Today in London squatting history: RampART squat social centre evicted, Whitechapel, 2009.

“After over 5 years and many eviction scares it has finally happened… 3 people and a dog were inside when police attempted to chainsaw the door. They also had climbers going up to the roof conjuring up memories of the raid during the G20 in April. Police are blocking the entrance to all three roads leading to the social centre with vans and their bodies. They are handing out a piece of paper with a telephone number to call to get belongings out of the building.”

RampART (also variously known as rampART Social Centre, rampART creative centre and social space) was a squatted social centre in London’s East End, opened in May 2004 and (located at 15-17 Rampart Street, London E1 2LA). Originally squatted as a crash space for pople coming from outside London/from other countries to attend the 2004 European Social Forum events, the centre was established in a derelict building in Rampart Street which was previously used as an Islamic school for girls, then left empty for two years before being squatted along with the vacant houses in the block. The project was initiated by a mixture of artists, community groups and political activists. During the European Social Forum rampART accommodated over 50 European visitors as well as laying on free food and a range of entertainment, as well as hosting the Forum’s Home Education Forum and acted as homebase for the European Creative Forum and the Laboratory of Insurrectional Imagination.

According to one account of rampART’s founding:

“Every social event or project, has as many versions as people participating in it.

My own personal version of Rampart Social Centre would be that it was born, together with many other squats in 2004, out of the need to house hundreds of attendants to he European Social Forum and adjacent alternatives.

The meetings for the preparation of said forum did acknowledge the need, and the problem of accommodating such a big number of people in the most expensive city in the UK, probably Europe.

But the possibility of housing them in squats was mercilessly laughed at in the ESF meetings.

Regardless, tens of anarchist and otherwise active activists set on occupying as many empty building as possible, as big and stable as possible. All the buildings squatted as a result had been empty for a very long time, left to rot by owners and developers in their speculation activities, because usually the hard bare land was higher market value than a whole building, especially if “too many” repairs are needed and the planning permission for demolition and new development had been granted.

The ESF was a success, and thousands of attendees were accommodated in legitimate and lawful accommodation while only a few hundred stayed in squats like Rampart. But it remains regarded today as an unreported odyssey, that with practically no owner resources, a whole non-hierarchical organisation managed to create accommodation for so many people for over a week.

The media never knew, or reported about this; it only focused over the money than the then London mayor was spending in the events and accommodating ‘lefties’ from all over europe.

Same as speculation and what it does to buildings and communities does not get reported.

In London’s most ‘desirable’ areas, buildings are left empty for years, roofs smashed to accelerate their decay, some times squatters gain entry to highlight the madness of having empty buildings and, at the same time, homeless people. They delay the process for two weeks, two months… then get evicted and the owners can continue with the destruction and subsequent sale to other business for more profit because it is their property, and they can do what they please with it.

So squats do not usually stay squatted for very long. The most exciting squat I remember was in Aberdeen Road, in 2001. Friend called ##ohf6Kie## talked about it thus: “I am amazed it is still there running, after two months. We are most used to one week, two weeks. We were all over the moon when Stoke Newington lasted for three weeks. But two months!”

So, three weeks after the end of the ESF, many squats that had been opened for the accommodation of events and punters had been evicted. All but Rampart.

Rampart survived many years and provided space and resources for many good noble social causes, like rooms for meetings, rooms for computers, even a video editing suite, a pirate radio station, and a whole hacklab – a room full of computers, all gathered from dumps and repaired and put back into use for workshops on how to produce documents, books, radio programmes and news … donated or saved from landfills.

They were many years, thanks to a building that, had it not been for the free dedication of a few, admittedly very privileged people, who could afford and chose to dedicate themselves full time to a project that did not make them any money nor friends, instead of working in paid jobs, it would have rotten until falling down in the pursuit of capitalist profit by the owner, who would rather wait for speculation to give them good money rather than let people use it in a context of rampant homelessness. Now it is the home of groups like Bicicology, the hacklab and ours, migrant support.”

[Nicked from here]

Within its first year, the building had hosted over 100 cultural and political events – placing the rampART firmly on the activist map of London. At this point the Whitechapel area was home to the London Activist Resource Centre and a renaissance of sorts was occurring at the long-running Freedom anarchist Bookshop nearby; rampART grew into both a local network of activist spaces, as well as being linked to wider networks across London and beyond…

The building underwent transformation from the moment it was opened – a partition wall on the top floor was removed to create a space large enough for banner painting and the once empty building was soon bursting at the seams with furniture and equipment collected from the street.

The centre was run as an autonomous space by an open collective, and was open to all to use on the basis of equality for all. Projects were run on an entirely voluntary basis by the people involved, in a spirit of co-operation, solidarity and mutual aid.

rampART’s constitution stated that:

“The rampART is run collectively. Any one is free to get involved or make proposals relating to use of the space by come along to one of the weekly meetings which are held Mondays after 6pm. We attempt to make all major decisions relating use of the space by building a consensus, both out of a desire to avoid hierarchies and also in recognition that decisions are more likely to be carried out when decided by consensus.”

The space and the projects based there were funded day-to-day by donations given by the users, or by raising funds through benefit events such as gigs, cafés or film nights.

rampART was open for five and a half years, hosting meetings, screenings, performances, exhibitions and benefit gigs. During that period the building and resources evolved to adapt to the demands of its users.

An account of rampART written during its existence recounts some of the practical work done to reshape the space:

“With meetings, rehearsals, workshops, film screenings, benefit gigs and other performances, the space was quickly put to good use and evolved. PeaceNews volunteers created a wheelchair accessible toilet and a ramp that could be placed at the entrance and windows on the ground floor were bricked for sound proofing after the weekly samba band practice led to a noise abatement order.

Different layout were tried in the hall and modular stage created. The kitchen was rearranged to make it a more practical space and a permanent serving area built. Further work on these improvements were put on hold when the local authorities started correspondence about health and safety inspections. A series of risk assessments and visits from the fire brigade followed, then emergency lighting, smoke alarms, extinguishers and safety notices sprung up around the building. The biggest job was the construction of a new fire exit as previously there had been only one exit from the whole building.

The highly effective sound proofing was seriously compromised by the new fire exit and a second noise abatement order was recently served despite the best efforts of the collective and most of the event organisers. Most of the complaints, however, related not to music from the building but noise and nuisance generated from people in street during and after events and this has proved to be a much harder problem to solve than soundproofing.

Perhaps one of the biggest factors to shape the rampART has been it’s proximity to the London Action Resource Center (LARC) . There has been virtual no interest in office space at the rampART, with groups preferring the long term security offered by LARC. Groups have tended to prefer using LARC for regular meetings while larger one off meetings often end up at rampART along with benefit gigs and screenings. It’s strength as a gig venue has led to a bit of a party culture in terms of proposals, something that the collective is keen to keep in balance.

The need to keep noise off the street during events has led to work making the roof garden a more attractive place for people to go for a breath of fresh air or a cigarette. A covered area with seating has been built and railings set up around the edge but it remains to be seen whether this is a practical solution. Excessive noise from the roof is still likely to generate complaints and in the past, providing access to the roof during events has resulted in major damage to the tiled area of the roof when drunks have dislodged slates, creating leaks which have bought down the ceilings and destroyed equipment.

Attempting to encourage more events other than parties, the collective recently made the biggest changes to the building to date. Although there have been various large meetings and even weekend long gathering at the rampART (for example, the last few months has seen public meetings relating to DSEi and organising meetings and gatherings relating to both the No Border and Climate Camp), many people have commented that the rampART was too dark for such meetings. To address the problem walls on the first floor have now been removed to make a large, light and airy room about two thirds the size of the downstairs hall and good for meetings of up to 50 or 60 people.

The community served by the rampART has generally not been a local one, but a community of politically motivated people from around the capital and beyond. There have also been hundreds of guests from all over the world enjoying free crash space while attending events in London. For example, seventy Bolivians stayed earlier this summer.”

Some projects that ran from rampart included amateur theatre, art installations, acoustic concerts, weekly film nights including Indymedia London film festivals, eg the Caminos De Resistencia (Paths Of Resistance) and the Middle East Film Festival), poetry, photography exhibitions, political discussions and meetings, skill sharing and workshop including Samba, radio, juggling, banner making, computer skills training, screen printing…

Other resources included a Free shop, info library, media lab, wireless Internet, kitchen / café. rampART had a library of donated books, as well as a BookCrossing zone.

Other examples of what took place at rampART: the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army held training sessions at the centre; and the UK No Border network held a gathering at rampART from 10 to 11 October 2009, 7 days before the eventual eviction.

“Regular users include the samba band, the radical theory reading group, the womens cafe, food not bombs and the cinema collective. The 24/7 rampART radio stream that started with coverage of the European Social Forum has expired a long time ago, resurrected occasionally for live coverage of major mobilisation like the G8 or DSEi. Other radio collectives now use the space to broadcast their weekly live shows – Wireless FM which came from St Agnes Place and Dissident Island Disks.”

In November 2007 property developers planned to partially demolish the squatted houses next to the social centre and build three new properties at the back. rampART itself was under no immediate threat and regular activities continued as normal; however in December 2007 the centre received eviction papers. The date for eviction was set at 3 January 2008.

The day after the April 2009 G-20 London summit protests, which had seen the death of Ian Tomlinson, the rampART squat was raided by a large force of police, (240 according to one account) who pushed the occupants about, pointed tasers at people., and made a couple of arrests. [here’s an account of the raids there and at other centres the day after the G20.

Despite the  December 2007 possession order, the centre survived a year and a half, before finally evicted at 5:30am, October 15th, by 45 police, bailiffs and a priest(?!) chainsaw was used to enter the building. Climbers broke in through the roof, and a chainsaw was used to cut in downstairs.

After the eviction, the collective, still named “the rampART collective”, stayed together and temporarily moved to a new space in Walworth, South London where they continued to hold weekly meetings.

A rampART statement after the eviction:

“Priests and Chainsaws Revisited

At 5am on Thursday, 15th October, 2009, the rampART Creative Centre and Social Space was evicted by 45 police with chainsaws and, remarkably, a Church of England vicar. Three people and a dog were inside.

The eviction marks the end of nearly five and a half years of occupation, during which rampART has served as a landmark for the social centres movement in London and a venue for a diverse range of events including political meetings, workshops, info cafes, fundraising parties and the London Freeschool.

The eviction, significantly, happened on the same day that Non Commercial House, a freeshop operating out of a building in nearby Commercial Street, lost their case against eviction and a week after the collective occupying 2a Belgrade Road in Stoke Newington successfully defended the space from eviction by council bailiffs.

This may be a coincidence, but with the London Olympics less than three years away and in a time of crisis for a city that depends on financial services and tourism, it isn’t difficult to come to the conclusion that squatted properties are being targeted in a concerted scouring of the city, setting an example so others dare not even try.

Social centres are important and not only because they provide space for political organising, D-I-Y culture and free education outside of the institutional constraints that are increasingly limiting free expression and the development of cultural alternatives. Squatting draws attention both to the dimensions of homelessness in one of the world’s richest cities, and the consequences of rampant property speculation (in 2008, there were 100, 000 empty homes in London). It also draws attention to the lack of facilities where people with a diversity of interests can meet and socialise without paying
exorbitant prices and contributing to capitalist expansion, or fitting into paternalistic, box-ticking government agendas. More importantly perhaps, the occupation of commercial and government owned premises blocks the flow of capital which homogenises cities and their populations.

The free spaces of the city are increasingly few and increasingly under siege. This is why it is vital that we continue to organise and exploit the empty properties which the current recession has made available. rampART was sited in a part of London which has witnessed a history of struggle for autonomous expression and the rights of workers and exploited minorities. At a time when global capitalist expansion and the rise of neo-liberal ideology has destroyed the lives of many peoples around the world, it is essential that that struggle continues.

rampART was not just a building but a convergence of committed individuals and groups willing to give their time and energy to creatively demonstrating that it is possible to effect change. That energy has not dissipated. We will not be beaten. rampART is dead. Long live rampART.”

Something of rampART can still be seen at their old website

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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Today in London freethought history: the first stone of South Place Chapel laid, 1822

If you’ve ever been to a meeting, conference, concert, lecture, bookfair or debate, (or any one of a myriad of other events) at London’s Conway Hall… You might be interested in the history of the organisation that gave birth to it. Although Conway Hall as an institution itself dates back to the 1920s, the tangled skein of the South Place Ethical Society goes back nearly a century and a half before that…

The South Place Ethical Society evolved from its beginnings as a dissident Unitarian church congregation in 1787, known then as a non-conforming sect of the Philadelphians or Universalists. They had distinguished themselves by a refusal to accept the doctrine of sinners suffering punishment in an eternal hell. This marked the beginning of a long and winding development from universalism and unitarianism to humanism, the position which the Society had reached by the end of the nineteenth century.

By 1793 the society had its first premises in Bishopsgate. Their next doctrinal step was to reject the idea of the Trinity – this led to many of its members departing, in the first of several raucous schisms that was to hone its ideas…

In 1817 William Johnson Fox became minister of the congregation.

Fox was a sometimes challenging minister, pushing the congregation and provoking them. After Richard Carlile was prosecuted and jailed for blasphemy for selling Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason in 1819, Fox suggested that the chapel should have stood up to defend him.

Plans were put in motion for them to build their own premises, and a site was chosen at South Place, in Finsbury Square.

Having already raised over £600 towards the cost of the building, the Committee for Erecting a New Chapel looked to raise additional funds by asking for subscriptions from the congregation. Some gave relatively small amounts, such as John Mardon who contributed £1. Whereas others, such as E. Bricknell, who pledged £100, promised more significant contributions. In total £2117.2d.4s was raised through subscriptions.

In May 1822 the first stone was laid. Their Unitarian Chapel took two years to complete, and was opened in 1824. By a deed dated February 1, 1825, its chapel was to be held by trustees on trust to permit it to be used “for the public worship of one God even the Father and for instruction in the Christian religion,” as professed by the society.

Through the early decades of the nineteenth century, the chapel became known as “a radical gathering-place”. The Unitarian congregations, like the Quakers, supported female equality – under the leadership of Fox, the South Place chapel went further, opening its pulpit to activists such as Anna Wheeler, one of the first women to campaign for feminism at public meetings in England, who spoke there in 1829 on “Rights of Women.”

In 1831, Fox bought the journal of the Unitarian Association, the Monthly Repository, of which he was already editor; he helped to transform it from a religious into a general radical journal. Under Fox’s editorship it published articles that gradually alienated the Unitarians, such as one advocating divorce (on the grounds of women’s rights) in 1833. Literary figures as luminary as Tennyson and Browning  contributed verse in the Repository, and regular authors included John Stuart Mill, Leigh Hunt, Harriet Martineau, Henry Crabb Robinson and a fearless iconoclast, William Bridges Adams, whose outspoken series of articles on marriage, divorce, and other social questions (along with those of Fox) split the South Place congregation again.

Among the causes with which Fox identified himself and the Society were the spread of popular education and the repeal of the Corn Laws. In 1847 he entered Parliament whilst remaining minister at South Place for several more years.

In later decades, the chapel moved away from Unitarianism, changing its name first to the South Place Religious Society, and after abandoning prayer in 1869, changed its name to the South Place Ethical Society.

The most famous of Fox’s successors running the chapel was an American, Moncure Conway, after whom the Society‘s present home is named. Conway, raised in Virginia in the US, had been an active anti-slavery activist, although he had two brothers serving in the Confederate army during the civil war, and came to England in 1863 on a speaking tour to raised support for the Union side.

Conway took over a minister at the South Place Chapel from 1864 until 1897, except for a break of seven years (from 1885 to 1892) during which he returned to America and wrote a famous biography of Thomas Paine. Conway abandoned theism after his son Emerson died in 1864. Under his leadership, the South Place Society continued to move toward a more humanistic Freethought. Moreover, women were allowed to preach at South Place Chapel, among them Annie Besant, secularist and socialist, who was a friend of Conway’s wife.

Conway and the South Place congregation continued to evolve further from the beliefs of the Unitarian Church. Conway remained the leader of South Place until 1886, when Stanton Coit took his place. Under Coit’s leadership South Place was renamed to the South Place Ethical Society. However Coit’s tenure ended in 1892 after a power struggle, and Conway resumed leadership until his death.

In 1868 Conway was one of four speakers at the first open public meeting in support of women’s suffrage in Great Britain.

The Society occupied the Finsbury site for 102 years, until 1926, after which it moved to Conway Hall, in Red Lion Square, a building which was opened in 1929. Today, a plaque commemorating the South Place chapel can be seen on the building at River Plate House (nos. 12–13) which stands on the original site.

Conway Hall has hosted more radical events than can possibly be ever counted…Campaigners exposing undercover police officers infiltrating campaigns for social change in the last fifty years generally reckon Conway Hall to be the most spied-on building in the UK – certainly a fair whack of the Special Demonstration Squad and other secret police units have passed though its doors. Nor to mention some of MI5 by all accounts… Hence an event at Conway Hall coming up in July: 50 Years of Resistance: Despite Police Surveillance

Conway Hall remains a venue for radical meetings and events…

More information about the building of Conway Hall 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The South London Gay Centre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

South London Gay Liberation Theatre Group

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brixton Riots

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

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

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

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

Some of this post was nicked from here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Dear Brothers + Sisters,

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

Love Bethnal Rouge Collective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doin’ the Bethnal Rouge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(the following week somebody slyly added a missing footnote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘And on the Third Day They Came’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bethnal Rouge continued for a few months after these events.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Times have moved on, as they tend to do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London’s squatting history, 2013: the 491 Gallery closes. Leytonstone.

The 491 Gallery now lies in a pile of rubble between Grove Green Road and the M11 Link Road…. …but for 12 years it ran as a squatted social centre and multi-disciplinary gallery in Leytonstone, Northeast London. Taking its name from its street number, 491 Grove Green Road was home to a community-led art organisation between 2001 to 2013, and served as an exhibition space for a diverse range of artists of different origins working in varied media. It contained a range of art and music studios, which were used to host workshops, classes and musical rehearsals. 491 was subsequently demolished in 2016.

The building was originally a factory – at one point making safes. (During its 2016 demolition the workers carrying out the heavy roof beams found there was still an enormous safe inside.) It was later used as a storage space and warehouse for materials being used to construct the M11 Link Road, the A12 that cut through Leytonstone and the surrounding areas. Hundreds of houses were demolished to make way for this road, despite mass squatting of the emptied buildings, and fierce resistance, including the famous stand at Claremont Road.

Unlike the rest of the surrounding buildings, 491 and a few neighbouring houses were not subject to compulsory purchase orders and demolition for the A12 site. When in late 2000 the building was abandoned, it became occupied by a group of homeless drug users, who remained in it for some six months. Within a month of their leaving, the building was reoccupied by a group of artists, who spent the next several years turning it into a community space. They found human shit, drug works, and swastikas daubed on the walls, along with a collection of bags and purses thrown into the backyard by muggers who dumped them there after emptying them. The squatters set about clearing up the mounds of rubble outside, cleaned and painted the inside and, once the repairs were complete, threw open the doors and invited the local community to use the space for artistic and environmental endeavours.

The neighbouring building, formerly houses, was also occupied, and named Vertigo, after the film by Alfred Hitchcock, a famous resident of Leytonstone.

The 491 Gallery and Vertigo collectively collaborated on hosting regular exhibitions and offered studio space for musicians to use. They were maintained largely through small donations made by the public. Transport for London, the 491 building’s legal owner at the time, agreed to allow the continued use of the building, although no formal arrangement was made with the occupants. The owner of the Vertigo building allowed its use for an annual peppercorn rent of £1. The Gallery regularly hosted art exhibitions, themed events and film screenings, such as a Transition Towns screening of The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil.

Following a fire in 2008, the Vertigo building was rebuilt throughout by its residents, and in 2009 was decorated with an exterior mural of Hitchcock to add to the artistic tributes in the local area. Local artists as well as those from further afield exhibited art in the 491 gallery. Those who could afford paid a modest fee that subsidised those who couldn’t afford to pay to display. The building hosted conferences, concerts, art exhibitions, film screenings, concerts and dramatic performances, and offer workshops in everything from life drawing to comedy, sculpting, yoga, technology, and photography; and had the area’s only music rehearsal studio for bands.

As one local commented after the demolition: “This kind of squatted social space links back to the London I knew when I first came to live here in 1989 and is slowly fading away. There are groups that still operate social spaces, sometimes in conjunction with the property owners using meanwhile leases, but they are necessarily temporary without time to grow roots into the community. The 491 Gallery was a real presence in the Leytonstone community and it’s very sad to see it go to be replaced with yet another uniform block of flats.”

There is more on 491 including lots of pictures at: http://491gallery.org/main.html

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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London squatting history: Camberwell Squat Centre/Black Frog evicted, 2007

“On the 10th March 2007, we climbed a high ladder and entered the empty building at 190-192 Warham Street in Camberwell, South London. It took five minutes to put life back into a building that had been left empty for 9 months.”

Camberwell, South London, has played host to a number of squatted venues and social/political spaces and centres over the last few decades.

We aren’t going to talk here about the old Dickie Dirts store (squatted four times for planning Stop the City, gigs and more), the Labour Club, Groove Park, the old Muesli Factory, Area 7, Crawford Street, and later the Ratstar, the Library House… Just some of the ones we can recall…

One squatted space in Camberwell several of your past tense mob were involved in was briefly in existence from March to August 2007, at 190-192 Warham Street, off Camberwell New Road, opposite the union Tavern (and also opposite the site of the old Duke of York pub, once used for meetings by a local group of the National Union of the Working Classes in the early 1830s).

The old Good Food Cafe in Warham Street was squatted in march 2007, by a group of mainly anarchist rebels and troublemakers living locally, some who had been involved in many alternative, radical and activists projects for years (including longer-running squats and social centres such as Brixton’s 121 Centre, 56a Infoshop, use Your Loaf in Deptford…) plus some folk who had been around slightly less time. Your typist had previously known the place as a greasy café – very greasy. Also very small. It had closed down the previous year, and lay empty and unused.
After months eyeing it up but having no time, some of us jumped the tracks and climbed in through an upstairs window using a ladder.

“As we descended the stairs, we began to put a reality to the dream we had all dreamed as we watched the building sit lifeless for all those months. We dreamed of opening up the dead lifeless space and bringing in living bodies. Bodies that could talk, have ideas, disagree, learn how to fix up and build a living space. Bodies that could share the space and enjoy it and extend an open invitation to others to be part of the new life in the building. Bodies to cook and eat together. To get drunk on what possibilities we can create here.

What’s the point of a fridge without any food in it? What’s the point of a bowl without any soup in it? Exactly, So, what’s the point of a building without anybody in it? Well, actually we know the answer to that one. It looks like this: Make £££££££. Well we choose another answer. Our answer: Make life. Surely that must be the point.”

On first sight the place did look unusable:

“The water pipes were open leaving water to run through two floors. Everything was soaked and stained with mould. The toilets and shower were smashed. The wiring was ripped out and walls were smashed.

No-one cared about the place. There was only one thing they cared about. Standing in midst of the debris that early Saturday morning, we almost turned back. We almost abandoned our dream.

We breathed in mould and looked at each other for a number of minutes. In silence. But we are dreamers…and what is the point of a dream that cannot be turned into something real?”

The chairs and tables, though, were still there from the old caff, and those with a sharp eye and long squatting nous reckoned it could be turned around with a couple of days work.

“With a passion we put our backs into the work. Others soon got involved and we fixed up the building. We brought fresh air and human warmth back inside. It’s a work in progress. There are always two questions – What needs doing? What can you do? Actually, there is a third more vital question: Are you enjoying yourself?”

The downstairs was quickly done up, replumbed and rewired, painted, and opened up, soon to host weekly cafes, a bar, film nights, benefits, meetings, parties, booksales and discussions… (the building also housed several people upstairs.)

A large argumentative collective ran the space: so quarrelsome among ourselves that Monday night weekly meetings sometimes lasted 3 hours, as we berated each other about every single detail of running the centre… While many of us knew each other, some didn’t – but the arguments came more from different ideas about what a space was, the politics behind it. Direct democracy in action, painful but absolutely consistent, and a really useful experience in how you get things done when your ideas can be almost diametrically opposed. Disagreements ran as basic as the name of the place: some of us called it the Camberwell Squatted Centre, some wanted to call it a Social Centre but others had no time for that term. Some called it Black Frog, for what reason I can’t now recall (of there was one). We never did settle on a name and the building lived under several aliases; appropriate, in a way, as it also focused diverse ideas of what the place was, what it was for. Ideas that clashed, as we argued, but also ended up complementing each other. Sure there was a lot of argument – there was also a lot of love, which brought people together in interesting and inspiring ways, helped to create new openings. Possibly the fact that a core of us had spent a chunk of the previous 15-20 years or so involved in one squat centre or another, or hanging out at others, helped us avoid some of the traps ’twas easy to fall into… although another advantage was the sheer smallness of the space. You literally couldn’t do loads of things, like having huge parties, gigs etc, that often caused aggro in squatted spaces…

We organised events, showing films every week, cooking food and holding bars, discos, discussions, history nights, workshops for various skills. Hundreds of people came down, both locals and from further afield, and many widely varying happenings followed. Some weeks we could have a totally different crowd in every night. We showed ‘The Brixton Tapes’ about the 1981 Brixton Riot, and had to turn large numbers away, as we could only fit so many in. We had talks from activists from as far afield as South Africa – from land squatting movement Abahlali base Mjondolo: “Richard Pithouse who did the talk on that day made some good connections about occupation, land and squatting etc. That was a particularly meaningful event and encounter for me – to bring such connections between two different but engaged land / housing battles but esp to hear about the self-managed politics of Abahlali.”

The space rang to live music from local session gods the No Frills Band, as well as from visiting Australian folks…

We held language classes, swapped seedlings, hosted Indymedia training, shared basic plumbing skills, heard talks on Camberwell radical history and underground Lambeth, on German anti-capitalist fascism and queer slang… The very dodgy old white nationalist geezers who lived opposite very likely took the pictures of us that ended up on some ultra-right website…

We lent the space to the Brixton Ritzy cinema workers to hold a social after their first strike over crap wages and conditions. (A struggle still going on ten years later). Novelty of novelties, we tried to have a varied decent selection of beers on offer… When Mayday came around instead of joining the leftie ramble through central London we held our own Mayday march to Kennington Park and erected a maypole there and danced around it… among much more…

“Early on, we had the unfortunate presence of two policemen inside the place with all their usual prejudices: squatters are junkies, squatters are all unemployed, squatters are this, squatters are that. They made it clear that they thought we were just rats. But who cares what they think!

‘Why can’t you live like normal people?’, they asked. But what is normal in these days? Speculating on a ruined building whilst others are homeless or can’t afford a decent place? Does it seem normal surviving another round of the working week? Labouring – commuting – shopping – resting – back to work. Some money but no time. A little time but no real enthusiasm. A two week holiday as some kind of escape. Yes, this is the normality of ourselves too! It was at this end point of the policeman’s questioning, that one bright burning spirit amongst us replied: ‘We are dreamers…’ and the words hung there, in silence, with nothing else needing to be added. Neither seeking approval nor apologising for what we are, this was a moment that we could have almost let go of but instead our good friend had let something loose amongst us all. Something that remains in the air. It pervades the building. It inspires. It fixes. It rebels.

As dreamers, we try to refuse what passes for being ‘normal’ because no-one is ‘normal’. We try to make alternatives to the daily grind. We try to open up escape routes here, now. Everyone knows that this grind cannot continue. We are all looking for a way out. For us, it cannot be an individual solution as we are all in this together. So the dream we dream is a collective one.

None of us wish any longer to slump exhausted in front of TV because that’s all our body can do at that point. None of us wish any longer to drink ourselves senseless in lonely isolation. None of us wish to feel any longer the crushing despair of the lives we are supposed to lead in 21st century London. None of us wish any longer to substitute our passions and our dreams or our desires for things, objects or trinkets. No more!

We are no longer interested in the decisions made elsewhere by waste of space politicians because we have our own decisions to make. We are no longer interested in the lives of rich celebrities because we have our own lives to be interested in.

In less than two weeks, we have created a beautiful living breathing alive space once more. What else could we do? We put in floorboards. We dried out rooms for people to sleep soundly in. We scraped off mould and put up paint. We built a kitchen. Built a café space. Put in toilets. Put in sinks. Put in ideas. We might have exhausted ourselves, some of us working 9-5, some of us working precariously but we always found more energy to keep building. What we discovered (once again), is that far from there being a scarcity of energy, knowledge, ideas, there is always a beautiful surplus available when we make our own decisions. We didn’t need a shop-bought plan nor a foreman. There was no book to tell us what to do. There was only our imagination and the fantastic possibilities that dreamers tend come up with.

We know that one day, near or far, we will be forced out of here and the building will once again be sealed off from light fresh air we bring in. We know that but it does not stop us working hard for the dream. Here now. And again. And again…And…

As one of our posters says: ‘As everyone knows, the dream is dead. The dream, the desire, the hope for a better world. And yet we are dreamers. We too should be dead, then. But if we are not mistaken…HERE WE ARE’.

But it is very much an open dream. Be here too. It is every dreamer’s space. Be occupied! This has been your invitation.”

It turned out that the building was owned by some small-scale property developers, and bizarrely they included, or were being fronted for, by a guy some of us knew vaguely, him having been the landlord of two Brixton pubs a number of the local squatters/musicians had drunk in/played in, Brady’s and the Queen. A wheeler and dealer, someone we thought we could maybe make some kind of temporary arrangement with. Before we could approach him the place was invaded by him and a couple of crap heavies, and a stand-off took place inside and outside, turning into an argument. When the cops turned up they reluctantly told the owners they’d have to go to court to get us out. Some negotiations took pace a few days later but came to nothing. So we just carried on as usual, making the best of the place while it lasted.

So after holding them off physically we were taken to court and lost, but carried on using the space as long as we could.

The Camberwell Squat Centre/Black Frog/Warham Street was eventually evicted early in the morning on 30th August, 2007:

Oh there is something inevitable about squatting and that is the free rude awakening you can get at 4am one Thursday morning on 30th August after losing legal ‘possession’ of the place. So yeah the Black Frog residents were turfed out by bailiffs in the end, as is the end of most squatting centre stories. What can we say? There just isn’t space here to go into everything that feels like it should be said. How can we answer those great questions that came up: Are you free to do whatever you like in a free space? Why do people make a dogma out of the number of ‘local’ people coming in, or worse, what some activists call ‘normal’ people? (ho ho ho). Is it a social centre or a centre? Words on a page cannot do justice to what we felt and lived at the Black Frog and we all know there’s no justice in the world.”

The building was smashed up to prevent us going back in; eventually, though planning permission for their grotesque flat and shop complex was repeatedly knocked back, a new block of flats sprouted on the site.

All in all it was a fun and mind-expanding experience for the people who ran and frequented the space, re-invigorating some people’s energy for collective rebelliousness and putting us in contact with others locally who felt like us. Unlike some previous squatted social spaces the Black Frog/Squat Centre very open, wide in its appeal, welcoming and broad-ranging in what went down there.

So it only lasted five months – it was an intense ride, and some of us were knackered afterwards. Sometimes a short sharp burst can be useful. Some of the folk involved went on to be involved in other squatted centres that followed in the area, notably the Library House. In some ways Warham Street signalled a renaissance in political squatting in that part of South London which had been quiet for a while.

Its also worth mentioning “the solidarity extended to us from Abahlali after their visit. They were very moved by seeing the images of the shack dwellers we put in the walls for their visit.”

They sent a message after hearing of our eviction:

“Solidarity from Abahlali base Mjondolo   05.09.2007 18:59 Abahlali baseMjondolo would like to extend solidarity to the Camberwell Comrades. Qina!   We acknoweldge and respect what you have done and understand your pain at this time. Keep up your courage.  

Message from S bu Zikode to Activists in London The time has come for poor people all over the world to define themselves before someone else defines them, thinks for them and acts for them. Do not allow others to define you. We are pleading to University intellectuals and NGOs to give us a chance to have a platform for our own creativity, our own politics. Our politics is not a politics that originates from institutions of higher learning. It originates from our lives and experiences. We are asking the academic intellectuals and NGOs for a work space to think and discuss – not for them to think and speak for us. We are not prepared to hear from anyone on a point of order. Not government, not NGOs. No one.”

We like to think we built something of our own. We remember it fondly, anyway. As the graffiti which quickly went up on the empty shopfront for the eviction read: “Missing You…”

“Face to face is better, so maybe we will have these discussions at the next Black Frog…see you there! Or better still squat your own place and we will pop round for a cuppa!!

We fix. We build. We occupy. TOGETHER.”

Above quotes are usually excerpts from ‘Yes We Are Dreamers’, a text written by one of our number for a social centres round up.

and another related text

And a related text with some critical observations on social centres and their relationships to ‘non-activists’ and our own history

Here’s more on the radical history of Camberwell

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

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Today in London’s squatting history: Institute For Autonomy social centre evicted, Bloomsbury, 2005.

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

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

Below we reprint the Institute’s Opening Statement:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Infoshop and Library

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

Art Project: Printing Workshop/ design / banner making.

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

Precarity/Info-Sharing

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

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

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

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

Solidarity Kitchen

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

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

Cafeteria Rebelde

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today in London’s radical history: Chartists hold mass meeting, John Street, Fitzrovia, 1848.

The John Street Institute was founded by utopian socialist and patron saint of the co-operative movement, Robert Owen in 1840, and became the main centre of Owenite activity in London between 1840 to 1858. It stood in John Street (now renamed Whitfield Street), off Fitzroy Square, in London’s Fitzrovia.

The Institute was nicknamed the Infidel Hall, out of resentment at its anti-religious lectures, by the London City Mission Magazine. It became a meeting place for radical workmen, Chartists, socialists, atheists, deists and other radicals…

A well-known rendezvous for Reformers in the middle years of the century was the John Street Institution, situated near Tottenham Court Road. It had been a chapel, I think, but was then leased by the followers of Robert Owen. Lectures were given there; meetings were held there; classes were conducted there. A more useful centre of social and political activity did not exist in all London. The platform was perfectly free. Chartism, Republicanism, Freethought, Socialism-all sorts and conditions of thought could be expounded in John Street if capable exponents desired to expound them. I had heard Mrs. C. H. Dexter lecture there in 1851 on the Bloomer costume, and in the Bloomer costume. There also, five years later, I heard the venerable Robert Owen, then a patriarch of eighty-four. The subjects discussed were of the widest and most varied character-social, political, religious, literary, scientific, economical, historical. And the lecturers who discussed them were as varied as the subjects-Thomas Cooper, Robert Cooper, Samuel Kydd, Dr. Mill, Dr. Sexton, Iconoclast, Henry Tyrrell, Richard Hart, Joseph Barker, Brewin Grant, George Jacob Holyoake, and many another whose very name is now forgotten. Of all the able men who endeavoured to enlighten the public from the John Street platform not one survives save George Jacob Holyoake. When the lease of the institution expired, a source of real light and ventilation expired also.” (William Edwin Adams)

The Social Institute was opened in February 1840 as the hall of the London branch of the Universal Community Society of Rational Religionists, as the Owenite Association of All Classes of All Nations had now become. The branch had formerly met at 69 Great Queen Street. Around the country there were twenty or so of these buildings, more usually known as Halls of Science, which were built in the early 1840s to serve as the focus of propaganda activity of the mainly working class branches. Their function however was largely superfluous after 1842, when the ‘missionary’ aspect of the Owenites had been abandoned.

The exterior of this building was carried out in the plain stucco typical of era, projecting forward was a porch with square columns. Inside was a large hall, fifty feet square, equipped with a church-like organ and galleries. 1,100 people could be accommodated. Its cost was around £3,000.

Congresses of the Owenite Rational Association were held here in the early 1840s… (and Owenites were still holding Congresses here in 1857).

Later the Institution also became a meeting place for the Chartist movement. Chartists were holding regular meetings here by 1848, the year the Chartists held a national convention here, attended by 49 delegates, and including a mass meeting on 21st March, in the lead up to the final mass demo to hand in the third Chartist Petition on 10 April.

A National Assembly of Chartists was also held at John Street from 1 to 13 May, in the aftermath of the failure of the petition.

The Chartist movement was undergoing its last significant crisis, as some leaders bottled the implications of their bluster and rhetoric – but others plotted revolution. The ‘Ulterior Committee’, the secret Chartist group planning an uprising, also met here, as they moved around trying to avoid police spies, on 14 June 1848… 14 were present, with Peter McDouall in the chair… Allegedly, at this meeting, detailed plans were made for an insurrection to start the following weekend: “A map of London was produced, and different plans of attack formed” Barricades were to be erected from the Strand near Temple Bar to Ludgate Hill, from Cheapside up St Martins le Grand and Aldersgate Street to the Barbican, across Saffron Hill to Hatton Garden and St Giles Church, Drury Lane, Russell Street and Covent Garden back to the Strand. Theatres and public buildings to be set fire to. Pawnbrokers and gunshops plundered for arms. Barricades also across Waterloo Bridge to Kent Road. Police station there to be attacked and march by troops on London intercepted. Could rely on 5000 armed Chartists plus 5000 Irish.”

However, that same day the committee dissolved itself, apparently having become aware that had been compromised by spies. Plans were revived in July and August, but the spies were still deep in their midst, and arrests on 16th August curtailed the intended rising…

After use by the Owenites ceased in 1858 the John Street building came into commercial use and mostly seems to have been used for performing arts – the famous small person ‘General Tom Thumb’ was apparently ‘on show’ here at one time. By 1914 the building (since 1867 known as 40 Whitfield Street) was the Albert Rooms dance hall. The old Institute is believed to have been demolished in the 1980s. A smallish office block is on the site.

Thanks to Keith Scholey’s research for this post. 

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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 radical history: Brotherhood Church finally closes its doors, 1934.

On corner of Southgate Road and Balmes Road, on Islington’s border with Hackney, where a block of flats now stands above a Tesco Express, there once stood a church, for a few years one of North London’s leading socialist and anti-war spaces…

According to Ken Weller:

“The Brotherhood Church was founded in 1662, as an independent congregational chapel. In 1862 it moved to Southgate Road; at this time it was a conventional chapel, although it had some fairly radical connections. In 1892 the Reverend Bruce Wallace became the Minister. Wallace was a Christian Socialist. In 1887 he had founded the socialist paper Brotherhood at Limavady in Northern Ireland, in which he developed the ideas he was later to put into practice.

When Bruce Wallace took over he renamed the Southgate Road Chapel the Brotherhood Church, and it rapidly became the centre of a whole range of radical and socialist activities. The Brotherhood Association, the Church’s ‘political’ wing, had about 15 branches by the turn of the century, mostly in London but one or two elsewhere.

There were also several associated churches, for example those at Croydon, Harrow Road, Forest Gate and Walthamstow (It’s possible that the Walthamstow Brotherhood Church was connected with the Walthamstow Free Christian Church. whose minister, Reg Sorenson played an important part in the movement opposing World War 1 in North London). Also connected with the Church was the Co-operative Brotherhood Trust which operated several workshops and shops, of which at least one, the shop at 37 Newington Green, seems to have lasted until after the 1914-1918 War. In the 1890s, the Croydon Brotherhood Church was the main publisher of Tolstoy’s social writings; its minister.J. C. Kenworthy was also a well known anti-War campaigner.

About the turn of the century, the Brotherhood movement spawned a number of communities in the countryside where members lived together. There were four of these in Essex alone, and while many were relatively short lived, one at least, ‘The Commune’ at Stanford-le- Hope, was in existence until the Second World War. ‘The Commune’ and some other Brotherhood-connected groups seem to have played quite an important part in the informal network helping ‘dodgers’ on the run. After the end of the War ‘The Commune’ provided a recuperative haven for a number of anti-War activists, notably Reg Sorenson and Fenner Brockway and their families.

The politics of the Church were basically christian socialist and pacifist – a number of its members were Quakers. There was a strong Tolstoyan anarchist current and William Morris was an important influence.

The Church had strong links with the socialist movement, exemplified by the record of one of its prominent members, H. A. Barker.

Barker also illustrates how, whenever you look at the wartime radical movement, you have only to scratch the surface to find strong connections with previous radical waves embedded within them. Barker (1858-1940) was a Trustee of the Brotherhood Church for its last 30 years. A builder by trade, he was born in Shoreditch and seems to have lived in the general area all his life; as a boy he had been confirmed at the Southgate Road Chapel before it was taken over by Bruce Wallace. Barker was a pioneer socialist. He was probably a member of the Labour Emancipation League, a forerunner of the SDF, and he was certainly a very early member of the latter. In December 1884 Barker left the SDF with the Socialist League split, and he became a very active member of the new body, of which he eventually became National Secretary between 1886 and 1888.

In 1888 Barker left the Socialist League with a number of other members who objected to the growing anti-parliamentarianism of that organisation, and he helped to found the Labour Union, a short-lived socialist group which played a prominent part, with H. A. Barker much to the fore, in the industrial struggles in North London in the 1889-1890 period, notably the successful and pretty violent strike of coal porters at the St Pancras Arches complex in July and August 1889, which led to the formation of the Coal Porters’ Union. The Labour Union was also heavily involved in a disastrous strike of postmen at Mount Pleasant and other local post offices in July 1890, which was completely smashed by the authorities.

Barker went on to play a leading part in the formation of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and he was a member of its first executive. He was an active member of the Brotherhood Church from its formation until its closure.

A notable event at the Church under Bruce Wallace was the Congress there in 1907 of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party which was attended by virtually all the prominent figures of both the Bolshevik and Menshevik wings of the Party (Among those present at the Brotherhood Church on this occasion were Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Plekhanov, Gorky, Zinoviev and Rosa Luxemburg).

In January 1911 the Church was taken over by F. R. Swan, who got the job with the help of the Reverend R. J. Campbell of the City Temple. Campbell had been Secretary of Finsbury ILP. Swan had lost his previous living because of his support for Victor Grayson, the successful independent socialist candidate in the Colne Valley election of 1907. He was a member of the ILP and had joined the staff of the Daily Herald virtually from its foundation.

Under Swan’s ministry the Church became even more explicitly political. Its service took the form of a reading from the Bible – in accordance with a clause in the Church’s trustee agreement – readings from other books, the singing of songs from the Labour Songbook, and a speaker. Among the huge number of speakers before the War were Annie Besant, Sylvia Pankhurst, Keir Hardie, Tom Mann and George Lansbury.”

During WW1 the Church was one of the main North London centres of anti-war activity, on socialist-pacifist grounds, but opening its doors to anti-war activists of other stripes too, such as the North London Herald League, Sylvia Pankhurst and other East London federation of Suffragettes/Women’s Suffrage Federation/Workers Socialist Federation (our Sylv and friends liked to change the moniker of their crew more often than Karl Marx changed his razor blades).

Various elements of the Brotherhood Church movement seemed to have played a very significant part in the informal networks helping men on the run from the authorities and dodging conscription during the war.

As recounted last week on this blog, several anti-war meetings here were attacked by ‘patriotic mobs’, often composed largely of soldiers, and not uncommonly stirred up by the police and Special Branch.

“Perhaps the peak of the Brotherhood Church’s involvement in the anti-War struggle came in July 1917 when, in response to the February Revolution in Russia, the Leeds Convention met to set up Councils of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Delegates. The Convention decided, among other things, to hold a series of regional meetings, one of them to be held in London. The original London hall having failed to materialise due to police pressure, the meeting was moved to the Brotherhood Church.

This meeting took place on July 28th. There were about 250 delegates including a number of servicemen. There had been some attempt to keep the venue of the meeting private but even so the authorities were well prepared. Basil Thomson, head of the Special Branch, noted in his diary on 27th July in relation to the meeting:

They will have a rude awakening tomorrow, as I have arranged for the Daily Express to publish the place of the meeting and strong opposition may be expected.

Leaflets were also distributed in the area stating that a pro-German meeting was taking place and that ‘scores of old soldiers and others are going to march to the canal bridge to show these traitors what we think of them’. The leaflets called on the local population to ‘remember the last air raid and roll up’. Part of the job of mobilising the mob was taken on by Horatio Bottomley, then MP for South Hackney, who ran a sort of mini-Tammany Hall locally which had a ‘stable’ of roughs on call.

Long before the meeting was due to start the mobs had begun to gather. It was estimated that they eventually totalled 8,000, many of them in uniform. The leaders of the military contingent seem to have been a Canadian soldier and two Royal Naval Air Service men. Also present were our old friends the Anti-German League. There was also a strong force of police in attendance.

By 3 pm the Church was completely surrounded. At 3.15 a sledge-hammer mysteriously materialised and the front door of the Church was smashed in and the fight started. The delegates who had already arrived were trapped in the small hall at the back. Meanwhile the crowd systematically smashed up the main hall; windows and fanlights were broken and frames ripped out, the furniture was almost completely destroyed, water pipes were pulled out of the walls and the hall was partially flooded.

Bertrand Russell – who was there – described what happened to the trapped delegates:

‘A few people, among them Francis Meynell attempted resistance, and I remember him returning from the door with his face streaming with blood.

The mob burst in led by a few officers; all except the officers were more or less drunk. The fiercest were viragos who used wooden boards full of rusty nails. An attempt was made by the officers to induce the women among us to retire first so they might deal as they thought fit with the pacifist men, whom they supposed to be all cowards. Mrs Snowden behaved on this occasion in a very admirable manner. She refused pointblank to leave the hall unless the men were allowed to leave at the same time. The other women present agreed with her. This rather upset the officers in charge of the roughs, as they did not particularly wish to assault women. But by this time the mob had its blood up, and pandemonium broke loose. Everyone had to escape as best they could while the police looked on calmly. Two of the drunken women began to attack me with their boards full of nails. While I was wondering how one defended oneself against this type of attack, one of the ladies among us went up to the police and suggested they should defend me. The police merely shrugged their shoulders. ‘But he is an eminent philosopher’, said the lady, and the police still shrugged. ‘But he is famous all over the world as a man of learning’, she continued. The police remained unmoved. ‘But he is the brother of an Earl’, she finally cried. At this the police rushed to my assistance. They were, however, too late to be of any service, and I owe my life to a young woman whom I did not know, who interposed herself between me and the viragos long enough for me to make my escape. But quite a number of people, including several women, had their clothes torn off their backs as they left the building.

Another illustration of the violence of the situation and the attitude of the police was what happened to Leonard Howard of the North LHL. With blood streaming down his face he was attacked again and again. He eventually took refuge in a furniture van, and the police finally acted- they grabbed him and threw him back to his attackers…

Needless to say the conference broke up; when John Maclean turned up a bit later all he saw was ‘a howling mob of male and female dervishes’ . Among the consequences of this rather one-sided fighting were numerous injuries, including lacerated heads and serious cuts; one delegate nearly had his eye gouged out by a stick; and a young woman had her throat badly cut when someone in the crowd tried to grab her necklace.

A. M. Barker the 18-year-old son of H. A. Barker – was present at the time and wrote of his experience to me:

But I will tell of an awful scene of a woman being swung around by her hair, the technique of women’s fighting in those days – and which could cause terrible scalp wounds – and a crowd of god knows how many howling ‘do her in’ and horrible language. . . . The next morning I found the Church itself wrecked, a shameful shambles of broken windows, broken down doors, smashed pews, piano, organ, and the floors of the Church almost solid with brickbats. I almost broke down and cried at this terrible shameful sight.

The police arrested only one man – one of the delegates. The excuse given for the police inactivity by the sub-inspector in charge was ‘that to have attempted to arrest anyone would have depleted our force and given them [the rioters] the opportunity of attacking the Church.’ In actuality the role of the police consisted entirely of gently shooing the rioters from the ruined hall after they had worked themselves out – a classic example of low-profile policing?”

The authorities were heavily involved in the attacks on, and harrassment of, the anti-War movement. They were certainly involved – as the entry in Basil Thomson’s diary indicates – in sometimes making sure that potential attackers were informed of the venues of meetings. What happened at the Brotherhood Church was not an isolated event: what happened on a local scale was repeated nationally.

“With the coming of peace the Church continued to function, but it was in severe financial difficulties, having to foot the bill for repairing the damage it had received during the War. It continued to be a centre for a wide range of political activities. For example, the first two conferences of the Young Communist League was held there, and trade union branches, local Labour Parties, the SPGB, the Women’s Co-operative Guild and the Shoreditch Unemployed all met at the Church. Eventually funds ran out and the Church finally closed its doors on March 18th, 1934. Regular meetings of the congregation continued at the Essex Road Library until the death of F. R. Swan in October 1938; the last meeting was held on January 12th 1939.

After the final closure, surviving members of the Brotherhood Church apparently used to meet in Walthamstow until the early 1960s. But a Brotherhood Church still exists at Stapleton, near Pontefract, Yorkshire. This community is a direct descendant of the Brotherhood community at Purleigh in Essex, which was itself an offshoot of the Brotherhood Church at Croydon.”

On a personal note, your past tense typist, in my wayward youth, met some socialists raised in the Stapleton Brotherhood Community, who were active in my local anti-poll tax group… the spirit lives on… This post is dedicated to John and Bracken x

This post was lifted with some text-slaloming from Ken Weller, Don’t Be a Soldier.

For information on some of the Brotherhood communities see Dennis Hardy, Alternative Communities in nineteenth Century England, 1979.

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

Follow past tense on twitter