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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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

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

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

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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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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 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 squat ting 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.

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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Today in London housing history: St Pancras rent strikers fight police, Kings Cross, 1960.

St. Pancras and the Rents

On 1960 council tenants in the borough of St Pancras went on partial rent strike, in protest against a differential rent scheme introduced by the Conservative council. The numbers of tenants who were actually withholding the rent were to fluctuate during the nine or ten months that the struggle was at its height, and although two tenants were forcibly evicted and many others intimidated, the council was left at the end of the year with rent arrears totalling over £20,000.

At the time, St Pancras was a large central London borough stretching from Highgate in the north to Kings Cross and Regents Park in the south. (After April 1965 it became part of the London Borough of Camden.) Its population was mostly working class and there were over 8000 council tenants within it. Under Labour control, it had been council policy to municipalise all the land in St Pancras. This was, of course, hampered by property speculation and the rise in land prices. It was a prosperous borough and in spite of its working class population large commercial and industrial interests contributed 70% of the rates.

St Pancras council tended to change at each election from Labour to Conservative and back again. The Labour councils when elected were fairly tame ones until 1956, when John Lawrence took over the Labour leadership. Council policy swung to the left: St Pancras refused to operate civil defence arrangements, flew the Red Flag on 1st May, brought in a rent scheme where maximum levels were pegged on a low scale, and insisted on a closed shop for council employees. The rent reductions enraged the local Tories, who in 1957 and ’58 produced “typical” ratepayers who objected to these reductions at the council audit; but the District Auditor was persuaded by the council that the rent levels they had set were “reasonable”, but in 1958 added that a general review of rents was overdue. This could only really mean a general increase in rents. The auditor ruled that the yardstick of the 1957 Rents Act – rents at 21 times gross value – was to be used – this principle was to raise drastically the permissible maximum of rents for private tenants. (This led to the sort of exploitation practised by Rachman.)

Before the audit, there was a drastic change in the St Pancras council: in the summer of 1958 John Lawrence and 13 other Labour councillors were expelled from the Labour Party for “views believed to be inimical to the best interests of the Labour Party and indistinguishable from those of known Communists”. They retained their council seats, but sat as a group of Independent Labour councillors.

6 months later, the council increased rents. Although the increases were fairly small, local people saw them as a surrender to the Conservatives and the District Auditor. The Independent Labour group voted unsuccessfully against the increases. But some some of the council officials wanted to go further: the Town Clerk, Borough Treasurer and Housing Manager published a report at the same time as the rent scheme was announced, criticising councillors for not implementing rent levels nearer to those recommended by the 1957 Rent Act, and drawing attention to the growing deficit on the Housing Revenue Account, which was expected to reach £300,000 in 1960.

Labour wanted to keep the rents of large flats down in the interests of larger families. But in May 1959, council elections returned the Tories to power on St Pancras Borough Council. Almost immediately they announced several new measures, including a new rents policy which would mean higher rents for most council tenants.

The rent scheme was approved on 29th July at a council meeting which lasted from 7.00pm to 4.20am the next morning. The Labour group tried to refer back the report of the Housing Management Committee, but their opposition could only be verbal as the Conservatives were obviously going to win any vote. Meanwhile hundreds of people queued for the gallery and later went to a protest meeting organised by the St Pancras Trades Council.

The rent scheme was to consist of a system of maximum and minimum levels based on rateable value, plus a system of rebates. However, the new maximum rent level of 1s 9d in the pound rateable value meant a large increase over existing rents, and brought them above even the levels set for private tenants under the 1957 Rent Act.

The maximum rent was designed to allow the reduction of subsidies for rents, which were an expense on the Exchequer, and reduce council rates, which would benefit businesses and richer residents. Rents were therefore expected to bear the burden of rising land and building costs. Subsidies had considerably reduced rents for some tenants.

The new maximum rent levels amounted to a massive increase – and 52% of tenants had to pay the maximum rent. Most rents on pre-war estates were trebled, and those on the post-war estates doubled. The weekly rent for a four-roomed flat in Kennistoun House, Kentish Town, built in 1934, increased from 16s to £2 9s; and in a similar flat in Willingham Terrace, a post-war block in nearby Leighton Road, the rent rose from £1 3s 6d to £3 1s 3d a week. Similar increases were instituted all over St Pancras.

Most tenants were furious. The scheme went beyond the recommendations of the report published by the council officials in January and outstripped the recommendations of the 1957 Rent Act, where a level of 2⅓ times gross value was considered adequate; here the maximum level was over three times the gross value.

There were already some small tenants’ associations and other ad hoc organisations; but tenants only started to organise seriously after the rent scheme had been passed. The new organisations bypassed a lot of the existing ones whose committees were inactive. By the end of August 1959 various groups had come together to form the St Pancras Borough Council United Tenants’ Association (or UTA). At a meeting called at Kennistoun House, Leighton Road, the secretary of the new UTA, Don Cook, who had been secretary of the small Kennistoun House Tenants’ Association, spoke. Describing council remarks that rent increases would be nominal and that no-one would suffer, he said:
“This is an outrageous distortion of fact. Rents are to be doubled and in many cases trebled. More than 6,000 tenants will be paying an additional £735,000 a year in rent revenue. This means an average increase of about 24s a week for every tenant. Many tenants are forming themselves into associations. The anger and resentment apparent makes it obvious that tenants are not prepared to accept this imposition. The tenants of this borough can, as a united body, defeat the aims and intentions of this Tory council.”

In the early stages, many tenants in the meetings were calling for direct action. They wanted an all-out fight including, if necessary, a refusal to fill in rebate forms and a possible rent strike. The Labour Party tried to limit the struggle to legal means. Labour councillors and other representatives implored tenants not to go on rent strike.

A mass movement had sprung up and organised itself in the space of a month.
The tenants’ movement showed its strength with mass marches and rallies in the Autumn of 1959. There were now 31 tenants’ associations affiliated to the organisation; and support from the trade unions was evident from their participation on the marches. Committees were set up in every block and every week some 200 tenants would meet, representing all the associations in the borough. These meetings decided UTA policy, and in this sense the tenants themselves were the real leadership. Masses of people were involved on a day-to-day basis in keeping the struggle going. At one stage the UTA were putting out leaflets three times a week. They could produce a leaflet within 24 hours so the gap between the elected leadership and the rank-and-file tenants could be kept to a minimum.

At the height of the struggle, every night as many as 60 women, went out banging on the councillors’ doors. If a councillor did not get two visits a week he was lucky. It was a tactic and it paid off. The police were less likely to arrest the women and the women themselves were very keen. It wasn’t difficult for the average housewife to realise she was in trouble with the rent rises. They formed the backbone of the movement, keeping everything going in the day and giving each other mutual support.

However, the council was determined to implement the rent system, in spite of representations by the UTA to council and committee meetings, and the attempts of the Labour group to amend the scheme.

At a council meeting on 11th November, after tenants had demonstrated in the public gallery, the police were called in to clear it, although no arrests were made. Soon after, the UTA held a delegate meeting attended by 165 representatives from 35 associations, where two motions were passed with almost unanimous support. The first gave delegates a free hand to negotiate with the council if the opportunity arose. The second resolved that if negotiations failed or were rejected, and the council persisted in implementing the rents scheme, tenants would be advised to withhold the increased rent demand from 4th January 1960.

The Tenants Organise

In December 1959 the lines of battle between the council and its tenants had pretty well been drawn. The council was intransigent and the tenants were determined to resist. A petition to the council signed by 16,000 people had no effect. The council refused to negotiate while the tenants’ campaign continued.

The hated rent scheme began on Monday 4th January. In the early stages of the campaign about 80% of the affected tenants withheld the increases. Even leading tory Councillor Prior admitted that the UTA had had “some measure of success”, and a town hall spokesman stated that about a quarter of all St Pancras tenants were withholding their rent increase – that is, about half of the 4,200 affected. However, Cllr Prior warned that “… unless there are special circumstances a tenant who gets in arrears is liable to be evicted”.

The UTA answered this threat by recommending that the tenants pay no rent at all if eviction notices were issued. At the same time, they said that they were still ready to negotiate with the council.

Over January the number of tenants withholding their rent increase went down: a large number of tenants were intimidated and demoralised by threatening letters from the Housing Manager, and the public surrender of some local Labour Party leaders among the tenants, who went along to the rent office in the third week of the struggle and paid up in full view of the tenants. By the end of January only 624 tenants were withholding the full 10s increase. Meanwhile the UTA was looking to other methods of action against the council; a solidarity conference on 16th January showed that trade union support would be forthcoming, and a one-day strike in St Pancras was suggested if the council threatened to evict anyone.

A stormy council meeting, on 10th February, voted to serve notice to quit on tenants in arrears. Once again the police were called in to clear the public gallery. 223 notices to quit were prepared, 156 of these had been served and since then 88 tenants had paid the arrears. This left 68 still under the threat of eviction, but that number was decreasing by the day.

In February, the Labour Party attempted to persuade tenants to give up the rent strike so the council would negotiate with them, while the UTA canvassed support from trade unions including the local branches of the ETU, AEU and NUR. UTA leader Don Cook stressed that the tenants could not throw away what weapons they had and that the latent support for the “veto” would have to be mobilised.

A UTA delegate meeting agreed that if the council would withdraw the eviction notices, postpone the July increase, and agree to enter negotiations without prejudice, they would withdraw the rent rise veto. But this compromise proved unacceptable to the council.

During the next few months the pattern of claim and counterclaim on the success of the campaign continued. The public gallery continued to be cleared by the police at council meetings and this culminated in a demonstration in the council chamber on 27th April when tenants chained themselves to their chairs and threw eggs at the Tory councillors. The public was then excluded from the next three council meetings.

In March the Conservatives lowered the rates from 17s 4d, the level since March 1957, to 17s in the pound. This was made possible by the very rent rises which had caused so much resentment. As Mrs Sheridan an Independent Labour alderman noted, ordinary ratepayers stood to benefit by only 3d a week, while big business would gain “to the tune of thousands of pounds”.

Just before the council started court proceedings against 23 tenants, they announced that the increase in rent in July would be limited to 12s 6d and the balance of the total increase would now be demanded in January 1961. The Housing Committee claimed that this was a great concession, saying it would cost them £16,000 for that financial year and would increase the estimated deficit to £194,000. But tenants were reminded that rents could well increase again, if the deficit increased again – as it inevitably would.

The court cases started in May. Agreement was reached in the UTA that only a few tenants should face eviction so that their flats could he defended more easily. Most of the arrears were paid, until only three cases remained. They were heard at Bloomsbury County Court on 28th June and judgment was given against all three. These were Don Cook of Kennistoun House, Leighton Road; Arthur Rowe in Silverdale, Regents Park Estate, and Gladys Turner of Goldington Buildings. However, the notice for possession was extended for two months – the tenants could expect eviction to start from 28th August.

Now even the Labour Party felt compelled to echo the increasing militancy. Tenants, they said, ought to get together to show their opposition to the rents scheme. “No borough council tenant has ever been evicted in St Pancras and we must see that no-one ever is. The way to stop them [the evictions] is to jam pack the entrances to the flats so that no-one can get in.”

Nevertheless the UTA were still trying to negotiate and eventually an informal meeting was arranged on 26th July. However, the two-hour long meeting was fruitless. All that Cllr Prior would talk about was the size of the deficit on the account. He avoided any discussion of hardship effects on the tenants.

The council had been saying that only about 50 tenants were in arrears, but in the middle of August 250 notices to quit were sent out. The UTA claimed these 250 were still only a small percentage of those on rent strike. Their policy since the abortive meeting with Cllr Prior was total rent strike rather than the withholding of rent increases. At the same time tenants were making preparations for the defence of the two tenants faced with eviction. The third tenant who had been to Bloomsbury Court and ordered to vacate, Mrs Turner, had come to an arrangement with the council.

The Tenants’ Case

In their propaganda, the Conservatives insisted that council tenants were being subsidised by a contribution that went from the rates to pay the “deficit” on the Housing Revenue Account. They claimed that if the rent scheme had not been brought into operation, council tenants would have been subsidised by over £300,000 in the financial year 1959-60 and by increasing amounts every year after. What was the reason for this deficit? Were council tenants really being subsidised by the private tenants and house owners in the borough? Were the rent increases financially necessary?

Until 1955 the “deficit” in St Pancras was negligible; indeed in 1954 the council made £6,000 profit out of council rents. A balance was kept by fixing the rents of new dwellings at levels sufficient to cover the costs of building and maintenance of the estates. Up to 1956 there was a range of rents for different estates depending on their age. However, as both the costs of building and borrowing money rose, disproportionate differences in rent levels appeared. So in 1956 the Labour Council under John Lawrence decided to freeze rents at a level that they thought the average family could afford. All rents above these levels were reduced to the new maximum. Those below were left as they were. Maximum rent levels were high compared to some other London boroughs but less well-off families still had the opportunity of flats at low rents.

This meant that, although the deficit would tend to rise, the cost would be spread all over the borough through the rates. This was fair, since housing was a social service. In November 1956, however, the Conservative government abolished all housing subsidies (except for slum clearance, expensive sites and one-room flats). Thus in one year the deficit rose from £30,000 (the last year when full subsidies were paid) to over £95,000.

The increased price of land and building, and the rising cost of borrowing money also hiked up the deficit. By far the most important of the rising costs was interest. Under the post-war Labour government, councils could borrow money for housing from the Public Works Loan Board at the rate of 2½% interest. But the Conservative government elected in 1951 ordered councils to borrow money from “normal” sources – the finance houses, banks and insurance companies – at the prevailing rate of interest: up to 6 or 7% over 60 years. This caused an astronomical leap in the cost of the built dwelling. The proportion of council housing expenditure which went on interest to the moneylender rose correspondingly: over 50% of total expenditure by 1959-60.

Land prices in the borough were rising. Land in St Pancras now cost as much as £30,000 an acre. During 1955-60 the property boom was well under way. Land costs could be as much as £400,000 an acre, and large fortunes were being made by the developers

The rise in land prices in central London affected all prices for building land roundabout. It was ultimately the tenants who had to suffer for the sake of the developers’ wealth. The council’s policy of relying on the rates to “spread out” the cost of housing did not, oddly enough, involve raising the rates.

Judged by its total rateable value, St Pancras was a wealthy borough, because of the large industrial and commercial interests, mainly in the south of the borough. 70% of total rate revenue came from industrial and commercial ratepayers, and only 30% from residential ones; and the value of the former tended to rise more rapidly.

It was partly the recognition of the steady rise in rateable value, especially in the non-residential sectors, that had enabled the Labour Council under John Lawrence to stabilise rents and make the richer commercial interests take their share of the cost of providing housing. Naturally the commercial interests did not like this arrangement. It is interesting to note that the Conservative rate reduction in March 1960 only meant very small reductions for residential ratepayers, whereas savings were larger for the commercial and industrial interests.

In fact, rent and rates brought in almost enough to cover costs and the deficit – but the council had banked the money in various funds and bank balances, where it was mainly sitting unused.

Why then were the rent increases imposed? There can be no clear overriding reason. One cannot rule out the influence of the sheer antipathy of the Conservative Party and its backers to council tenants. There is the element that some large ratepayers would have objected to paying for council housing. Withdrawal of subsidies and high loan charges had made them pay a larger share towards the cost of housing. The opposition of these ratepayers and those who objected to the social spending of council money would be inevitable if rents were geared to the income of families rather than paying towards the profits of those in similar positions to the large ratepayers.

There was also national tory housing policy. Henry Brooke, then Housing Minister, had proposed that councils should fix rents “at such a level that many tenants would actually find it cheaper to move out and buy their own houses”, thus forcing them into the arms of building societies and doing speculators a good turn.

The Evictions

The extension of the eviction order, given by Bloomsbury Court expired at midnight on 28th August. By that time well-constructed barricades had gone up, both at Kennistoun House and Silverdale. Don Cook had 12 pianos in his flat barricading various doors, as well as other old furniture and doors put against windows, and barbed wire and an old bedstead on the roof to discourage bailiffs from entering that way. There were also plans for human barricades; tenants and trade unionists were to be involved in a 24-hour picket of both flats so that, in an eviction attempt, defence and warning could be simultaneous. Preparations were made at Kennistoun House for a bell to be rung and rockets fired if the bailiffs arrived on the scene. On hearing or seeing the warning, workers all over the borough were prepared to down tools and rush to the assistance of the two beleaguered tenants. An intercom system was set up between Don Cook’s flat and the campaign headquarters in another flat in Kennistoun House.

Local trade union support was evident. On Monday 29th August railwaymen of Camden No.2 branch of the NUR held a two-hour token strike; council workers also struck over the next two days; and local firemen stated that they would not be involved in any attempt at eviction. Support from the tenants at Kennistoun House was total. On 31st August when half the tenants in the block were supposed to pay their rent, only one old-age pensioner was at the rent office. Banners saying “No Evictions” and “Force the Council to Negotiate” hung from the access balconies and an effigy of Cllr Prior hung in the middle of the courtyard.

From that time the council refused to negotiate with the UTA. The Town Clerk set out four conditions for agreeing to a meeting:
“1. All picketing to be stopped, and all attempts to intimidate or coerce council tenants into withholding the rent to cease. 2. All obstructions, placards and notices to be removed from council property. 3. All demonstrations to stop. 4. Mr Arthur Rowe to pay the Court Judgment debt … since June 28th in accordance with the present rent scheme and to pay all rates due to the Council.”

Since this meant a virtual abandonment of the campaign by the tenants, these preconditions for talks were immediately ruled out as unacceptable. The Tories had now decided that they too would only negotiate if the Town Clerk’s proposals were accepted.

By Wednesday 14th September, 514 notices to quit had been sent out by the council. Determination to hold on was stronger than ever amongst the council tenants. There were regular marches and demonstrations throughout the borough, to which the NUR, ETU and AEU all sent delegations.

On the evening of 21st September – the evening before the eviction – a demonstration of about 500 tenants took place outside St Pancras Town Hall, as a housing committee was being held inside. The police had already banned demonstrations outside the Town Hall; now they cleared the area and violently manhandled demonstrators. Eleven people were arrested, including former council leader John Lawrence, and the crowd, which included young children, was charged twice by mounted police.

After the demonstration, a meeting was held in Kennistoun House with tenants’ representatives, Labour councillors and Communist Party members. The latter two organisations had been frightened by the demonstration and there was a great deal of talk about caution. However, there was now no time for new tactics to be instigated.

Around five o’clock in the morning of 22nd September, bailiffs supported by about 800 police attacked both Silverdale and Kennistoun House. At Kennistoun House the pickets put up a two-hour defence against the bailiffs and the police; oil was poured over them as they tried to get up the stairs to the entrance to Don Cook’s flat on the top floor, and one of their number was seriously injured and had to be taken to hospital; but the great mass of tenants were unable to reach the flats to defend Don Cook due to the large numbers of police and mounted police who had cordoned off the block with lines at least three deep.

One council tenant from Islip Street said: “I heard the rockets. We all ran out in our pyjamas. Everywhere there were people running towards Kennistoun House. But when we turned into Leighton Road all we could see were police. There were hundreds of them. We could do nothing. We could not get near. The police are here to help the bailiffs if they are resisted but we never had a chance to resist.”

Two other participants in the struggle reported: “The first we knew about the raid was when about five bailiffs came in through a hole in the roof. They came down the stairs and forced open the sitting room. We retreated to the kitchen and re-barricaded…. In the kitchen we made a cup of tea while the bailiffs were pushing and shoving to get in. The bailiffs used crowbars and hacksaws. Those who had come through the roof let more bailiffs in through the window. When they broke into the kitchen we offered them a cup of tea. They drank it…. They were unable to get through the window because of the barbed wire so they ripped the slates off the roof and made a hole in the plaster with their axes.”

“We ran up the stairs with the bailiffs behind us. There were seven of them, with two police officers. I was forced back against the wall. Then I was carried downstairs. I heard a lot of shouting and Don called out to me. They took us by surprise by getting in the back way.”

Over at Silverdale the police and bailiffs used similar tactics. Large cordons of police kept the tenants from defending Arthur Rowe while a group of bailiffs and police carried out the eviction. Arthur Rowe and his son held out for about an hour, but eventually bailiffs smashed a hole in a four and a half inch brick wall to get in. When they were finally evicted, they were lifted onto the shoulders of the other flat dwellers and carried up onto a grass bank where Arthur Rowe made a short impromptu speech. He thanked all his fellow tenants for their assistance and said that the fight must continue against the “greatest social injustice of this time”. He then went up to Kennistoun House to join the evicted Don Cook.

At Kennistoun House the fighting went on well into the day. 100 building workers struck at the Shell Centre site at Waterloo, and marched up Leighton Road, led by John Lawrence, but they hardly had time to get there before they were attacked by the police and fighting broke out again. During the day 200 men struck at Camden Goods Yards; overall though trade union support was more limited than had been expected.

The police cordons stayed around the two blocks of flats all day and tenants only dispersed when it was announced that a meeting would be held at Kennistoun House that same evening. During the day Don Cook issued a statement:
“The Tory council in St Pancras now stands condemned as the instigator of the most violent attack on ordinary people witnessed for many years…. Arthur Rowe and I are out of our flats, but there are many more who will follow us. The barricades of St Pancras have only just begun. We will continue the fight and justice must prevail.”

The violence of the morning was to pale in comparison with the march from the meeting at Kennistoun House down to St Pancras Town Hall in the evening. Most tenants were still raging at the events of the morning as a crowd over 14,000 strong made their way down Euston Road. They were faced by a cordon of about a thousand police around the Town Hall and a small number of demonstrators tried to force their way through the police lines. What followed was described in horrified tones by most newspapers as “violent riots against steadfast and patient police” but some degree of truth even slipped into the press. It seems as though a line of police, completely out of control, waded into the mass of the crowd:
“The police action last night was the worst – and the most frightening – I have ever seen. Quite unnecessarily, I was punched and kicked and sent hurtling against a wall by policemen who, in my opinion, had completely lost their tempers. At least 50 policemen advanced on a crowd in a solid mass. There was no simple request to ‘Move on’. Instead they just came at us with fists flying.”

Many were injured and large numbers arrested. However, “outside extremists” and the “red menace” were later blamed for the violence on that night; undoubtedly many people were extremely angry and windows in several cars and a bus were broken. But the method of eviction in the morning and the action of the police in the evening turned a large demonstration on the rent rises into a confrontation and a riot. Later comment on the situation stressed the Communist influence.

The area around the Town Hall was finally cleared by about midnight on the evening of the 22nd, but police remained guarding the Town Hall, Kennistoun House and Silverdale all night. Meanwhile Cllr Prior had announced that the Housing Committee would now meet a small deputation of tenants, provided that all demonstrations ceased.

The next day the Home Secretary issued an order under the Public Order Act 1936 banning all public processions. With the evictions carried out, a ban on all demonstrations, and negotiations opening, a new phase in the campaign started.

The Final Defeat

While the UTA was preparing for the next stage of the conflict, the fragile alliance of tenants and the Labour Party began to crack. Labour MP Robert Mellish attacked the “agitators”:
“Disputes such at that at St Pancras should be settled by negotiations. The approach of the Holborn and St Pancras South Labour Party has been right, but the situation has been exploited by outside elements who have come in wanting to start a mood of revolution. They have used any and every excuse, even the Labour Party, as a means for causing friction and trouble. We are diverted from the main issues in order to try to quell a tiny insignificant few who make the noise and get the press and publicity.”

The UTA did not see the coming negotiations as having any preconditions about the toning down of the campaign. On Wednesday 28th September, the central committee recommended that all tenants withhold the whole rent in order to cripple the council’s finances; and that the rent money be given a fighting fund to reimburse or compensate those jailed, fined or injured as a result of the struggles. As a result of this decision by the UTA and the leaflet issued setting out these proposals, the council decided yet again to break off negotiations, and refused to recognise the UTA as a representative tenants’ body. The council negotiated with various individual tenants’ associations but not with the UTA as a whole, with the purpose of gathering various proposals and amendments to consider for the “review” of the rents scheme in November.

The Labour Party establishment in St Pancras also distanced themselves from the UTA, even while they made noises about Tories being still chiefly to blame.

The awaited review and amendments to the rent scheme were finally announced at the council meeting on 9th November. The changes were marginal, involving some £15,500 in loss of rent revenue. The rent scheme was said to be fair on all tenants, and St Pancras ratepayers were alleged to be “subsidising” council tenants.

384 notices to quit were still outstanding, with court cases considered in 118 of these.

The UTA condemned the review as completely inadequate and repeated their determination to defeat the rent scheme and also to get Don Cook and Arthur Rowe rehoused. But support was slackening. The council were sending bailiffs around the estates during the day to intimidate tenants and their families, and to threaten them with the seizing of their furniture and all their goods if they did not pay up their arrears. This measure was to some degree successful.

At the UTA general meeting on 5th December, the central committee, realising that a number of tenants were paying the rent who had previously been on rent strike, announced that a new policy was being worked out. At a meeting at Silverdale on 5th February, Don Cook explained the new policy:
“Our position has altered in the light of previous experience. We cannot see other tenants thrown out onto the streets. I can assure you that we are not surrendering. If it came to any tenant being evicted we would act in every possible way to support him. In fact all we have done is to buy time. If the majority of the tenants were withholding the rent there would be no need for this change of policy. We cannot expect a minority to place themselves in danger of eviction – in fact we cannot allow it…. We must work to see there is a defeat for the Tories in the coming LCC elections and above all we have got to work for the return of a Labour council next year. We are not withdrawing from the battle. We are going to fight in a different way.”

At a rally at Silverdale on 22nd September, the anniversary of the evictions, the unity of aims between tenants and the Labour Party was reaffirmed on this new footing: the basis of unity was the approach to the forthcoming council elections. P. Richards the UTA chairman spoke:
“We want to see a new council swept into office next May and we want them to clear out this rents scheme and fix the rents at a level perhaps 10s a week above the old rents. We shall also expect Don Cook and Arthur Rowe to be rehoused.”

The message was repeated by a Labour councillor, Sid Munn: “We want your help to ensure the return of a Labour council next May. Both Labour Parties are in close touch with the UTA to try to work out a satisfactory solution to the rents problem.”

This was echoed by the Communist parliamentary candidate for St Pancras North, Jock Nicolson: “We want a Labour and progressive council at the Town Hall.”

Early in January 1962 the Labour Party announced the rent scheme they would adopt if re-elected in May. The differential rents would go, to be replaced by standard rents based on 2~3 times gross value. Any tenants in hardship could appeal to a housing subcommittee. At the time this was estimated to cost £100,000. The UTA endorsed the Labour rent policy, saying that it met many of the proposals they had put forward for consideration; several members of the UTA committee were putting up for election as Labour councillors (and some as Communist councillors). With this promising unity against the Tories, it seemed that if the elections were successful, the tenants were finally going to win their battle against the council.

In May 1962 Labour won control of the council by 51 seats to 19. The new leader of the council, Charles Ratchford, was quick to announce: “Of course there will be some big changes of policy straightaway. The differential rent scheme will be abolished. That was the issue on which the electorate voted us into power.”

However, time passed, however, and no new rent scheme was forthcoming. Eventually, Labour member Cllr P. Jonas, a member of the housing committee who had also been deeply involved in the UTA campaign, explained that if the rents were to be reduced by a “substantial amount” the councillors might be breaking the law and therefore be liable to heavy surcharges. “Reasonable rents” were demanded by law and the interpretation of what was “reasonable” was the prerogative of the District Auditor. He concluded, “I am afraid the high hopes we had cannot be fulfilled”.

In the end Labour did not withdraw the differential rent scheme, though rents were to be fixed at existing levels until the end of the financial year.

Tenants demonstrated in the public gallery and sang the “Red Flag”, but for them it was too late. Their realisation of what the Labour Party would do once back in office came only slowly in the months between July and October. They had pinned their hopes and policies onto a one party political bandwagon and it had broken down, leaving them completely stranded both tactically and strategically. Another rent strike was threatened, but with little confidence in its success.
In spite of a number of deputations to the council, and even threats of rebellion from the UTA Labour councillors, the scheme was passed in February and came into operation on 1st April 1963.

Could the Tenants Have Won?

The St Pancras Rent Strike and the tenants’ campaign against the differential rent scheme ultimately had failed. Although Don Cook and Arthur Rowe were rehoused by the new Labour council, the high maximum rents remained. Could the St Pancras tenants have won their fight? Against them were ranged immense forces. The council was actually the least of these; it was placed in the front position by virtue of its action in raising the rents, but the general situation which dictated that more income was needed from the tenants was not of its making.

Behind the council there was, first of all, the District Auditor. He was an executor of government policy. When the Labour council in the late 1950s subsidised the rents of de-requisitioned tenants, individual councillors were surcharged to the amount of “lost” revenue at the instigation of the District Auditor. When the 1962 Labour council reneged on its election promises for fear of being surcharged, it is arguable whether or not this would have been done.

The state machine was only evident on a few occasions, most explicitly on the day of the eviction. It seems as if the tenants’ movement had become too dangerous for the state to tolerate; the overwhelming numbers of police and the brutality of their tactics were meant to intimidate the tenants and to crush their opposition. The action of the Home Secretary, R.A. Butler, in banning all demonstrations in St Pancras immediately after the evictions was another part of this plan.

The most important force working against the tenants was the mechanics of the housing financial system. The increased rent went mainly to pay off the large interest charges on the loans the council received to build housing. Thus financial interest was involved against the tenants, and the actions of the state both at national and local level become clearer when seen as a defence of that interest. The rent scheme was necessitated not so much by the need to remove all rate contributions to housing, as by the fact that the total cost of housing was rising continually with the price of land and money. The aim was to keep the rates steady while making the tenants pay for the growth of expenditure.

Within the opposition to the differential rent scheme there were contradictions. The Labour Party as an official body was at best a lukewarm supporter of tenants’ direct action, in spite of many of its members’ activities as individuals in the campaign. National and local Labour figures that the “proper” way to fight the rent rises was “through the ballot box” – but then the St Pancras Labour parties failed to fulfil their promises made before the 1962 council elections.

The role of the Communist Party can in many ways be compared with that of the Labour Party. Don Cook and many of the leaders of the tenants’ movement were members of the CP, and in the early stages of the struggle. Communist Party support for the UTA was total. However, once the direct action had turned into the anti-eviction struggle, and the police had started to attack demonstrations, the Communist Party began to see direct action as “adventurism” and their members advised caution in private meetings, while still saying publicly that the struggle must continue. There was undoubtedly a desire not to see people hurt by police attacks, as had been seen in Euston Road, but there was also a large element of electoral manoeuvring. The contradictions can be seen within the activities of the CP generally. On one hand there had been successful agitation and the leading of a mass movement; on the other there was the CP’s overall strategy, the Parliamentary Road to Socialism, with its reliance on elected Left-Labour and Communist representatives to institute the new social system. This policy naturally led to close support of the electoral strategy of the Labour Party and, in this case, to a reduction in agitation and support for tenants’ direct action.

What of the tactics of the UTA itself? Its reliance on two “figureheads” to bear the brunt of the fight against evictions, whilst enabling the tenants to concentrate their strength, also allowed the state to concentrate its forces. With regard to the UTA support for the Labour Party council candidates, the mistake was letting this become the major tactic of the post-eviction struggle. Perhaps it was right for the tenants to try to force the Labour Party to adopt their programme; but this should not have allowed the Labour Party to seize the leadership from the tenants. This is unfortunately what happened in St Pancras, with the Labour Party’s consequent betrayal of the tenants’ hopes.

The lack of effective industrial action allied with the rent strike was another underlying cause of the ultimate failure of the struggle. Key sections of industry were not brought in. Admittedly St Pancras in 1959 was very different from Glasgow in 1915, where such a policy was successful. The links formed with the trade unions could have led to greater involvement by the rank and file workers in spite of the probable opposition of their union leadership.

A continuation of militant action by the tenants, admittedly in the face of more evictions, brutality and intimidation, would have been a more vigorous and positive policy. It has been argued that after the evictions many tenants became disillusioned. But the real disillusionment of the tenants occurred only after the failure of the Labour council to reduce rents in 1962. At times of great crisis, for example when the barricades went up, more tenants than ever before became involved in the struggle.

But no realistic strategy in struggles of this kind can afford to ignore the brute facts about where power lies in our society. The so-called democratic machinery of the state, right down to the local councils, is at the mercy of the dominant influences in the state who benefit by increased land and housing costs. The only force on which tenants and workers can rely is their own organised strength, while the elected representatives, sucked into the state machine, have no real power.

After the evictions, some tenants were enthusiastic about the Labour Party’s proposals and were ready to make them the only major policy of the UTA, in spite of Labour’s sabotage attempts earlier in the campaign. To some extent this was not the result of the state’s intimidation. The tenants’ association alone could not have successfully fought all the forces that the state was ready to use against it. Many tenants were confused in the period after the evictions, and the struggle might have died away.

A clear lead was needed which placed no faith in the council elections and gave an analysis of the total nature of the struggle. This would have maintained the solidarity of those tenants and workers who were prepared to carry on. It could not guarantee victory but would have provided a basis for continuing the fight, raising morale and widening the battle. The absence of this lead left the struggle to be waged on the purely electoral road which proved so disastrous.

This is an edited version of Rent Strike: St Pancras 1960, by Dave Burn

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

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Today in royal history: Greek queen’s visit to Claridges leads to protests, 1963.

The State Visit to London of King Paul and Queen Frederica of the Hellenes, between 9 and 12 July 1963, occasioned demonstrations by pacifists, nuclear disarmers, Communists, militant Christians, Greek left-wingers, anarchists, and others.

Greece had been almost completely divided between left and right since the end of World War 2, when a civil war between a strong communist movement and a rightwing monarchist government backed by the US/Britain ended in massacre and exile for much of the left. In the early ’60s Greece was intermittently authoritarian and precariously democratic, sliding towards the 1967 Colonels’ Coup that would put a basically fascist military in power. Elements in the Greek monarchy and army were constantly active in keeping the left and working class movements down. Greece’s crucial strategic position was vital for NATO, meaning the US was keen to back them to prevent any possibility of Greece drifting to the left, or any social change that even hinted at such a thing.

Greece’s Queen Frederika was a notorious right winger, having been a member of the Hitler Youth during her early life in Austria. She neatly linked the national and international skein, having also had an affair with CIA director Allan Dulles; she was generally reckoned to be a powerful influence against the Greek left, through her husband king Paul, and then her son King Constantine.

Her visit to London coincided with two things. First the aftermath of the assassination of leading Greek left social democrat MP and peace campaigner Grigoris Lambrakis, that had caused international outrage. And secondly the national campaign run by the Communist Party for the release of Greek seafarers’ leader Tony Ambetelios, who had been imprisoned in Greece for 18 years. His wife Betty (née Betty Bartlett) was a former central leader of the British Communist Party, and toured the country gathering widespread support for the release of Greek political prisoners.

On a previous visit in April queen Frederica had been jostled by demonstrators and chased down the street – she was forced to hide in a nearby house to escape their attentions… This time the authorities were determined their royal guest would not be embarrassed by lefties.

For a week during Frederika’s stay every evening demonstrators assembled in Trafalgar Square with the ambition of marching down the Mall to Buckingham Palace. Each time the police blocked them and there were running battles around adjacent back streets.

“They were protesting against the murder of Lambrakis by Fascists with police connivance, the brutal suppression of Greek anti-bomb marchers, the retention of political prisoners sixteen years after the civil war, Queen Fred’s membership of the Hitler Youth, Queen Fred’s support of EOKA in Cyprus, the expense of State Visits, the nastiness of States, and what-have-you. But for all their variety the demonstrators were not numerous. Three thousand at the most, well out-numbered by the five thousand or more police whose leave was stopped for the occasion.

Tuesday evening, the ninth, the demonstrators set out from Trafalgar Square to march along The Mall to Buckingham Palace and hold a silent vigil. But the ceremonial gates of The Mall were closed against them, so they marched down Whitehall to the Cenotaph and held a noisy riot. And from there they went by several routes to the Palace after all.

Wednesday, the Royal Party went to the Aldwych Theatre….” (Donald Rooum)

So that the royal party could see Shakespeare’s “A midsummer night’s dream” in security, the foreign office was driven to buy up all 1,100 tickets for one night’s performance at the Aldwych Theatre. A false report that a bomb had been planted in the theatre led to delays as police in evening clothes searched with a mine detector. Six rows of police held back thousands of protestors, who greeted the royal arrivals with shouts of “Sieg Heil!”. Leaving the theatre, Queen Elizabeth was seen to look startled and dismayed at being intensively booed.

“This time no attempt was made to keep demonstrators away, and the police found no difficulty in controlling them. It was a noisy demonstration of course — the King and Queen of Greece and the Queen and Prince Consort of Britain were roundly booed whenever they appeared — but it showed no sign of getting out of hand.

Then the Home Secretary, Mr. Henry Brook called a press conference. Mr. Brook is not an emotional man; one of the things that annoys his opponents is his apparent coldness. Now, however, he was reported (Daily Express, 10 July 1963) to be red-faced and trembling.

“The Queen of England was booed tonight,” he said, “and I am furious.” He went on to call on loyal citizens to “show contempt” for demonstrators.

I believe it was his fury which decided the police, when the Royal Party visited Claridge’s Hotel on Thursday the eleventh, to move all demonstrators well out of booing range. Whether his call to show contempt had any effect, I cannot say.” (Donald Rooum)

On Thursday 11th July, demonstrators outside Claridge’s were met with slightly more force. Several hundred people were arrested. One of the protesters was Betty Ambatielos, who burst through the police cordon to rush towards Frederika’s carriage shouting, “Release my husband!”.

However, one of the arrests would backfire spectacularly. Anarchist Donald Rooum, then cartoonist for Peace News, was nicked by the notorious Met police inspector Harold ‘Tanky’ Challenor:

“At about nine o’clock on the evening of 11 July, I was captured by a big, stocky, flat-nosed man with a dark suit, boots, and a very-short- back-and-sides.

At the time I was behaving legally. Lines of policemen, shoulder to shoulder across the width of the road, hands clasped as for the Palais Glide, were clearing a huge area surrounding Claridges of all but police and a few press photographers. A Committee of 100 briefing instructed demonstrators stopped by the police to sit down, but I personally could see no point in a sit-down demonstration, or any demonstration, which took place beyond the ken of those for whom it was intended.

So when I was moved on by the police, I moved; but I moved in a circle, in the hope that if I could stay in the neighbourhood until the royal party arrived, I might be permitted to stand silently holding my innocuous paper banner.

I met Peter and Ann who were trying the same tactic, and the three of us did manage to get left behind, somehow, by two separate police-cordons following each other. I believe at one point we were the only people without police permits who could actually see Claridge’s doorway. But of course we were moved on, and at about nine o’clock we were emerging from South Molton Passage into South Molton Lane, still well within the cleared area but no longer within hailing distance of Claridges. The police stopped us again. One of them took my banner, and was making a great show of reading it (it said “Lambrakis R.I.P.”) when four plainclothes men came and took it off him. I waited until they’d all read it, then said politely:

“Can I have my banner back ?”

The big one with the short-back-and-sides stepped forward. “Can you have your what back ?”

“My banner.”

He smiled at me. “You’re fucking nicked, my old beauty,” he said, and gave me a terrific clout on the ear.

Then he grabbed me by the collar, thrusting his knuckles into my skull, and bustled off towards Claridges.

“Please, officer,” I protested. “I’m coming quietly.”

“Don’t say please to me, my old darling. I’ve got a stone ‘art.” (Rooum)

Calling Rooum ‘my old darling’ wasn’t a sign of Challenor’s particular affection for anarchist cartoonists: he apparently called everyone that.

Battering Rooum as he was carted off to West End Central, Challenor decided to add some icing to the cake to ensure the arrest would become a conviction.

“When we arrived at the charge room the big man called out ” I’ve got a desperate one ‘ere,” which someone took as a signal to open the door of a detention room. (A detention room differs from a cell, I’m told, in that it has no inside door handle). He frogmarched me in and the door was locked on the pair of us.

He pushed his face into mine and breathed hard. It was not as bad an experience as it might have been. No alcohol, tobacco or onions discernible.

“Boo the Queen, would you ?” he snarled.

“No,” I said quickly, “not at all.”

“Eh ?” he looked slightly worried, slightly disappointed. Then craftily, “But you sympathise with ’em, don’t you ?”

“No,” I said.

After the clouting up the stairs, I would have been too groggy to defend myself even if I had his weight and training. In any case, I knew that the feeblest attempt to defend oneself against a policeman is seen by magistrates as an unwarranted attack. Let him beat me up and get it over. But at least I could deny him the satisfaction of feeling justified.

None of his business who I sympathised with.

So he didn’t beat me up after all. Just three more clouts to the ears which knocked me flying again, but which after the punishment on the stairs, I didn’t feel.

“There you are, my old darling,” he smiled paternally, ” ‘Ave that with me. And just to make sure we ‘aven’t forgotten it … ” He took from his pocket a screwed-up newspaper, which he opened with a flourish. Inside was a bit of brick.

His smile widened. “There you are, my old beauty. Carrying an offensive weapon. You can get two years for that.”

Planting evidence was a crucial part of Challenor’s MO. After WW2 service as a commando in a unit that became the SAS (for which we won the Military Medal), he joined the Metropolitan police in 1951, working in the CID and Flying Squad. Moving to West End Central copshop in Mayfair in 1962. West End Central partly oversaw the policing of Soho, then infamous for crime, much of it to do with vice, prostitution, sex clubs, organised crime… At one point, he had a record of over 100 arrests in seven months and he eventually totalled 600 arrests and received 18 commendations. Challenor’s methods were fast and loose, as with much of policing then, involving threats, violence, ‘verbals’ (alleging you’d heard a verbal confession), mixed in with as much racism as possible.

By the end of his career, Challoner’s modus operandi included punching a suspect from Barbados while singing “Bongo, bongo, bongo, I don’t want to leave the Congo”.Various of his accused claimed to have been beaten up or have had evidence planted on them but, at first, this did not prevent conviction.

“Within a matter of weeks he had smashed a “protection gang” who were extorting money from strip clubs. It did not matter that the defendants alleged that they had been beaten and weapons planted on them. They were not believed. Nor were other complaints.

From then on, the short, stocky Challenor was a self-appointed scourge of Soho, and in fairness, that is what his superiors wanted from him… It did not matter that he was loud and aggressive, so long as the arrests and convictions kept coming. It was said that in the witness box he could make Soho sound like Chicago, and he described fighting crime in London as “like trying to swim against a tide of sewage”.

Had Challenor stuck to dealing with the flotsam of the area, there is no knowing how long he would have lasted. In the 1960s, juries and magistrates were not inclined to believe defendants, especially if the officer in the case was a decorated war hero.”

However, Donald Rooum would turn out to be a fit-up too far. A member of the National Council for Civil Liberties, Rooum had read about forensic science.

“Only a week or so before, I had finished reading the cheap paperback edition of Science and the Detection of Crime by C. R. M. Cuthbert, sometime superintendent of the Metropolitan Police Laboratory (Hutchinson “Grey Arrow” edition, 1962). Most of this book is about instances of Edmond Locard’s Principle of Exchange, “Every contact leaves its trace.”

A brick in a pocket would surely be another instance; it would leave brick dust behind. So far there had been no brick in my pocket. If they neglected to put one there; and if this man persisted in his story that he found it there; and if I could prove this was the suit I was wearing; and if I could get it to the Metropolitan Police Laboratory before I had chance to clean the pockets … I might have a defence.”

He refused to sign for the brick as part of his property and, kept in custody overnight, handed over his clothes to his solicitor at the first court hearing the next morning; they were sent for lab testing. No brick dust or appropriate wear and tear were found which would indicate that a brick had ever even been in his pockets. Rooum was acquitted, although other people Challenor arrested at the demonstration were still convicted on his evidence.

Another defendant to appear before Robey called the same scientific evidence as Rooum but was found guilty, although his conviction was later quashed.

The furore over the visit forced the Labour Party’s leader, Harold Wilson, to agree to boycott a state banquet to schmooze the Greek party. Back in Greece, the protests had such a big effect that they caused a political crisis which brought down the Prime Minister, Karamanlis, (who had in fact advised against the royals’ trip).

The new Greek premier, Panayotis Pipinelis, gave Betty Ambatielosa 45-minute hearing. Shortly after, 19 Greek political prisoners – though not Betty’s husband Tony Ambatielos – were freed as a gesture. No doubt the deep impression of extreme hostility to Greece amongst the British public saw releases in an attempt to restore its image. A limited return to civilian rule was permitted and, in the thaw, Tony Ambatielos was able to return to Britain to be granted political asylum and be re-united with Betty for the first time for 18 years.

After the court case, Challenor’s mental condition deteriorated sharply – or more accurately, his superiors suddenly noticed that he was a bad bastard who could cause further embarrassment. Fair to say that while he was putting away ‘lowlife’ with scant regard to the rules of evidence, the Met hierarchy didn’t blink an eyelid, but getting caught out publicly in court can make the blind eyes open all of a sudden. By June 1964, when he appeared at the Old Bailey, charged with three others with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, he was found unfit to plead and sent to a mental hospital. His co-accused were found guilty and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment.

Some of this post was nicked from Donald Rooum’s account of his arrest.

And some info on Betty Ambatielios from here

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

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Today in legal history: six Committee of 100 activists go on trial, for breaching Official Secrets Act, 1962.

In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, as the Cold War arms race increased stockpiles of nuclear missiles across the world, and superpower tensions brought us to the brink of World War 3, movements arose protesting the existence of such irrevocable weaponry and campaigning for disarmament. In Britain, organisations like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament focused on marches, petitioning and demonstrations. However, a more radical wing emerged, dissatisfied with this approach, which launched campaigns of direct actions to blockade and disrupt nuclear missile bases and the government institutions responsible for ‘defence’. First through the Direct Action Committee, from 1957, and through the more high profile Committee of 100, from 1960, this more radical wing of the anti-nuclear movement organised sit-down protests in Whitehall and outside the US embassy, and at missile bases.

Police were ordered to take a hard line against them from the start. Hundreds were arrested on the demos in central London; but the 1961 campaign targeting bases brought fiercer repression.

ON 8th December 1961, six leading activists from the anti-nuclear direct action organisation, the Committee of 100, were arrested as they prepared for demonstrations at Wethersfield NATP base and other nuclear sites. Ian Dixon, Helen Allegranza, Michael Randle, Pat Pottle, Terry Chandler and Trevor Hatton were charged with breaching the Official Secrets Act and remanded on bail.

Their trial began on February 12th 1962.

“Despite the Attorney General’s assertion at the outset that it was not a ‘political prosecution… They are being prosecuted… on account of their conduct which…. Amounted to the commission of a criminal offence,” the trial was above all else a highly charged confrontation between the ideology of the Committee of 100 and the ideology of the state. The contrast between the refusal of the judge to allow evidence relating to the beliefs and motivations of the Committee and the overtly political nature of the prosecution’s case brought into sharp relief the already extant move of the Committee activists towards an anarchist or libertarian socialist analysis.

… Early in the trial the Judge ruled that, whilst the purpose of the accused in going to the base was relevant, their motives of beliefs were not. In his opening statement the Attorney general had outlined three questions for the jury to decide, the last of which was to decide whether the protestors’ purposes were prejudicial to the safety and interest of the State. In his submission, he had added, any interference with the defence system of the country must obviously be so. Mr Jeremy Hutchinson, who acted for all the defendants save Pottle, based his defence on three basic points: that the defendants did not intend to prejudice the safety and interest of the State by their actions; that their beliefs were reasonable and well supported by the evidence; and that their actions were not in fact prejudicial to the safety and interest of the State.

By his ruling that evidence relating to motives and beliefs was inadmissible, and his further statements that any evidence which sought to challenge the defence system of the country, and any evidence about the effects of nuclear explosions, dangers of war, etc., were also to be disallowed, the judge effectively ruled out of order the whole defence case.

The defence case rested ultimately on the moral duty of using non-violent resistance to oppose genocide through nuclear war. Parallels were drawn with Nazism and the Nuremberg judgments. (In the circumstances, Pat Pottle’s achievement in establishing that the prosecution witness, Air Commodore Magill, would, if ordered, ‘press the nuclear button’, was nevertheless a telling point in the defendants’ case.)

In an exchange with the judge, for example, Randle argued:

Every individual must finally decide whether millions of lives are threatened by a particular act, and in that situation I think they have the right to make that decision… There were people in Germany during the Nazi regime who were ordered to commit what have since been defined as crimes against humanity. They would have ben going against the law of their country by disobeying their order. I feel they have a moral duty to disobey that order in that situation.

Judge: As far as I can see it means this doesn’t it, if you disagree with the law you break it?

Randle: Not in general, only in particular situations… Where I think it is flouting basic human rights I will certainly disobey it, and I feel it would be a moral obligation to disobey… I feel that the use of nuclear weapons is always contrary to basic human rights. I cannot see any situation in which they would be justified against human beings.

Randle went on to put forward the Committee’s objective of filling the jails so that the Government ‘would have to face up to the logic of being prepared to commit genocide, If they are prepared to do it against people they must be prepare to do it against us. That is the position we want to put them in.’

There was a conceptual, ideological and cultural gulf between the Attorney-General and the defendants that was unbridgeable. Sir Reginald [Manningham-Buller, the Attorney-General] appeared genuinely baffled: ‘What he [Randle] said amounted, did it not, to this: “we have decided what laws we broke, after very careful consideration… And where we see fit, we break the law.” It really is an admission of rather an astonishing character.’

Ultimately the case turned on these rival conceptions – which were fundamental, moral, and political – and not upon legal niceties. The legal smokescreen merely disguised, somewhat ineffectively, the clash of ideologies and cultures. There was never any doubt that the judge would virtually direct the jury to find the defendants guilty. Even so, the jury was out for four hours before entering a ‘guilty’ verdict, and even then recommended leniency. The sentences were harsh… All five men were sentenced to eighteen months in prison and Helen Allegranza to one year.”

Although the six defendants acquitted themselves well in court, the trial had a disastrous effect on the movement. “Not only was the movement deprived of its most able and experienced leaders for a long period, but the deterrent effect of the sentences was certainly a major factor in the Committee’s decline during 1962. The trial brought home to the Committee its inadequacy when faced by the might of the state. It was probably this more than anything else which brought about the demoralisation which… affected the Committee increasingly through 1962 and into early 1963. The trial indicated that the use of Non-Violent Direct Action alone, on the lines advocated and practiced by the Committee of 100, was neither powerful nor sophisticated enough to challenge seriously and in the long term the power of the State.”

Many of the leading elements of both the Direct Action Committee and the Committee of 100 identified themselves as coming from an anarchist or libertarian socialist standpoint, and this influenced their emphasis on direct action, rather than the appealing to the state that had characterised CND. Committee of 100 activists would go on in 1963-4 to investigate and release details of the secret command systems for civil defence, under the name Spies for Peace.

Well worth reading: Against the Bomb: The British Peace Movement 1958-1964, Richard Taylor, from which quotes in this post are taken.

A parliamentary publication on the history of the Official Secrets Act.

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

Today in London’s rebel history: ruckus at a Clerkenwell school ends in arrests, 1969.

On September 26th 1969 a mini-riot broke out among pupils at Philip Magnus School, Clerkenwell, after they had got into conversation with some young rebels who were leafleting outside.

One of those arrested relates the events…

“An hour or so after St.Paul’s we went off to a secondary modern school in Clerkenwell, near Kings Cross, where an anarchist friend of ours was a pupil. During the previous school year, after a molotov had burnt a hole in the door of the Head’s study, the head decided to ban boots in the school, an attack on the skinheads in the school, who were in the majority. They responded: boot prints appeared around the school, on the floors and walls and ceilings, drawings of boots were chalked up on blackboards, and finally the Head was presented in assembly with a gigantic papier mache boot. The Head felt compelled to unban the boots. So we longhairs arrive at this skinhead school, shortly after the eviction of ‘hippies’ from Endell St. squat, where the London Street Commune had gone after the eviction of 144 Piccadilly. We stay outside the school, because our friend hadn’t turned up and because a lot of the school seemed to be hanging around outside in a small square just outside the gates. We start the play but amidst cries of “Go back to Endell St!.” and stone throwing from some of the kids, we end it quickly as some of the skinheads start lifting a great big paving stone (we find out later that the Endell St. ‘hippies’ had appeared earlier that day at Clerkenwell Magistrates Court, just around the corner). We hand out leaflets, start talking to the boys about conditions in the school and what we think the education system’s all about. They all want an end to physical punishment, which wasn’t to be abolished in this country until the late 80s (not that humiliating kids in other ways isn’t equally miserable). No one wants school uniforms, but many want a smoking room and everyone wants “proper biology lessons”, which at that time were pitiful (probably they still are, but in a different modern way).

A tall spindly man appears, tells the boys to get out of the square and starts pushing them around. I say, “They’re allowed to be here. Who are you to tell them what to do? They can decide for themselves what to do.” The man, who turns out to be the Head, ignores us and strides angrily away back through the school gates to cries of “Bastard…cunt!”. The boys are more sympathetic towards us. “Let’s burn down the school!”, a couple of them say. Being a bit of Lefty still, I said, “What’s the point? – they’ll only send you to another.” “Shall we occupy the school?” one of them asks. “Yeah – if you want – we’ll help, but it’s up to you” was the gist of our different replies. Then the cops arrive. “Back into school!” the Sergeant orders. I say loudly, “They’re allowed out in lunchbreak. Why should they get back inside?”, (not the kind of mouthy role I’d play nowadays probably, but…)”Because I say so”. “Do you make the laws?”, “No, I interpret them”, “Maybe you bend them a little to suit your own ideas” – I was talking loudly – as much to him as to the boys of the school, performing the rabble rouser a bit.. After resuming ordering the boys about, he hurries after me when I’m a bit away from the others and says softly, “Look here, young Barabas, if ever I see you again I’ll pull off your beard and cut off your hair, you fucking long-haired wierdo.” I reply in a loud theatrical voice so others can hear – “What? Did you call me a fucking long-haired wierdo?”. “Are you calling me names? Are you calling me names?”, says the sergeant, putting on a better show of outrage, and promptly nicks me.

The cops meanwhile threaten everyone with being nicked for obstruction – both us “guerrillas”(it sounds better than ‘street theatre actors’) and the schoolkids, so everyone moves off from the square to a small park up the hill, and start sitting around in groups discussing schools, the cops and so on. A cop comes into the park and, pointing to one of us – Michael, says to the mainly skinhead schoolkids, “Do you want to grow up to be like them – filthy, long-haired, unemployed…? Silence. Michael asks them, “Well, would you prefer to be like him or like me?” “LIKE YOU!” they all shout back, and the cop (us politicos called them ‘pigs’ at the time) storms off.

Eventually all of us get nicked and one of us gets beaten up a bit by the cops. The cops who arrest the last two of us get thumped on the back by some of the skinhead kids. The kids swear and hiss and boo at the cops, some of them fling themselves at the gates round the back of the police station, trying to break them down. Solidarity, unity in anger – one of the best things in the world. Later on, the Evening News came out with the headline “Boys Incited To Burn Down School!”, whilst the Evening Standard said we’d offered the boys drugs and that a hundred schoolboys had chased two hippies and shouted and jeered at them. When the papers appeared, some of the boys were so pissed off they tore them up outside the school. Meantime, we were packed off to Ashford Remand Centre, even though our parents had turned up in court to put up surety for the bail which most of us had been granted (the only one of us that wasn’t was a couple of years older than us, the only one of us who was from a working class background – he went to Brixton for a week before bail was granted). There we were made to have a public cough ‘n’ drop medical inspection and a semi-public bath and then we had to wear prison clothes: my trousers were far too big – I had to permanently hold them to stop them falling down, and my shoes were far too small, cramping my toes. It was only 24 hours, but when it’s your first time in prison and you’ve got no idea how long you’ll be there, and you’ve never known anyone who’s been inside, it was a little worrying, though it was the boredom I remember most, because we were kept isolated for most of the time. I was so naïve, I remember being really outraged at the fact that teenagers were kept in prison without bail for 6 months or more before trial, at which they were often let off.

The leaflet we’d handed out in the four days of our guerrilla theatre actions advertised a meeting at my house on the afternoon we’d got nicked: 12 kids turned up, we didn’t, but the cops did, staying in a van outside, whilst one stood outside the front garden. For several months afterwards, my phone was tapped. The trial was almost 3 months later, and took 3 days. Like the whole of that summer, I suppose it was a kind of revelation for naïve little me. I hadn’t expected such a degree of lying on the part of the cops and hypocrisy on the part of the magistrate, though since then it’s something I take for granted. For instance, so that the Headmaster wouldn’t have to appear as a witness, and to give greater authority to the police, a Chief Superintendant claimed to have been there, and described everything that had happened to the Headmaster, though elaborating with a few extra lies. We were so taken aback by his convincing performance, and perhaps also stressed by the whole trial, that we began to question our own memories – had he been there and we hadn’t noticed? Was it not the Head who’d first remonstrated with us? The whole trial was awash with lies, of course, but the strange thing were the words they put into our mouths, words that had nothing to do with the way any of us would speak – e.g. the Sergeant said I’d shouted from the police car, “Go, lads, and burn down your school – we shall support you”. “Go lads” – like I was some public school prefect.”

Taken from a personal account of activities in this period, including the rebirth of squatting, the London Street Commune, and a series of interventions at schools, which can be found here

There’s a fun text there of an article from the Kilburn Times, relating the trial that ensued from the events detailed above… somewhat differently to the account given here…

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