Today in London radical history, 1962: nazi meetings in the East End scattered by anti-fascists

The first half of the 1950s was a quiet time for antifascists in the UK. The postwar threat of fascist revival in the form of Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement, had been battered off the streets largely by the Jewish 43 Group, which had physically broken up Mosleyite meetings, attacking and dispersed fascists wherever they found them.

Britain’s prewar fascist leader Mosley had not only failed to make his comeback, but had slunk off abroad, humiliated. With little to oppose, the antifascist movement faded away. The most militant of the anti-fascist organisations, the 43 Group, was dissolved in 1950 and the set piece street battles between fascists and anti-fascists soon seemed to belong to a bygone era.
Throughout the 50s, Mosley remained in exile abroad while a small group of die-hard loyalists, led by Raven Thompson, Alf Flockhart and Jeffrey Hamm, kept his Union Movement alive.

But in the mid-1950s the fascists began to rebuild their organisations, gaining support around the 1958 race riots, and by the early 1960s Britain was in the midst of a fascist revival.

From the late Fifties, the far right, while still harping on about Jews, began to target the emerging Black and Asian migrant communities. Local anti-immigration sentiment in areas like Notting Hill led to xenophobic attacks, rioting and racist murders, which the fascists encouraged and attempted to cash in on.

A splintered scene of minuscule fascist groups began to coalesce into more active movements. Fascist activities were most notable in London.

But London also saw the most effective anti-fascist resistance. London was also the place where most of Britain’s Jews lived and the anti-fascist opposition came in its most militant form from a section of the Jewish community who formed the 1962 Committee, (usually known as the 62 Group). During the 1950s there had been very little open fascist activity and correspondingly there had been very little anti-fascist activity, but when the Nazis began reviving, so too did opposition to them.

The 62 Group was largely made up of various left-wingers including people from the Communist Party, Jews and some Black migrants. For around 5 years from the early 1960s, the 62 Group set out to physically confront the fascists whenever they showed their faces. The success of the anti-fascists in disrupting the campaigns of the various fascist groups in the early and mid-60s prevented the Far Right from exploiting the growing racism and forced them to rethink their strategy.

The re-animated nazi corpse attempted to revive their favoured tactic, used before and after WW2, of trying to hold street meetings, often in areas where they had previously attempted to gain an audience or provoke local communities. One of these areas was in Ridley Road Market, Dalston, long at the heart of one of Hackney’s largest Jewish communities.

Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement had been battered in Ridley Road by the 43 group a number of times in the late 1940s.

Mosley’s reception was not to improve over a decade later…

The Union Movement had tried to hold a street meeting in Ridley Road on 31 July, 1962. The recently formed 62 Group and other opponents made sure they had a warm reception, and the rally had ended in fighting with anti-fascists and 54 arrests.

The Mosleyites and other far right groups seemed determined to push back against this robust local response. Two nazi rallies were announced in East London for the same day, September 3rd.

Thousands of angry East Enders turned out to prevent the Fascists from meetings and to physically prevent them from speaking. Meetings at Hertford Road, Dalston, and Victoria Park Square, Bethnal Green, were broken up or drowned out.

The Jewish Yellow Star Movement had occupied the pitch the small far-right British National Party had planned to speak at in Ridley Road, holding an all-day marathon meeting with 136 speakers.

An attempt had been made to speak at Ridley Road by a few fascists, who had (according to a letter in the Gazette published a few days later) been beaten up: “by Yellow Star members, who were said to have outnumbered them by about a hundred to one”. Whether the letter is accurate about the Yellow Star being involved in any agro is debateable. The Yellow Star was as an organisation avowedly non-violent. However, many anti-fascists were not; the 62 Group espoused the old 43 Group tactic of physically attacking nazis. The opposition to the attempt of the far right to rise again was broad and diverse, ranging from Liberals to communists and beyond; the fash however were keen to portray all their opponents as being basically the same. In fact tactical differences on how to oppose fascism were, as ever, divisive and led to splits and rows.

The BNP meeting was instead held in Hertford Road, a few streets away (just south of Balls Pond Road):

“At Hertford Rd, the British National Party meeting, led by Mr John Bean the party’s acting secretary, was met with strong opposition by a large crowd of mostly Jewish people, and the twelve supporters were told to stop the meeting. In an address, Mr Bean, who was guarded by mounted policemen, said his speaker system had been ‘smashed’ and a Land Rover had been wrecked. Most of what he said was inaudible because of the heckling. Two of his supporters stood in front of him with bandaged heads. They had earlier been in a scuffle with anti-fascists in Kingsland Rd. Yellow Star held a marathon filibuster meeting at Ridley Rd., Dalston, which lasted all day, forcing the British National Party to hold [its] meeting a quarter of a mile away at Hertford Rd.” (Hackney Gazette, 4/9/62)

According to an anti-fascist eyewitness account:

“East London anti-fascists had taken the Ridley Road meeting pitch where the British National Party had planned to speak. A large crowd was enjoying the sunshine but there was an air of expectancy among them. News was coming in of a much larger crowd of anti-fascists waiting a few miles away at Victoria Park Square for Mosley’s gang to arrive.
Early in the afternoon the anti-fascists’ chief steward was quietly asked to go with two men and sit on the floor of a taxi. In the next few minutes he was briefed to find 200 people who would be prepared to help jump the BNP. Slowly, in twos and threes, hand-picked people were moved out to the assembly point. Here the Field lo Commander of the 62 Group, Cyril Paskin, told us that in ten minutes we would split into three attack groups and get the nazis who would be in Balls Pond Road. He said if anybody here is not a fighter or does not like violence, that is no shame. but please just go away, we do not need an audience.
The BNP leaders, Andrew Fountaine and John Bean,  and two minders were at the local police station trying to negotiate another venue for their meeting. They had a very lucky escape as around 400 anti-fascists led by the 62 Group section leaders mounted a running attack at
the nazis. It was all over within five minutes. Nearly every nazi present needed hospital treatment, including  some of their professional boxers from Leeds.
I looked around and saw Bobby Sulkin, a former East End boxer, hit a nazi so hard that his feet left the ground. The nazi had been a pro boxer and nazi bully boy for had
years. Now he was in the gutter where he belonged.”

Meanwhile around 3000 anti-fascists had gathered in Victoria Park Square, Bethnal Green, where Mosley was planning to speak. The activists who had attacked the BNP crowd now made it over to Bethnal Green to join them:

“As quick as the first strike was over, the organisers were shifting nearly a thousand people to join the 3,000 anti-fascists in Bethnal Green. Cars were stopped and drivers asked politely, and sometimes not so politely, to take three or four passengers to the second front.”

At least one of these cars nearly ended up delivering its passengers accidentally into the wrong crowd:

“I was in a car driven by a former veteran of the International Brigade who was now fighting the fascists where he worked on the railway at King’s Cross station. We made a wrong turn and a line of police opened up to show us the way to within feet of the fascist lorry being used as a platform. We made a rapid withdrawal, scattering a number of fascists on the way out.”

A huge police presence saved the Mosleyites from getting the same treatment as the BNP but the fighting was very fierce. The fascists were chased out, there were many arrests on both sides, but anti-fascists felt the day was successful.

“Sir Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement meeting at Victoria Park Square collapsed under a hail of stones, eggs and fruit, and resulted in over 40 arrests. Mr Jeffrey Hamm started the meeting with a few supporte[r]s. When Sir Oswald arrived about an hour later, the crowd had increased and eggs were being thrown. He climbed onto the speaker’s ‘platform’ – a lorry – and spoke for two minutes, but his speech was drowned by shouts of “Six million Jews! Belsen, down with Mosley!” Then the police ordered the meeting to close. As Mosley moved away the crowed advanced towards his car and hammered on the windows with their fists. He was followed by his supporters, mainly teenagers, in the speakers lorry. Later, Mosley was reported to have said that he intended to hold more meetings.” (Hackney Gazette, 4/9/62)

One 62 Group member recalled: “I remember seeing the retreating Mosleyites giving Nazi salutes on the back of their lorry. I picked up a heavy object and hurled it into the middle of them. It certainly took the smirks off their faces.” 

Later, at the junction outside the ‘Salmon and Ball’ pub (0n the corner of Bethnal Green Road and Cambridge Heath Road) “a lorry loaded with Mosley supporters, mostly young boys, came under a bombardment of pennies, the result of which might well have been that several lost their eyes.” (Letter to Hackney Gazette, 11/9/62)

Another fascist attempt to hold a meeting seems to have been held a few days later – with similar results:

“Followers of Sir Oswald Mosley fought a series of running battles with Hackney Young Socialist supporters and others in the Ridley Rd., Dalston, area on Sunday. The scuffles spread along Ridley Rd.[]into Kingsland Rd. and nearby side streets as 50-60 police moved in and arrested 14 people, among them two juveniles. Sir Oswald’s plans to hold a rally were thwarted by Hackney Young Socialists who staged a day[-]long meeting in the weekday market place. Instead, the Union Movement leader addressed followers in Hertford Rd., Dalston, a few hundred yards away. He spoke for some 25 minutes to an audience of his own supporters hemmed in by a tight cordon of police. This meeting passed off without incident. Then about 20 of his audience moved off to Ridley Rd. Shortly afterwards fighting broke out at the previously peaceful Ridley Rd. meeting. Police who were disbanding after the Mosley meeting were quickly called to Ridley Rd., as anti- fascists began actively protesting against the heckling Union Movement men, among them Mosley’s 20 year old son, Max. One young man wearing the Union Movement badge, chased along Kingsland High Street by other men, then trapped in a doorway and pulled to the ground and pummelled before being rescued by police. Other clashes broke out in sidestreets as the Fascist supporters left the area. As the main party of hecklers tried to drive off in their car, other cars attempted to hem them in. More scuffles followed all over the road.” (Hackney Gazette, 18/9/62)

Sustained anti-fascist activity had its effect. Constant attacks on fascists from the Union Movement forced Mosley to suspend conventional political activity in 1963. The 62 Group and other anti-fascist groups also harassed the British National Party, and the smaller Greater Britain Movement and National Socialist Movement, their meetings were occupied, HQs targeted, and membership lists stolen… A number of fascists turned to arson against Jewish targets when open meetings became too risky; infiltration by the 62 Groups helped uncover some of the arsonists.

Despite this, a number of far right groups came together in 1966-67 to form the National Front, to become the largest and most effective fascist organisation to date. The BF’s concentration on attacking Black and Asian migration rather than Jewish communities would win them a populist support in the 1970s: and a new generation of anti-fascists would arise to oppose them…

Some film of September 3rd 1962:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Before the Attack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. An ‘organised’ factory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Problems of Organisation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. The American Takeover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. The Final Offensive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. The Campaign Against Closure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Assessment of the Fight Against Closure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes

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

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past tense note:

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

Today in London striking history, 1965: Foyles bookshop strikers go back to work

In May 1965, the staff of Foyle’s went on strike for a month to demand payment of a living wage and the recognition of their right to join a union, and reinstatement of a dismissed employee and improvement in wages.

As a result of talks which took place between the parties, agreement was reached on a number of points and work was resumed on 25th May. Subsequently, however, there was disagreement over wage negotiations and this resulted in a further strike.

Below we reprint an interview we found with the Foyle’s worker whose sacking sparked the strike.

Sebastian Harding – How did you begin at Foyles?

Marius Webb – I was born in London. My father was English, from Battersea, and he was working for Battersea Council when war broke out. My mother had come to the United Kingdom from New Zealand via Australia. After the war, they decided that London was appalling and they should get out, so they came to Australia. But I left when I was twenty-one and came back by ship to Europe.

My first experience of London was the grim reality of staying with my aunt and uncle in Balham. One day, I saw an advertisement in the paper for a job at Foyles that paid £10 a week. During my University year I had a part in establishing a small bookshop in Melbourne called ‘The Paperback’ and I had also studied English at University so had a good knowledge of literature. I passed the interview and was told I could begin work on the following Monday.

I remember the first week at Foyles very well. The policy was that all new staff went directly into the mailroom. You sat around this enormous table and opened all the mail that came in. Someone would come up from transport area with a huge sack full of mail and dump it on the table. There were a couple of stout old ladies who managed the room and they would sort the mail out. Christina (Christina Foyle, owner of the Foyles business from 1963) was an avid stamp collector and, equipped with a paper knife, you had to open the invoices in a particular way so that the stamp was saved.

Bucket loads of money orders was what came in most most frequently. Talk about having a cash cow! We were at the fag end of the British Empire and people all over the world were members of the Foyles book club. They would send off monthly for a new book sent with a money order. Foyles also ran a book club which did reprints of famous books from the twenties and thirties. This was a considerable part of their business and so the mailing room was quite an operation.
It was good for someone new because you could speak to the people opening mail on either side of you. The mail room was the fulcrum of the whole place with approximately twenty people working there at one time.

Sebastian Harding – Can you describe Charing Cross Rd in the sixties?

Marius Webb – I loved it. I had come from Melbourne which was a recently planned city where every road was straight but London still had that ancient air. I loved Charing Cross Rd because it had such a distinct character. Everything south of Tottenham Court Rd station was just full of little bookshops and music shops, and I guess most of that has gone now. It had so much character and interest. Some of the smaller bookshops were unique and, of course, there was the proximity of the theatre where you could get in for nine pence in the Gods. London felt like a really creative force.

Sebastian Harding – Many have fond memories of the eccentricities of Foyles, did that affect working there?

Marius Webb – They did not trust staff with money so there were a number of queuing systems. The customer would queue up first to a till where a staff member gave them a note of the cost of their book. The customer would take a written piece of paper over to the till where they paid. This was incredibly naïve as it meant staff could steal quite easily and many of my colleagues did.

For instance, if their friend came in wanting to buy a book they would write down one shilling for a book worth a pound. Their friend would take it to the cash till, pay the shilling and then come back to their friend who would stamp their receipt and no one would be any the wiser!

I remember people would go up to the Art department, help themselves to a few books and then go down and sell them to the second hand department. Took them ages to work that one out! Many staff knew about regular shoplifters but there was an attitude of, “Oh that’s too bad.” I remember I once saw an old lady behind a stack. When I came round to see what was going on I saw she was sweeping a whole heap of books into a suitcase!

Sebastian Harding – Do you remember the interior of the store?

Marius Webb – None of the rooms in the building were large because it had been cobbled together from a group of buildings that had once served a whole series of other purposes. The ground floor had much higher ceilings and the ‘New Releases’ area of the store felt like a Victorian salon with cornices from an earlier life. I remember the windows were quite splendid which meant they were great for displaying books.

Sebastian Harding – Can you remember the people who ran the store?

Marius Webb – Christina Foyle’s husband, Ronald Batty, was the manager and he was quite formidable. I did not realise at first that he was married to her but he was a hands-on military sort of chap. He would sweep in and out, ordering the old ladies around and calling people out from the mail table and giving them orders to go to one of the departments. He was the General Manager, the Human Resources Manager, Chief Personnel Officer. Everything went through him as far as staff were concerned. There was an Australian called Mr Green who was in charge of new releases. He was very fancy but ultimately quite sad – he was gay and had obviously come to London to get away from Australia – very efficient but not very strong-willed.

Sebastian Harding – What began the chain of events that led to your dismissal and the strike?

Marius Webb – In my second week working at the store, I was assigned to the ground floor ‘New Releases.’ It was a terrific area to be in. I got to know authors like Len Deighton (writer of The Ipcress File), who would come in to see how their books were selling. One of the things that struck me from the outset were some of the more Victorian ways of the organisation. I remember arriving for my shift, running up the marble stairs and there would be two or three old ladies on their knees scrubbing the stairs by hand with rags. Coming from Australia, I was just appalled but that was actually quite typical of the London of those days –  the remnant of the old working class being kept in their place.

The other thing that I remember was having a surprise at the end of the second week when we got paid. We were paid nine pounds ten whereas the advertisement I had answered said quite clearly £10 a week. Dropping ten shillings does not sound like much, but when you are only getting paid ten pounds it is quite a lot. It did immediately make me question what sort of employer advertises a wage and then does not pay it. I was used to Australia where we had minimum wage and an eight hour day – these were things we accepted as normal.

As time passed, the style of management at Foyles became abundantly clear. The first thing that happened was an incident with a fellow from Sweden with whom I had worked with in the mail room. He had his own small art bookshop and had come to London to better his English and make some contacts. In the second or third week, I ran into him and he was wearing a dust coat and pushing a trolley and told me he had been put in the transport department, after originally applying to work in the Art Department.

I said “That doesn’t sound right. Go and talk to Mr Batty as it sounds like some sort of mistake.” Later that day, I saw him again and he had just been sacked. He explained the situation to Mr Batty and he was told: “Well you’re working in the Mail department and if you don’t like it you’re sacked.” I thought“Crikey! This is very strange.” This was a guy who wanted to make connections between Foyles and his own successful bookstore in Sweden, and there there was a good possibility it would have been beneficial to both parties. That chap’s dismissal was one of quite a few sackings that happened over my first month of working there, most workers did not have any comeback and it just became endemic.

I was getting increasingly concerned at the number of people getting dismissed and I mentioned it to my uncle. He was a draughtsman and the draughtsman’s union was one of the toughest. He told me I needed to speak to the Shop Workers’ Union (USDAW) which I had no knowledge of.

I met one of the organisers and he said, “You are entitled to this amount but they can still pay you what they like.” He told me to be careful that my employers did not hear I had been speaking to the union, as previous Foyles employees had lost their jobs as a result of this. He told me I could join up, but to have any influence I would need a lot of people to join.

A number of us became friends and every so often we would go to the Pillars of Hercules for drinks after work. One evening, I brought the subject up and we all agreed that the way we were being treated was not up to scratch and that we should  join the union together. There were about three or four of us at the start and we agreed to keep mum, but before long we had about twenty.

We needed to have union meetings and I was appointed to lead them even though I had not a clue how to run a meeting, and it was after one of these that I was ratted. One fellow who was a bit of a goody-goody and quite close to Mrs Foyle had been invited to a meeting. He was generally pro-management and, of course, he passed on the word to Mr Batty. Not long after that, I was called into Mr Batty’s office and told I had not been satisfactory and I had been late for work.

I rang the union and this guy told me to get my arse up to the offices real quick. They had an offset printer and we created some very simple leaflets and posters. We got down to Foyles the following morning so we could give out these leaflets to people as they arrived for work.

All the people coming into work were all my friends, so even if they were not members of the union, when they found out what had happened they decided to join the strike. The twenty people who were already part of the union joined me outside immediately and it was not long before we had fifty to sixty people. The union cranked out more leaflets and we were soon handing them out to every customer trying to enter the building. This had a devastating effect on business because 50% of customers said,“Oh in that case, I’m not coming in,” and this escalated very quickly. Then, because we had the placards in the street, someone phoned the newspapers and within an hour or two the Evening Standard had us on the front page.

The story was even reported in Australia and my auntie kept all the clippings from the local newspapers because she thought it was fantastic. For the first few days, there was a huge amount of media attention because Foyles was a well known institution so it was a good hook to hang the story on and the strike was led by young people. There was a lot of unexpected support from the customers, the authors and the publishers.

Sebastian Harding – What was the outcome?

Marius Webb – The strike actually lasted for just three days. At first the shop’s owners ignored it and tried to solve it themselves. At the end of the second day, Christina Foyle walked around the shop and apparently offered people £5 to stay and work the following day, but some people were so offended by this they came out to join the strike just to spite her. By the third day, the management realised they were in deep trouble because they saw from the tills what was happening.

They immediately convened a Foyles conference with the union, as well as further talks about the rates of pay and the conditions that people were working under. We were all quite pleased and back at work by the end of the third day, and I was put into a new department.

After four or five days, it became transparent that nothing had changed. They refused to change anything and so we had a meeting with the unions where they let us know they were not getting very far with their own negotiations. We decided that we needed to go on strike again and this second strike ended up lasting for six weeks. We had no idea it would last this long! This was about 50% of the workforce, around 100 people. The fact we stayed outside the shop, continually leafleting meant that eventually they had to resolve the issue. It was not hugely satisfactory, but we did get pay rises and a bit of respite from the continual sackings.

I remember there was one worker in the transport department who was a real cockney. He started out against the strike, then joined the union and by the time I left he wanted to be the union boss!

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London diplomatic history, 1967: the Greek Embassy occupied protesting military coup

On 28 April 1967, one week after the Colonels’ coup in Greece (which was to lead to a 7-year rightwing military dictatorship in the country), the Greek Embassy in London was occupied, by about 60 people, in solidarity with the Greek working class and calling for resistance to the Greek junta.

Greek socialist Maria Styllou, one of the occupiers, describes the background to the coup:

“On 21 April 1967 a group of colonels launched a coup in Greece. They formed a military junta, with the backing of the monarchy and capitalists, which would last seven years.

This power grab was a last resort against a rising workers’ movement.

It meant victory for the ruling class. Ship owners, bankers, industrialists, and construction magnates all celebrated. It opened a period in which resistance was crushed and the ruling class were able to go on the offensive.

The day the junta began I was in Paris. Straight away there was an evening rally with a lot of people, not just students. The same thing happened in Italy, where there were many Greek students.

In London, in collaboration with the British revolutionary left, just a week into the dictatorship we occupied the Greek embassy.

By 1967 the ruling class was desperate for an alternative to workers taking power.

The Greek working class was on the march again, after its crushing defeat in the civil war of 1944-1949—when the British intervened, brutally putting down the left.

Throughout the 1950s the Greek ruling class had sought to modernise the government and develop Greek capitalism.

To this end the right wing National Radical Union (ERE) party was formed in 1955, aiming to defeat the resurgent left politically on behalf of the bosses.

They started out confident, but it quickly became clear it would not be so easy.

They encountered two problems.

The first was conflict within the ruling class, over strategies to deal with Cyprus as well as with the old mechanisms and institutions of the previous period, such as the army.

The second was the resistance which was becoming emboldened and increasingly confrontational.

From 1953, and particularly from 1956, there was an explosion of struggle. For a lot of people the hope that had seemed to be killed off by the end of the civil war was reborn.

These two factors led to an unexpected electoral success for the left. The United Democratic Left (EDA), largely an electoral front for the banned Communist Party, became the leading opposition party in the 1958 election, winning 24 percent of the vote.

The political crisis reached the point where MPs were resigning from parliament.

After 1958, the electoral success of the left brought a new enthusiasm that fuelled the workers’ struggles and their struggles for democracy.

It also brought the student movement back into the frontline.

The GSEE trade union federation grew to include 115 unions. And within schools the left began to take over the student unions.

The ruling class tried to stop these developments by preventing free elections in unions and launching a crackdown on democracy in schools and colleges.

But as the 1961 election loomed these attacks couldn’t match a resurgent movement.

The murder of left wing MP Georgios Lambrakis in 1963 sparked a second explosion of the movement. Prime minister Konstantinos Karamanlis called and lost an election and was then forced to flee the country.

The right wingers of ERE were effectively destroyed electorally.

The small social democratic party Centre Union, led by Georgios Papandreou, went on to win the1964 election. Before then it had just 20 MPs.

The Centre Union hoped to fill the void left by the collapse of ERE at the same time as controlling the labour movement.

It leaned on the left in order to govern. And large sections of the left gave Papandreou the chance, hoping that supporting the centre would win some concessions and influence.

But ironically it was the efforts of the ruling class to regain control of the situation which pushed the left into the foreground. Right wingers attempted to force their way into Papandreou’s government.

The king vetoed Papandreou’s cabinet in July 1965. There was an explosion of anger and people rose up, transforming Greek politics for a decade.

For 70 days a mass movement, known as the “July Days”, raged in the streets. This forced the ruling class to realise the only way to halt the momentum of the movement was through Papandreou and his social democratic project.

Within the space of 70 days Papandreou moved a great distance—from defiance to arguing that protesters should avoid creating problems. The Centre Union put down strikes and demonstrations, and put a huge effort into getting people off the streets.

But two critical years passed with both ERE and Centre Union facing a problem that was not going away.

This opened the way for the army, the palace and their allies to gain confidence.

In early April 1967, the King asked ERE leader Panagiotis Kanellopoulos to form a government—even though ERE was not the largest party.

But after both main parties failed to find a way out of the political crisis, the dictatorship was formed a few weeks later.

The leadership of the EDA was caught napping. It had told people not to worry, promising there would be no coup.

1965 had been a crucial moment in the process. The right was in power but the working class was almost in open revolt. By pulling their own forces back the Left gave an opportunity to the other side to go on the counterattack…”

The occupiers of the London embassy were a mix of members of the libertarian Marxist organisation Solidarity, the peace direct actionist Committee of 100 (two groups whose membership crossed over in many cases), and London School of Economics Students.

According to Solidarity’s account of the occupation:

“There are strong ties of solidarity between the radical direct action movement in Britain and the movement in Greece. This tradition has grown out of a number of events, of which the occupation of the Greek Embassy on April 28, 1967 was only the most recent.

In April 1963 Pat Pottle, a former of the Committee of 100 and one of the main defendants at the Wethersfield Trial, was arrested with others and beaten up by the Greek police when he attended the Marathon March. The following month Gregory Lambrakis, a left-wing Greek MP with many friends in Britain was murdered. His murderers were closely associated with the Greek Royal Family and with reactionary ruling circles in Greece.

In July 1963 the ‘Save Greece Now Committee’, an ad hoc group, organised a series of mass protest demonstrations against the state visit of King Paul and Queen Frederika of Greece. The CND and the ‘League for Democracy in Greece’ (a Communist Party front organisation) quickly backed out of this committee when they realised it really meant business. Peter Moule and Terry Chandler were later both sent to prison for organising these mass demonstrations. There were a number of other arrests. Some of those arrested had half-bricks planted on them by police. This led to the famous Challenor affair. (The police station involved at that time – West End Central – is the one responsible for the Greek Embassy case. Already there are many similarities: police violence, perjury, conspiracy to pervert the course of ‘justice’. It remains to be seen whether the future course of events will carry the parallel still further.)

In the Autumn of 1963 the Committee of 100 organised a convoy which went across Europe to participate in a demonstration in Athens. They were finally stopped at gun point on the Greek border.

Following this sequence of events it was only logical that a group of people should come together at the news of the recent coup in Greece, with a view to effective counter-action.

Problems of Entrism

The Royal Hellenic Embassy in Upper Brook Street, Mayfair, was a difficult nut to crack. It is only some 30 yards from the American Embassy, on which there is a permanent and often substantial police guard. The Embassy is in a one-way street and there is nowhere nearby where a crowd could gather without attracting a lot of unwanted attention. The door of the Embassy is always locked and precautions have been re-doubled since the coup. To overcome these technical snags it was obvious that both secrecy and split-second timing would be necessary. Once occupation had been achieved it was going to be difficult to get basic information out. So there had to be a strong liaison group reaming outside. Plans were laid for diversionary activities to draw the police away from the immediate vicinity of the Embassy. The action also had to be carefully phased to fit with the newspaper and television deadlines. It also had to fit in with the Greek Orthodox Easter, traditionally a time for demonstrations in Greece.

To be able to organise a demonstration on this scale, with well over a hundred people ‘in the know’, without the Special Branch getting as much of a whiff of what was cooking, is a victory in itself. People have learned a great deal since the early 1960s. The entry party itself contained a very wide range of views indeed: everything from ultra-pacifist quaker to blood and thunder revolutionary – and everything in between. Many people who had been inactive for three years or more re-emerged to participate in this project. Action forged an unity which no amount of talk could have done.”

Pat Pottle, Michael Randle and two Greek LSE students, Maria and Felita, formed an advance party; approaching the embassy, to defuse suspicions of their intentions, they carried bunches of daffodils… One of the women asked to see the ambassador, but as the door of the embassy opened, a goods van pulled up, the doors opened and a large group jumped out and pushed past the caretaker into the building, running up the stairs [the moment is caught exactly in the image at the head of this post!]

“What the Butler Saw

Entry to the Embassy was obtained by a group of three carrying a large bunch of daffodils. They rang the bell and the butler opened the door. They presented him the flowers. While he was sniffing and admiring them, over 50 people who just happened to be around poured through the door. Others entered through the basement. The Greeks, in turn, should now learn to beware of people bearing gifts.

The butler and the other staff inside the Embassy were told not to worry (both in English and Greek). There would be no damage and no violence. They could stay or have the evening off. The front door was wedge shut. The demonstrators then spread out throughout the building. Public address equipment was set up on the first floor and bilingual meeting was started explaining why we were in the Embassy/ Others climbed onto the roof and hung a banner with the slogan ‘Save Greece Now’. Others occupied rooms and locked themselves inside, wedging the doors.”

The would-be occupiers were carrying a “large quantity of food etc., prepared for a prolonged stay”, according to police notes. Around 100-200 people were later said to be present by police though less than that got into the embassy.

The occupiers had in fact expected only the caretaker and his wife to be there, and had hoped to prevent them from leaving and alerting the police, giving the demonstrators time to telex out messages to Greek embassies throughout the world, urging them to declare themselves against the new fascist dictatorship. That weekend was a holiday in Greece, and there was hope that news of the occupation would spark resistance further afield. Three activists had flown down from Glasgow on the night for the ‘action’, which the organisers would not tell them fully about till we got to London) – as a result they were unprepared for it and acted only as ‘lookouts’ outside Embassy. The occupiers barricaded themselves on the first floor.

However, a number of other embassy staff were in the building, including an au pair, and allegedly the ambassador’s daughters (who the police said later hid under a table). One of the staff present escaped via a basement door, informing a copper stationed outside the US embassy just down the road. Within minutes there were police everywhere, smashing windows and bashing down doors to get into the building.

“Son of Challenor

The police panicked. They had been caught on the hop. An emergency radio call was sent out to all divisions and police cars from all over central London converged on Upper Brook Street. They filled the whole street, causing a considerable obstruction and interfering with spectators indulging in the normal execution of their duties. Superintendent Butler of the Murder Squad was put in charge. The police gained access through the basement of the embassy. They then had to break into, enter and empty each individual room of demonstrators.”

Several cameras carried by demonstrators were destroyed in the fighting. One copper had been slightly injured in the melee: “One policeman rushed headlong into an empty room and was promptly himself locked in it by one of the demonstrators who was outside. The prisoner had to smash the door down to get out.” The injury to his shoulder was thus very likely self-inflicted!

“The police were very violent. So were one or two of the Embassy staff. Terry Chandler was repeatedly punched by an attache while he was held by a policeman. (He was later charged with assault on a police officer!! Presumably if Terry had been killed he would posthumously have been charged with murder.) Ken Weller was punched in the stomach by one constable, because he had protested at the way the policeman had handled a girl. He was later dragged down stairs and repeatedly kicked in the testicles.”

The occupiers were carried out one by one after some fighting and general running amok:

“About 60 demonstrators entered the Embassy. But in the general confusion the number actually in police hands dwindled rapidly. Some simply walked away out of the Embassy stating they were plain clothes detectives…”

All the demonstrators in the building were arrested, and carted off in vans to West End Central police station. The hasty arrests backfired, however, as during the journey, Pat Pottle noticed that the back door of the meatwagon carrying him and several arrestees had not been completely closed, and when the van pulled up at the next traffic lights, he kicked the door open, and yelled ‘Everybody Out!’, and everyone in the van jumped out and legged it… A couple got nicked but fifteen got away! (The Met later denied that this escape took place!)

The rest of the occupiers spent the weekend in police custody, and were charged under Section 1 of the 1936 Public Order Act, with charges of Affray and Conspiracy to Trespass soon added.

“The original charges were ‘affray’ and insulting behaviour under section 5 of the Public Order Act. These charges were soon changed to ‘riot’ and ‘forcible entry’. The latter offence is covered by an Act which dates from 1381. It as the advantage (from the police point of view) of carrying no alternative sentence to imprisonment. The Marylebone magistrate refused to commit on this latter charge. He accepted the defence’s submission that the 1381 Act was anti-eviction legislation, aimed at stopping the illegal seizure of land and property belonging to soldiers away at the Crusades.”

42 people were charged – 30 men and 12 women. At first eleven (9 men and 2 women) were designated as the ‘Principals’ on the basis of being political activists, ‘well known agitators’: famous left-libertarian/peace-movement names here included Terry Chandler, Andy Anderson, Ron Bailey, Del Foley, Mike Randle, and Heather Russell. Police papers from the National Archives reveal police labelling most of these as “Political agitators and would join anything likely to cause disorder…  note disorders have occurred whenever these individuals have appeared in court.”

Items seized from the arrested included “holdalls, tools, provisions; transcript of broadcast; phone nos including venue of a ‘Solidarity meeting’ and that of Nicolas and Ruth Walter”… Among this was property of one Ken Weller, which they withheld from him: “2 screwdrivers, 1 torch, 2 batteries, 2 packets of tea and an ear phone wire and Weller said “They are my working tools. I am an electrician.”   

All but 4 refused to be finger-printed, which was then ordered; the 38 were remanded in custody. Terry Chandler was held longer in custody because he was said to be wanted on a charge of forging US currency…

On October 3rd 1967, all 23 LSE students arrested were given two-year conditional discharges; the following day, the rest were fined between £20 and  £100, apart from three with previous convictions – Terry Chandler, sentenced to 15 months inside, Del Foley, who got 6 months, and Michael Randle to 12 months.

The invasion of what in diplomatic terms constituted the sovereign territory of Greece caused much gnashing of teeth and frothing at the mouth by people not notably upset by a fascist-inspired military putsch. Labour Foreign Secretary George Brown called the occupation an ‘outrage’. Tory MPs called for more militarised protection of London embassies (code for calling for military intervention against radicals, hippies and other lowlives) There are a number of Foreign and Commonwealth Office papers revealing telling exchanges between the British and Greek governments. The Greek Ambassador can be read complaining that “such things did not happen even in Cuba and Albania” and suggesting that the UK Secretary of State issue statement deploring ‘hooligan acts” and demanding better protection for the embassy in case of future demos about the coup.

Solidarity saw the demo as having generally aroused positive responses:

“There was a huge response to the action. Every paper had front page headlines. The BBC led its news bulletin with the story. In Greece the Government-controlled press had long reports of how a ‘gang of hooligans’ had occupied the Embassy. There were demonstrations at Greek Embassies in Italy and Denmark. George Brown sent a grovelling letter of apology to the new regime. Repercussions spread. Instructions were issued to the police from the very highest authority to clamp down on leftwing activities. This led to arrests in Oxford and Luton. In both these cases the charges brought forward by the police were dismissed by the magistrates. Even Peggy Duff was so nauseated by the attitude of the Foreign Secretary that she resigned from the Labour Party in protest! (Other CND Labourites reacted differently. Francis Noel Baker, owner of estates in Greece, came out four square in support of the Colonels, describing them as ‘modest and sincere men.’

The League for Democracy in Greece reacted in a predictable way. It refused to allow a speaker on behalf of the 42 arrested to appeal for funds at one of the League’s meetings. It made no reference to the demonstration whatsoever at other meetings. It also attempted to exclude some of the Greeks who had participated in the demonstration from a broadly-based anti-fascist committee. These are the people who keep prattling on about ‘unity’!

There are several lessons to be gained from the seizure of the Embassy.

  • That many people, of quite diverse views, are prepared to work together on projects involving radical action.
  • That effective demonstrations can be organised without the knowledge of the police. Intelligent planning, good timing and reasonable determination can overcome most tactical problems.
  • that demonstrations can still have an impact, and that internationalism is not dead…

It would be a tragedy if he sacrifices of the 42 should be in vain. The big stick of the police must not be allowed to deter future action. We in this country can influence the course of events in Greece (the 1963 demonstrations brought about the fall of the Karamanlis government). It is most important that the campaign should continue. Those interested get together and plan future activities.”

As Maria Styllou recounts, the Greek military regime was to last 7 years before being overthrown in the face of rising resistance:

“After the coup, the junta moved quickly to crack down on the working class, increase the profitability of Greek capitalism and confirm the Greek state’s control of Cyprus.

The Greek ruling class reckoned that by controlling Cyprus it could be the primary force in the plans of US imperialism and its allies in the region towards Turkey.

Popular composer Mikis Theodorakis and others created the National Anti-dictatorship Front. New organizations also came out against the Junta. Some were inspired by Che Guevara, others by Mao Zedong or Leon Trotsky.

The revolutionary left, although small, would go on to spark the Polytechnic uprising in 1973.

This saw universities occupied across Athens in a roar of defiance to the junta, which would fall a year later. Tanks were sent onto campuses to crush opposition, killing student protesters.

In the same year the crew of a Greek navy ship mutinied against the junta.

This resistance forced factions within the junta to confront each other about how to deal with it, contributing to the regime’s downfall.

The final straw was the junta-backed coup in Cyprus on 15 July 1974, which resulted in Turkey invading the island and its eventual partition.”

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This post was largely sourced from archival documents about the occupation compiled on the Radical History of Northeast London blog

thanks to Liz Willis!

Today in London educational history, 1968: students occupy Hornsey Art College.

On May 28th 1968, Hornsey Art College, in Crouch End, North London, was occupied by students and some staff. The occupation lasted until July 12 1968. The sit-in led to six weeks of intense debate, extended confrontation with the local authorities and even questions in Parliament.

Here are two brief accounts of the occupation – by participants:

Nick Wright’s account:

“In May 28 1968 students at Hornsey College of Art in North London – in a building now (1988) occupied by the TUC Education Centre – began a 24 hour work-in. The limited aims of the protest – for student control of student union funds – rapidly gave way to a deeper demand for thorough changes in the college regime and in art and design education. A dramatic shift of mood took place as students from the far flung outposts of the college came together across boundaries imposed by age, status, specialism and geography. A feeble attempt by the Vice Principal to re-establish his personal authority by threatening the assembled students resulted only in his eviction from the building. The startled students found themselves in occupation. The ancien regime fled. Twenty four hours seemed too little time to discuss everything.

Six weeks later the occupation was broken. Barbed wire and alsations enforced a six month’s lockout while the Conservative controlled council backed the college authorities in a thorough-going purge which closed departments, exiled teachers and expelled student activists.

Three strands of pedagogical thinking converged in the manifestos of the Hornsey College of Art students in May 1968. The first, partly derived from the reforming trends in progressive education, was nurtured by the movement for the common school. It argued for the elimination of GCE entrance qualifications and rejected examinations in art history and general studies. The egalitarian foundation of this idea was based upon a common experience of art and design students that their secondary education prepared them poorly for a higher education in the visual arts – that methods of assessment derived from the stratified structure of formal academic education were inappropriate and that entry should be open.

The second derived from a diffused idea that art and design constituted a discrete activity within higher education and could legitimately be considered separately from academic or technical and scientific studies by virtue of the special character of art.

The third constituted design, a specific activity and discipline distinct from fine art, admitted the historical continuities but took the machine and the built environment as a starting point for a celebration of a new rationality. This trend borrowed rather uncritically from emergent de-schooling trends, psycho-analytic theory, critiques of consumer culture, trans-atlantic notions of network learning and cybernetics.

These concepts were in daily contradiction with the art school regime and with the dominant trend among the rapidly expanding corps of art educationalists and art school administrators who were wedded to a rather narrow vocationalism.

Students were divided by the institutions, into two basic camps. The first followed courses leading to a Diploma in Art and Design (Dip AD), others followed courses leading to lower grade vocational regional certificates.

The distinction between the two kinds of student. was maintained physically – in Hornsey they studied in different buildings – and by quite different curricula. Generally speaking, vocational students were draw more from the locality, were less likely to be from well-off middle class families, were expected to eventual fill lower and intermediate positions in the expanding design world and followed a course whose narrow vocationalism was mitigated by a token nod in the direction of general studies.

By way of contrast Dip A D students were supposed to be degree equivalent. They received a mandatory grant – the most significant mark of academic respectability – but few were convinced that art and design education was comparable to university studies. Many students and almost all the administrators thought of degree equivalence as the key to comparability – in career advancement, in salary advancement, in salary levels and promotion prospects.

Two powerful currents fought out a subterranean battle in art schools. One held to the traditional centrality of fine art studies with vestiges of the atelier system enshrined in the peculiar status accorded painting and sculpture students and teachers. Hornsey prided itself on the large number of established or up-and-coming names who taught part-time. Drawn mostly from abstract expressionist and non-figurative trends they played an important part in the marketing of Hornsey as a prestige institution.

However, fine art studies played a declining and subordinate role in the life of the college. Painting and sculpture students were based at the Alexandra Palace building, they laboured in a shanty town of individually constructed work spaces in a huge hanger like hall. Some even constructed roofs to their work wombs, others preferred to work at home. As a metaphor for the dominant thinking among fine art student this peculiar perversion of the People’s Palace into an Arndale Centre of individualistic fine art boutiques is highly appropriate.

A second current placed design at the centre of curriculum. In part this was a mere reflection of the market lead pressures on the college to turn out a range of design specialists – in part it derived from the centrality accorded to basic design skills and visual research studies by the Modern Movement. Graphic design studies were based at a scruffy Civil Defence building on the North Circular Road. Graphics was run by administrators of staggering mediocrity but taught by part-time lecturers with one foot in the real world of commodity fetishism. To a greater or lesser extent the professional ideologies of fashion and industrial design dominated the design departments at Hornsey. There existed a striking discontinuity between the fashionable image of the college and the poverty of its buildings.

It has become conventional to attribute the Hornsey occupation, the Guilford strike which rapidly followed, the outbreak of similar manifestations throughout much of the art school world as somehow connected with the May and June events in France. Undoubtedly there was a resonance. But it would be misleading to suggest that these developments were in some essential sense spontaneous. They were characterized by a certain spontaneity – as is all mass action – as is all protest and revolt. But as with all social movements, the qualitative leap into dynamic action was preceded by, conditioned by, a slow accretion of signs – secret and public – that change was needed. In the case of Hornsey, the May 28 revolt was paradoxically and in part the product of an alliance between students, staff and the principal. He was a curious blend of petty minded ambition, obsessive bureaucrat and quite striking imagination. Self-promotion was fused with a sense of historical moment into a formidable drive for resources and publicity for Hornsey.

In 1967 his plans were threatened by a plan to incorporate Hornsey into a new polytechnic to be formed by amalgamation with Hendon and Enfield colleges of technology. Quite correctly, he and the corps of senior administrators, saw the Polytechnic Plan as a threat to their position. Enfield, in particular was run by a pair of high powered academic sharks, public advocates of polytechnic education, and well connected politically. The Hornsey incompetents would have been eaten alive.

Students and staff had other worries. Real concerns, about job security, status within the institution for art and design studies, and the future of art and design education as a discrete discipline were mixed up with daft Utopian ideas about the uniqueness of art education and the supposedly special character of art students as bearers of universal values in a machine age. An uneasy alliance came into being. The student union – which had gradually acquired a more politically experienced leadership and established contacts with the NUS and other London art colleges – organised a series of departmental meetings and demonstrations at the Wood Green civic centre to protest against the Polytechnic Plan. The principal and senior staff gave silent sanction to the protests. Theory and arguments were provided by a group of younger teachers; designers and general studies tutors in the main.

The campaign never stood a chance of success in the long term. However, it created a new atmosphere in the college. Cross departmental links were made, the experience of mass action generated new interest in the student union and strengthened membership of the teachers association. Delegations from Hornsey attended the annual NUS conferences and the newly instituted art colleges conference. The pressure for student participation in the college government began to be felt at departmental level and raised expectations among junior and part time staff that they too might gain access to power. A college chapter of the Radical Students Alliance was formed and its banner began to appear at anti-apartheid and Vietnam solidarity rallies. An art student candidate stood in the local elections to publicise the case for the college’s independence. A £100 (four times a policeman’s wage in 1967) was collected from students by the Young Communist League to buy a motorbike for the Viet Cong.

The case for student participation had been hammered out in a series of policy statements between the NUS and various associations of educationalists and local authorities. But these weighty documents had little effect on the college regime or the Conservative worthies on Haringey Council. The college continued to be run by diktat and informal committee. The Bursar and Vice Principal unilaterally ended the convention whereby the student union president was granted a year’s sabbatical and paid from the student union funds. By vetoing the president’s sabbatical the college authorities created a conflict over the issue of student union autonomy at precisely the moment when students wanted to play a more active part in running the college. Consequently, pressures which had been diffused at departmental level became focussed on this single question.

The rupture in conventional college life came about over the issue of student union autonomy but behind this lay more substantial issues. A constant thread in discussion throughout the Polytechnic Plan campaign -and a big part of the broader education debates led by teachers unions and the NUS was the issue of the binary system in higher education. Criticism was focused on the Polytechnic Plan precisely because it seemed to further institutionalise the disparity in resources and status which existed between universities and public sector colleges. Buried within this discussion were echoes of the controversies over comprehensive secondary education. It seemed as if a high proportion of Hornsey students came from outside London and from working classes and lower middle class backgrounds. A rather diffused sense of deprivation fused with more local and departmental concerns to produce a general demand for change.

Recovering the rather prosaic foundations of the Hornsey revolt from the spontaneist myths of ‘68 should not obscure the extraordinary boldness and imagination of the students and staff. The foundation of their discontent lay in the failure of the art and design education system to reconcile the contradictory pressures for vocational training and increased specialisation with the need for a broad education. Their demands were broadly democratic in character, their tactics strikingly original, their reserves of courage and organisational ability constantly surprising. As innocents they made the classic mistake of substituting dreams for reality, elevating the tactic of occupation to a principle and believing that an agreement with a more powerful adversary would hold. As a consequence they were defeated. But it is the victors who are forgotten.”

Nick Wright went to Hornsey College of Art in 1965 to study graphic design and typography. He became Secretary of the HCA Student Union in 1966 and President in 1967. In 1969 following the student occupation of the college the authorities obtained a High Court injunction preventing him from entering the premises. Fifteen years later he returned to Middlesex Polytechnic and completed his degree before taking an MA in Art History at Sussex University.

Hornsey College of Art uprising, by David Page

“On 28 May 1968, at Hornsey College of Art, what was to have been a one-day teach-in turned into a six-week occupation. There was a parallel occupation at Guildford School of Art, and the action spread rapidly round most of the art and design colleges in England in various forms. It produced two books, a film, an exhibition at the ICA, newspaper and magazine articles, demonstrations and street events, television interviews, a large number of educational documents containing analysis and proposals for reform, as well as posters, an articulate constituency and (indirectly) the only serious piece of government research into the sector (see The Employment of Art College Leavers: Ritchie, Frost and Dight, HMSO, 1972).

That’s one way of summarising it. In strict dictionary terms it was a revolution – the overthrow of the established government by those who were previously subject to it.

The authorities fled from the main college, which was then run for the duration by students and staff, 24 hours, seven days a week, demanding total commitment. There was a building to run and keep clean, a canteen to staff, food to be purchased, cooked and served, visitors to be monitored and controlled, alongside a system of seminars producing reports to be typed up, reproduced and fed back into the general meetings (and also to the outside audience), where hundreds of students and staff managed to debate and take decisions in an orderly fashion. Because the graphics department was in the hands of the authorities, printed matter had to be produced by available means – mainly linocut – but the rougher images produced seemed to meet the mood of the time, and were consonant with what was being produced via silk-screen in Paris. Some more sophisticated work found its way to printers, such as George Snow’s Snakes & Ladders, and a typographic poster of John Donne’s “No Man is an Iland, entire of it selfe” quotation, which was felt to embody the spirit of the sit-in, featured in a number of London bookshops.

There was much interest from notable people in other cultural areas – indeed, the establishment. William Coldstream, John Summerson and Shirley Williams (at that time Education Minister) treated it with respect, and even some admiration. None of that from the local councillors and aldermen, who had little idea what the institution in their control might be about, but were clear that authority, their authority, was being challenged, and they weren’t having it. Their stance culminated in “The Day of the Dogs”, when a team of security men with Alsatians were sent to surround and seal off the main college building. In the event, students tamed the dogs with biscuits, and the whole episode collapsed into farce. The people who did understand the educational arguments pulled back, saying that, regrettably, there was nothing they could do, thereby leaving the field to Haringey Council, which did not understand, and furthermore did not wish to understand, thank you very much. While this local political battle went on wasting a lot of time and energy, a social and spiritual development occurred alongside. What we aimed to do was simple: as William Blake put it, to build Jerusalem. William Morris, another artist-rebel who started with a concern about furniture and ended up grappling with the whole structure of society, followed a similar path. In 1964, surveying the new DipAD (Diploma in Art and Design), Quentin Bell wrote: “Henceforth it should be possible for a college to develop entirely on its own lines, to follow no matter what eccentric course it pleases, and it does not matter how eccentric that course may be if only the teachers are sufficiently enthusiastic.” (Crisis in the Humanities, edited by JH Plumb, Penguin, 1964.)

We would have said amen to that: what happened was nearly the opposite. The politics of Hornsey emerged from the conflict between Bell’s aspiration and the structures and practices we actually encountered. When eventually an unsatisfactory agreement was brokered between the authorities and the occupiers, the main college was briefly reopened. The authorities’ first act was to tear down everything which pertained to the sit-in: Hornsey posters, French student posters, etc. There’s no vandal like an official vandal. Within a week or two they had also broken all the terms of the agreement. Staff and student sackings and other repressions began. (“No way to run a whelk-stall, let alone an art school” – Lord Longford.) I managed to salvage at least some of the poster lino-blocks before they were destroyed. It was easier to gather documents (which had been sources for The Hornsey Affair): they remained in cardboard boxes through several house moves, and were sorted, years later, by two successive and devoted researchers (the first of whom had to sift out the mouse turds).

What Hornsey meant depended on where you stood, whether you were a teacher or a student, where you were in your life, and so on. This article expresses a partial view by a member of staff, so I asked two friends who were students then to sum up what it meant to them: “As a student on the industrial design course at Hornsey in 1968, I became very strongly aware of the powerful and pragmatic role design could have as an agent for social change and development. The sit-in burst into this environment, and its activities were a natural forum to explore these issues, both through debate and practical projects. Design for learning as a radical process has driven my work since that time” – Prue Bramwell-Davies.

“The Hornsey thing was a startling illustration of the potential for a disparate group of people with insignificant initial common cause to develop the ability to discuss and act together in such a way that cohesive and pragmatic philosophical and political expression emerges. That this phenomenon is extraordinary and deeply threatening to institutional establishments is a profound comment on our social organisation and the way in which it continues. It is significant that these were art and design students, doers and makers rather than talkers”– David Poston.

Various documents on the Hornsey occupation were presented by David Page in 2008 to the Tate Gallery.

 The Hornsey sit-in, and one at Guildford Art School, which followed on a week later in early June, inspired a ferment of agitation and debate throughout the art-school world: there were sit-ins, active discussions and demands for radical reform in a large number of colleges. The Hornsey and Guildford students founded a national movement, the Movement for Rethinking Art and Design Education (MORADE), which held a conference in the Camden Roundhouse in London in July.

1968 saw a number of student occupations in the UK, inspired to some extent by the events of Paris, though also by homegrown issues.

Some more UK student occupation from 1968:

Essex University

Brighton

Bristol

There are a couple of books on the Hornsey occupation:
The Hornsey Affair, Students and Staff of Hornsey College of Art, Penguin Education Special, 1969. Hornsey 1968: The Art School Revolution, Lisa Tickner, Frances Lincoln, 2008

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Today in London anti-fascist history, 1963: Oswald Mosley’s Victoria HQ captured by 62 Group supporters.

The first half of the 1950s was a quiet time for antifascists in the UK. The postwar threat of fascist revival in the form of Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement, had been battered off the streets largely by the Jewish 43 Group, which had physically broken up Mosleyite meetings, attacking and dispersed fascists wherever they found them.

Britain’s prewar fascist leader Mosley had not only failed to make his much vaunted comeback but had slunk off abroad, humiliated. With little to oppose, the antifascist movement faded away.
Throughout the 50s, Mosley remained in exile abroad while a small group of die-hard loyalists, led by Raven Thompson, Alf Flockhart and Jeffrey Hamm, kept his organisation alive. The most militant of the anti-fascist organisations, the 43 Group, was dissolved in 1950 and the set piece street battles between fascists and anti-fascists soon seemed to belong to a bygone era.

But in the mid-1950s the fascists began to rebuild their organisations, gaining support around the 1958 race riots, and by the early 1960s Britain was in the midst of a fascist revival.

Most of their activities were centred in London, and it was here that saw the most effective anti-fascist. London was also the place where most of Britain’s Jews lived and the anti-fascist opposition came in its most militant form from a section of the Jewish community who formed the 1962 Committee, (usually known as the 62 Group).

While similar to the 43 Group in some ways, there were some marked differences. Britain in the 1960s was a different place to Britain at the end of the Second World War, and so the composition of the new group was different. As with the earlier organisation, the left and the Jewish community remained leading players in the wider anti-fascist movement; but the left’s influence in the Jewish community was beginning to wane. International events and demographic shifts were changing the nature of London’s Jewish community in particular Thus the 62 Group was not dominated by the left in the same way that the 43 Group had been. Although some of those who set up the 62 Group had been involved in the 43 Group, a new generation was also becoming involved.

In 1962, 62 Group member and supporters had already infiltrated Oswald Mosley’s organisation, and had inside knowledge of its membership and plans for action. In May, a decision was taken to invade the fascist HQ, to disrupt and demoralise Mosley’s set-up. The raid took place on May 12th, 1962.

Gerry Gable, later editor of anti-fascist magazine, Searchlight, takes up the story:

“In Hackney, which had been a focal point of fascist and anti-fascism activity in the 1930s and postwar, people were getting together to prepare to resist the gathering storm. And it became my job to bring people from all sorts of backgrounds to cleanse the streets of the enemy. I was chief steward of the North and East London Anti-Fascist Committee, a multiracial group that included members from most of the political parties, including even some Young Tories from Stepney (now Tower Hamlets). Lots of us were workmates – I was a sparks in the building trade as were some of my black mates. We would police building sites where racists were at work and clear them off the sites. Fascists had even been allowed to attend trade union meetings wearing their badges; we went along and tossed them out. A new activist anti-fascist group, The 62 Group, was formed after Jordan’s National Socialist Movement rally in Trafalgar Square in 1962, but some of us could not, or would not, join as it was solely a Jewish organisation, although it fought alongside the left and one of its greatest allies was the Movement for Colonial Freedom. Although I qualified as Jewish because my mother was Jewish, my dad was a non-practising Anglican and I decided not to join. Nevertheless, the Leadership of the Group invited me to become one of its two Intelligence Officers, although I insisted on selecting my own team of people to engage in “special operations”. When Mosley announced a march starting from the forecourt of Charing Cross station, it was decided to head him off by seizing his HQ in Victoria. The plan was to gain entry to the building by means of two attack groups. The first consisted of a couple of our toughest infiltrators in the Union Movement. They were blonde, blue eyed and had documentation and party badges that got them inside. Then, while one of them engaged the security guards, the other opened the front door and let in another six or seven tough guys, who locked the door behind them. The timing was perfect and we knew the back door had a rotten frame. I was leading the second group with Tony Hall [Trade unionist, anti-racist and radical cartoonist] and an ex-boxer called Billy Collins. One kick with my work boots and the door caved in, and our section of about seven people rushed through. Bad luck: Mosley was not present. But most of his senior officers were, such as Bob Rowe, a big lump of an ex-copper from Yorkshire, and Keith Gibson, a vicious animal, plus half a dozen or more of their security squad. The idea was not to steal anything, as via our infiltrators we already had copies of their membership files and other important documents: the task was to destroy everything that made their HQ work. It was very bloody. Rowe, who had a reputation as a hard man, leapt down the stairs feet first into one of our guys, but two more overwhelmed him. One of our guys went down to the basement where they kept their banners and drums and destroyed the lot. Then Gibson picked up a long sharp sliver of broken glass and came at Billy, thrusting it towards him. Billy had been a great young contender for a future championship, but during the Suez Crisis had been shot in the gut by a trigger-happy British soldier and his boxing days were over. He saw red – he had a Jewish wife and child – and he just disregarded the broken glass and battered Gibson, screaming: “you would kill my family”. Before three of us pulled Billy off, Gibson had suffered a broken nose and cheek bone, several broken ribs and very sore testicles. After the battle, we tied the fascists up and dumped them in a small room near the back door. Then one of our guys got overenthusiastic and threw a typewriter through the front window into a street crowded with people. Some of our men went out the way they had come in, into the main road, and the rest headed for the back door. One had a fire extinguisher of the type that London buses used to carry, and as Rowe tried to stop our team escaping, it was triggered and the door was shut on them. At the back of the building was a long narrow mews. I ran one way with about three people and Tony Hall and Billy ran the other way. When they spotted a police car passing the top of the road, they started pushing on doors. After a couple of attempts, one opened and Tony and Billy walked in to be greeted by a vicar who asked them whether they were the musical entertainment for their garden party. Tony sat himself down at the piano with Billy turning his music and played for the guests for the next four hours. The police looked in, saw the vicar and heard the music, and left. A handful of our team were caught on the street and were sent to stand trial at the Old Bailey. The trial took place in July 1963 at the same time as that of Stephen Ward, the society osteopath in the Profumo Affair, who was charged with living off immoral earnings. As our lads were being led to the court they encountered Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, there to give evidence in the Ward trial. The women asked the lads what they were up for, and when they heard it was for attacking Mosley’s HQ, they each received a kiss and wishes of good luck. Thousands of pounds had been raised for their defence and it was clear that the judge was no Mosley admirer. One of the police officers told the court he had entered the building and found Gibson and the other Mosleyites coughing and spluttering, with one of them saying “we have been gassed”. The judge asked the officer what he had said in response. Referring to his notebook, he replied: “I said it was just like Auschwitz”. Although they were found guilty, nobody was jailed. The big lad who had got the front door opened received a very small fine after the court heard that both his parents had been murdered in Budapest by the Hungarian Arrow Cross murder squads towards the end of the war.”

A fascist march planned for later on in the day of the seizure if the headquarters had to be abandoned.

There’s a couple of press reports on the trial of those anti-fascist raiders who were caught here and here

And there’s much more on the 62 Group here.

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Today in London literary history, 1962: Joe Orton & Ken Halliwell nicked for defacing library books, Islington.

‘I used to stand in the corners after I’d smuggled the doctored books back into the library and then watch people read them. It was very fun, very interesting.’

Before Joe Orton became famous as a writer, he and boyfriend Ken Halliwell had already gained public notoriety together. In 1962 they were jailed for six months and fined for theft and malicious damage, having been convicted of stealing books from Islington’s Central and Essex Road Libraries.

Orton later hinted they had been sparked off by the poor choice of books available at the Library. “I was enraged that there were so many rubbishy novels and rubbishy books. … Libraries might as well not exist.” An early novel co-written by Orton and Halliwell suggests another alternative. In The Boy Hairdresser, one character describes his own library transgressions: “We’re public benefactors in a way. We steal—the shops order more—the publishers are pleased—everyone is happy. We finance literature.”

Over three years they had been altering book covers, adding lewd new blurbs to dust jackets, swapping heads and pasting in surreal and satirical collage – then replacing books secretly on the shelves. They also used torn out illustrations to decorate the walls of their Noel Road flat with a growing collage.

These acts of guerrilla artwork were an early indication of Orton’s desire to shock and provoke. His targets were the genteel middle classes, authority and defenders of ‘morality’, against whom much of Orton’s later written work would rail against.

“The two spent every moment together, reading, writing, and living cheaply off brown bread and baked beans. Halliwell was older, middle-class and better educated; Orton his handsome young protégé, given the foundations of a classical education from the confines of their apartment, with its yellow-and-pink checkered ceiling. They shunned electric light to save money, sometimes going to bed at 9:30pm, and lived a puritanical, even hermetic, life.

They had been lovers, friends and co-conspirators for over a decade when they began doctoring the library books, using stolen pictures and their Adler Tippa typewriter.”

For over two years, Orton and Halliwell smuggled books out of their local libraries, and then returning them, er, slightly edited…

Orton hid books in a satchel; Halliwell used a gas mask case. They would take them home, redo their covers and dust-jackets, and then slip them back onto the shelves.

The couple added collages and new text ranged from the obscene – a Dorothy Sayers whodunit acquired blurb about some missing knickers and a seven-inch phallus, with the warning “READ THIS BEHIND CLOSED DOORS! And have a good shit while you are reading!” – to the bizarre or merely mundane…

To a collection of plays of Welsh dramatist, Emlyn Williams, new and exciting apocryphal titles were added: “Knickers Must Fall,” “Olivia Prude,” “Up The Front,” and “Up The Back.”

“The collages on the covers were no less subdued, and often overtly queer. On the cover of a book of John Betjeman poetry, a middle-aged man glowers in scanty black briefs. His body is covered entirely in tattoos. A now mostly forgotten romance novel, Queen’s Favourite, was redone with two men wrestling, naked to their navels.”

The walls of their one-bedroom apartment, were adorned by a collage Halliwell had made from thousands of stolen pictures; while another 1,650-odd pictures were stashed around the apartment.

Mythical beasts jostled for space with tabloid headlines and Renaissance high art: a grotesque ape-horse hybrid wore a map of Australia as its tutu.

Other covers showed a monkey, gazing astonishedly from the middle of a flower, on the Collins Guide to Roses, and giant cats on an Agatha Christie novel.

Possibly the sharpest comment though, in “an act of queer as well as class protest” (Emma Parker) can be seen on their detourned cover of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII – the king, who introduced a law in England making sodomy a criminal offence, punishable by death. The old mad bastard gets the full Orton-Halliwell treatment – he has had his arms cut off at the elbow, while his army swarms away from him.

Many other of the improved book covers celebrated queer love, one way or another: On the cover of Othello, Othello looks past the naked Desdemona, whose hand hovers suggestively above her crotch. Behind him a man points an arrow at his backside.

But the subversive and groundbreaking artform Orton and Halliwell were creating was not to everyone’s taste… Other readers of Islington’s library books had begun to come across the altered books and complain to the library. As the pair gleefully retouched book after book, the librarians at Essex Road library, began to observe regular users in an attempt to expose the culprits.

As a librarian later wrote in the Library Association Record, “it was possible to observe individual readers more closely and to notice which possible culprits had been in the library before ‘finds’ were made.” The head librarian’s suspicion settled on Orton and Halliwell, who were generally seen together in the library, and whose shared address was easily discovered.

Once they were under suspicion, the investigation expanded – the library staff called in the cops, who suggested staff from other library departments keep Halliwell and Orton under observation at Essex Road, to try to catch them red-handed replacing books on the shelves. However, this proved unproductive. “After several weeks of unproductive observation,” chief librarian Alexander Connell wrote, “we contrived to obtain a sample of typewritten matter.”

This was the work of Sidney Porrett, the Islington Borough Council legal clerk, who made this something of a personal vendetta. “I had to catch those two monkeys,” he later said. “I had to get results.” Porrett seems to have sussed the ‘queerness’ in the case, not hard from the obscenities on the covers; he observed after the trial, “They were a couple of darlings, make no mistake.”

Porrett composed a scam letter, addressed to Halliwell, urging him to reclaim a car parked in the street, apparently registered in his name. As intended, this provoked Halliwell into a stroppy reply: “Dear sir, I should like to know who provided you with this mysterious information? Whoever they are, they must be a liar or a moron: probably both.” The letter was signed, triumphantly, beneath the salutation: “Yours contemptuously.”

But examining the typeface and idiosyncrasies in Halliwell’s reply, police were able to , match it to the transformed book covers… Suspicion became certainty…

Police came to the door of Orton and Halliwell’s flat at 9 a.m. on 28 April, 1962.

“We are police officers,” one said, “and I have a warrant to search your flat as I have reason to believe you have a number of stolen library books.” Orton replied: “Oh dear.”

The Metropolitan Borough of Islington sued Orton and Halliwell for damages: 72 books stolen and many more “mutilated.” The total damage was estimated to be £450—over $12,000 today.

Halliwell and Orton were sentenced initially to six months in prison, an unusually savage sentence that reflected the apparent shock of the magistrate, Harold Surge. “Those who think they may be clever enough to write criticisms in other people’s books, public library books, or to deface them or ruin them in this way,” should understand it was “disastrous,” he said in court, denouncing their actions as “sheer malice” toward other library-users. Orton later commented that the court had realised they were gay and that the severity of the sentence was ‘because we were queers’.

Orton’s family were not told he had been arrested and found out from a story in the Daily Mirror. Titled The Gorilla in the Roses, it was illustrated with the altered Collins Guide to Roses. William Orton had stayed up to read the paper and on reading the story ran upstairs to his wife with the exclamation ‘Our John’s been nicked!’.

Porrett didn’t think six months in prison was a sufficient punishment for the men’s crimes. On their release in September, he threatened them with a charging order for the remaining £62 of damages they’d not yet paid. This would have given him power of sale over their mortgaged apartment to meet the unsettled debt.

The £6 a month Orton and Halliwell paid to this came out of their benefits—around a quarter of their income. For a comparatively mild crime, they had lost their jobs, gone on benefits, spent six months in prison, and “paid practically all our pathetically small bank accounts.”

Within a year, Halliwell tried to slit his wrists.

“Orton, on the other hand, channeled his rage into his art, and began pumping out plays. “[Prison] affected my attitude towards society,” he said, later. “Before I had been vaguely conscious of something rotten somewhere, prison crystallised this.” First, a radio play for the BBC—then plays performed around London, which attracted the attention and praise of British dramatist Terence Rattigan. Rapidly, he became well known and then quite famous, mingling with celebrities and asked to write a script for a Beatles film.”

In the way that acts of rebellion that in one decade get you sent down, but a few years pass and it becomes a fond memory… The book covers that Orton and Halliwell vandalised have since become a valued part of the Islington Local History Centre collection. Some are exhibited in the Islington Museum. The same local authority that prosecuted them now lionises them… A cynic might say that of course, Joe Orton later went on to become famous, and died, so he can be used to sell Islington a little as a tourist attraction, while if someone did the same as Ken and Joe today they’d still get prosecuted. Rebellious acts of any stripe can be acceptable – as long as they’re safely in the past.

It has been suggested that the two different prison experiences of Halliwell and Orton mark the beginning of the diverging of their fortunes that would end in Ken bludgeoning Joe to death in a depressive jealous rage, five years later. Orton found prison useful in pulling together his view of the world, and the lesson seems to have set him on his way to his onslaught on social mores. Ken’s already depressive nature only grew more marked and more morose; Orton’s increasing success as the ’60s went on highlighted to him both how he was not making something of himself, but also how Joe was drifting away from the relationship. Although the murder and suicide of August 1967 casts a long shadow backward… I always think of them both when I visit Essex Road library…

There’s a good website on Joe Orton’s life and death: http://www.joeorton.org/

Some of this post was sourced from here

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Today in London squatting history, 1969: Brixton’s first squatters? Empty offices occupied.

Brixton, South London: for many years one of the heaviest squatted areas of the capital. Occupying empty buildings and making use of them was for several decades an integral part of life in this area, not only housing hundreds of thousands, but giving home to hundreds of alternative projects and spaces – from bookshops, cafes, workshops, meeting places, to gig venues, art galleries… the list is endless.

The first record of squatting we are aware of if from March 1969; only a few months after the first actions of what is generally thought of as the squatting movement.

‘Squatters seized an empty five-storey office block in London’s Brixton Road on Saturday, 29 March. About a dozen squad cars, black marias and motor cycle police surrounded the building just before 9 a.m.) minutes after the “invasion squad” otherwise known as the South London Squatters, had got in through a back way.

A detachment of police headed by an inspector from the nearby Brixton police station and a plain-clothes man clambered over a ten-–foot hardboard fence at the back of the concrete and glass building and tried to get the squatters to leave quietly. They refused. A few minutes later large banners appeared over the balconies of the block reading: ‘Homes not offices’ and ‘Enough room here for eighty families’. Plus a red flag.

The building is next to Brixton Register Office. Astonished wedding guests watched as police tried to get the squatters out. According to a leaflet handed out by supporters outside, the building – 40,500 sq. ft of it – has been empty for three years. ‘Why can’t Cathy come home to this’!’ the leaflet asks. ‘We have occupied this building to expose the housing shortage. A building this size could be converted at only £1,000 a unit to house eighty homeless families. Eight million sq. ft of office building stands empty in London alone – enough to house all the homeless in Britain.’

The operation, the first carried out by the group, was surprisingly simple. The glass in a door at the back of the building was cut and Hey Presto! The next they heard were the sirens.

Said Ray Gibbon, travel agency manager and father of two, of Shakespeare Road, Heme Hill, “We intend staying here until 5.30. Then we’ll leave quietly after we’ve made our point.”

The squatters, all local people, passed their time listening to the radio, playing football and putting records on a record player they’d brought with them. At lunch-time fish and chips and bottles of beer were hoisted up by rope from outside. Rubbish was put in a Lambeth Council paper sack they had brought in with them. ‘We want to be as tidy as possible,’ said Mr Gibbon.

During the day, the squatters gave out over 7,000 leaflets in the Brixton shopping centre. One West Indian bus conductor said, ‘Give me a heap man. I’ll give them out to the lads when I get to the garage at Croydon.’ The leaflet said: ‘Some people try to blame immigrants for the housing shortage but we know we had lousy houses in Britain before we ever saw a black face or heard an Irish accent. The real for the housing shortage is that a small group of people make millions of pounds out of our need for a decent home.’

Source: radical newspaper Black Dwarf 1969: Republished in David Widgery, The Left in Britain 1956-1968 (London: Penguin, 1976) David has this down as 1968, but this we think is wrong, as Saturday 29th March was a Saturday in ’69, not ’68, and the squatting movement had not got going in March 1968 to the point described in the article above. However, if we are totally wrong on this please let us know. 

From these beginnings grew a massive scene, or myriad scenes rather.

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A SHORT HISTORY OF SQUATTING’S EARLY YEARS IN BRIXTON

Brixton became a centre of squatting for a number of reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By the early 1970s much of Central Brixton was in a depressed state. Many houses were being decanted, but for many reasons, large numbers of the residents found themselves ineligible for rehousing; one reason was the overcrowded state of many of the dwellings, with extended families, sub-letting, live-in landlords, etc: many people were not officially registered as living there, and so council estimates of numbers to be rehoused or the ‘housing gain’ were often wildly inaccurate.

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

Two main results of all this were a rapid increase in the number of squatters in the area, looking for places to live and finding a rich seam in SW2 – this contributed to an upsurge in community, radical and libertarian politics in the Borough.

Incidentally planner Ted Hollamby’s trajectory lurched further from consultative architecture – after leaving Lambeth Council’s employ in 1981, he went to work for the London Docklands Development Corporation, helping to ‘regenerate’ London’s docks in the interest of big business in the face of protests from most of the local population.

In 1969-70 the Lambeth Family Squatting Group occupied homes for mainly local families; they considered themselves the official squatting movement, and had many negotiations with Lambeth Council.

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

In the mid-70s, Lambeth was widely held to be the most squatted borough in London. The upsurge created whole squatted communities and experiments: Villa Road, the Railton Road/Mayall Road in Central Brixton (known as the frontline); St Agnes Place and Oval Mansions in Kennington; Bonnington Square/Vauxhall Grove, Radnor Terrace/Rosetta Street/Wilcox Road, and Mawbey St/Brough St in Vauxhall; Heath Road/Robertson St, St Alphonsus Road and Rectory Gardens in Clapham, and Hubert Grove, off Landor Road; Priory Grove in Stockwell, and more. Later on there was Lingham Road, Stockwell, the Triangle in Norwood (Berridge rd, Bristow Rd), Effra Parade, St George’s Mansions and Loughborough Park, Stockwell Mansions…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These links between squatters and building workers were built on into 1977: as squatters, tenants, residents in temporary and Bed & Breakfast accommodation co-operated on pickets of the Town Hall over the Council’s housing policy. Later in the year Lambeth Housing Action Group was set up, with Tenants Associations, Squatting groups, union branches sending delegates; they pledged to co-operate with Lambeth Anti-Racist movement as well…

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

(Some of those rehoused were moved to Rushcroft Road, to face 20 years of mismanagement, bad repair, and uncertainty from Lambeth and London & Quadrant Housing Association… and then eviction in the early 2000s as the Council decided to flog off their flats off to developers. Those moved on including your past tense typist here. Many of these flats were in turn re-squatted after L&Q evictions, when the council did nothing with the flats, and many of this new generation were only kicked out themselves in 2013…)

In St Agnes Place, Kennington, squatters first moved into empty houses in 1974 – some of the buildings had been unoccupied for 14 years. By December 1976 over 100 people were squatting there. In January 1977 over 250 police had arrived at dawn to preside over the demolition of empty houses although the demolition was stopped within hours by a hastily initiated court injunction by the squatters. The street would survive until a mass eviction in 2005, though many changes of personnel had been gone though by then.

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

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

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

And the 1980s would see a whole new squatting revival in Brixton…

There’s so much more to be written about on squatting in Brixton… As and when, folks, as and when.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Past Tense has written quite a bit about Brixton (and reprinted/posted stuff written by friends and other earlier residents), relating to policing, riots, black radical politics, racism, squatting, gentrification, and much more… Because most of us lived there, through events, took part in struggles and daily life there, and think about it all. More to come – there’s lots to say – though it’s only part of what we are interested in, its an area that has helped shape us and still makes us think.

It isn’t to claim uniqueness for the area (though that is true!) – whatever ends you’re from, the tale needs telling.

Published in pamphlet form so far:

• In the Shadow of the SPG: Racist policing, Resistance, and Black Power in 1970s Brixton

• Black Women Organising: The Brixton Black women’s Group & the Organisation for Women of African and Asian Descent

We Want To Riot, Not to Work: The1981 Brixton Riots.
(Reprint of 1982 classic our mates put out: Currently out of print again, but plans are afoot…)

Through A Riot Shield: The 1985 Brixton Riot
(More incendiary stuff reprinted from Crowbar…)

Trouble Down South:
Some thoughts on gentrification in Brixton.

Most of the above can be bought online at:

http://www.alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/past-tense-publications.html
and several good radical bookshops in London.

In preparation:

It is our intention eventually to publish history and thoughts on: Brixton’s early history, the growth of working class and migrant communities, the birth of council housing and squatting, Brixton women’s scenes and gay scenes, music and streetlife, further riots, race relations, the council and the left, the poll tax, and more on social change, development and gentrification. Because we are self-funded, have families and need to survive in the morass of wage labour, and also because we have a million projects on the go, we have no idea when any of this will appear. Lots of it is also talked about elsewhere… other people are writing about it and posting up pictures etc.

Today in London anti-fascist history: nazis attack anti-apartheid rally, Trafalgar Square, 1960.

During the early 1950s anti-fascism ceased to be the major activity for the left as it had been throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Mainly this was because the fascists were so small that it was not worth fighting them, but also the left was prioritising other struggles.

It was now engaged in supporting the huge anti-imperialist movements in Africa and Asia, their activities led by the Movement for Colonial Freedom (MCF). Newer groups from different political traditions, such as the Socialist Labour League and anarchists, were beginning to emerge too and by the end of the 1950s they were gaining some influence.

However the traditional left was still the dominant force leading the anti-imperialist movement in the 1950s and early 1960s, though support for colonial freedom attracted people outside the left as well and had support from liberals and even some conservatives. They supported the great freedom struggles of the peoples of such places as the Congo, Ghana and Kenya. Led by Fenner Brockway, a veteran Labour MP, one of the main campaigns of the MCF was against the new system of apartheid that had been introduced in South Africa.

Extreme rightwing groups had begun to gather support in Britain in the late 1950s, after a decade of relative obscurity, targeting communities of migrants from the West Indies and elsewhere, (as well as still ranting on about Jews running the world secretly and all the old shite). Tapping into the widespread racism and pro-imperial delusions of many working class brits, (though always dominated by upper class and middle class swivel-eyed loons) and chiming even with some trade unionists who identified foreigners as the cause of wage reductions instead of the bosses… tensions in areas like Notting Hill had burst into vicious white riots against caribbean migrants (and resulted in community self-defence): fascist groups had all moved in to whip up agro, and were recruiting from among some of the white teddyboy gangs then prevalent on London’s streets.

The fascists supported imperialism of both the British and the foreign varieties, as well as having link with South African rightists, and held provocations and counter-demonstrations against the left’s activities. In 1960 Mosley’s Union Movement, joined by the newly formed British National Party (which later helped for the National Front in 1967), turned up at a rally in Trafalgar Square protesting against the Sharpsville Massacre. Stewards from the MCF and the newly formed Anti-Apartheid Movement saw off the fascists.

“Nine people were arrested and several policemen injured yesterday during the ugliest political clashes seen in London since the war. They began when Mosleyites tried to intervene at a Trafalgar Square demonstration where 10,000 pledged themselves to boycott South African goods as a protest against apartheid. A mile-long running battle, involving thousands of people, surged from Charing Cross, along the Strand, down Whitehall, and into Victoria Street. Union Movement men headed by Sir Oswald Mosley had gathered in the forecourt of Charing Cross station and they and boycott supporters began shouting at each other. Then members of the Young Communist League, who were selling their official journals, moved in to the attack. Within a few moments about 50 people were exchanging blows. I saw a dozen police officers and four men sprawled on the ground. Two other men were knocked down and kicked by the crowd.” (News Chronicle, 29/2/60)

The growth of fascist groups in the late 1950s and early 60s sparked a revival in organised anti-fascism, largely dormant since the 43 Group effectively disbanded after seeing off the Mosleyites in the late 1940s. In 1962, a new 62 Group emerged to challenge fascism physically on the streets…

Check out a PDF of a Searchlight supplement on the 62 Group.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London housing history: Family Squatting Campaign occupies 4 houses in Ilford, 1969

The main impetus for the 1968-69 squatting campaign, which kick-started the late twentieth century London squatting movement, came from a loosely-knit group of radicals, many of whom had been involved with the Committee of 100 and the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign.

In the late fifties and early sixties, extra-Parliamentary political activity was centred on the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Committee of 100. The latter openly advocated direct action to further its fight against nuclear arms and this marked the revival of the use of direct action in non-industrial settings. At the same time, numerous sociologists published research confirming the continued existence of inequality and deprivation. A new generation of angry young middle-class men and women were appalled by the fact that the poor were still with us, and the adequately housed majority were shocked to learn that homelessness and inadequate housing still afflicted millions of people. Awareness grew with the publication of reports like the Mimer-Holland survey on London’s housing in 1965, TV shows like ‘Cathy Come Home’ (first broadcast in 1966) and the formation of Shelter, a national charity campaigning on housing.

The Committee of 100, and the experience which people acquired during their involvement with it, offered new ideas on how to fight this injustice. It was becoming apparent that direct action was a means by which concessions could be wrung out of a complacent establishment. In a longer-term perspective, some people thought it might provide a way to build a movement challenging the actual structure of society. In many respects the direct action of the Committee of 100 against nuclear armaments was purely symbolic, challenging the state at the point where it could least afford to yield. In contrast the activists of the late sixties began to make more realistic demands and moved into areas which affected people’s everyday lives.

Some of the group that launched the squatting movement had been active in a long struggle at King Hill Hostel, West Mailing, in 1966. The hostel, run by Kent County Council for homeless families, operated on antiquated rules, the worst of which was that only mothers and children could stay there with husbands only being allowed to see their families at approved visiting times. A group of husbands moved into the hostel and refused to leave. A protracted battle followed, ending in humiliation and defeat for the Council. The hostel rules were changed and the lesson was clear for all to see: direct action obtained changes which years of pressure through normal democratic channels had failed to achieve.

Activists also came together in other housing campaigns during 1967 and 1968 and this enabled a core of militants to accumulate a valuable fund of contacts and experience before embarking upon squatting. The idea of squatting was first raised by the homeless and badly housed families involved in these campaigns. Squatting was a natural extension of direct action into the fight for decent housing and conditions were ripe for it to succeed. Homelessness was increasing again, as was the stock of empty houses. Public sympathy, on which the success of squatting depends, was firmly on the side of the homeless. And there was an organised group of people willing to set things in motion.

Rebirth of a squatting movement

The London Squatters Campaign was set up by a meeting of 15 people at the house of Ron Bailey on 18 November 1968. Although no written aims were set down, Bailey later claimed there were unwritten ones. One was simply ‘the rehousing of families from hostels or slums by means of squatting’. But it was also hoped that ‘squatting on a mass scale’ could be sparked off, that this would start ‘an all-out attack on the housing authorities with ordinary people taking action for themselves’ and that the campaign would have ‘a radicalising effect on existing movements in the housing field’.

In spite of their laudably ambitious hopes, few of the activists would have found it credible had a visitor from the future told them that their example would be followed by tens of thousands of people seizing houses which did not belong to them. Their first target was ‘The Hollies’ a partially empty block of luxury flats in Wanstead High Street, East London. Some of the flats had been empty ever since they were built four years previously and this was seen as symbolic of the injustice which allowed private property owners to keep houses empty whilst thousands were homeless. The occupation for a few hours of these flats on 1 December 1968 was symbolic too, in a different way. It suggested a logical step forward: homeless people could introduce an element of control into their lives by taking over empty houses which the established institutions of society could not or would not use. A week after this brief occupation, a separate group of activists showed how easy it could be to make empty houses habitable. For one day they took over a house in Notting Hill, West London, which had been empty for 18 months and cleaned and decorated it, clearly demonstrating its suitability for use by the homeless.

Two weeks later, just before Christmas, the London Squatters Campaign occupied All Saints Vicarage, Leyton, a building which the church had kept empty for over three years. Homeless people were encouraged to be involved in the action. A few from a Camden Council hostel managed to enter before police cordoned off the house. The squatters then asked the church to make the house available to the homeless, but this was rejected, almost 1,968 years to the day since another homeless family is reputed to have been forced to sleep in a barn. The squatters made this point forcefully, stayed for a day and left. The same weekend, the Notting Hill group occupied a block of luxury flats, Arundel Court, and again left voluntarily after a few hours. All the occupations so far had been symbolic gestures, their primary aim being to attract publicity. However, the coverage they received was beginning to fade and in the new year, the second, more decisive, phase of the campaign began.

On 18 January 1969, Maggie O’Shannon and her two children moved into No 7 Camelford Road Notting Hill, with the aid of the Notting Hill activists. The Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), which owned the house, reacted predictably: ‘This kind of forced entry into private property is tantamount to an attempt to jump the housing queue’ said a spokesperson. The fact that the house was condemned and empty with no plans to fill it seemed to have escaped the ILEA’s notice. But after six weeks of adverse publicity a rent book was grudgingly pushed through the letterbox, making Maggie O’Shannon the first person since the 1940s to obtain permanent housing through squatting. Her story was told on TV and in almost every newspaper in the country, with the result that the lesson was not lost on other homeless families – Maggie O’Shannon had got a place to live by squatting.

Squatting began to spread. Three families moved into houses in Winnersh, near Reading. In Yorkshire, a family squatted a privately-owned house which had been empty for six years and, within a month, was given a legal tenancy. Squatting groups were set up in Leeds, where an office block was occupied, Edinburgh, Birkenhead, Brighton and Manchester as well as in several parts of London.

Redbridge thuggery

The most important struggle though was in Red bridge, East London, an area close to the homes of several of the London Squatters Campaign members. Redbridge Council was planning a major central area redevelopment scheme for Ilford. The scheme had not been officially approved and would not be started for several years and yet the Council was deliberately leaving a large number of sound houses empty to rot. Attempts to persuade it to use these houses for short-term lets had failed and some houses were planned to be left empty for ten years. On 8 February four houses were occupied, families installed and barricades erected.

The Council initially attempted to crush squatting through the courts. First it tried to serve in junctions ordering the squatters to cease trespassing but these were evaded. It then unsuccessfully argued that the squatters were guilty of ‘forcible detainer’ an offence created in 1429 to prevent anyone using violence to retain possession and asked a magistrate to have them prosecuted. Red-bridge Council then succeeded in obtaining possession orders for the squatted houses but was thwarted when the squatters swopped houses so that people named on the possession orders were no longer resident in the houses to which they applied. (A ruling in 1975 (p161) was to make ‘squat swopping’ ineffective but it remained a useful tactic for many years). Annoyed by the prospect of more occupations, the Council embarked upon blunter tactics. In one fortnight at the end of February, it gutted 29 houses to deter squatters from moving in at a cost to the ratepayers of £2,520.

But by now squatting in the area was beginning to take root as more and more people approached the London Squatters Campaign wanting to squat. During the first weeks of April, several families and single parents moved in. Redbridge Council’s determination to crush the embryonic squatting movement was meeting with little success. But towards the end of April it was ready to try again. In March, squatters in a Greater London Council (GLC) house, had been threatened with eviction by a group of officially-sanctioned thugs who used violence without bothering to obtain court orders. Olive Mercer, who was squatting In the house with her husband and son, was struck in the stomach with an iron bar. She was pregnant and the blow caused her to bleed and consequently to lose her baby. The thuggery only ceased when a doctor insisted that her daughter, who was in bed with scarlet fever, was too ill to be moved.

Redbridge Council was sufficiently ‘impressed’ to hire the same thugs to deal with its own ‘squatter problem’. The men, some of whom sported National Front badges, were supplied by a firm of private bailiffs run by Barry Quartermain who the Sunday Times described as a man who ‘tears a London telephone directory into halves and then into quarters as he lectures you about the toughness of his henchmen’. He was later to serve a three-year jail sentence for offences committed in pursuit of his ‘business’.

On 21 April people squatting in three Redbridge houses were evicted by these bailiffs without any court orders authorising such evictions. They were accompanied by a posse of police, Council officials and welfare workers, all of whom ignored the violent methods of the bailiffs. One squatter was beaten up and had his jaw broken. The Fleming family was forced to dress in front of the bailiffs and had their furniture smashed and thrown out of the windows. Another squatter, Ben Beresford, in an affidavit, described his family’s eviction from one of the houses:

‘While my wife was trying to get some baby’s clothes, I was told to “stop wasting fucking time”. I was grabbed hold of violently by one of the bailiffs and my arm was forced in a lock behind my back. I was pushed and frogmarched down the stairs into the waiting van, and was locked in… There I was forced to stay until the end of the eviction’.

Once the families had been kicked out, workmen were sent in to wreck the houses, smashing holes in roofs and ripping out staircases to prevent re-occupation. There were, however, many other empty Council houses in the area and by mid-June squatters were once more in occupation of several of them. Redbridge Council tried to use Quartermain’s men again but this time the squatters were prepared. On 23 June, bailiffs were sent to No.23 Audrey Road and No.6 Woodland Road. They met with much more resistance than they had bargained for, and the eviction attempts were rebuffed. The national media were alerted, so that when the bailiffs returned at dawn two days later, their thuggery was reported in the press and shown on TV all over the country. Redbridge Council earned the worst press that a council has ever received in dealings with squatters. Not only was it shown to be pursuing a wasteful and inhumane policy of unnecessarily destroying habitable houses, but it was also illegally using extreme violence against the homeless.

The media coverage played a major part in forcing the Council to negotiate despite the reluctance of many councillors and council officers, and in July an agreement with the squatters was worked out. Some squatter families were to get permanent council homes, the Council was to carry out a review of its use of short-life property and all gutting was to cease while this review was carried out. The squatters were to meet the Council again after it was completed. In order to obtain these concessions, the squatters had to vacate the houses they occupied and stop their campaign in the area. They voted by a two-thirds majority to agree to the Council’s conditions but the agreement was denounced by some as a ‘surrender’ and there was a lot of bitterness on both sides about the decision.

Although it did get housing for some of the squatting families, the agreement had only a small effect on Council policy. Redbridge did bring into use some properties not scheduled to be demolished for seven years but claimed that most would cost too much to bring up to habitable standard. Three years later, in fact, it released several of the poorer short-life properties to local squatters. One of the properties that squatters voluntarily vacated in July 1969  – No 2 Woodlands Road – was still empty ten years later. Indeed the same streets in Redbridge which were the focus for the 1969 campaign remained blighted by the same redevelopment scheme in 1980. To avoid opposition, Redbridge developed a policy of ‘prior demolition’, pulling down houses which are on land not needed for several years.

Nevertheless, the Redbridge struggle achieved a great deal. It ensured that owners seeking eviction went through the courts, affording squatters a minimal degree of security without which squatting could not have gone beyond the stage of protest sit-ins. Indeed the London Squatters Campaign’s adroit legal defence established precedents which benefited squatters for many years and many people involved in Ilford went on to promote squatting in other areas. The London Squatters Campaign renamed itself East London Squatters as new local groups were established all over the capital. The beginnings of squatting on a mass widespread scale had been made.

(NB: This account is reprinted with small edits for continuity reasons from the very fine ‘Squatting: The Real Story’, an account of Uk squatting written in the late 1970s.
In the hard copy of the 2018 London Rebel History Calendar, this was registered as the 9th February 1969… which was based on an other account we had read. Here it says this took place on the 8th. It’s possible that one is correct and the other not; we’re not sure. It’s also possible that the houses were squatted at night, around midnight…? We have squatted houses around midnight ourselves and couldn’t tell you what day it was… Anyone who was there, reading and can enlighten us, we’d love to hear from you…)

The Family Squatters pioneered squatting for families, in a strictly ‘respectable’ format – usually consisting of activists doing the squatting and then handing houses to ‘deserving’ families. Useful as this was, it addressed only a tiny part of homelessness and slum housing – and squatting also offered immense possibilities for the rejection of buildings as property, the expression of opposition to capitalism itself. Squatting soon overflowed the Family Squatters – who mainly entered into deals with councils to use empty property and formed the basis for many housing co-ops.

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Another perspective on the Ilford squatting campaign of 1969 has some interesting critical points. ‘The ‘Squatters’…’ was published by Solidarity (South London) in September 1969. No authors name is given in the pamphlet. An advert for it in Solidarity (West London) No. 2 attributes it to Andy Anderson.

“I don’t believe in nothing
I feel they ought to burn down the world
Just let it burn down baby.”

This is one of the several messages which, in 1969, are daubed on the walls of houses in one of the worst slum areas in London. Although some of us do not see these messages as being as negative as they might appear, they nevertheless show a depth of despair among people existing there which is only too obvious if you talk to them.

The living conditions of the nine million people in the slums are often worse than those of the increasing number of families officially described as homeless and who are living in council welfare accommodation.

The recognition of this, and that the situation was getting worse, were the reasons why a group of about 15 people met in East London last autumn to discuss what could be done about it in terms of direct action.

A CAMPAIGN – ITS AIM

After a few meetings, it was decided to launch a campaign. The aim of the campaign was to start a movement among the millions of badly-housed people by suggesting action that they themselves could take. The discussion centred on the fact that there were a large number of good, habitable houses and flats all over London which had been standing empty for a long time. One kind of action that people themselves might take was squatting. The group decided to call itself The London Squatters’ Campaign.

It was agreed that squatting in itself, even if taken up on a fairly large scale, would not solve the housing problem. But it would be an action with very radical potential. It was in harmony with the basic political beliefs which the group professed to hold.

They all professed to believe that people’s reliance on others (T.U. officials, local councillors, parties, M.P.s, do-gooders, etc.) to act in their interests has led to defeat after defeat, that real victories depend on working people taking action themselves, that all political activity must aim to strengthen the confidence of people in their ability to run their own lives, and that any kind of action which does not do this, reinforces their illusions, their apathy, their cynicism, and must be ruthlessly opposed and exposed.

IN STAGES

The group planned that the action was to be in three stages. One, to draw attention to empty flats and houses and to publicise the idea of squatting. Two, a token occupation of a large empty house. Three, to assist a couple of families in moving into empty houses and remaining there as squatters.

It was agreed that we should go out of our way to avoid the rise of personalities, and that every advantage should he taken of publicity to show that people themselves, the ones in real and urgent need of decent housing, could and should take similar action. The dangers of substituting ourselves for these people were said by all to be fully appreciated. They also expressed complete agreement that if people themselves did not take the idea up, thus showing that they were not yet ready to move, we should abandon it as quickly as possible precisely to avoid contributing to the very illusions we sought to dispel.

We shall examine the development of the Campaign in the light of its originators’ professed political beliefs. This examination will show that not only has it failed in its original aim, but also that, after ten months, it no longer seems possible that squatting, as a form of direct action, will be taken up on any effective scale by working people themselves.

In trying to describe some of the reasons for the failure, we would hope to make a positive contribution to the general struggle in modern class-divided society.

SQUATTING ’46

Squatting, in one form or another, is not new. It is in the historical tradition of mass radical action by ordinary people stretching back over the centuries (e.g. The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, The Levellers and Diggers of 1647/49).

But the taking over of empty houses by homeless and badly-housed people first appeared on some scale in 1919. Then, it was the angry direct action of ex-servicemen returning after World War I to find that there was nowhere for them and their families to live.

This was repeated, but on a very much wider scale, after World War II. Squatters had in fact been active during this war, but it was confined mainly to Glasgow where the slums were probably the worst in the British Isles. In 1946, the squatters’ movement swept the country.

Immediately after the war ended in 1945, groups of ex-servicemen began occupying large empty houses in seaside towns on the South East coast which had large working-class populations, such as Southend and Brighton. Even today, many such houses are kept empty for most of the year so that they can be let at high rents during the short holiday season.

By the middle of 1946, the movement had spread all over the country and hundreds of empty army and air-force camps had been occupied by thousands of people. (Official government figures issued in October 1946 put the number of camps in England and Wales at 1,038 in which there were 39,535 squatters and there were another 4,000 in Scotland.)

By this time, militant members of the Communist Party had broken out of the ’official line’ which had condemned the movement when it started, and were active among squatters in London who had taken over large blocks of flats and hotels.

LABOUR POWER

The Labour Government, with its massive majority in Parliament, tried to check the movement. That darling of the left, Aneurin Bevin, like all left ’leaders’, showed his true colours as Minister of Health. He sent out circulars to all local authorities instructing them to cut off the squatters’ gas and electricity. Owners of empty buildings not yet occupied were told to take precautions necessary to keep squatters out. This, from a ’Socialist’ government at a time when homeless families were being brought before the courts for ’sleeping rough’ . What else could the government do, pledged as it was to safeguarding the rights of ownership for profit making? Such rights were the corner-stone of the system (just as they are today) and the threat to them was now taking on serious proportions.

So the Government was eventually forced to make concessions in order to keep some control of the situation. Local authorities were given wide powers to requisition empty properties for use by homeless families, and the Ministry of Works offered Aneurin Bevan 850 former service camps – ’to help him in his emergency housing drive’.

Twenty-three years later, in a relatively worse housing situation, where they can’t point to the bombing as a reason for it, it was not unreasonable to hope that the idea of squatting in some of the country’s half-million empty buildings (official figure) might fire the imagination of people with real housing needs to take action themselves; that squatting in 1969 might become the form of direct action it was in 1946; that housing therefore might get placed nearer to its correct position around the top of the list of priorities.

It was with these hopes in mind that we chose for ourselves the name ’The London Squatters’ Campaign’. It was not an accidental choice. It came about as the result of considerable discussion. It was to be a campaign to promote the idea of squatting.

The answer to the question of whether people were ready for such action depended on the campaign showing clearly that it could be taken by the badly-housed people themselves, that they could organise themselves, that they must not rely on an outside organisation nor on ’leaders’ to act on their behalf.

TOKEN OCCUPATION OF LUXURY FLATS

Last year, on Sunday December 1, we occupied a block of luxury flats in Wanstead (East London). Most of the flats had been empty for years, which is not surprising as far as the nine million slum-dwellers are concerned – they cost nearly £16,000 each.

A banner announcing the London Squatters Campaign was mounted on the roof. Although the occupation lasted only a few hours, it all made good copy for the press and television. On the Monday, nearly every national newspaper carried front-page pictures and reports. On Monday evening, four members of the Campaign appeared on the Eamonn Andrews programme. In answer to a question from the oily Andrews, one of them made the basic aims of the campaign quite clear. He said, “We don’t represent anybody. Unless badly-housed people soon take up the idea of squatting themselves, we shall consider that the campaign has failed.”

In the following days, there were articles in the press, even a question in Parliament, concerning the large number of buildings standing empty. Thus, the first stage of the campaign had been a success.

STAGE TWO

Church property became the target of Stage Two. At 2 p.m. on Saturday, 21 December, about 20 people, including two young mothers from a homeless hostel in Poplar (East London), occupied a 25-room Victorian vicarage in Leytonstone. This house was in very good condition and had stood empty since the vicar had moved into a brand new house nearby over three years earlier. The police arrived early on the scene but failed to get us out, since we had stoutly barricaded ourselves in two rooms on the first floor. There were several scuffles with the police outside and four campaigners were arrested.

A couple of Campaign representatives trailed by T.V. cameras and about a dozen reporters went to see the vicar. The Reverend, who was accompanied by his boss, the “Venerable “V.D, Wakeling, had little to say when asked to let the house to those in real need. The Ven. Wakeling took up the question. He said that the house was empty because it was going to be pulled down to make way for a church hall in the early 1970s and that people’s spiritual and religious needs were greater than their housing needs.

As planned we all filed quietly out of the house exactly 24 hours later. But publicity was only a shadow of what it had been following the luxury flats episode.

PLANNING THE ILFORD MOVE-IN

The Campaign then held a meeting to discuss arrangements for a family to move into an empty house and remain there as squatters. A committee was elected to arrange with as much secrecy as possible which empty house was to be used and the general tactics and strategy. This committee decided on a house in the Ilford area, mainly because the local authority ( Redbridge Borough Council) had planned a large redevelopment involving the demolition of a number of houses. Although this was not to take place until the middle of 1970, the Borough Council had already compulsorily-purchased several houses., and some of these were empty.

It was agreed that one family should move in as quietly as possible and the fact kept secret for as long as possible. The squatting family was to be maintained and defended, in siege conditions if necessary, and demonstrations of support were to be organized if the authorities later made any attempt to evict them. During subsequent general campaign meetings, this decision gradually got changed out of all recognition.

Certain individuals had made the mistake of inviting all sorts of other people along who either were not committed to the basic ideas of the original group or were opposed to some of them. For example, there were people from Shelter, the Young Liberals, Christian groups and the International Socialists. Consequently, the original aims were gradually being submerged under a mish-mash of attitudes. This was to affect adversely the publicising of these aims, particularly since some people seemed more concerned about publicity for themselves.

To make matters worse, various T.V. programme teams were touting around to get material for programmes they wanted to do either on housing in general or on squatting in particular, They wanted to film meetings and interviews. They wanted to film the practical work – collecting furniture, food, etc. and preparing barricades.

The result was that meetings which should have been discussing activities strictly within the context of the group’s original aims, became befuddled by the intoxicating atmosphere of spot-lights, clapper boards and cameras.

HORSE DEALING AND SUBSTITUTION

Agreements with T.V. teams, involving payments of relatively large sums of money, were being made by a tiny handful of individuals (even formal contracts were signed) without reference to a proper meeting of the group known as the London Squatters’ Campaign. Indeed, the word ’Campaign’ had now been virtually dropped and people were referring to themselves and, consequently seeing themselves as ’the squatters’. They were substituting themselves for the real people in need.

Some of the original campaign members had begun to ‘drop out. They were dropping out because they could find no way of bringing the campaign back to its original aims. Attempts to do so were met with incomprehension on the part of some of the ’new’ mish-mash. Liberals and Shelterites were concerned with keeping the image ’respectable’. International Socialists talked, of course, about ’politicizing the movement’. Some of those who remained of the original group said they fully agreed with the original aims, but they went on to act in accordance with different priorities. Some of them actually said things like ’it is time for the poor and dispossessed to think and act for themselves’ and almost in the same breath they would talk of the Squatters installing families.

THE MOVE-IN

On the morning of Saturday, 8 February, three homeless families were to be moved into three houses in Oakfield Road, Ilford. But on arrival, it was discovered that the landlords (Redbridge Borough Council) had made one house uninhabitable. Furniture, food, fuel, etc. was then moved into the two remaining houses. While windows and doors on the ground floor were being barricaded, the police turned up, burst their way into one of the houses and evicted the family with seven young children together with a number of campaigners. However, this house, was again occupied the same evening.

About 200 people met for speeches at Manor Park the next day (Sunday) then marched to Oakfield Road in a demonstration in support of the Squat.

LEADERS OF ILLUSION

Certain individuals have allowed themselves to be regularly referred to in the press as ‘leaders’. Maybe the press used the term simply because they behaved in the traditional manner of leaders. In any case, these ’leaders’ have made no serious attempt to get the term changed. We see this as reinforcing people’s illusions in the need for a leadership outside of themselves. This, as we said earlier, is precisely what the original group had been determined to avoid.

But it has gone even further than that. Some of the published statements of these ‘leaders’ have also added to the illusions. They have said that dozens of homeless families are waiting to he housed by them. A widely circulated list of instructions entitled “Do’s and Dont’s for Squatters” began: “Don’t move families in without careful planning.”

This attitude was responsible for the state of affairs in which squatting families in Ilford fully expected these ‘leaders’ to carry out some of the most simple jobs around the house, such as repairing broken windows. But with their professed beliefs, these ’leaders’ should not have been surprised by such a development even if they were unaware of the perfect example seen in the squatters’ camps at 1946. Then, there was a sharp contrast between the attitudes of those who had taken over the camps on their own initiative and those who had eventually been placed there by local authorities at the behest of the Government. A report in the NEWS CHRONICLE of January 14, 1947, described how workmen put up partitions and installed sinks and numerous other conveniences in the huts of official squatters, whereas the unofficial squatters had to fend for themselves. But the latter “set to work with a will, improvising partitions, running up curtains, distempering and painting… The official squatters, on the other hand, sat around glumly … bemoaning their fate, even though they might have been removed from the most appalling slum property…”

VICTORIES AND HEART TRANSPLANTS

The Ilford ‘leaders’ have also publicly described events as ‘enormously significant’, ‘tremendous breakthroughs’, and ‘tremendous victories’. The description of one such ’victory’ suggested that all the members of Redbridge Borough Council had undergone the most modern operation in heart surgery – a transplant. This particular ’victory’ occurred on March 19 when the Redbridge Council told the press that they were writing to all the London Boroughs to offer them empty houses in Ilford for use as temporary accommodation for the homeless families of their areas. This said the squatting leaders’ press statement, was a victory because it showed that the Councillors had had ‘a complete change of heart’ .

Even if the Redbridge Council had had ‘a complete change of heart’ and intended to do what they had said, it would merely have been a move to enable them to regain complete control of the situation in Ilford. The nine million people still living in squalid slum conditions had not noticed any change of heart going on anywhere, complete or otherwise. It is significant that the campaign’s original emphasis on the fact of these millions of slum dwellers had, by this time, almost disappeared. Most of the talk now was about action on behalf of homeless families in local authority accommodation.

COUNCIL’S INTENTIONS

As for the Redbridge Councillors’ intentions, many people now know what they amounted to. They decided to regain control by a show of force. They hired a gang of neo-fascist thugs under the leadership of a friend of Mosley and of the National Front – Mr. Barrie Quartermain.

During March and April, the Council’s mercenaries made violent raids on three houses and evicted the occupants including homeless families. 4 On two occasions during June, they made further attacks on houses at 23 Audrey Road and 6 Woodlands Road. Although wearing steel helmets, carrying shields and throwing bricks, the mercenaries were beaten back and forced to give up each time.

The gangster activities of Quartermain are not new. They include strikebreaking and go back some years. But they were certainly brought into the limelight again by the events in Ilford. Those who fought them are quite right in regarding this as an important achievement. It was an exposure of something very sinister and it was a defeat of vile and vicious methods of eviction. But it had been gained at considerable expense – to the family in 23 Audrey Road.

By the middle of July, the father of this family (there are three young children) had had a nervous breakdown. The mother, after much argument, succeeded in persuading the “squatters” to take down the barricades and barbed wire and move out. (It is significant that one of the leaders, who was not present when the ‘squatters’ finally agreed to do this, said later that if only he had been there, he felt certain he could have persuaded her to continue the fight.)

AGREEMENT WITH COUNCIL

Leading Squatters then had discussions with leading members of Redbridge Borough Council. An agreement was reached about calling off the campaign in Ilford. This agreement was ratified by a simple majority vote at a meeting held in the ‘Squatters’ office’ (a shop in Ilford) on 25 July. It is not known how this meeting was called or who was invited to attend. However, the agreement was signed the following day, Saturday 26 July, by Ron Bailey. It is said that Mrs. Fleming and one other also signed it. So far as we have been able to discover, no copies of the text of the agreement have been produced. But press reports stated that the ‘Squatters’ had terminated their activities in Ilford. They had agreed to leave three houses by noon on Thursday 31 July, and to refrain from occupying any other houses. The Council, for its part, had agreed to provide accommodation for the families involved; to examine its empty property in Central Ilford with a view to providing short-term housing for local families only; to carry out this examination by 16 August and to inform the ’Squatters’ of their findings.

There was some trouble with the people occupying 6 Woodlands Road. They refused to get out. So the supporters of the deal now calling themselves the East London Squatters, issued a statement ‘publicly’ dissociating themselves from the Woodlands Road group, and accusing them of being ‘would-be martyrs’ who had set up a permanent communal doss house. This, said the East London Squatters, was contrary to the aims of their campaign which were to ‘fight for the basic human rights of those who are denied a decent place to live.’ They appealed to political groups, and to all those who agreed with their aims to put some sort of pressure on the occupants of the Woodlands Road ‘doss house’ to persuade them to leave. Those who complied either sent letters in or visited the house and harangued the ‘would-be martyrs’.

We hold no brief for the Woodlands Road group, regardless of whether what is said about them is true or not. But then, neither do we hold any brief for the others. We think that this episode simply reflects the inevitable degeneration of a campaign that lost its direction when the Ilford occupation began.

CRUCIAL VICTORY?

One should no longer be surprised therefore when the ‘Squatters’ hail the agreement with Redbridge Council as a “crucial victory”. It is of course no kind of victory in terms of the original aims of the London Squatters Campaign. It might be some kind of victory for the newly-named East London Squatters’ aims of fighting for other people’s rights – provided, of course, that Redbridge Council do use their empty houses as short-term accommodation for homeless families.

We have strong criticisms of Shelter, the charity organization which raises funds for housing homeless families. But at least it does not pretend to be anything but reformist. Whether or not one agrees with Des Wilson (director of Shelter) that the Squatters’ main achievement has been in keeping the question of homeless families before the public, it is difficult to disagree that ‘victories’ – in concrete terms of how many homeless families have been reasonably well housed – can more legitimately be claimed by Shelter than by the ‘Squatters’ .

TOO TAME?

One ‘Squatters’ leader, presumably anticipating criticism, recently wrote that what they are now doing “may be too tame for revolutionaries”.

Our criticism is not that their activities are too tame.

Our criticism flows from the aims of the Squatters’ campaign when it was first set up. Read them again on pages 1 and 2 of this paper. We felt that an attempt to achieve these aims was a worthwhile activity for revolutionaries. Do-gooding was not involved. Nor was there any question of becoming adjuncts to local authorities and welfare agencies who were ‘failing in their responsibilities to the community’.

It was understood that if a fairly large-scale squatting movement developed among the millions of slum-dwellers, the authorities (national and local) would have tried everything to stop it. As it turned out, the ‘Squatters’ themselves stopped us discovering whether people were ready to move. They stopped it soon after the first occupation in Ilford. Maybe a substantial number of those in dire need of decent housing were not prepared to take up squatting by themselves as they were in 1946. But we really do not know.

Because the great amount of publicity, particularly that of T.V., had gone to the heads of several of the activists, the picture presented to ordinary working people was not one of people like themselves who were fed up with living in slums and who had therefore decided to move into better empty property in Ilford. Instead, they got the impression of an efficient professional organization with its experts in law, in local affairs, and. of course with its experts in leadership, v/ho were acting on behalf of homeless families.

THE REAL PRIORITY

Consequently, this image underpinned the very things that some of the originators of the Campaign had consistently warned against. People all over the country may well have felt that without such an organization, they could not act. After all, this illusion is strongly rooted. It is the one which we believe must, as an absolute priority, be broken down.

The nine million badly-housed people and the 20,000 officially homeless are all working-class. The question of the conflict of interests involved in the housing problem is part of the whole struggle, The answer to this, to the conflict in industry, to the conflict in what is called education, to the host of others that make up the total conflict in our everyday lives, will be found ultimately and only through the direct action of people themselves, outside parliament, outside local authorities, outside political parties, outside unions, and outsideany other organization which claims to be acting on behalf of working people in their struggle to be rid of exploiting class society.

POSTSCRIPT – SQUATTERS GO HOME

Under the agreement between the ‘Squatters’ and Redbridge Council (see p„7), the Council leaders promised that by 16 August they would (a) carry out an examination of their empty property in Central Ilford with a view to providing short-term housing for local families, and (b) inform the ‘Squatters’ of their decisions.

Some of the ‘Squatters’ who were in favour of signing the agreement now believe that the Council welshed on it. Even the few who are still prepared to defend it will not go so far as to say that the Council kept their side of the ‘bargain.’ Although the Councillors carried out their examination by 16 August, they did not inform the ‘Squatters’ of their decision as promised and the ‘Squatters’ have not pursued the matter. They seem to have complied with the Council’s slogan “Squatters Go Home!” We have seen subsequent press reports and Council minutes. Apart from a motion heartily congratulating the Town Clerk, Mr. Kenneth Nichols, on the way he handled the whole squatting business (Nichols called in Quatermain), information about accommodating badly-housed and homeless families in houses acquired for demolition in the 1970s is hazy.

They have said that most of the empty houses will not be used as temporary accommodation because in some cases the ground is needed for car parks and in others the cost in making houses habitable would be too high. This implies that at least a few houses will be made available. We have made enquiries at several places, including the Town Hall, but nobody knows which houses are to be used and no families, local or otherwise, have been offered temporary accommodation in them. What a ‘crucial victory”.

APPENDIX: SOME REASONS FOR THE WORSENING HOUSING SITUATION IN LONDON & THE SOUTH EAST

Following World War II, London’s economic, social and political lead increased greatly in comparison with the rest of the country. Economic policy, making exports the high priority, has helped in increasing London’s dominance.

As the demand from expanding markets abroad for the coal ships, textiles and heavy engineering products of the North lessened, demand increased for motor cars, plastics, electronic and electrical equipment, and for all kinds of products from the light industries which have sprung up in and around Greater London.

Together with these changes, the country’s economic system has undergone a transformation which is expressed by the great increase in bureaucratic administration. Property developers have not been slow to see the opportunities for amassing large fortunes. Hence, the ‘office boom’ of recent years which has spread well outside the Greater London area.

During the last few years, in Greater London alone, some 20 million square feet of office space have been added – enough for more than 200,000 workers. Development plans for London and surrounding areas will add many more millions of square feet in the next few years. (For example, the development plans for Ilford by Redbridge Borough Council include several large office blocks by 1974). There will then be enough space for several hundreds of thousands more office workers. The increasing number of office workers creates other new jobs in related or service industries, e.g. transport, catering, shops. Obviously, the demand for housing increases.

In the years immediately following the war, the experts looked at their balls and predicted that homelessness would decrease and the housing situation would improve. They said that National Assistance would help people who could not work to stay in their own homes. They predicted that the birth-rate would go down and, therefore, so would the housing shortage. But the reverse happened.

In addition, people began to marry younger and were no longer prepared to live with their parents. When slum clearance began in the mid-fifties, almost all of the new council houses had to be used for those whose homes had been demolished. At the same time, the living conditions of families got worse as their numbers on waiting lists grew.

It’s a fact that house-building has been hopelessly inadequate whatever the party-political shade of the government. Successive governments have, at the same time, encouraged the building of houses for sale rather than for rent. This has been at least as much a political decision as an economic one. They know that when working people are compelled to put the weighty millstone of a mortgage around their necks in order to satisfy a need as basic as decent housing, such people will be much easier to control. The mortgage is yet another of the weapons used by our rulers to undermine people’s will to struggle against them. And of course, rents, house prices and interest rates have continued to rise sharply. For example, houses in slum areas such as Islington and North Kensington now sell for between £4,000 and £6,000 where they cost £2,000 to £3,000 ten years ago, and £350 to £600 in 1947. All this operates progressively to the disadvantage of lower-paid manual workers.

(Sept. 1969) Published by SOLIDARITY (South London), c/o Andrew Mann, 79, Balfour St., SE17.

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There is yet a third relevant contribution to the Ilford squatting story from 1969, written by Chris Broad, and published in Anarchy magazine, which Broad was involved in (this is the ‘second series’ of Anarchy, following the Colin Ward/Freedom Press controlled ‘first series’ in the 1960s)…

Anarchists in action. Squatting in Ilford, E. London.

In 1968-69 I was one of many anarchists involved in squatting in Ilford and in the long battle with Redbridge Council (Ilford). What follows is just a look back at that. It is not an attempt at any sort of history. It is just a very brief and selective summary of the situation during a part of a long struggle. My experience during this time is one of the factors that has made me take the position I do in the main article.

In essence squatting was part of the anarchist direct action campaign for more and better housing, with greater control of it in people’s own hands. We were squatting because of the increasing number of empty houses in London, coupled with the increasing number of homeless people. Under Redbridge Council there were more and more houses which were due to stand empty for ten years or more, before being demolished for a new car park or offices. When squatting started in Ilford, Redbridge council reacted hysterically. As a wide generalisation they attacked us in five ways :-
1) Brute Force. Squads of ‘bailiffs’ attacking at 4-6 am and throwing squatters out after beating them up, and then wrecking furniture and gutting the house.
2) Preventative Vandalism. Gutting empty houses so they could not be squatted in, as well as boarding them up.
3) Propaganda. Putting forward in the local and national press, the wildest accusations against squatters – that we destroyed property, jumped the housing queue, we were less than human, and believed in violence and anarchy.
4) Minor Harassment. Such as persuading the electricity, gas and water boards to cut their supplies off.
5) The Law. Obtaining eviction orders, injunctions, etc. and bringing charges of assault, ABHGBH, against us.

By the end of the campaign, we were responding to their attacks in about six different ways, as follows :-
1) Brute Force. Getting together all the comrades who were prepared to fight and maintaining 24 hour guards on squatted houses.
2) Defence Work. Making houses more defendable, one of them was a mini-fortress.
3) Building Works. Rebuilding gutted houses to make them habitable for new squats.
4) Propaganda. The town hall was covered with slogans, a banner was even put up over the top of the town hall one night. A daily news sheet was put out to the streets surrounding the squatted houses. Constant news and letters were sent to the local paper until it contained more pro-squatting material than anti-squatting. Street theatre and processions were held.
5) Minor Harassment. Every opportunity was taken to publicly embarrass the local councillors and the council, culminating in a violent attack on the whole council during a council meeting in which the whole council fled for their lives and the mayor was nearly strangled with his chain of office. (There then followed a running battle with the police, while the victorious forces of liberation beat a strategic withdrawal to their own fortress one street away),
6) The Law. Every attempt by the council to use the law against us was opposed, all charges denied, and we started bringing more and more counter charges against them. At the end of the day we probably had as much success in the courts as they did. But the ammunition that our legal moves provided the propaganda machine was enormous.

Squatting is still with us today, so there is no doubt that the anarchist movement won a major victory on the streets of Ilford, Fulham etc. It was not as complete a victory as it might have been, but that is another story my children. In the beginning it was a disaster. The people who first tried to squat very rapidly became worse off than ever – homeless, their furniture smashed, two of them in hospital, and the council trying to take their children into care. And of course charges of assault and breach of the peace against them.

Against all the odds we turned defeat into victory. And looking back (although I did not think so at the time) I think this was due not to any one tactic, but to the combination. All the things we were doing interlinked. For instance the legal games that were played (bitterly attacked by me and others at the time) had some very important effects which contributed to the general success. Firstly, they caused the legal moves made by the council to be largely ineffective. This seems to have led to them making moves which were illegal and hasty. This improved our position – we were indignant! It confused the council and caused a split in their ranks, it confused the liberals, the press, and the tv., who didn’t know who to support and ended up supporting us, the squatters, more than the local council, and it confused the police, who at one point retreated into a neutral inactivity which culminated in their standing on the pavement in a line, watching squatters and bailiffs fighting it out at 5.00 am in the morning. The police being violently sworn at and insulted by local people in night clothes and dressing gowns, and then having at last to intervene on the squatters side, because the bailiffs in desperation had set fire to the house, having been completely routed in the fighting.

At the time, this six-point attack we were making on the council was causing great divisions amongst ourselves. No one person supported all the things we were doing. There were endless arguments about which of them was the RIGHT thing to do. People doing other things were attacked, at the least for wasting time and not doing anything, at worst for being counter-revolutionary, and supposedly harming the movement.

Take for example the defence works at one house. These created a fortress from which we worked. It was a house with no ground floor. Behind the front door was a 10 foot drop to the basement, there was no staircase, access to the lived-in part on the first floor was by rope ladder. The garden was crossed by pits and barbed wire, which made it dangerous to run across, especially at night or early morning. It proved to be an excellent position, being successfully defended by seven men and women against fifteen bailiffs, who attempted a surprise attack early one morning. A bloody encounter in which some of them went to hospital, but I don’t think any of us were even scratched.

At the same time these defence works made the place hell to live in; sent three people to hospital (outpatients), one for walking through the front door, one for falling down the ladder while drunk, and one trying to make an effective smoke bomb; and took up a lot of time which meant that less was done repairing other houses, which was very important to the propaganda war; showing us to be creating housing, while it was the council who destroyed it.

We were at each other’s throats the whole time, constantly putting down those who did not see our tactics as the most important and wasting their time doing unimportant things like drinking tea with a reporter.

At the end, fighting broke out between us, a house was surrendered and retaken (by a flying squad of squatters from the other side of London) and some people have not spoken to each other again to this day.

AND NOW TO THE POINT… A number of major divisions have split the anarchist movement over the last 15 years. The ones which come most strongly to mind are over the class war and sexism.

Both of these produced very similar style of arguments (with the words changed) and similar results.

The class war advocates put forward that class was the major division within society, that the class war was the decisive struggle, all others being side-shows, and that all our efforts should be directed to that end.

The feminists came along a few years later to say that sex is the major division in society, that the struggle against male domination is the decisive struggle, that all others are side-shows, if not intrinsically counter-revolutionary and that all our efforts should be directed to that end.

All through these discussions one or two people were saying that they felt that the nuclear family was the origin of all our problems and that only by destruction of that could we advance, while others were saying that the school and educational system were where it was at; then suddenly hash and H and then LSD were going to usher in the new dawn.

I feel it is about time that we all recognised that the society we live in is divided. Divided not in one or two ways, but in dozens of ways. All these divisions cause conflicts and tensions. Most of these divisions are important. Individually these divisions are not equally important. Individually we see society in a different way, and it is different aspects of society which oppress each one of us most. At the moment because I find one aspect of this society more oppressive than the rest and you find another more oppressive, we are at each others throats. It is as though we are separated by a wall, one side painted blue and the other green. We both agree that the wall must be destroyed, but at the moment we are fighting each other over what colour the wall is.

The reason why I say that things look good for the anarchist movement, while others say that things have never looked worse and that it is the extreme right who are on the up and up, is only due to our standing and looking at life from two different positions. It is not that one of us is blind or stupid, or ‘intrinsically counter-revolutionary.’ We are looking at the same events from two different angles. Each view is as true as the other. This is easy to say, but hard to believe. Take for example MW’s article in this issue, and what he says about the strength of the NF. [1] None of what he says fits in with what I see around me. I see only small turn outs of a few thousand, despite massive publicity, I find almost no support for them locally. I can see them only as a small, isolated group, who are remarkable only for their failure to make an impact despite all the favourable circumstances going for them today. So what can I conclude about MW’s analysis. That it is crazy? That he is blind? It is nonsense to be ignored? Yes! Those are my initial reactions. But it is just an extreme example of the same world viewed from a different position. His view is probably no more true or false than mine.

What is true of our views of society, is true of our ideas on tactics. From our different viewpoints we see different things needing to be done. Time and again we put more effort into destroying each other’s ideas than into destroying the state.

If we look back to what I was saying about Ilford, our strength was the number of different ways in which we were fighting. Our main weakness was the amount of time and energy we were spending arguing among ourselves. We should keep discussing tactics amongst ourselves, what I’m against is the self-destructive arguments that endlessly go on amongst us. As the issues become more important, heated words turn to blows, as they did at Ilford.

CONCLUSIONS. In the article, ‘What is to be done?’ in Anarchy 23,[2] I said (among other things) that the anarchist movement needs to be built upon respect. In some ways I’m saying the same thing in a different way.

First, I’m saying society looks different according to where you are standing. So different that at times we don’t seem to be even looking at the same things – but we are! So the bickering over which view is ‘correct’ should stop. Instead we should listen to how society looks from these different positions, and accept it. To deny someone’s view of society may in theory be harmless enough, in practice it is almost a denial of the person concerned (which is why these arguments get so heated and become so personal).

Secondly, I’m saying that almost all the different tactics we discuss are good ones. A great tactic is the use of all these tactics at once, as happened by accident at Ilford. All the different tactics and activities that people suggest at meetings and conferences, should not be seen as competing with each other, but as complements.

Chris Broad.

Notes
1 The lagging of consciousness, Anarchy Magazine No.26 [1978] p7-11
2 See ‘Tis the worst economic crisis … (or, What is to be done

From: Anarchy Magazine No.26 [1978] p1-4.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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