Today in London squatting history, 1978: mass eviction in Huntley Street, Bloomsbury.

In February 1977 5 blocks of 54 empty police flats, in Huntley Street, behind University College Hospital, which had lain empty for 4 years, were squatted; as an initiative of the Squatters Action Council. Getting in to the blocks (all amusingly named after the first five commissioners of the Metropolitan Police!), wasn’t hard, the front doors were unlocked… Soon 160 people were living here, including recent evictees from squats at Cleveland Street, Trentishoe Mansions & Cornwall Terrace. One block was allocated to women and children from a hostel for battered women; a ground floor flat became the office of the Squatters Action Council and later the London Squatters Union. 3 days after the flats were squatted, the Health Authority, who owned them, announced that they were to be used to house nurses and doctors from neighbouring University College Hospital.

In 1977 the many activists living in the flats were regularly woken early in the morning by motivated people going round knocking on doors to gather people to head up to the mass pickets at the Grunwicks strike in West London…

After the Health Authority obtained a Possession Order in July 1978, the flats were barricaded, a watch was set up around the clock on the roof. But the squats were infiltrated by two undercover cops, “Nigel and Mary”, posing as homeless… Now many of the squatters sussed to these two early on, but others went all liberal, saying there was no proof, they could be ok etc… “Nigel and Mary” managed to get themselves on the roof rota one morning, up turn the cops… well you can guess the rest.

On 16th August 1978, in London’s biggest mass eviction, the houses were evicted by the Special Patrol Group; in all 650 coppers led by ex-bomb squad supremo, & nemesis of the Angry Brigade, Roy Habershon. They sealed off the street & send in bulldozers. All 5 houses were cleared despite some resistance from the barricaded buildings. It turned out they had been tapping the phones, taking aerial surveillance pictures, and so on… 14 people were nicked, charged with ‘resisting the sheriff’ contrary to Section 10 of the Criminal Law Act 1977. 12 later got off, but Piers Corbyn and Jim Paton were found guilty… (Although Jim wasn’t even present at the eviction!) In solidarity with the evictions 150 Dutch squatters besieged the British Embassy in the Hague, & the British embassy in Stockholm was also picketed.

In fact the eviction was totally unnecessary – an agreement had been won the day before that all the squatters would be rehoused. Many were given flats on the nearby Hillview Estate, in Kings Cross, which was handed over to Shortlife Community Housing to manage…|

There’s a short video of the eviction here:


NB: Nothing can’t be sold… The poster reproduced at the top of this post, printed in support of the Untley Street squatters, is being sold on the internet  by a ‘rare books’ dealer in the US for $750… Betting the money will go to housing campaigns today…?

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Today in London legal history, 1780: Charles Kent, Laetitia Holland and John Gray tried for the burning and looting of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield’s House.

In second half of the eighteenth century, nos 28-29 Bloomsbury Square was the residence of Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench: William Murray, Lord Mansfield. Mansfield was widely feared & hated at the time (the spikes on Kings Bench Prison walls were known as Lord Mansfield’s teeth); he was an innovative lawyer who helped to adapt English law to the needs of a growing commercial empire, in alliance with powerful men of business. In return he grew very rich. “He invented legal fictions that enabled English courts to have jurisdiction in places where English law had not yet been introduced…he took the usages of commerce…and …made them into law…The attack on his house was …an attack upon the leading exponent of British imperialism.” (Peter Linebaugh).

More immediately, as Linebaugh points out, Mansfield had served at the Old Bailey for 11 years, being known for his severe judgments, sending 102 people to the gallows, 448 to be transported and 29 to be branded. He was known by the poor as one of their greatest enemies.

On the night of 6 -7th June 1780 his house was attacked & burnt out by the Gordon Rioters. The riots started out on June 2nd as a protest against a proposed Parliamentary Bill to give more freedom to Catholics, but rapidly outgrew their sectarian origins to become a general insurrection of the poor against the rich and powerful.

The Judge had already been beaten up outside Parliament on June 2nd, and because of his reputation, the rioters were widely threatening to attack his house. On June 6th a magistrate and a detachment of guards came to protect him. Mansfield suggested they hid out of sight so as not to wind up the rioters. Soon after a crowd several hundred strong marched here from Holborn, carrying torches and combustible materials. They battered in his door, and he legged it out the back with his wife. The crowd tore down the railings surrounding the building, threw down all his furniture, curtains, hangings, pictures, books, papers and chucked them all on a huge bonfire. They then burned his house.

His whole library including many legal papers was destroyed. Interestingly, just as at the burning of the Duke of Lancaster’s Palace in the 1381 Peasants Revolt, the crowd declared nothing was to be stolen, they were not thieves… A survival of a strand of rebellious moral highmindedness, although unsurprisingly, while silver and gold plate was certainly burned, several of the poor folk present were later found guilty of helping themselves to some of the Judge’s possessions. And why not.

The troops arrived (a bit late!), the Riot Act was read, and as the crowd refused to disperse, they shot and killed at least seven people and wounded many more. When the soldiers had gone, some of the rioters returned, picked up the bodies, and marched off, carrying the corpses in a bizarre procession, allegedly fixing weapons in the hands of the dead, with a man at the front tolling Lord’s Mansfield’s stolen dinner bell in a death march rhythm!

Gordon Rioters also marched to Hampstead to burn Mansfield’s other house, Ken Wood House on Hampstead Heath. They were allegedly delayed by the landlord of the Spaniards Inn, (on Spaniards Road), who plied them with free beer to give the militia time to arrive and save the house.

Three rioters, Laetitia Holland, John Gray and Charles Kent, were tried on June 28th for involvement in the attack on Mansfield’s house. Gray, a 32 year old woolcomber, who walked with a crutch, was seen demolishing a wall in the house with an iron bar, and later making off with a bottle of Mansfield’s booze. One-legged Kent was also seen by a witness  “bringing out some bottles, whether empty or full I do not know.” Laetitia Holland was sentenced to death for being found in possession of two of lady Mansfield’s petticoats:

“June 28th, Old Bailey: CHARLES KENT and LETITIA HOLLAND were indicted for that they together with an hundred other persons and more, did, unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assemble, on the 6th of June , to the disturbance of the publick peace, and did begin to demolish and pull down the dwelling-house of the Right Honourable William Earl of Mansfield , against the form of the statute, &c.

– GREENLY sworn.

I am a baker, in Tottenham-court-road.

Are you a housekeeper there? – I am.

Do you remember being present on Tuesday night when Lord Mansfield’s house was destroyed? – I believe it was half after twelve on Wednesday morning before I went there. Some of the mob were then in the one-pair-of-stairs rooms, pulling down the wainscoting and throwing the goods out at the window. I observed Letitia Holland there throwing part of a desk and some small trunks and other goods out at the one-pair-of-stairs window.

Did she say any thing at the time she threw them out? – I did not hear her say any thing. I saw her remove from the one-pair-of-stairs floor to the two-pair-of-stairs floor, and throw out some more goods.

Did you hear her make use of any expressions? – I did not hear her speak at all. I saw Kent at the same time bringing out some bottles, whether empty or full I do not know.

How long was it afterwards before they went away? – In less than half an hour. Upon their going away I walked close behind them up Russel-street, through Tottenham-court-road. I heard her declare to Kent, who was with her, that she had loaded herself well. Kent has a wooden leg.

Was the man who carried out the bottles the man with the wooden leg? – Yes; he was with her.

Did you afterwards do any thing to either of them? – Yes, I watched them to the end of Bambridge-street, turning out of Russel-street. I went down the left-hand side; the prisoners were on the right-hand; they seemed rather to suspect me; they both turned round and set their backs to the house, and faced me. I went across the street and seised the woman by both her hands, and I took her to the watch-house. She asked what I wanted with her? I said, you know you have destroyed a great deal of Lord Mansfield’s property, and have some about you. She answered, She would give me the property if I would let her go. I said no, she should go to the watch-house. She said what she had got was given her in the house, and she had not taken it. Before I took her to the

watch-house she threw a small picture behind her, which I believe was the property of Lord Mansfield; this is it (producing a small oval picture). When I took her to the watch-house, the watch-house-keeper would not take charge of her. She had a great deal of bundling round her. I wanted her to be searched; the watchman said he would not run the risque of losing his life for me. She delivered this book in the watch-house (producing it). I left her there in care of the watch-house-keeper.

What became of the man? – The man went off directly as I seized her.

Are you positive that the prisoners are the persons you saw at Lord Mansfield’s house doing what you have described? – They are. I called upon Mr. Platt, Lord Mansfield’s clerk, the next day, to inform him that these things were in the watch-house. The watch-house-keeper said he knew her very well, and where she lived.

JAMES HYDE sworn.

I am house-keeper at the Rotation-office, in Litchfield-street. I was employed all night at the office. I did not go away from the office, till about three o’clock or a little before, on the Wednesday morning. I went with Mr. Parker, who is a magistrate, and a party of soldiers to Lord Mansfield’s, just before three o’clock. A little before four o’clock I was sent for an engine. When I got half way down Dyot-street I saw the prisoners, they crossed into another street; I crossed after them, and went to them; I perceived the woman had something under her arm, which caused me to follow her; it turned out to be this petticoat (producing it) it was wrapped up in a napkin. I asked her whose that was; she said she got it from Lord Mansfield’s, but it was given her by the mob. She had this apron on (producing it). I did not say any thing to her about that till I got her into the round-house, then I searched her, and took from her this petticoat (producing it) she had it under her black one.

ELISABETH KENDALL sworn.

I live at Lord Mansfield’s.

Look at these petticoats and aprons? – They came out of Lord Mansfield house; they were in the two-pair-of-stairs floor at the time the house was broke open. They are the property of Miss Mary Murray , Lord Mansfield’s niece.

HOLLAND’s DEFENCE.

I was at the fire but I was never near the house. I do not know of which side the house the door is. I picked these things up, except the green petticoat which the mob gave me. I thought I might as well take it as let the flames consume it. Coming away I met this young man; he was not near the house, nor was I; I was not near the fire myself; I was by the Duke of Bedford’s wall.

KENT’s DEFENCE.

I never was near the house; I stood at a distance off, with other people looking at the fire; there were several other people there whom I knew myself; and one or two, I knew myself in the house. I have but one leg, and so he took notice of me.

Court to Greenly. Did you see him bring the bottles out or throw them out? – I saw him do nothing else but bring out the bottles.

At that time were the mob destroying any part of the house? – Yes; they were then in the lower rooms of the house destroying every thing.

BOTH GUILTY ( Death .)

Tried by the Second Middlesex Jury before Mr. Justice ASHHURST.”

… JOHN GRAY was indicted for that he together with five hundred other persons and more, did unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assemble, on the 7th of June , to the disturbance of the publick peace, and did begin to demolish and pull down the dwelling-house of the Right Honourable William Earl of Mansfield .

2d Count. For beginning to pull down a certain out-house belonging to the dwelling-house of William Earl of Mansfield.

THOMAS LEARING sworn.

I am a constable of the parish of St. Giles’s I keep a shoe-warehouse in Holbourn.

Was you in Bloomsbury-square on Wednesday morning, the 7th of June? – Yes. The high constable and I had been all night at the Rotation-office, to defend it. We were in Bloomsbury-square about eight o’clock, I saw the prisoner at Lord Mansfield’s; I knew his person well before; he had a large bar of iron, and was sitting upon the cell of the window, and breaking down a wall of a building which was separate from Lord Mansfield’s house; there was a vast concourse of people there. I suppose near two thousand; I durst not apprehend the prisoner on account of the concourse of people. I saw him three days after at the Rotation-office, on another charge.

HENRY RICHARDS sworn.

I am under-cook to Lord Mansfield.

Do you remember, in the morning after Lord Mansfield’s house was destroyed, seeing any thing of the prisoner? – Yes, I saw him about five o’clock in the morning with an iron bar on his shoulder; I did not see him break any thing belonging to my lord. I know him particularly by his crutch. I saw him at five, and again at eight o’clock.

Is the building the last witness describes detached from the house? – Yes, it is the room where I lay, it is over the kitchen and under the laundry.

You are sure the prisoner is the person? – Yes.

Was that building, the kitchen, and the rest destroyed in the course of the morning? – They were totally down, I believe by ten o’clock.

WILLIAM POOLE sworn.

I saw the building destroyed.

WILLIAM DAWKINS sworn.

I am under-butler to Lord Mansfield. I was at my lord’s house on the 6th of June, when the mob first came. I saw the prisoner about four in the morning. I passed him several times in the house with my Lord’s liquor in his hand coming out of the house; I saw him in the street afterwards near the place that was pulled down; but I did not observe him doing any thing. He had nothing in his hand but his crutch then. I saw him carrying out the bottles before.

PRISONER’s DEFENCE.

I got up about a quarter before four o’clock, I was dry; the people said there was a shocking murder done in Bloomsbury-square. I went there and saw a soldier wallowing in his blood. On the 11th of June I was taken up by a constable on suspicion of picking a gentleman’s pocket. After I was fully committed, the constable came and said as I was committed he would charge me with pulling down my Lord Mansfield’s house.

GUILTY ( Death .)

Tried by the Second Middlesex Jury before Mr. RECORDER.” (Old Bailey Records)

Others charged after the attack included Sarah Collogan, who got a year after being found wearing a gown previously owned by the judge’s neice; Elizabeth Timmings, tried for possessing five china dishes from his lordship’s tableware, and Elizabeth Grant, found in possession of a copper pot and plate-warmer (these two were acquitted).

Kent, and Gray were hanged in Bloomsbury Square, on July 22nd in sight of the ruins of the house. Holland was ‘respited’ on 21st July, and her sentience was reduced to two years imprisonment in 1781.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London squatting history, 2006: ‘The Square’ Social Centre resists eviction.

‘The Square’ Social Centre, in the old University College London School of Slavonic Studies in the North West corner of Russell Square, Bloomsbury, flourished for several months from the winter of 2005 through to the following Summer. “When the Square was first occupied… everyone was overcome with excitement. The building was a dream – from its central position to its glorious fascia; from its large ground floor rooms to the labyrinthine former bar of a student’s union in the basement.” The Square was constantly teeming for the next few months, with packed out benefit gigs, parties, meetings, an info shop, offices and organising space for radical anti-authoritarian groups, as well as a friendly drop-in and coffee shop.

“The first months were immensely exciting. Every day, while the café was open, people would wander in, stunned and enquiring as to the present status of the building. As the situation was explained their eyes widened as they considered new horizons. In fact, all of our eyes were wide, then. Even the 40-person meetings, where people talked and talked in circles about politics, action, organisation and so on were just about bearable – and the discussions in little groups in the evenings were something else, magical conspiracies mapping our future.”

There were many and varied events, including meetings/reports back on the student riots in France, the London Zine Symposium, with stalls, talks, walks and bands; a Mayday Weekend, with talks and discussions on ‘The Future of Anarchism’, an excellent meeting with films and speakers from campaigners against deaths in custody and mobilisations for anti-war and anti-deportation demos and a remarkably successful meeting on ‘Radical Academics in the Neoliberal University’ which packed 100 people into the 80-capacity meeting room.

“What really occurred at the Square, though, was a community – a virtual community ordinarily spread all over London, all over the South East, but finding at the Square a physical space to come together. The building became a focal point for all sorts of groups, organised or otherwise, who – holding their meetings in the same building, rather than the pub – had a rare contact with each other, creating many friendships and challenging many assumptions. This hive of activity was also a space which proved extremely stimulating for those few kids who came in search of politics rather than a cheap party. It was frequented by members of anti-fascist group Antifa, Aufheben, the Anarchist Federation, the WOMBLES, the Industrial Workers of the World, a whole mess of punks and even the occasional insurrectionist. One could always find an interesting conversation.”

The Square faced an attempt to evict it, on Friday, June 23rd 2006. A call out was made to resist the eviction and to hold a Festival of Resistance, involving autonomous groups, social centres activists, live bands, DJs and participants from The Square.

On Friday, 23rd June, around 60-70 people followed the call for solidarity and to resist the eviction from the early morning. The building was festooned with an array of flags and banners, and the mood was light but determined. Apart from a couple of officers from Camden Council that eventually turned up, made some telephone calls and then left, no other form of ‘authority’ showed up or attempted eviction.

On Saturday 24th, around 400 people attended the concert in support of The Square, which featured live music in two stages and a couple of sound systems in the basement. A talk and film screening about repression in Mexico also took place in the evening, organised by Z.A.P.

Despite the June 23rd resistance initially forcing the bailiffs to back off, “on Sunday [25th], around 30 people including most of those who had had a sustained relationship with the space, came together to decide the term of the resistance that had begun on Friday. This gathering eventually came up with a dissolution communique of The Square Occupied Social Centre, which informs that “the space has now been passed on to a handful of residents who wished to remain and a few people who wanted to continue to run the place as a political and cultural venue”.

Many of the core group that had run the space were suffering slightly from “exhaustion – physical, emotional and political. People were just tired, and wanted a summer in the sun, not barricaded into a building. Others felt the social centre had drawn to its natural conclusion given the limits that had been placed upon it, and wanted summer for reflection and reformulation of the project. Still others were concerned that the symbolic weekend of resistance, which burnt so brightly, would be diluted by days and weeks of events for events’ sake.”

There had also been many of the usual tensions and difficulties familiar to any group running a squatted centre in these (possibly any?) times: the never-ending meetings attempting to hammer out a consensus, and the old chestnut of many users not clearing up after themselves (leaving it to the core collective), among them. Some among the main organisers felt, at the end, that a clearer initial definition of the space’s ideas aims and politics (rather than the open invitation to anyone to get involved) might have helped to both reduce some tedious debates about what the place was for, and keep out some of the assorted nutters and wishywashy ditherers who often consume much time and energy in such centres… Eternal questions, for those of us who’ve also been involved in keeping similar spaces going. Sometimes the high energy adrenaline-fuelled temporary spaces like the Square are more inspiring BECAUSE they don’t last very long. Squatted, or rented, or even bought, social or political centres, that survive for years can be dogged by a loss of inspiration, by boredom, when the business of keeping a physical space together can take the focus away from the reasons the place was founded. Long-term spaces do have their uses though…

All in all though the legacy of the Square was generally very positive, inspiring squatted spaces in London and elsewhere since. As the organisers said in their dissolution communique:

“This building has been sustenance for us, a place to socialise with like-minded people, a place in which to play, to party and conspire. That it was ending – for all of its flaws and tensions – made a lot of us take stock of what was being lost: and it was more than we had thought.

Something has passed from central London into our hearts. The red and black will not fly over Russell Square much longer but we carry them in exile…”

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London art history: John Ruskin born, Bloomsbury, 1819.

”Trade Unions of England – Trade Armies of Christendom, what’s the roll-call of you, and what part or lot have you, hitherto, in this Holy Christian Land of your Fathers? Whose is the wealth of the world but yours? Whose is the virtue? Do you mean to go on for ever, leaving your wealth to be consumed by the idle and your virtue to be mocked by the vile? The wealth of the world is yours; even your common rant and rabble of economists tell you that: “no wealth without industry.” Who robs you of it, then, or beguiles you? Whose fault is it, you cloth-makers, that any English child is in rags? Whose fault is it, you shoemakers, that the street harlots mince in high-heeled shoes and your own babies paddle bare-foot in the street slime? Whose fault is it you bronzed husbandmen, that through all your furrowed England, children are dying of famine?” (John Ruskin, Fors Clavigera: 89th Letter, 1873)

John Ruskin, (1819 -1900), who lived much of his life in South London (Herne Hill and Camberwell), is best known for his work as an art critic and social commentator; he was also an author, poet and artist. Ruskin’s essays on art and architecture were very influential in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. As an Art critic, he was heavily judgmental. He supported the pre-Raphaelites when they were widely disapproved of as being too avant-garde, and was particularly outspoken in support of Millais’ paintings of Christ, which were generally condemned as blasphemous.

His books on architecture, The Stones of Venice and Seven Lamps of Architecture argued that art cannot be separated from morality, by which he meant that the arts should be the expression of the whole moral being of the artists, and of the quality of the society in which the artist lived. He believed that ‘man’ achieved ‘his’ own humanity through labour, but through creative labour, not drudgery. He attacked mechanisation and standardisation of goods; this led him increasingly into rebellion against 19th century capitalism. “Mens pleasure in the work by which they make their bread” lies at the heart of a just society, this was his underlying thesis. His view was that Capitalism was turning workers into machines: he viewed craft and artisan skill as vitally important, and looked back in some ways to the Middle Ages, to craft-based guilds. He also condemned the separation of manual and intellectual labour… “the workman ought to be often thinking, and the thinker often to be working…. As it is… the world is full of morbid thinkers and miserable workers.”

Ruskin was born in 1819, the son of an Evangelical Protestant mother who wanted him to be a Bishop. His father was a successful wine merchant whose art collection gave “an unquestionable tone of liberal-mindedness to [his] suburban villa”. Ruskin said his parents treated him “effeminately and luxuriously” by paying for his education, artistic tuition, travels across Europe and studies but “thwarted [him] in all the earnest passion and fire in life”.

His travels in Europe and studying at Oxford led him to launch himself into art and architecture criticism. Between 1843 and 1860 Ruskin worked on his huge multi-volume study of art history, Modern Painters. But he discovered he could not study and write about beauty without discussing the ugliness of urbanisation, and poverty in the Europe of his time, then rapidly industrialising as capitalism came into its fullest power. The conditions million lived under seemed contrary to his moral and aesthetic religious view of the world.

“In the late 1850s, Ruskin’s thoughts began to turn from the nonsensical religious analysis of art to an examination of the conditions under which art was produced. He contrasted the works of gothic beauty in Stones of Venice (1851-3) with the squalid uniformity and imitation of industrial British architecture. The relation of labourer to his work in industrial capitalist society meant that production was totally separated from the workers’ creative faculties and art had become bastardised displays in private galleries for the appreciation of a privileged few. Ruskin’s conclusion that artistic and social decline were due to political and economic conditions produced works that was of interest to later critics of capitalism; most notably the political reformists that emerged from the labour movement in the late nineteenth century, but also early socialists like William Morris.” (Colin Skelly)

In 1858, Ruskin was again travelling in Europe, when he experienced what he later described as the loss of his faith. The tour took him from Switzerland to Turin where he saw Paolo Veronese’s Presentation of the Queen of Sheba; the discovery of which painting, contrasting starkly with a particularly dull sermon, he later claimed led to his “unconversion” from Evangelical Christianity. But in fact he had doubted his faith for some time. He blamed Biblical and geological scholarship, that had undermined the literal truth and absolute authority of the Bible: “those dreadful hammers!” he wrote to Henry Acland, “I hear the chink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses.” This “loss of faith” launched him into a serious crisis, including doubting much of his writing to date, which he now thought had been founded on a bed of lies and half-truths. (He later returned to Christianity.)

Following this crisis of religious belief Ruskin effectively abandoned art criticism at the end of the 1850s, moving towards commentary on politics, under the influence of his great friend Thomas Carlyle. Ruskin’s lectures began increasingly to be concerned with social relations; the one given at the Camberwell Working Men’s Institute, for instance, on January 24th, 1865, was entitled “Work and Play”, and took this theme: that work had to be useful, fulfilling and enjoyable.

Fundamentally Ruskin condemned the division of labour, which formed part of the heart of capitalism. In many ways he pointed the way for liberals and radicals towards socialist ideas without quite going there himself. His ideas were crucially influential on many radicals who became fouders of the ILP and other trade unionists, and most particularly on the development of William Morris, and through him the Arts and Crafts Movement. In Unto This Last he expounded his theories about social justice, which influenced the development of the British Labour Party and of Christian socialism.

“Ruskin, by around 1860 and the publication of his essays on political economy, Unto This Last, had reached the conclusion that the test of production and consumption was in its impact on human life and happiness. This was opposed starkly to the capitalist society in which he lived, of production for profit and subsequent overproduction amidst a grossly unequal society where the hardest poverty existed next to luxury and opulence. Though a very long way from any sort of socialist conclusions, Ruskin sought, against his inherited Tory political inclinations, to redefine the classical political economy of the era (not fundamentally different from the current orthodoxies). This laissez-faire, free trade political economy was, for Ruskin, a far too narrow reading of human nature, with the motive of human existence being reduced to the lowest terms of private gain and universal, supposedly “enlightened” selfishness. Despite the limited nature of these conclusions from a socialist perspective, they provoked an outcry from Ruskin’s contemporary ex-admirers who were alarmed at his straying beyond art in the application of his aesthetic and ethical values. A society which denied production for profit in favour of production for the benefit of humankind, would clearly not enable the privilege of a few to continue. Ruskin, however, never concluded that capitalist ownership of the means of production (whose political economy Ruskin thought was its ideological expression) was the defining feature of the existing condition of production. Instead, he concluded that the relinquishing of paternal responsibilities of industrial capitalists, no longer with a close pastoral tie to its labour force, was the problem (and here lies a possible link to later state capitalists and reformists who wanted the state to fill this role).”

Ruskin was a rebel against the idea of money wealth: “to leave this one great fact clearly stated: THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE. Life, including all its powers, of love, of joy, and of admiration”.

But he was unable to break with the bourgeois conception of power, of enlightened elites who would lead; mainly because he was not able to realise the nature of class division and in the ownership and non-ownership of productive resources; failing to see a definite difference in interests between those who own property and derive privilege and those who, by their non-ownership of productive resources, are forced to sell their labour power for less than the value of what they produce.

“Upon the death of his father, Ruskin declared that it was not possible to be a rich socialist and gave away most of his inheritance. He founded the charity known as the Guild of St George in the 1870s and endowed it with large sums of money as well as a remarkable collection of art. He also gave the money to enable Octavia Hill to begin her practical campaign of housing reform. He also taught at the Working Men’s College, London and was the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, from 1869 to 1879, he also served a second term.

In 1871 Ruskin began publication of Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain. Between 1871 and 1878 it was issued in monthly parts and until 1884 at irregular intervals. Ruskin intended the work to be a “continual challenger to the supporters of and apologists for a capitalist economy”. It was Ruskin’s socialist writing that influenced trade unionists and political activists such as Tom Mann and Ben Tillett.

Ruskin was a weird mix, to our eyes: a railer against the dehumanising effect of capitalism and mass industrialisation, and a hater of some of the new technologies also because of the destruction of nature that was involved. He famously hated trains, especially when lines were run through countryside that he loved. “The valley is gone and now every fool in Buxton can be in Bakewell in half an hour and every fool in Bakewell in Buxton,” ranted John Ruskin when a railway was first built in the 1860s through the peaceful Wye Valley, which runs through the Peak District National Park. He didn’t want more people to flock to wild places, and was undoubtedly elitist in some aspects, though he was in other ways egalitarian and pro-democracy… Ruskin also influenced the setting up of the National Trust, the National Art Collections Fund and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.

Like many of the bourgeois radicals of the 19th and 20th centuries, he also supported imperialism and racial hierarchy: Ruskin was supported the savage suppression of the Jamaican Insurrection in 1865. Racist views were hardly unusual among such figures of the era…

Some folk see Ruskin “as a visionary, more the progeny of William Blake than a member of the Victorian establishment. He foresaw climate change in The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century – both as a physical threat, in industrial pollution, and a metaphysical one, as a “plague cloud made of dead men’s’ souls”.”

But he was also a technical innovator; using collage to create his letters to supporters and artisans: “Although he disdained new technologies such as the train, Ruskin did not reject other advances. He advocated the new medium of photography, and in his monthly newsletter to the working man, Fors Clavigera (Fate’s Hammer), he created what was in effect a 19th-century blog. Sitting at his desk with a pile of newspaper cuttings by his side, he worked through the day’s stories to surreal effect, creating new juxtapositions of imagery that augur the work of the modernists and even, perhaps, William Burroughs’ cut-ups.”

Ruskin continued to lecture in art, becoming Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University, and later in 1871, John Ruskin founded his own art school at Oxford, The Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. The School challenged the orthodox, mechanical methodology of the government schools (the “South Kensington System”).

His lectures were often so popular that they had to be given twice—once for the students, and again for the public. Most of them were eventually published. He lectured on a wide range of subjects at Oxford, his interpretation of “Art” encompassing almost every conceivable area of study, including wood and metal engraving (Ariadne Florentina), the relation of science to art (The Eagle’s Nest) and sculpture (Aratra Pentelici). His lectures ranged through myth, ornithology, geology, nature-study and literature. “The teaching of Art…,” Ruskin wrote, “is the teaching of all things.” Ruskin was never careful about offending his employer. When he criticised Michelangelo in a lecture in June 1871 it was seen as an attack on the large collection of that artist’s work in the Ashmolean Museum.

 In the July 1877 Fors Clavigera letter Ruskin launched a scathing attack on paintings by James McNeill Whistler exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery, especially Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. Ruskin accused Whistler of “ask[ing] two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”. Whistler filed a libel suit against Ruskin. Whistler won the case, which went to trial in Ruskin’s absence in 1878 (he was ill), but the jury awarded damages of only one farthing to the artist. Court costs were split between both parties. Ruskin’s were paid by public subscription; Whistler was bankrupted within six months. Ruskin’s reputation suffered from this episode, however, which may have accelerated his mental decline.

Ruskin founded a utopian society, the Guild of St George, in 1871 – a communitarian venture, with a hierarchical structure, with Ruskin as its Master, and dedicated members called “Companions” whose first loyalty was to Ruskin personally. Ruskin wished to show that contemporary life could still be enjoyed in the countryside, with land being farmed traditionally, with minimal mechanical assistance.

Ruskin purchased small parcels of land – initially in Totley, near Sheffield, later land was bought or donated at Wyre Forest, near Bewdley, Worcestershire; Barmouth, in Gwynedd, north-west Wales; Cloughton, in North Yorkshire; and Westmill in Hertfordshire.

Ruskin also tried to see traditional rural handicrafts revived, especially weaving.

Ruskin increasingly became subject to depression and then mental health problems, and for much of the last 20 years of his life felt haunted by a sense that he had failed in the causes he had adopted. He died at his home in Brantwood in the Lake District in 1900.

Ruskin’s legacy was strong in the last decades of his life and the early part of the twentieth century, in the Labour movement and in conservation and housing; many town planners acknowledged his influence. A number of Utopian socialist Ruskin Colonies also attempted to put his political ideals into practice. These communities included Ruskin, Florida, Ruskin, British Columbia and the Ruskin Commonwealth Association, a colony which existed in Dickson County, Tennessee from 1894 to 1899.

But interest in him and his ideas has declined somewhat in the last half century; it is also likely that many of the movements and organisations that he did inspire would disappoint him; in the way they operate. During his own life he as critical of architecture developments that acknowledged his influence, claiming they paid lip service to form but failed to arise from a true understanding or feeling for the intellectual basis behind it.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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Today in mystic socialist history: the Fellowship of the New Life formally founded, 1882.

The Fellowship of the New Life was formally founded in 1882. It would go on to produce a much more famous offshoot, the Fabian Society.

Founded by Thomas Davidson ( in 1882-3, as a “society for people interested in religious thought, ethical propaganda and social reform”, the Fellowship was joined by people such as future Labour Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald, the radical sexologist Havelock Ellis and socialist & pioneer gay liberationist Edward Carpenter. Other early members included Frank Podmore, ER Pease, William Clarke, Percival Chubb, Dr Burns Gibson, Hubert Bland.

Davidson, a talented and brilliant scot from poor background, was a terminal wanderer, who founded other similar societies, (eg in New York); but couldn’t settle anywhere. He had difficult relations with people, was inspiring but hard to communicate with him, and seems to have had little time for anyone who disagreed with him…

An interesting character, among other ideas he thought virtue should be evaluated and celebrated; that anyone who hadn’t educated themselves to be a profound thinker “is still a slave to authority and convention, a mere play actor in life, bound to play a traditional, unreal part, without any of the glorious liberty of the children of God.”

He basically believed in the essential divinity of all things, including human life. These ideas seem to echo 17th century ideas more than anything, especially the ranters: Davidson even fixes on the same phrase ‘glorious liberty’ (originally from the Bible, Romans 8:21) as the ranter Jacob Bauthumley: “God … brought me into the glorious liberty of the Sons of God’

The Fellowship was founded in his Chelsea rooms around September/October 1882,

In the original minutes the object of the organisation is expressed thus: members would join together “for the purpose of common living, as far as possible on a communistic basis, realising among themselves the higher life.” On top of this, aims were further clarified:

“Object: The cultivation of a perfect character in each and all.

Principle: The subordination of material things to spiritual things.

Fellowship: The sole and essential condition of fellowship shall be a single-minded, sincere and strenuous devotion to the object and principle.”

Manual labour was to be united with intellectual pursuits; education and improvement would be at the centre of the community’s life, and members would meet regularly for religious communion, lectures and study groups.

From its birth, though, the group was divided by one of the great polarisations of late 19th century liberal intellectuals: what would create a better way of life: would it be practical social reform, or personal moral and spiritual self-development? This led to the ‘split’ that created the Fellowship’s more famous offshoot, the Fabian Society.

Edward Carpenter, author, anti-vivisectionist, vegetarian, teetotaller, and campaigner for homosexual equality, came to be associated with the Fellowship.

From 1888 to 1889 Carpenter lived with Cecil Reddie, a Ruskin-inspired educationalist; they and the Fellowship planned the pioneering and progressive Abbotsholme School in Derbyshire, which opened in 1889.

According to Edward Carpenter: “Those early meetings of the New Fellowship were full of hopeful enthusiasms – life simplified, a humane diet and a rational dress, manual labour, democratic ideals, communal institutions.”
 The Fellowship held weekly lectures, alternately theoretical and practical, on subjects such as ‘Moral and Social Reform’, ‘Christianity and Communism’, and ‘The Moral Basis of the New Order’.

Anarchism over breakfast

The Fellowship of the New Life had a co-operative house at no. 29 Doughty Street, Bloomsbury: ‘Fellowship House’ set up around 1890.

A leading Fellowship member was the founder and mainstay of the Doughty Street commune, Edith Lees; sometime Fellowship secretary, feminist and Lesbian novelist, lecturer, a member of the suffragist Women’s Social & Political Union and the radical feminist Freewoman discussion circle.

One of the most active and vigorous of [the Fellowship]”, she helped to organize and to carry on for some time a joint dwelling or co-operative boarding-house near Mecklenburgh Square, where eight or ten members of the Fellowship dwelt in a kind of communistic Utopia. Naturally the arrangement gave rise to some rather amusing and some almost tragic episodes, which she has recorded for us in a little story entitled Attainment.”

Communal life at Doughty Street was based on Vita Nuova, (New Life), the Fellowship’s proposed manifesto, which asked of members that they live openly, giving up prejudice, gossip, selfishness, and that they introduce discipline and regularity into their lives, critically reviewing each day’s work each evening. Sounds like fun ????!!! Discussions over Vita Nuova had though caused much internal dispute among the New Lifers in 1882-3, to the point that it was not formally adopted as the manifesto.

Besides Lees, other residents here included future Prime Minister Ramsay McDonald, anarchist Agnes Henry (who “irritated everyone by discussing anarchism over breakfast”), a journalist called Lespinasse, and an “elderly and quixotic” Captain p-Foundes; but the house also guested a constant stream of visitors including many Russian anarchists (some of whom were Tolstoyan pacifist types).

According to Lees, Fellowship House promised residents all the advantages and obligations of a family without any of its drawbacks… She “argued that women should reject servitude in the home as she and her comrades did.”  
However many socialist or anarchist communes of the time (and since!) ended up reproducing the same power relations between men and women, with women doing most of the domestic work… Despite Edith’s ideal, did Fellowship House fall into this pattern as well? Author Judy Greenway says it “ran into familiar problems over money, housework, and personal incompatibilities…”

In her story Attainment, Lees portrayed life at Doughty Street in fictional form, as ‘Brotherhood House’. Despite the lofty aims, “Class and gender tensions emerge in the running of the household. Although they all praise the simple life and the delights of manual labour and… disagree with having servants, the housekeeping and bookkeeping eventually fall to Rachel (the main character); Rachel also brings with her a maid, Ann, whose practical experience and common-sense approach mean that she ends up doing much of the housework. Meanwhile, the men discuss the ‘boundless … courage’ they need to clean a doorstep. One says, ‘I literally blush all down my back and look up and down the street as if I meditated burying my grandfather under the step.’ The problem is not just that the men are transgressing gender and class boundaries with this kind of work, they are doing so in public.”

Edith’s Doughty Street experiences dented her enthusiasm for the benefits of communal living. In reply to William Morris’s slogan ‘Fellowship is Heaven’, she afterwards asserted that “Fellowship is Hell: lack of Fellowship is Heaven.” 
In her novel, Rachel eventually leaves the collective household, rejecting both the “merger of domestic and political space”, and the “rule-bound way of life based on narrow idealism” (Greenway)… suggesting that ‘Brotherhood House’

“was frankly mere experiment, and was so involved in spiritual speculations and the grammar of living … that it rarely got to the marrow of me.”

But though Edith Lees rejected communal living, she remained committed to exploring alternative ways that men and women could live and relate. (Similarly Rachel in ‘Attainment’ decides to marry, but does not see this as retreating into conventionality: “I dare now,” she says, “to live out what is real within me.”) Through the Fellowship she had met Havelock Ellis, who she left the commune after 18 months in 1891 to marry, in an open marriage in which she was able to enjoy her relationships with women. (Ellis himself was largely impotent until the age of 60, when he discovered that only the sight of a woman pissing turned him on. Better late than never. )

Ellis also wrote about his wife’s lesbian love life in his writings on ‘Sexual Inversion’. Though their “living up to their principles was to prove difficult for both partners, emotionally and financially” (according to Judy Greenway), their open relationship worked for both, in its own way, until Edith fell ill, leading to her premature death in 1916.

The Doughty Street experiment didn’t long survive Edith Lees resignation… Though Agnes Henry, at least, continued to participate in experimental living situations, as well as remaining committed to radical politics. Ramsay Mac of course went on to lead the Labour Party into government and infamy…

The Fabian Society

The inclination of many early Fellowship members towards immediate political action was a main sticking point from early on, leading in late 1883 to the stirrings that gave birth to the Fabian Society, which also met in houses around Bloomsbury in its early days (for instance Stewart Headlam’s house). As Frank Podmore (a moving force in the ‘secession’) put it, many Fellowship members aspired to a group built “on somewhat broader and more indeterminate lines.” (Its not that often that lefties split demanding a LESS specific program!)

Or as future Fabian leading light George Bernard Shaw (not a Fellowship member, though he had come into contact with Davidson, almost certainly at an early Fellowship meeting, and claimed he had been “bored as he had never been bored before”!) put it: “certain members of [the Fellowship], modestly feeling that the Revolution would have to wait an unreasonably long time if postponed until they personally had attained perfection… established themselves independently as the Fabian Society.”

Shaw’s sarcasm aside, its easy to see that many people would balk at the rigid honesty and commitment demanded by the Fellowship’s program. Their program combined both naivety and elitism, in the idea of a development of a personal perfection that could be the only herald of a new society…

In reply to this the Doughty Street Fellowship members (like others who set up experiments in communal living) might well have countered that they were the practical ones, getting right down to working out on a day to day level how a ‘new life’ could be created.

It would be interesting to know how much the two groups divided, were there crossovers, people who tried to work through both avenues? Did some folk work for ‘practical’ reforms with the Fabians but carry on with the Fellowship on a more personal level? Founder Thomas Davidson himself was critical of the Fabians, dismissing the kind of state socialism they came to stand for; he thought that even if socialists should ‘take over’ the state, “selfishness would find means to exploit and oppress ignorance, simple honesty and unselfishness,, as much as it does today”. Did the Fabians’ more cynically decide that ‘the masses’ would never reform themselves into virtue and would have to have a freer life organised for them?

Non-conformist minister and ILP member Reginald Campbell called the Fabian Society “aristocratic socialists… a highly superior set of people, and they know it thoroughly.” With their pragmatic and gradualist program, the Society was to long outlast and outgrow their parent organisation, eventually joining the Labour Party, and by orthodox accounts becoming a guiding force of reformist state ‘socialist’ ideas in Britain – up until our own times… Their influence in the Labour party culminated in post 1945 Parliament, with Prime Minister, 9 cabinet ministers and a majority of the 394 Labour MPs members of the Society. The Fabians’ own claims would give it a huge influence on social change, especially between the 1880s and 1914, claims widely accepted by historians, although Marxist historian Eric Hosbawm disputes much of the Fabians’ impact, crediting them with excellent Public Relations, helped by the high number of journalists in their ranks, and that the Fabians have created a mythology around themselves and their history which inflates their impact…

The original Fellowship, changing its name to just the New Fellowship, enjoyed a new lease of life around 1889/ 1890. In 1889 they issued a journal, ‘The Sower’, later ‘Seed Time’, printed by a ‘saintly’ Tolstoyan ‘anarchist’ William Frey (Originally Vladimir Geins), a Russian former aristo and general! who later emigrated to New York, becoming a leader of the ‘New Odessa colony’. Frey was a veggie humanist who influenced communal living ideals in New York and possibly founded a Russian commune in Kansas.

According to Seed Time the group was holding lectures weekly, (at Doughty St?) alternately theoretical and practical (still never nailed that dual nature eh?).. examples of the subjects being ‘Moral and Social Reform’. “Christianity and Communism’, ‘The Moral Basis of the New Order’. The Fellowship was still in existence until at least 1896.

Both Seed Time and the groups activities could not have survived if not supported (presumably financially) by William Morris, Ramsay MacDonald, and other luminaries. Morris was a huge influence on the Fellowship, as he was on the early Fabians.

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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 squatting history: Institute For Autonomy social centre evicted, Bloomsbury, 2005.

In 2004-5, no 78 Gower Street, Bloomsbury, London, was squatted and became the Institute for Autonomy, an anti-capitalist social centre.

Created in a disused university building that had lain empty for over 5 years. Officially opening on Saturday 19th March, 2005, the Institute for Autonomy aimed to be an open space for daily development towards autonomy. It was organised by open assemblies, and effectively run by a collective made up of University of London students and other assorted refugees from the Grand Banks Social Centre, which had run in Tufnell park the previous year. The ‘Institute’ located close to the university/student area, became used by a variety of political groups as well as hosting various projects (hacklab, screen printing, photolab, infoshop/bookstall) held a cafe three times a week offering top-quality food attracting workers, students and lecturers from around the area. It also housed upwards of 15 people and provided housing for people who were on their way to attend the anti-G8 actions in Gleneagles.

Below we reprint the Institute’s Opening Statement:

The Institute for Autonomy is a newly occupied social centre in central London. Created in a disused university building in a city where house & rent prices continue to climb far out of the reach of the majority, it has lain empty and forgotten for over 5 years.

The Institute for Autonomy aims to be an open space for daily development towards autonomy. We are a collective of people of different backgrounds and experiences: some of us have participated in similar projects, some of us are students; none of us can find a place in this society to live our lives with dignity.

We believe capitalist society is based on the principles of greed, egoism, individualism and competition – and like it or not, we are all part of this machine.

In these modern times our fantastical means of communication drive us apart. We are losing the art of society: first we lost our local bakeries to the supermarkets, and with them our local communities (and our health) – now, we rush home from work and, with a frantic series of keystrokes destroy one more opportunity to free ourselves from the prison of efficiency. We are becoming robots at the service of money and fake dreams.

It’s vital for us to create space where a different reality can be experienced, where new paths can be walked, along which can emerge common action, interest and identity amongst people. We organise both the space and our work in open assemblies where, in a rejection of this society where our ‘superiors’ tell us what to do, we practice horizontal and direct democracy. When ideas are discussed openly, we are recreated as real actors in our lives – we use our differences to make any idea a better idea. We aim to create a self-organised space where people aren’t judged by their ability to consume or to produce; where really human discussion and action can take place.

It is more and more clear how unsustainable capitalism is. The scream of nature is louder than ever; animals are facing extinction all over the world; and we are facing a bleak, uncertain future. Wars, wars against wars, wars against our food, wars against the environment, and wars against those who seek to resist.

We believe the process towards autonomy will not protect us from the current situation, but will create a path within the capitalist world which will help us to learn, reflect and develop real relationships between human beings based on solidarity, honesty, respect, initiative and dignity.

We think it is necessary to create and experience moments of autonomy and freedom in our daily lives, in order that we have the tools to begin posing serious alternatives to capitalism and start creating a new world in the shell of the old.

We hold an open meeting every Monday at 8pm to discuss our progress, and for new projects and events to be proposed.

Infoshop and Library

We have set up an infoshop where people can come and pick up leaflets and literature on radical events, thought, movements and struggles. You can find out about squatting, the Zapatistas, the history of Anarchism and environmentalism. Lots of groups have left their literature, and books and pamphlets are for sale at pretty much cost price. There is also a library for people to read in the building, while enjoying a cup of coffee… contributions of books are welcomed!

Art Project: Printing Workshop/ design / banner making.

We will be having weekly screen-printing workshops starting on Sunday 20th March, where people will be encouraged to make their own designs and print on different materials, including T-shirts. Instead of expensive corporate logos we can have our own say on our clothes, and recycle old clothes by making them a lot more interesting. Workshops will welcome artistic people as well as those with no artistic background because it’s very easy to practice anti-copyright by just cutting and pasting any design off the web or anywhere else – so you don’t need talent, just ideas and energy. Anyone wanting to make their designs on the computer (photoshop or illustrator) can be given design support, and then they can print the designs they have made on the computer to the screen and then onto the t-shirt/jacket. We can print colorful posters and leaflets as well if people are committed to consistent printing and a bit of hard work.

Precarity/Info-Sharing

From 6pm – Fortnightly on Tuesdays, starting 15th March… CALLING ALL…. WAGE SLAVES, INSECURE TEMPS, WORK REFUSERS, EXPLOITED MIGRANTS, NO HOME / SQUATTED HOME / RENTED HOME.

Maybe your boss decided not to pay you, maybe you are getting evicted, maybe your benefit claim is being refused, maybe you have an urgent problem or just a feeling that life could be better if we work to change it together… Come for food and coffee, and to talk about insecurity in our lives and how we can take action together to solve them. Come to share information, advice and to meet people.

For the last few months in London a group has been meeting and discussing their precarious situations and lives. Increasingly we are balanced on a cliff edge: we have no job security, no state benefit, no guaranteed shelter, food: all aspects of life in this system are unstable.

That is the aim of the powerful – that we will do as we are told, constantly controlled by the fear that we will end up homeless and hungry. We want to build an alternative, build our own security, by knowing we will have the support of each other.

Solidarity Kitchen

We are an all-volunteer, not-for-profit cooking collective. We seek to provide cheap, vegan and organic meals as an alternative to the pesticide-ridden, genetically modified and expensive supermarket produce and in opposition to the rampant exploitation of animals and the environment.

We are currently open 3 lunchtimes a week at the Gower Street location. The Kitchen will be open between the hours of 12 and 3 pm, the same time as the Cafeteria Rebelde, which serves organic coffee in direct solidarity with the autonomous Zapatista communities of Chiapas in Mexico. The Infoshop will also be open, providing radical reading material. So come down, try the food, meet new friends or volunteer to help to place our health back into our own hands.  We are also available to be approached to cook for political events, demonstrations and direct actions that we feel affinity for.

Cafeteria Rebelde

In 1983, the EZLN the Zapatista Army of National Liberation was formed in the mountains of Chiapas in order to combat the crushing poverty of the regions indigenous communities. The EZLN has worked closely with the communities in order to build a new society from the bottom up where the Maya people can organise autonomously. After more then 20 year the Zapatista are practising a level of autonomy they never dream of, autonomous education and health care are a concrete project now in their territories. They also organise themselves in co-operative and create direct solidarity networks to sell their coffee avoiding market constrains.

Our project aims to support autonomous communities in resistance in Chiapas and also to undermine the rules of the neo-liberal market.

The cafeteria will be open during events in the “Institute for Autonomy”…”

The Institute signified a move for the mostly Wombles-based squat centres of Tufnell Park of 2004, merging with student activists at central London colleges… it was to be succeeded by the larger squat in Russell Square, ‘The Square’, and formed part of a chain with the later Bloomsbury activists involved in uni occupations, supporting workers, eg cleaners at the Universities, and opposing cuts…

The Institute was evicted on 7th July 2005, after it had effectively been abandoned, as most of those involved and a sizable contingent of its regular users had decamped to Scotland to besiege the G8 Summit of the leaders of the world’s most powerful nations. As it was reclaimed by bailiffs, bombs were going off around central London, as Islamic fundamentalist suicide bombers attempted to spread terror in the city…

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

Follow past tense on twitter

Check out the text of a past tense radical history walk around Bloomsbury, including some other local rebellious sites…

Today in London rebel history: riots erupt against the Corn Laws, 1815

The Corn Laws had their origin in the ‘total war’ waged between Britain (and numerous allies) and revolutionary/Napoleonic France between 1793 and 1815. Napoleon’s blockade of Britain after 1806 accelerated enclosure of common lands, as MPs voted in over 1900 enclosure acts to ensure enough grain could be produced to support Britain and her allies. (The legal machinery for enclosure was simplified in an attempt to speed up the process with the 1801 with the General Enclosure Act. This Act saw the peak of the Agricultural Revolution.)

As all trade with Europe was ended, British landowners ended the war with a virtual monopoly of domestic grain markets. The result of this artificial scarcity of foodstuffs, together with a series of bad harvests in Britain, was a rapid rise in prices accompanied by fluctuations in the trade cycle.

At the end of the French Wars, corn prices plummeted to nearly half their war level, causing panic among the farmers – many of whom were also voters. As a result the government of Lord Liverpool government introduced the Corn Laws in 1815, to ensure the high incomes of farmers and landowners. MPs argued that prices had fallen due to an influx of ‘foreign corn’ after the resumption of trade with Europe. Opponents argued that landowners should reduce rents to ease pressure on farmers – a parliament and government representing the landowners reacted as you might expect…

These laws were intended to stabilise wheat prices at 80/- per quarter. They laid down that no foreign grain could be imported until domestic grain reached that price. The laws protected the intensified agriculture and expanded grain farms that had emerged in the war, but predictably failed to solve the problem of high prices. Prices fluctuated at high levels, encouraging the hoarding of corn.

This was class legislation at its most blatant. It made sure aristocrats could continue to benefit from high prices and the high rents that they supported. The Houses of Commons and Lords passed the law with Parliament surrounded by soldiers, knowing well enough what the law meant for the poor.

In response the poor of London rioted – knowing that that, having faced 20 years of high food prices and poverty, the end of the war was not going to make their life easier. High food process were compounded by a trade recession and mass unemployment, as the war economy crashed and hundreds of thousands of soldiers and sailors were demobbed.

Rioting broke out in the area around Parliament as the Acts were being debated, and spread out around London and Westminster as the London houses of the MPs and lords held most responsible were targeted by crowds:

“About the usual hour of the Meeting of Parliament on Monday, there were assembled in different parts, from George-street, to Abingdon-street, various groupes of persons, not numerous at first, all declaring against the Corn Bill, and inveighing against such of the Members as had been most active in support of it. There had previously been a great number of persons in the lobby and avenues of the House, and a considerable quantity of constables have been posted in them, to prevent too great a pressure and disturbance.

The persons who were forced to quit the lobby and passages, took post on the outside of the house. In these groupes were several who were well acquainted with the persons of many leading Members of both Houses, and pointed them out as they came down to attend their duty.—”That is Lord Grenville—that Lord Stanhope—that the Chancellor of the Exchequer”—and hooting or applause followed as the Member passing was known to be friendly or unfriendly to the Corn Bill.—Meanwhile loud shouts of “No Corn Bill!” raised without the House, were distinctly heard within it. For some time the groupes confined themselves to these manifestations of pleasure or displeasure. At length many of the carriages of the Members were stopped, and the Members forced to walk through the crowd amidst hooting and hissing. The civil power now was found to be insufficient for the protection of the Members, and the Magistrates having applied to the Speaker, received an order to call in the military to act under the civil power. Several of the Members, however, had been very roughly handled. They were called upon by the populace to tell their names, and how they had voted or intended to vote. Mr. Fitzgerald, the Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer, was treated in this way. Mr. Croker’s life was more seriously endangered; his carriage was beset by a mob, who made the enquiries to which we have just alluded, he refused to answer them; on his arrival at the house, both doors of the carriages were forced open, and upon stepping out, he was seized by the collar, and received several blows; same question was repeated to him, and the mob said, he should never enter the House alive if he did not tell his name and his sentiments on the Corn Bill. He still refused, and probably would not have escaped without the most serious injury, if at all, if the mob in their violence and confusion, had not directed their rage against each other. Those who suggested one mode, were opposed by others, and enforcing their arguments by blows, Mr. Croker fortunately made his escape into the Coffee-house of the Lords, and from thence into the House of Commons.

The Attorney General, though assailed at first much in the same manner as Mr. Croker, escaped more easily. He gave the mob his name, and told them he should vote as his conscience would direct him.

The military however succeeded in suppressing the tumult near the House, and the immediate vicinity remained clear during the rest of the night. But the populace, driven from this scene, repaired to other parts of the town—”to Mr. Robinsons!” “To Lord Eldon’s!” “To Lord Darnley’s!” “To Lord Ellenborough’s!” was the cry, and groups report repaired forthwith to one or the other of the houses these Noblemen and Gentlemen.

Having supposed the Hon. Mr. Robinson’s residence to be in Charles’s-square, they went thither, and did not leave the street till they learned he had moved to Burlington-street. As soon as they had fixed upon his house, they broke the windows in every floor, demolished the parlour shutters, and split the doors into pieces. The iron rails before the house were torn up, and instantly carried off. Rushing into the house, they then cut to pieces many valuable pictures, destroying some of the larger pieces of furniture, and threw the rest into the street, to be trampled to pieces by their associates.” (Chester Chronicle).

Frederick John Robinson MP had introduced the Corn Bill to Parliament. From his half trashed gaff soldiers stationed to prevent further attacks shot two passers-by who had nothing to do with the violence. Nineteen year old midshipman Edward Vyse, who was walking past the house, was hit with a shot from the pistol that was designed to scare the mob of boys outside. He died immediately at the scene. Another person was also said to have been killed here.

“From Mr. Robinson’s they ran to the house of Lord Darnleys, Mr. Yorke’s, Lord Hardwicke’s, Mr. Meux’s, in Berkeley-square. They broke every window at each place, and demolished the doors, what were prevented from going within.

Another account says, that having mustered about the centre of the street, and not amounting at their arrival to more than fifty or sixty, one (we understand a person well dressed) was selected to ascertain the residence of Mr. Robinson. He knocked at the door, and being informed that Mr. Robinson was not at home, he continued for a short time in conversation with the servant who opened it, when, on a preconcerted signal being given, the others rushed in and proceeded to the work of devastation. The demolition of the furniture occupied little more than an hour.

At ten o’clock, a mob, amounting to about 300, not more, entered Bedford-square, from the corner next Oxford-street, and proceeded to the house of the Lord Chancellor…” (Chester Chronicle).

John Scott, Lord Eldon, Lord Chancellor, had been pursued from the house of Lords to his house. Ironically, Eldon seems himself have been opposed to the Corn Laws, but on balance, he was a bad bad bastard! Early on in his political rise, as Attorney General, Eldon brought in the Act suspending Habeus Corpus in 1794, allowing people to be imprisoned without trial, and acted as chief prosecutor in a treason trial against leading members of the radical reform organisation, the London Corresponding Society – though his case was so weak and his speechifying so hysterical, they were famously acquitted. Appointed Lord Chief Justice and later Lord Chancellor, he became a crucial wedge of the most repressive government in modern times, which repressed numerous working class movements, and quashed several revolts and conspiracies, including the Despard conspiracy, the Black Lamp, the Luddites, among the most famous. Eldon was a notorious advocate of hanging for the most petty offences, an ardent opponent of the abolition of slavery in the Colonies.

So the London Crowd hated his guts anyway, and may have felt they’d seize the chance to do for him in the general ruck. They broke all the windows ; broke into the house and smashed as much as they could, throwing Eldon’s papers into the street; only the arrival of a party of soldiers prevented them from their aim of hanging Eldon from a lamppost in Bedford Square, a noose having been prepared for the same…
Eldon and the soldiers grabbed two rioters and dragged them inside: Eldon told them: “If you don’t mind what you are about lads, you will all come to be hanged.” A rioter replied, “Perhaps so, old chap, but I think it looks now as if you would be hanged first.”
Sadly Eldon was to wear no hemp necklace.

The two arrested men were sent before a justice of peace, but the soldiers refused to be witnesses against them. A garrison of 50 soldiers was stationed outside Eldon’s house for 3 weeks, since “persons in the front of the house from time to time using menacing language and threats, whenever from the streets they saw any persons in the house.”

Other MPs residences received similar treatment:

“The house of Lord Ellenborough in St. James’s square, was also attacked, and considerably injured. Soon after they had commenced their assault upon the house, his Lordship, in the most intrepid manner, presented himself at the door, and inquired the cause of the outrages upon his dwelling? The reply was “No Corn Bill, No Corn Bill:” on which his Lordship addressed them in a few words, the purpose of which we have not heard, but the effect was that the mob instantly cheered the Noble Lord and departed. They next proceeded to assail some other houses in the same square, but a party of the Life Guards approached by this time in full gallop, and the square in a few minutes was completely cleared. This, we understand, was the case in every other part of the town where the assailants appeared, and by one o’clock they were no longer to be seen in bodies; straggling individuals only were observable, and the military continuing to patrole the streets and squares, no further attempt to disturb the public tranquillity was any where made.

THE RIOTS—were renewed on Tuesday night, and with fatal consequences. Every person going to the Houses of Parliament was examined by constables, and no tumult occurred till after the House of Commons adjourned. Afterwards, however, the mob assembled, and made two attacks on Lord Castlereagh’s house; they renewed their violence against the houses of Mr. Robinson, and Lord Darnley; their next objects with those of Mr. Yorke, Mr. Bathurst, Lord King, Lord Lascelles, Mr. Weston, Mr Wellesley Pole, Sir H. Parnell, Sir W. Rowe, &c. The windows of many private persons were demolished by mistake; but none were entered, owing to the activity of the soldiery. It appears that the mob had actually collected some bags of shavings, for the purpose of setting fire to Mr. Robinson’s house, at the moment the guards arrived, and several wheelbarrows full of stones, were emptied in the street, to facilitate the work of destruction!

In these movements, we lament to say, one man and one woman were killed, and three persons wounded. The man was shot through the head with slugs; he was dressed in uniform of a midshipman, and was immediately conveyed to a public house. He proved to be a son of Mr. Dodd, printseller, in Parliament-street, and had gone out shortly before, for the purpose of viewing the operations of the mob. The woman was a widow of a sailor, and had left her friends with a promise to return in half an hour.

A large train of artillery was brought on Friday from Woolwich. More troops have arrived or are on their road. Two fresh regiments of light dragoons are quartered at Kensington and Bow. Ten thousand horse and foot could be called out in an hour, if it were necessary.”

(Chester Chonicle, 17th March 1815).

The riots continued in various parts of the town during the 7th, 8th, and 9th of March. By this time, however, the houses of the Lord Chancellor, and of many other leading members of the Ministry and of the Legislature, were garrisoned with soldiers ; and, London being ultimately surrounded by troops on every hand, the disturbances ended.

Other disturbances around the country commenced with the introduction of the Corn Bill in 1815 and continued intermittently until the end of 1816. In London and Westminster riots ensued and were continued for several days; at Bridport there were riots on account of the high price of bread; at Bideford there were similar disturbances to prevent the export of grain; at Bury by the unemployed to destroy machinery; at Newcastle-on-Tyne by colliers and others; at Glasgow, where blood was shed, on account of soup kitchens; at Preston, by unemployed weavers; at Nottingham by Luddites who destroyed 30 frames; at Merthyr Tydvil, on a reduction of wages; at Birmingham by the unemployed; at Walsall by the distressed; and December 7th, 1816, at Dundee, where, owing to the high price of meal, upwards of 100 shops were plundered. Other riots and demonstrations with an avowedly political bent, like the 1816 Spa Fields Riot, and the 1819 Peterloo massacre, were strongly influenced by the mass poverty of the time, in which the high price of bread was a major factor.

Although rioting died down, over the next three decades, the Corn Laws remained a hot issue economically, with periodic agitations for their repeal, usually driven by a middle class movement based in the manufacturing strata, who saw the introduction of complete free trade as being ideologically and economically in their and the national economy’s best interests. This became focussed with the founding of the Anti-Corn Law League in 1838. The rising class of manufacturers and industrial workers (who were under-represented in Parliament, as compared to he old landowning aristos) wanted to maximise their profits from manufacture by reducing the wages they paid to their factory workers, but complained that the Con Laws kept the price of bread so high, they were unable to reduce wage levels to the pittance levels they desired—men could not work in the factories if a factory wage was not enough to feed them and their families. Lovely. Chartists and socialists accused the anti-Corn Law League of only being interested in reducing wages, but needing to enlist mass support from the working classes so as to put pressure on the Tory protectionists.

Eventually a combination of this long agitation for repeal, a succession poor harvests and the resulting hardship (starvation in Ireland), and the threat of reviving Chartist campaigning, led to the Corn Laws being repealed in 1846, amidst much political shenanigans, and against strong opposition from landowning interests.

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

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Today in London rebel history: ‘The Square’ launched as social centre, Bloomsbury, 2006

‘The Square’ was a Social Centre, set up in the squatted former University College London School of Slavonic Studies, in the North West corner of Russell Square, in London’s Bloomsbury.

This fine occupied space flourished for several months from the winter of 2005 through to the following Summer. “When the Square was first occupied… everyone was overcome with excitement. The building was a dream – from its central position to its glorious fascia; from its large ground floor rooms to the labyrinthine former bar of a student’s union in the basement.” The Square was constantly teeming for the next few months, with packed out benefit gigs, parties, meetings, an info shop, offices and organising space for radical anti-authoritarian groups, as well as a friendly drop-in and coffee shop.

“The first months were immensely exciting. Every day, while the café was open, people would wander in, stunned and enquiring as to the present status of the building. As the situation was explained their eyes widened as they considered new horizons. In fact, all of our eyes were wide, then. Even the 40-person meetings, where people talked and talked in circles about politics, action, organisation and so on were just about bearable – and the discussions in little groups in the evenings were something else, magical conspiracies mapping our future.”

There were many and varied events, including meetings/reports back on the student riots in France, the London Zine Symposium, with stalls, talks, walks and bands; a Mayday Weekend, with talks and discussions on ‘The Future of Anarchism’, an excellent meeting with films and speakers from campaigners against deaths in custody and mobilisations for anti-war and anti-deportation demos and a remarkably successful meeting on ‘Radical Academics in the Neoliberal University’ which packed 100 people into the 80-capacity meeting room.

“What really occurred at the Square, though, was a community – a virtual community ordinarily spread all over London, all over the South East, but finding at the Square a physical space to come together. The building became a focal point for all sorts of groups, organised or otherwise, who – holding their meetings in the same building, rather than the pub – had a rare contact with each other, creating many friendships and challenging many assumptions. This hive of activity was also a space which proved extremely stimulating for those few kids who came in search of politics rather than a cheap party. It was frequented by members of anti-fascist group Antifa, Aufheben, the Anarchist Federation, the WOMBLES, the Industrial Workers of the World, a whole mess of punks and even the occasional insurrectionist. One could always find an interesting conversation.”

The centre was sadly evicted in June 2006 despite some resistance from the squatters and supporters initially forcing the bailiffs to back off. Many of the core group that had run the space were also suffering slightly from “exhaustion – physical, emotional and political. People were just tired, and wanted a summer in the sun, not barricaded into a building. Others felt the social centre had drawn to its natural conclusion given the limits that had been placed upon it, and wanted summer for reflection and reformulation of the project. Still others were concerned that the symbolic weekend of resistance, which burnt so brightly, would be diluted by days and weeks of events for events’ sake.”

There had also been many of the usual tensions and difficulties familiar to any group running a squatted centre in these (possibly any?) times: the never-ending meetings attempting to hammer out a consensus, and the old chestnut of many users not clearing up after themselves (leaving it to the core collective), among them. Some among the main organisers felt, at the end, that a clearer initial definition of the space’s ideas aims and politics (rather than the open invitation to anyone to get involved) might have helped to both reduce some tedious debates about what the place was for, and keep out some of the assorted nutters and wishywashy ditherers who often consume much time and energy in such centres… Eternal questions, for those of us who’ve also been involved in keeping similar spaces going. Sometimes the high energy adrenaline-fuelled temporary spaces like the Square are more inspiring BECAUSE they don’t last very long. Squatted, or rented, or even bought, social or political centres, that survive for years can be dogged by a loss of inspiration, by boredom, when the business of keeping a physical space together can take the focus away from the reasons the place was founded. Long-term spaces do have their uses though…

All in all though the legacy of the Square was generally very positive, inspiring squatted spaces in London and elsewhere since. As the organisers said in their dissolution communique:

“This building has been sustenance for us, a place to socialise with like-minded people, a place in which to play, to party and conspire. That it was ending – for all of its flaws and tensions – made a lot of us take stock of what was being lost: and it was more than we had thought.

Something has passed from central London into our hearts. The red and black will not fly over Russell Square much longer but we carry them in exile…”

By the byways, an ex-UCL student thought they might have been part of a previous barricading of the very same Slavonic Studies building in its university incarnation, during a UCL day of student occupations in 2001…

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

Today in London history: Duke of Bedford closes his private road, 1798.

“The Duke of Bedford… has stopped up the road from Southampton-row to Somers-Town. This, though called a private road, and as such, not open to carriages, has been a footway from time immemorial. It is hoped therefore, that the Duke, without waiting for a legal process, will restore that privilege…”
(Annual Register, 29th September 1798)

The fourth Earl of Southampton first started to develop the area around his mansion in modern Bloomsbury in the 1650s, pioneering a trend for hereditary landlords to develop new London streets and whole neighbourhoods by employing speculative builders; new houses for Lords, knights and other worthies began to spring up. By 1665 the Bloomsbury area was already described as “A fit place for the nobility and gentry to reside”. The 1666 Great Fire of London brought well-to-do refugees seeking new, safer housing out of the City – the next twenty years saw houses spread along what is now Great Russell Street.

According to local resident J. P. Malcolm,  “Squares, and spacious streets of the first respectability are rising in every direction; and the north side of the parish will, in a few years, contain an immense accumulation of riches, attracted by the grand structures in Russell Square now almost complete….”

Inheriting the estate in 1669, the Russells, the Earls of Bedford, named the new streets of their estates after their various titles and estates, and banned the building of pubs and shops, which they thought would lower the tone of the neighbourhood. Even a genteel bookshop was apparently closely screened before being allowed to open. In fact they not only attempted to control the atmosphere of their streets: they imposed barriers on who could even pass through it. Upper Woburn Place, originally a private road for the Dukes, had gates in the eighteenth century. By 1798 this road was closed off to traffic, and from the early 19th Century, parts of the Bedford Estate had gates at all entrances. In 1826, gates at the northern edge were erected so as to “shut out the low population” of the working class neighbourhood of Somers Town.

Uniformed gatekeepers were employed by the Russells to keep out undesirables; only those with tickets issued by the Estate, (silver discs, embossed with the Bedford coat of arms, obtainable by tenants or certain other privileged people for a guinea deposit), could pass down the roads. Empty cabs, or carts, drays, wagons, cattle and exercising horses were banned from entering; gentlemen’s carriages, cabs with fares and persons on horseback were allowed through. For decades the Bedford Estate managed to prevent trams and omnibuses from being run through their streets, even main streets like what was then Hart Street (now Bloomsbury Way). Private Acts of parliament banned hackney cabs from ‘standing for hire’ within 300 feet of some of the Estate’s poshest squares.

The gates stood at the north end of Gordon Street, half way down Taviton Street, (then called Georgiana Street, after the wife of the sixth Duke) and Endsleigh Street, and Upper Woburn Place, and at Torrington place near the corner of Torrington Square. Lodges built for the gatekeepers can still be seen on the west side of Endsleigh Street.

The Bedford Estate’s continued attempts to maintain the wealthy and ultra-respectable character of Bloomsbury must have been to some extent influenced by the sharp (and growing) contrast of this prosperous island with the neighbourhoods that surrounded it. St Giles to the south-west, Holborn to the south-east, Clerkenwell to the east, ‘Fitzrovia’ to the west, and, later, parts of St Pancras and Agar Town, to the north, all had an overwhelmingly working class population by the 19th Century; many of their streets were labeled as slums, rookeries or criminal haunts by the better-off classes. No doubt the increasing sense of being surrounded by the poor, desperate and possibly rebellious must have had some bearing on the gradual flight of the rich westward, to areas further from the dark threat of mob violence. The successive invasions of Bloomsbury in 1765, 1780 and 1815 by riotous crowds may only have been the sharp reminder of a deeper held fear and loathing… The increased control over open spaces, building on fields used for rowdy recreation, fencing off of squares’ gardens, can be seen partially as responses to both the class violence of the London Mob, AND the widely perceived ‘immoral’ nature of unlandscaped space – two sides of the same coin to the wealthy. The gates were popular with the mainly up-market tenants of the Bedfords; in fact some residents were pushing the Estate to toughen up the social control. Around 1750 a petition to the Duke from Silver Street, (roughly where Barter Street is now) complained that an alley running behind their street through to High Holborn, was frequented by “wicked and disorderly people of both sexes”, and called for it to be bricked up at both ends. This area, around the now-disappeared Bloomsbury Market (under the eastern end of present-day New Oxford Street), was increasingly lowering the tone of the Russells’ vision: although we couldn’t discover if this petition was acted on, the building of New Oxford Street through the St Giles Rookery would later obliterate some of these unrespectable streets.

Gradually opposition to the Dukes’ gates built up: they were obviously unpopular with cabbies and poorer folk, and even some local official bodies. The St. Pancras Vestry, under whose administration part of the Estate fell, became fed up with applying for permission to the Duke to enter the streets for works, cleaning etc. However the two other Vestries covering the area, St Giles and St George’s, defended the gates, mainly because removing them would lower rateable values and increase pavement costs, thus hitting the Vestry and wealthy ratepayers hard in the pocket.

The private road built for the duke’s personal use alone, Woburn Place, led to disputes even with other local nobility. It was originally laid in the 1750s, to connect to the spanking New Turnpike Road (now Euston Road) to the north so the duke could travel between his London pad and his country estates in Bedfordshire. At the edge of his land, however, to reach the new thoroughfare, it had to cross land owned by the Duke of Grafton, who wasn’t keen to allow it to bisect his property. For a while in 1759 there was a mini-civil war between the respective servants of the dukes, with Grafton’s men building barricades with instructions to block anyone coming over the border between the two estates; barriers repeatedly broken down by lackeys of Bedford (the words ‘hoist’ and ‘own petard’ springing to mind), but they settled in the end, with Bedford’s road being permitted to cross Grafton’s estate to meet the Turnpike road.

Eventually in slightly less forelock-tugging times, private gates across streets in a busy capital became unsustainable. Barring the majority of traffic from a strategically placed area just south of two main London railway stations had become economically anomalous. Even the prime minister complained in 1890 about the inconvenience of having to travel around the estate: “I am a constant passenger of the Great Northern Railway… and I must say that I have never passed the Sacred Gates in going to the Great Northern Station without mental imprecations against the persons who originally set them up and the persons who have since maintained them there.” (Which is interesting – was even the prime minster considered not respectable enough to pass through?)

Legislation ended this restriction of access, in 1893, and the gates came down. The Duke’s posh tenants, still keen to keep the riffraff out, campaigned for the gates’ retention, writing letters of protest, but happily in vain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“2 o’clock on a humdrum Sunday afternoon [September 9th]. In a tightly organised operation, squatters seized Duchess of Bedford House, a luxury block of 150 flats in Kensington. Within 10 minutes over. 1,000 people were inside, including 460 families, complete with bedding, water and food. Later that day a further 500 people took over a similar block in Marylebone, as well a big houses in Holland Park, Campden Hill and Upper Phillimore Gardens. On Monday, it was a second block in Marylebone and on Tuesday about 200 people took Fountain Court, another luxury block in Pimlico. Wednesday saw two very big ones done -Abbey Lodge near Regents Park and the 630-room Ivanhoe Hotel in Bloomsbury St(later renamed “The Marlborough”, and these days the ‘Bloomsbury’).”

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

The Ivanhoe Hotel, on the corner of Bloomsbury Street and Great Russell Street, was squatted on September 10th. Empty for some time, it had been used during the war to house Irish labourers repairing bomb damaged buildings. The squatters here used a diversionary tactic to get in to the Ivanhoe… One group drew police who were on their back off to another building some distance off, while another group moved in on the hotel (possibly though according to James Hinton, they got in through an underground tunnel the police had no idea was there). 12 families broke in through boarded up doors; by this time the cops had got wind and turned up, blocking up the doors and reboarding them, to stop other squatters getting in. An attempt by others to force their way in was prevented by the police.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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