Save Reginald, Save Tidemill: resisting new enclosures and the destruction of social housing in Deptford

Users of Tidemill Community Wildlife Garden in Deptford, South London, are currently occupying the garden round the clock, the latest stage of their long struggle to keep the garden from being destroyed by Lewisham Council as part of a regeneration plan which would also see the demolition of the neighbouring council block of flats. The battle to protect Tidemill Garden and Reginald House focuses several of the most crucial struggles being fought at the moment in London – resistance to the destruction of social housing, the privatisation, exploitation & destruction of open space, gentrification and the social re-ordering of many areas of the city. (NB: None of which is unique to London – being worldwide phenomena…)

Open space is vital in London, in the city. Literally a lifesaver, Parks, commons, woods, from the heaths to the slivers of green at the edge of the canals… Green places in the heart of London, places of refuge, pleasure, places for picnics, barbecues, learning, meeting, playgrounds for wildlife and people … When work and stress and all the other shite rises up and threatens to overwhelm you… you can lie on your back while the wind dances in the trees. When you’ve got no garden, when your family drives you nuts, sick of pointless work and all the abuse, exploitation and suffering in the world – or when you just love the grass. For the mad endless football matches, falling out of trees, hide and seek as the sun dapples the moss; for dancing round your phone in the summer evenings… wiping the tear away as your daughter’s bike wobbles round the lake for the first time, even for when you’re masochistic enough to go running on rainy mornings…

The benefits of having access to open green space are obvious, for exercise, physical and mental health and wellbeing, learning about and connecting to wildlife and nature (all too rare in the city), having somewhere green to just relax; quite apart from the playgrounds, sports facilities, water features, running tracks… even the bloody festivals sometimes when they don’t trash the grass and lock us out for half the summer…

Trees and plants also obviously contribute to air quality and help reduce pollution, as mature trees absorb carbon emissions from vehicles… not to mention just being beautiful, sometimes climbable, a relief from the brick and sandstone, concrete and glass…

The parks and greens maintained by councils and other official bodies are crucial enough, despite the bylaws that hem you in there, the financial pressures that lead to massive commercial festivals that lock the big parks off for weeks on end…

There’s the wilderness too, where it survives, or has fought back to wreath old factories or abandoned lots, half-demolished estates in green and growth… This wildness in London has been vanishing more and more, it made a comeback from post-world war two to the 80s, often on bombsites, or where industry was closed down… A strange hopeful beauty, we used to trespass, explore, and sometimes build in.

Even more precious than either of the above, maybe, is the space that people create themselves, communally, working together, learning and building and planning. Many such spaces were created from abandoned land, some were originally squatted or more or less occupied, often bit by bit, gradually taken over, where money and authority had forgotten or lost interest, or simply didn’t have the resources to exploit or use. Like the squatting of houses from the 70s onward, small scale community spaces were created, here and there, sometimes evicted or given institutional blessing and becoming ‘official’.

New enclosures

As with resistance to enclosures in previous centuries, the wholesale removal of access to vast areas of land for large numbers of people, in the interests of the wealthy, the nominal owners, the rich, urban free spaces can also become contested. If some were granted some kind of legal status, this has not protected them forever from the possibility of being cleared, built on, lost. Just as cash-strapped or money-hungry councils see big parks as piggy banks that can be milked, self-created spaces are often viewed as awkward, unproductive, not neat and tidy-looking, lowering the tone, run by amateurs who don’t understand. And taking up space that could be put to more profitable use. By people who know best and should just be allowed to get on with planning our lives for us.

The freely given and collective effort put into creating and maintaining small community-run spaces, and making sure they are kept free and open runs counter to this. It’s not always easy and can stall or lose momentum, but its spirit is often lovely and inspiring. Councils pay lip service to this spirit because they know it’s bad PR to say what is really often thought in the offices and boardrooms – that this spirit is annoyingly uncontrolled and gets in the way of properly ordered progress and fiscal good sense. In this sense, while in theory many larger or smaller open green spaces are ‘publicly owned’ – ie owned by public bodies like councils – there is a chasm, its not ours, in the legal sense, though people who use and enjoy space often feel that it is ours, collectively, emotionally. Enclosure was often resisted in two parallel strands – common land (always in fact owned by someone) had developed customary uses over time, which people took to be legal rights, and some went to court to oppose enclosure on that basis. Others felt that whatever the law said about who owned a piece of land and could do what they want with it, it was theirs, collectively, because they had always used it and so had generations before them, and would right to maintain that – often with direct action, sabotage, sometimes with violence. Both strands had their successes, in truth, in saving many places we still know and love today. But often people had to go beyond what the law said was ownership to assert the collective ownership they felt and had experienced, an often  contradictory jumble of realities which law, contract, statute and certificate don’t and can’t quantify. This remains a central question in many struggles, whether its about housing, space, work…

Tidemill and Reginald 

So – Lewisham council are planning to demolish Reginald House and Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden, and on the site of the old Tidemill Primary School, which closed in 2012, near to the centre of Deptford.

The Tidemill garden was created in 1997, designed with the involvement of parents, pupils and teachers at Tidemill school. For a long time it was considered worthy of support by official bodies, being funded by Groundwork, the London Development Agency, the Foundation for Sport & Arts, Mowlem plc, Lewisham College — and Lewisham Council, which invested £100,000 in it in 2000.

The garden has matured, and now contains 74 well-established trees. In August 2017, it was cited as a case study for the importance of “Children at Play” in the GLA Greener City Fund prospectus, and it also has the support of organisations including the Council for the Protection of Rural England and the London Wildlife Trust. Pupils from the new Tidemill School have used the garden for many educational projects.

Some great pix of the Garden and some recent events here

Go, Move, Shift!

If the development plans go ahead, the residents of Reginald House will lose their homes, and a unique community wildlife garden will be destroyed. The vast majority of the residents of Reginald House and the users of the garden want the plans to be re designed in partnership with the community – to build the same or more social homes, but keep Reginald House and Tidemill Garden. The new plans trumpet the inclusion of new green space – but much of this will be private gardens (guess which tenure they will be for?) or playspaces for residents only, and the open access space planned is much smaller, includes no mature trees, much of it will be paved, sterile and free of the pesky wildlife and unplanned growth Tidemill hosts. And privately owned…

As Caroline Jupp has written: “The proposed green space to replace this extra-ordinary garden is named a ‘pocket park’ in the developer’s plans…. The sterility of many contemporary architect designed parks and gardens is not conducive to outdoor play. I have seen how the planted public areas on my newly built estate become dead zones. But here, in Old Tidemill Gardens, there are ponds, gazebos, tree houses, composting bins, greenhouse, sheds, climbing trees, undergrowth and wilderness, all to nurture play and kinship with nature. Why demolish this green space, used so regularly by schools and the community, and replace it with a neat pocket park? Local residents and visitors all value this community space, want to be its gardeners, and have a real stake in how it evolves. In contrast, most designs of contemporary green spaces don’t encourage the involvement of users, with with their choice of low-maintenance planting. No doubt, the keepers and sweepers of the proposed new park will be an out-sourced company…”
(from Buddleia Bulletin, no 4, ‘Tree House’, 2018, Caroline Jupp. The 5 issues of Buddleia Bulletin are well worth a read, and all proeeds from sales go to the Tidemill campaign…)

They and many supporters have been campaigning to prevent the demolition since 2014, when Lewisham signed a deal with Family Mosaic Home Ownership (a private spin-off of Family Mosaic Housing Association), which would have seen the currently ‘publicly owned’ land sold off cheaply. Through murky secret Development Agreements, Family Mosaic lies, council refusal to listen to the community’s protests or allow the residents of Reginald House to be balloted on the plan, the campaign has gained strength, drawing up alternative plans which would transform the re-development, keeping the gardens and allowing for more social housing. Since 2015, the local community has had a lease on the garden for “meanwhile use”, but despite granting this as a stopgap, Lewisham council, has refused to seriously entertain any alternative plan.

The subsequent new homes built under the initial plan would have had only 11% social housing, and the community resistance has forced the developers and council to increase this several times, and alter other aspects to try to deflect the opposition. Family Mosaic has since merged with Peabody Housing (housing associations are joining up to create ever large mega-monsters, raising rents and becoming more and more openly property companies). But the plan has remained, and the processes of planning and law have ground on.

Peabody now intends to build 209 units of new housing on the site, of which 51 will be for private sale, with 41 for shared ownership, and 117 at what is described as “equivalent to social rent”. This last is not in fact true –  rents on the last category will fall under London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s London Affordable Rent, around 63% higher than existing council rents in Lewisham.

Here’s an account by a resident facing losing her home: https://deptfordischanging.wordpress.com/2018/08/14/the-planned-demolition-of-your-home-has-so-many-repercussions/

The Middle Class Are Eating Your Street Again

It’s true there’s a housing crisis in London (and in the UK generally) – but currently councils, including Lewisham, are responding by planning homes that those who need them will never afford. The Tidemill proposals fall in with the trend to demolish social housing, with secure tenancies, and replace it mainly with private flats, sprinkled with some housing association tenancies or ‘shared ownership’, ‘affordable’ housing’ that isn’t affordable. A handy outcome of this is the slow replacement of working class people and those on lower incomes with more middle class or wealthy types, who help make the place more economically attractive to money, business and ‘exciting’ and ‘vibrant’. Ie everywhere starts to look as empty and soulless as everywhere else.

Many of the displaced end up crammed in to smaller spaces but paying more, moving to forsaken spots far out on London’s edge, or forced out of town entirely.

Deptford, for centuries a working class area, has stubbornly remained a mixed and interesting place, despite several decades of creeping gentrification. It’s a frontline of contestation, between profit and residents, planners and people, development and the precarious places and existences people make for themselves. There’s land there that greedy eyes see can be made much more of; but also where public officials see unproductivity that could be turned into assets. Occupied and used by people who they see as taking up space a better class of person could be making more of.

London needs homes, yes, but for rents we can afford, in the communities we want to live in, without destroying everything that makes those places a joy to live in. And there is plenty of housing lying empty in the capital. It’s owned by the wealthy, by property developers and corporations. Second homes and flats for business jollies. Palaces with hundreds of rooms for a couple of parasites.

Housing is not generally built for need, its built for profit. Attempts by councils, ‘social landlords’ like housing associations to alter this cannot be built on alliances with huge private developers or turning themselves into private developers and make any noticeable dent in the gradual erosion (now more of a landslide) of genuine social housing provision. Labour bollocks about ballots is smokescreening their complicity almost everywhere with social cleansing and love affairs with greedy property speculators.

It’ll take more than voting in any Corbyns or Sadiq Khans to push that back. It can only be based in people at the grassroots like at Tidemill and any number of struggles around London. And it’s hard, and often loses. It needs people to stand by them who aren’t facing that process themselves (remembering that social housing and open space are a collective legacy, a commons, the fruit of centuries of battling and campaigning, and belong not just to those who live or work or play there but to all of us, in common). And it needs to open the question of who the city is FOR, and challenge fundamental assumptions about housing, space, who owns things, who runs things…

The fight to keep Tidemill does closely echo the battle against enclosures of previous centuries. people have built up space, created uses for it, helped to survive through using it, built up emotional and practical ties to it. But the forces of cold financial or bureaucratic progress sees all that as irrelevant, counting only the hard cash or the planning gains. These days our years of struggle have made them more wary of proclaiming their contempt openly, so there’s lots of gloss and schmooze. But still bailiffs, fences and men with sticks to knock you down hiding round the corner, if you don’t buy their bullshit.

Ballots Not Bollocks?

Lewisham’s Labour council has refused to allow residents of Reginald House a ballot on the plans, though 80% of them don’t want their homes destroyed. This makes a mockery of Jeremy Corbyn and London mayor Sadiq Khan’s promise of ballots to all tenants on estates facing demolition. Khan endorsed the idea of ballots only for estates whose regeneration involves GLA funding – the Tidemill plan does involve GLA funding. But the mayor stealthily approved the destruction of 34 estates — including Reginald House — before his new policy took effect.  Lewisham also now has a stated policy of ballots on demolition: but not for Tidemill and Reginald. Tenants and leaseholders in Reginald House have also been effectively denied repairs since 2015 despite paying rent and service charges…

Instead, Lewisham Council’s cabinet approved the current plans last September, and terminated the community’s lease on the garden on August 29 this year.

Not Removing

Instead of handing the keys back, however, members of the local community occupied the garden, and are fighting court battles to prevent the demolition. They have crowdfunded over £10,000 to launch a Judicial Review of the planning application, but need more to help pay for this… In the latest court appearance, the judge confirmed the council’s right to possession of the garden, he ruled that it cannot take place until seven days after a High Court judge holds an oral hearing at which campaigners will seek permission to proceed to a judicial review of the legality of the council’s plans. This oral hearing will take place on October 17… they may be allowed to proceed with the Review, they may not…

Pledge some cash for this legal battle – the campaign’s Crowd Justice fundraising page is here: https://www.crowdjustice.com/case/save-reginald-save-tidemill/.

The Garden is now constantly occupied, with events happening all the time, displays on the history and ecology of the garden, and treehouses being built, banners being painted, and much more… A lovely and inspiring fight. If the court case doesn’t proceed, it will not be the end – far from it…

Four years of campaigning are now coming to the sharp point – the community is determined to resist the destruction of the garden, and this may well come to blockading the garden and trying to prevent their eviction physically. They need not only cash for the legal challenge, but help, support, publicity…

Contact the campaign: savereginaldsavetidemill@gmail.com

Phone: 07739 469097

https://www.facebook.com/savetidemill/

There’s more on the campaign, and other interesting current events in Deptford, here too:

https://novaramedia.com/2018/09/13/the-battle-for-deptford-and-beyond/

http://crossfields.blogspot.com/

https://deptfordischanging.wordpress.com/

http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2018/09/28/30-days-into-the-occupation-of-deptfords-old-tidemill-garden-campaigners-celebrate-court-ruling-delaying-eviction-until-oct-24/

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The community demands:

“Refurbish Reginald House, give residents a ballot Reginald House residents have good homes, but council has refused to listen to them or to consider a plan which keeps their homes. Instead the residents have been lied to and harassed by council officers, and their homes run down. Lewisham Council should respect its residents’ needs and wishes and not break up communities. As in other developments, residents must be given a ballot on regeneration plans.

Keep Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden a community garden for ALL Any redevelopment must include, not bulldoze, the thriving Garden which was built in the 1990’s by local people, teachers, parents and kids from Tidemill School. An alternative architectural plan shows how the garden and Reginald Road CAN be kept by building on the playground and developing the old school buildings. This area has some of the highest pollution levels in London, which will only get worse if the garden is lost. And the green space on the site should be kept public, not transformed into private gardens as under the current plans.

Public land, and public money, should be 100% used for the benefit of the public Lewisham Council want to sell this land, meaning a valuable public asset will be lost forever. Millions of pounds of public money is being spent to subsidise this development, behind a cloak of secrecy due to the ‘confidentiality clauses’ of the Council’s private partners. This land should be redeveloped in partnership with the community – to build as many social homes as possible but keep our invaluable current homes and community Garden.

We want the council and developers to truly partner with the community to redraw the plans for the site!”

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In case you’re interested…

… check out some other posts on historical resistance to enclosure of open space in London

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Class Walls – Cutteslowe, Downham and roadworks…

Some of last week’s news outlets covered the row about road resurfacing In Oxford, where the local council had ordered one end of a street re-tarmacked, but the work stopped abruptly. Local residents from the neglected end contended that it was the middle class end where the work was done, but the working class end was left as full of potholes as ever. Some witty soul has sprayed ‘class war’ along the demarcation line…

The argument was spiced up by the fact that the very spot where the resurfacing ended once marked the infamous Cuttleslowe Wall, where a barrier was built across the road, between a council estate and a private housing development, to keep the residents of the former out of the latter. Angry inhabitants of the unreconstructed end of the street were quick to point this out – the walls might have gone, but the divide can be marked in other ways…

The Cutteslowe Walls were built in 1934. Over two metres high and topped with lethal spikes, they divided the City Council’s Cutteslowe estate from private housing to the west which was developed by Clive Saxton of the Urban Housing Company.

Saxton was afraid that his housing would not sell if so-called ‘slum’ dwellers were going to be neighbours, and ordered the walls built to separate them. The council tenants soon raised a petition asking for the walls to be demolished; there were several unsuccessful attempts to bring down the walls including a march in 1936 when campaigners armed themselves with pickaxes to knock them down, but police barred their way.

In June 1938 the City Council, against legal advice, took the law into their own hands and demolished the walls with a steam roller.  However, the development company sued the Council, and severely criticised by the Judge, the city was forced to re-build the walls.

There were various attempts during World War II to have the walls demolished for safety reasons but these also failed.  A tank on a practice exercise did (‘accidentally’ ?) drive through one of the walls, but the War Office had to pay to have the wall rebuilt.

In 1953, councils were given powers of compulsory purchase and Oxford council adopted these in 1955.   Finally, on 9th March 1959, after the city had purchased the strips of land on which the walls stood (for £1000) the walls came down.  Councillor Edmund Gibbs, son of an earlier campaigner for demolition, and Chairman of the City Estates Committee, took a ceremonial swipe with a pickaxe at the top of the first wall to come down.

It’s interesting that in the ‘30s the council was strongly against the wall, at least partially taking umbridge as it had developed the council end of the street. Whereas today it is accused of pampering the ‘middle class end’. The council has complained that the whole resurfacing affair is a misunderstanding, that as there are two separate roads involved the works were only ordered on the one, not the other… Convenient. It may have been that in the case of the wall it was the personal affront to the council that rankled, not the idea of social separation per se…

The 1920s and ‘30s were a time of huge migration internally in the UK, when vast new estates and suburbs were opening up, and hundreds of thousands of people were upping sticks as inner city ‘slums’ were cleared and parts of many cities redesigned. Many new estates, both municipal builds and private developments (for either owner-occupiers or private rents) were on the edges of towns and cities, where older slightly more upmarket residents were put out by arrivals of new communities, especially when some or most incomers were rehoused from poor areas. This was definitely the case at Cutteslowe, where it was the suggestion of some ‘slum clearance’ tenants that had sparked some of the fear from the private estate dwellers. But this tension was also reflected in internalised divisions among the migrating, where aspirations to a materially better standard of living was also mixed with desperation to appear respectable and achieve a more middle class lifestyle. This could also emerge as hostility to the more communal wiring class communities from those aspiring to live more individually, and just as virulently mirrored mocking of the snobbery of people deciding to move to the suburbs.

In fact, one study of the Cutteslowe area concluded that the difference in social class being enforced by the walls was in fact not that wide… It wasn’t a question of the wealthy being sheltered from a slum; many of the council estate tenants and the private estate dwellers were broadly skilled working class, or clerks and white collar workers… (though more of the former on the council estate). The nickname of ‘snob walls’ may well sum it up – it was a question as much of a perception of being better than someone, despite – or more because – the gap between you and them is wafer thin… Aspiration to get on, climb the social ladder, move from working class community into suburban individuality was powerful at this time, and for many, this was the first era when this became really possible. There is an element of keeping yourself separate from the people and lifestyles you want to escape… That you fear will hold you back.. Being SEEN to distance yourself from the riffraff (fear you are still part of ‘them’, despite all your aspirations?)

There’s a very interesting article on housing changes, suburbanisation, class & aspiration, in the 1920s/30s here

The Cutteslowe Wall was by no means unique, however. In London, very similar attempts were made to keep riff raff out of suburban streets.

In the borders of Southeast London and Kent, a very similar attempt at social exclusion was erected: the Downham Wall, a high concrete structure embedded with broken glass, built in 1925. Private residents in Alexandra Crescent felt it necessary to distance themselves from council tenants on the newly built London County Council Downham Estate in Valeswood Road, and to prevent the latter from walking through the posher bits to get to Bromley town centre… In February 1926, Albert Frampton, the developer of Alexander Crescent, applied to Bromley Councilto erect the wall. The council declined to take a decision, but the wall went up anyway. Allegedly London County Council and both Bromley and Lewisham Councils disputed responsibility, arguing over who should take charge – the wall was built right on the border between Lewisham and Bromley.

40000 odd working class people from Deptford and other dockside/riverside areas had been moved into new estates in middle class Downham, upsetting the established suburban respectable people. The borough of Lewisham had been traditionally been substantially middle class, proud of itself as a haven of health and respectability (although there had always been pockets of quite stark poverty), but it was the new 40,000-strong population of Bellingham and Downham, with its strong links to the riverside working class, which impinged on the respectable heart of the borough. To their middle class neighbours they seemed to bring a disreputable air, crime, unruly children, unemployment and charges on the rates. It’s also worth mentioning that some of the migrants from Deptford and neighbouring areas brought with them a fierce working class politics, trade unionism, some socialist and communist ideas… not at all what the suburbanites would presumably have welcomed. This spirit did manifest in a spreading of leftwing ideas into the new estates, for instance the communists who led housing struggles in the borderlands of south London in the 1930s. (See Elsy Borders)

A line grew up dividing old middle class Lewisham from the new working class enclaves – soon solidified into the Downham Wall. Despite considerable anger the wall was not demolished until 1950.

Read a great Municipal Dreams article on life on the Downham Estate

Some other examples of class walls we have heard of include a barrier built to divide Springfields council estate and Acres Rise (private estate) in the village of Ticehurst, Sussex… in Dublin in the 1960s and 1970s as the city’s suburbs expanded dramatically (as London did in the 1920s and 30s) there were numerous cases of adjacent local authority and private housing estates being separated from each other by walls, bollards or open spaces – in places like Tallaght, Donaghmede, Coolock, Greenhills and Rathfarnham.

Other methods of social apartheid are, ot course, available…

Blocking off the roads as a means of social control is nothing new. As previously noted on this blog, he Dukes of Bedford attempted for a hundred years to keep all sorts of lowlives and tone-lowerers out of their Bloomsbury estate through the 19th century, by erecting gates and employing keepers to refuse entrance to undesirables.

But resistance to this is as old as the attempt… Tollgates put up to force people to pay for main roads used to be regularly attacked, robbed or avoided. The enclosure of large open spaces like Hyde Park, Richmond Park, Bushy Park, preventing the general hoi polloi from following old ‘rights of way’ or enjoying the space, were stoutly resisted, in the 1700s and 1800s, and mostly were overturned.

And small scale private initiatives to exclude the scum from your byways often also backfired. In Forest Hill, South London (only a couple of miles from the later Downham wall), wealthy silk warehouse owner Richard Beall tried to block off the upper end of Taylor’s Lane to increase the privacy of his posh home of Longton Hall in 1867. His attempt to do a Nicholas van Hoogstraten enraged locals, who smashed the walls & fences down; 100s came with axes & hammers! After several attempts to rebuild it resulted only in further demolitions, Beall gave up & went insane. How sad.

Of course, there are as many examples of victories for the enclosers and architects for social exclusion… More and more these days, it seems on the face of it. Gated communities proliferate – but even more so, (in London at least, though doubtless elsewhere) the gates and walls are being reversed.

The processes generally labelled Gentrification seem not to be just separating out working class communities from those with more power and wealth – but physically removing them from whole area of the city, confining them into smaller and smaller areas – or kicking them out of London altogether. Let’s face it – economically unprofitable people should just move out of valuable space which could be housing the better off.

However, as they say, a brick in the hand can be worth two in a wall…

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…?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebirth of a squatting movement

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

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

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

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

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

Redbridge thuggery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A CAMPAIGN – ITS AIM

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

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

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

IN STAGES

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

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

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

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

SQUATTING ’46

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

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

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

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

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

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

LABOUR POWER

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

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

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

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

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

TOKEN OCCUPATION OF LUXURY FLATS

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

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

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

STAGE TWO

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

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

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

PLANNING THE ILFORD MOVE-IN

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

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

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

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

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

HORSE DEALING AND SUBSTITUTION

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

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

THE MOVE-IN

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

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

LEADERS OF ILLUSION

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

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

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

VICTORIES AND HEART TRANSPLANTS

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

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

COUNCIL’S INTENTIONS

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

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

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

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

AGREEMENT WITH COUNCIL

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

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

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

CRUCIAL VICTORY?

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

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

TOO TAME?

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

Our criticism is not that their activities are too tame.

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

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

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

THE REAL PRIORITY

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

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

POSTSCRIPT – SQUATTERS GO HOME

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London housing history: Elsy Borders goes to court in West Wickham mortgage strike, 1938.

Elsy Borders changed the course of legal and political history in the field of owner-occupied housing mortgages. The campaigns around rent control and investment in council housing that the Communist Party was noted for in the 1930s were extended by the Borders to home-owners who went on mortgage strike in protest at shoddy workmanship in the building of new homes.

A Communist Party member, Elsy played a prominent role in all this by taking her building society to court over its failure to ensure good building standards. Many homeowners were deeply concerned over the complicity of the building societies in accepting the low standards of construction from speculative builders and the campaign was successful in contributing to legislative change.

In the 1930s a ring of new built estates sprang up on the edges of London. Many were built by local councils, but there were a number of private developments too.

“Here was revealed one of the greatest rackets operating between the wars. The Conservative Governments were not prepared to grant assistance to the local authorities in order that they could build houses for the working class, to be let at reasonable rents. In fact, they deliberately cut down grants for slum clearance, slashed the housing programmes, and consciously encouraged building societies. There was therefore no competition, or very little, with the jerry-builders. What was their racket? Had they built houses to let, within a few years those houses, as the slums which many of them became, would never have been .. letable ” at the rents which the owners expected to receive in order to make them a profitable proposition. So developed the greatest racket of the time: … Own your own Homes “: … The Briton is an individualist.” Wonderful pictures were drawn and millions spent on advertising to show how glorious it was to be the complete master in your own home. Hundreds of thousands, even millions, lapped this up, bought their homes on … the never-never “, £50 down, 17s. 6d. a week. After a few years not only normal decorations but serious repairs were urgently needed for these houses were falling to pieces. The working-class folk who proudly inhabited these homes in the suburbs of London and other cities, and who could only make ends meet by account- ing for every penny, found themselves faced with the alternative of dilapidation, or of paying heavy repair costs. Meanwhile the payments to the building society had to continue or else. . . . I remember the time when working-class rent-payers of Stepney would envy the dwellers in these jerry-built suburban houses, and, of course, many of these people valiantly tried to keep up appearances. “

The 1930’s building boom – along with the rise of new consumer industries – was a vital initial factor in shifting Britain’s sluggish economy upwards (until pre-war rearmament came along).  But not all of the new buildings were well-built. Many of the new homes leaked, creaked, and crumbled. Building societies tended to be highly authoritarian towards borrowers and could even be considered beset with corruption and snobbery. A situation tantamount to renting emerged as societies employed weekly collectors of the mortgage to try to prevent mass mortgage default as more and more fairly ordinary working class people with secure jobs turned to mortgage-holding.

“As the tenure of owner-occupation opened up in the 1930s, building societies tried to create a situation very close to renting so that they could control their mortgagors. On the Coney Hall estate, as on many, the builders employed weekly collectors of the mortgage to try to prevent mass mortgage default…”

In March 1934, Elsy and husband Jim, a London cabby, bought a house on Coney Hall estate, twelve miles from Charing Cross in West Wickham, today firmly in the London Borough of Bromley but then thought of as being beyond and into the green belt of Kent. They moved in with their three-year-old daughter, Pamela, and, having a keen sense of humour, named their home “Insanity”. So, their address became, “Borders of Insanity”, Coney Hall Estate, West Wickham, Kent!! More formally and much later it was to become 81, Kingsway, Coney Hall, West Wickham, Kent.

Coney Hall estate was less than ten years old. One of many owner-occupied estates arising during the inter-War housing boom, it was built in the 1930s on hilly farmland south of West Wickham bought by the developers, Morrell Brothers, from Coney Hall Farm.

Following the death of lord of the manor Sir Henry Lennard in 1928, much of his Wickham Court estate was sold to building firm Morrell’s, which was also building on the western side of Petts Wood. Construction work on the estate’s 1,000 homes began in 1933 and the shops of Kingsway Parade were built on the south side of Croydon Road.

In the previous decade, opposition to road developments adjacent to West Wickham Common and Hayes Common had left the area accessible only by steep and narrow lanes. In Coney Hall’s early days. London Transport refused to provide a bus service, and a free private coach service connected the estate to the nearest railway station, Hayes. Many of the houses were in a standard style, with polygonal bay windows and half-timbered gables, and were priced more affordably than elsewhere in West Wickham, although this distinction has since diminished.

The Borders purchased the house, which was built by Messrs E. Morrell, through the Bradford Third Equitable Building Society. As a down payment, they paid £37 in cash – a considerable sum – and signed a mortgage for the remaining £693. The building society, in accordance with their usual practice, paid only £650 to the builders, keeping the rest as part of a pool to pay losses from defaulted mortgages.

Hardly were the Borders installed when they noticed cracks in the ceiling, squeaks in the floors. Soon plaster began to fall, dampness oozed through the walls, the roof sagged and leaked. Later, it was stated in court by Jim Borders that “…the house was in a bad condition.  The whole front … was damp, and the wallpaper fell off the walls by its own weight. The foundations were narrow and did not look strong enough to support the house.  There were cracks in the outer walls and windows in front did not fit.  Two of the windows would not shut and had been in that state for at least two years. The ceilings were cracked and the roof leaked.  The electric wiring was never safe, and the front of the house was cracked in several places and the eaves were open.  The glass on the front door has collapsed, the bath had dropped from its original place, and the fireplace had come away from the walls.  The chimneys were defective and the woodwork was infected by a small insect.  The party wall did not go up to the full height, and he had shaken hands over it with his next door neighbour. That was all he could think of for the moment, he added.” 

While the Borders grumblingly met their monthly four guineas payments, Elsy busied herself helping form first a local and then a national Federation of Tenants’ and Residents’ Association. Some 1,200 residents organised themselves into the Coney Hall District Residents Association and, as a result of the struggle, Elsy Borders later became a leading figure in the FTRA, along with Michael Shapiro as Secretary.

When, in a blaze of local publicity during 1937, the Borders began withholding mortgage payments until some remedy was provided about the building flaws, this prompted as many as five hundred of her neighbours on the estate to also intentionally defaulting on their payments to building societies. After three months, the Bradford Society brought a claim against Jim and Elsy, seeking repossession of the house on the simple grounds that the Borders were three months in arrears with their mortgage repayments.

In turn, the Borders hit back with a massive compensation claim of £500 to cover the accumulated costs of repairs already effected by the couple over the previous three years, a sum approaching the cost of the whole house. Their claim charged misrepresentation of the value of the house, questioned the legality of holding back part of the cost in a pool, while at the same time charging interest on the full amount, and charged the society that it had lent money on an insufficient security and had “wilfully and fraudulently” misled the couple into believing that the house was built of good materials and in efficient manner.

Unable to afford a lawyer, Elsy Borders spent several months reading law in the London School of Economics, and handled the case herself, winning national fame in the mainstream press as “the housewife Portia – the tenants’ KC”. [KC=King’s Counsel, today a QC, Queen’s Counsel.] The case began on 13 January 1938 and focused the attention of the whole nation upon the plight in which hundreds of thousands of house purchasers had found themselves.

Dubbing Elsy `the modern Portia’ was a nod towards Shakespeare’s play, ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and it was the strength of character that Portia displays on stage that made it a role always highly attractive to many notable actresses.  Elsy’s persona in court recalled such memorable stage performances. Portia’s role stresses that, irrespective of its formal legal merits or moral authority, an argument can be won through the employment of eloquence, loopholes and technicalities and the term had often been employed to denote a strong female advocate of sometime uncertain legal arguments. The term was made popular following the 1908 foundation of the New England School of Law, popularly known as the Portia Law School, and a women-only law school. The school’s nick-name was still in general currency until as late as 1969.

For 18 days at the beginning of 1938, the legal battle was fought out in the Chancery Court, which was permanently packed with crowds who came to see the “Portia, the tenants’ KC” in action. Elsy spoke for a stunning eight hours but, despite a great deal of fuss that made it seem as if they had achieved total victory, in fact, the Borders actually won only a part of their case, in so far as the Court’s judgment dismissing both actions gave them clear title to their house, without having to pay any more instalments, but rejected other claims.

The Bradford Building Society’s case failed, Mr Justice Bennett ruled, because it was unable to prove that the mortgage deed it produced as evidence was the one that the Borders had actually signed. But the Borders’ counter-claim failed too, because Elsy couldn’t prove that the building society was responsible for misrepresentation. She appealed, saying the case pitted the purchaser against the jerry-builder, the rogue who throws up a good-looking but poor-quality house and tries to sell it through a building society. Backed by a fighting fund – sympathisers subscribed the significant sum of 10 shillings a head – the Borders’ crusade gathered momentum with a packed public meeting on the Coney Hall estate. Jim Borders warned that their legal struggle might last as long as five years, involving as many as 40 building societies.

Indeed, following the first case, the Federation of Tenants’ and Residents’ Associations prepared writs against 24 “jerry” building societies, including Halifax and Abbey Road, the two biggest. “Portia” Borders now became the heroine for many Britons and aided the movement to found `Tenants’ or Residents’ Defence Leagues’, which were typically led by Communists. As many as 70,000 families were on rent or mortgage strike at one point. Mortgage strikes occurred in all parts of the country, including many suburbs of London, such as Hayes, Felton, Earlswood, Queensbury, Whitton, and Twickenham, and in scores of other places.

In 1939, on the centenary of the great working class Chartist Convention that demanded reforms such as universal suffrage and annual Parliaments, representatives of the 200,000 members of the booming Federation of Tenants’ and Residents’ Associations met for its first national convention.

Birmingham, the recent scene of a victorious strike by 46,000 families living in a municipal housing, was the convention city. The purpose of the meeting was to weld the scattered defence leagues into a national pressure group with a program of slum clearance, Government rent control, increased legal responsibilities for landlords. Although the Labour Party lawyers’ group, the Haldane Society, supplied the movement with free legal advice, no political party other than the Communist Party supported the Federation. Yet the NFTRA had 45 branches and membership of 45,000.

This was all a big deal; Britain had some one thousand building societies, with assets totalling £750,000,000. But the judgement had left all the major issues unresolved, whereupon in February 1939 some 3,000 owner occupiers in outer London went on mortgage strike, causing many houses to be repaired. A measure was rushed through Parliament to legalise the established practice of the building societies in respect of this collateral. Also, whilst it is true that the Borders’ ultimately lost their specific case, the endeavour did truly expose abuses of the building society system and was one of the factors leading to its regulation by an amendment in 1939 to the 1874 Building Societies Act. It was former Communist and left MP, Ellen Wilkinson, who introduced a bill in Parliament to reshape the Act. The 1939 Building Societies Act was passed with the co-operation of the Building Societies’ Association and the Government and it restricted the mortgage security that building societies could accept.

The “Tenants’ KC” was to return to court in March 1939 with a libel suit taken out by her husband Jim against the builders of the Coney Hall estate, Morrell Brothers, for describing him to his building society as “definitely a bad egg”.

Elsy’s opponent in this was Norman Birkett KC, no mean opponent in the least. At this point in time, pince-nezzed Birkett was mostly known as the man who got Wallis Warfield Simpson her divorce so that she could marry Edward VIII but he was also considered as Britain’s top criminal lawyer.  Described as “one of the most prominent barristers of the first half of the 20th century”, and “the Lord Chancellor that never was”, he was later to become Baron Birkett, a Court of Appeal judge and a member of the House of Lords. Birkett was noted for his skill as a speaker, which helped him defend clients with almost watertight cases against them. Birkett’s legal opinion helped shape the final judgment at Nuremberg Trial of the Nazi leaders in 1945.

Yet Birkett found himself more than matched for guile by Elsy, who won the case hands down, with the court awarding Jim Borders £150! Said Elsy, as Norman Birkett KC withdrew from an attempt to cut and thrust which was well parried by her: “I wiped the floor with him! He was bloody wild.” Elsy was described by one newspaper as “a brilliant and resourceful leader. She has insight, a cool head and, above all, a fervour which inspires her colleagues.”  Birkett’s opening observation on cross-examining Elsy was that she was “getting quite accustomed to litigation”. This drew a lightning response from her, widely and approvingly quoted in the newspapers: “This is the first time that I have had the pleasure of meeting you, Mr Birkett”, as laughter drowned the court.

Birkett sought to suggest to Jim Borders that he had only been put up to take the case to court by his domineering wife. “I put it to you,” he declared, “that Mr and Mrs Borders are one and the same person and that person is Mrs Borders.” In response, as Jim’s counsel, Elsy retorted: “There may not be any difference between Mr and Mrs Birkett but there is a difference between Mr and Mrs Borders.”  Birkett’s wife was widely portrayed by high society gossip columnists as a domineering woman, so even the judge burst out laughing and the court dissolved into momentary anarchy.

The Borders’ crusade against the power of the building societies was only finally extinguished as the phony war was began to turn to blitz.  The case was dragged to the House of Lords in 1940 by Bradford Third Equitable. There, the following year when judgement was handed down, predictably, the honour of building societies was redeemed and Bradford totally exonerated. The mortgage strikes promptly fizzled out. Nonetheless, this had been a moment of serious challenge to the conception of the property-owning democracy that was at the heart of Tory and Liberal thinking on housing – mass mortgage ownership would only be kick-started again in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Even though the legal outcome as regards collateral security, responsibility for the condition of mortgaged property, and for builders’ descriptions of new houses favoured building societies, remedies had to be found. In the short term, the campaign – and the associated struggles of rental tenants –  shook the very foundations of the political and economic basis of housing policy in Britain. As Claud Cockburn later wrote: “The whole freewheeling apparatus of the boom, the ramshackle financial machine which powered the productivity and profit of it, appeared to be in danger.”

Sadly, the Borders lost possession of their home through these crafty legal moves by the building society. In late 1940, as the blitz progressed, Elsy evacuated with daughter Pamela to Exeter, where she died in 1971. Her marriage to Jim ultimately failed, and neither ever owned a house again. Jim trained as a barrister, but died almost penniless in 1966.

He was uncertain about the long-term value of the struggle he and Elsy had gone through. When the people of Coney Hall presented him with a clock, he chose as an inscription lines from Southey which were intended in the circumstances to be ironic, although few appreciated this:

And everybody praised the Duke,
Who this great fight did win.
‘But what good came of it at last?’
Quoth little Peterkin.
‘Why that I cannot tell,’ said he,
‘But ’twas a famous victory.’

Elsy’s lasting legacy in the world of law is to be the by-word for what constitutes a fraud. In the case of Bradford Third Equitable Benefit Building Society v. Borders [1941], Viscount Maugham’s explanations of his view of what establishes the tort, or civil wrong, of deceit or fraud were not only accepted by the court, they have been used as precedent in countless cases from that time to this very day to establish liability or not.  Arguably, had Elsy not been previously so eloquent, the Viscount may not have been wheeled out by Bradford’s solicitors to issue his fine definition of fraud. Of course, the ultimate in judge-made law is the House of Lords and it was its judgement in 1941 that provides this `legacy’ of Elsy’s.

It is today taught in legal training that it was held in Bradford v Borders (1941) that the maker of a false statement must have intended for the claimant to have relied upon the statement if a tort is to be established. Moreover, the main difference between suing in deceit and in negligence was addressed by reference to the caps on remoteness of damages. In deceit, to mark the law’s disapproval of fraud, the defendant (in Elsy’s case the building society) is liable for all losses flowing directly from the tort, whether they were foreseeable or not.

But, Maugham’s definition also establishes that a common law action of deceit requires a representation of fact (her expectation that the home she was paying a mortgage on was sound) made by words, or conduct – but not silence or omission – made with a knowledge that it is wilfully false and with the intention that it should be acted upon so as to result in damage sustained by acting on a false statement. In other words, that it was necessary all along in English law to prove that Bradford Third knew that they were funding an unsound home. Effectively, the Borders’ claim that Bradford had “wilfully and fraudulently misled” them, was ruled by the House of Lords as something that could virtually never be established in the business of mortgage lending.

Elsy did not ultimately fail in her campaign, as some have suggested, but the British establishment did simply change the rules to favour themselves. Restrictions were put on the ability of the developers to sell badly built homes – though this is a struggle new homeowners are still going through today. Mortgage strike anyone?

This post was partially nicked from Graham Stevenson’s excellent site

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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

St. Pancras and the Rents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tenants Organise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tenants’ Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Evictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Final Defeat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could the Tenants Have Won?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Today in 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

Today in London’s housing history: Ronan Point explosion kills 5, Newham, 1968.

During the Second World War 25% of the housing in West Ham was destroyed by enemy bombing, (some 14,000 houses being destroyed and 500 acres of land cleared). Most of the houses that survived were in poor condition and were without modern amenities. After the War the Council implemented modern building programmes but by 1965 when the London Borough of Newham came into being, there were around 8,000 names on the Council’s housing waiting list. This was a situation repeated all across the country.

High rise blocks seemed to offer the solution. Built using new, fast industrial building techniques, which used a high degree of prefabrication, tower blocks sprang up all across the UK, assembled from pre-fabricated concrete panels lifted into position by crane and held together by bolts. ‘System-built’ blocks – an easily assembled structure “more like a giant meccano set than a work of architecture.” – were an easy way to build lots of houses quickly, and in the year previous to the disaster, 470,000 new flats and houses had been built- the largest number recorded.

The sheer scale of this production meant that architects were often not directly involved in the production of these blocks – this was considered more of an engineer’s job. But in some ways the massive sprouting of tower blocks, estates, huge housing schemes, owed much to the utopian ideas of modernist architects like Le Corbusier, who envisioned self-contained egalitarian living machines that would enrich their residents lives… Now whether or not these visions were flawed (a debate that runs and runs), the way the watered down version of it actually put into practice was a top-down, hierarchical, one-size fits all, like a car-crusher for people, jamming them into concrete boxes and expecting them to be grateful. It wasn’t long before the flaws in the building processes blew up – literally – in people’s faces.

In Newham the first stage of the programme started with the demolition of the Clever Road area of Custom House. Ronan Point in Butchers Road was one of nine identical tower blocks that were built. Over 200 feet tall, with 22 floors and containing 110 flats, Ronan Point was handed over to Newham Council on 11 March 1968 and by the second week of May only eight flats remained vacant. Replacing a previous generation of slum housing, small back to back houses with outside toilets, the new spacious flats with underfloor heating seemed at first to be a new start. It’s fair to say that politicians of all stripes felt that working class people should be grateful to be granted a chance to move to the new street in the sky, didn’t much care for their opinions or take notice of their problems, and did their best to push cost cutting when they could. Many were also on the take from the developers building the blocks, and turned a blind eye to massive shortcomings in their construction.

On 16th May, 1968, Mrs Ivy Hodge wandered into the kitchen of her 18th floor flat in Ronan Point. She leaned over her cooker and struck a match. Instantly, an explosion blew out the pre-cast concrete panels which formed the side of the building. The entire end of the block collapsed like a house of cards. Mrs. Hodge survived, but five other people died. 17 were injured.

The explosion happened when most people were still in bed but if it had happened an hour or so later when many when people would have been in their kitchens having breakfast, the death toll could have been much higher. Remarkably, Miss Hodge survived the incident and was later treated in hospital for shock, cuts and burns.

The inquiry into the cause of the disaster found that “gas had escaped into the flat due to a sub-standard brass nut joining the flexible connection from the gas cooker to the gas supply pipe. The explosion occurred when Miss Hodge struck a match to light her cooker.”

Ronan Point and other system-builds had as much to do with politics as with architecture. Municipal leaders saw high-density housing as a means of preventing population drain: the more people they governed, the stronger their city’s position would be vis-a-vis Whitehall. And since the 1956 Housing Act introduced subsidies to local councils for every floor they built over five storeys, there existed a clear financial incentive to build high.

Ronan Point was in effect a visible symbol of post-war political rhetoric. When people saw these blocks going up quickly, they could be sure that whichever government was in power was striving to fulfil its promises to tackle the housing problem.

Unfortunately, quality control, certainly at Ronan Point, was almost completely absent. When local architect Sam Webb examined joints within the structure he found them to be filled with newspapers rather than concrete. Instead of the walls resting on a continuous bed of mortar they rested on levelling bolts, two per panel, and rainwater was allowed to seep into the joints. The whole weight of the building was being taken on these bolts, which were under enormous pressure as a result. This caused the load bearing concrete wall panels to crack.

The inquiry recommended that “gas supplies should be disconnected from those existing tall buildings, the design of which renders them liable to progressive collapse, until they have been strengthened.”

Politically, Ronan Point also undermined careers of several prominent local and national politicians, as the press began to investigate connections between them and companies which specialised in system-built tower blocks.

Ronan Point also later served as a crucial point for tenants organising. Moved back into the block when repairs were made, told it was now safe and fit to live in, it took several years, but a concerted campaign eventually forced the council to close the block , rehouse them and demolish Ronan Point in 1986.The entire Freemason estate has now been replaced with two-storey terraces. In the face of a system that ignored their views to impose an alienated way of life in cheap shit flats badly put together, Newham tenants turned it around…

Today, other pressures are now central for London’s social housing tenants. The determination of the very classes that imposed Ronan Point and its ilk, on those they considered fit only to be pushed around like counters, is now to destroy social housing almost entirely, and rid the city of as much of the working class who cannot pay vastly inflated rents and mortgages as they can. But the ‘counters’ are standing up, refusing to be manipulated… interestingly, a trend that also might be said to have its spark in Newham, with Focus E15 …  is a new tenants movement beginning?

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

Today in London’s housing history: rent strikes start in the East End, 1938…

2016: housing in London spirals into a morass of high rents, inflated property prices, homelessness and housing benefit cuts… Resistance is growing…

A time to remember that those who face this before us didn’t just take it lying down… To remember some of the many tenants who organised rent strikes against greedy landlords charging exorbitant rents for run-down and over crowded housing, back in the 1930s…

In the 1930s and the terrible housing conditions in the area began to ignite discontent and collective action. Much of the grassroots work organizing tenants at this time was alter claimed to originate with members of the Communist Party (CP), who were strong and active in the area at the time – but members of the Labour Party and other activists were also involved.

In 1938-9 the struggle became huge, as mass rent strikes were organized in the borough of Stepney, which then included this area. The CP were heavily involved, and a useful short account of the rent strikes can be found in Phil Piratin’s book, Our Flag Stays Red. Piratin was a local CP member, who later became a CP councillor and MP. Two years of organizing among tenants in various streets and blocks came to fruition with rent strikes that erupted in 1938. Between August 1938 and mid-1939, tenants organized, refused to pay rent, and physically resisted violent eviction attempts.

“Locally there were rent strikes during 1938-39 in Hogarth mansions, Brunswick Buildings, Pelham Street, Montague House, Hawkins, Estate, Langdale Mansions, Brady Street Mansions, Juniper Street, Commercial Mansions, Lydia Street, Fieldgate Mansions, Duckett Street, Ocean Street, Philchurch Street, Eileen mansions, Bromehead Square, Fenton Street, Mariner Street, Anthony Street, Settles Street, Flower and Dean Street and Golding Street… The rent strikes though, spread further afield, and soon there similar outbreaks in Bethnal Green, Clapham, Willesden, Finsbury, Poplar, Bermondsey, Paddington, Battersea, Highgate, Norwood and Shoreditch… And in Birmingham, Huddersfield, Liverpool, Aberdeen, Sunderland Oxford and Sheffield…

In the autumn of 1937 the Stepney Tenants’ Defence League was established… and began to deal with the individual rent and repair problems of hundreds of tenants… Tenants’ Committees were set up in blocks of buildings and streets. The individual issues of the tenants were dealt with by the Tenants’ Committee, acting as a kind of shop stewards’ committee and dealing direct with the landlord. The tenants were gradually gaining confidence and organisational ability ready for the big struggles ahead.

The actions varied. The tenants were organised and formulated their demands. All kinds of repairs and decorations were specified, and reductions in rents were demanded. The rents varied considerably, particularly between controlled and decontrolled houses. The law defining controlled houses was incomprehensible to the tenants, and the landlords did not hesitate to take advantage of this to defraud them. Irrespective, however, of the law, demands were made for reductions of the decontrolled to the level of the controlled rents.

In some cases… the fight was bitter. The Brunswick Buildings tenants were out on strike for eleven weeks. Langdale Street Buildings and Brady Street Mansions, both owned by slum landlords, were on strike for five months. These latter battles were particularly fierce. The landlords were firm and brazen. They refused to negotiate and after a while issued eviction orders to some of the most active tenants. The battle now began in earnest. Barbed-wire barricades were placed around the entire blocks. Pickets were on duty day and night. Only those who lived in the buildings, or could give reason for entering, or who were known tradesmen, were allowed to enter.
One day in June the bailiffs, with the police, decided to act. They managed to gain access into Langdale Mansions. The alarm was sounded. The police drew their truncheons. The men and women of the buildings defended themselves with saucepans, rolling-pins, sticks, and shovels. The police were brutal, particularly in their treatment of the women. A cordon was placed round the building. More police, a score of them mounted, were called up. They broke open the doors and forcibly removed the tenants. By the end of the morning the news had spread throughout Stepney. The police, using the dirty tactics not unknown in Stepney, waited until the men had gone to work, and then attacked the women…. The men-folk left their work to come home… Some workshops closed down. Thousands of angry Stepney people gathered round Langdale Mansions. The police. sensing the feeling. withdrew. Immediately. the Stepney Tenants’ Defence League loudspeaker van toured the area. calling a meeting… When the meeting ended they marched to the Leman Street Police Station to protest… There was some rough scuffling. A number of arrests were made… the Stepney Tenants’ Defence League, immediately issued a statement that the 7500 members of the League would join in a solidarity strike with the Langdale Mansions and Brady Street Mansions tenants, unless their demands were met. The tenants themselves were now filled with indignation, bitterness, and hatred of all who supported the landlords. Messages of sympathy came from many prominent citizens and leaders of the Labour movement… by Friday of the same week the landlords had caved in: £1,000 worth of reductions were obtained; £10.000 worth of arrears were ignored; £2.500 to he spent on repairs immediately. £1,500 each succeeding year. The twenty-one weeks’ rent strike, bitter, bloody, had been won. Other landlords wishing to avoid trouble now became quite amenable. They, too, had learnt the lesson of Langdale Mansions.

These struggles became front-page news. In March a conference had been held in Stepney of representatives of London organisations and delegates from the Labour movement to decide on the co-ordination of the London tenants’ struggles. Now the National Tenants’ Federation began to organise a nation-wide convention. It was to be held in Birmingham in July, when representatives of every town and city in the country were to demand a new code for tenants and residents, a new Rent Act, and new standards of conditions to be provided by the landlords. A ” Housing Charter” was drawn up, and a campaign begun. Labour leaders were drawn into the struggle. At the great demonstration held in Hyde Park late in July the speakers included Aneurin Bevan and Ellen Wilkinson of the Labour Party, and Elsie Borders. Michael Shapiro. and Tubby Rosen of the Communist Party. It was the latter who had done the work and the organisation, who had faced the bailiffs and the batons. Bevan and Wilkinson, as usual, were responding to the mood of the masses. The campaign was reaching its height, even during these menacing pre-war days and weeks. but then came the war and new problems had to be faced.

At the very commencement of the war the Government immediately introduced legislation to ensure rent control. Rents were frozen at the levels obtaining on 1 September 1939. The Government undoubtedly learned from the great Clydeside rent struggles in 1915, but a much nearer warning were the great rent struggles which were taking place during the months preceding the war.” (Phil Piratin)

Further reading:

Phil Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red. Read a PDF online

Joe Jacobs, Out of the Ghetto.

Henry Srebrnik, Class, Ethnicity and Gender Intertwined: Jewish women and the East London Rent Strikes, 1935-1940 (Women’s History Review, Volume 4, Number 3, 1995)

Sarah Glynn, East End Immigrants and the Battle for Housing: a comparative study of political mobilisation in the Jewish and Bengali communities (Journal of Historical Geography 31 pp 528545) (2005)

More very interesting stuff on rent strikes can be found at www.sarahglynn.net

A past tense pamphlet on an earlier rent strike, in Glasgow during World War 1, can be found online at http://alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/past tense publications.html

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