to insult him.

A couple of speakers got through their speeches, but each time Shite stood up, he just got shouted down again. Eventually Tony Benn (who was also attending) took the stage and said that by our action we had “disassociated ourselves with the “working class”. He didn’t have time to say any more on his microphone went flying. We then pulled the cloths off the speaker’s tables, sending papers, ashtrays, carafes, flying.

A steward got pissed off and tried to start on us but he was sorry he did ‘cos we landed a good few on him, before the filth started pouring in at Ted Shite’s request, over-ruling the democratic vote!

Just fancy that! Would you believe it! Well I never! etc, etc…

We all returned to various seats, and tried to look innocent, but the stewards pointed us out to the pigs. It took over 100 Po-Lice to “evict” us, and the entire building was encircled by them.

Outside the hall we were questioned and searched, but no arrests…

The meeting was called to discuss an “Alternative Britain” and a “New Social Order”… Judge for yourself!!

POSTSCRIPT

After the demolition of the cottages on Effra Parade, the council DID, despite the skeptical predictions of Crowbar, build a community garden (aahhh!) and a prefab housing office, irony of ironies.

In fact 3 squats survived in Effra Parade after the evictions – no 82 (used as an escape route when Ted’s riot police stormed the barricade) wasn’t evicted in March ’84, though it was evicted and resquatted shortly after. Nos 72 and 86 were also squatted…

The pre-fab Housing Officers didn’t have an easy time there: “apparently some of the nice middle class Housing Officers got mugged. Of course they blamed this, and everything else, on the squatters across the road. According to Mrs Adeferani, chief Housing Officer… word came from the VERY TOP that the    squatters must go.Ted couldn’t sleep at nights with them still there. And the reasons… 1) Because we were all Class War Anarchists! 2) Because we had mugged the Housing Officers 3) Because we had burned down the Housing Office (when it was newly built). LIES LIES LIES: We never burned it down. The cops’ forensic Dept. spent 3 days examining the wreckage and didn’t even question us. We never mugged the staff either but its not a bad idea. They know this very well in fact they and their pigfriends know all about us after a years constant surveillance.”

The Housing office symbolically closed only a coupla years later and remained unused for years until the late 1990s, when Lambeth gave the site to a housing association, who eventually built new houses where the row of homes had stood. Even the neighbouring school has now been sold off and developed for luxury flats. ‘Save Effra Parade” graffiti can still be seen on some Brixton walls… the struggle lives even longer in our memories.

121

“The first thing that comes to mind is the police riot shield hanging on the wall… There was something empowering about looking at that shield. I suppose my usual experience of a riot shield would be seeing it charging towards me in the street with a fascist bully-boy attached to the other end, wielding his truncheon penis extension.”

Several of the Effra Parade squatters had been involved in setting up the anarchist 121 Bookshop, a minute’s walk around the corner. The history of 121 runs like a tangled twisty thread through the story of Brixton in the 80s and 90s. Just about every time there was any trouble in the area, (or in Tottenham, Liverpool 8, Handsworth, or even later in the West End) the press, council and police would yell that it was caused by “outside agitators”, usually identified as “white anarchists”. The history of the outside agitator should one day be written; as far back as the 1780 Gordon Riots MPs were informed that “foreign gentlemen on horses” had been directing the mob… There seems to be a fatal inability to recognise people (especially the poor, and in recent times black folk) have the ability to organise themselves, and the motivation to get together – their poverty, anger and the acts of the powers that be in crapping on them.

In Brixton this was just such a joke; the influence of white anarchists on black youth was minimal. There was a lot of contact, of course, black people would use 121, especially during the years of the 121 Club, a late-night basement nightspot, usually run on Friday nights… (Admittedly some of them used it as an informal taxation on whitey, robbing the door on occasion, and the club came to an end for a while in 1988 after a stabbing outside). 121 was threatened with eviction from ’83 to ’85, the Council dithering between attacking it and granting it a licence, in the end they left the case adjourned in 1985 and didn’t return to the fray till 1997.

Brixton Squatters Aid operated from 121, producing the famed ‘Crowbar’ newssheet, at first every couple of weeks in 1982-3, then gradually less often. It started as a cheaply printed agitational sheet on scrap paper, rousing squatters round the borough to action, covering squatting news from round the Borough, London and the world; and attacked the council and the police. BSA/Crowbar encouraged alarm lists, so squatters under threat of eviction or police attack could get word out to others who would rush to their aid – in theory. They lent out tools, produced lists of empties. (Squatters coming in to leaf through the empties book could also check whether a place was owned by the Council in our highly prized List of Lambeth Council Property; forbidden to be revealed to the public, this goldmine was obtained during a squatters’ occupation of a local housing office.) Crowbar didn’t reflect the political views of all of Lambeth’s squatters – it was unashamedly pro-direct action, anarchist in its views and often savaged compromise (especially from co-ops), apathy (especially from squatters) and hypocrisy and bullshit – from politicos right or left. As the years went on it grew wider in its range, supporting Stop the City and the miners, printers and other workers in their struggles, and developing its lively controversial style. The Council hated it. When they were allegedly close to giving 121 a licence, they changed their minds (they said) because of 121’s association with Crowbar and Brixton Squatters Aid. (True to say they may never have been going to grant one!)

WHEN THEY KICK AT YOUR FRONT DOOR…

In August 1984, a few months after the eviction of Effra Parade, police raided 121 and several squats of people involved, looking for guns and explosives:

“TUESDAY 14th August 1984: 7.00am. The political police were out in force, smashing down the doors of 4 squatted houses and the local anarchist bookshop at 121 Railton Rd Brixton … The police, over 50 of them, used Firearms Warrants (which need very high up approval) and covered our homes front and back as the heavies rushed in. BUT THEY FOUND NOTHING. The nearest they came to a firearm was an anti rape spraycan. The woman who owned it was arrested and later released without any charge, likewise no charge for ‘stealing tools’ (she is a carpenter and has her own tools). One person was arrested for having 2 small marijuana plants. Another just because ‘his name rang a bell’, he was later found to have skipped bail on a small charge. The cops stole his address books after arresting him. They did not even look for firearms, not a floorboard was lifted. The cops were more interested in finding out identities and anything political they could.

At the bookshop they spent 3 hours going through everything, at times we were not able to get inside as the bomb squad went through with sniffer dogs. Anything ‘bugs’, drugs or “firearms” could have been planted by them as we were not able to follow their search. ‘Have you found the Nuclear weapons yet?’ asked one shop worker as the cops stomped in the basement And up to the roof.”

The cops were “acting on information received”. Could this be the SAME “reliable informant” who told the police which houses to raid in July 81, and that white outsiders led black rioters?)…

…How you gonna come?

There I was, dreaming blissfully of being asleep in a big warm bed with my friend. CRASH…CRASH…THUMP….

Mmmm. people breaking down the door? A herd of elephants charging up the stair? I opened my eyes and closed rthem, quick! – Oh Fuck – policemen standing round the bed! My friend was poking me urgently in the ribs. – We’re being raided – I opened my eyes again…. They were still there. I thought of resisting, let them drag me naked and screaming into the street. Better not. We got up and struggled into clothes as hordes of pigs searched the house. They got my passport. Radioed in. Oh Shit – I’m on their list!

Kiss goodbye and dragged out. Not knowing the bloke upstairs is also nicked for having a skinny grass plant. Not knowing that 3 other squats and 121 Bookshop were also being stormed at he same time, using search warrants for firearms! Brixton Police Station, cold and boredom, blood and shit on the walls and anarchist graffiti. Through the spyhole I see one of my neighbours being brought in. `How many have they got? I start worrying about all possible things I ever did against the law. Not much really.

Interview time. Tell us about 121 Bookshop. I keep complaining I haven’t been charged, they must be scouring the files for a frame-up. Sign here for the paint bombs and truncheon found in your house. – not bloody likely-

2nd interview, Special Branch. What do you know about Class War? -Never heard of it – What about Direct Action? – Not a member, as you probably know – What demos do you go to? Jesus what is this? –

I refuse to answer more questions, realising they’ve got nothing on me. Complaining that I’m being interned for political reasons. I expect them to get heavy but they don’t. Seems like a cock-up?

3rd interview. Shit. We suspect you skipped a warrant under a false name after Stop the City, ‘threatening behaviour’. – Certainly not, No way, would I lie to you?

Here are the papers. Here is your photograph…Oh yes so it is, um, er…-

I’m carted off to the City. Another 20 hours of boredom. Cops come down to ask silly questions about the next Stop the City. – Are the Hells Angels coming? – I see you got the paint bombs ready already – Will the miners come down? … I don’t know nothing.

They’re looking forward to it like it was The Big Match.

I have to stay overnight. Next day I trot out my excuses and get fined £40. Then off for breakfast with my friends.”

Surprisingly, no guns or bombs were found at 121, despite the unrestrained joy of the cop who, lifting the carpet on the ground floor, found a trap door leading to the basement. Aha, this must be the place where the weapons are stored… Down they go with a sniffer dog, lowered down on a rope as there are no stairs… Shit, no guns down here either… Oh, er, no stairs, how are we going to get out…?

It has been suggested that the cops’ “reliable informant” in this case was a South African squatter who claimed to be hyper-active, opening squats for people and “sorting out” muggers, but when he got nicked, 121 and addresses of other local anarchos got raided immediately after… “There was an attempt to run him down in Effra Parade and the driver departed London quickly…”
” The suspicious character, gunning for the driver, later attacked a 121-er on the stairs of St George’s Residences…”

121 was always attracting this sort of friendly attention… Apart from the cops (who had smashed the shop’s windows in 1981 after the big riot, the glass having escaped rioters’ attention) there were at least three attempts to burn it down – once in November 1984:

A guy tried to set fire to the side door, while we were guarding it this morning. John and me saw rubbish piled upon fire piled against it … we got rid of it… While we were doing this a white guy wearing a cardigan said he had seen the… a white guy with fair skinhead hair…he lit… wallpaper from the rubbish fire and then saw the guy watching him and said “What do you want? I’m a police officer!” The guy didn’t believe him, and the arsonist ran down Chaucer Road…

The second and third time were in 1993… A friendly neighbour heard noises on the back, and looked out to see a group of blokes trying to set fire to the building – he chased them off.

DESQUAT THE LOT

Effra Parade In context: Lambeth Council made concerted efforts to reduce in squatting during 1983-84. 200 squats were evicted through the Summer and Autumn of ’83. Council tactics included leaning on Lambeth County Court, to speed up the wait for cases to be heard, and doing basic emergency repairs, when squatters were evicted, so flats could be relet that day. Desquat campaigns on Stockwell Gardens, Larkhall, South Lambeth, Clapham, Kennington Park, Myatts Fields & Moorlands Estates were carried out during 83-84. Well established groups of squatters had previously re-occupied empties, as repairs rarely got done. Now all squats would be evicted at the same time, and people well down the Waiting List were offered tenancies, even if flats weren’t up to scratch. Squatters who kicked up a fuss, petitioned or were Labour Party members sometimes got rehoused. Borough officers got more genned up on legal cases, warrants of restitution etc, and more efficient at going to court, so they won more cases. But council overwork and incompetence still often led to collapse of cases, and places remaining empty, being smashed up, or eventually resquatted.

Post-Postscript: The remaining squats in Effra Parade

In December 1985 bailiffs and cops started harassing the squatters, warning them of an impending eviction. “It began the previous Friday afternoon, when bailiffs and police arrived, posting nasty notices thru doors and kicking them, without response. At this moment 2 squatters arrived home from a CAP picket. Despite furious arguments the bailiffs refused to say when they would evict: ‘Could be in 5 mins we’re gonna smash you and your homes to pieces’ was their final word.”

The whole street including Effra Parade School’s headmaster (?!?) signed a petition in support of the squatters… Another resistance was planned. Friends came from North London again and the houses were barricaded. But about 50 cops smashed their way in using “Ted’s secret weapon… a Lambeth van with a roof beam sticking out the back” and all three houses were evicted and totally trashed, despite a barrage of missiles, water, slates, fireworks , flourbombs and washing up liquid-soaked floors (on which cops slipped when they broke in!)

LAMBETH STANDS FOR LOCAL DEMOCRACY???

What we did do was get a petition up over the week­ end, and 98% of the street signed it (only one person refused), Saying we were Ok and should be let stay. We even got an angry support letter from a local head­master. But Lambeth Council threw all these in the bin without even considering them. We also made some hand drawn posters and picketed the Housing Office when it opened Monday morning. Brixton Advice Centre tried their best to help us but it was hopeless, Ted had spent a whole year preparing this eviction! On the Sunday night 40 punks from Nth London came down, expecting a party and a battle. On Monday night the local squatters rallied round, but again nothing happened. On Tuesday we moved our belongings out of the firing line, people, cats, dog, rabbit and all our gear, plus a workshop and two darkrooms. All had to be moved to the squats of friends. That day the police started to talk to us!‑ which we took as very suspic­ious. They told us the eviction would be at 5.00am next morning, that the whole area would be sealed off in a big operation . They had orders, they said, via Ted Knight, and they didn’t like to do it but they WERE ONLY DOING THEIR JOB. One copper even said that he hoped we would put up a good show! Some people believed them, others did not, but we were all exhausted by this time.

Nevertheless we began boarding up our homes to resist, but there were more problems. Between two of the squats lived a very frail 92 year old woman, Mrs Bol­ton, who has spent her whole life in the Parade. Naturally she supported the squatters on both sides of her and knew we were good people. So we were not prepared to have a pitched battle round this woman’s house. (Ted Knight of course couldn’t give a shit).So we sealed up those two houses and stayed in NO 72.

By now one squatter had fallen ill, and two didn’t want to stay inside. But local people rallied round for one more night. At 4.00am that night there were 25 of us in that house, and more outside. The Temperature was minus 4C and nothing stirred… A good night for Ted Knight’s dirty work.

UNMASKING THE STALINISTS

The first thing we saw was just after 5.00am… a Hire Van circling the area. Though we didn’t know then,this was the Housing Officers who had come (at your expense) in style to see the eviction. Ted himself stayed in bed.Then we heard there was a line of police vans and buses in Brixton. We were on the roof and saw them come round from Railton Rd into the Parade, on foot, a big crowd of thugs, about 50 cops and bailiffs. They were led by Sergeant Grey, the chief Community Policeman!

SCREAMS AND BREAKING GLASS

I wont say I wasnt scared, but immediately our foot­ball horns went off, in a blast of sound, and everyone began yelling. They started on No 86. Without knocking their best thug laid into the front door with a hall of sledgehammer blows. On the door was nailed a big photo of Ted Knight, entitled Ted Stalin Knight, with a Hitler moustache and the caption.”Would you Buy A Used Car from This Man?!’ And on the roof parapet stood two half full bottles with rags hanging out of them (full of water as it turned out). The brave bailiff was going mad, but making no impression. Eventually the sledge hammer got wedged. Then they tried the window, but that was rock solid too. By now everyone was laughing, the whole street was up, and the noise was tremendous. Then the bailiffs brought up Ted’s secret weapon… a Lambeth van with a roof beam sticking out the back, and tried to drive it into my front door backwards! Imagine our howls of delight when they realised the lamppost was in the way!!

They began again with the sledgehammers… then some smart arse noticed the window above the door wasn’t even boarded (Shit I forgot). So they smashed that, climbed in, and took off the ACROS. What a laugh! All this for an empty house! The rabid raving hireling of Socialist Lambeth Council charged slavering into my little house‑‑‑and ended up in a heap in the hall… Someone had spilt washing up liquid on the lino…

5.30am. One down,two to go. No 82 wasn’t so well barricaded, and fell quite soon to the ‘truck and roof beam’ line of attack. Then they were coming to get us. We were throwing fireworks, flourbombs, slates and anything we could get from NO 72. We even threw the posters, petitions and letters of support at them. When we started lighting squibs they thought the petrol bombs were coming out. But this time we were not prepared to give them the Tottenham Treatment, or to risk the lives of our neighbours and supporters. Sergeant Grey the “Hero who smashed the FrontLine’ walked bravely up to the front door… and got a bucket of freezing water on his head. The chief bailiff got the same treatment. Then the sledgehammers began hitting the door, and there was a scramble to evacuate the building. As we were getting peoploe out the back door there was a gigantic CRASH… They had backed the truck through the living room window, where we had all been trying to sleep! Fortunately the would-be murderers climbed in to find not mangled bodies  but a roomful of fresh hate – walls of new anti-Ted graffiti. Everyone was out the back by the time they got inside.

Its not a pleasant thing to stand outside your home at 6.00am, and watch them smash it to pieces. The squatters were screeching at the police lines. Terrified neighbours came crying into the street. I saw them sledgehammer the toilet, I heard the back windows going. Then they were ripping pipes and hacking down the interior walls. In a few minutes they had destroyed the roof..THERE WAS NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT ROOF..in fact two of the three houses were in near perfect condition, due to the squatters renovations. I could have made them into palaces for £1000.

After the total vandalism of that night Lambeth budgeted over £150,000 to renovate them. (The exact figure is the secret property of the Leaders Committee which controls the Front Line. Chairman, of course, Ted Knight). Is this not a scandal? is this not a crime? Who are the real terrorists?

Of course its a crime and a scandal, and Ted is the political terrorist..But you will never read any of this in any establishment paper – You will never see it on the telly or hear it on the radio. Only if you were there, or if you read little papers like this one, will you ever hear of it at all..And in the meantime Ted has delivered to every door full co1our magazines dedicated to praising himself. When persons unknown burnt the Housing Office which they had built on the rubble of our homes it was plastered on the front page of the South London Press~-Alleging directly that we were the arsonists. But – for this eviction there was nothing. Every paper had got leaflets, and the local papers had got press releases and phone calls to ‘sympathetic’ journalist reptiles. BBC, ITN and the radio stations were all contacted, and told there would be resistance on the lines of the first Effra Evictions … In the event only the police and Lambeth’s police monitoring group filmed the evictions for their own ends. NOT ONE WORD of the atrocity was heard on air or printed in any paper. Except, for the anarchist paper Black Flag it has been totally ignored. This is the first and exclusive story (and this is 3 months late). Such is the power of Ted Knight. Such is the slavish Compliance of the upper middle class media. They had planned long, and gone to phenomenal expense. They have smashed our homes, and won the War Of Silence as well … But we are squatters,Ted, and we still have the last laugh!

Two days later all the squatters (including the dog, cats and rabbit) had been happily rehoused.. somewhere among the-thousands of homes left rotting by the Council and rich housing speculators.

Two days later, with newly derelict squats on each side, unknown thieves broke into the house of 92 year old Mrs Bolton, beat. her up and robbed her. Thanks a lot Ted

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

Most of this was originally written for and published in various issues of Crowbar, the Brixton squatters magazine; other parts derive from personal recollections of some Effra Parade residents and friends (thanks to Viola Wilkins!), a leaflet about the raid in 1984, and odd other snippets from here and there.
Past Tense as a project did not originate in the 121 Centre/Bookshop, but several of those who have been involved in it worked there, hung out there, were part of the many projects that were based there or used the space. Some of us lived in squats in Effra Parade at later dates still than mentioned above… down the street though.

In 1999, when 121 was threatened with eviction and went into 24-hour occupation, we reprinted most of the Effra Parade story above as a pamphlet, to commemorate the 15th anniversary. Among lots of other adventures like making alliances with other occupied spaces in the area, fighting council cuts, producing a weekly free news-sheet for a while, invading then council leader ‘Slippery’ Jim Dickson’s office in Lambeth Town Hall (we still have the sign saying Leader of the Council from his office door, somewhere), then cheekily trying to negotiate a tenancy for 121 (not very successfully!). Eventually lots of cops with guns broke in while most people were out and exhausted and took the place back. Heyho. The full 121 story has never been told…

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

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

Part 1: Changing, Always Changing: Brixton’s Early Days
2: In the Shadow of the SPG: Racism, Policing and Resistance in 1970s Brixton
3: The Brixton Black Women’s Group
4: Brixton’s first Squatters 1969
5: Squatting in Brixton: The Brixton Plan and the 1970s
6. Squatted streets in Brixton: Villa Road
7: Squatting in Brixton: The South London Gay Centre
8: We Want to Riot, Not to Work: The April 1981 Uprising
9: After the April Uprising: From Offence to Defence to…
10: More Brixton Riots, July 1981
11: The Impossible Class
12: Impossible Classlessness: A response to ‘The Impossible Class’
13: Frontline: Evictions and resistance in Brixton, 1982
14: Squatting in Brixton: the eviction of Effra Parade
15: Brixton Through a Riot Shield: the 1985 Brixton Riot
16: Local Poll tax rioting in Brixton, March 1990
17: The October 1990 Poll Tax ‘riot’ outside Brixton Prison
18: The 121 Centre: A squatted centre 1973-1999
19: This is the Real Brixton Challenge: Brixton in the 1990s
20: Reclaim the Streets: Brixton Street Party 1998
21: A Nazi Nail Bomb in Brixton, 1999
22: Brixton police still killing people: The death of Ricky Bishop
23: Brixton, Riots and Memory, 2006/2021
24: Gentrification in Brixton 2015