‘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.

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Who are the squatters?

Diana Murray Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Squatters outside the Duchess of Bedford flats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Squatters demo in Hyde Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So that is how we ended up in the Workhouse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Workers from De Havilland factory demonstrate in support of squatters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worth reading

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

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

Housing, An Anarchist Approach, Colin Ward

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

Squatting in Britain 1945-55, Don Watson

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

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

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

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

The Communist Technique in Britain, Bob Darke

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

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

Today in London anti-fascist history, 1949: 43 Group disrupt Oswald Mosley rally, Kensington

Snapshots in London’s anti-fascist history, continued… 

After the second world war, Britain’s pre-war fascist leader Oswald Mosley, freed from wartime imprisonment, tried to rebuild the fascist movement he had led in the 1930s. A core of Mosley’s former comrades in the former British Union of Fascists, joined by a number of younger men, took up the largely anti-semitic agitation they had revelled in before the war. Jewish areas of London, or areas where a mix of Jews and other communities mixed, were seen as fruitful areas for street meetings and rallies – partly to pick up support from and to foster, local xenophobic sentiment, and partly to provoke and intimidate.

But opposition was strong: London’s Jews refused to be intimidated and a substantial minority took up active – and physical – resistance to the fascist revival. In 1947, a group of Jewish ex-army servicemen formed the 43 Group, with the intention of responding to the fascist attempt to reform. Growing rapidly, they resolved to resist the violent rhetoric and physical attacks with a determination to break up fascist meetings, attack the fash wherever possible, and disrupt them in all ways they could. They developed a strong physical and intelligence-led operation that would eventually put the fascist on the back foot.

Constant disruption of fascist meetings forced Mosley and his cohorts onto the back foot…

Although in 1948 Mosley and the fledgling fascist groups combined to form the Union Movement, the constant battering they took from the 43 Group, with weekly fights all over town, took its toll on them.

The more moderate Jewish Establishment, manifested through the Jewish Board of Deputies, was severely critical of the actions of the 43 Group. While happy to complain about the fascist resurgence, they were un-nerved by the physical resistance of the 43ers, by the suggestion of any anti-fascist links to socialism or the Communist Party, law-breaking, unrespectable violence in general… Various attempts were made to control or marginalise the Group’s activities by the Board and their associated organisations, but the Group’s direct action against the fascist threat was undoubtedly hugely effective (although other, less agro-heavy, anti-fascist activities from other Jewish groups also impacted on the fash).

By the end of 1948, though, the 43 Group was having trouble attracting audiences to their street meetings – happily, this was partly because the fascists, now grouped together in the Union Movement, had themselves lost much support and impetus. In an attempt to revive the fortunes of his would-be third reich, Mosley planned to stand candidates in the upcoming municipal elections, and booked Kensington Town Hall for a mass meeting. The Town Hall had a capacity of 700, and it looked like the UM could fill it. Mosley had already gambled on his grandiose nazi dreams, leasing large new HQ on Vauxhall bridge Road (much bigger than his dwindling party could use).

By now accustomed to the 43 Group’s tactics – infiltrating fascist meetings with forged tickets then disrupting them – the Kensington meeting’s organisers pulled out all the stops to prevent them breaking this one up. But in fact, the Group had decoded that they would get better publicity by holding a mass protest and wreath laying ceremony at the War memorial next to the hall, rather than attempt to disrupt the meeting, which was to be heavily protected by police. They hoped for a larger turnout than usual, including people who would not normally turn up for the Group’s more hands-on attacks on fascist rallies…

On the 31st January, more than 3000 joined the 43 Group at the memorial, holding anti-fascist banners, holding a minute’s silence for the laying of wreath, and listening to a variety of speakers. The turnout was described by ‘On Guard’ as representing the biggest and most dramatic anti-fascist demo since the 1930s.

Meanwhile at least 700 fascist sympathisers turned up to fill in Kensington Town Hall and listen to Mosley spouting the usual froth about international Jewish financiers; with – initially – no disruption from the nasty 43ers, thanks to the huge police guard.

The 43 Group’s plans aside, some elements associated with the Group were not prepared to let the fascist rally go by un-disrupted. After Mosley had been ranting for 15 minutes, however, someone let off a tear gas canister near the back of the audience, causing near panic inside, and a stampede as 100 people ran out of the hall; despite the crap fuhrer appealing for everyone to stand firm (well, he was far enough away from the gas, on the platform). Shortly after, part of the anti-fascist crowd attempted to storm the hall, and fought with mounted police determined to prevent them, riding into the crowd. As Mosley was driven away, fascists tried to attack the crowds, leading to some fighting. There were seven arrests, several of whom were 43 Group members.

The moderate Jewish establishment was – as usual – critical of the actions of the anti-fascists and Kensington, claiming that Mosley’s meeting would have received no publicity if it had not been violently opposed. However, the hype around the event in fact helped revive a wide opposition to the Union Movement among the Jewish community and further afield. A UM march from Ridley Road in Dalston to Tottenham a couple of months later was oppose by 5000 people, including groups who had shied away from anti-fascism in recent years for fear of being associated with the 43 Group’s actions…

After several years the Mosleyite agitation had largely faded out by 1952. Frustrated once again, the shitest little fuhrer, Oswald Mosley, fucked off out of the country in a huff that Britain wasn’t ready for his message of hate. This was pretty much the end for Mosley’s serious political challenge, though he would return periodically to haunt the scene… But newer, madder Nazis would soon be springing up to sewage up the streets…

Today in London rebel history: Savoy Hotel air-raid shelter occupied by Eastenders, 1940.

In the early days of World War 2, after the German Luftwaffe’s attack on Britain’s air defences failed, the planes turned their attention to bombing of civilians.

During the early days of the Blitz the Government controlled media tried to show that life in London was carrying on as normal, and there was much coverage in the press of people going to parties, dining out and clubbing in the West End.

The reality was very different, especially for the largely working class population of the East End, which received especially heavy bombing throughout the Blitz. This was partly due to its proximity to the vital London docks, a major Luftwaffe target, but civilian areas were also deliberately attacked in an attempt to break their support for the war.

Stepney, West Ham, Poplar, as well as Deptford and Bermondsey on the south side of the river, were particularly hit. During August 1940 there was relatively light bombing, but on September 7th very heavy bombing began, and soon the East End was burning.

The government was accused of a lack of readiness when it came to building shelters to protect civilians in East London – contrasting with the more extensive preparation in wealthier areas of the capital.

Initially, the civilian population had attempted to take refugee in the government’s proscribed trench shelters but these had soon filled with water, the street level shelters had been destroyed and the famous back garden Anderson shelters, made of corrugated steel, offered only limited protection from bomb blast and splinters.

Anderson shelters were named after Sir John Anderson who stated in the House of Commons in 1938 “I do not think we are prepared to adapt our whole civilisation, so as to compel a large proportion of our people to live and maintain the productive capacity in a troglodyte existence deep underground”and on 12th June 1940 “I am devoutly thankful that we did not adopt a general policy of providing deep and strongly protected shelters”.

How Londoner’s paid for such stupidity, as Londoners were according to Ted Bramley “uprooted, blasted from their homes, scattered over the face of Britain”
The few deeper shelters which were situated mainly underneath large warehouses and privately owned and open to the public, once deserted werenow full to overflowing, poorly lit, wet, and unsanitary. People lined up from 12 in Stepney to enter the Tilbury shelter, originally planned for 1,600 now holding 10,000. Meanwhile, Godfrey Phillips shelter in the City, a shelter for 3,000 was locked every night at 5.30pm. Ted Bramley estimated another 200,000 safe shelter places were available in the City, but locked at night.

East Enders joked in the early days of the Blitz on how when caught out during a raid they had learnt to “hug the walls”.

Many other Londoners were forced to travel “trek” from East London to North London, West London or South London and even the Kent countryside (Chislehurst Caves in the side of the North Downs), or coaches taking people out into the countryside to sleep by the roadside at 2s 6d.

Eastenders invaded Liverpool Street Station on the 8th to take shelter there.

To highlight the plight of the people of the East End, the Stepney Communist Party decided to stage a stunt to highlight the drastically unequal conditions of air-raid shelters for rich and poor. The Party had previously organised an occupation by 200 people from the East End of the Mayfair Hotel shelter on the night of Thursday 12th September, but this seems not have secured much press coverage. The next target was a jewel of the West End, the ultra-posh Savoy Hotel, occupied on September 14th 1940.

Phil Piratin, then a Stepney Communist Party member (later MP), takes up the story:

“The shelters, which until the blitz were deserted, were now packed to overflowing, and now the conditions were revealed. The little trench shelters in the little Stepney parks were a foot deep in water. The benches were half-a-dozen inches above the water. It was quite impossible to use them, and certainly impossible to stay in them night after night. Now the street surface shelters were being put to the test. Many of them were destroyed.

The Communist party immediately began to organise Shelter Committees in the shelters in order to secure proper conditions and to provide for the feeding and amenities in the shelters. This idea caught on, and within a short while was being carried on throughout Stepney and indeed the whole of London. Later the authorities took over certain responsibilities such as refreshments. The Communist Party was the first to organise entertainments in the shelters. The Unity Theatre did excellent work in this connection; mobile groups went to different shelters to sing songs and to perform their lighter sketches. Later, other organisations began to organise entertainment.

The conditions in the shelters were frightful. Most notorious was the Tilbury shelter, which accommodated several thousand people in conditions which I find it impossible to describe. Many people were without shelter, and every evening there was a trek from Stepney to Central and West London to take shelter in on of the basement shelters of the large buildings there. The next morning thousands of bleary-eyed East Londoners were to be seen on the buses and trains coming back to East London from the West End.

The contrast between the shelter conditions for the rich and the poor called for exposure. This was done. When the blitz had continued for some days, we in Stepney took the initiative. One Saturday evening we gathered some seventy people, among them a large sprinkling of children, and we took them to the Savoy Hotel. We had heard from building workers of the well-constructed and luxurious shelter which had been built for their guests. We decided that what was good enough for the Savoy Hotel parasites was reasonably good enough for Stepney workers and their families. We had an idea the hotel management would not see eye to eye with this proposition, so we organised the ‘invasion’ without their consent.”

Within minutes and with the help of sympathetic waiters the group had invaded and occupied the Savoy Hotel shelter:

“In fact, there was some effort to stop us, but it was only a matter of seconds before we were downstairs, and the women and children cam streaming in afterwards. While the management and their lackeys were filled with consternation, the visitors from the East End looked round in amazement. ‘Shelters,’ they said, ‘why we’d love to live in such places!’ Structurally, the lower ground floor had been strengthened with steel girders and by other means. But the appearance of the place! There were three sections. In each section there were cubicles. Each section was decorated in a different colour, pink, blue and green. All the bedding, all the linen, was of course the same uniform colour. Armchairs and deck chairs were strewn around. There were several ‘nurses’ – you could easily recognise them. One happened to be standing around and she was wearing the usual nurse’s white outfit, with a big red cross on he bosom. We were not quite sure what she was supposed to be nursing…

…We had earlier appointed our marshals to take care of all our people. They immediately made contact with the waiters, and asked for water and other such provisions. The waiters were most helpful. We were expecting trouble; we knew that the management was not going to allow us to sit there, just so easily. After a few minutes the police came. A plain-clothes officer said to me, ‘What is it all about?’ I explained. He said: ‘We will have to get you out.’ I said ‘OK – I’m curious to see what you do with the women and children.’ (The blitz was on). I said: ’Some of these men have seen mass murder, God help you if you touch the women and children.’ He wasn’t very happy. They tried intimidation, such as calling for identity cards, but we sat there.”

During the confusion an air raid alert, (all to helpfully), was sounded, and the Savoy Hotel manager realising that that could not be seen to send the “invaders”out into danger was forced to allow them to remain until the “all clear” siren was sounded.

“The management was in a dilemma. They urged the police to throw us out. We were able to impress the management that any such attempt would meet with some opposition, and that some of his guests in the dining room were likely to be disturbed. The manager left. He agreed to ignore us; that was what we wanted. Then we settled down. The first thing the marshals did was to call for refreshments. Many of our people had sandwiches with them, and therefore we asked one of the waiters to provide tea and bread butter. The waiter explained that they never served tea and bread and butter, and in any case the minimum price for anything was 2 shillings 6 pence. We said to the waiter: ‘We will pay you 2 pence a cup of tea and 2 pence a portion of bread and butter, the usual price in a Lyons restaurant. Three of four of the waiters went into a huddle, with one in particular doing the talking. He was evidently convincing the others. How they convinced the chef and management. I do not know, but within a few minutes, along came the trollies and the silver trays laden with pots of tea and bread and butter. The waiters were having the time of their lives. They were obviously neglecting their duties, standing around, chuckling and playing with the children.

The next day this news was flashed across the world. The contrast was made in bold headlines between the terrible conditions of the shelters in Stepney and the luxury conditions of the shelters of West London.”

The next day the press was full of stories about the audacious occupation of the Savoy Hotel shelter and the terrible conditions of the shelters in Stepney. The Communist Party had succeeded in its objective. At St Pancras The Party organised a picket of Carreras, the tobacco factory, demanding its shelter – capable of holding 3,000- be opened to the public at night.

In Walthamstow Councillor Bob Smith went with some homeless “bombed out” families and occupied empty houses, and similar actions took place in Chiswick (Heathfield Court) and Kensington.

“As a result, the Home Office took special steps to improve conditions in the Tilbury shelter and others. But this militant action led to further developments. A demand had been made for the Tubes to be made available as shelters. The Home Secretary, Mr Herbert Morrison, said that this was impossible. The only valid reason he could give was that children might fall on to the line and be killed. This was not a very impressive argument, when you consider the hundreds who were being killed because they had no shelter. The police were given instructions to allow no-one to use the Tubes for shelter. Loiterers were moved on by the police. The Communist Party decided that the Tubes should be open for shelters. This was done.

Two or three days after the Savoy incident preparations were made to break open the gates of the Tubes which the police were closing immediately the air-raid siren was sounded. At a number of stations these actions were taken. Various implements such as crowbars happened to be available, and while the police stood on duty guarding the gates, they were very quickly swept aside by the crowds, the crowbars brought into action, and the people went down. That night tens of thousands sprawled on the tube platforms. The next day, Mr Herbert Morrison, solemn as an owl, rose to make his world-shattering announcement: the Government had reconsidered its opinion in the matter of the Tubes being sued as shelters. From now onwards, they would be so employed. They were expected to accommodate 250,000. Arrangements would be made for refreshment and first-aid facilities. Later. Bunks were being installed. ‘The Government had reconsidered the matter.’ They had indeed! They had been forced to by the resolute action of the people of London which they had been powerless to prevent.”

(Phil Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red).

Another account of the Savoy occupation gives a slightly different take on the numbers involved…

“There were forty of them. There were eighty. There were a hundred. They marched. They sauntered. They were angry. They were bewildered. They came with two dogs and they came with none. Theirs was a daring act that saved thousands of lives. Or it was a pretty piece of propaganda, gift-wrapped for the Führer. What happened beneath the Savoy Hotel on 14th September 1940, the eighth night of the Blitz, depended on the position of the observer: whether she or he was Red or anti-Red; East Ender or West Ender; dreaming of revolution or restoration. That Saturday night, when those forty or eighty or a hundred arrived at the doors of the hotel – with their dogs, or dogless – a small army of journalists was on the premises for a briefing by the Ministry of Information. Few, however, wrote about their uninvited fellow guests until the war was safely over. The government also maintained a public silence on the story, despite the urgent Cabinet discussion held the following Monday morning – a discussion with sinister undertones. But old comrades, years later, made that West End outing into a famous victory, a second Battle of Cable Street. It worked its way into plays and novels, into the mythology of the British Left. And though no horses charged and no batons swung, the Savoy Hotel invasion was the most serious political demonstration of the war – and dramatic evidence that conflict with Germany did not bring the class war to an end.

Max Levitas has spent most of his long life on the front line of that conflict. He was part of the famous human barricade that halted the Blackshirts’ progress through the East End in October 1936. He stood his ground at Brady Mansions during a twenty-one-week rent strike – brought to an end only by the government’s decision to freeze rents for the duration of the war. He was one of the dozen Communist councillors elected to the Borough of Stepney in 1945, during that giddy moment when the electorate could still see the avuncular side of Joe Stalin. He was there in 1991 when the Communist Party of Great Britain voted for dissolution and secured victory in the long war of attrition against itself. He was there, too, on that Blitz- struck Saturday night in 1940, shouldering the red banner of the Stepney Young Communist League as his group of demon- strators marched from the Embankment towards the silvered canopy of the Savoy. They marched for better air-raid shelters in the East End. They marched against the myth that the Luftwaffe had brought equality of suffering to Britain. And they received their marching orders from a series of urgent editorials in the Communist newspaper, the Daily Worker: ‘If you live in the Savoy Hotel you are called by telephone when the sirens sound and then tucked into bed by servants in a luxury bomb-proof shelter,’ the newspaper asserted.‘But if you live in Paradise Court you may find yourself without a refuge of any kind.’ And above these words, in thick bold print:‘The people must act.’

Max Levitas nods in agreement when I read the article back to him. ‘The surface shelters protected you from shrapnel, from flak, but not much else,’ he reflects. ‘If a bomb fell on one of those it would collapse and kill everybody in it. The Communist Party argued for deep shelters. But the National Government wouldn’t listen. They wouldn’t even open the Underground. It was easy to ignore that message if you were sitting in the basement of a very nice hotel. So we decided to march on one.’ I ask him why they chose the Savoy. Max Levitas smiles a tolerant smile. ‘It was the nearest.’

I meet Max Levitas at the Idea Store, that gleaming cultural institution planted in the East End to compensate locals for the assimilation of their much-loved public library into the Whitechapel Art Gallery. He is a small, cloth-capped nonagenarian, wrapped tightly in a raincoat and muffler. Standing on the studded purple rubber floor of the foyer, he looks like a preserved fragment of the old Stepney. It is a chilling morning in February, and he can spare me an hour before he goes for his Turkish bath – a weekly ritual since the 1920s, when his father took him to the long-vanished Schewik steam rooms on Brick Lane. We catch the lift to the top-floor café, secure two cups of tea and a table with a view of the bristling City skyline, and he tells the story of his association with the area: how his parents fled the Lithuanian pogroms in 1912 and made landfall in Dublin, where Max was born three years later; how his father took the family first to Glasgow, and finally to Stepney, where work could be found among a supportive community of Jewish exiles. History radicalised those members of the Levitas clan it did not destroy: Max’s Aunt Sara and her family were burned to death in the synagogue of the Lithuanian shtetl of Akmian; Max’s father became a leading member of the distinctly Semitic, distinctly Red-tinged International Tailors and Pressers’ Union; Max’s elder brother, Maurice, fought against Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War; Max gave his youth to the Communist Party of Great Britain and was name-checked by Oswald Mosley in a speech denouncing the enemies of British Fascism.

The organisers of the Savoy invasion shared a similar ideological background: they were all revolutionaries. ‘And they’re all dead,’Max sighs. ‘Some were clothing workers. Some were bootmakers. Some were dockers.’ It is an inventory of lost trades. The first names he sifts from his memory are two stevedores, Ted Jones and Jack Murphy, veterans of pre-war campaigns for unemployment relief. The rest comprise a knot of men from the Stepney Tenants’ Defence League, which organised rent strikes against slum landlords in the East End: George Rosen, its bullish secretary, known as ‘Tubby’; Solly Klotnick, a furrier and a veteran of the Battle of Cable Street; Solomon Frankel, a clothing worker who took a bullet in Spain that robbed him of the use of his right hand. Michael Shapiro, a wiry young academic from the London School of Economics. At the head of the group stood Phil Piratin, Communist councillor for Spitalfields, chief spokesperson of the invaders, and the author of the most widely read account of their night at the Savoy. His memoir Our Flag Stays Red (1948) puts seventy in the hotel lobby, among them a number of children and pregnant women. Max’s memories are different. ‘There were forty of us,’ he affirms. ‘I’m sure of that.’ I ask if there were any dogs. He shakes his head. ‘No dogs,’ he says. ‘It was the Savoy.’ ”

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s history: Nazi Lord Haw-Haw hanged, Wandsworth Prison, 1946.

William Joyce, later famous for broadcasting pro-Nazi propaganda from Germany during World War 2, was born in New York City in 1906. His family moved to his father’s native Ireland in 1909, where Joyce was educated in Roman Catholic schools, including the Jesuit St Ignatius Loyola College. The Joyce family were ardent loyalists, opposed to Irish independence, and Joyce later claimed to have fought as a boy alongside the Black and Tans.”

In 1922 William Joyce emigrated to England with his family, and became heavily involved in extreme right-wing politics. In 1923 he joined the British Fascisti (BF). Members of the British Fascists were scared by the Russian Revolution, but took inspiration from what Benito Mussolini had done in Italy.

However the British Fascisti were obviously unpopular with anti-fascists and leftwingers generally, and during the 1924 General Election, on 22nd October, William Joyce was cut across his face with a razor during a bundle with members of the Communist Party of Great Britain in Lambeth, leaving him scarred from the corner of his mouth to behind his right ear.

In 1925 Maxwell Knight, the Director of Intelligence of the British Fascisti, was recruited by MI5. He was placed in charge of B5b, a unit that conducted the monitoring of political subversion. Knight recruited a large number of his agents from right-wing political organisations. It was later discovered that Joyce was one of MI5’s agents. Over the next few years Joyce provided Knight with information he had about the activities of the Communist Party and other left-wing groups.

Like other members of the British Fascisti, Joyce had a deep hatred of Jews and Communists. He claimed that his facial wound had been caused by a “Jewish Communist”. He also blamed his failure to complete his MA on a Jewish woman tutor. On 30th April 1927 he married Hazel Katherine Barr at Chelsea register office. The couple had two daughters. At this point Joyce joined the Conservative Party.

However, in early 1933 William Joyce joined the recently formed British Union of Fascists (BUF) led by Oswald Mosley. The BUF was strongly anti-communist and argued for a programme of economic revival based on government spending and protectionism. Mosley appointed Joyce as the party full-time Propaganda Director and deputy leader of BUF.

The London Evening News, another newspaper owned by Lord Rothermere, found a more popular and subtle way of supporting the Blackshirts. It obtained 500 seats for a BUF rally at the Royal Albert Hall and offered them as prizes to readers who sent in the most convincing reasons why they liked the Blackshirts. Another title owned by Rothermere, the Sunday Dispatch, even sponsored a Blackshirt beauty competition to find the most attractive BUF supporter. Not enough attractive women entered and the contest was declared void.

By 1934 the British Union of Fascists had 40,000 members and was able to establish its own drinking clubs and football teams. The BUF also gained the support of Lord Rothermere and the Daily Mail. On 7th June, 1934, the BUF held a large rally at Olympia. About 500 anti-fascists managed to get inside the hall. When they began heckling Oswald Mosley they were attacked by 1,000 black-shirted stewards. Several of the protesters were badly beaten by the fascists.

In October, 1934, Mosley and Joyce spoke at a BUF meeting in Worthing, Sussex, (a BUF stronghold, where a fascist had been elected to the council) where a large crowd heckled, attacked and routed the fascists.

Under the influence of Joyce the BUF became increasingly anti-Semitic. The verbal attacks on the Jewish community led to violence at meetings and demonstrations.

The activities of the BUF was checked by the the passing of the 1936 Public Order Act. This gave the Home Secretary the power to ban marches in the London area and police chief constables could apply to him for bans elsewhere. This legislation also made it an offence to wear political uniforms and to use threatening and abusive words.

The anti-Semitic policy was popular in certain inner-city areas and in 1937 Joyce came close to defeating the Labour Party candidate in the London County Council election in Shoreditch. Joyce argued that the facsists should take a more extreme position on racial issues. Mosley disagreed and began to feel that Joyce posed a threat to his leadership. He therefore decided to sack Joyce as Propaganda Director. In an attempt to save money another 142 staff members also lost their jobs.

Joyce now left the British Union and with the help of John Becket and A. K. Chesterton he founded the National Socialist League. In a pamphlet, National Socialism Now, Joyce began to express views similar to those of Adolf Hitler. He wrote: “International Finance is controlled by great Jewish moneylenders and Communism is being propagated by Jewish agitators who are at one fundamentally with the powerful capitalists of their race in desiring an international world order, which would, of course, give universal sovereignty to the only international race in existence.”

When Adolf Hitler ordered the invasion of Czechoslovakia Joyce became convinced that war with Germany was inevitable. Unwilling to fight against Hitler’s forces, Joyce began to consider leaving the country. This view was reinforced when he was warned by former British Fascisti chum and sometime spymaster Maxwell Knight of MI5 that the British government was thinking of interning fascist leaders if war broke out. Knight, indeed, may have maintained some form of contact with him during the first few months of the war, sending him coded letters and, seemingly, keeping him “on the books” as a potential agent of influence.

Understandably, Knight, the model for M in Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories, was keen that all this should remain a secret between himself and Joyce. Interestingly, the repulsive ‘businessman’, Giovanni Di Stefano, rightwing Italian-English bogus lawyer and friend and appologist of Serbian warlord and murderer Arkan, has claimed that he has proof that Joyce was in fact acting as an MI5 agent in Germany thoughout the war and they let him be hanged anyway. Either way he and MI5 don’t come out of it all well…

On 26th August, 1939, Joyce left for Nazi Germany. Soon after arriving in Berlin he got a job with the German Radio Corporation as an English language broadcaster. Joyce joined the ‘German Calling’ programme. On 14th September, 1939, a report in the Daily Express described the broadcaster as speaking the “English of the haw-haw, damit-get-out-of-my-way variety.” Joyce soon became derogatively known as Lord Haw-Haw.

Joyce continued to broadcast pro-Nazi propaganda throughout the Second World War. In 1940 the Daily Mirror organised the Anti Haw Haw League of Loyal Britons – members pledged not to listen to these broadcasts (the Mirror desperately trying to live down its own stint as supporters of the Blackshirts in the 1930s). Other British subjects who took part in these broadcasts included John Amery, Railton Freeman, Norman Baillie-Stewart, Kenneth Lander and William Griffiths.

Joyce was captured by the British Army at Flensburg on 28th May 1945. Three days later Joyce was interrogated by William Scardon, an MI5 officer. Joyce made a full confession but at first the Director of Prosecutions doubted whether he could be tried for treason as he had been born in the United States. However, his broadcasts during the war had made him a hate figure in Britain and the Attorney General, David Maxwell-Fyfe, decided to charge him with high treason.

Joyce’s trial for high treason began at the Old Bailey on 17th September, 1945. In court it was stated that although he was United States citizen he had held a British passport during the early stages of the war. It was therefore argued in court by Hartley Shawcross that Joyce had committed treason by broadcasting for Germany between September 1939 and July 1940, when he officially became a German citizen.

William Joyce was found guilty of treason and was executed on 3rd January 1946.

Lord Haw-Haw was the last civilian in Britain to be hanged for treason. Yet his wife, who also broadcast Nazi propaganda and was decorated by Hitler, was never brought to trial. It later emerged that a deal was struck between the Joyce and MI5: his silence for his wife’s life.

The day after her husband’s execution, Margaret Joyce, better known as Lady Haw-Haw, was told by the governor of Holloway Prison that she must pack up her belongings. She was to be “returned to the Continent”, he said, though he couldn’t say where exactly. She was relieved, in a way, because this ruled out the possibility of her being tried for high treason at the Old Bailey.

The following morning, feeling ”half loopy” as she put it, she was driven under armed escort to Croydon airport for a 9am flight to the military detention centre in Brussels. Two weeks later, Major J. F. E. Stephenson of MI5 sent a memorandum to the head of the British Intelligence Bureau there.

”It has been decided by the authorities in the UK not to prosecute this woman, in effect on compassionate grounds. There is no lack of evidence implicating her in the treasonable activities of her late husband; but the authorities do not think she need be punished further, and would like her to be returned to Germany as a German subject.” So it was that an American husband was hanged as an Englishman, while his equally “guilty” English wife was freed as a German.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

Today in London’s housing history: Ivanhoe Hotel squatted, Bloomsbury, 1946.

At the end of WW2 there was massive homelessness around the country – a pre-war shortage of housing had been made worse by the destruction of houses through bombing and a total halt in the building of new housing. Demobilisation of thousands of servicemen jacked this up into a crisis… As a result there was mass squatting of empty houses, and army camps and depots, around the country.

“Down in Brighton, VE day was celebrated with a merry scrunching of crowbars as dozens of hotels and big houses being kept empty for post-war summer visitors were taken over by homeless people. “Vigilantes” seems a strange name nowadays. I think the idea was that they were vigilantly scouring the streets for empty places and opening them, not letting a single home go unused. They were otherwise known as “The Secret Committee of Ex-Servicemen”. By the beginning of July there were 1,000 people squatting in Brighton alone and the movement was spreading to towns all along the south coast as well as to Essex, Birmingham, London and Liverpool. There were big meetings, lots of public support and massive press coverage. Churchill persuaded the press to stop mentioning what was happening – he reckoned it was spreading the idea introduced requisitioning powers (but not duties) for councils to take over empty property and made anti-squatting propaganda part of his campaign in the 1945 election…

The Vigilantes included anarchists with experience of anti‑fascist and other struggles in the ’30s. They didn’t bother much with conventional politics or lobbying. There was still very little council housing and their campaign was mainly against private landlords. They demanded that privately-owned empties be taken over for immediate use by homeless people. Their way of making the demand was to do exactly that! This phase of the campaign may have been brief, but it struck a chord which lasted…”

From May 1946 a new phase began: the squatting of empty army camps, of which there were hundreds around the country:

“People were waiting to see what the new Labour government would do and what use would be made of Churchill’s requisitioning powers. It was soon clear the answer to both was “not a lot”. Meantime, thousands were homeless in a housing crisis so vast that it was on a similar scale to the one we have now!

There was – at least initially- no planning and no politicos involved in this. All over the country there were redundant army and air force camps with Nissen huts and other accommodation which was less than brilliant, but a lot better than the conditions many people were having to live in. It was Mr and Mrs Fielding from Scunthorpe who finally got fed up and did the obvious thing. They moved into the officers’ mess of their local disused anti-aircraft battery with their children. Their friends joined them. Others heard about it and came along too. Two other local camps were taken over, and the movement spread, first to Sheffield and then virtually everywhere in England, Scotland and Wales. An organisation was formed -the Squatters’ Protection Society. By September, the government reckoned there were 45,000 people squatting in 1,100 camps, but this has to be bullshit. It works out to about 40 people per camp but most occupations were by one or two hundred people at least and some -like the famous “squat city” in Bristol- were nearly a thousand strong. Other places started being taken over -schools, hotels, even a greyhound stadium, and the movement just kept on growing.

Of course, there were mass evictions, but most eviction attempts seem to have failed. Time after time council workers and even police refused to carry them out or were seen off by sheer force of numbers (which meant a lot more than 40 people!). The government was in a tizzy. That great socialist orator and supposed tribune of the people, Nye Bevan, and others could only trot out the familiar crap about people “jumping the housing queue”. It was just too big and too energetic to repress -though they tried.

Life in the camps had to be improvised and communal… people organised water, furniture, food and child care…

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

“There was some camp squatting in London, mainly in east and outer London, but the opportunities were fewer and the camps smaller than in other places. London’s turn came later.” This was in September 1946.

“2 o’clock on a humdrum Sunday afternoon [September 8th]. In a tightly organised operation, squatters seized Duchess of Bedford House, a luxury block of 150 flats in Kensington. Within 10 minutes over. 1,000 people were inside, including 460 families, complete with bedding, water and food. Later that day a further 500 people took over a similar block in Marylebone, as well a big houses in Holland Park, Campden Hill and Upper Phillimore Gardens. On Monday, it was a second block in Marylebone and on Tuesday about 200 people took Fountain Court, another luxury block in Pimlico. Wednesday saw two very big ones done -Abbey Lodge near Regents Park and the 630-room Ivanhoe Hotel in Bloomsbury St(later renamed “The Marlborough”, and these days the ‘Bloomsbury’).”

The Communist Party was heavily involved in these London actions, though there has been argument over how dominant they were in the squatting movement nationally, initially they rubbished the early autonomous squatters; they then jumped on the bandwagon when it became obvious how strongly the movement was taking off, tried to take things over and made attempts to repress or marginalise independent activity. Sound familiar? While the squatting in the camps was more the practical meeting of a basic need, the London actions were more political propaganda acts, launching a campaign to force the Government to requisition empty private housing for those in need. It did trigger some squatting of smaller houses in the London suburbs.

The Ivanhoe Hotel, on the corner of Bloomsbury Street and Great Russell Street, was squatted on Wednesday September 11th. Empty for some time, it had been used during the war to house Irish labourers repairing bomb damaged buildings. The squatters here used a diversionary tactic to get in to the Ivanhoe… One group drew police who were on their back off to another building some distance off, while another group moved in on the hotel (possibly though according to James Hinton, they got in through an underground tunnel the police had no idea was there). 12 families broke in through boarded up doors; by this time the cops had got wind and turned up, blocking up the doors and reboarding them, to stop other squatters getting in. An attempt by others to force their way in was prevented by the police.

The Police put a cordon round the hotel; although food and bedding could be thrown in from the outside by supporters, people could not go in or out, so the squat became a siege. There were confrontations between supporters outside and cops, here and at other buildings: horses were used here to disperse large crowds blocking the streets (usually by sitting down). Within a few days five Communist Party members involved in planning the squats had been arrested for conspiracy and incitement to trespass. CP member and squatting activist Johnny Marten was nicked on September 12th for talking to the squatters from outside the hotel: according to the Evening News, “he was then escorted by the police to Tottenham Court Road police Station. Followed by a crowd, some of whom shouted ‘is this what we won the war for?’

On 14th September, a huge rally in Leicester Square, followed by a march, supported the squatters and the demands made by the CP. Later that day, the government’s legal moves became clear as five CP “ringleaders” were arrested and charged with “conspiring and inciting trespass” (they were later bound over). Finally, High Court injunctions were obtained against the squatters and they subsequently left voluntarily in a “general evacuation,’ on Friday 20th September. There were no actual evictions. The squatters mostly went to a “rest centre” organised by the London County Council, from where they were eventually rehoused.

“The role and tactics of the CP have been controversial ever since… Though the CP was prominent, these actions were certainly much more than the “CP stunt” they have sometimes been presented as. Most people involved had nothing to do with the CP, and the whole thing looks much more like an opportunistic attempt to exploit a movement which had already been established by the Vigilantes, the camp squatters and the Squatters Protection Society, and continued long after the London occupations were over. They did, however, show up the allegedly radical socialist government in their true colours and force them to step up the housing programme.”

In many ways the Communist Party bottled it at the crucial point, as Andrew Friend points out:

“It is difficult to judge at this distance the degree to which the Communist Party controlled the organisation of the London occupations. It is clear that having placed itself in a position of leadership it failed to mobilise popular or trade union support and that this must be seen as a major factor in the sudden collapse of the occupations.

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

These events show that there was not merely sympathy for squatters among organised workers – the two groups overlapped far more than they do now – but that there also existed the potential for workplace action in support of occupations of residential property. Yet at no time did the CP call for industrial action to get services connected to further the demand for wider requisitioning. This is surprising considering that in 1945 the Communist Party, with a membership of 45,000, was at the height of its influence in the trade union movement. Tactics were confined to organising the Leicester Square demonstration and sending delegations to Atlee, Bevan and the town halls. This meant that once the authorities’ hard line in defence of property had emerged, the squatters found themselves increasingly engaged in conflict on the authorities terms, whether in the courtroom or behind cordons. When the court orders were granted, there was no attempt to organise resistance to the evictions. The conspiracy charges had instilled the desired effect of intimidation despite the scale of the Leicester Square demonstration that had been organised at such short notice.”

Apologies to Jim Paton from ASS for ripping parts off his excellent summary of the 1945-6 squatting movement writ way back in 1995.

Some newsreel film of the Ivanhoe Hotel Squatters can be seen here

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s radical history: Crowd force entry to Liverpool Street Station to use it as air raid shelter, 1940.

This week marks the anniversary of the start of the London Blitz in 1940.

When the Blitz is invoked, a crucial part of the myth of Britain, the same images and clichés are reeled out: the black and white photos and old news reels of Londoners clambering out of the dust and rubble, of their devastated homes, smiling for the camera while union jack flags flutter in the wind… the King and Queen visiting the East End… the unity of all classes in the national interest…

It’s unlikely it will be mentioned how the working class of London reacted not by deference or defeatism but by fighting back and not just against the Nazis who had destroyed their Capital, but against the British establishment.

The revolt was on an unprecedented scale, the East End was in revolt, the King, Queen and Prime Minister, Winston Churchill were booed and parts had become a no go area.

Harold Nicholson, Minister for Information recalled in his diary;

“Everybody is worried about the feeling in the East End of London where there is much bitterness”.

The bitterness reported by Nicholson was not without substance.

The working class communities of Inner London had suffered badly during the depression of the 1920’s and 30s with its high unemployment and slum housing. Now they suffered the heaviest levels of devastation – large parts of Stepney, Bethnal Green, Poplar, West Ham, Bermondsey, Deptford, Lambeth, St Pancras & Westminster were destroyed.

The only way to provide anything like adequate protection was to build enough underground shelters to house the majority of the population.

However, the government had failed to pay any attention to the significant air raid precaution agitation preferring to leave such matters to local councils, employers or individuals to do the best they could. Those in the know began to strengthen the spaces under their stairwells, opened up disused cellars and dug up parts of their gardens if they were fortunate to have one. Corrugated iron was in great demand.

The authorities feared that once down in the relative safety of underground shelters Londoners may not return to the surface to carry out vital work. This was called “Deep shelter mentality”.  This abdication of responsibility was masked by a supposed concern about children falling onto the underground track.

The establishment had backed Franco, Mussolini and Hitler prior to the war. The Daily Mail had backed the British Union of Fascists. Churchill had flirted with support for Franco though he later came to dislike his politics. Even the Queen had said of Hitler’s Mein Kampf  “even a skip through gives you a good idea of his obvious sincerity”. The Cliveden set, established by the Astors schemed to turn Hitler against the USSR, which was the most public peace force and supporter of collective security through the League of nations. One Tory MP Archibald Ramsay leader of the pro fascist Right Club, while detained in Brixton prison was asking questions about the number of Jews in the armed forces and resumed his seat at the end of the war.

Just as this establishment were denying working class communities deep shelter safety, they themselves were moving to the suburbs or the country.  London’s exclusive hotels and clubs were busy building deep shelters under their premises.

At the beginning of the War those that spoke out in favour of deep shelters or produced leaflets highlighting the dangers of the Anderson and trench shelters found themselves harassed, arrested and their publications confiscated.

After Dunkirk (June 1940), the German Luftwaffe had concentrated their attacks upon attempts to destroy British air defences, in the Battle that became known as ‘The Battle of Britain’.

However, frustrated at the failure of the German Air Force to secure a decisive knock out, the German command sought alternative targets. Attention turned to attacking Britain’s manufacturing and munitions industries, much of which was based in cities and in close proximity to densely populated residential areas.

On the first night of what became known as the “Blitz”, on 7th September 1940 the first large scale attack against London was launched by the Luftwaffe involving some 364 bombers, escorted by 515 fighters attacked the Capital.

London’s defences were ill-prepared for such an onslaught and as a result large areas of the Capital were destroyed.

On the first night of what became known as the “Blitz” over 2,000 Londoners where killed or injured (436 killed and 1,666 injured). This compared to 250 personnel killed in the armed forces for the whole of September 1940.

“That night the East End burned, the dockside was ablaze………..
it lit up a great part of East and South East London……. It was a night when London was ringed and stabbed with fire.” (
Phil Piratin)

“Yesterday, I walked through the valley of the shadow of death –the little streets of London’s East End…..Along the main roads is a steady stream of refugees – men with suitcases, women, with bundles, children with their pillows and their own cot covers – homeless in the heart of London.” (Fred Pateman, Daily Worker, 9th September 1940)

The fires caused by the bombing raged out of control for weeks and merely acted as a beacon to further waves of German bombers. London suffered according to the London County Council a further seventy six consecutive nights of enemy bombing.

The RAF retaliated at the bombing of London by bombing Berlin. Infuriated, Hitler declared to his Luftwaffe commanders,“if they think that they can destroy our cities…….then we shall wipe theirs from the face of the earth….”. Orders were given to air crews to bomb at “random” and thereby the German air force gave up any pretence of attempting avoid civilian areas.

Initially, the civilian population had attempted to take refugee in government prescribed trench shelters but these soon filled with water, the street level shelters had been destroyed and the famous back garden Anderson shelters, made of corrugated steel, offered only limited protection from bomb blast and splinters.

Anderson shelters were named after Sir John Anderson who stated in the House of Commons in 1938, “I do not think we are prepared to adapt our whole civilisation, so as to compel a large proportion of our people to live and maintain the productive capacity in a troglodyte existence deep underground” and on 12th June 1940 “I am devoutly thankful that we did not adopt a general policy of providing deep and strongly protected shelters”.

The working class paid for such stupidity. At Kennington a trench shelter took a direct hit, killing 104.

The few deeper shelters, which were situated mainly underneath large warehouses, once deserted, were now full to overflowing. They were poorly lit, wet, and unsanitary. People lined up from 12 in Stepney to enter the Tilbury shelter, originally planned for 1,600 now holding 10,000. Meanwhile, Godfrey Phillip’s shelter in the City, a shelter for 3,000 was locked every night at 5.30pm. Somewhere around another 200,000 safe shelter places were available in the City, but locked at night.

Many Londoners were forced to “trek” from East London to North London, West London or South London and even the Kent countryside (Chiselhurst Caves in the side of the North Downs). Others took coaches into the countryside to sleep by the roadside at a cost of 2s 6d.

By mid November 1940, it was reported that some four out of every ten houses in the London Borough of Stepney had been destroyed or damaged. Many factories suffered a similar fate.

The Government rejected advice about the need for a comprehensive and universal air raid precautions, preferring to leave it to individual councils, employers or individuals to do the best they could. Yet many of the Government’s own appointed observers such as the famous scientist J B Haldane were pressing for deep shelters.

It is unsurprising that faced with whole sale destruction, looting and a lack of support, working class communities took it in their own hands to stop the looting, secure alternative housing, shelter and when Churchill or the Royal Family turned up to show sympathy they were booed and pelted with rubbish..

Meanwhile, the rich secured access to their own private shelters. None was more famous or elaborately decorated than the shelter beneath the Savoy Hotel, which even boasted nurses on standby.

During the early days of the Blitz Government controlled media tried to show that life in London was carrying on as normal, and there was much coverage in the press of people going to parties, dining out and clubbing in the West End. Buckingham Palace had been hit, but in reality involved minor damage to out houses.

This was all at odds with the experience of the people in the working class areas of London, who were now being systematically bombed day and night.

A the beginning of the Blitz, the doors to the Underground stations were surrounded by barbed wire and systematically locked by the Police during air raids, in order to stop civilians seeking refuge.

One Kennington resident stated, “The public shelter was horrible, smelly, it had a mouldy slab of concrete for a roof. But you couldn’t go anywhere else as the Oval station was full of barbed wire they wouldn’t let you near it”

Finally, on 8th September at Liverpool Street underground station, with the East End shelters overcrowding due to intense bombing, huge crowds of East Enders forced entry and surged down to the platforms.

Warren Street, Goodge Street and Highgate underground stations were “broken open”… “every inch of stairs, corridors and platforms taken by the people. Working men, women and children of all types and trades, from all parts of London, including soldiers and their families, were and are united in their resolve to share the Tubes”.

At other underground stations crowds of people swept past police guarding the stations and used crowbars to force open the underground station network to thousands of Londoners seeking refugee from the bombs.

The people established shelter committees in order to secure proper conditions such as provisions for feeding and amenities from the authorities.

On Saturday 14th September 1940 to highlight the plight of the people of Stepney, the communist councillor Piratin took fifty workers, including a group of what Time magazine called “ill-clad children” from Stepney and burst into The Savoy  Hotel.

Within minutes and with the help of sympathetic waiters the group had invaded and occupied the Savoy Hotel shelter, stating “ if it was good enough for the rich it was good enough for the Stepney workers and their families”.

The next day the press was full of stories about the audacious occupation of the Savoy Hotel shelter and the terrible conditions of the shelters in Stepney.

At St Pancras, a picket was organised of Carreras, the tobacco factory, demanding its shelter – capable of holding 3,000- be opened to the public at night. In Walthamstow councillor Bob Smith went with some homeless “bombed out” families to occupy empty houses. Similar actions took place in Chiswick (Heathfield Court) and at Kensington.

Finally, Herbert Morrison the Labour Home Secretary in the War time Coalition was forced to reconsider the issue of the underground being used for shelters and finally allow civilians to use the underground for shelter.

By the end of September 1940 it was estimated that 79 underground stations catering for 177,000 people were being used for shelter at night.

Nicked without apology from here

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s radical history: Troops sent in (again) to break London dock strike, 1948.

For centuries, London’s status as a powerful centre of trade and then as capital of empire made the river Thames one of the busiest waterways in the world; and the many docks that grew up along its banks teemed with ships, loading, being unloaded…

London’s dockworkers gradually became one of the capital’s most powerful workforces; their solidarity and resolution forged in the back-breaking work, low pay and the casual nature of employment on the job. Pre-World War 2, you’d have no definite job, just line up every morning and try to get hired. Wages were low and many families lived in desperate conditions, impressing on the dockers the need for organisation.

In 1889, inspired by the Matchgirls Strike, a Dockers union was set up and in August of that year, a huge strike broke out in the South West India Dock which spread to both sides of the river; the demands were a 2p rise to 6 pence an hour, plus overtime rates, an end to subcontracting middlemen and guaranteed hours of work… The strike was massive, and inspired numerous other East End workers to stop work. Vast daily procession of  strikers wound though the East End, to  huge ralliers held in Mile End Fileds and on Tower Hill. In the end the crisis passed & the bosses settled – only to chip away at the concessions over the next few months. But dockers would strike repeatedly over the next few decades, struggling for higher wages and better employment conditions, developing strong & vital bonds of solidarity & methods of fighting, as well as powerful links to docks in other ports in Britain & abroad.

After World War 2 a long struggle took place in the Docks… Even as the war ended dockers were on a go-slow protest against for a minimum wage and changes in piece-rates. The new Labour government sent troops into break the strike – as they were to do several times against dockers & others in the next 6 years – causing a mass strike, broken by the alliance of government, troops and unions.

The Transport & General Workers Union co-operated with bosses and state in administering the new National Dock Labour Scheme, an attempt to curtail the worst excesses of casualisation, which guaranteed registered dockers a wage, but under stringent controls and conditions like compulsory overtime. Many strikes in the next 3 decades were unofficial, with dockers bitterly resenting the T&GWU’s tie-up with management. Union leaders often made deals their members rejected, or tried to end action taken independent of them. Wildcat and unofficial committees grew up, like the National Portworkers Defence Committee. Unofficial leaders were often victimised, (or expelled from the T&G!) but support from dockers usually forced the bosses to back down

In JUNE 1948 London portworkers went on strike, after a number of them were suspended from work for claiming the usual special payment for handling zinc oxide.
 Particularly hard or unpleasant jobs were often paid at a special higher rate

As Conn Clancey, one of the 11 suspended dockers explained, his gang had been loading a ship with zinc oxide from canal barges. ‘There were 3,000 hessian sacks of the stuff, weighing 50 tons. We had done about 700 sacks and were getting very dusty and dirty. Down the hatch it was impossible to see. The stuff penetrates everything. It gets in your nose, mouth, eyes and hair and turns one blue’.

‘Eventually’, said Clancey, ‘we asked if there was a rate laid for the job. While enquiries were made we went back to general cargo work. It was a job for the View Committee. They said 3/4d. a ton was a proper rate. We were suggesting 5 bob although we expected to come down a bit, Another View Committee came next morning and we went on loading the zinc oxide. They still made it 3/4d. so we said there was no alternative but to talk it over with ‘the men on the stones’ – the other dockers. They voted we should finish the consignment and then have the matter looked into.

‘We went back and finished the job that afternoon. Everyone thought the affair was finished but in the morning I had a letter saying I was suspended. The penalty was like a smack on the ear when the fight was over. We finished all the zinc oxide. There was no time lost. While there was work to do we worked.’

Eleven dockers were then suspended for a week, without pay, by the National Dock Labour Board and their guaranteed week suspended for 13 weeks. On June 14 a spontaneous strike broke out against these vicious sentences. The strike later spread to Merseyside. It lasted 16 days and at one stage involved nearly 32,000 dockers.

The Manchester Guardian Weekly (June 24, 1948) commented: ‘It is plain from the way the strike has spread – within a week, in the face of every discouragement from officials of their trade union, the numbers out have grown from 1,500 to 15,000 – that there is fairly widespread discontent with the way some parts of the scheme are working. So broad a movement would hardly have sprung from so small an occasion if there had not been already a big head of pent-up emotion looking for an outlet before the incident of the zinc oxide cargo gave it one’.

The Times (June 29, 1948) with their usual gift of right-wing melodrama, proclaimed that the dock strike was ‘a challenge to be resisted as resolutely as the threat of attack by a foreign power’.

This is exactly what the Labour Government did. It drafted freshly conscripted troops into the docks. On June 29th, it proclaimed a State of Emergency. The ‘party of the working class’ used the Emergency Powers Act of 1920. This was a vicious piece of class legislation (for the other side) which had been introduced at the end of World War 1 by the Tory-dominated ‘hard-faced Parliament’.

The intimidation worked. The solidarity strike ended before His Majesty’s ‘socialist’ ministers really got down to churning out further ’emergency’ legislation.

The Emergency Powers Act, incidentally, has been superseded by the Civil Contingencies Act, but is effectively still on the statute book. It provides handy dictatorial powers to any government seeking to cope with any kind of mass working class activity, particularly any kind that might challenge established society.

Much more on dockers’ struggles and how the sainted Labour government of 1945-51 used soldiers to break their (and other workers’) strikes, can be read here

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s radical history: fascist rally in Ridley Road market, smashed by Jewish 43 Group, 1947

After the second world war, pre-war fascist leader Oswald Mosley, freed from his wartime prison, tried to rebuild the fascist movement he had led in he 1930s. A core of former British Union of Fascist leaders, joined by younger men, took up the largely anti-semitic agitation they had revelled in before the war. Jewish areas of London, or areas where a mix of Jews and other communities mixed, were seen as fruitful areas for street meetings and rallies – partly to pick up support from and to foster, local xenophobic sentiment, and partly to provoke and intimidate.

But many Jews were far from intimidated. In 1947, a group of Jewish ex-servicemen formed the 43 group to respond to the fascist attempt to reform. Growing rapidly, they resolved to resist the violent rhetoric and physical attacks with a determination to break up fascist meetings, attack the fash wherever possible, and disrupt them in all ways they could. They developed a strong physical and intelligence-led operation that would eventually put the fascist on the back foot.

Ridley Road, in Dalston, East London, was one of the regular battlegrounds between fascists and 43 Groupers, as it had been between the BUF and their enemies in the ‘30s, and would be again tin the 1960s. A bustling street market, in an area with a large Jewish community, it was to see repeated fascist meetings and anti-fascist response…

On Sunday June 1st, 1947, eight men (one fascist, and seven anti-fascists) were arrested after a large meeting of the fascist British League at Dalston’s Ridley Road ended in a fierce battle. Jewish ‘commandos’ from the anti-fascist 43 Group had targeted the meeting with the aim of shutting it down.

Having receive intelligence that the British League would be holding a rally, the 43 Group decided to take them on. Gerry Flamberg, who took on leading the action, briefed a large group of 43-ers. The fascists had scheduled their meeting for 7.00, and planned to send in a ‘holding party’ to prevent anyone else using the space and ensure their meeting went ahead. But the 43 Group had other plans…

Former sidekick to Oswald Mosley, Jeffrey Hamm, and Raven Thomson, another former BUF leader, were the main fascist attractions. Expecting attention from the 43 Group, they had both asked for heavy police protection, and arranged for over 100 of their own heavies, muscular young Nazis, to attend. The fash planned to distribute their literature, and to also try to enrol members on the spot.

Other fascist meetings were being held on the same evening in other parts of London, so Gerry Flamberg was only able to sign up 24 of the ‘commandoes’ the group used to break up meetings; 30 other members were to form a ‘support party’.

The Group’s Intelligence team handed out maps of the layout of the streets, which everyone memorized to make sure they could get into the Road, in small groups of four or five, and escape afterwards if need be. Cars with drivers and black cabs driven by sympathisers were parked all round the area from 7.30 to pick up group members legging it from the fallout. Two doctors, 43 Group members, were also on standby in Amhurst Road and Stoke Newington Church Street, to treat possible injuries.

Morris Beckman, one of the supporters on the day, met up with the others in his group, and made their way to Ridley Road: “At five minutes to seven [we] turned into Kingsland High Street. We walked towards Ridley Road along a narrow pavement and found ourselves in a throng of people, mainly young men, all walking the same way. Group members were in the procession but we did not acknowledge one another. We walked alongside one group of fascists and in front of others. They eyed us and we eyed them; no one spoke or made a hostile move. Tension was very high; we felt like gladiators moving towards our joust in the arena. The fascist were silent; so were we… ‘Don’t strike a match’, said Sam, ‘We’ll all go up with a bang…

The size of the crowd surprised us. There must have been over 400 people clustered around the platform which stood in a corner about ten yards away from the Woolworth’s wall. The platform flew two large union jacks and the usual fronting board with the legend, ‘The British League of Ex-Servicemen and Women.’ An eloquent young fascist wearing a black shirt, a plain white tie and slacks (the quasi-uniform that had become the Mosleyites’ standard style) was addressing the crowd. It was the task of those early speakers to create a nucleus for passers-by to latch onto and thus build up a large audience for when the main speakers performed.

Police in pairs were perambulating slowly round the perimeter of the crowd. So were many Group members and fascist stewards. Unlike the police, who were killing time, the two antagonists were seeking the best positions for the coming battle… Fascists were accosting passers-by and selling their propaganda, forcefully, and successfully. Others moved through the crowds doing likewise… In the short time since we had positioned ourselves at the edge of the crowd…it’s numbers had grown. About ten ranks of people now stood behind us…

Gerry pushed through to us. ‘Hamm will speak next. He’ll introduce Raven Thomson for the main speech, then Hamm will finish it off. We’ve counted well over thirty fascists already round the platform and there’s loads of them in the crowd.’

‘Cripes’ said Ivor. ‘We’re well outnumbered then.’

‘The locals have turned out to support us. About thirty.’

‘With Big Arthur?’

‘He’s pushed his way onto a wedge. He’s dead set on knocking over the platform.’

‘How can we tell who supports us and who doesn’t when the fighting starts?’

‘Easy,’ Gerry grinned, ‘if they aim at your head with a cosh, you’ll know it’s not one of our supporters… Now listen… About two dozen police are by the van ready to throw a cordon in front of the platform. That will reinforce the stewards… the wedges will go in from two directions. If one gets through, the platform goes and that’s the end of the meeting. If it doesn’t, go for the fascist next to you and don’t hold back. If sufficient fights break out, he police will not have control and they’ll close down the meeting… if you hear a referee’s whistle blow two long blasts, that means scarper, and bloody quick…’

He disappeared… Ivor nudged me, and muttered. ‘Just in front, about six persons to your left, is out target.’ I looked at four very tough young men… ‘I’ve tangled with them before,’ Ivor said…

A van appeared and crept slowly through two police lines up to the back of the platform. The young speaker eyed it and hurried his words… he introduced Jeffrey Hamm and the clambered to the ground. Hamm leapt onto the platform and spoke into a microphone plugged into batteries inside the van… h spoke briefly, eulogizing Raven Thomson… and referred to the Jewish terrorists ‘killing our boys in Palestine’ and reiterated the need to break the hold of the Jews who were running Britain and how Mosley would solve this problem… Hamm clambered down to a cacophony of applause and catcalls. Raven Thomson, a heavily-built man, took his place. He had barely opened his mouth when the heckling started. It came from all directions.

‘Going back to the Isle of Man for your holidays?” [Thomson had been imprisoned in a detention camp on the Isle of Man, and Brixton Prison, during World War 2)

‘They should have hanged you with William Joyce!’

But Thomson was an experienced campaigner… he ploughed on with what he had to say…

The volume of noise rose to a crescendo… About 30 or more fascists shuffled into a tight ring around the platform…

And then the commandoes struck. I glimpsed the wedge on our side drive through the fascist stewards. Fist were flying… The people in front of us were pushing back with alarm, panicking to get away from the fighting around the platform…. Thomson had stopped speaking and was gesticulating downwards with his right arm, fingers outstretched… then he disappeared from sight. The platform with its two union jacks swayed to and fro and up and down, and then it was gone…

We went at our fascists and they fought back hard. It was a savage few minutes. There were punches, boots flying, curses, and Ivor yelling… I found myself trading punches with a stocky youth.. he kept telling at me, ‘Fucking Jewboy bastard’… I landed several blows on his face, and saw blood trickle from his mouth, and he caught my forehead with resounding blows then he was gone…

Scuffles and fights were everywhere… I heard police whistles and dogs barked frenziedly… Press and other photographers scurried about taking pictures of the swirling action…”

The seven 43 Group members – including the leader of the action on the day, Gerry Flamberg – were bound over to keep the peace (as was the one nazi also nicked). This was usually done to try to prevent the activists from taking part in any more similar frays, but most of the 43 Group commandoes ignored this and were involved in many such battles.

This scene was repeated numerous times in Ridley Road, and in other areas of London seen as targets by the post-war fascists. Although in 1948 Mosley and the fledgling fascist groups combined to form the Union Movement, the constant battering they took from the 43 Group, with weekly fights all over town, took its toll on them. After several years the Mosleyite agitation had largely faded out by 1952. The core of the nazi movement, though, and the underbelly of racism it fed on and encouraged, would resurface,, over following decades – though new migrant groups would become the object of the fascists’ main venom…

If you enjoyed this:
You Must Read:

The 43 Group: Battling with Mosley’s Blackshirts, by Morris Beckman

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s history: Helen Duncan charged under the Witchcraft Act, 1944

Helen Duncan was one of the last people charged under the 1735 Witchcraft Act, and was sentenced to 9 months imprisonment, in 1944.
She was arrested on January 19th, in Portsmouth, and brought up to London to be tried… Apologies for stretching London as far as Portsmouth, mistakes get made, ok…?

Helen Duncan was a famous medium, charged under the Witchcraft Act, in it seems, because she constantly claimed during séances to be in touch with some of the thousands of sailors and soldiers being killed in WW2… Modern spiritualists claim Helen was targeted by the “all-powerful intelligence community” because she was inadvertently revealing things that could endanger the war effort… communicated to her by the dead… hmm.

Helen was known for forging ‘ectoplasm’, made from egg and cheesecloth, which she would swallow then vomit out when ‘channelling’ a spirit… She had been prosecuted for fraud, before, in 1933, when a sitter at a séance grabbed a ‘little girl’ who had ‘materialised’ – which turned out to be a doll made of stockinette undervest. During World War II,  Helen Duncan achieved great popularity ‘putting people in touch with recently deceased’, usually those killed in the war… or exploiting the vulnerable and devastated, if you prefer. She used the usual tricks to convince séance attendees, but spiced it up with revealing what turned out to be classified information. In November 1941, Duncan held a séance in Portsmouth at which she claimed the spirit materialization of a sailor told her HMS Barham had been sunk. The sinking of HMS Barham was revealed, in strict confidence, only to the relatives of casualties, and not announced to the public until late January 1942; those fully accepting spiritualism cite this as evidence of her genuine ability, although it was quite likely she heard this from a relative, or someone they had told: “there were about 9,000 people who knew of the sinking; if each of them told only one other person, there were 20,000 people in the country aware of the sinking, and so on – hardly a closely guarded secret. In short, news of the sinking spread like wildfire; Duncan simply picked up the gossip and decided to turn it into profit.” However, she was clearly a loose cannon and the Navy started to investigate in her activities.
After a séance on 14 January 1944, a Navy Lieutenant reported her to the police for fraud (she had claimed a white cloth figure had appeared behind the curtains was his aunt but he had no deceased aunt; and another figure appeared claiming to be his sister  – a sister who was alive and well. On 19 January, undercover police arrested her at another séance as a white-clad figure appeared – Duncan herself, wrapped in a white cloth which she tried to hide when the lights were turned on.
Though at first arrested under section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824, she was then charged on the section 4 of the Witchcraft Act 1735. Charged alongside her for conspiracy to contravene this Act were Ernest and Elizabeth Homer, who operated the Psychic centre in Portsmouth, and Frances Brown, who was Duncan’s agent who went with her to set up séances.

Duncan wasn’t allowed to demonstrate her alleged powers in court… Obviously a miscarriage of justice (?!?) The jury found her guilty of conspiracy to contravene the Witchcraft Act, section 4, covering fraudulent “spiritual” activity. Duncan was imprisoned for nine months, Brown for four months and the Homers were bound over.
She was sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment. When convicted, she cried out “I have done nothing; is there a God?” Surely she should know…

Hilariously spiritualists still defend this bizarre fraud and have campaigned for a pardon. The authorities however decided to prosecute mainly due to the climate of paranoia about ‘careless talk costing lives’, spying etc; they were afraid that she could continue to reveal classified information, whatever her source was. But also, it was clear she she was exploiting the recently bereaved, as the Recorder noted when passing sentence.

After the verdict, prime minister Winston Churchill wrote a memo to Home Secretary Herbert Morrison, complaining about the misuse of court resources on the “obsolete tomfoolery” of the charge. The Witchcraft Act was repealed a few years later as an anachronism.  However,  exploiting the vulnerable is hardly dead and buried – spiritualism flourishes. Not to mention religion’s old lie about the immortality of the soul…

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online:
http://alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/calendar.html