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

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

Advertisements

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s a short video of the eviction here:


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

Today in London policing history, 1984: cops raid anarchist 121 Centre, Brixton, looking for guns…

121 Railton Road, Brixton, South London – through the 1980s and 90s one of London’s most active anarchist squatted spaces. Brixton anarchists had occupied 121 Railton Road in late 1980; some local anarchos had been using Sabaar, the Black radical bookshop that occupied the space from 1977, as a postal address. But 121’s history goes back to 1973, when local Black Panthers Olive Morris and Liz Obi squatted the flat above the launderette there…

When Sabaar moved to funded rented premises in Coldharbour Lane, quick off the mark the place was squatted for an anarchist centre. The run-down building on the corner of Chaucer Road was to become a legend, both locally and worldwide, as a  bookshop, meeting space, cafe, office for numberless subversive projects, late-night club, and much more. Many of the crew that squatted the building had been involved in local squatting and political activity before the birth of 121 (notably the occupation of Greater London Council-owned Kilner house, in Pegasus Place, Kennington Oval, in October 1980).

To list the groups that used 121 as a meeting space or office would take several blogposts… Just some of the most significant being Black Flag, the long-running anarchist paper; the Black Cross (linked to Black Flag for years), a support group for anarchist, and other class struggle prisoners; the Kate Sharpley Library, an archive of international anarchist material (which was moved out in 1984, as the building was threatened with eviction and by fascist attack: KSL moved over the road to St George Mansions and later out of London), South London branches of the anarcho-syndicalist Direct Action Movement; the London end of the Greenham Common women’s peace camp; South Wales Miners Support Group, during the ’84-’85 Strike; Brixton Squatters Aid and their newspaper Crowbar; the provocative South London Stress mag, which started as an underground bulletin among council workers…  Later in its life, 121 hosted Community Resistance Against the Poll Tax; radical womens mags Shocking Pink and Bad Attitude; the Fare Dodgers Liberation Front; anarcho freesheets Autognome and Contraflow; the list goes on.  As well as this the cheap evening meals, late night club in the basement, later the seminal Dead By Dawn rave nights and endless punk gigs… The bookshop was sometimes famously unpredictable in its opening hours, often falling prey to such varied excuses for its closed doors as sudden arrests for shoplifting, workers being off rioting here or abroad, and in especially hard winters, the place being too cold to sit in (of course there were also the odd folk s’posed to be doing the shift who just went to sleep on the bench by the front window without opening the shutters). The doorway became a graffiti board of complaint (“I came from Sweden and you were closed”), calls to revolt and general abuse.

In the mid-1980s the 121 was at its most active, part of a growing network of anarchists in London involved in squatting, the anti-capitalist Stop the City actions, solidarity with the striking miners, and numerous other movements and campaigns… This activity had not gone unnoticed by the boys in blue (another target of the 121ers, strongly involved in resistance to the violent policing of brixton, especially the frontline on Railton Road, which was viciously racist and anti-squatter… Local cops had recently supported Lambeth Council’s eviction of 6 squatted houses in Effra Parade, just round the corner, where several 121ers and friends lived. Special Branch carried out regular surveillance of the centre’s post throughout the 80s (a pretty boring job I would say…) In August 1984 this police attention climaxed in a raid on 121 and four local squats where some of the collective lived.

Let the collective tell the story:

“TUESDAY 14th August 1984: 7.00am. The political police were out in force, smashing down the doors of 4 squatted houses and the local anarchist bookshop at 121 Railton Rd Brixton … The police, over 50 of them, used Firearms Warrants (which need very high‑up approval) and covered our homes front and back as the heavies rushed in. BUT THEY FOUND NOTHING. The nearest they came to a firearm was an anti‑rape spraycan. The woman who owned it was arrested and later released without any charge, likewise no charge for ‘stealing tools’ (she is a carpenter and has her own tools). One person was arrested for having two small marijuana plants. Another just because ‘his name rang a bell’, he was later found to have skipped bail on a small charge. The cops stole his address books after arresting him. They did not even look for firearms, not a floorboard was lifted. The cops were more interested in finding out identities and anything political they could.

At the bookshop they spent three hours going through everything, at times we were not able to get inside as the bomb squad went through with sniffer dogs. Anything ‘bugs’, drugs or “firearms” could have been planted by them as we were not able to follow their search. “Have you found the Nuclear weapons yet?” asked one shop worker as the cops stomped in the basement And up to the roof

Even Ted Knight, Lambeth Council Leader and an old enemy of ours, had to admit “There has never been any suggestion that those people who run the bookshop have been involved in terrorism in any way … It is outrageous that their personal lives should have been interfered with in this way.”

Lambeth Council are in the process of taking us to Court to evict us after we have been in occupation for 3 and a half years. The case will probably be up late September or October.

WHY ALL THIS BARBARITY & BRUTALITY

  1. Because we don’t conform… we don’t want to wait 10 years for a shitty flat when hundreds lie empty. We’re not amused by Milton Keynes, the SAS, pin‑up girls, Lady Di or Dallas. We organise to help ourselves without being controlled by anyone.
  1. Because we bring out uncensored news and information, that you’d never see on television or in the press.
  1. Because we support the miners in their heroic class war against the rich scum who live off our backs.
  1. Because they need a scapegoat, And its easy to slander us as ‘criminals’, and the raid as not ‘political’ when a “Firearms” warrant is used. Its easy to attack people if they can be divided off, isolated from others be they blacks, gypsies, foreigners, anarchists… we threaten that process with our solidarity.
  1. Inspector Speed who was supervising the raids has said ‑ falsely ‑ in the past that we were a drink and gambling club.

Such police clearly want us out of Brixton.

Our only “crime” is to seek freedom. The police attack us because we produce papers have cafes, housing aid, jumble sales and benefits for local causes and the miners. Because we oppose authority, government, imposed power groups and the ruling class in every way we can.

Probably you don’t support our politics, but you cannot support police terror tactics either. It takes all sorts to make up a Community and we are here to stay. Police attacks are used first against ‘minority’ groups … Tomorrow it could be YOU who wakes up to see the Thatcheroid Daleks bursting into your bedroom with guns and axes!

We should also like to protest the continuing harassment of local black youth and squatters, as well as people collecting for the miners by the police. Maybe they are trying to provoke us so they can try out their latest riot gear, as they nearly did on THURSDAY 16th August 1984 in Railton Road, at 5 pm.

AN INJURY TO ONE IS AN INJURY TO ALL! RESIST THE P0LICE STATE!”

And here’s an account of one of those nicked in the accompanying raids on a nearby squat:

“IF THEY COME IN THE MORNING

There I was, dreaming blissfully of being asleep in a big warm bed with my friend. CRASH…CRASH…THUMP….

Mmmm. people breaking down the door? A herd of elephants charging up the stair? I opened my eyes and closed them, quick! – Oh Fuck – policemen standing round the bed! My friend was poking me urgently in the ribs. – We’re being raided – I opened my eyes again…. They were still there. I thought of resisting, let them drag me naked and screaming into the street. Better not. We got up and struggled into clothes as hordes of pigs searched the house. They got my passport. Radioed in. Oh Shit – I’m on their list!

Kiss goodbye and dragged out. Not knowing the bloke upstairs is also nicked for having a skinny grass plant. Not knowing that 3 other squats and 121 Bookshop were also being stormed at he same time, using search warrants for firearms!

Brixton Police Station, cold and boredom, blood and shit on the walls and anarchist graffiti. Through the spyhole I see one of my neighbours being brought in. `How many have they got? I start worrying about all possible things I ever did against the law. Not much really.

Interview time. Tell us about 121 Bookshop. I keep complaining I haven’t been charged, they must be scouring the files for a frame-up. Sign here for the paint bombs and truncheon found in your house.  – not bloody likely-

2nd interview, Special Branch. What do you know about Class War? –Never heard of it – What about Direct Action? – Not a member, as you probably know – What demos do you go to? Jesus what is this? –

I refuse to answer more questions, realising they’ve got nothing on me. Complaining that I’m being interned for political reasons. I expect them to get heavy but they don’t. Seems like a cock-up?

3rd interview. Shit. We suspect you skipped a warrant under a false name after Stop the City, ‘threatening behaviour’. – Certainly not, No way, would I lie to you?

Here are the papers. Here is your photograph…Oh yes so it is, um, er…-

I’m carted off to the City. Another 20 hours of boredom. Cops come down to ask silly questions about the next Stop the City. – Are the Hells Angels coming? – I see you got the paint bombs ready already – Will the miners come down? … I don’t know nothing. They’re looking forward to it like it was The Big Match.

I have to stay overnight. Next day I trot out my excuses and get fined £40. Then off for breakfast with my friends.”

Surprisingly, no guns or bombs were found at 121, despite the unrestrained joy of the cop who, lifting the carpet on the ground floor, found a trap door. Aha, this must be the place where the weapons are stored… Down they go with a sniffer dog… Shit, no guns down here either…

It has been suggested that the cops’ “reliable informant” in this case was a South African squatter who claimed to be hyper-active, opening squats for people and “sorting out” muggers, but when he got nicked, 121 and addresses of other local anarchos got raided immediately after… “There was an attempt to run him down in Effra Parade and the driver departed London quickly…”” The suspicious character, gunning for the driver, later attacked a 121-er on the stairs of St George’s Residences, over the road from 121…

The myth goes that the uncovering of the basement by the police during the raid was an ironic gift to the 121, as he basement was put into use as the dancefloor of the 121 Club, dak, dingy and dangerously low ceilinged as it was, and only accessible via a steep and lethal wooden stair… nevertheless thousands partied there, from the Club, to Dead By Dawn speedcore nights, through punk gigs, to Queeruption and much more ( the memory of the Anarcho-dales male strip crew will never leave those who were there..!)

The raid had little impact otherwise. 121 would continue for another 15 years, to be evicted almost exactly 15 years later in August 1999… This time it was 150 armed police who swarmed on the bulding, early in the morning, to ensure the 121 was eradicated.

We know the police took an interest in 121; we know the mail was examined in Herne Hill sorting office before it was delivered to us. What we don’t yet know is – were any of the undercover police of the Special Demonstration Squad more heavily involved in spying on us? Several certainly visited the place now and then – John Dines, Jim Boyling, Andy Coles all dropped in. But we’re still wondering if any other old mates were narks in disguise… Watch this space…

An ex-121er

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…”

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London housing history, 1986: Pullens Estate squatters resist eviction, Walworth.

The Pullens Estate, in Walworth, South London, was built over a 15-year period from 1886, by builder James Pullen. Origially 684 flats in four storey mansion blocks, with workshops attached to the rear of the residential blocks, in rear yards.

The first block of 16 flats was built on Penton Place without the required consent of the Metropolitan Board of Works but Pullen managed to schmooze local officials and continued building until 1901 – ten years more than he’d been granted permission for.

When the philanthropist Charles Booth was surveying London for his poverty map in 1899 he described meeting Mr Pullen at work: ‘Old Mr Pullen in a top hat and fustian suit was on a scaffolding superintending’. Booth stated that demand for the ‘well built’ flats was high and they were ‘Occupied before the paper is dry on the walls’ often by police officers from Whitehall and Lambeth districts. The rent was ‘eight shillings for three rooms, kitchen and scullery, plus 6 pence a week charged for cleaning the stairs and gas’. Each had to make a deposit of 24 shillings which was an effectual bar to any poor tenants.

The full estate, which originally extended southwards as far as Manor Place, comprised 684 dwellings in 12 blocks. Attached to the rear of the dwellings, arranged round four yards, were 106 workshops. The estate’s shops were located at the entrances to the workshop yards.

By 1973, the estate was still owned by the family company that had originally built it. But many of the flats were in a poor state, having built for largely single people and with few amenities. Southwark Council proposed to compulsorily purchase the estate with the aim of demolishing it, in order to build a vast new council estate, but this went against the wishes of most of the tenants, who had built a community and didn’t want to see it broken up. In 1977, the council bought the Pullens and by 1983 had demolished blocks on Crampton Street, Amelia Street and Thrush Street (accidentally creating open space at Pullens Green in the process).

Continued plans in the 1980s to knock down the rest of the estate, were met by a tenants campaign to save and renovate the blocks, including putting in hot water and bathrooms, which many flats still lacked. Tenants who wanted hot water and a bathroom had to pay themselves or apply for a statutory improvement grant. The whole future of the estate lay on doubt for many years.

As a number of flats lay empty, partly due to disrepair, they began to be squatted; this was generally encouraged by the remaining tenants, to prevent the estate falling into complete decay. By 1983 squatters were established in many of the “voids” on the Pullens. Many of the ground floor flats on the estate in particular had lain empty, and a number had been fire by dossers; tenants preferred squatters who generally committed to doing the places up, renewing plumbing wiring etc. An alliance of tenants and squatters evolved.

The workshops in the adjacent yards had also become to host radical projects, a process that both stimulated and was boosted by the squatting on the estate. Women In Print, a women’s print collective ran from a space in Iliffe Yard, (as did as Seeing Red women’s poster making collective in the 1970s-early 80s). In 1982, like nearby print shop Union Place in Camberwell and the Advisory Service for Squatters in Islington, Women In Print were firebombed by fascists.

The squatted Pullens Centre in Crampton Street then hosted Cafe Bouche, and had become a community centre for both squatters and tenants.

The annual Pullens free festival was held on the vacant land at Pullens Green. This rocking alternative gathering, self-organised by residents, was often hassled by cops, ending in arrests more than once… the festival came to an end in the 1990s, and most of the Green, born from demolition, has since been built on, (adding insult to injury, part of it is now lying under the Walworth copshop!)

The large-scale squatting of the estate and the alliance of tenants and squatters frustrated the council’s long-term plans to demolish the whole of the Pullens. Southwark had become the most heavily squatted borough in London, largely due to the poor quality of the housing stock and the incompetence of the council. More than 60 per cent of empty council property in Walworth was squatted by the mid-1980s. A local squatters network, SNOW (Squatters Network of Walworth), highly organised, not only publicised empties and supported squatters against eviction, but built solidarity across the area. However, a massive crackdown/eviction campaign was underway across the borough.

An attempt at a mass eviction in November 1985 was seen off as squatters barricaded the stairwells.

But by June 1986 a plan to clear 800 squats from Southwark estates was underway. The council claimed they were intending to house people from the housing waiting list in the flats after they were evicted, and had pressured the squatters to move, and put their names on the list, with promises of rehousing. Since many squatters were already on the list, but as single homeless had small chance of actually getting allocated anywhere, this tactic didn’t wash.

On June 10th 1986, the Council tried to hold a mass eviction of 30 squats on the Pullens, with bailiffs backed up by squads of riot police, who arrived at 6am, breaking down doors with sledgehammers.

According to one supportive tenant, “The first family they threw out was a Vietnamese family who had no idea what was going on…”

But the council’s forces were outnumbered by resistance from 300 squatters, tenants and supporters – including from other areas of London. Cops and bailiffs were splattered with flour, paint and water bombs; “about 100 of us were blocking doors, jeering, stabbing tyres. It was SLOW, heavy barricades! Rain stopped & band struck up merrily again. More paint splatters the pigs… Van Burgh removal lorries, council, TV, thugs, scabs and wall to wall FILTH.”

The struggle in the streets and stairwells went on all day. The residents were aided by the architecture of the mansion blocks, with narrow doors to each stairwell, easily barricaded; the layout of each flat was an aid to barricading. “It took too long. Each door had to be smashed to bits, by 12 noon, they still had five flats to evict…

The flat roofs of the blocks were also easily accessible from the stairs, which helped with bombarding the forces of eviction from above (materials for the purpose had been stored on the roofs for a number of weeks in advance).

The tactic of painting out the numbers of the flats at the bottom of the stairwells also confused the bailiffs no end!)

It took an hour for the first flat to be evicted… Other flats were heavily barricaded with barbed wire, boards, steel and a concrete block. In the meantime, the convoy of council vans parked in Amelia St were forced to move onto Crampton Street after several of their tyres were let down by unscrupulous persons…

“WE WANT PETROL” we shouted as the sound system blared out ‘Anarchy in the UK’ from the barricaded flat. (They got in nevertheless, by sheer brute force, though at the next flat they had to give up… There were solid concrete blocks preventing the scum from entering!)

Bailiffs, council thugs and piggies all lined up and then pissed off as we jeered and cheered from the sidestreet. We all went back to the Pullens Centre for coffee and a meeting. Many squatters had crashed out after being up all night, but the place was packed and downstairs was full to the ceiling with evicted possessions and furniture. Outside the streets were littered with people’s furniture…”

In the end 16 flats were actually evicted on the 10th, but 19 were re-squatted the same day:

“A few squatters got up and talked at the meeting, explaining that no-one would be affected by PIO orders [allowing instant eviction without a court order if the flat had been allocated to a tenant before it was squatted] if the flats were re-taken by 2.30 pm, and proposing that people who wanted to re-squat with them put down their names and numbers… and volunteers and tools would be gathered…. We got down to business with a list and a crowbar and set out to re-squat.

It was all too easy, with few cops about, and in ten minutes we’d ripped the boardup crews best efforts off half –a-dozen squats. One was immediately re-squatted, but there was no sign of the other evictees. Then we started carrying furniture back in to squats. Phew what a job! [The steep and narrow stairwells made access with anything bulky a nightmare at Pullens at the best of times.- ed] Then we found a woman ready to move back in and set out to put a new door on her flat – No easy proposition as the old one was in little bits, the door frame badly damaged and the promised tools hadn’t arrived. But the magic of the Pullens worked again… that is to say a couple of years back the Pullens tenants had invited squatters to move into empty flats and half the squatters had become legal tenants in this way. We only had to knock on a few doors and we had all the tools we needed. In fact we spent the whole afternoon working on that one door… What with finding a door, cutting it to size, repairing the frame, fitting a lock, etc, etc… But all the flats were re-squatted by the deadline, at least symbolically, by sticking something in the doorway with a legal notice on it…”

The eviction cost £10,000 plus a claimed £8000 in damage and, er, alleged, theft of tools from contractors vans. And given the mass re-squat, was pretty futile.

The same day as this battle took place, around 22 flats were also evicted on the nearby Rockingham estate off New Kent Road, with no resistance and in under an hour. An attempt was made to re-squat these flats too that night, but 5 were immediately repossessed next morning “with bailiffs and council spouting PIOs…” In the end just 8 of the re-squats on Rockingham were held on to.

8 people were arrested during the Pullens resistance, on charges of obstructing bailiffs, assaulting police, damaging vehicles and police uniforms, and nicking council documents…

In the aftermath of the battle of Pullens, Southwark Council was forced to admit that clearing the estate of squatters was a waste of time. Many Pullens squatters eventually were granted tenancies [this also happened elsewhere on other nearby run-down estates, like the Kinglake), and a rolling program of improvement to the flats was begun (ironically several Pullens squatters were employed to carry out some of the work installing hot water and bathrooms).

Pullens squatters had managed to defend themselves because of a fairly unique situation, including widespread support from tenants, partly due to massive discontent with council disrepair, and general counter-cultural ethos to the estate. This ethos continued for many years, and an element of it remains today. A couple of years after the 1986 evictions, Fareshares Food Co-operative moved to the squatted empty shop at no 56, with volunteer workers providing cheap wholefoods an vegetables at cost price. In 1991, the disused rear of the shop was opened up as 56a Infoshop, social centre, archive, meeting and organising space. Both projects continue to this day (with the addition of a free self-help bike workshop), though many of the flats on the Pullens have since been sold off and now go for wodgy prices, as the once slummy Walworth/Elephant area is gradually repackaged as trendy and fit for the middle class… No doubt many of the newer Pullens residents would be horrified by the estate’s past – or even worse, thrilled but in a disgusting de-politicised hipster way. Urgh.

Fareshares and 56a continue the counter culture tradition on this unique council estate, despite the pressures of these times – privatisation of council housing, gentrification and speculation, community atomisation… The community created in the Pullens that turned out in its own defence in June 1986 and refused to be moved on, is less and less evident in London these days, though many such semi-autonomous zones evolved during the 1970s and 80s and gave birth to some inspiring and interesting ways of life. Squatting of course, in 1986 a huge part of urban London life, has now been largely outlawed and survives as a marginal relic, where 30 years ago it was a normal way to house yourself. This has taken place for a number of reasons, including a cultural change in the way people work/don’t work, a turn to property values as a driver of economics in the capital, the destruction of economies elsewhere in the UK and wider… a change in the way people grow up and what they want out of life. And much more. To those of us who lived through some of those earlier times, the dismantling of the lovely self-made cultures like the Pullens feels like a serious loss; an opportunity to alter the way we all live that got reversed. It’s worth noting that many London estates are now under attack from gentrification, demolition, re-shaping for a wealthier class of people and in private hands… Many of them have also evolved over many decades; a diverse and cosmopolitan culture also now threatened with being usurped by a bourgeois inanity. Resistance is building however…

Some things survive…

Thanks to the lovely 56a archive for information gleaned – there is loads more material there on London’s experience of squatting, housing, gentrification, development, etc, as well as numerous zines, mags, books and so much more.
Fareshares is great still too (not paying £16 for fancy-schmancy olive oil though, that seems a bit against the spirit of the place!). And the bike workshop is brill…

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London squatting history, 1969: Brixton’s first squatters? Empty offices occupied.

Brixton, South London: for many years one of the heaviest squatted areas of the capital. Occupying empty buildings and making use of them was for several decades an integral part of life in this area, not only housing hundreds of thousands, but giving home to hundreds of alternative projects and spaces – from bookshops, cafes, workshops, meeting places, to gig venues, art galleries… the list is endless.

The first record of squatting we are aware of if from March 1969; only a few months after the first actions of what is generally thought of as the squatting movement.

‘Squatters seized an empty five-storey office block in London’s Brixton Road on Saturday, 29 March. About a dozen squad cars, black marias and motor cycle police surrounded the building just before 9 a.m.) minutes after the “invasion squad” otherwise known as the South London Squatters, had got in through a back way.

A detachment of police headed by an inspector from the nearby Brixton police station and a plain-clothes man clambered over a ten-–foot hardboard fence at the back of the concrete and glass building and tried to get the squatters to leave quietly. They refused. A few minutes later large banners appeared over the balconies of the block reading: ‘Homes not offices’ and ‘Enough room here for eighty families’. Plus a red flag.

The building is next to Brixton Register Office. Astonished wedding guests watched as police tried to get the squatters out. According to a leaflet handed out by supporters outside, the building – 40,500 sq. ft of it – has been empty for three years. ‘Why can’t Cathy come home to this’!’ the leaflet asks. ‘We have occupied this building to expose the housing shortage. A building this size could be converted at only £1,000 a unit to house eighty homeless families. Eight million sq. ft of office building stands empty in London alone – enough to house all the homeless in Britain.’

The operation, the first carried out by the group, was surprisingly simple. The glass in a door at the back of the building was cut and Hey Presto! The next they heard were the sirens.

Said Ray Gibbon, travel agency manager and father of two, of Shakespeare Road, Heme Hill, “We intend staying here until 5.30. Then we’ll leave quietly after we’ve made our point.”

The squatters, all local people, passed their time listening to the radio, playing football and putting records on a record player they’d brought with them. At lunch-time fish and chips and bottles of beer were hoisted up by rope from outside. Rubbish was put in a Lambeth Council paper sack they had brought in with them. ‘We want to be as tidy as possible,’ said Mr Gibbon.

During the day, the squatters gave out over 7,000 leaflets in the Brixton shopping centre. One West Indian bus conductor said, ‘Give me a heap man. I’ll give them out to the lads when I get to the garage at Croydon.’ The leaflet said: ‘Some people try to blame immigrants for the housing shortage but we know we had lousy houses in Britain before we ever saw a black face or heard an Irish accent. The real for the housing shortage is that a small group of people make millions of pounds out of our need for a decent home.’

Source: radical newspaper Black Dwarf 1969: Republished in David Widgery, The Left in Britain 1956-1968 (London: Penguin, 1976) David has this down as 1968, but this we think is wrong, as Saturday 29th March was a Saturday in ’69, not ’68, and the squatting movement had not got going in March 1968 to the point described in the article above. However, if we are totally wrong on this please let us know. 

From these beginnings grew a massive scene, or myriad scenes rather.

……………………………………………………………………

A SHORT HISTORY OF SQUATTING’S EARLY YEARS IN BRIXTON

Brixton became a centre of squatting for a number of reasons.

A century and a half of social change had transformed a once prosperous suburb into a mainly working class area. Much of the old Victorian housing had been sub-divided and multiply occupied, and was in a state of disrepair and over crowding.

The Borough was faced with a rising level of homelessness: a survey in 1967 reckoned that much of the housing in the area had less than ten years life left in it, and that to house the 14,000 homeless households, and cope with those who would likely be made homeless as these homes became unusable, the Council would have to build or refurbish 4000 houses a year for the next seven years. This didn’t even take account of those on the Waiting List. Given the then shortage of building workers this target was unlikely at best. But pressure was put on the Planning Dept to come up with a solution.

Lambeth Director of Planning, Ted Hollamby, had won a reputation for small-scale housing developments that blended with their surroundings, and came from a radical background, living as he did in a ‘progressive’ architectural commune in William Morris’s old Red House in Bexleyheath! While previously working for the London County Council, he had attempted to save old buildings from demolition. He seems to have been a somewhat contradictory character, or had a change of heart. Under Hollamby’s leadership (it was said of him at the time that “The planning process is highly centralised, taking place as it does entirely within [his] head.”) the Planners came up with a massive crash programme of redevelopment; of which the Brixton Plan was the central plank.

The Brixton Plan was also partly a response to the GLC approach, in the late 1960s, to the newly merged/enlarged boroughs, asking them to draw up community plans, to redevelop local areas in line with the GLC’s overall strategy for “taking the metropolis gleaming into the seventies”. Lambeth planners came up with a grandiose vision for Brixton, typical of the macro-planning of the era, which would have seen the area outstrip Croydon as a megalomaniac planners’ high-rise playground. The town centre would have been completely rebuilt, with a huge transport complex uniting the tube and overland railway station, Brixton Road redesigned as a 6-lane highway, and part of Coldharbour Lane turned into an urban motorway. (Interestingly that’s why Southwyck House, known universally locally as the Barrier Block, is built like a huge wall with relatively few windows in the side facing Coldharbour Lane: to cushion the noise from this (subsequently never built) motorway. Not just to make its residents feel imprisoned – although for years rumours have asserted the Block’s design to be modeled on a plan for a Swedish Prison. When it opened, after ten years in the building, huge problems with different contractors, it was declared unfit for families to live in. (It was gleefully pointed out in 1995, when then Prime Monster John Major described council estates as ‘grey, sullen wastelands, robbing people of self-respect’ that ex-Lambeth Housing Chair Major had been on the planning committee that had approved the Barrier Block!)

The plan was openly to re-engineer the area’s social mix, bringing middle class ‘urban professionals’ into the area, and (less openly) to disperse black people and other undesirables from Central Brixton. The 1971 opening of Brixton tube station was seen as the first step in “an attempt to upgrade the area on a very large scale.” Plans for a new office blocks, new schools, and new housing estates were scheduled; they would entirely replace the majority of the crumbling Victorian houses in Central Brixton. Some of the planned estates was to be low-rise, high density, but the centre piece featured Brixton Towers, five 52 storey tower blocks, the highest housing scheme outside Chicago, 600 feet high. A new park would serve the proposed 6000 new residents… In effect the plan would have restricted traffic to a few major trunk roads, encircling islands of high density housing with limited access. Such schemes carried out elsewhere quickly decayed into ghettos, cut off by perimeter roads; in fact the first new estate to be built, Stockwell Park, although low-rise, turned into a nightmare for many. Its purpose-built garages were not used for years, damp and disrepair set in and it rapidly began to be used as a dumping ground for supposed ‘problem tenants’.

Few of Lambeth’s 300,000 population knew much about this plan. But pretty soon, the effects of the processes set in motion under the plan began to bite. Lambeth had already obtained Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) on areas to be redeveloped – all over the Borough large-scale demolitions were scheduled for replacement by estates. The Brixton Plan called for houses in the Angell Town area, now covered by Angell Town Estate, Villa Road and Max Roach Park, to be removed. And as part of the proposals a huge central shopping centre was to extend from Coldharbour Lane out as far as Kellett Road (this would have been built by Ravenseft, responsible for the Elephant & Castle folly). And so a huge area of Railton Road and Mayall Road was CPO’d.

All over the Borough CPOs were imposed, and indeed resisted by many local groups that sprang up to try and inject some sense into the plans. Blight and decline tend to become a vicious circle, especially in housing. They pointed out that many of the houses marked for demolition were not run down, and had plenty of life in them, that there’d be no Housing Gain (a bureaucratic term for how many more people would be housed after redevelopment than before), and that complex existing communities would be destroyed. The active opposition to Compulsory Purchase and demolition often came from owner-occupiers, who supposedly had ‘a greater stake’ in the houses, although in most CPO areas tenants outnumbered them 2 to 1… But most campaigns were aware of the danger of becoming just a middle class pressure group and attempted to involve tenants as well. Planning processes ignored tenants: only the objections of owner-occupiers or those who paid rent less often than once a month were allowed in any Planning Inquiries. But alternative plans were drawn up to include tenants co-operatives/take-over by Housing Associations as well as owner-occupancy instead of destruction. The Council of course, feeling as ever that it knew best, tended to treat residents objections and proposals with contempt or indifference. Its policy was to split tenants from owner-occupiers in these groups, presenting the owners as fighting only for their own interests, and offering tenants a rosy future in the new estates… they also, as you’d expect, tried to keep these groups and others in the dark about planning decisions. Where the Council owned or acquired houses, the inhabitants, many in sub-divided multi-occupancy, were promised rehousing (eventually, for some); but imminent demolition meant Lambeth spent little effort following up needed repairs and maintenance, tenants became frustrated and pushed for immediate rehousing.

Lambeth’s planning dream however, quickly turned into a nightmare, with a tighter economic climate and the end of the speculative building boom of the 60s. Much of the Brixton Plan was being cut back: the government refused to fund the Town Centre Development in 1968, as it would have taken up 10% of the total town centre development fund for the UK! The five huge towers, the six-lane dual carriageway, the vast concrete shopping centre and the urban motorway never materialised, and companies involved ran out of cash and ran to the Council for more (eg Tarmac re the Recreation Centre). The building of new housing slowed down. The Council had aimed at 1000 new homes a year for 1971-8 – this was never met.

By the early 1970s much of Central Brixton was in a depressed state. Many houses were being decanted, but for many reasons, large numbers of the residents found themselves ineligible for rehousing; one reason was the overcrowded state of many of the dwellings, with extended families, sub-letting, live-in landlords, etc: many people were not officially registered as living there, and so council estimates of numbers to be rehoused or the ‘housing gain’ were often wildly inaccurate.

Homelessness was on the rise. Rising property prices had led many landlords to evict tenants to sell off houses. There were also an increasing number of empty houses (officially in 1971, 5225, two and a half times the 1961 figure), many of which were occupiable and not scheduled for immediate demolition, as it could take as long as 7 years from CPO to redevelopment.

Two main results of all this were a rapid increase in the number of squatters in the area, looking for places to live and finding a rich seam in SW2 – this contributed to an upsurge in community, radical and libertarian politics in the Borough.

Incidentally planner Ted Hollamby’s trajectory lurched further from consultative architecture – after leaving Lambeth Council’s employ in 1981, he went to work for the London Docklands Development Corporation, helping to ‘regenerate’ London’s docks in the interest of big business in the face of protests from most of the local population.

In 1969-70 the Lambeth Family Squatting Group occupied homes for mainly local families; they considered themselves the official squatting movement, and had many negotiations with Lambeth Council.

By 1970, the Borough Council had made an accommodation with the Family Squatting Group to licence families to stay in occupied houses. This was very much in the spirit of the times, as pressure and media attention drew public support for squatting in empty property. However, licensed squatters were soon outnumbered by unlicensed ones, mainly single people, who the Family Squatting Associations wouldn’t house, although there was also a rise people who were squatting politically, occupying empties as shared houses or communes as a challenge to property rights and conventional ways of living, This neither the original squatting groups or the Council liked at all. Lambeth’s ‘official’ squatting group became Lambeth Self-Help Housing Co-op in 1971, the Council handed over 110 houses to them to administer (172 by 1974); in this way, Lambeth, like other authorities, was partly recognizing they could do little to stop squatting and might as well have it under some form of loose control, as it could take the houses back when it could afford to do something with them. Much divisions arose from the licensing of some squats; Councils slyly pitted co-ops against squatters and tried to drive wedges between them. It’s true that while co-ops saved many people from eviction, they also acted in many cases to pressurize people to leave houses when the Councils demanded them back, and helped to regulate squatters, tone down organized resistance and shovel people into paying rent for substandard houses. There was also a lot of double dealing; squatters would be offered rehousing on the day of eviction, and as the Council trashed the house around them they would be moved to a hard to let property, often unfit to live in. in some cases this house would be taken back very quickly too – in at least some cases the day after they were moved in!

In the mid-70s, Lambeth was widely held to be the most squatted borough in London. The upsurge created whole squatted communities and experiments: Villa Road, the Railton Road/Mayall Road in Central Brixton (known as the frontline); St Agnes Place and Oval Mansions in Kennington; Bonnington Square/Vauxhall Grove, Radnor Terrace/Rosetta Street/Wilcox Road, and Mawbey St/Brough St in Vauxhall; Heath Road/Robertson St, St Alphonsus Road and Rectory Gardens in Clapham, and Hubert Grove, off Landor Road; Priory Grove in Stockwell, and more. Later on there was Lingham Road, Stockwell, the Triangle in Norwood (Berridge rd, Bristow Rd), Effra Parade, St George’s Mansions and Loughborough Park, Stockwell Mansions…

Most of these arose in streets which had been part of Compulsory Purchase Schemes, then left largely or wholly empty by planning blight. Some remained squatted (or intermittently licenced) for nearly 30 years, some became co-ops in the 70s and 80s, some gradually were evicted. Some squatters formed action groups to try and preserve their houses, of these, as with the famous struggle at Villa Road, some partially succeeded and became co-ops, while others like St Agnes Place prevented their destruction but made no long-term deals with the Council. While many of the squatters were content to house themselves and live a quiet life, the growth of squatting as a whole bolstered a large and diverse radical scene in Brixton. Many of the squatters were alternative types, socialists, feminists, anarchists, bohemians or artists of one stripe or another, or lesbians and gay men trying to create new ways of living outside the traditional family set up… Many others wanted little more than somewhere affordable to live. But many communes, radical experiments in alternative ways of life to the traditional nuclear family, were also set up… These widely varying reasons for squatting led to disputes and splits, as some of the more ‘political’ squatters took a more confrontational line while others pursued licences and formed co-ops. In many cases though, a dual approach saved people’s houses, as with Villa Road.

Gradually many local black youth began to squat. From the early 70s the younger, more militant generation faced increasing black homelessness caused by massive overcrowding in traditional West Indian households, conflict with an older and more conservative generation in some cases getting them thrown out, and a hostile housing market, inflexible council housing policies or hostels. Many local black kids were sleeping rough, on building sites, etc. As a result, from about 1973-4 many occupied council properties. The black Melting Pot organisation played a part in housing many youth, their squatted HQ in Vining Street was attacked by racists in August 1983 (they later moved to Kellett Road).

Many houses, especially along Railton Road, were turned into ‘blues’ clubs, home to unlicensed drinking, smoking and reggae, in defiance of the authorities. The Blues had since the fifties been a response to the exclusion of blacks from many pubs and clubs, and this scene grew as younger kids with little respect for white society and white authority reached their teens. A lot of the black squatters had little contact with squatting groups, which were usually dominated by middle-class whites; relations were often fractious (see report on the 1982 frontline riot, below). Race Today in 1974 claimed that black people were squatting in the areas they grew up in, that they were more likely to receive support from their community, “whereas the white squatters, who are generally London’s floating bedsitter population, set up squats in different areas with no organic relation to the indigenous population around them.” Although this statement ignores many exceptions, and “indigenous population” is an unlikely term where London is concerned, there is an element of truth to this statement. Many white squatters WERE “outsiders”, and did often have little commitment to stay in an area, which they weren’t originally from. But a huge chunk of London’s population has for centuries been from elsewhere, transient, moving (often forced to move) from one area of town to another. Squatters in many cases would settle down if they could – it’s the landlords, council, cops and courts that drive them out.

Black squatters of course received their unfair share of agro from the local state and the bizzies. And the press, always up for a story about noisy blacks, spread tales of black squatters terrorising their neighbours.

Squatters were increasingly becoming a thorn in the Council’s side. Dissatisfaction with Lambeth’s planning processes and its inability to cope with housing and homelessness gave focus to a number of dissenting community-based groups. Activists in these groups were instrumental in establishing a strong squatting movement for single people – the main section of Lambeth’s population whose housing needs went unrecognised. Many had previous experience of squatting either in Lambeth or in other London boroughs where councils were starting to clamp down on squatters, reinforcing the pool of experience, skill and political solidarity. The fact that a certain number of people came from outside Lambeth was frequently used in anti-squatting propaganda. In response to Council tirades on squatting, squatters’ propaganda focused on Lambeth’s part in homelessness, what with the CPOs, refusal to renovate empties, insistence on buying houses with vacant possession, its habit of forgetting houses, taking back ones it had licenced out. They pointed out that many of the squatters would have been in Bed & Breakfast or temporary accommodation if they weren’t squatting – many in fact HAD been for months (in some cases years) before losing patience and squatting.

A strong anti-squatter consensus began to emerge in the Council, particularly after the 1974 council elections. The new Chair of the Housing Committee and his Deputy were in the forefront of this opposition to squatters, loudly blaming them for increased homelessness.

Councillor Alfred Mulley referred to squatted Rectory Gardens as being “like a filthy dirty back alley in Naples.”

Their proposals for ending the ‘squatting problem’, far from dealing with the root causes of homelessness, merely attempted to erase symptoms and met with little success. In autumn 1974 All Lambeth Squatters formed, a militant body representing many of the borough’s squatters. It mobilised 600 people to a major public meeting at the Town Hall in December 1974 to protest at the Council’s proposals to end ‘unofficial’ squatting in its property.

Most of the impetus for All-Lambeth Squatters came from two main squatting groups – one in and around Villa Road, the other at St Agnes Place in Kennington Park.

In parallel many tenants and other residents were organizing in community campaigns around housing, like the St Johns Street Group around St John’s Crescent and Villa Road… Direct action against the Council by groups like this led to tenants being moved out, the resulting empties being either trashed, to make them unusable, squatted, or licensed to shortlife housing groups like Lambeth Self-Help. Tenants groups in some cases co-operated with squatters occupying empties in streets being run down or facing decline.

Following the failure of the Council’s 1974 initiative to bring squatting under control, the Council tried again. It published a policy proposing a ‘final solution’ to the twin ‘problems’ of homelessness and squatting. It combined measures aimed at discouraging homeless people from applying to the Council for housing, like tighter definitions of who would be accepted and higher hostel fees with a rehash of the same old anti-squatting ploys like more gutting of empties. The policy was eventually passed in April 1976 after considerable opposition both within Norwood Labour Party (stronghold of the ‘New Left’) and from homeless people and squatters.

The Gutting and smashing up of houses was an integral part of this strategy: houses when evicted were to be rendered totally unliveable in. In some cases this got highly dangerous: houses in Wiltshire Road were wrecked with an old woman still living in the basement, while people were out shopping (puts a new slant on that old chestnut about squatters breaking into your house while you’re down the shops eh, after all this time we find out that it was the COUNCIL!). There was said to be a secret dirty tricks committee in the Housing Dept thinking up demolition plans and ordering them done on the sly.

There was resistance to the evictions/destruction. In November 1976, a crowd of squatters barricaded Vining Street off Railton Road, jeering off bailiffs and workmen, to prevent their homes being smashed up – much of Rushcroft Road and Vining Street was already semi-derelict from neglect. The Council had already admitted that evicted houses would lie empty for two years and more.

However Villa Road, and later St Agnes Place, were to be the main testing grounds for this new policy.

In Villa Road, empties had been gradually squatted 1973-76. In response to tenants campaigns, the Council pressed ahead with attempts to evict through the courts, all the houses in Villa Rd, which it proposed to demolish, to build a park (a part of the Brixton Plan that had survived), and a junior school (which even then looked to be in doubt). Families could apply to the Homeless Persons Unit; single people could whistle. In reply, squatters, tenants and supporters barricaded all the houses in Villa Road and proceeded to occupy the Council’s Housing Advice Centre and then the planning office.

Links with local workers were helped by squatters’ support for a construction workers picket during a strike at the Tarmac site in the town centre and for an unemployed building workers march.

In June 1976, 1000 people attended a carnival organised by the squatters in Villa Road. The following day, council workers refused to continue with the wrecking of houses evicted in Villa Road, after squatters approached them and asked them to stop. They all walked off the job, and “the house became crowded with squatters who broke out into song and aided by a violinist, started dancing in the streets.” There was a similar incident in a squat in Radnor terrace the day before. The local UCATT building workers union branch had passed a resolution blocking the gutting of liveable houses.

These links between squatters and building workers were built on into 1977: as squatters, tenants, residents in temporary and Bed & Breakfast accommodation co-operated on pickets of the Town Hall over the Council’s housing policy. Later in the year Lambeth Housing Action Group was set up, with Tenants Associations, Squatting groups, union branches sending delegates; they pledged to co-operate with Lambeth Anti-Racist movement as well…

Meanwhile some Possession Orders in Villa Road were thrown out in court. Negotiations opened up with the council, and after much trench warfare and court wrangling, half of Villa Road was saved as part of Lambeth Self Help, in return for the demolition of the southern half, with rehousing for most of the residents.

(Some of those rehoused were moved to Rushcroft Road, to face 20 years of mismanagement, bad repair, and uncertainty from Lambeth and London & Quadrant Housing Association… and then eviction in the early 2000s as the Council decided to flog off their flats off to developers. Those moved on including your past tense typist here. Many of these flats were in turn re-squatted after L&Q evictions, when the council did nothing with the flats, and many of this new generation were only kicked out themselves in 2013…)

In St Agnes Place, Kennington, squatters first moved into empty houses in 1974 – some of the buildings had been unoccupied for 14 years. By December 1976 over 100 people were squatting there. In January 1977 over 250 police had arrived at dawn to preside over the demolition of empty houses although the demolition was stopped within hours by a hastily initiated court injunction by the squatters. The street would survive until a mass eviction in 2005, though many changes of personnel had been gone though by then.

The remnants of The Brixton Plan had already started to crumble around the Council when Ravenseft one of the major backers of the Plan, had pulled out the previous summer. The planners had to go back to the drawing board. The Brixton Plan was even more of a pipedream than it had been in 1969. By the time the High Court hearing on Villa Road resumed in March, the Council had been forced into a position where it had to compromise with squatters at Villa Rd and elsewhere… St Agnes Place, Heath Road, Rectory Gardens, and St Alphonsus Road…

In May 1978, a new left-Labour Council was elected with the trotskyist Ted Knight, and Matthew Warburton, a first time councillor, as leader and housing chair respectively. The left had been fighting to try and take over from the old rightwing Labour guard for years. Squatters in both Villa Road and St Agnes Place had contributed directly to the leftwards swing and the new leaders had pledged to adopt more sympathetic policies.

Interestingly though, watered down versions of parts of the Plan were still surfacing in the 80s. In 1983, planning officers were proposing radical alterations to the lands cape, including demolishing many houses behind the west side of Brixton Road, to build shops and offices, and rerouting Coldharbour Lane through Rushcroft Road and Carlton Mansions (handily this would have got rid of hundreds of squatters and co-op dwellers living there). Central Brixton was once again being envisioned as hosting a grandiose block of flats on top of a car park and new shops. Opposition was rallied by housing co-ops and others, through the Brixton Action Group, who described the planners as “an elusive lot who lurk in Streatham making recommendations about land use and building design which we experience years later when we are told that although our houses are viable and necessary the council regrets that the land has been zoned for office development…” Fortunately amendments were made to the plans, which took objections into account, and ended up substantially humanised.

And the 1980s would see a whole new squatting revival in Brixton…

There’s so much more to be written about on squatting in Brixton… As and when, folks, as and when.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

Past Tense has written quite a bit about Brixton (and reprinted/posted stuff written by friends and other earlier residents), relating to policing, riots, black radical politics, racism, squatting, gentrification, and much more… Because most of us lived there, through events, took part in struggles and daily life there, and think about it all. More to come – there’s lots to say – though it’s only part of what we are interested in, its an area that has helped shape us and still makes us think.

It isn’t to claim uniqueness for the area (though that is true!) – whatever ends you’re from, the tale needs telling.

Published in pamphlet form so far:

• In the Shadow of the SPG: Racist policing, Resistance, and Black Power in 1970s Brixton

• Black Women Organising: The Brixton Black women’s Group & the Organisation for Women of African and Asian Descent

We Want To Riot, Not to Work: The1981 Brixton Riots.
(Reprint of 1982 classic our mates put out: Currently out of print again, but plans are afoot…)

Through A Riot Shield: The 1985 Brixton Riot
(More incendiary stuff reprinted from Crowbar…)

Trouble Down South:
Some thoughts on gentrification in Brixton.

Most of the above can be bought online at:

http://www.alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/past-tense-publications.html
and several good radical bookshops in London.

In preparation:

It is our intention eventually to publish history and thoughts on: Brixton’s early history, the growth of working class and migrant communities, the birth of council housing and squatting, Brixton women’s scenes and gay scenes, music and streetlife, further riots, race relations, the council and the left, the poll tax, and more on social change, development and gentrification. Because we are self-funded, have families and need to survive in the morass of wage labour, and also because we have a million projects on the go, we have no idea when any of this will appear. Lots of it is also talked about elsewhere… other people are writing about it and posting up pictures etc.

Today in London squatting history, 1984: the eviction of Effra Parade, Brixton.

In March 1984, Lambeth Council sent in 200 cops to evict seven squatted terraced houses in Effra Parade, off Railton Road, Brixton – houses which they planned to demolish. The squatters had been campaigning against the impending eviction, and planned to resist…

HISTORY OF EFFRA PARADE

The houses in Effra Parade were squatted in 1977 towards the end of the big wave of squatting in the ’70s. After the battle of Villa Road, Lambeth Council had toned down its anti-squat policies and many squats became housing Co-ops and got their licenses. The Effra Parade workers cottages were squatted as soon as they became empty. They became empty because the Council had decided they were unfit, and bought them under a Compulsory Purchase Order. Only 7 of the 9 cottages were squatted, 2 of them the Council re-let to tenants who occupied them for the next 5 years. The other 7 remained squats until 25th March 1984.

Effra Parade area lies just South of the Front Line; it was a heavily squatted place, sandwiched between on the North Brixton shopping centre and the Front line, and the mostly white, middle class Herne Hill & Dulwich to the South. The people there were mostly poor, from every country, extraction and background.

THE GOLDEN DAYS

Various generations of squatters inhabited the buildings. No Council repairs were done, yet they remained inhabited, the main problems were that some places had outside toilets and leaky roofs which the squatters repaired themselves. ln 1982 & 1983 the back gardens were cultivated, some of the fences removed to make bigger open areas. The squatters were happy.

BRIXTON RIOTS

However things changed rapidly in Brixton. Several people from Effra Parade were charged after the 1981 riots. Police and Drug raids followed. During the riot, the George – a racist pub on the corner – was burned down along with the Post Office & a Newsagent opposite. After the riots the Authorities responded by saturating the area with Police, Social Workers, etc and demolished completely half of Railton & Mayall Roads, the shops, the clubs, the houses…

FRONTLINE EVICTED

The Squatted Georges Residences (20 flats, saved from demolition by its squatters), behind Effra Parade survived and became a Co-op. More Black Clubs sprang up around the Frontline on the corner of Dexter Road. These were evicted and demolished for an ‘open space’ in November ’82, leading to a riot. In return a pre-fabricated ‘Afro-Carribean Centre’ was stuck up at the bottom of Railton Road and the Adventure Playground was demolished in favour of a basketball court and still play objects. Railton Road changed, but the squatters in Effra Parade still stood.

121 THREATENED

The anarchist Bookshop across the Road with its meetings and meals had by 1982 become known as a squatting self-help centre. The Labour Party responded by trying to evict the Bookshop in 1983 (upon the Personal Orders of Council leader ‘Red’ Ted Knight) but soon realised they had ‘Stirred up a hornets nest’, and fearing the worst, they dropped the eviction case.

SAVE OUR HOMES

As a second choice they decided to evict Effra Parade. Since it was CPO’d 5 Years before they appeared to have a perfect case.

The Council’s demolition date was set for Xmas 1983, but some of the squatters began writing up graffiti and made a leaflet – Save Our Homes – calling people to resist the demolition. Squatters and other locals responded. Work parties cleaned up the gardens, patched roofs etc

Lambeth Council responded with a clever move – they offered re-housing. They had no obligation to house single people at all and such an offer could not be treated lightly. 4 houses were eventually to give in and accepted the offer – while still protesting that the houses need not be abolished.

Effra Parade was split, but as soon as a place became empty, new squatters, and even ex-squatters who loved their former homes, moved in and barricaded the houses. The 3 groups which had refused to be re-housed had already barricaded up their homes. More leaflets, stickers, posters were prepared (though the Press refused to mention the fight throughout, despite many efforts). The Council’s meetings were picketed and Councillors lobbied. Several months before some of the Squatters had joined Livin’ Bricks, a local Co-op, architects had come in and examined the houses and proved them sound.

DESPERATION

By January it became clear that persuasion would not work. The destruction of Effra Parade had become a vendetta to eradicate what the Council saw as a ‘nesting ground’ of anarchist squatters. Our response was to go for a campaign of public support – surely the threat of (another) Railton Rd riot would make them think twice? A protest march was called and about 30 people marched all over Brixton through the markets etc giving away leaflets and making noise. Another march was called. Pickets went to the homes of Hazel Smith (Housing Chair) and Ted Knight. Time was running out. A new lot of graffiti went up all over the place. The last thing holding up the eviction was that in no. 105 there was still the family of legal tenants. They were given a house and told to move out quickly. The Council was desperate to get under way! Before the Spring arrived and the street life on the Front Line got busy. Underneath the media blanket extensive and urgent preparations were being made.

1ST ALARM

On Thursday 21st March the Alarm was given, the date had been given by the Boarding up teams who had tried (and been chased off) to board up No 93 some weeks earlier. About 70 squatters turned out from the Alarm Network early in the day but the evictors did not show up, a meeting was held & it was decided to hold a jumble sale & street party on the Saturday afternoon. Many people volunteered to help barricade houses.

SATURDAY 23RD MARCH

Unfortunately a day of continuous heavy rain & icy winds. The jumble sale had to be moved over to 121 Bookshop, it was very successful. During the proceedings a rumour arrived (from where we cannot say – but a million thanks!) that the eviction was set for 4.00am on Monday morning. The tip-off could not be proven completely, but a meeting decided to call a General Alarm, to hold a meeting at midnight the following day, and an all night party in Effra Parade up until the end.

THE EVICTION

SUNDAY 24TH MARCH: FREE EFFRA AREA

The Effra Parade Alarm List went into action, and squatters from all over began turning up, joining in the barricading etc. As evening fell three Anarchist flags went up over the roofs, as well as a dummy in a gas mask. More banners appeared on the neighbouring buildings & squats. Barricading was elaborate. Some front doors had been closed off completely and most of the homes had holes knocked through to each other – escape holes – but there was no escape, as, the whole terrace could easily be surrounded & cut off. All windows had been sealed up with wire, bars, boards, Akros, corrugated iron, bed-springs etc. Volunteers were already up on the roofs, gathering bricks and bottles and setting up… hooters, sirens, bells etc. At midnight the meeting was packed out, first we discussed what to do when arrested, then 25 people volunteered to stay in the houses and fight. The rest would try and hold them off in the street. The party began, with the big amp blasting reggae music into the night. Since early evening chairs had been set in the street to prevent parking and neighbours had been told door to door (most by this stage were openly sympathetic, though Lambeth Council had delivered leaflets pleading their case). Volunteer patrols began their shifts and watched the local area. Beer, soup and sandwiches were distributed. Effra Parade was full of people, blocking the street. But the only indication of trouble was the fact that the police were nowhere to be seen. It was quiet…too quiet… For one night Effra Parade was ours: ‘Free Effra Area’ – the new graffiti proclaimed.

MONDAY 25TH MARCH 1984

2.30am: 2 police buses were spotted driving down Gresham Rd in Brixton. This was taken as a pretty sure sign. The party was in full swing.

3.00am: We began closing up the houses, moving out any last things we could save. The big Akros went against the doors, those inside could not change their minds now. No sooner was this completed than the walkie talkie link reported a removal van in Chaucer Road, a crowd ran around. The lorry was stoned and chased up Railton Road.

Almost simultaneously more removal vans were spotted, as well as police vehicles approaching the area. Now it was all coming true, we began pulling down the corrugated iron on the derelict sites and flinging everything we could in the street. A derelict car was pushed out and overturned on the corner of Effra Parade and Railton Rd, blocking that end, materials were carried down to begin a second barricade on the other side. Everyone was working furiously. Meanwhile the last tenants in 105 came out, and we moved the barricade to let their cars & a few more out. Then suddenly the derelict building on the corner burst into flames, and all the hooters and bells started going off.

MASSIVE OVERKILL

Long lines of police vans were arriving at Effra Parade from 3 directions. The first move they made was to occupy the flats of St. Georges Residences, lines of police on the balconies and roofs, cutting off the rear and most communications and refusing exit or entry on all roads to the area. Almost at the same time lines of police in full riot gear – fire-proof overalls, helmet & visor, shield, truncheon, order-following stupor – came marching down Effra Parade. At the same time from the South, down Railton Road, cutting off the 121 bookshop was another ‘riot’ group.

All of us we’re stunned by the sheer array of might against us. There we stood facing each other, about 60 of us in the street, at least 200 of them. Some people were preparing to fire the barricades and fight till the end. Bricks were being thrown at the daleks.

EVICTION

Then as they came marching in, we got everyone together and retreated, out into Railton Road, just before we were cut off. By the Frontline there stood only a line of civilian cops. We went through them, past a deserted frontline and ran down Barnwell Rd, past busloads of back up cops, and back into Effra Parade by a secret route. There the houses were totally surrounded and a terrific crashing came as the helmeted cops were still trying to get in. From the roof bricks and bottles came flying … Bastards – Nazis – Murderers – Vandals – Wreckers – AAAAEEEGHH!!! we let out screams as the first door gave and the roofs were evacuated (3 people escaped by leaping into the school yard, over walls etc). Crash! Crash! Crash! – all the neighbours were out, everyone was yelling, ‘Scabs – Nazis, get out of our street!’ As each door was smashed down a line of riot police could be seen rushing in. Inside all resistance had ended and all 25 inhabitants were sitting in one room, as the incredible violence continued. Then we saw them being led out, a dejected group, through line after line of police – Yes! they were letting them go free. A wild cheer went up in Effra Parade and screaming and jeering continued for the next 2 hours, as lines of riot cops were withdrawn past us, and lines of ordinary cops moved in, then a line of bailiffs, a line of scab workers to clear the barricades, a line of Council and Housing bureaucrats next.

Fights continued along with stone throwing till dawn. In all 10 people were lifted but only 6 held. By 9.00am the street was partly reopened to the traffic with only one line of police vans, and workers erecting a 10 ft high corrugated iron fence front and back. Lambeth Council had won.

AFTERMATH

Only one person was not released on bail. He was accused of assault, hitting a cop in the face with a brick, a case of mistaken identity because he was black. That evening 25 people assembled, screaming for his release outside Kennington nick, they were followed back to Brixton, even ordered off the bus by police when the 20p fare zone was passed… then the police raced off, the Ace (beside the Housing Office) had been set alight. The demolition men were relentlessly harassed. The new fence was taken down over and over again, the back section (30 metres) was removed entirely and thrown into the Old George site, tyres were spiked, windows smashed and mystery fires kept breaking out. By the end of the week the houses were mere shells.

Soon to be yet another Housing Office (which will probably never be built in such hostile territory) and an ecological garden (the Council demolished the already existing and never used one only 2 weeks earlier by “mistake”). It looks like total defeat, but all the lost residents have re-squatted, and to at least some of us Lambeth’s labour Council have been exposed as thugs & friends of the cops.

The story appeared in the Standard (complete with ‘glue-sniffers’ story) & a few lines in the dailies. The local South London Press gave it scant attention up until then their only mention was to refer to ‘the wasteland at Effra Parade’.

On the credit side, we now know who our friends are, who will come on the alarm etc and we put up a good show, with none of us injured.

A NEW SOCIAL ORDER

On the 28th of April, a group of about twenty Effra Paraders and friends went to the ‘Alternative Fayre’ to see if we could talk to Council Leader “Red” Ted Shite about his thoughts on our eviction from Effra Parade.

The place was full of middle class hippies selling your usual assortment of quasi religious bullshit, tarots, zodiacs, carrot cake etc …

When Ted finally entered the auditorium we set right into the bastard, stopping the “discussion” completely. Various wishy-washy liberal types tried to ‘mediate’ but they got nowhere. Eventually they got everyone to stand up and wing some peace song, which we didn’t know the words to. Some sort of attempt to soothe us savage beasts with music. Anyway it didn’t work and the meeting was still held up. Suddenly the Po-Lice arrived and were about to eject us but a vote was held to see if the audience of 400 supported their use.

This vote was unanimous: no Po-Lice to be used. So we carried on hassling Shite. He was getting really wound up, especially when three of us stood up and took the microphone, explaining our cause and taking the chance to insult him.

A couple of speakers got through their speeches, but each time Shite stood up, he just got shouted down again. Eventually Tony Benn (who was also attending) took the stage and said that by our action we had “disassociated ourselves with the “working class”. He didn’t have time to say any more on his microphone went flying. We then pulled the cloths off the speaker’s tables, sending papers, ashtrays, carafes, flying.

A steward got pissed off and tried to start on us but he was sorry he did ‘cos we landed a good few on him, before the filth started pouring in at Ted Shite’s request, over-ruling the democratic vote!

Just fancy that! Would you believe it! Well I never! etc, etc…

We all returned to various seats, and tried to look innocent, but the stewards pointed us out to the pigs. It took over 100 Po-Lice to “evict” us, and the entire building was encircled by them.

Outside the hall we were questioned and searched, but no arrests…

The meeting was called to discuss an “Alternative Britain” and a “New Social Order”… Judge for yourself!!

POSTSCRIPT

After the demolition of the cottages on Effra Parade, the council DID, despite the skeptical predictions of Crowbar, build a community garden (aahhh!) and a prefab housing office, irony of ironies.

In fact 3 squats survived in Effra Parade after the evictions – no 82 (used as an escape route when Ted’s riot police stormed the barricade) wasn’t evicted in March ’84, though it was evicted and resquatted shortly after. Nos 72 and 86 were also squatted…

The pre-fab Housing Officers didn’t have an easy time there: “apparently some of the nice middle class Housing Officers got mugged. Of course they blamed this, and everything else, on the squatters across the road. According to Mrs Adeferani, chief Housing Officer… word came from the VERY TOP that the    squatters must go.Ted couldn’t sleep at nights with them still there. And the reasons… 1) Because we were all Class War Anarchists! 2) Because we had mugged the Housing Officers 3) Because we had burned down the Housing Office (when it was newly built). LIES LIES LIES: We never burned it down. The cops’ forensic Dept. spent 3 days examining the wreckage and didn’t even question us. We never mugged the staff either but its not a bad idea. They know this very well in fact they and their pigfriends know all about us after a years constant surveillance.”

The Housing office symbolically closed only a coupla years later and remained unused for years until the late 1990s, when Lambeth gave the site to a housing association, who eventually built new houses where the row of homes had stood. Even the neighbouring school has now been sold off and developed for luxury flats. ‘Save Effra Parade” graffiti can still be seen on some Brixton walls… the struggle lives even longer in our memories.

121

“The first thing that comes to mind is the police riot shield hanging on the wall… There was something empowering about looking at that shield. I suppose my usual experience of a riot shield would be seeing it charging towards me in the street with a fascist bully-boy attached to the other end, wielding his truncheon penis extension.”

Several of the Effra Parade squatters had been involved in setting up the anarchist 121 Bookshop, a minute’s walk around the corner. The history of 121 runs like a tangled twisty thread through the story of Brixton in the 80s and 90s. Just about every time there was any trouble in the area, (or in Tottenham, Liverpool 8, Handsworth, or even later in the West End) the press, council and police would yell that it was caused by “outside agitators”, usually identified as “white anarchists”. The history of the outside agitator should one day be written; as far back as the 1780 Gordon Riots MPs were informed that “foreign gentlemen on horses” had been directing the mob… There seems to be a fatal inability to recognise people (especially the poor, and in recent times black folk) have the ability to organise themselves, and the motivation to get together – their poverty, anger and the acts of the powers that be in crapping on them.

In Brixton this was just such a joke; the influence of white anarchists on black youth was minimal. There was a lot of contact, of course, black people would use 121, especially during the years of the 121 Club, a late-night basement nightspot, usually run on Friday nights… (Admittedly some of them used it as an informal taxation on whitey, robbing the door on occasion, and the club came to an end for a while in 1988 after a stabbing outside). 121 was threatened with eviction from ’83 to ’85, the Council dithering between attacking it and granting it a licence, in the end they left the case adjourned in 1985 and didn’t return to the fray till 1997.

Brixton Squatters Aid operated from 121, producing the famed ‘Crowbar’ newssheet, at first every couple of weeks in 1982-3, then gradually less often. It started as a cheaply printed agitational sheet on scrap paper, rousing squatters round the borough to action, covering squatting news from round the Borough, London and the world; and attacked the council and the police. BSA/Crowbar encouraged alarm lists, so squatters under threat of eviction or police attack could get word out to others who would rush to their aid – in theory. They lent out tools, produced lists of empties. (Squatters coming in to leaf through the empties book could also check whether a place was owned by the Council in our highly prized List of Lambeth Council Property; forbidden to be revealed to the public, this goldmine was obtained during a squatters’ occupation of a local housing office.) Crowbar didn’t reflect the political views of all of Lambeth’s squatters – it was unashamedly pro-direct action, anarchist in its views and often savaged compromise (especially from co-ops), apathy (especially from squatters) and hypocrisy and bullshit – from politicos right or left. As the years went on it grew wider in its range, supporting Stop the City and the miners, printers and other workers in their struggles, and developing its lively controversial style. The Council hated it. When they were allegedly close to giving 121 a licence, they changed their minds (they said) because of 121’s association with Crowbar and Brixton Squatters Aid. (True to say they may never have been going to grant one!)

WHEN THEY KICK AT YOUR FRONT DOOR…

In August 1984, a few months after the eviction of Effra Parade, police raided 121 and several squats of people involved, looking for guns and explosives:

“TUESDAY 14th August 1984: 7.00am. The political police were out in force, smashing down the doors of 4 squatted houses and the local anarchist bookshop at 121 Railton Rd Brixton … The police, over 50 of them, used Firearms Warrants (which need very high up approval) and covered our homes front and back as the heavies rushed in. BUT THEY FOUND NOTHING. The nearest they came to a firearm was an anti rape spraycan. The woman who owned it was arrested and later released without any charge, likewise no charge for ‘stealing tools’ (she is a carpenter and has her own tools). One person was arrested for having 2 small marijuana plants. Another just because ‘his name rang a bell’, he was later found to have skipped bail on a small charge. The cops stole his address books after arresting him. They did not even look for firearms, not a floorboard was lifted. The cops were more interested in finding out identities and anything political they could.

At the bookshop they spent 3 hours going through everything, at times we were not able to get inside as the bomb squad went through with sniffer dogs. Anything ‘bugs’, drugs or “firearms” could have been planted by them as we were not able to follow their search. ‘Have you found the Nuclear weapons yet?’ asked one shop worker as the cops stomped in the basement And up to the roof.”

The cops were “acting on information received”. Could this be the SAME “reliable informant” who told the police which houses to raid in July 81, and that white outsiders led black rioters?)…

…How you gonna come?

There I was, dreaming blissfully of being asleep in a big warm bed with my friend. CRASH…CRASH…THUMP….

Mmmm. people breaking down the door? A herd of elephants charging up the stair? I opened my eyes and closed rthem, quick! – Oh Fuck – policemen standing round the bed! My friend was poking me urgently in the ribs. – We’re being raided – I opened my eyes again…. They were still there. I thought of resisting, let them drag me naked and screaming into the street. Better not. We got up and struggled into clothes as hordes of pigs searched the house. They got my passport. Radioed in. Oh Shit – I’m on their list!

Kiss goodbye and dragged out. Not knowing the bloke upstairs is also nicked for having a skinny grass plant. Not knowing that 3 other squats and 121 Bookshop were also being stormed at he same time, using search warrants for firearms! Brixton Police Station, cold and boredom, blood and shit on the walls and anarchist graffiti. Through the spyhole I see one of my neighbours being brought in. `How many have they got? I start worrying about all possible things I ever did against the law. Not much really.

Interview time. Tell us about 121 Bookshop. I keep complaining I haven’t been charged, they must be scouring the files for a frame-up. Sign here for the paint bombs and truncheon found in your house. – not bloody likely-

2nd interview, Special Branch. What do you know about Class War? -Never heard of it – What about Direct Action? – Not a member, as you probably know – What demos do you go to? Jesus what is this? –

I refuse to answer more questions, realising they’ve got nothing on me. Complaining that I’m being interned for political reasons. I expect them to get heavy but they don’t. Seems like a cock-up?

3rd interview. Shit. We suspect you skipped a warrant under a false name after Stop the City, ‘threatening behaviour’. – Certainly not, No way, would I lie to you?

Here are the papers. Here is your photograph…Oh yes so it is, um, er…-

I’m carted off to the City. Another 20 hours of boredom. Cops come down to ask silly questions about the next Stop the City. – Are the Hells Angels coming? – I see you got the paint bombs ready already – Will the miners come down? … I don’t know nothing.

They’re looking forward to it like it was The Big Match.

I have to stay overnight. Next day I trot out my excuses and get fined £40. Then off for breakfast with my friends.”

Surprisingly, no guns or bombs were found at 121, despite the unrestrained joy of the cop who, lifting the carpet on the ground floor, found a trap door leading to the basement. Aha, this must be the place where the weapons are stored… Down they go with a sniffer dog, lowered down on a rope as there are no stairs… Shit, no guns down here either… Oh, er, no stairs, how are we going to get out…?

It has been suggested that the cops’ “reliable informant” in this case was a South African squatter who claimed to be hyper-active, opening squats for people and “sorting out” muggers, but when he got nicked, 121 and addresses of other local anarchos got raided immediately after… “There was an attempt to run him down in Effra Parade and the driver departed London quickly…”
” The suspicious character, gunning for the driver, later attacked a 121-er on the stairs of St George’s Residences…”

121 was always attracting this sort of friendly attention… Apart from the cops (who had smashed the shop’s windows in 1981 after the big riot, the glass having escaped rioters’ attention) there were at least three attempts to burn it down – once in November 1984:

A guy tried to set fire to the side door, while we were guarding it this morning. John and me saw rubbish piled upon fire piled against it … we got rid of it… While we were doing this a white guy wearing a cardigan said he had seen the… a white guy with fair skinhead hair…he lit… wallpaper from the rubbish fire and then saw the guy watching him and said “What do you want? I’m a police officer!” The guy didn’t believe him, and the arsonist ran down Chaucer Road…

The second and third time were in 1993… A friendly neighbour heard noises on the back, and looked out to see a group of blokes trying to set fire to the building – he chased them off.

DESQUAT THE LOT

Effra Parade In context: Lambeth Council made concerted efforts to reduce in squatting during 1983-84. 200 squats were evicted through the Summer and Autumn of ’83. Council tactics included leaning on Lambeth County Court, to speed up the wait for cases to be heard, and doing basic emergency repairs, when squatters were evicted, so flats could be relet that day. Desquat campaigns on Stockwell Gardens, Larkhall, South Lambeth, Clapham, Kennington Park, Myatts Fields & Moorlands Estates were carried out during 83-84. Well established groups of squatters had previously re-occupied empties, as repairs rarely got done. Now all squats would be evicted at the same time, and people well down the Waiting List were offered tenancies, even if flats weren’t up to scratch. Squatters who kicked up a fuss, petitioned or were Labour Party members sometimes got rehoused. Borough officers got more genned up on legal cases, warrants of restitution etc, and more efficient at going to court, so they won more cases. But council overwork and incompetence still often led to collapse of cases, and places remaining empty, being smashed up, or eventually resquatted.

Post-Postscript: The remaining squats in Effra Parade

In December 1985 bailiffs and cops started harassing the squatters, warning them of an impending eviction. “It began the previous Friday afternoon, when bailiffs and police arrived, posting nasty notices thru doors and kicking them, without response. At this moment 2 squatters arrived home from a CAP picket. Despite furious arguments the bailiffs refused to say when they would evict: ‘Could be in 5 mins we’re gonna smash you and your homes to pieces’ was their final word.”

The whole street including Effra Parade School’s headmaster (?!?) signed a petition in support of the squatters… Another resistance was planned. Friends came from North London again and the houses were barricaded. But about 50 cops smashed their way in using “Ted’s secret weapon… a Lambeth van with a roof beam sticking out the back” and all three houses were evicted and totally trashed, despite a barrage of missiles, water, slates, fireworks , flourbombs and washing up liquid-soaked floors (on which cops slipped when they broke in!)

LAMBETH STANDS FOR LOCAL DEMOCRACY???

What we did do was get a petition up over the week­ end, and 98% of the street signed it (only one person refused), Saying we were Ok and should be let stay. We even got an angry support letter from a local head­master. But Lambeth Council threw all these in the bin without even considering them. We also made some hand drawn posters and picketed the Housing Office when it opened Monday morning. Brixton Advice Centre tried their best to help us but it was hopeless, Ted had spent a whole year preparing this eviction! On the Sunday night 40 punks from Nth London came down, expecting a party and a battle. On Monday night the local squatters rallied round, but again nothing happened. On Tuesday we moved our belongings out of the firing line, people, cats, dog, rabbit and all our gear, plus a workshop and two darkrooms. All had to be moved to the squats of friends. That day the police started to talk to us!‑ which we took as very suspic­ious. They told us the eviction would be at 5.00am next morning, that the whole area would be sealed off in a big operation . They had orders, they said, via Ted Knight, and they didn’t like to do it but they WERE ONLY DOING THEIR JOB. One copper even said that he hoped we would put up a good show! Some people believed them, others did not, but we were all exhausted by this time.

Nevertheless we began boarding up our homes to resist, but there were more problems. Between two of the squats lived a very frail 92 year old woman, Mrs Bol­ton, who has spent her whole life in the Parade. Naturally she supported the squatters on both sides of her and knew we were good people. So we were not prepared to have a pitched battle round this woman’s house. (Ted Knight of course couldn’t give a shit).So we sealed up those two houses and stayed in NO 72.

By now one squatter had fallen ill, and two didn’t want to stay inside. But local people rallied round for one more night. At 4.00am that night there were 25 of us in that house, and more outside. The Temperature was minus 4C and nothing stirred… A good night for Ted Knight’s dirty work.

UNMASKING THE STALINISTS

The first thing we saw was just after 5.00am… a Hire Van circling the area. Though we didn’t know then,this was the Housing Officers who had come (at your expense) in style to see the eviction. Ted himself stayed in bed.Then we heard there was a line of police vans and buses in Brixton. We were on the roof and saw them come round from Railton Rd into the Parade, on foot, a big crowd of thugs, about 50 cops and bailiffs. They were led by Sergeant Grey, the chief Community Policeman!

SCREAMS AND BREAKING GLASS

I wont say I wasnt scared, but immediately our foot­ball horns went off, in a blast of sound, and everyone began yelling. They started on No 86. Without knocking their best thug laid into the front door with a hall of sledgehammer blows. On the door was nailed a big photo of Ted Knight, entitled Ted Stalin Knight, with a Hitler moustache and the caption.”Would you Buy A Used Car from This Man?!’ And on the roof parapet stood two half full bottles with rags hanging out of them (full of water as it turned out). The brave bailiff was going mad, but making no impression. Eventually the sledge hammer got wedged. Then they tried the window, but that was rock solid too. By now everyone was laughing, the whole street was up, and the noise was tremendous. Then the bailiffs brought up Ted’s secret weapon… a Lambeth van with a roof beam sticking out the back, and tried to drive it into my front door backwards! Imagine our howls of delight when they realised the lamppost was in the way!!

They began again with the sledgehammers… then some smart arse noticed the window above the door wasn’t even boarded (Shit I forgot). So they smashed that, climbed in, and took off the ACROS. What a laugh! All this for an empty house! The rabid raving hireling of Socialist Lambeth Council charged slavering into my little house‑‑‑and ended up in a heap in the hall… Someone had spilt washing up liquid on the lino…

5.30am. One down,two to go. No 82 wasn’t so well barricaded, and fell quite soon to the ‘truck and roof beam’ line of attack. Then they were coming to get us. We were throwing fireworks, flourbombs, slates and anything we could get from NO 72. We even threw the posters, petitions and letters of support at them. When we started lighting squibs they thought the petrol bombs were coming out. But this time we were not prepared to give them the Tottenham Treatment, or to risk the lives of our neighbours and supporters. Sergeant Grey the “Hero who smashed the FrontLine’ walked bravely up to the front door… and got a bucket of freezing water on his head. The chief bailiff got the same treatment. Then the sledgehammers began hitting the door, and there was a scramble to evacuate the building. As we were getting peoploe out the back door there was a gigantic CRASH… They had backed the truck through the living room window, where we had all been trying to sleep! Fortunately the would-be murderers climbed in to find not mangled bodies  but a roomful of fresh hate – walls of new anti-Ted graffiti. Everyone was out the back by the time they got inside.

Its not a pleasant thing to stand outside your home at 6.00am, and watch them smash it to pieces. The squatters were screeching at the police lines. Terrified neighbours came crying into the street. I saw them sledgehammer the toilet, I heard the back windows going. Then they were ripping pipes and hacking down the interior walls. In a few minutes they had destroyed the roof..THERE WAS NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT ROOF..in fact two of the three houses were in near perfect condition, due to the squatters renovations. I could have made them into palaces for £1000.

After the total vandalism of that night Lambeth budgeted over £150,000 to renovate them. (The exact figure is the secret property of the Leaders Committee which controls the Front Line. Chairman, of course, Ted Knight). Is this not a scandal? is this not a crime? Who are the real terrorists?

Of course its a crime and a scandal, and Ted is the political terrorist..But you will never read any of this in any establishment paper – You will never see it on the telly or hear it on the radio. Only if you were there, or if you read little papers like this one, will you ever hear of it at all..And in the meantime Ted has delivered to every door full co1our magazines dedicated to praising himself. When persons unknown burnt the Housing Office which they had built on the rubble of our homes it was plastered on the front page of the South London Press~-Alleging directly that we were the arsonists. But – for this eviction there was nothing. Every paper had got leaflets, and the local papers had got press releases and phone calls to ‘sympathetic’ journalist reptiles. BBC, ITN and the radio stations were all contacted, and told there would be resistance on the lines of the first Effra Evictions … In the event only the police and Lambeth’s police monitoring group filmed the evictions for their own ends. NOT ONE WORD of the atrocity was heard on air or printed in any paper. Except, for the anarchist paper Black Flag it has been totally ignored. This is the first and exclusive story (and this is 3 months late). Such is the power of Ted Knight. Such is the slavish Compliance of the upper middle class media. They had planned long, and gone to phenomenal expense. They have smashed our homes, and won the War Of Silence as well … But we are squatters,Ted, and we still have the last laugh!

Two days later all the squatters (including the dog, cats and rabbit) had been happily rehoused.. somewhere among the-thousands of homes left rotting by the Council and rich housing speculators.

Two days later, with newly derelict squats on each side, unknown thieves broke into the house of 92 year old Mrs Bolton, beat. her up and robbed her. Thanks a lot Ted

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

Most of this was originally written for and published in various issues of Crowbar, the Brixton squatters magazine; other parts derive from personal recollections of some Effra Parade residents and friends (thanks to Viola Wilkins!), a leaflet about the raid in 1984, and odd other snippets from here and there.
Past Tense as a project did not originate in the 121 Centre/Bookshop, but several of those who have been involved in it worked there, hung out there, were part of the many projects that were based there or used the space. Some of us lived in squats in Effra Parade at later dates still than mentioned above… down the street though.

In 1999, when 121 was threatened with eviction and went into 24-hour occupation, we reprinted most of the Effra Parade story above as a pamphlet, to commemorate the 15th anniversary. Among lots of other adventures like making alliances with other occupied spaces in the area, fighting council cuts, producing a weekly free news-sheet for a while, invading then council leader ‘Slippery’ Jim Dickson’s office in Lambeth Town Hall (we still have the sign saying Leader of the Council from his office door, somewhere), then cheekily trying to negotiate a tenancy for 121 (not very successfully!). Eventually lots of cops with guns broke in while most people were out and exhausted and took the place back. Heyho. The full 121 story has never been told…

Past Tense has written quite a bit about Brixton (and reprinted/posted stuff written by friends and other earlier residents), relating to policing, riots, black radical politics, racism, squatting, gentrification, and much more… Because most of us lived there, through events, took part in struggles and daily life there, and think about it all. More to come – there’s lots to say – though it’s only part of what we are interested in, its an area that has helped shape us and still makes us think.

It isn’t to claim uniqueness for the area (though that is true!) – whatever ends you’re from, the tale needs telling.

Published in pamphlet form so far:

• In the Shadow of the SPG: Racist policing, Resistance, and Black Power in 1970s Brixton

• Black Women Organising: The Brixton Black women’s Group & the Organisation for Women of African and Asian Descent

We Want To Riot, Not to Work: The1981 Brixton Riots.
(Reprint of 1982 classic our mates put out: Currently out of print again, but plans are afoot…)

Through A Riot Shield: The 1985 Brixton Riot
(More incendiary stuff reprinted from Crowbar…)

Trouble Down South:
Some thoughts on gentrification in Brixton.

Most of the above can be bought online at:

http://www.alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/past-tense-publications.html
and several good radical bookshops in London.

In preparation:

It is our intention eventually to publish history and thoughts on: Brixton’s early history, the growth of working class and migrant communities, the birth of council housing and squatting, Brixton women’s scenes and gay scenes, music and streetlife, further riots, race relations, the council and the left, the poll tax, and more on social change, development and gentrification. Because we are self-funded, have families and need to survive in the morass of wage labour, and also because we have a million projects on the go, we have no idea when any of this will appear. Lots of it is also talked about elsewhere… other people are writing about it and posting up pictures etc.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebirth of a squatting movement

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

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

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

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

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

Redbridge thuggery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A CAMPAIGN – ITS AIM

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

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

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

IN STAGES

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

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

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

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

SQUATTING ’46

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

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

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

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

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

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

LABOUR POWER

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

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

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

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

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

TOKEN OCCUPATION OF LUXURY FLATS

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

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

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

STAGE TWO

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

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

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

PLANNING THE ILFORD MOVE-IN

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

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

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

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

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

HORSE DEALING AND SUBSTITUTION

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

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

THE MOVE-IN

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

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

LEADERS OF ILLUSION

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

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

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

VICTORIES AND HEART TRANSPLANTS

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

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

COUNCIL’S INTENTIONS

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

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

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

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

AGREEMENT WITH COUNCIL

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

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

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

CRUCIAL VICTORY?

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

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

TOO TAME?

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

Our criticism is not that their activities are too tame.

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

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

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

THE REAL PRIORITY

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

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

POSTSCRIPT – SQUATTERS GO HOME

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

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

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London squatting history: Vortex jazz club squatted, Stoke Newington, 2007

“On Sat 6th Jan a group of local people, along with others, occupied 139-141 Church Street with the intention of opening it up as a social centre. Previously the home of the famous Vortex jazz club the building is set to be demolished by notorious landlord Richard Midda to make way for a Starbucks on the ground floor with luxury apartments above.”

A new squatted social centre opened up in January 2007, in Stoke Newington, North London, in the empty building formerly used by the Vortex jazz club. The new space featured a daily cafe, radical cinema, club nights, talks, workshops and meeting space for various groups (the club proving especially popular). The centre garnered some support from some local folk, particularly as plans for the vacant building mainly featured demolition and redevelopment for the (oh yes of course) obligatory luxury flats and a branch of Starbucks. Thousands signed a petition to keep the building reserved for community use…

“The Vortex Jazz Club had had its origins in an art gallery set up in 1984, which became a secondhand record and bookshop and then started outing on live jazz. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s Vortex established itself as an essential destination for contemporary music in London, noted for its community atmosphere and groundbreaking performances, with music every night of the week. David programmed all the music himself, with the exception of nights run by musicians or friends of Vortex. In the early 1990s saxophonist Elton Dean (1954-2006) started Rumours, a weekly Avant-garde music night. At around the same time, Jazz Umbrella also started as another regular night to help promote young musicians, fostering talent such as Christine Tobin and Julian Siegel.

Programming at Vortex also diversified in the early ‘90s with the arrival of Pirate Jenny, a weekly night of opera, cabaret and song, featuring the works of composers such as Gilbert & Sullivan and Kurt Wile. When it came to programming music, David said the best nights would come from musicians who had projects they were really excited about. “These great musicians would come to me with ideas and I’d let them do anything they liked, and it was always brilliant . . . I’d tell them there was no money in it, but they’d say that was fine.” In 1996 Derek Drescher, who then worked as a producer at the BBC, began to record sessions at Vortex for the program Impressions on Radio 3.

However, by 2000 there was trouble on the horizon. The lease for the building on Church Street was approaching expiry, and given the burgeoning competition for property in the increasingly fashionable area, it became apparent that Vortex might need to move to a new location. A large-scale new development, Ocean, was in the planning stages nearby at 270 Mare Street. The Ocean project proposed to build a vast new arts centre housing three live music venues, however the developers lacked the local community networks required by Arts Council funding application criteria. A marriage of Ocean and Vortex seemed like an ideal solution to secure a future for both organisations. In the discussions that followed Vortex was offered full-time usage of one of the three venue spaces and with the help of Vortex team the Ocean project managed to secure funding from the Arts Council. But differences between the two organisations led them to part ways and for the time being Vortex remained on Church Street.

The Vortex Jazz Foundation was set up in November 2001 to protect the Church Street venue, and the initial plan was to raise funds to purchase the building. Efforts included a comedy fundraiser in 2002, which included performances by prominent comedians like Jenny Eclair and Johnny Vegas. The fundraiser was held for free at the Union Chapel in nearby Islington. However, in the end the building was purchased by another buyer in what was perhaps a blessing in disguise, for in 2003 Vortex began discussions with Hackney Co-Operative Developments, who were seeking tenants for their new Dalston Culture House development.

The club took a one year hiatus while the Dalston location was being completed and in 2005 Vortex moved into its current location in Gillett Square where it has been at the heart of Dalston community and culture through the Gillett Square partnership.”

Meanwhile, the prospect of the now abandoned building being replaced by the dreaded Starbucks had not only outraged Stoke Newington’s keenly localist middle classes; also woke up the slumbering local squatting scene, a long standing feature of the area. Admittedly by that time squatting was seriously dwindling as the well-to-do had long bought up all the old run-down victorian houses and were well underway with turning Church Street into the sheeshy and hideously expensive boutique/coffee bar heavy tedium it is today (with a couple of exceptions).

With the support of locals, they managed to repel an eviction attempt by private goons on Jan 26th (photos and video at indymedia.org.uk)… 

Despite several attempted (unlawful) repossession attempts being seen off, the Vortex was of course evicted:

“The Vortex social centre in Stoke Newington, London, was evicted earlier this week. First thing in the morning high court bailiffs and police moved in and turfed everyone out, eventually removing the one enterprising soul who’d hid in the attic and begrudgingly allowing most of the equipment inside to be removed.”

Around 40 people protested later that week on Church Street in solidarity with the ex-Vortex Social Centre. Many of the ex-residents and local supporters were present, as leaflets were handed out to the community explaining the reasons for the occupation and the plans for the future. Church Street was closed to traffic for at least five minutes (maybe 10) whilst those present took to the road to walk from the meeting point to outside the (now well and truly) ex-Vortex.

The chant of “What do we want … free space” was the call of the day and discussions were rife about plans for the future.

The Vortex occupation in some marked what to date seems like a possible final hurrah for the Stoke Newington squatting community – once a massive part of the area’s culture, a reflection of a collision of a long dissident ethos and lots of run-down housing…

For many centuries an area populated by religious non-conformists, due to being outside City parishes and jurisdiction, Stokey developed a dissident ethos. From defeated republicans and rebels after the English Civil War, radicals and Unitarians…

The area’s religious dissidence lasted into the nineteenth century; hence Abney Park cemetery, where large numbers of non-Anglicans were buried, including Chartist socialist Bronterre O’Brien… (On the other hand, also interred here are the repulsive William Booth and his family, founders of those vultures on the vulnerable, the Salvation Army).

Run-down houses and council near-collapse in housing, led to mass squatting here from the late 1960s. Hundreds of houses were occupied, and many larger buildings used as social centres, music venues, artspaces, and much more. Squatting not only offered people cheap places to live when times were hard, but lots of the local culture, music, creativity was built on squatting.

Another development also characterised Stokey: a growing afro-Caribbean community, which faced battles with racism, especially from the police. Stoke Newington police became notorious for racially motivated arrests, beatings, and killings, and later for fitting people up for drug-dealing, either planting substances, or dealing themselves through protected sources. The local community resisted in many ways – there were riots in 1981, and the organised resistance against racist murders, police harassment…

Local poverty, police attacks and resistance, hand in hand with an alternative and counter-cultural vibe, persisted into the 1990s. But in common with many other areas of London, this has been changing, for decades now.

The process generally labeled gentrification covers a number of different, if linked, processes. In Stokey, the area’s bohemian ethos attracted middle class dropouts, some of who in turn helped change the area into the kind of place they wanted to live in. Gradually this attracted less boho middle class people, and so on in turn. If middle class people had broadly wanted to leave the city for decades, from the 70s on this went into reverse; by 2007 much of the area was virtually unrecognisable.

So in recent decades, the neighbourhood has slowly filled up with media types and green petty-bourgeois social workers with pinched, locally-sourced eating-disorder faces. And Church Street with artisan bakers, extortionate kids clothes boutiques and chain-store wholefood porn like ‘fresh and wild’. Which is neither fresh nor wild, but has fooled the muesli belt into imagining themselves radical alternative and right-on.

Mind you, the rest of Hackney, which until recently had remained largely working class, is now facing an invasion of the bistro snatchers; hipsters, artists and rising rents are spreading like piss in a pool, while older communities face gradual eviction and dispersal under new benefit rules.

Interestingly in Dalston’s Gillett Square, where the original Vortex moved to, regeneration is broadly substantially more genuinely based in the local black community than much of what usually passes for cultural regeneration projects, which can often often be mere window dressing for gentrification; and the square does have some independent character, though how long that will remain as the area is being rapidly colonised by new developments for young trendy white things…

After the Vortex squat eviction – did the building’s owner. parasitic property developer Richard Midda keep his promise to locals to that any new tenant in the property would reflect the character of Church Street, a busy shopping area made up almost entirely of independent traders?

Er, no. As a local commentator pointed out:

“To be fair the writing was on the wall after he tore down the building to rebuild it, without planning and breaking his other promise to keep the original facade of the place in tact.

And now, to howls of outrage from the genteel residents, battery chicken peddlars Nandos have opened up.

…one blogger repeatedly lied about the social centre, needlessly and repeatedly called the old bill and generally made a tit out of herself.  Strangely enough the very same blogger then went on to whinge about Nandos moving in, when she was so helpful to Midda whilst the building was occupied.  Seems some people want it both ways.

But that’s by the bye, you can read about the whole ex-Vortex saga here.

Back to Nandos, a local campaign established to oppose the corporate take over of Church Street.  Nevertheless Richard Midda ran roughshod over local sentiment in the name of making a quick buck.

Now the plight of Hackney’s middle classes is hard to get too upset over, the latte slurpers took over that part of Stoke Newington a long time ago and even the Angry Brigade couldn’t save it now.

But it does offer a timely warning to the ciabatta munching chinless ones.  The final stage of gentrification is that the big corporations move in and that lovely little deli becomes a Tescos and the simply wonderful Thai restaurant turns into Pizza Express.

That’s capitalism folks.”

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Follow past tense on twitter