Today in London healthcare history, 1979: St Benedict’s Hospital, Tooting, occupied by its workers.

The staff at St Benedict’s Hospital, Tooting, South London, began an official work-in to prevent closure of their hospital on November 15th 1979. A strong support committee was organised in the local community with backing from Battersea and Wandsworth Trades Council, local pensioners and others who wanted to maintain the high level of geriatric care at St Ben’s. Local London Ambulance Service ambulance drivers pledged their support and refused to cross the picket line except for normal transport.

“We could have gone on for ever” recalled leading light of the occupation, COHSE delegate Arthur Hautot, “They had to end the occupation because we were doing the work better and so much cheaper.” Also involved in the occupation, on a daily basis, was Ernest Rodker, who was later a supporter of the South London Women’s Hospital occupation 1984-5, and was later still a mainstay of the anti poll tax campaign in Wandsworth, being jailed for non-payment of the poll tax.

The success of the Work-in led management (with the agreement of Patrick Jenkin, secretary of state for Health and Social Security) to resort to intimidation, confrontation and violence to break the staff and campaign organisation, and force closure of the hospital. Wandsworth, Sutton and East Merton Area Health Authority (AHA) took legal action, serving injunctions against eight leading members of the work-in. This included 4 staff members (from COHSE, NUPE and the RCN), 3 union officials (NUPE and COHSE) and 1 local campaigner.

The injunctions prevented those named from doing any thing to prevent the removal of patients and to prevent the union-officials from entering the building.

For six days in mid-September 1980, the Hospital was raided, and patients moved out, by force by the AHA, backed by a large force of police and a scab private ambulance company, Junesco.

Under the new Employment Act, the police were able to impose an arbitrary limit of two pickets on picket lines outside St Benedict’s…

Then on the fourth day of the raids, they refused to allow any pickets on the gate at all, and the private ambulances got through.

By September 19th, sixty three patients had been forcibly removed from the friendly security of their beds and wards and dispersed in chaos to a variety of other hospitals in the area. Twenty-three pickets were arrested during the raids, and charged with a number of offences, ranging from wilful obstruction to criminal damages. One woman who worked in admin at a nearby hospital was suspended from duty, although she was at the picket line on her day off.

After the closure of the long stay geriatric hospitals, reports began to emerge of the devastating impact on patient care of “relocation effects” – the impact of speedy closures on patients. Close to a third of patients forcibly moved in the “raids” on St Benedict’s died within the following six months.

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An entry in the
2015 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in London anti-fascist history 1978: Blockade against National Front march on Brick Lane.

BRICK LANE, a long East End street which runs from Whitechapel to Bethnal Green, was one of the earliest parts of the East End to be built up. Being just outside the walls of the old city or London, many who came to live here over the centuries were migrants, from other parts of Britain and Ireland, and later from further afield. Successive waves of migrants built communities here – from the Irish in the 17th and 18th centuries, through French protestants expelled from France, Jews fleeing persecution and murderous pogroms in Russian ruled eastern Europe in the late 1800s.

All of these communities faced distrust, discrimination and violence as the grew and out down roots… And when Asians began to congregate in the Brick Lane are in the 196s and 70s, things were no different… Bengali migration into the area began on a large scale in the 1950s. The men came first, arriving in the fifties as guestworkers to help solve the labour shortage. Later, they sent for their wives and families, many leaving extreme poverty, natural disaster and war in Bangladesh. Spitalfields and Whitechapel again saw the growth of concentrated migrant communities, once again mainly poor and facing the same dynamics of racism and resistance as those before them, as well as an ongoing struggle between insularity and integration into the East End…

As Asians arrived in Brick Lane after the Second World War, the majority of the old Jewish community had moved out – though often continuing to run ragtrade businesses there. There was no dramatic increase in immigration from Pakistan (or later Bangladesh) until the mid-60s; though Brick Lane was already being described as an Asian ghetto. The highest ratios of Asian-born people were around parts of Middlesex Street (Petticoat Lane); Princelet Street, which is still the most densely populated; and Old Montague Street.

In 1963 the Graces’ Alley Compulsory Purchase Order had initiated the gradual demolition of the old seameds and brothel district in Cable Street, a mile south of Brick Lane. For more than 20 years it had been a centre for seamen from north, east and west Africa, and then for immigrants from India and Pakistan. Much of the Cable Street community moved northwards – to Brick Lane.

Politics in the Indian sub-continent also played an important part. With the emergence of Bangladesh as a separate country in 1974 and its subsequent crises, Brick Lane became the centre of a new community.

From the 1960s, racist attacks against Bengalis in the East End began to mount: increasing in 1970 as the “skinhead era” arrived. The increase in attacks by young people, often from the area, against Pakistanis and Indians was a significant aspect of this new phenomenon.

In early 1970: “Paki-bashing” was first recorded, on when several daily papers mentioned attacks by skinheads on two Asian workers at the London Chest Hospital in Bethnal Green. On April 5 The Observer claimed that Tosir Ali was murdered on April 7, and Gulam Taslim documented 36 cases of racial attacks in this period. On April 26, 1970 some 50 youngsters went on the rampage in Brick Lane and five Pakistanis were injured. It was in this year, as well, that the discussion of self-defence began, and mass meetings of the Asian community were held in different parts of Tower Hamlets. There were meetings with MPs and the police, and demands for action.

Brick Lane had a long history of anti-immigrant, fascist and far right groups organising. Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists claimed 4,000 members in Bethnal Green, and in the 1940s, Mosley’s Union Movement used to meet in Kerbela St, off Cheshire Street.

The Cheshire Street/Brick Lane corner was later a meeting point of the National Labour Party, which had formed E London branch in a Cheshire Street pub in 1958. This group later merged into original British National Party in 1960. The BNP held regular meetings on this same spot and nearby locations in the Cheshire Street and Brick Lane district in the early 1960s, and their paper Combat was sold there and regularly featured East End issues.

This BNP was one of the three groups that merged in 1967 to become the national Front, which was to exploit racism and anti-migrant feeling like no group before it, and rise in strength and influence in the 1970s. The NF originated in hardline nazi groups, but adopted a veneer or patriotism and British iconography; amidst widespread migration from both Asia and the West Indies, increased racism across the UK provided a fertile recruiting ground for such filth. Through the 1970s the Front achieved wider influence, and won large numbers of votes in local elections. NF marches, meetings and actions were opposed in strength, leading to mass confrontations like the Lewisham 1977 events…

The smaller, more explicitly neo-nazi British Movement was also active in the East End, especially Bethnal Green and Hoxton.

The National Front and the British Movement both organised the existing race hatred, enabling many disturbed and alienated young people to see the Asian community as scapegoats and victims, as well as exploiting the widely held feelings of powerlessness and inability to effect change among mainly working class populations,  and encouraging blame for poverty and lack of opportunity in ‘foreigners’. They undoubtedly took advantage of a vacuum left by the collapse of once powerful local socialist movements, the cynicism bred of the lack of principle of local politicians…

It was during 1976 also that the increase in National Front activity in the vicinity of Brick Lane increased. attempts of the National Front to gain a base in East London, and provocative newspaper sales in Brick Lane. “The National Front has been concentrating on utilising bands of white youths to give verbal support to Front members selling newspapers in the lane. An Advertiser reporter recently saw NF supporters swearing and spitting at Asians who walked past members selling papers near Bethnal Green.”

The NF later (1978) had HQ in Great Eastern Street, Shoreditch, only half a mile away from the multi-racial community around Brick Lane.

But as old as the tradition of racism and fascism, was the pattern of migrant communities getting together to fight back, and organising for themselves when the authorities ignored or abandoned them. In 1976 the Anti-Racist Committee of Asians in East London was set up as a broad-based body to draw attention to the inadequacy of the protection offered to Asian people by the police and the authorities. The great increase in racial attacks in the area had been catalogued by the Spitalfields Bengali Action Group. Attacks increased further with the killing of two students from the Middle East who were attending Queen Mary College in the East End.

On the day that John Kingsley Read of the National Party made his infamous “One down – a million to go” comments in Newham on the Chaggar murder, ARCAEL organised a mass meeting in the Naz Cinema in Brick Lane. The meeting was chaired by Mala Dhoride, and addressed by Darcus Howe of the Race Today Collective, Trevor Huddleston, then Bishop of Stepney, and Dan Jones, Secretary of Bethnal Green and Stepney Trades Council. It was followed by a 3,000 strong protest march to Leman Street Police Station demanding action to “keep blood off the streets.: Self defence patrols were developed by the local Bengalis with help from black newpaper Race Today. ARCAEL to some extent had taken the path of black self-organisation Race Today advocated, rejecting the older Bengali businessmen of the Bangladeshi Welfare Association, whose line was to trust police and appeal for help to the government.

Police in the area responded to complaints about racist attacks with apathy or blatant collusion with racists. Cops tended to arrest anyone defending themselves against racist attack, or anyone opposing racists, and would escort racists around on demos etc. Symbolically, a British Movement graffiti slogan had remained for some months after being painted on the outside wall of Bethnal Green Police Station. The organisation of self-defence groups among the Bengali community around brick Lane did had an effect: racial attacks calmed down for a while.

1977, though, saw more attacks, carried out by gangs of white youth from neighbouring estates.

In 1978, events stepped up further: began with murder of young Bengali clothing worker Altab Ali on May 4 in Adler Street, Whitechapel. This triggered a massive wave of protest throughout East London. 7000 marched in protest from Whitechapel to Downing Street.

On June 11th, a day which followed considerable Press coverage of GLC plans for housing Bengalis in what were described as “ghettos”, 150 youths rampaged through the Brick Lane district, smashing windows, throwing bottles and lumps of concrete, and damaging shops and cars. A week later, June 18, an anti-racist march was held, organised by the Anti-Nazi League and the Bengali Youth Movement Against Racist Attacks (a short-lived alliance between three of the major Bengali youth organisations in Tower Hamlets, all of which had started in 1976) Some 4,000 people, black and white, took part in this march. But the following Sunday there were further violent incidents, many of the attacks by white racists taking place in side streets. However, during the whole period, many of the demonstrators against racial violence and other antiracists were themselves arrested: some 50 anti-racists and less than 10 National Front or British Movement supporters, were arrested.

During this period, the Asian community and other anti-racist groups had been actively involved in occupying the National Front selling site in Bethnal Green Road, an occupation which had been inspired by the comment by Chief Superintendent John Wallis at a public meeting of the Council of Citizens of Tower Hamlets that the only way for anti-racists to get rid of the National Front was for them to arrive earlier! When they followed his advice, they were removed by the police on the grounds that a reach of the peace was likely to occur. The first mass blockade of this site took place on July 16th 1978.

On September 24, 1978, while 100,000 people took part in an Anti-Nazi league-organised Carnival Against the Nazis in Brockwell Park, Brixton, a large anti-racist demonstration was held in the East End to “defend Brick Lane” against the possibility that a National Front march might come close to the district. Some 2,000 anti-racists blocked the entrance to Brick Lane, although in fact the NF had gone via side streets to a meeting in Hoxton. During the course of the day, there was a good deal of criticism of the Anti-Nazi League who had organised the Brixton carnival, miles away from Brick Lane.

The Anti-Nazi League, formed by the Socialist Workers party and others, had certainly helped build a cultural anti-racism which contributed to a nexus in opposition to NF violence… But it was seen by some militant anti-fascsists as posturing and bottling the direct  physical confrontations needed to beat the NF and other rightists off the street. Organising a carnival the other side of London while the NF threatened to march in the Brick Lane area did not help this perception.

The Hackney and Tower Hamlets Defence Committee, while it did not explicitly attack the ANL, insisted that the defence of Brick Lane was the “top priority”. In their bulletin, issued before the demonstration, the Committee noted:

‘Far fewer racist attacks have taken place in Brick Lane over the last few months which the local people attribute not to the increased police pressure but to the active defence which is being carried out by black people and anti-racists.”

Other groups were less kind to the ANL. One group accused them of “an organised betrayal of the fight against fascism”. It was a confusing but critical day. An ANL spokesman commented that “the NFs feeble attempt to disrupt the carnival and invade Brick Lane was completely defeated”. On the other hand, the purpose of the NF march was to announce the establishment of their new national headquarters in Great Eastern Street, Shoreditch, only half a mile away from the multi-racial community around Brick Lane. The headquarters was later to become the subject of a government inquiry after Hackney Council had refused planning permission.

The National Front and other hard-right ‘fringe parties’ lost much of the support they had built up in the 1970, after Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was elected in 1979, going on to nicked their racist thunder and institutionalise racism and anti-migrant sentiment on state action. Around Brick lane and other parts of he East End, a lot of work done over 10 years to prevent both racist attacks and defuse self-organised self-defence, had physically frustrated street-based fascism, but it was never completely driven off. Through the 1980s the remnant of the NF and its offshoot, a revived British National Party, were constantly being faced down by anti-fascists; in the early 1990s, a renewed struggle saw stand-offs and pitched battles with BNL papersellers in Brick Lane, usually with Anti-Fascist Action and other grassroots anti-racist groups at it heart. The tradition of Bengali youth mobilising for self-defence also continued, in the form of groups like Youth Connection,  the Tower Hamlets 9 Defence Committee and more…

But if local racial aggro calmed down, nazi propaganda was still bearing fruit for Brick Lane; in April 1999, 7 people were slightly hurt in a bombing by nazi nutter David Copeland, who had already planted a bomb in Brixton and would kill 3 people with a third bomb in a gay pub in Soho a week later.

Brick Lane is a very different place these days – the Bengali community remains, less threatened by racist violence. Gentrification and the hipsterisation of Spitalfields and neighbouring areas has altered the rundown and working class nature of the Lane; many residents, white and Bengali, may yet end up being replaced by white trendies, as the shops and cafes have increasingly been…

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An entry in the
2016 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London anti-racist history: demo protesting police raids on Notting Hill’s Mangrove Restaurant, 1970.

“Mangrove, smell of hashish, swirling clouds of ashen smoke, weave in, around, away, palms like giant fingers, sounds of laughing, belly deep and penetrating, wise words and indiscretions, deep canary yellows, matted reds and browns, a tropical tapestry of colour, light and sounds.” ‘All Saints and Sinners’, Jenneba Sie Jalloh,

On August 9, 1970, a group of 150 (or 500, depending on your sources) protestors marched through the community toward Notting Hill, Notting Dale, and Harrow Road police stations to “expose the racist brutality that black people experience at the hands of the police.”

In this case, focused on the aggressive policing of the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill, a popular meeting place for black radicals. Police and protestors clashed during the march, and police arrested nineteen black protestors, charging them with assault, possession of an offensive weapon, and incitement to riot. The trial of those nicked was to become a celebrated victory against police racism and play an important part in the growth of black power movement in Britain.

One of the most important early centres of London’s West Indian Community was around Notting Hill. From the first days of afro-caribbean migration, the area had seen small numbers of migrants grow into a burgeoning community, despite hostility from some white locals, vigorously stirred up by fascist groups, which had climaxed in the white riots of August 1958 – which saw white crowds attack any black people they could get at – and the racist murder of Kelso Cochrane the following year.

Resistance to the racist violence from the embryonic community had been present from the first – collective self-defence had been organised against in 1958. This spirit was to grow and spread, as the main enemy of the Noting Hill black community became a racist police force.

Frank Crichlow’s restaurant The Mangrove, located at 8 All saints Road, Notting Hill, became a centre of this resistance. Crichlow had previously ran El Rio cafe at 127 Westbourne Park Road (where Christine Keeler met Lucky Gordon in the Profumo affair):

“A lot of West Indians came to the Rio and it got very popular. We opened all night. It was a coffee bar and it was kind of bohemian. We had people like Colin MacInnes, the famous writer. The Christine Keeler and Profumo affair came out of that scene.

Local whites used it and a lot of musicians used to be there as well. When the West End clubs finished they used to come and have a coffee and a meal at the Rio. It was a West Indian scene but it had a lot of mixture. It created a tremendous atmosphere until we found we were getting a lot of attention from the police.

Notting Hill police started to get a bit “busy” – framing people. You could tell it was happening. People started to come in to the cafe and tell their experiences.

One chap said he was in a nearby road and two police rushed up to him and said, “We just saw you trying car doors”. “You must be joking,” he said. “No,” they said, “We saw you trying car doors”. They arrested him and he went to court and was found guilty. He still laughs when he talks about it. He still can’t believe it. It didn’t ruin him. But some people were freaked out by that and couldn’t handle getting a conviction.

The police used the sus laws like that. It was quite common. You would be walking down the street and the next thing you would be in the police station being charged. A lot of black people got convictions that way. Some of them freaked out and they went back to the West Indies because of that.

What started to give the black community strength was places like the Rio. The Rio was a meeting place. People would work all week and at the weekend they would go to the cafes and meet and talk. It gave us the strength to keep going. But of course the Rio began to get attention from more and more police.

The basic reason was racism. A lot of officers in West London were fired up by people like [fascist leader] Oswald Mosley – the same thing is happening with the BNP now. White people who were in the race riots in 1958 and in their teens would then go and join the force and end up as police officers. There is no doubt in my mind about that. That is why I think Notting Hill has a heavy history between the black community and the police in the early days.” (Frank Crichlow)

Crichlow opened the Mangrove restaurant in March 1968, and it rapidly became a centre for the black community, attracting intellectuals, creatives and campaigners. Sammy Davis Junior, Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Four Tops, CLR James, Vanessa Redgrave, Jimmy Hill and the cast of ‘The Avengers’ all visited…

“People would be waiting outside in cars until tables were free. The place was out of this world – in just a couple of months it was pop-u-lar. The place would be packed and we’d see the police peeping through the windows…” (Crichlow)

These peeping police, though, took a dim view of this hive of activity, as always treating any fomenting alternative culture with suspicion. Any space where black people gathered at that time could expect special attention from the boys in blue. A concerted campaign of harassment at the Mangrove followed. Between January 1969 and July 1970, police raided the restaurant on 12 occasions, claiming the venue was a haven of drug use… though drugs were never found, and Frank Crichlow vocally discouraged drug consumption there.

“What started the demonstration were the raids on the Mangrove restaurant that I opened in 1969. In the first year we had seven raids. The police used to say they had information that there was cannabis in the club. We would say, “Where did you get that information from?” and they would say they didn’t have to disclose their source – end of story.

The significant thing about this was that they never found any drugs, because there was none. They used to raid the restaurant at half past ten or eleven – always on a Friday night when it was packed. They would search and everybody would leave their food, we couldn’t ask them to pay. So what the police were doing was destroying the restaurant. They didn’t want us to have too much respectability.” (Frank Critchlow)

The growing hassle of the Mangrove was a concentrated sample of the violence and repression police were visiting on west Indian community in Notting Hill and elsewhere. In response the community and allies took to the streets to protest on 9 August 1970. A demonstration was organised by a small group from The Action Committee for the Defence of the Mangrove. This included Frank Crichlow and barrister Anthony Mohipp, secretary of the Black Improvement Organisation, and several leading members of the UK’s newly-born Black Panther Party.

“It was sparked by all these raids. We called a demonstration and 500 people came out. We made speeches and marched off to the police station that was carrying out the raids.

We went to Notting Hill. R S Webb was outside the police station shouting. Then we said we were going over to Harrow Road police station. The police went in very heavy and about 26 people got arrested on small charges. Reggie Maudling was the home secretary at the time and he made a mistake. After the demonstration he said he wanted an enquiry into who had organised it. After he got the results he said “arrest the organisers” and nine of us were arrested.

That day we nearly had a race riot. I was charged with affray, carrying an offensive weapon, threatening behaviour and inciting members of the public to riot. We were looking at a lot of jail.” (Critchlow)

Nineteen people were arrested. Ten defendants’ charges were soon dropped, but support swelled for the other nine accused: Barbara Beese, Rupert Boyce, Frank Critchlow, Rhodan Gordon, Darcus Howe (who worked at the Mangrove), Anthony Innis, Althea Lecointe Jones, Rothwell Kentish and Godfrey Millett. The charges ranged from making an affray, incitement to riot, assaulting a policeman, to having an offensive weapon. C. L. R. James summoned the remaining protestors the day after the arrest and urged them to continue their fight, emphasising the seriousness of the charges against their comrades.

The Mangrove Nine trial began in October 1971. It became a political struggle. Pickets were organised outside the trail at the Old Bailey, and literature handed out to raise public awareness of the case.

Arguments focused on the ongoing police persecution experienced by the black community in Notting Hill. Police witnesses who justified their targeting of the Mangrove with descriptions of it as a “haunt of criminals, prostitutes and ponces” only corroborated the Nine’s detailing of police prejudice.

Darcus Howe and Althea Jones-Lecointe defended themselves. The other seven employed a radical civil rights lawyer to ensure there would be no friction between Jones-LeCointe and Howe’s defense and their own. Jones-LeCointe and Howe argued for an all black jury under the Magna Carta’s ‘jury of my peers’ clause. They cited trial precedents in which, for example, Welsh miners faced an all-Welsh jury. This demand also echoed calls by the Black Panthers in the United States, under an interpretation of the 14th Amendment, for all-black juries. Judge Edward Clarke, known for his distaste for political radicalism, dismissed the possibility of an all-black jury out of hand, but the Nine had already succeeded in elevating the trial to a national spectacle.

The defendants were prepared for the judge’s rejection of this demand. Howe and Lecointe-Jones’s next tactic was to vet potential jurors politically, asking them what they understood by terms “black power” and which newspapers they read. Again the judge intervened to stop this line of questioning. Nonetheless, the defence dismissed a total of 63 jurors, each defendant using their right to dismiss seven potential jurors. In so doing they ensured that two of the 12 jurors were black and, perhaps more importantly, stamped their authority on the proceedings.

Police witnesses justified their actions by labelling the Mangrove restaurant “a haunt of criminals, prostitutes and ponces”. The turning point came as Howe exposed problems with the police testimony and a police officer was ordered to leave the courtroom when he was seen signalling to other prosecution witnesses as they gave evidence.

In Jones-Lecointe’s closing speech she referred in detail to the police persecution experienced by the black community in Notting Hill.

On the last day of trial testimony, police turned over a leaflet called “Battle for Freedom at Old Bailey” to the judge, who believed the leaflet might be in contempt of the court. Constable Roger Buckley had apprehended the leaflet while on duty in the Notting Dale neighborhood on December 11, 1971. The leaflet charged that a biased judge and jury had colluded to skew the proceedings of the case against the Mangrove Nine, claiming that “the case has been a systematic exposure of police lies, the way in which the prosecution, having no evidence, tries to play on the prejudices of the jury, of the way in which the judge plays the part of chief prosecutor, attacking and obstructing the defence.” After a four-month investigation, the officer P. J. Palmes concluded that the police lacked sufficient evidence to identify the authors of the leaflet, “which in any event might be ill-advised at this stage as likely to exacerbate racial feelings.” This led Judge Clarke to drop the contempt of court charge.

A majority of the Mangrove jury were workers, and though only two of the 11 were black, it is known that the jury divided along class lines, with the middle class members inclined to believe the police and favouring conviction. It seems that some of the workers knew better and simply decided the police were liars. Eventually they compromised on the basis of agreement on acquittal on the most serious charges.

Five were acquitted of all charges. All the serious charges resulted in acquittal, and only some minor charges were upheld.

The Mangrove Trial caused a sensation at the time. Even the judge had come out and acknowledged in his summing up racism as a motive of police actions – though he tried to mitigate this by accusing the protestors as also being racist. This outraged the government and legal establishment who tried to get this comment struck out of the record…

The trial also helped to coalesce the emerging black power movement in the UK. The recently formed Black Panther Party was involved in the Mangrove protests (Notting Hill being one of its activist  centres), several of the Party’s leading lights were among the defendants, and the publicity and sense of possibilities that the trial threw up helped attract attention to the movement… Something on which here.

The Mangrove thrived despite continued harassment for two decades, until Notting Hill’s gentrification got seriously underway:
“Through the 1980s the premises were regularly raided, as All Saints became known as the frontline. In the 1987 police ‘swamp’ of the area, as part of the inner-city crime crackdown Operation Trident, the Mangrove was raided again and this time Frank Crichlow was charged with possession of heroin. To the Wise brothers, the accompanying installation of surveillance cameras and the closure of squatted ‘abandoned commercial property’ marked the start of Notting Hill gentrification: “Within days a house in McGregor Road was to fetch £300,000. The very centre of Carnival revolt in the 80s had finally fallen and the light had gone out on the last remaining shambles of an urban trouble spot.”

Lee Jasper recalls dealing with a mas band sequin crisis as the 1987 riot began: “The police were attempting to close down, fit up and destroy Mangrove and indeed the whole of Carnival. We’re on the verge of a major civil disturbance and people would be coming in and saying I don’t have any red sequins.”

In the last Mangrove trial Frank Crichlow was once more cleared of trumped up drugs charges. After that the police raided the Mangrove some more, causing further clashes on All Saints and the last big Carnival riot in 1989.

According to the Evening Standard: ‘5,000 police, almost 600 in full riot gear with shields, and some police on horseback, fought running battles with pockets of revellers after trouble was sparked in the All Saints Road area. Within seconds they had to retreat under a hail of bottles and flower pots. Uniformed officers battled in vain to contain the trouble, drafting in riot police who sealed off a section of Lancaster Road. But they came under attack from two directions as youths in All Saints Road and Westbourne Park Road began hurling missiles.’

As ‘The Mangrove: 21 Years of Resistance’ banner came down in 1991, 6-8 All Saints Road reopened as the Portobello Dining Rooms. Rastafarians were succeeded by trustafarians and the street name started to appear in more restaurant reviews than crime reports. However, then came the mid 90s crack cocaine drug crime revival. Frank Crichlow was subsequently awarded £50,000 damages.

In the run-up to the 1995 Carnival, Ma’s Café at 6-8 All Saints Road (formerly the Mangrove, the Portobello Dining Rooms and Nice, since Manor, Ruby & Sequoia, the Hurlingham and Rum Kitchen) was the scene of a scuffle involving Hugh Grant, in which the actor was ridiculed over the Divine Brown affair. An onlooker said: “He was okay but he had a bit of blood on him. I don’t think he’ll be back.”

After the demise of the Mangrove restaurant, the frontline spirit was maintained by the Mangrove Community Association office over the road until 2002, Daddy Vigo’s People’s Sound reggae record shop at number 11, the Portobello Music Shop at 13, Nation Records and the Carnival sound-systems. Following a series of Rolex robberies and ‘aristocrats on crack’ reports, Annabel Heseltine wrote in the Standard of ‘Crack, Guns and Fear’ Notting Hell juxtaposed with trustafarian Heaven W11 ‘Cool Britannia’ on All Saints: “Opposite Philsen’s Phil-Inn Station – a café frequented by local hip-swinging Rastas – young media types are strolling into Mas Café… A bakery selling walnut loaves and bagels generates a warm aroma in the direction of Tom Dixon’s gallery…” (nicked from the Underground Map)

There are some great pix of the Mangrove demo and trial here

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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Today in rebel history, 1972: sit-down strike in Wormwood Scrubs Prison.

As we related two days ago, Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners (PROP) was formed on May 11th 1972, by a group of mostly served time inside UK jails, to campaign and organise for improvements in legal rights and better conditions within British nicks. PROP had emerged during a wave of protests by both remand and convicted prisoners across a number of British penal institutions; the group’s formation and the publicity that accompanied its founding was to contribute and help escalate this movement.

There had been a number of protests, mostly peaceful sit-down demos, over various demands, between January and early May 1972; mid-late May saw many more. On 13th May, 350 men staged a sit-down at HMP Wormwood Scrubs in West London. The Scrubs was widely recognised to have one of the most brutal and inhuman regimes at the time.

During the following 6 days there were protest at Brixton, Gartree in Leicestershire (twice), and Strangeways (Manchester). By the end of May, there had been peaceful demonstrations in 15 jails, in which over 2500 inmates had taken part. In Armley Jail in Leeds, 996 men, the whole prison population, staged a 24-hour strike to protest the conditions they were held in. (PROP supported this action with a demonstration outside, which although it attracted on 27 people, did help the sitdown get some good publicity).

PROP’s main problem in supporting the spreading protest movement was communication with prisoners. Prison authorities routinely censored all communications between cons and anyone on the outside. The vast majority of letters sent to PROP from inside, or replies by PROP to any that got through, simply never arrived, if they were sent by regular mail… The letters that got out tended to be the ‘stiffs’ – communications smuggled out by visitors, or by sympathetic staff (often parole officers, though there was the odd screw). The difficulty of regular communication did cause some resentment and disappointment inside: some prisoners active in protests perceived PROP as not up to the job of supporting them on the outside. To some extent PROP were a victim of their own publicity, as they managed to make themselves seem larger, more effective, and more connected to, or responsible for, the protests inside. In reality a fairly small group, PROP weren’t able to fully mobilise the large numbers on the outside to match the willingness of prisoners to demonstrate.

However, these problems didn’t prevent the protests from spreading. In late May, PROP announced that the sitdowns and demonstrations would continue, and would culminate in a national prison strike at some (then unspecified) future date, unless the Home Office Prison Department entered into negotiations over PROP’s demands. The Home Office may not have gone that far, but the protests did force some admission that there were problems that needed addressing – that some of the inmates’ demands were based on legitimate complaints. Some concessions were granted to the remand prisoners at HMP Brixton, for instance, where cons had been among the most active. The prison governor and a Home office representative had met a sitdown protest there on 17th May and gave in to several of the most immediate and easiest granted demands (radios in cells, longer exercise periods, a movie a week), which the more aware cons saw as sops to try to keep them quiet, but also validated the collective tactics inmates were taking.

The collective form and peaceful approach to the protests had proved difficult for prison officers to respond to. Screws dealt out routine brutality and violence to cons on a daily basis, and were accustomed to dealing with the form resistance to this usually took – individual force. Which they could easily overpower by force of numbers (and greater availability of weaponry). Collective peaceful protest left them baffled and they didn’t know how to react. Picking out individuals and labeling them ringleaders also backfired – it generally provoked more inmates to join the struggle, and ‘ghosting’ (a quick move of an identified ‘troublemaker’ to another prison) only succeeded in spreading the movement across the system (this remained a factor in UK prion protest movements – the same dynamic also characterised some of the April 1990 demos following the Strangeways riot).

In June, there were further demos – 20 in the first fortnight, including five between June 11th and June 13th (two at Armley, two at Pentonville, and one at Albany on the Isle of Wight). The authorities may have been ignoring PROP, but on the inside, the organisation’s very existence was becoming a rallying cry. At a Lancashire Borstal, some boys threatened bullying staff with ‘the union’. The Home Office called all prison governors to a meeting in early June to discuss the growing unrest – the most concrete result was a Prison Dept agreement not to interfere with peaceful demos, or punish any prisoner to took part in them.

Home Office concessions to the prisoners’ movement encouraged them to continue with their protests – it also enraged the Prison Officers’ Association (POA), the screws’ union, generally a voice for repression and brutality, for treating inmates like the scum the screws felt they were. The POA were (and to some extent remain) usually critical of the prison authorities as being too liberal and allowing prisoners too much leeway. Governors and Home Office officials shouldn’t be meeting with convicts. On the ground, officers felt they were losing control of the prisons to uppity cons and needed to regain the upper hand. If the Home Office were going to give in to the protests, many screws felt the only course of action was to crack a lot of heads, hopefully provoking violence and confrontation, which would very likely put the concessions into reverse and result in tighter regimes and more repression. This would soon be put into practice…

The prisoners’ movement continued to grow into the summer of 1972. Lack of any large-scale reforms, or any offer to meet with PROP or even admit they had any legitimacy, resulted in PROP calling a national jail strike for August 4th, which achieved some measure of support in 33 prisons, and involved an estimated 10,000 prisoners., Given the difficulties in communication this was a fantastic result. A series of blustering Home Office and governors’ denials that many of the prisons involved had experienced any protest was undermined by PROP (and some journalists) gathering careful evidence, which undermined the authorities’ lies about numbers and nicks involved. PROP was taken more seriously the more obviously the Home Office blatantly denied what was obviously happening.

However, bitter sentiment among prison officers was soon translated into action. Since brutality was always present anyway, in the way that institutional life was generally administered, the provocation of trouble was easily planned. Regular cell searches, moving inmates around, visits etc can be handled carefully, or violently – escalations in bullying and brutality were strategically targeted in some prisons where the protest movement had been strong, and the inevitable angry response was highlighted to justify repression (with the help of tame rightwing papers, notably the Daily Express). In parallel, the POA introduced an official ‘GET TOUGH’ policy in response to the ‘state of emergency’ it said the protests had created – in effect a combination of an overtime ban and a non-co-operation exercise, so that in the event of a prison protest, screws would do as little as possible and sabotage the normal functioning of the jail, and the POA would back up any officer who was disciplined as a result. This put the governors and Home Office in a position of being forced to back the screws, even if they could easily see they were blackmailing them, as they couldn’t afford to completely lose the officers’ goodwill, or jails would grind to a halt. During some of the larger protests, prisoners in some nicks had come close to taking over the whole prison (eg at Brixton), and the authorities could see that to allow the movement to carry on risked literally losing control.

The twin tactics of targeted localised brutality and work-to-rule blackmail were, in the end, effective in helping to derail the prison protests in 1972. Although the demonstrations inside continued, vicious brutality at Albany prison (which had seen 8 protests throughout August) provoked angry resistance, which was splashed across the press as a riot and escape attempt. In fact it was a very limited protest, but the publicity bolstered the screws’ confidence and the beatings, harassment and assaults were stepped up. This provoked further agro; a ‘riot’ at Gartree in November resulted, after screws waded in to a group of cons who had failed in an escape attempt.

Although the prison protests had gained a high profile, and PROP’s constant press work had helped focus the spotlight on prison conditions, to some extent PROP’s claims to be either involved in the planning of, or even directing, the demonstrations proved to be something of a divisive tactic. One founding member, Mike Fitzgerald, later suggested that it had taken the group very much on a diversion from the solid reforming program the group had launched with, and hampered any efforts to establish PROP as a day to day representative group campaigning in prisoners interests and on bread and butter issues. Given the massive struggle going on inside though, it was very much inevitable that PROP’s energy would be focused on the protests. But under the pressure, PROP itself began to fragment internally. Divisions opened up over tactics, and the group in effect split into separate organisations. But both carried on doing good work for several years, supporting struggles, helping prisoners legally and on release, publicising brutality and resistance…

Much more on the formation of PROP can be read in Mike Fitzgerald, Prisoners in Revolt.

John Barker’s Bending the Bars good firsthand account of one of the May 1972 sit-down strikes in Brixton Prison, as well as being a cracking good read from start to finish.

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Today in radical history, 1972: Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners launched, North London.

Early 1972 saw a wave of prison protests across the UK: some 50 collective demonstrations took place inside between January and May. Any public information about two-thirds of these was censored by the Prison Department. The press ignored or were unaware of the protests.

The protests arose from the absolute desperation of many UK prison inmates, faced with appalling conditions inside most prisons at the time. The vast majority of English prisons had been built in Victorian times. Conditions were basically prehistoric. Prison wings were filthy, cold and overcrowded. Some cons were locked up for virtually the whole day in many nicks, often two or three to a cramped cell; others worked long hours for token wages. Education facilities were thin on the ground; the idea of rehabilitation was a joke. Censorship of letters and restrictions on visits was routine; bullying and everyday violence from screws (who were often members of a rightwing group) was constant. ‘Ghosting’ – sudden moves without warning to another nick miles away – was a regular hazard, and a good kicking and a spell in chokey (isolation) the usual response to any complaint. Vicious violence from screws, generally backed up by institutional repression, provoked angry and sometimes riotous resistance, but little had changed inside for 50 years.

In the midst of the prison protests of early 1972, the first prisoners’ rights group in the UK, Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners, was publicly launched, on 11th May. The ‘union for old lags’ as it was sneeringly called in some quarters, did finally attract national media attention. Journalists gathered at the launch, held at the Prince Arthur pub, opposite North London’s Pentonville Prison, where Dick Pooley outlined PROP’s demands and programme.

PROP’s founders were mostly ex-prisoners. Pooley, recognised as one of Britain’s top safe-crackers, had spent half his life (over 20 years) in penal institutions of one kind or another (he was in fact then on parole at the end of a 10-year sentence). Ted Ward, PROP’s London organiser, had served various sentences, including a two-year stretch for breaking IN to Dartmoor Prison to help with an escape attempt; he had also spent many years in community grassroots organising in Islington, including the local Claimants Union. PROP Press officer Douglas Curtis had served time for petty theft and fraud. Mike Fitzgerald, the only one who had not done time, was a Cambridge Student. He also mentions another founder as a woman called Pauline, (but does not give her surname), another ex-inmate and community activist.

PROP was to some extent born from an alliance of ex-cons and some academic supporters, in particular sociologists. Many prisoners by necessity developed a class-based critique of the criminal justice system/prison system; inevitable, really, if you looked around you at the society you lived in, and their own daily experience of its nasty end. Their link-up to some of the sociological ‘school of deviancy’ helped to create a sharp critique of both crime and punishment.

In response to the degrading, dehumanising conditions prevailing inside UK prisons, PROP announced that it had been formed to ‘preserve, protect and to extend the rights of prisoners and ex-prisoners and to assist in their rehabilitation and re-integration into society, so as to bring about a reduction in crime.’

The organisation’s Statement of Intent continued:

‘For this purpose application has been made to the Charity Commission for the registration of a charitable trust to raise funds and assist PROPL in its efforts to:

  • Campaign for a Prisoner’s Charter of Rights;
    • Secure the right of unimpeded access to Britain’s penal establishment’s by Press and Public;
  • Bring about an end to the mis-application of the spirit and original intent of the Official Secrets Act;
  • Take action to bring about the eventual abolition of all prisons and the substitution of alternative methods of dealing with offenders;
  • Establish local hostels, job placement schemes and educational projects to be run along non-institutionalised lines by local committees with Associate Members’ support;
  • Provide legal assistance for members in court proceedings, internal disciplinary processes, parole applications and any other matters pertaining to the general welfare;
  • Establish and maintain contact an cooperation with the Trade Union movement;
  • Negotiate with the Home Office on behalf of prisoners;
  • Liaise with other penal reform bodies in Great Britain and all other countries of the world where such bodies exist.’

The Charter also set out 26 demands, dealing with the main grievances of prisoners:

‘PROP calls upon the Crown, Parliament, Her Majesty’s Government, the Home Secretary and the Prison Department to accede to these deamnds and to initiate such legislation and issue such directives as may be necessary to secure the early establishment and effective implementation of the following rights of prisoners:

The Right to membership of PROP and the right to communicate with, consult and receive visits from, representatives of PROP;

The Right to conduct elections within penal institutions on behalf of PROP with a view to the appointment of local representatives of that body and the election of delegates to its national committees;

The Right to stand for election as a local representative of PROP and once elected to participate in the decision-making process, to attend all policy and staff meetings within the prison and to act as a spokesman for his or her members in all matters relating to their pay, work and living conditions, leisure pursuits and general welfare;

The Right to canvass and vote for local and national PROP representatives;

The Right to vote in national and local government elections;

The Right to trade union membership and the right to have their pay and conditions determined by negotiations between the home Office and the prisoner’s elected representatives;

The Right to institute legal proceedings of any kind, including actions against servants of the Crown, without first securing the consent of the Home Office;

The Right to contact legal advisers in confidence without interference, intervention or censorship by the penal authorities;

The Right to be legally represented and to call defence witnesses in internal disciplinary proceedings to which the press should have free access;

The Right to parole, provided certain well-established and widely-known criteria are met. This Right to be supplements by the Right to receive expert and independent assistance in the preparation of parole applications, to be present and/or legally represented at the hearing of applications, to have access to all reports considered by the Board from whatever source and the opportunity to refute allegations of misconduct or unsuitability, the Right to a reasoned judgement on the Board’s decision and the Right of appeal to the High Court against that decision;

The Right to communicate freely with the Press and public;

The right to consult with a legal adviser before being subject to any judicial proceedings, including hearing by Magistrates of applications by the police for remands in custody;

The Right to be allocated to penal institutions within his home region;

The Right to adequate and humane visiting facilities within all penal institutions, including the ability to exercise their conjugal rights;

The Right to send and receive as many letters as the prisoner requires without censorship;

The Right to embark upon educational or vocational training courses at the commencement of any custodial sentence, including the Right to sit examinations and to be given adequate and appropriate facilities;

The Right to demand an independent inspection of prison conditions including hygiene, food, working conditions, living accommodation and the provision of adequate leisure facilities;

The Right to adequate exercise periods and the provision of recreational facilities;

The Right to consult an independent medical adviser;

The Right to enter into marriage;

The Right to attend funerals of all near relatives;

The Right to own and sell the products of their leisure-time activities, including hobbies, fine arts and writing;

The Right to receive toilet articles for personal use as gifts from relatives, friends and organisations;

The Right to adequate preparation for discharge, including:

  • Programmes of pre-release courses devised in conjunction with prisoners and their families to assist them with problems of Housing, Employment, Education, Marriage Counselling and Child Care related to their special needs.
  • The right to home leave to be extended to all prisoners.
  • The right of allocation to an open prison and followed by the right of allocation to the pre-release hostel scheme.
  • The right to a fully-franked insurance card on discharge and the supplementary rights thereby to full state benefits.
  • An equal right with all other applicants to employment in state concerns whether they run by central or local authority.

The Right to have all criminal records destroyed within five years of discharge irrespective of the sentence last served.”

PROP’s membership was designed to be two-tier: full membership for prisoners and ex-prisoners; associate membership for supporters who had never been inside. Full members (who would not have to pay membership fees) could stand for election to posts and make use of the organisation’s services; associate members had to pay fees for themselves AND a full member, and were expected to act in supportive roles.
This set-up was designed to prevent PROP being dominated by middle class liberals and ensure that prisoners’ own interests remained at the centre of PROP.

Despite the initial splash of publicity, PROP’s first attempts to establish themselves as a representative body for prisoners that the prison/state authorities would take seriously were not auspicious. Home Secretary Reginald Maudling failed to respond to PROP’s letter to him, informing him of the group’s formation, and suggesting a meeting. But although press coverage was mainly jeering, the publicity did help get the message of the new union’s existence into prisons in its first flush of existence. But on top of this, visitors to most of the major prison in England and Wales were and leaflets announcing PROP’s formation and inviting membership and contact from cons over the few days following the launch, and although many of these were confiscated or barred, visitors carried the news in word of mouth. Sympathetic lawyers, probation officers and other ‘official’ visitors also helped carry the word into nicks. Within a week of the launch, enough mail was coming out of prisons to show that the initial campaign to raise awareness had at least been moderately successful.

A letter smuggled out from Brixton Prison indicates the kind of response PROP received from inmates:

“Dear Mr Pooley,

Sorry that this isn’t nick paper. It’s Saturday night and this note has to go tomorrow so I’ve got to make do with the back of a book.

Speaking for myself and my fellow inmates, we welcome and applaud the efforts you and those connected with your organisation are making on behalf of convicted prisoners everywhere. We here at Brixton will be out again Wednesday evening, we know only too well that we got to keep the ball rolling, as unconvicted prisoners there’s little that can be done against us by the screws, so I think we here all agree that it’s easier for us unconvicted to keep on coming out without fearing reprisals from the screws.

A lot of us here, have had a taste of brutality as convicted men, the result of us trying to stand up for our own rights. I was in Wandsworth in 1970, 1971, spending a solid four months down chokey, on medicine, walking abut like a zombie. All this has to stop. This is why we all here, and I think I speak for cons unconvicted and convicted, welcome and once again applaud what you’re attempting to bring about…

We’re after association, better food, etc… We want the right to live like human beings and not be treated as the scum the ruling authority seem determined to brand us. Also we want the right to take educational courses in the nick. (In most nicks this is impossible.)

A lot of chaps want to be in touch.

Sincerely ….

PROP’s response to this letter indicates the problem of communication between inmates and those on the outside, a question that would plague the organisation in its attempts to organise in support of protest inside. ‘We here at Brixton will be out again Wednesday’ was taken to mean on the Wednesday after the letter was received, and PROP demonstrated outside Brixton on May 24th 1972, the Wednesday after the letter arrived – to coincide with a demo inside that had in fact taken place on the 17th. The smuggled letter had been delayed in its passage out, causing confusion. PROP’s demo was in the event small, but the lack of a corresponding sit-down inside (as they claimed was happening) dented their credibility (with the enthusiastic help of the Home Office and the press).

But the prison protests that had helped give birth to PROP were blossoming elsewhere…

(This story will be continued on May 13th)

A good write-up on PROP can be found in Mike Fitzgerald, Prisoners in Revolt (from which this post was taken).

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Today in London gay history: the South London Gay Centre evicted, Brixton, 1976

In 1972, some transpontine activists in the Gay Liberation Front founded a South London branch, which initially met from 1972 in the Minet Library, North Brixton. Among their early actions was street theatre in drag, parading though Brixton market. After meetings at the Library, the GLFers often went to the Paulet Arms in Paulet Road round the corner for a drink, although the pub wouldn’t let them use the function room for discos (Fun fact: 25 years later the early planning meetings for the 1998 Brixton Reclaim the Streets party were also held in the Paulet)… Later the South London group met at the Hanover Arms in Stockwell, (where they WERE allowed to have socials upstairs!), at the crypt in St Matthews Church opposite the Town Hall, where they were once besieged and bottled by bigots; then at Oval House Theatre in Kennington… Later still at the Hamilton Arms in Railton Road (a lovely pub, another old hangout of yer past tense typist, where we sometimes held 121 Collective Centre meetings in the late 80s/early 90s, on days when the 121 was too cold to even sit in! – this pub is sadly now gone).

The GLFers also met at the Women’s Centre at 80 Railton Road. GLF socials and dances – attended by 100s of people – were held at the Surrey Halls in Stockwell and even at Lambeth Town Hall.

The GLF group was still active in 1974, doing a Gay community zap (action) against Tescos (not sure of the reason).

In 1973 or 74, three South London GLF members stood as GLF candidates for the Council elections; none got in; later Malcolm Greatbanks stood again in the second General Election of 1974. “Being against Parliamentary Democracy as a meaningless sham it was pointed out that we were just doing this for the free publicity.” Canvassers came in for a fair share of abuse, including a deliberate attempt to run one down – possibly by NFers, as the GLF had been active in opposing NF candidates in Brixton that year. At the Election count a number of GLF drag queens in feather boas livened up the evening!

The Railton Road ‘frontline’ was an alternative and rebellious hotchpotch at this time – along with the black street culture and numerous blues parties, squats, there was a constant sense of siege from police, sparking various confrontations. It was also diversely counter-cultural: there were two women’s centres on Railton Road, an Anarchist News Service, Squatters Groups, a Claimants’ Union for those on welfare benefits, the Brixton Advice Centre, Icebreakers (a gay liberation counselling group), the Black Panthers and Race Today Collective, black centres and bookshops… and a food cooperative, all on the frontline, or on nearby streets like Shakespeare Road and Atlantic Road.

However, Gays on the frontline often faced hostility, from some local blacks and some other local whites: GLF members were thrown out of two local pubs, the George (The George had also previously been prosecuted under the Race Relations Act for barring black people) for holding hands, and picketed the pubs over it.

In March 1972 GLF activists were thrown out of the Union Tavern in Camberwell New Road, for leafleting; the landlord’s son had punched one of the GLFers the previous day… (Not sure if any of this was purely homophobic, or anti-political – sometimes venues that were ok with gay events were quietist, wanting to avoid anything political or activist/lefty – or possibly rightwing-based? Especially interesting as The Union Tavern was hosting gay skinhead dances a couple of years before this time, late 1960s, I think: “Tuesday night was skinhead night and you could walk into the pub and there’d be a sea of crops. Fantastic! And everyone was gay! We’d dance to reggae all night, you know, the real Jamaican stuff, and all in rows, strict step. It was a right sight seeing all those skins dancing in rows. The atmosphere was electric.”

The South London Gay Centre

In May 1974, no 78 Railton Road, (next door to one branch of Brixton Women’s Centre at no 80) was squatted, giving birth to the South London Community Gay Centre.

“During the short period of its existence the Centre acted as a focal point bringing together gay people from many different backgrounds through social activities and political action.

The Gay Centre, as a self-determined group, also took its place among the other community based groups to challenge prejudice, discrimination, heterosexist attitudes and the complacency of officialdom.

There were many different activities at the Centre. A modern dance group was formed and run by Andreas Demetriou.

There was a wrestling group in the basement and, to counter the ‘macho’ posturing of the group, a sewing bee and knitting circle was formed in the upstairs front room run chiefly by Alistair Kerr and Malcolm Watson.”

The Centre was sneeringly described by a visiting reporter as “a shabby set of rooms”! Another visitor to the Squat said: “I was expecting some sort of brotherhood and it wasn’t like that. It was rather like… people who were all already close.” The Centre seems to have lasted till around 1976. The Centre applied for a council grant at one point, but were turned down… the Council was old school right wing Labour at this point, so being gay was deeply suspicious, and squatting in council property probably didn’t help. Some of the young New left labourites objected to their being turned down, including Norwood Councillor, soon to be infamous Lambeth would-be Lenin Ted Knight!

“There were weekly discos in the basement, individual counsellors and regular meetings of the Centre ‘collective’ to determine which campaigns and social events we would support and be involved in.

Discos were also organised at Lambeth Town Hall and an open day was held for members of the public to come and meet us.

Besides all of this there was a regular duty rota so that all the people who visited the Centre would be greeted and made welcome. The 1976 Gay Pride event was also organised by Brixton Gays.”

NB: Around this time, there was actually a black gay ‘blues’ club, on Railton Road, quite well known in the pre-Gay Liberation days, run by a Jamaican woman named Pearl (who was also mildly famous as a ‘naïve’ painter); although according to one source “there was little contact between black and white gays on the Frontline”, others remember things differently, that some ex GLFers did go to Pearl’s shebeen. “It wasn’t quite Queer Nation, but we did enjoy ourselves, in an environment that was free from the usual racism that was pretty much run of the mill prejudices encountered by black people on the gay scene at the time.” (Terry Stewart)

The Centre drew a number of people into the area, who squatted several back-to-back houses on Railton and Mayall Roads, (both very run down then, with lots of empties and knackered houses) with a shared garden in between them.

These houses became the nucleus for further political activity after the closure of the Centre but equally it grew, over time, as an experiment in new communal living arrangements for gay people with varying levels of success.

South London Gay Liberation Theatre Group

“The South London Gay Liberation Theatre Group, which later became the Brixton Faeries, produced several plays, sketches and street theatre performances. They were mostly unashamedly agit prop but later became more sophisticated with better characterisation and plotting. Beginning with a Gay Dragon paraded in a local street festival the group went on to perform sketches for local community groups.

The first play, ‘Mr Punch’s Nuclear Family’, was performed at the Centre and in a local school playground at a community event. The play attacked patriarchal values by showing the devastating effects on the wife and gay son of ‘rule by the father’ and the collusion of the male-dominated authorities in acquitting the father of murdering them (1975).

Next came ‘Out of it’ (1975/76) showing the relationship between patriarchal values, fascism and the extremes of christian morality and how they contributed to gay oppression. This was followed by ‘Minehead Revisited or The Warts that Dared to Speak their Name’.

A highly topical and controversial play at the time about the Jeremy Thorpe trial at the Old Bailey. As leader of the Liberal Party he had been accused of plotting to have a former male lover intimidated and even killed in order to keep him quiet about their affair (1977-80).

‘Tomorrow’s too Late’ was an anarchic blend of music, song and fantasy around gay activist groups and the banning of Gay News by WH Smith for carrying an advert about a paedophile group and later a poem by James Kirkup suggesting a homosexual relationship between Christ and a Roman soldier (1977-80). ‘Gents’ told the story of ‘cottaging’, that is, the reasons why men have sex with other men in public toilets.

The more respectable gays viewed cottaging as repulsive and giving ordinary, decent gay people a bad name. The police frequently arrested and charged men with ‘gross indecency’ often ruining their lives in terms of losing jobs and destroying relationships.

Brixton Faeries decided to expose the oppressive nature of police entrapment and to present cottaging in positive terms as an ideal fantasy even going so far as to suggest the local council attempting to stump up funding to ‘improve facilities’ (1978-80).

We also did Joint productions with various other groups such as Gay Sweatshop in ‘Radio Gay’ at the Oval House Community Centre.

Most of the productions were at fringe theatres or community centres and one performance of ‘Out of it’ was in front of the Young Communist League who were shocked to see two men kissing on stage.”

Many people who used the Centre were unemployed and could not afford to fund it. Infighting between different factions and lack of funding contributed to the demise of the Centre.”

However the final blow came when the Centre was evicted, on 21st April 1976, by police and bailiffs so that the private owners could take vacant possession of the property and sell it to Lambeth Council for redevelopment.

The building was however re-squatted, at least for a while:

“The Gay Centre did not close due to eviction. We re-squatted the next day !
It closed after the principal people involved gave up the struggle with those we rudely called “The Nerds” who took over but were so un-together that they failed to pay the electricity and phone bills and and within months, it had collapsed.”

This marked the end of the “first public and visible institution with a clear gay identity. With this closure the focus for political and social activity shifted from the Centre to the gay squats.”

From about 1972 on there had been a number of gay squats/communes in Railton and Mayall Roads, later there seem to have been 11 houses in a group, back to back with a big communal garden. They had discos in basements… “people would bring their own records… we just had a few coloured lights, although it could get quite randy down there. It was more Dante’s Inferno than ‘Disco Inferno’ “(Ian Townson). Apparently the attempt to establish a ‘common gay identity’ didn’t really work, and there were divisions, due to different class and backgrounds of the residents… often the splits came down to “love and peace and brown rice” versus “political activists”. Later several of these squats joined Brixton Housing Co-op, and were redeveloped into single person units.

“While this made for more secure accommodation and the shared garden was kept in tact it led to a more ‘privatised’ existence and some of the original elan and spirit was lost as a result.

However the gay households are all still there with more or less permanent inhabitants.

Gay people arrived at the squats for many different reasons. Some were desperately fleeing from oppressive situations in their lives. Others were glad to find the company of unashamedly out gay people rather than remain confused and isolated.

Some consciously saw this as an opportunity to attack ‘straight’ society through adopting an alternative lifestyle that challenged the prevailing norms of the patriarchal nuclear family and private property.

There were many visitors from overseas. Everything would be shared in common including sex partners and gender bending was encouraged to dissolve rigid categories of masculine men and feminine women. For others dressing in drag was a sheer pleasure and an opportunity for ingenious invention.

The ‘cultural desert’ in South London offered little social space in which to gather strength as ‘out’ gay people. The ‘straight’ gay scene was inhospitable, exploitative and a commercial rip off  (it is now gay-owned, exploitative and a commercial rip off).

With a common garden between the houses the back doors were often left open so that people could come and go in and out of each others squats.

The kitchen more often than not became the hub of food, conversation and play. In the shared garden people would gather to dine Al Fresco or play music or even rehearse for various theatre productions. Even just camp it up for the hell of it.”

Many of the Centre’s gay activists continued to be active in Brixton after the demise of the Centre. The National Gay News Defence Committee was originally based at 146 Mayall Road and then moved to 157 Railton Road. The group was set up when Mary Whitehouse, a right-wing moral crusader, prosecuted Gay News on a charge of blasphemous libel for carrying the notorious poem by James Kirkup, imagining Jesus having sex with a roman soldier…

“This happened at a time when there was also much police activity against gay people in different parts of the country on cottaging charges and the wrongful assumption that we were paedophiles.”

With the successful prosecution of Gay News the NGNDC became the Gay Activists’ Alliance, a late-70s attempt to repoliticise the gay scene and link gay liberation to other struggles; which continued with both national and international campaigns with many locally active groups.

There was also a gay socialist paper “Gay Noise’. Some ex-GLFers set up ‘Icebreakers’ in Brixton, this was a radical counselling group which helped many people to come to terms with their sexuality and come out. The idea had arisen from the GLF’s ‘Counter Psychiatry’ sub-group, which attempted to challenge psychiatry’s treatment of lesbians and gays as sick or mad.

“Also the fascist National Front was particularly active at this time; mostly against immigrants, black people and left-wing organisations but also several gay establishments had been attacked by them including the Vauxhall Tavern in South London.

In 1978 a massive Anti-Nazi League march came along Railton Road for a Rock Against Racism festival in Brockwell Park. We fully supported the demonstration and the marchers passed under a banner we had slung high across Railton Road saying: Brixton Gays Welcome Anti-Fascists.

Also there was Anita Bryant, the Florida Orange lady, who campaigned in the United States against gays. Her famous phrase was: ‘God made Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve’ and she became even more famous when an irate gay activist shoved a cream pie in her face in full view of television cameras.

Union Place Community Resource Centre in Brixton… encouraged us to go along and make posters, diaries, badges, calendars and banners for our campaigns. Ian Townson and Colm Clifford from the gay community became employees and Colm initiated ‘Homosexual Posters’ from there producing pictorial biographies of gay people and even gay Christmas cards.

Brixton Riots

A special mention should be made of the Brixton riots of 1981 which happened chiefly as a result of the racism and heavy-handed harassment of black people by the police. The riots were centred around Railton Road and when Brixton was burning we showed our solidarity with the oppressed by joining them on the streets.

We even took tables and chairs out onto the street in front of the gay squats for a celebration party – some people in drag – getting a mixed reception from people on the street. Some hostile, others indifferent, some amused.”

Two of the Brixton gay squatters were sent to prison for a couple of years for supplying petrol to the rioters for Molotov cocktails…

Many of the original gay squats survive as co-op houses in Railton and Mayall Roads, lots with their original residents.

Some of this post was nicked from here

(where there are lots of great pics of the Centre and other gay squats, and a great thread of comments from former South London GLF folk and Centre goers)

and from No Bath but Plenty of Bubbles: An oral history of the Gay Liberation Front, ed Lisa Power.

But… there are some other accounts available now of gay lib and related skulduggery of the times…

here’s a previous post we did on Bethnal Rouge, another offshoot of the GLF

Today in London’s racist history, 1973: Black Panther Unity bookshop destroyed by arson attack, Brixton .

Working class communities have always been subject to systematically hostile policing. But conditions in Brixton as in many other areas in Britain became much worse in the 1970s. Local communities, black mainly but white as well, were often in a state of siege, confronted by repeated raids, with or without warrants, trashing of people’s houses, intimidation, harassment on the street, searches, assaults. Black people were told that if they didn’t want to get nicked they should stay indoors. In fact many parents did forcibly try to keep their teenage (and younger) kids indoors at weekends to stop them going out. Partly this was fear of them getting nicked, though many older more law-abiding Caribbean folk did feel they were losing control of their more rebellious and militant kids. The massive widespread use of Section 24 of the 1824 Vagrancy Act to arrest people on suspicion that a crime may have been about to be committed, led to its infamous nickname – the ‘SUS’ law. The charge was “loitering with intent to commit a crime”_ – cops only had to state that the suspect had done something to arouse their suspicion and then something else that led them to think a crime was about to be committed (usually theft), to justify an arrest. No evidence, independent witnesses, anything, was needed get a conviction.

SUS was heavily aimed at young black people; for instance 89% of sus defendants attending Balham Juvenile Court in 1976 were black. Lambeth was consistently the highest area in London for sus arrests.

Among the places where black kids could get off the street away from police harassment, were local black youth clubs; but as a result, raids and searches of the clubs gradually were a regular occurrence. Police would storm in: “Twenty to thirty police burst into the premises, they knew every door, toilet etc… They burst in like commandos in Africa. They grabbed people by their hair and necks… they said they were looking for somebody… They took away almost everybody out of the club…”_ Raids caused increasing anger: another incursion “caused chaos in the club. Some members became very restive and excitable; others were aggressive as they were not allowed to leave the building… The end result was one of noise and anger against the police.”_ In at least one case they brought a bloke in who they claimed was a mugging victim, to look for the alleged perps, only it later turned out this guy was another copper, posing as a ‘victim’.

Brixton, with its large west indian population and a strong street culture that police saw as threatening, was a major target for police operations, which often turned into sieges of the area, mass arrests and beatings.

To this day, but even more so in the ’70s and ’80s, in Brixton, any small incident could escalate, often because any call for assistance by an officer (often over the most minor ‘offence’) would be answered with massive force. Cops over-reacted routinely. The open police radio allowed coppers not actively engaged with anything else to race to any incident.

In response, younger black activists, increasingly influenced by the powerful Black Power movements in the USA, began to organise resistance to police violence. Visits from US leaders like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael (who spoke at a rally in Brixton in 1967), and later the activities of the US Black Panther party, inspired a number of UK-based groups. But they were also forged by their own daily experience on inner-city streets. Many of the activists who formed the early radical black groups shared a similar background – predominantly arriving in Britain as young children or early teenagers (often between 1959 and 1963), children of the first generation of migrants. The culture shock of arrival here, the experience of racism, both casual and institutional and low quality of life, the lack of opportunities, was blended with the realisation that they were likely here for good, and would have to fight to establish their position. This militancy began to distinguish them from the majority of their parents. Attempts to turn existing race relations groups into black militant groups, led to splits and divisions in organisations like the Institute of Race relations, the Campaign Against Race Discrimination and others.

The Universal Coloured People’s Association, Britain’s first Black Power group, founded in 1967, had a branch in Brixton, holding Black Power rallies there. It only lasted a few short years, but from it emerged the UK Black Panthers in 1968. Another group that fed into the British Black Panthers, in its embryonic phase after the Mangrove 9 trial was called the Black Eagles, which met I think in West London. Later the Black Unity and Freedom Party also emerged from the UCPA.)

The UK Black Panther Movement was strongly influenced by its US counterpart. Based at the Black People’s Information Centre, 38 Shakespeare Road, Brixton, at their height they had 300, mainly working class, members in London, They produced a paper which they distributed door to door and in Brixton market, held public meetings, agitated, demonstrated, publicly opposing police violence and supporting people attacked, and framed by the cops. From this their activity spread into housing, education, supporting anti-colonial movements, producing revolutionary literature.

Black power groups mobilised hundreds and later of mainly younger black people up and down the UK; through “demonstrations, boycotts, sit-ins, pickets, study circles, supplementary schools, day conferences, campaign and support groups”, aimed at racist immigration laws, police harassment, discrimination in housing, employment and education, many more were to be drawn in as the 70s went on.

The Panthers set up education classes for local kids, running Saturday schools and Black Studies groups, and had a library as well as organising anti-racist demos, producing both propaganda and informational material about black struggles around the world. They also ran social and cultural events: Black power activities also had a strong cultural element – dances, with sounds systems, poetry groups…

But the war by the police on the local black community remained at the heart of their practice.

The celebrated Mangrove case in Notting Hill, (where a march against police harassment had led to nine leading activists – including Darcus Howe – being charged with incitement, but who had defended themselves in court and been acquitted) had been a coalescing force in the development of black militant politics in London. It brought together small groups and individuals and began the process of turning them into a movement. At every stage of the case, both in the legal arena and on the streets, black self-organisation had pushed to a new collective level; both defendants like Darcus Howe and supporters/participants in the campaign were drawn into groups like the Panthers.

The groups opposed everyday police racism and violence. And of course in the nature of such things, Brixton Police responded, by harassing the Panthers at every turn. British Black Panthers warned in October 1970, of a deliberate campaign ‘pick off Black militants and to intimidate, harass and imprison black people prepared to go out on the streets and demonstrate’.

Panthers and other black activists were followed and stopped, in the street, while selling their papers; their fundraisers and the Brixton HQ were repeatedly raided. The usual catalogue of bizarre arrests and colourful charges visited by the peelers on rebels and protesters mounted up.

In March 1970 (in fact 48 years ago tomorrow, the 16th) four members of the Fasimbas, a Lewisham-based radical black organisation, were pounced on the then notorious Transport police led by the notorious Sgt. Ridgewell, at the Oval tube station, and charged, with trying to ‘shop’ (mug) two old people and attempting to steal a policewoman’s handbag, also assault on police (as usual). All actively involved in the Fasimbas’ supplementary school, they were carrying books with them for the school project when they were arrested. Beaten up inside the police station, forced to sign confessions, the ‘Oval 4’ were sentenced, the youngest to Borstal, the three others to two years imprisonment. However they were later all released on appeal.

In August 1971, a Black Panther dance at Oval House, Kennington, turned into to a mini-riot, after cops were refused entry to allegedly follow two ‘suspected young thieves’. More police turned up, carried out a search, but no two youths found. A fight then broke out, several people arrested, and three at least charged. They got suspended sentences.

On the eve of the National Conference on the Rights of Black People in 1971, the Panthers HQ was raided, their files rifled; the group was bogged down in court for months.

Unity Bookshop

In 1973 the Black Panthers squatted 74 Railton Road, to open it as a black bookshop to sell their increasing black literature, and their paper, Freedom News. Farrukh Dhondy, then a leading Panther member, takes up the story [a warning: it’s a shocking tale of a narrow escape from fire.]

“We used to run a newspaper called Freedom News and we had a lot of books for sale which we used to sell outside Brixton from another handcart, and Ridley Market in Dalston. So we had all these sorts of bookshop and we thought we should have a proper bookshop and so we squatted a place called 74 Railton Road on what was then playfully known as the frontline because people used to hang about there all the time and other activities. So we had this Freedom News bookshop on the ground floor, and it was a derelict building, but a friend of mine called Keith, Keith Carling, he was an architect, he’d just finished architecture school, so he knew how to build and plaster and stuff. So, he put in toilets and showers and we made it decent. So we had two flats and we had a basement room in which a fellow who I can only remember as Afrika, because he called himself Afrika with a K, and he moved in there and he played the bongo drums most of the night and disturbed everybody, but the bookshop ground floor, me first floor… Keith first floor, me second floor, and on the 15th of March 1973, the date is printed in my head, I was asleep about four in the morning and suddenly I woke up choking, I didn’t have a bed, I had a mattress on the floor, or a couple of mattresses on the floor, and I woke up choking wondering whether I’d left the fire on or what, what was choking me. I couldn’t see because the smoke was so thick, so I got up and stumbled towards the fire, but of course the fire was off, and then I saw the smoke coming through the shut door of the first floor. I opened that door door and the fire was raging on the staircase and I couldn’t get the door shut because of the draught, it was… it banged then and I went to the window, all this time not breathing now, so a minute/two minutes without breathing, you know what it’s like when you duck under water, and I opened the window and took one deep breath of fresh air or whatever there was. Nobody about and the glass of the front, the glass front of the bookshop was breaking outwards with booming noises, you know, which fire does, I believe, it heats up the glass, and blasts it outward, and I heard all these blasts and then I heard the neighbours shouting, ‘Oh god. Oh god’, you know all this, and I just shouted, you know, ‘Don’t call god, call the fire engine, yes?’ I was only in my underwear, so I didn’t know what to do, whether to grab my clothes, go back into the smoke-filled room, I was just gasping for air. I jumped from the thing, I had to get out because the fire was coming up, so I jumped and I landed in the burning glass, you know, red hot glass and cut my feet and broke my ankles and that, but I struggled up and by that time some neighbours had gone and called the people at Shakespeare Road, which was one of our bases, and Ira [ ]and I think Neil [Kenlock], people came out, they came rushing out to see if I was okay. A neighbour opposite, just a guy I didn’t know even, he got a coat and he put a coat around me and sat me down on the steps and I waited until the fire engines and police and so on came. The fire chief definitely came to me and said, ‘You’ve been set on fire, there’s a petrol bomb.’ Yes a chap threw a molotov cocktail in through the glass. I didn’t hear a crash. So, I hung about, they phones friends for me and a couple of mates came. They said ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I just want to go to school’, right, where I was teaching, even though I had broken ankles. They took me to the thing and they bandaged it up, there was nothing they could do, that was it, so I sat on the steps until school opened, this was kind of 6.30, 7.00, and I sat there until the headmaster and people turned up and said, ‘Why are you in a coat and underwear?’ ‘Because I’ve got nothing else [laughs], this is a borrowed coat, the underwear is mine,’ and so that it was it. The newspapers said that evening, the morning papers didn’t have it, the Evening Standard, or whatever it was then, the Evening News, had five places had been bombed that night, and this bookshop was one of them, some Asian shops and some black project somewhere and all in the same day… the police never did anything. One neighbour said that it was a motorcyclist who chucked the bomb and moved on, so nothing ever happened, no prosecutions took place and the place was a shell, it was burnt out, that was the story…”

Police apathy towards the attack was hardly surprising – the frontline was widely despised by the cops, enemy territory they policed only in numbers and violently. The Panthers were vocal opponents of the cops; and police racism was notorious. In the 1970s, sympathy towards the rightwing nationalist National Front (the NF, many of whose core members were long-time Nazi sympathisers, though they had gathered increasing support among the wider white population), agreement with its views, if not actual membership, was widespread among the police, and this was true of Lambeth. Black people coming up against the police, facing or reporting racist attacks, or crime against them in general, would usually be faced with racist comments and treatment, if the cops bothered to turn up at all.

And bizarrely, even in Brixton, the then growing National Front did attempt to show its ugly face publicly. Several times in the decade, and at least twice in 1978, the police protected the National Front in Brixton. In April at Southborough Park Junior School, 1500 police protected an NF electoral meeting, while 800 anti-fascists demonstrated nearby. Police co-operated with NF stewards, and closed off access to parts of nearby estates and harassed people who were trying to get to their homes, as well as nicking 6 black youths leaving the demo (under sues). In May cops protected Front members selling their racist shite along the Frontline in Rail ton Road – where they might otherwise have had difficulty leaving in one piece. A tiny number of Nazis were escorted by large numbers of police. Coming so soon after the NF march in Lewis ham in 1977 – which had seen a massive police operation protecting a Front march from thousands of anti-fascists, locals and leftists of all stripes, ending in huge battles throughout southeast London – it seemed obvious that the police were hand in glove with the Front. Contrast this with police treatment of black or anti-racist demos – many of which were systematically attacked by the cops in the late ’70s and ’80s.

The arson attack on the Unity Bookshop, presumably by fascists of one stripe or another, was not a unique event. Racist fire-bombings in the 1970s were not even uncommon, often against Black and Asian people in their own homes, but also against black and anti-racist spaces, cultural venues or leftwing centres. Other high-profile targets of arson that was suspected to be fash-inspired at the very least, included the Albany Centre in Deptford, the nearby Moonshot youth Club in New Cross, the Commission for Racial Equality HQ, the SWP’s offices… to name but a few.

The most high profile fire believed to be the result of racist arson was the New Cross Fire in 1981, where 13 black teenagers died (another died of injuries later), which was ignored and played down by police, who did nothing to investigate. This horrific event sparked the Black People’s Day of Action in March 1981, a huge angry march through London… And the climate of racist policing and blatant refusal to do anything about these kind of attacks contributed to the rage and hatred of the cops that gave birth to the 1981 riots…

But rightwing arson attacks didn’t end in the 70s or 80s… in our own time attempts were made to twice burn the 121 anarchist centre, just down Railton Road from the Black Panthers’ shop, in the early 1990s… (Their friendly neighbour chased off the crap arsonists in 1993)… and in 2013, the anarchist Freedom bookshop in Whitechapel was badly damaged by arson, again, probably by Nazis. The police stirred themselves again on that one… And its not only political targets: in recent years, tens of mosques have been targeted for arson, as have eastern European homes both before and since the Brexit referendum. Whether its active fascists, common or garden racists, little englanders – rightwingers love nothing so much as burning out foreigners and people who won’t put up with their swivel-eyed bollocks.

Postscript: The terrace that the Unity Bookshop was part of has, I think since been at least partly demolished. Many shopfronts were run down and empty at that time, and were regularly squatted for various projects. A couple of doors down from the short-lived Unity shop, a year later, no 78-80 Railton Rd, (in front of the also squatted St George’s Residences), included a squatted Claimants Union office, a women’s space, and the famous South London Gay Community Centre, around 1974-6.

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A brief introduction to the UK Black Panthers in Brixton and the racism and police violence they were resisting, can be read in past tense’s pamphlet ‘In the Shadow of the SPG’, which can be bought here

The interview with Farrukh Dhondy (who went from the Panthers, to seminal Black magazine Race Today, to writing and Channel Four), was lifted from the excellent ‘The British Black Panthers and Black Power Movement’, interviews with and photos of the UK Panthers, published by Organised Youth.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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Today in queer history: acid-drag queen commune Bethnal Rouge opens, Bethnal Green, 1973

Bethnal Rouge was a gay bookshop/commune opened in 1973 by a group of ‘radical femme acid queens’ – a group of gender-nonconformist queers, who emerged from the London Gay Liberation Front (GLF).

The Bethnal Rouge collective had to some extent evolved from the loose group of radical drag queens that had coagulated as members of the GLF, some of who had been living communally since early 1972 in various parts of London.

London Gay Liberation Front had been born in late 1970 (inspired by GLF’s birth in New York) and had rapidly become a large and brilliantly confrontational movement in the capital, which spread throughout the country in the next couple of years. But it was always a diverse and to some extent fractious alliance. If gay men and lesbians had initially been united in fighting the massive social prejudice and violence against them all, divisions soon opened up, as the women’s liberation movement blossomed, and the male dominance in the ‘liberation’ front became a major issue. But other bones of contention was whether a class-based evolution was the first priority, as an immediate need that would help sort everyone’s sexual oppression out (er, eventually), and if liberation was what people were fighting for – for many was it acceptance and assimilation into straight society, recognised as gay but equal?

The GLF became gradually fragmented, between a number of fractions – groups aligned for a while who in time discovered political and social differences that in the end led them in different directions. Lesbians eventually got pissed off with male dominance in GLF; varying left, Marxist and anarchist influences produced their own splinters. The movement as a whole had also always united political action with a massive personal and sexual flowering that attracted both people interested only in their own sexual adventures and those who thought sexual adventures and living arrangements could be the basis of an overturning of heterosexual and homophobic social structures.

The queens who founded Bethnal Rouge had been among the faction called ‘Radical Feminists’ in frustration by their GLF critics, (confusingly this label was applied to the men in drag, and should not be confused with the more usual use of Radical Feminists). They had broadly allied with lesbians in GLF in opposition to the more ‘straight’ gay activists who dominated GLF meetings in the early days, but as GLF grew, sections split off and local groups proliferated, the ‘Radical Feminist’ drag queens came to be one of the most vocal and eventually dominant factions in GLF in London, though their confrontational all-out assault on hetero-capitalist society was not universally popular in the gay movement and could freak newcomers and tentative young gay folk somewhat…

“We didn’t take the label radfems. It got thrown at us one night in an argument … ‘You radical femme acid queens!’ … it was something from outside. We never used words like that. We would say ‘get a frock on dear’ whenever they were ranting away”. (Bette Bourne)”.

“It started with jellabas and kaftans and long hair and flowers … then we discovered glitter … and then nail varnish. Later, some of of us – a quarter of the men, I’d say, at some time or other – would get a nice new frock for the next Gay Lib dance. Then a few people began wearing it to meetings. It just evolved.” (Michael James)”.

It then became street theatre, notably the Miss Trial demo outside the Old Bailey in support of the women who were on trial for disrupting the Miss World contest, and then the disruption of the 1971 Christian Festival of Light. Some GLF queens wore drag because it felt right, some for fun and some for political reasons.

Generally the queens were living in communal squats and in poverty in Brixton and in Notting Hill, and wore drag all day every day. They aligned themselves with lesbians against the masculine gay men who were dominating the GLF meetings. When the women finally split from GLF in February 1972, the Rad Fems began to dominate at the All-London meetings at All Saints Hall in Powis Square.

However the RadFems also demonstrated against the launch of the feminist magazine Spare Rib, (mostly on the basis of what they saw as the middle class nature of the Spare Rib collective) which allowed The Sunday Times to run an article on the irony of feminist men telling women how they should behave. The fledging Gay News used this to disassociate from what they referred to as ‘fascists in frocks’. The initial issues of Gay News were hostile to GLF in general and even more so to the queens.

In July 1972 a group of the most radical drag queens were renting a house in Athlone Road, off Tulse Hill in Brixton, and got into a barney with some local somewhat homophobic kids from Tulse Hill School, who had attacked their house. This resulted in about 30 of the queens and friends ‘invading’ the school to hand out leaflets. Julian Hows, later a leading light of Bethnal Rouge, was an already out pupil, who had been suspended from Tulse Hill and had got involved with the commune.

From Brixton, the commune moved to the then slightly more gay-friendly Notting Hill, to set up in Colville Terrace and then nearby Colville Houses. The main GLF meetings had started to fall apart as various factions argued and moved off in different political directions. The queens had clashed with other groupings over their insistence on personal liberation, with a lifestyle-oriented, but confrontational, all out, in your face. This ended in head-on clashes with those who saw themselves as more practical, such as the GLF office collective.

“There was a very strong movement against monogamy, couples were really uncool. Because everybody wanted to have sex with everybody! But politically, we were breaking up the nuclear family and we were not going to have any ersatz nuclear families and 1 can’t bear gay weddings. 1 think it’s disgusting! All these silly queens imitating their oppressors. Please, do something original, what is this contract, is this a business? It’s like doing a deal with someone. I think it’s really naff. Really naff. One of the great things in the commune was, it was so taboo because it was so fatal. I mean, I’ve got an eighteen‑year relationship now and it’s very different from living with a group of people. It’s very powerful, but it’s not good in a group.” (Bette Bourne)

In March, the Colville commune moved into a new home – Bethnal Rouge.

A communique announcing the birth of Bethnal Rouge was written in red pen by someone with gorgeous handwriting and ended with a kiss in a similar coloured lipstick):

‘Dear Brothers + Sisters,

Bethnal Rouge, a commune of gay people, have taken over the former Agitprop bookshop. The shop will continue with the emphasis on gay’s, women’s + children’s books and periodicals. We open up on March 1st, our hours are Mon-Sat 11am-7pm. There’s plenty of room here for people to relax, chat and have coffee, so come on round.

Love Bethnal Rouge Collective

P.S. Tube: Bethnal Green (Central) Bus: No. 8″

The radical Agitprop bookshop had moved around various parts of London for a couple of years, most recently in Bethnal Green:

“… it was this bookshop cum warehouse and you walked into a kitchen which went into open plan East End camp with a built-in bar in tacky plastic. The place had originally been owned by one of the Krays’ bankers, who was serving twenty-five years in Maidstone, and Agitprop had been very nice to his wife, who they thought got a rough deal. It was the first house I ever lived with a wall safe and we kept looking at various places for hidden money, under the floorboards and so on.” (Julian Hows)

Agitprop had faced increasing police harassment and raids, as cops more and more cracked down on the capital’s underground, anarchist and fringe left scenes in the hunt for the group of bombers who used the name the Angry Brigade. Agitprop had been raided repeatedly, two of the collective members had been arrested on firearms charges and accused of being part of the Angry Brigade, two more were threatened with deportation. The collective decided to call it a day.

“Bethnal Rouge came about through Andrew Lumsden, Richard Chappell and Steven Bradbury, who hung around together. The three of them got the building from Agitprop, in the spring of 1973. Agitprop were giving up the lease on the building and wrote to various groups offering the premises. I brought the letter back to the commune and after we decided not to move there we passed it on to Andrew and Richard. The people who went to Bethnal Rouge included Steven, Matthew Dallaway, Michael Kennedy and Margaret.”(Stuart Feather).

Andrew Lumsden recalls: “The bathroom was filled with Peanuts cartoons from the Observer. It seemed rather endearing, this in the revolutionary Agitprop premises. They were rather large, we had a bookshop on the ground floor and the publishers were very easy going about supplying books on credit. We had a till by the door and we sold some, though it never made any particular profit. We were supposed to take it in turns to run the bookshop. We painted a mural at the far end of the ground floor and upstairs we turned the living room into the same as 7a (the previous commune at Colville Houses) – drapes and hangings everywhere, mattresses strewn around the floor, and various people came to live there and visit. We used to go to the local pub which was staggered by these drag queens turning up, but it was a standard cockney pub, they had a piano and they liked to have a singsong and quite a lot of the people in the commune were very good at sing songs, so that made us reasonably popular and we spent quite a lot of dole money on there, so that was all right… We even took the door off the loo because we didn’t believe in privacy, everything had to be done in public. I left eventually because of the heavy drug use in there. Lots of heavy straight men began coming round…”

The Bethnal Rougers lost little time ‘integrating’ into local life: “I managed the Kentucky Fried Chicken shop in Bethnal Green under a false name. I went along for a part-time job and became the manager in weeks because it was two queens who were brothers who were running it and took a shine to me. So we managed it and the rest of the staff left because they couldn’t cope with me, and the whole of Bethnal Rouge tried to manage it. We were making an awful lot of money because we were going across the road to Tesco’s and buying cases of chicken, cutting them up and using Colonel Sanders names to pull the punters.” (Julian Hows)

[Bethnal Rouge could clearly teach KFC of 2018 a bit about management and ensuring chicken supplies… Ed].

Life in the commune was generally chaotic, by all accounts, with people arriving and hanging around and departing constantly, and (presumably, though not mentioned) a fair amount of sex going on.

A special Bethnal Rouge issue of the GLF new-sheet in June 1973 contained a spoof, but clearly not completely inaccurate, diary of life in the commune-bookshop:

Doin’ the Bethnal Rouge

6am – we go to bed; except Nicole who gets up and Geoffrey who rises for his bath.

9am – forget to put the dustbins out, Michael turns off central heating. Open door to sunroof – going to be blazing hot day.

10am – 33 unknowns appear from bed for breakfast. Matthew makes station hotel breakfast for 85.

11am – man turns on hot water system; Lydia looks for her giro; Andrew can’t find the Wall Street Journal.

12am – forgotten to open the shop; huge queue – oh they’re waiting for the bus. Lydia quieter.

1.00– cocktails and California beachwear on roof; social security visitor expected; gramophone red hot.

2.00 – shop opened; thermostat mad for 4th week: can only have jot water if central heating at full blast; fat visitor melts.

3.00- we’ve forgotten to buy food for supper. Remember its early closing. [For you young’uns, in the 1970s Wednesday used to be early closing day, when shops would shut early. Like all shops. You were buggered if you had run out of milk.]

4.00- Michael turns off central heating. Lydia turns off SS visitor.

5.00- everybody awake. Man puts on hot water & accordingly central heating.

5.30 – the party continues. Somebody steals £50. Richard starts getting supper together from somewhere – Michael makes salad from unpaid bills.

6.00 – cocktails on the sun roof. Someone steals £40 & the green shield stamps. Gramophone explodes.

7.00 – guests arrive. Full meeting of commune efficiently deals in quarter of an hour with all practical and emotional problems.

8.00 – do bookstall at GLF meeting. The men state thinking about sex. Central heating explodes. One million for supper.

10.00 – somebody steals the furniture; we get thrown out of Tricky Dicky’s disco.

12pm – somebody steals Bethnal Rouge; we go to sleep in the dustbins’

(the following week somebody slyly added a missing footnote:

‘8pm – Margaret also thinks about sex – then does the washing up.’

If, like your editor here, you have spent time in the fun hinterland where squat lifestyle rebellion meets activism, you may fondly recognise the dynamics here… There’s no denying the fun to be had, but if you have also been there trying to run an anarchist bookshop with chaos, partying and infuriating dithering going off (and yes, also combined with the kind of technical issues with power, heating etc… if only we had had fucking central heating at our place however… some days it was too cold to open and we held meetings in the pub up Railton Road.)

The setting up of Bethnal Rouge coincided with the fragmentation of the main London Gay Liberation Front group, which had been slowly drifting apart for months, but now imploded. The queens, of whom Bethnal Rouge might be said to be the focal point, and the GLF office collective, based at the Housmans Bookshop, 5a Caledonian Road, represented two increasingly at odds poles in the gay activist scene.

The office collective felt they did all the real work and were ignored or unappreciated; some of he other folk hanging on in GLF thought the office collective were too allied to what they called ‘straight gays’, activists in name, but aspiring for a kind of respectable equality and a niche in hierarchical fucked-up old society. The queens didn’t want ‘equality’ and acceptance, they wanted to tear the whole structure down and were out to provoke and experiment with new forms of living. Bethnal Rouge and the office collective fought constantly in the weekly meetings (by now held at Conway Hall), through leaflets and the pages of the GLF newssheet. In August 1973, a leaflet was issued denouncing the office collective:

“It’s happened again. The MEN have: formed a GROUP…. Took over the CAPITOL (our office) – started to make rules for others than themselves… printed PROPAGANDA on a newssheet… took complete control of PUBLIC property… THE SAME OLD RITUAL… wot next? Forms in triplicate, secretaries, candidates for parliament???? … The office collective say ‘ALMOST’ anyone can join. I don’t want to ‘join’ anything, so apparently I can no longer use ‘our’ office… and of course ALL the GLF mail and expressed opinion is now to be answered by the MEN from the Stone Age, men who don’t sue their own minds, but copy all the mistakes MEN have made since the world began. I don’t want to stop them using OUR office, but I and perhaps others expect to be able to sue it as well without ‘joining’ anything.”

Whether this leaflet issued from a Bethnal Rouger or not, shortly after this, a proposal to move the GLF office to Bethnal Rouge was discussed at the end of September 1973, but nothing decided. The next morning the Bethnal Rougers took direct action, staging a raid on the office in Housmans, attempting to seize as much GLF material as they could, and a physical struggle ensued. Julian Hows, Stuart Feather and Richard Chappell of Bethnal Rouge were involved. Office collective worker (and longtime Housmans Bookshop worker) David ‘Max’ McLellan, (RIP you mad old tankie!), summed it up thus: “I remember fighting with Julian Hows over a pile of [GLF] manifestos. Julian lost.” However, the Rougers did apparently depart with lots of the office bumf…

The office collective’s view of the raid summed up the now crevassic difference of opinion now polarising gay activism; but also starkly illustrates two views of how you change the world. Which if we’re honest, both have something going for them:

‘And on the Third Day They Came’

Last Wednesday morning, Stuart Feather, Richard and half a dozen others arrived at the elegant and well appointed 5 Caledonian Road and loaded everything into a truck, including the worldly possessions of some of the members of the office collective, tore everything off the walls and generally caused as much indigestion as can be caused by that number of people at that time of the morning. Cherubim, hearken unto your fairy godmother, the place looked like Cinderella’s coach at two after midnight.

That, apart with getting foot and fist heavy with odd peaceful people standing around or offering oral objection, was what happened. Why is a much more difficult question to answer. At the all London meeting at the Conway Hall the previous evening the possibility of moving the office from 5 Caledonian Road had been discussed, but naturally, the all London meeting being the all London meeting, no decision had been taken. And indeed, 5 Caledonian Road does not exist only for the benefit of London, so presumably the forty five other GLFs should have had some say in the matter, but a small group of people in GLF have got themselves so liberated that they have now gone a complete circle and adopted the methods of our flat-footed brothers. [The cops, ed]. This incident is merely the cumulation of two months of bickering, internecine warfare, and general nastiness which has driven people away from the meetings at Conway Hall, wasted the efforts of the offive collective and of the Bethnal Rouge Commune so that nothing has been done to further the liberation of London at all, with the exception of two demos. Well you may ask brothers, where our communal head is at, I’ll tell you – it’s stuck between our legs, fist fucking.

In the middle of all this, why have an office at all? The process of liberation is a long and painful one which never finishes; there are people all over the country who are in various stages of the process. They need pamphlets, badges, information, contact, speakers, assurance and a voice to fill fantasies while they wank off into a public telephone booth. Laugh not, brother, for there you go. In addition, in London, there needs to be somewhere where posters can be made and stored, demos got together, and something done about turning London on. Finally there needs to be somewhere central for people all over the world to drop into when they find themselves in this big wicked city.

By whom can this function be filled? Bethnal Rouge commune is on London and has plenty of space; it has someone there almost all the time and has gay people who are trying to make a go of a totally new life style… On the other hand they are… so liberated that they can’t communicate with most of the human race, and most of the human race can’t communicate with them.

Unfortunately most gays are still members of the human race; you must remain within shouting distance of those you want to relate to. On the other hand, the office collective has been able to answer all mail, provide a reliable service as promised, pay off a lot of the debts, build up a certain amount of confidence, and pay the rent. …”

Not long after this the GLF office collective announced its effective divorce from London GLF and its re-organisation as the Gay Switchboard, which went on to do sterling work as a point of contact for gay folk from all over the place, and continues today…

Bethnal Rouge, in the meantime, claiming to be the true voice of the movement, in a ‘Court Circular’ dated October 3rd-9th, responded they had ‘not taken over the office but merely liberated it from the grip of male oppression’, branding the GLF Office Collective an ‘obscene parody of straight middleclass liberal do-gooders.’

Bethnal Rouge continued for a few months after these events.

In February 1974 Bethnal Rouge was invited by Goldsmiths College Gay Society to give a talk before their regular disco. “They were dressed for the occasion in their best Disco Diva Drag.” Whilst enjoying a pre-talk drink they were attacked by Group 4 Total Security, who worked for the College, and badly beaten up. When Lewisham police arrived sthe security told that Bethnal Rouge had come to the disco to cause trouble. One queen needed hospital treatment; another who was head butted and lost two front teeth. One was arrested and later that night thrown through a glass door in the police station. The rest escaped.

Shortly afterwards the commune was evicted from 248 Bethnal Green Road.

“And we got evicted from Bethnal Rouge and lived in Parfitt Street, in one of the few back to backs left in the East End.” (Julian Hows)

Parfett Street was one of the early streets that became fully squatted in London’s East End: some of its history can be read here

The Bethnal Rouge queens continued their struggle against ‘heteronormativity’ in their own many ways… Stuart Feather, Bette Bourne and Michael James became performers (Stuart later became a painter). Andrew Lumsden later became a tour guide and a painter. Julian Hows achieved minor celebrity when he insisted on wearing female uniform when working for London Underground. He is now an Aids survivor. Stephen Bradbury and Richard Chappell died of Aids in the early 1990s.

Some of the fundamental arguments that produced Bethnal Rouge continue today, and have, if anything, gained topicality. The question of an acceptable gay culture that is benignly tolerated and smiled upon by ‘straight’ capitalist society, versus a subversive sexuality that undermines not only imposed gender roles and toxic and oppressive masculinity, but exists as part of wide movements to radically alter social and economic relations – today we live with the result of the victory of the former tendency. The influence of the radical queens who created Bethnal Rouge, as with much of the most starkly innovative theorising and experimenting of the era, has become sidelined, somewhat, in comparison to the ‘straight’ gay activism that the queens railed against. Ironically though, much of what passes for mainstream gay culture has become completely de-politicised, bound up with consumerism and craving for ‘acceptance’ and ‘normality’, when compared to the GLF era. This is of course to some extent inevitable, for social movements fighting for change: that the early flowering against hostile ‘norms’ produced radical positions, which tend to slowly fade as wider society is actually forced to accommodate the change. GLF and its ilk helped create the change that made their protests less urgent, over decades. But its also true that movements are rarely homogenous, and common interests can unite people with widely varying views or needs, which break under stress, or sometimes split as some achieve partial victories, while others in the wide movement do not. Before the Bethnal Rouge/office collective split, the first divisions in GLF emerged as lesbians protested against domination of the organisation by gay men who they saw as fundamentally seeking gains for themselves without really caring about gay women much.

Drag, of course, was as old as the hills – but even the subversive political drag had mostly dissipated in its impact by the 1990s, reclaimed by the old music hall dynamic: fun, in itself, but hardly threatening socially.

Now, with the strange permutations of queer culture and the resolution-based posturing of much of post-millennial politics, men dressing as women is often labelled as ‘cultural appropriation’ – unless you are declaring yourself as transgender, men shouldn’t be dressing in dresses. Student Unions have denounced and passed resolutions against the very idea.

For those of us coming into radical movements in the 1980s, influenced by 70s feminism, gay liberation, as well as class, race, and our own backgrounds, many of those I grew to work with felt most at home with the ideas of the radical feminists – both the drag queens and the lesbians. Gender, the expectations of behaviour and the social relations that it implied, were a social construct, born and reinforced in the power relations of men over women, but with the layered complications of class, masculinity and femininity, sexuality mixed in… we fell in behind the aim of the Bethnal Rouge queens – we wanted to help dismantle the whole social structure that imposed gender on us all. Freeing us all from power of men over women, but also from the stereotypes and narratives of what men and women do, look like, behave like, and ARE. Most of us still do (from the fleeting conversations I still have with old mates). Among other aims.

Times have moved on, as they tend to do.

These days, men who dressed and acted as the radical queens did would like as not be expected to be part of the transgender movement, in one form or another. Though this might or might not in reality reflect their actual aims. There is a strand of historical looking back that retrospectively classes many gay rebels and especially transvestites as effectively transgender… in some cases there’s a basis for that, in others without real historical justification. Often making modern assumptions for social situations that are utterly unlike our own, seeking ancestors in the past who reflect out own experience in our own times. This is a basic misunderstanding of both the nature of social change, and the vitality of the DIFFERENCE between us and those who we look to/inspire us in history. Our experiences and views are different partly BECAUSE of them and their struggles.

Transgender politics is obviously central to current hot debate. Major questions exist as to whether gender is either an inherent trait in us, fundamental to us as a person, despite the biological sex we are born into – or a socially conditioned set of attitudes, reflexes and assumptions, based in the power relations of patriarchy, capitalism and race supremacy, which we have imposed on us, more or less successfully, and which we resist and subvert…

Some of the GLF queens reputedly did transition and become women – others remained fiercely gay men, who dressed in drag to undermine the whole hetero-normative caboodle. Which represents the true tradition? Does such a thing exist?

Like the Mormons, you can try to baptise you ancestors in your image – they may refuse to stay dead and co-operative, however.

I would have liked to write more on these issues and how the history intersects with the now – but at some point you have to just post (time’s tight, and I’m supposed to be doing Proper Work etc), but comments and angry denunciations welcome. On a postcard.

Much of this post was taken from No Bath But Plenty of Bubbles: An Oral History of the Gay Liberation Front, ed Lisa Power. But other sources are out there.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London radical history; mass meeting protests threat to Paddington Day Hospital, 1972

Paddington Day Hospital was an important nexus in the UK radical psychiatric community, a ‘space of convergence’ of various progressive counter-cultural forces that were a feature of the period, bringing together radical mental health workers who were attracted to therapeutic communities as an alternative to the conventional psychiatric hospital, ideas of anti-psychiatry, and key figures in the emerging patients’ movement. According to Helen Spandler, Paddington’s story contains “both the possibilities and limitations of the radical psychiatrist as an ‘agent provocateur’ within psychiatry… That the history of Paddington Day Hospital was so clearly riddled with these tensions and paradoxes marks it as an important moment in history. Not only did patients and staff struggle to collectively defend the progressive elements of the day hospital, they were also vociferous in resisting its practices when it failed to meet their expectations.”

The Paddington Clinic and Day Hospital opened in 1962, replacing the Camden Clinic which closed.  It was one of the first NHS units to provide psychoanalytic therapy.

The Clinic and Day Hospital were located in a new 3-storey building next to a petrol station on the Harrow Road, adjacent to the Westway motorway.  The building also housed the Child Guidance Clinic, transferred from the St Marylebone Hospital for Psychiatry and Child Guidance.

Most of the ground floor was occupied by the Day Hospital, which had been established initially as an out-patient facility for the rehabilitation of patients discharged from Horton Hospital.  The cafeteria and the Art Therapy Room on this floor were shared with the other departments in the building. In 1965 an Out-Patients Department opened to provide psychotherapeutic treatment for adults.

In the same year a ‘therapeutic community’ was established in the Day Hospital by a consultant psychiatrist who did not believe in ‘organic’ means of treatment, such as E.C.T. or chemotherapy.  The community was run democratically by both staff and patients and the days were filled with group work and activities, comprising community meetings, shared decision-making and group therapy.

In 1970, Julian Goodburn took over as medical director on the unit, and began to introduce more libertarian methods into the Day Hospital. A conventionally trained psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Goodburn tried to develop a more informal, egalitarian and libertarian approach to treating patients. He was often associated with famous ‘anti-psychiatry’ figures like R.D. Laing and David Cooper, because of his increasingly radicalised thinking and ideas, though he had little contact with them.

Goodburn aimed to challenge accepted psychiatric, psychoanalytic and therapeutic community thinking at the day hospital; not only questioning the ideologies of the medical professions, but also tackling patients’ own perceptions of themselves in relation to the world and their place within it.

Rather than seeing individuals as victims of ‘mental illness’, Goodburn saw patients as exposing wider social tensions: “There is a correlation between the contradiction, or disquiet that they’re experiencing, and the contradiction or disquiet that everybody ought to be experiencing a propos some factor of society at large, which, you know, they are, through circumstances of their particular experience, the bearer of—the victim of, you might even say—and will subsequently manifest this as if it were something solely going on in them, when in fact it is going on in them, but as a consequence of the fact that these issues are not resolved in the world at large, and it just happens that they are the person standing on that particular street corner at that particular time who’ve copped it, as it were.”

He challenged his own accepted role of the Medical Director (the consultant psychiatrist) in a psychiatric setting, refusing to take ‘medical’ responsibility for the day hospital and carry out official mental health assessments, give out diagnoses, hand out palliatives or sign their medical certificates which would designate patients as ‘mentally ill’. “Not wanting to perpetuate their role as helpless victims and as ‘mental patients’, staff challenged their need to be designated ‘sick’. As a result the staff queried the need to sign medical certificates. Goodburn had a confrontational therapy style, pushing issues to their limits in an attempt to force personal and political awareness. Some of this style was developed from his long-time association with the group psychoanalyst, Henry Ezriel, although Goodburn radicalised Ezriel’s approach in the more politically aware context of the day hospital, following a politicised campaign to save it from closure. Humour was an important and often under-recognised trait of both Ezriel and Goodburn, who presented their ideas and experiences with case studies, stories and selfmocking jokes…. Goodburn used psychoanalytic interpretation and humour in an attempt to reveal underlying interpersonal, social and political dynamics which were impacting on the situation at Paddington… On one occasion Goodburn was reported as being found under a table refusing to make decisions on behalf of the patients, forcing them to take responsibility for their own lives and actions; on another occasion as barricaded into one of the therapy group rooms for refusing to sign patients’ medical certificates.”

This last incident reveals some of the tensions that Goodburn’s approach though up. Questioning the meaning of ‘mental illness’ is one thing – but patients depended on doctors’ signing medical certificates for daily survival, dealing with the dole etc. So refusing to sign them was not always helpful. But the double-edged nature of the ‘anti-psychiatrist’ went even deeper.

“Whilst the radical psychiatrist… can be seen as a positive force for change in contributing to emerging radical mental health movements, it inevitably expresses a number of limitations and problems. Indeed, radical psychiatrists occupy a ‘paradoxical space’ in which they simultaneously subvert, and yet often also reproduce, prevailing power relations… even though the radical psychiatrists frequently used ‘alternative’ psychiatric discourse, they ultimately had more power to do so than patients, or other workers. Their ‘alternative’ could still be considered in the broader lexicon of the ‘psy’ disciplines, which tries to impose particular forms of expert psychological knowledge”.(Helen Spandler)

Some patients and staff at Paddington believed that psychoanalytic interpretation were being imposed, however seemingly democratic… Other commentators viewed Goodburn’s regime as manipulative and ultimately dangerous, with the staff applying “implicit psychoanalytic rules which acted as a coercive regime of truth in the day hospital”. The pursuit of these ideas led to a ‘anarchy, chaos and tyranny’… a situation in which some patients felt neglected, mistreated, eventually leading to an official enquiry and the eventual sacking of the medical director and the closure of the day hospital.

The Day Hospital had little in the way of furniture or ornamentation, and its floors were bare.  The main group meeting room was a large L-shaped room marred by a central pillar.  It contained a sagging sofa and a variety of armchairs of varying degrees of comfort.  Rather surprisingly, the room lacked heating, which was often a source of complaint during meetings.

The consultant felt it was the responsibility of the patients to tidy up after themselves rather leave it all to the cleaner, so the Hospital became increasingly unclean and untidy.  Patients occasionally used materials from the Art Therapy Room to paint graffiti on the walls to express themselves and their opinions about the Hospital.  These were left on the walls so that they could be discussed by the group.  The appearance of the Day Hospital thus contrasted strongly with the more aesthetic environment of the rest of the centre, where it was becoming increasingly viewed as ‘different’.  It was becoming estranged from the traditional psychiatric establishment.

The Day Hospital accepted patients who had been assessed as psychologically unsuitable for psychotherapy.  Its ‘open door’ policy means that people could attend when they wanted.  Staff began to refuse to diagnose psychiatric conditions or to prescribe medication, or even to keep medical records for their patients.  Initially the Day Hospital had received patients from its catchment area, but soon took on those from other areas who had heard of the therapeutic community and self-referred themselves.  Since few records were kept, it was not known where patients came from, but some had come from as far away as Ipswich in Suffolk.  The patients were mainly white, well-educated, young adults, although a number from the local African Caribbean community also attended.  Most patients remained at the unit for about one to two years.

Some patients shared a commune, living together in cheap accommodation.  The Day Hospital supported this, so that the intense group dynamics could continue for 24 hours a day.

In December 1971 the staff and patients formed a protest group, after the impending closure of the Day Hospital and its transfer to the newly opened psychiatric unit at St Mary’s Hospital was announced by the Area Health Authority. At this time the Day Hospital had 50 members of staff and 80 places for patients.  The new facility at St Mary’s Hospital had 60 beds and 80 places for day patients.

The Paddington Day Hospital protest became symbolic of the anti-psychiatric movement; public awareness of mental health issues and resistance to psychiatry was growing at this time, and there were interesting initiatives sprouting around the world.  The campaign’s slogan was Paddington Day keeps madness at bay.

On 25th February 1972 patients and staff invaded a meeting of the Regional Hospital Board to force a discussion of the planned closure. This was followed by a packed public meeting at Sidney Webb College, ‘Madness, A Choice of Treatment’, to protest the closure, organised by the action group opposing the move. The meeting was attended by 700-900 people.

The protest was successful – on April 11th 1972, the action group learned that the closure and transfer had been abandoned. A planned demo turned into an impromptu celebration in the street. The Day Hospital remained open, at a time when similar units around the country closed.

In March 1973 about 100 people, mostly patients or former patients, met at the Day Hospital to discuss forming a union for mental patients.  Following this, the Mental Patients Union was established, with full membership reserved for patients and ex-patients.

In 1974 the Clinic and Day Hospital were renamed the Paddington Centre for Psychotherapy.

In January 1976 the patients called for an inquiry into the functioning of the Day Hospital and its lack of shared decision-making.  This provoked an investigation by the Area Health Authority, which led to the Medical Director being dismissed.

Although the new Medical Director attempted to re-establish a therapeutic community, it failed to gel, and the Day Hospital began to be wound down through 1978, and the patients discharged.

The Clinic and Day Hospital closed in 1979.  Services moved to the Parkside Clinic in Lancaster Road.

Interestingly though the old Day Centre building is still in use, by St Mungo’s Housing Association, providing hostel accommodation for 41 homeless men aged over 50, many of whom are mentally ill.  Breakfast and an evening meal are provided, and residents are permitted to drink alcohol in their rooms and in two communal lounges (another lounge is a designated ‘dry’ area).

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

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Today in London’s theatrical history: Demolition Decorators go on trial for obstruction, 1978.

‘Today is the trial of four defendants – Jisimi, Tony Allan, Jonathan Graham and Alan Boyd. They were arrested and charged with causing an obstruction to the highway. Court Four at the Wells St. Magistrate’s Court is a fountain of wood panelling. The judge has a built-in desk raised above the rest. The scribe and secretary sit below him, silent and powerless, seemingly content with their lot. And there, in dark seats, are the Leicester Square Four, young eccentric and fearless challengers of the law. The judge is firm and fair with a sense of humour. He makes all this clear to the court by making fun of both the police and the defendants. The young, almost adolescent, policeman and woman are tense and alert in their starched uniforms. They have prepared well and corroborated their stories. A good defence, though, would have had them both in tears. Jisimi is out to upset. He plays with his proud hair, and tells the court how he dislikes NOT being talked about. Jonathan is a goat, he prances and prattles around. His confusion is obvious. Only Tony, I feel, is on top of the situation, and is able to challenge the prosecution. The prosecution proves to be cool and generous, but the judge wins the day by, not only, keeping the court under excellent control without being condescending, by being funny without being carefree, and fair without pretentions. At 4:30, he gave the defendants a five minute lecture, advising them very strongly to get a lawyer. The case continues on 15 May.’ (Paul K Lyons, Diary entry, 6th February).

The Demolition Decorators were a collective of musicians and comedians’ based in London 1977-81. They managed to amass 24 arrests for performing in the street, had a kamikaze suicide squad and squatted the main stage at the Bath Festival to hold a ‘people’s event’ complete with laundry service’.

The Decorators called themselves ‘incidentalists’, apparently because many of their performances comprised confrontations: ‘Audiences could not be neutral and many outdoor performances involved an appearance by the police. At one gig, some of the audience were so incensed, they firebombed the hall. Although very political, they were never fanatical or bitter. There was a mystical quality about them.’ The Decorators also claim to have ‘single-handedly‘ won buskers the right to play in the London Underground system (raises eyebrows).

Initially a street theatre group, they staged a number of impromptu ‘happenings’. Apparently they were banned from performing in the street in Covent Garden at one point for being ‘outrageously offensive.’ International Times (it) relates some street theatre that ended in arrests:

“CLOWNS CLOUTED

FOUR more street performers – two from Rough Theatre and two from Demolition Decorators were busted as they performed to an audience of several hundreds on the paved precinct of Leicester Square at the end of last month. They were part of an ad hoc buskers cabaret protesting about the arrest of two fellow-performers (members of Ashes) who were lifted on previous occasions. Three police squad cars and two black marias answered the call for help from two Bill-on-the-beat who had met with unanimous opposition when they tried to arrest the buskers’ MC and halt the entertainment. The other three were arrested in the fracas that followed (surprisingly well filmed by BBC2 News). About 150 people went to Bow Street nick where there was dancing, juggling, singing and storytelling in the street, all interspersed with constant chants demanding the release of the performers.

They were freed on bail charged with obstruction (three of the highway, one of an officer) and the fun continued until midnight when the police finally broke it up with no further arrests. The four appear at Bow Street al 2.00 p.m. of 5 September.

The previous week, when the Ashes’ performers appeared at Bow Street, police were faced with a demonstration of street entertainers outside including clowns, musicians and unicyclists and capped by a member of the Demolition Decorators surreally lying in a bath of rotting fruit who, when questioned, said, “I’m just the ordinary man in the bath.”

He was whisked away by friends before the police could discover a suitable offence.

Inside the court the Ashes case was remanded a further six weeks until 21 September due to lack of time.

Ashes, also charged with obstructing the free passage of the highway (the Leicester Square pedestrian precinct) were performing a story play for children when arrested and, like Rough Theatre and Demolition Decorators, would welcome your support at Bow Street and at the various guerrilla support gigs. Buskers are especially welcome. (Call BIT – 01-229 8219 any hour of the twenty-four for details.)

On 25 August Twelve Clowns, mobilised by Demolition Decorators were arrested in Leicester Square while walking along singing “We all live in a Free Society” to the tune of “Yellow Submarine”. They continued to sing as they were obstructed by Agents of the Crown who hustled them away to the vans which had been lying in wait for some time. The police had been informed beforehand by the entertainers that there would be a performance and there was a verbal understanding that there would be no trouble (i.e., arrests) which just goes to show how few people you can trust nowadays. There are now a total of 18 entertainers being prosecuted. All are pleading not guilty. Donations for the Defence Fund welcome.

Demolition Decorators plan more guerilla theatre in the near future in their Campaign for Fun.” (it, Vol 4 issue 11. 1978.)

In 1978-9, the collective and other alternative organisations (including international times) were squatting in a building at 13-14 James Street, Covent Garden, where they held what have become legendary parties/performances. “They would decorate the rooms, the themes changing with every show. They would then invite performers, poets and musicians to come by and do their thing. There’d be no charge to the public, but there’d be a bar, and any profit made from the alcohol would go towards the following fortnight’s show. ‘Fortnight?’ I asked. ‘We’ll need two weeks to redecorate,’ Lester explained. ‘Once a week, we’ll be knocking ourselves out. Any longer and people will start to drift away.’ “

“The first party put on was a chaotic affair. The rooms of the squat were filled with people talking, getting stoned, dancing or making out. Music blared from various stereo systems, while down in the basement, bands played, ranging from free-form jazz to nose-bleeding thrash. Occasionally a room would be occupied by a guy reciting poetry from a battered notebook. None of it was of any quality, but it was delivered with passion, the spittle flying from the poet’s lips forcing onlookers to stay pressed against the walls… raucous, shambolic, and bursting with energy…
By the time the third party took place, we were beginning to get a better handle on things. The success of the first two events had attracted more people to the group, which resulted in more performers and more props and equipment.”

Collective meetings could be as interesting an varied as the performances:

‘Surely, a whole play, or a novel, could be written entitled ‘The rise and fall of the Demolition Decorators’. Another Monday meeting passed by. The group and its members are more interesting than the actual gigs they perform. Tonight, for example, we had a sharp-but-dulled-by-drugs couple from BIT who took up our time and space. They wanted to hold their tenth anniversary in our squat. The mob, our mob were patient with them. I find myself willing and practical but often defeated by the criss-cross mutterings that cut under and fly over me. I walk out into the street to collect some boxes. I am in bare feet. I return and crush them beneath my feet and feel the fire of my impatience. I tramp around avoiding eyes, the quick and supple. I catch the crossfires but have no effect on them.’ (Paul K Lyons)

And performances themselves often descended into chaos:
‘Pete and Paul organised a gig last night, a Demolition Decorators gig. It was explosive. Beryl and the Peryls were booked to perform at 8:30, according to ‘Time Out’, but they didn’t start until 11 or finish till midnight. And the power blew, so the show’s finale only came with the help of everyone’s matches. Two bands and Ruff Theatre had also been due to play at the event, but the whole thing was a cock-up. Since this is the alternative scene, though, people are supposed to keep cool, not get mad. It was chaos – four bands and two and a half theatre groups hanging around all squabbling about the running order. Pete did keep his cool, and Paul calmly tried to organise the performers but they eventually took things into their own hands. Two of the DDs were chanting to some seventh heaven and calling it peace and prosperity.’

In December 1978, a fire that started during a party gutted the building:

‘Poor old IT was gutted; poor old BIT was definitely unlucky. They invited guests from everywhere, and from anywhere they came. A 10th anniversary and all that. How many bands were to come? 9 or 10, 20 or 30. It was all friends and grooves, smokers and abortion campaigners, squatters and the rest. What a shame. Poor old IT, its thousand files, its million prints, its two typewriters, its five cabinets, its three desks – who was to blame after all? Those two friends, the best of friends, too keen, too overworked, who let the paint dry, and the wallpaper dry, and then catch fire, with flames licking up the wall, up the wall, out the window, the side of the house. I hear Paul went squeak at 2am and saved a life or two, but neither an office nor a bed was saved…’

“In some ways The Demolition Decorators and their ilk were the last hurrah of vanishing city. Their roots were fixed in the 60’s – the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the 14-hour Technicolor Dream. It felt symbolic that the area of Covent Garden where they were based was also changing. Local citizens had successfully fought off a plan to prevent a concrete highway from running through their neighbourhood, but the market was still about to be transformed into an arts and crafts theme park whether anyone wanted it or not.” (Simon Fellowes)

The Decorators also performed at Glastonbury Festival in 1979, when it was, er, more alternative and less of a playground for annoying rich twats than it is today…

According to poet Tony Hegley: “We were at Glastonbury in 1979 and we came across a group called the Demolition Decorators, who were doing an anti-media piece which we thought was absolutely hilarious. They were a rock band / comedy performance band. We thought they were absolutely brilliant. Max Coles was the comic in the crew and he was just sitting in front of a TV set with a 30-foot carpet, looking at it.

“I think he was making a point about people watching too much TV. On the third day, I think the TV set was smashed to bits with people running around holding pieces of flaming ember that had been the TV set, screaming Coronation Street! Crossroads! – which we thought was a great idea.

Hegley also describes a Demolition Decorators gig, which gives some idea of the practice of the group at the time: “I booked them into a really rough club in East London and said: Look, If they don’t like you, they’ll probably kill you and it’s only £15 total for the group.They discussed it, then immediately phoned me back to say Yes and I could not believe how well that gig went.

“They went around asking the audience what they wanted and gave the audience what they wanted, but in their own particular way.

– What would you like to see?

– Well, that bird. Is she, like, yer singer?

– Yes.

– I wanna fuck ‘er.

– Right… What’s your name?

– Bill.

– Right, Bill would like to fuck Jan… And what about you?

– I’m a deeply religious man. Could you do a religious song for me? Something like I Believe.

– Right.

“They got the whole list of what everyone wanted and most of them were I wanna fuck the lead singer.

“So they erected a tent, banging it into the middle of the floor, causing quite a lot of damage. The singer, Jan, took all of her clothes off, got into the tent and said: Right. I’m in the tent. Is it Bill who wants to fuck me? Come over here and get in the tent and I’m ready for you.

“So Bill walks over towards the tent and Jan says: Hold on just a minute. I’ve taken all my clothes off. Are you going to take yours off? You’ve seen what you’re going to get. I want to see what I’m going to get. I want you to get your clothes off before you get into the tent.

“Of course, the man went a deep shade of crimson and ran away.

“Somebody else said: I’ll fuck ‘er.

“So she said the same thing to him. And Max, who was their comic, said: Look, I’ve got to be honest with you: she’s actually his girlfriend (pointing to the groups’ artistic and musical director Arif) and I’ve always wanted to fuck her. This is my golden opportunity and I’m not prepared to let it go now.

“So he took his clothes off and got into the tent.

“The audience was going: Do you think he’s fucking her?

From inside the tent, Jan says: If anybody else wants to get in, we’ve got plenty of room here, so you can get in and find out for yourself, can’t you?

Another one of the women in the group said: Oh, I think they’re quite attractive, so I think I’ll have a go.

So we have two women in there with their comic, Max.

“He then says: I can’t handle both of them! I need help! Would a man come in and help me out? They’re insatiable! Please! Please!

“No-one got in the tent, of course. So that really had put the audience down a peg or two.

“It was a brilliant success. We ended up with East End dockers, people from the East London Gay Liberation Front, all sorts, all holding hands in a big circle singing Happy Days Are Here Again and that was all down to the – I felt – genius of the Demolition Decorators. They had broken down the barriers of everything I loathe. There was no racism. No homophobia. If the world could be like this – big heavies holding gay people’s hands, some people with no clothes on, black people, white people all holding hands singing Happy Days Are Here Again.”

 

Some sources and other accounts:

The Demolition Decorators’ act in 1979: provocation and nudity at a London pub

Paul K Lyons diary

Under Demolition

Demolition Decorators at Glastonbury 1979.

Ten rapidly deteriorating cassettes containing 13 hours of Decorators material were discovered almost 25 years later. They were recorded in a wide range of locations – theatres, pubs, universities, rehearsal rooms, bedrooms, demonstrations and street festivals. The material has been loving restored and edited. and released on the internet as an album Don’t Say Baloney in 2005.

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