‘Who are the squatters?’ Interviews with 1946 London squatters

Following on from yesterday’s account of the mass squatting of Duchess of Bedford House and other buildings across central London in September 1946, here’s an article published at the time, based on interviews done with squatters at Duchess of Bedford House and then at their temporary accommodation later in Chalk Farm. 
Diana Murray Hill was one of the foremost active recorders of daily life in the Mass Observation movement. Her article is not without its patronising touches… but provides some interesting insights into the people who took up residence in the squats, why they were squatting, and their motivations. It does throw up some questions about the relations between the Communist Party as organisers and the people they housed. It also illustrates the class consciousness that the squatters shared, the belief that what they were doing was not only in their own interests but aimed at forcing wider changes in housing policy – and the willingness to co-operate and organise collectively (not only in the squats bit also in their temporary London County Council home after they left the squats). It does leave you with the question – what might have been possible if the movement had not been cut short in September 1946.

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Who are the squatters?

Diana Murray Hill

(Published November 1946, in Pilot Papers vol 1 no 4.)

Who were the squatters ? For the past ten days there had been accounts of them in the papers and on the wireless. There had been photographs of them in the untenanted luxury flats which they had taken over in different parts of London; there had been accounts of interviews with them, and an article entitled “Squatters and Squatted Against” had appeared in an illustrated weekly.

Public opinion about the squatters was divided. Some people sympathised openly, coming to the flats with gifts of food and bedding. Others condemned the squatters. Another section was half sympathetic, half disapproving. They agreed that the squatters had cause to agitate for new homes, but they argued that they were trespassing unlawfully on other peoples’ property, and that, by taking such violent action, they were jumping their places on the housing lists and depriving those who preceded them on the lists of homes which they needed as urgently as themselves.

Some said the taking over of the flats was only a publicity stunt devised by the Communists, These asked ‘How could a hundred people gather together at a certain place and at a certain time unless they had been organised by some central body?’

The first luxury flats to be taken over by the squatters were those at the Duchess of Bedford House, off Kensington High Street. The Daily Herald of September 9th stated that ‘The movement started at 3 p.m. (on Sunday, September 8th), when more than a hundred families entered Duchess of Bedford House, an empty block of ten-guineas-a-week flats in the Duchess of Bedford’s Walk, derequisitioned three weeks ago. Vans arrived with furniture, and squads of police stood by. Mr. B., the caretaker, was the only man in the building when the squatters arrived. He phoned the police. Groups of helpers, many wearing Communist Party badges, assisted the squatters to move in.’

I did not make my way to the Duchess of Bedford House till the evening of Thursday, September 19th. By this time many of the squatters had been issued with writs, and the Communists who were responsible for helping the squatters move in, and who were the leaders of the squatters’ committees, had been arrested. The squatters themselves, by arrangement with the government, were to move out on the following day to new quarters at Bromley House, Bow.

I wanted to see what sort of people these squatters were. Were they sensation-mongers ? Were they weak people, easily influenced by others? Or were they simply out for fun and novelty ? How did the squatters live in their bare stolen homes ? Would they, if they didn’t get the houses they clamoured for, lose heart and go back to their old homes : Perhaps they were breaking up already, sobered by the writs and the arrest of their leaders.

The Duchess of Bedford House was a building of red brick and cement, seven stories high. At an entrance down a side road stood two policemen, their capes dripping with the rain, and a plain-clothes man. I asked if I could see the committee, for I was interested to know more about the organisation that seemed so shrouded in mystery.

‘There isn’t a committee now; they’ve all faded away,’ was the policeman’s comment as he shrugged his shoulders and jerked his thumb towards the entrance beyond him. I went down the steps of this and found myself in the squatters’ home.

Placed diagonally across the door inside was a roughly-constructed plywood counter, to act as a barrier to unwanted visitors. On top of this was a pile of Daily Workers with a saucer beside it for pennies. The people beyond the barrier looked friendly. Some working-class men and women were sitting on chairs against one wall, talking and giving a push now and again to a little girl taking a ride on a home-made rocking-horse. Others had taken a perch on some rolled-up bedding by some sacks of potatoes on the bare stone floor. One or two were studying a bulletin on the notice board. This had been freshly issued by the committee, so apparently they had not melted away’ It urged squatters to keep up their morale and to fall in with the Government’s suggestion to move out to Bromley House till homes could be found for them. Near the bulletin was the canteen tariff : ‘ Main meal-Soup 2d’, Main dish plus bread-rod., Sweet 3d., etc.’

Against the dead lifts stood a large hand-painted poster – ‘DUCHESS SQUATTERS SEND GREETINGS TO ALL SQUATTERS AND ALL WHO NEED HOUSING.’ Children ran to and fro, and in the centre of them, animatedly discussing arrangements for next day with a squatter, stood the woman who I discovered to be the chief woman organiser of the Duchess of Bedford House squatters’ She looked tired and overworked.

I asked her if I might have a look round and speak to the squatters’ She at first showed some hesitation, but, when she was convinced that I meant them no harm, she produced an escort for me.

This was Mrs. R., a squatter whose husband was on the committee. Like the other squatters I saw there, she was spruce, neatly dressed and very friendly. ‘We have to be careful who we let in,’ she told me, ‘the first few days we had crowds of reporters and people, who banged on the doors of our flats and marched straight in to ask us questions. We put up that barrier to stop the flood.’

We went first to see ‘The Kitchens.’ These consisted of slit trenches dug in a cinder yard at the back of the building. A squatter was hard at work cooking the evening meal on the fires that roared in the trenches. In a white overall she stirred her cauldron with nothing to protect her from the rain but a few scanty branches projecting over the wall. She told me she had seven children and that she did all the cooking for the squatters. ‘I shan’t be sorry when we get to Bromley House and the meals are cooked for us,’ she said, ‘but the women have been very good helping to peel potatoes and prepare vegetables, and the men light the fires for me.’ I asked what was for supper. It was soup and fish. A little boy came up with a big tin pie-dish. ‘Six portions of fish and one soup.’

‘Most of the squatters buy their own food and do their cooking in their own flats,’ she said, ‘we have a canteen three times daily for milk and bread, and they buy the rest from the shops.’

This was a surprise. From newspaper reports and from hearsay I had assumed that squatters could not go in and out of shops like ordinary people. I had assumed that they lived in a complete state of siege.

‘Oh yes,’ said my escort, ‘it felt a bit funny at first going out and not knowing whether you’d be let in when you got back. Several times when I went back home to fetch crockery and bits of furniture I wondered if I’d find myself locked out!’

I asked her where her home was, and she told me that she and her husband had been living with her mother at Westminster for the past two years. They had never had a home of their own and had no children. They have been fifteen months on the waiting list at the L.C.C. and Westminster City Council. Her sister and her husband, also at the Duchess of Bedford House, lived with her mother too, so that there were eight adults in three rooms. Her sister’s husband came from Lambeth. The Lambeth Council refused to have him on their list because he lived in Westminster, and the Westminster Council would not have him because they said he was a Lambeth man. I asked her how she heard of the squatting at Bedford House and she said some friends told her about it and they packed suitcases and came straight along.

‘Going squatting’ was an activity referred to by some there as undramatically as ‘going blackberrying.’ ‘I’m sure we’re doing a good job,’ said Mrs. R. ‘My husband was served with a writ a day or two ago, but he didn’t worry; he knew he was doing right. He just took his case to court and spoke out.’ I asked her if it was true that the caretaker had been locked up in his room. ‘No, that was all a lot of nonsense,’ she said, ‘he walks about and is quite friendly to speak to.’

We climbed up five flights of stone stairs in the half dark. Up here there was a lot of scribbling on the walls. ‘Done by the Irish builders who were here before us,’ said Mrs. R. ‘and before them I think there were Maltese refugees.’ As we plodded down again, she said ‘The heating is cut off and the lifts aren’t working. But every day the two lift men report for duty and sit in the caretaker’s office till it’s time for them to go home.’  She showed me the tiny room which the committee used as an office, the food stores where the shelves were piled up with tins of food presented free by sympathisers, the canteen, the hut outside which was used for dancing and socials. They had had a children’s party there that afternoon, and had had visits from variety artists and the Unity Theatre. They were having a good-bye party there that night, at which all the disbanded , committee were appearing.

I asked her how the children had liked being there. ‘Oh, they’re having a grand time,’ she said. It was true, whenever I saw children they showed no signs of being starved and were being made a great fuss of by everybody else’s mothers and fathers. I was told they went to school locally.

Before I went, I was taken to visit some squatters in their private flats., There was Mrs. and Mr. N. on the ground floor. They shared a flat, normally used by one, with-another family and had plenty of space to spare. Each whole flat consisted of three or four rooms, a bathroom and kitchen.

Mrs. N. was cooking on an electric heater plugged into the light. The lino-floored rooms were bare of furniture except for iron bedsteads, a chair or two, a cot and a pram. These were for the two children, a boy of three months and a girl of four. Mr. N. was a dress cutter. Both had worked in munitions during the war, and Mrs. N. had been in turn driller, miller, grinder and viewer. The home they had left consisted of two rooms in Shepherd’s Bush – a kitchen and a bed-living-room. The kitchen was three yards by two yards, so small that there was only space for a small table and two chairs, so that the children had had to eat in the bedroom. ‘We have had furniture dockets for nine months,’ she said, ‘but we couldn’t buy anything because there was no room to put it.’

I spoke to two other families who had become firm friends through squatting. Mrs. H., aged twenty-five, was a member of the committee. Like her husband, who was a painter, she was born in South Wales, but had lived in London since she was fourteen. Her husband was thirty-one, and had served overseas- for all six years of the war, in Palestine, Iraq, and the B.A.O.R. The child, aged seven, had been evacuated to relations in South Wales with her mother. When Mr. H. was demobbed in June, 1946, they both lived in one furnished room in Kilburn. They had a gas ring but no cooking facilities. They had to fetch all water from the floor above. The lavatory was shared with four other families. The rent was £1 6d. a week. The landlady refused to have their child, so she had to remain in South Wales while they still paid £1 a week for her keep.

They have been on the Willesden housing list for a year, went to see a Councillor in Kilburn and wrote to an M.P. in the Ministry of Health. The husband has gastric trouble.

‘We have been all over the place to find a home’, said Mrs. H., ‘it was when my husband was going round to look for rooms that he saw an advert in a newsagent’s about the squatters. It was Sunday, September 8th, the day it started. We had no pots or pans, and our furniture was in store, so we came straight along as we were.’

‘Our first feelings were excitement at having a flat of our own, and at seeing a bathroom, although there was no hot water. We didn’t want to leave. Everybody was so friendly – we’ve made tremendous friends among the squatters.’

Mrs. H., who is very fond of children, was later on put in charge of the children. She told me how the committee had been voted for by all the Bedford House squatters. Apart from the chief organisers there were about six men and six women. They held meetings every night to discuss any changes in the situation and to deal with any complaints or difficulties. Mrs. H. was nursing a little girl of three, who belonged to the chief friend she had made at Bedford House, Mrs. B., who was the same age as herself. Mrs B., aged thirty-five, was a retort-setter who had worked previously for a firm in Glasgow. When this firm suggested a transfer, they moved to one room in Hammersmith with their little girl. They paid fifteen-shillings a week and shared the kitchen and w.c. The rain came in to their room and the kitchen, and they had mice. They were officially overcrowded, but, as they would have been 7,000th on the Council list, they saw no point in putting their name down. They had lived in the Hammersmith room six months. The kitchen grate would not work and the w.c. would not flush. Mr. B. was born in Newcastle and Mrs. in Glasgow.

I left these two families eating their supper, which had been cooked on the usual electric ring plugged into the light. They had had to buy this, cost 15s. 9d. The H.’s only furniture was one or two government chairs found stacked up in the flats. They slept on the floor. As my escort showed me out, some of the squatters were drifting over to the social in the hut. Others were beginning to pack up their belongings ready for the move to Bow.

In the papers next morning were accounts of charabancs with gaily streaming banners,’ and ‘the bands of the -th Regiments , which were to play the squatters out on their journey to Bromley House. The weather was at its bleakest when I turned up to see them off. It was a day of gales and floods.

However, at two-thirty on that afternoon of Friday, September 20th, the Duchess of Bedford Walk presented a very different appearance from the day before. Half a dozen charabancs were lined up in the walk. A girl was pasting strips in the windows These said: ‘DUCHESS OF BEDFORD SQUATTERS – WE STILL FIGHT FOR THE HOMELESS.’

Against the curb on the other side of the walk were taxis and press cars, with attendant motor bikes. Police stood. about at intervals, and reporters greeted each other with weary but knowing smiles, some murmuring that it was ‘all a b… waste of time.’ One press car had a movie camera on its roof, and other reporters were pressing up the little private road to catch the squatters as they came out of the side entrance.

Little groups of squatters were already beginning to emerge with their children, pots and pans and sometimes a puppy or a cat. Some sat ready on the wall, and husbands answered calls of ‘More men wanted!’, as movers struggled with furniture or bedding. Two small boys, ready capped and coated, jumped up and down on duckboards which squelched in the muddy wet across the exit, till they were moved aside by the men coming out with more furniture. Bits were also thrown down from upper windows, from which many heads looked out. The furniture and bedding was stacked in the removal vans drawn up outside. The woman organiser tore herself from hasty discussions with the committee to make a tour of the outside of the block to make sure there was no litter about and that everything was left perfectly tidy.

Among the little crowd that had gathered to watch the squatters, departure were working-class sympathisers, curious Kensingtonians, and a group of mothers and relations with children. A mild-faced gentleman, with an umbrella and a library book under his arm, pottered about, watching quietly. A working-class woman sat down on the wall near the entrance saying ‘I’m a sympathiser. I haven’t got any friends or relations who are squatters, but I’ve come-from Shepherd’s Bush to see them off. It’s a shame to have all these press-men about ; the squatters won’t like that.’ Another sympathiser burst into tears saying, over and over again, ‘Poor dears ! Poor dears !’

But the squatters didn’t have it all their own way, and there were many watchers who were not sympathetically inclined towards them. A young woman, evidently employed as a domestic at the next block of luxury flats, was discussing the squatters with a middle-aged friend.
‘Well, really, how anyone has the face to behave in such a silly way beats me!’ ‘Ridiculous, isn’t it ! ‘
‘ I wouldn’t do a thing like that; not unless the Government told me to !’,
‘Well, I mean, just look at the Types !’
‘Yes, it’s only Types like that’d do a thing like that. Some lovely kiddies though.’ ‘Poor little souls, fancy bringing your kids along to a place where there’s no food! No electricity or anything! poor little souls must be starving!’
‘It’s ridiculous! Why, these flats aren’t fit to live in-they’re in an awful State! They’ve got to have a lot done to them before they’re fit to live in.’
‘It’s not as-though doing a thing like this helps them at all, it only makes things worse in the end.’
‘Of course it’s nothing but a publicity stunt organised by the Communists. I wonder they let themselves be led into a thing like that!’
‘The Communists are silly, but they have got some good ideas. I haven’t the time-for them myself, but they have got some good ideas. They’ve over- stretched themselves this time, though!’
‘As a matter of fact I do think the people should have decent homes. There was a couple with two kiddies living in some rooms I knew, and they had to be turned out when the caretaker’s friends came back. I do think servicemen should have homes to come back to.’
‘Oh, yes, they definitely should have homes. you can’t wonder some of them want to rise from the low standard they’re forced to live in in some of these overcrowded places. Still, it isn’t doing them any good to go about it in such a silly way.’
‘ That’s right. They should learn to be patient and wait.’

The squatters, oblivious to these comments, were beginning to pile into their charabancs. But where was the band ? It was late in materialising… There was a scuffling from behind the recreation hut, and from the shrubbery emerged three men in mufti carrying drums. They set down their drums in a sad row by the entrance, two small ones and a large one in the middle resting on two others. Two men were in mackintoshes and caps, the third was in a suit. They were joined by a piper in full dress and then set to to bang away laboriously.

A taxi driver, cruising by to see what he could see, remarked impartially: ‘The Government shouldn’t have promised them these things ; wot I mean, nobody can’t promise anybody anything these days!’

So the squatters moved away from the Duchess of Bedford House to their new quarters at Bow. But for the squatters there was to be no settled home at Bromley House. The builders’ workmen who were billetted there refused to move out. Their work was near Bow; they saw no reason why they should be transferred to another part of London where they would have to pay extra fares to work. They decided to stand fast, squatters or no squatters.

Here was an unusual situation; one lot of workers defeating the ends of another. What would happen next? Would this break up the squatting movement?

There were sensational accounts of workmen locking doors, guarding rooms with their bodies and crying ‘Stand by your dormitories !’ Feelings between workmen and squatters must be running high. But the next bulletin told how all day Saturday squatters had been on deputations to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Health. They had finally been promised another temporary home. This was to be at Alexandra House, Hampstead, up till now an Old Ladies’ Home. The old ladies, evidently more amenable than belligerent workmen, were to be moved out to St. Pancras.

After leaving the squatters a few days to settle down, I went up to see them in their new quarters. Having heard the stories of their reception at Bromley House, I was interested to see if the squatters were still standing firm’ They had been calm and cheerful at the Duchess of Bedford House. Perhaps, after this set-back some would have gone home and those that remained would be disgruntled.

Toiling up the slope that led to Alexandra House were two mothers with a baby in a pram and two little boys. One of these was saving to his mother : ‘Are we going back to the Hospital, Mum ? ‘ ‘
Don’t be silly,’ said his mother, ‘it isn’t a hospital ! ‘ ‘
Well, there’s nurses inside.’
‘That doesn’t make it a hospital-it’s HOME ! ‘
the little boy said, with more conviction, ‘It’s our new house ! ‘

The new house was a solid mansion, surrounded by trees, at the top of a high drive. The sky could be seen through the windows of, one wing which had been burnt out by the blitz. The lawns in front of the house were half dug up into vegetable beds.

I followed the mothers up the wide steps into a large parquet-floored entrance hall where there were comfortable arm-chairs and a circular table with a pot of flowers on it. Again my escort, Mrs. R., appeared to show me round. She took me into the large dining-hall where trestle tables were set with a meal prepared by L.C.C. staff in basement kitchens. We saw the common room with wireless and rows of ‘ pensioner ‘ chairs, the washrooms with rows and rows of basins, the rooms where the babies’ milk was prepared.

As we went I asked her questions. How was the squatters’ morale standing up to all the vicissitudes ? What had been the attitude of the Bromley House workmen towards them ? Had the squatters felt very bitter towards them ? How did they like their new home ? Had many families got fed up with the whole business and left ?

Mrs. R. seemed surprised that I expected the squatters to be changed. They were the same now as they had been before; as cheerful and as reasonable as ever. ‘Nobody’s got fed up,’ she said, ‘the Duchess of Bedford squatters are all here in full force, and we have been joined by the squatters from Melcombe Regis and Fountain Court. Only one family has left us, and that was because some people at their old home went away and there was room for them there. The others are all here, and they still feel the same as they did. After all, nobody’s here for the fun of the thing.’

‘You see we know we’re doing a good job. A lot has happened already. Two of our families have been found new homes, the Ministry of Health has launched a new housing drive and the L.C.C. people here seem anxious to do ail they can for us.’ ‘ Can you tell me anything about the families who have been found these new homes ?’

‘Yes, I know about one of them. They were squatters from Fountain Court and had seven children. They lived in one room in North Kensington. The roof leaked, the bath was in a condemned basement and the children were several times bitten badly by rats. They’ve been found a home in rooms in Westminster that n-ere in the middle of being decorated.’

We looked at the notice board in the hall. There was a list of local schools, the address of a boys’ club in Camden Town and the names of mothers qualifying for priority milk. Mrs. R. told me there had been several babies born during the squatting.

There was also a notice issued by L.C.C. housing officers. This stated that it was unnecessary for anyone at present to go to Town Halls or housing departments about their cases, as they were being dealt with by the L.C.C. Those who had not applied anywhere should apply to the L.C.C., including ex-servicemen, even if already on housing lists.

I asked a committee member who was sitting typing at a table for the official figures of the families at the Duchess of Bedford House, at Bromley House, and at present at Alexandra House. She told me that the families at The Duchess of Bedford had numbered In all fifty-five. At Bromley House, where they had only spent one night, there had been something under a hundred families, those from the Duchess of Bedford and Fountain Court. The squatters at Melcombe Regis had hung out till the Monday (the night spent at Bromley House was a Friday), when they had joined the others at Alexandra House. There were now a hundred families at Alexandra House.

‘We hope to have everybody fixed up within six weeks,’ said Mrs. R. We went to see the Gymnasium, shortly to be turned into a creche. A boy was tearing round the yard outside on his bicycle while five old ladies sat quietly by on a bench. One of the nurses that the little boy had spoken about came up to see if they wanted anything. As well as the squatters’ organisers we saw L.C.C. helpers, voluntary women helpers, some of whom lent their services for typing out notices and case histories, trained nurses and Hampstead housewives who had come to look after the babies, and an assortment of clerks who looked out of place in their striped trousers and black coats.

‘Of course there are some squatters who don’t pull their weight,’ said Mrs. R., ‘some who are dirty or untidy and some who help as little as they can. But there always will be people like that, and the majority of them have been marvellous. They all have jobs allotted them by the committee. Some help to look after the children, some keep the wash-places clean, others have duties in the milk rooms.’

We went upstairs to see the dormitories. These looked like hospital wards but were more closely packed with rows upon rows of iron bedsteads, some with children already in them or mothers sitting on them chatting. More small children’s beds were arranged together at one end of the room, some in two tiers. There were two of these vast dormitories, one for mothers and babies, another for mothers and children over three. The boys over eight slept on the next floor up in the men’s dormitory.

Mrs. R. took me through into her own dormitory where the women without children slept. Although it was removed from the others the wailing of children could still be heard.

‘That’s the trouble about this place, really,’ said Mrs. R., ‘the lack of privacy. We all really preferred Bedford House as we had our own flats there. Here you sleep together, wash together and eat together. The first night I hardly slept a wink.’

There was a doctor with some L.C.C. officials going round the dormitory. A middle-aged woman was taking off her skirt, an older one was trying to sleep. ‘ As soon as there’s any sign of illness among the kiddies they take them off to hospital ; it would be too risky to leave them here where others might catch it from them.

‘We wandered back through the other dormitories. I sat down on a bed with a red worsted counterpane marked ‘ London County Council ‘ and talked to one of the mothers. The lights were now on, and we carried on our conversation to the accompaniment of wails from the children around us.

This mother had a child of six. Her husband had had a temporary job in the Channel Islands and had been caught there when the Germans took over. She could only communicate with him by Red Cross message. She took the child to live with her mother in Yorkshire and got a job in munitions, first electro-plating transmitters and then tank links. When the islands were liberated a year ago she and her husband went to live in a room in Clapham with their little girl. They were charged 30s. for the two of them and £2 when they were joined by the child. For this they had one back room with an iron bedstead sleeping three, a small card table, three odd chairs, a second-hand chest of drawers and washstand with odd jug and basin. There was an open coal fire for which they had to provide their own fuel and a gas cooker in a tiny room downstairs. This worked on a meter, and as it was shared by men lodgers who were out during the day, the family lost on the transaction and had to pay as much as ten shillings a week for gas. Two young girls were then put in the room with the cooker which meant they had to cook on the floor above, sharing cooker and lavatory with three other families. There was no bath. They had to boil water up and use a tin one they bought themselves. They had filled up a form a year ago at the L.C.C. When she went back about it they told her it had been sent on to Kennington, but Kennington knew nothing about it. The landlady soon gave them a week’s notice as she wanted the room for men boarders who would pay more. After traipsing all over London with the child to find another room, the family bought a second-hand bed and slept the night in a hut on Clapham Common, cooking for two days on a ‘ bogey ‘ lamp.

On Sunday night, September 8th, they heard on a friend’s wireless that people were squatting at the Duchess of Bedford, and went straight there on a bus, going back later to the hut to fetch the bed in a taxi. I asked them how they had liked squatting.

‘It’s been marvellous ! No landlady to say ” Be quiet ! . . .” When I first heard the kids making a row at Bedford House I wanted to say ” Sh-h-h ! ” We used to have to walk across our room in carpet slippers. And the bath ! We boiled up water and put it straight in it ! Squatting there was an experience I shall never forget. Everybody was so kind, you only had to say what you wanted and they’d get it for you. There was no time to get disheartened, with the concerts and everything, and we felt we were doing right, although some people might not think so. You see, one half of the world doesn’t know how the other half lives. As to the way the squatters stuck together, I was surprised at it myself. People say the working classes get disheartened quickly, and even I was surprised at the way they all stood together.

‘How about Bromley House ? Didn’t that dishearten you ? What were the builders’ workmen Iike?’

’What they said in the papers wasn’t true. I think they wanted one lot of working-class to cut the others’ throats, but we weren’t going to. The workmen were all very friendly. you should have seen them all standing there by the gate with smiles on their faces! They hadn’t had anything to eat all day, because they were supposed to clear out, but they turned to and helped us. They offered some of the men beds in their dormitories, and some of them were ready to turn out for us, but we wouldn’t let them. As soon as we had had a meal the chaps who were playing dominoes in the rest room cleared out and helped us-make up our beds on the floor. I’m glad we didn’t stay there, though, it was like an institution, only suitable really for men who were out, all day. In the evening we put it to the vote whether to get out or stay, and decided to get out.’

‘On the Saturday some of the workmen joined in our deputations and came with us. to Downing Street. When we went they made a collection for our kids, it came to £5.’

I asked this mother how she liked it at Alexandra House, and she said it was nice having good food, but she didn’t like the lack of privacy or having to sleep apart from her husband. ‘We’ve been parted for the last five years’ she said, ‘and that’s quite long enough.’ I was told that there was more tension between husbands and wives at Alexandra House than between families, because of this sleeping apart.

I asked her what sort of house-she would prefer if she were given the choice. ‘A prefab’, she said, without hesitation. ‘They look so neat and you can keep them nice. With a garden in front and your own bath. Then you could have the key to your own door and come in and go out as you liked.’ Of the half dozen people I asked all, without hesitation, chose prefabs as the kind of home they would prefer.

I now had an answer to most of my questions. But downstairs in the entrance hall I picked up a copy of the Evening Standard and read a paragraph headed ‘The Squatters Retreat – Communist tactic. The squatters, who had little to do with the decision to squat, had less to do with the decision to retreat from the occupied premises. That was a decision of the Communist Party. It conforms to the classic tactic of that party all over the world. The tactic is to make an issue, force.it to the point where it appears dangerous, collect the political capital accruing and then retreat . . . We may congratulate ourselves that what might have been an exceedingly ugly business has passed off without violence!’

I had grown a little tired of hearing squatting explained away as a publicity stunt and put down as nobody’s but the Communists’ responsibility, so I decided to ask the next squatters I saw what they thought about it. On a sofa in the hall sat a couple I had not seen before. I went over to talk to them.

Mr. and Mrs. R. were both young. The husband was twenty-one and had been born in Woolwich. His wife, aged twenty-six, was born in St. Pancras. They had married during the war and had never had a home. Mr. R. was fair, open-faced and British to the backbone. At the beginning of the war he had been apprenticed to a Watford engineering firm. He volunteered in 1943. He met his wife near Watford when he was in the Army and she was in the W.A.A.F. Before that she had been a clerk in a big London store. She was neat, lively and intelligent. Part of the time I was talking to them she was nursing the baby, who found it difficult to go to sleep in the big dormitory.

When Mr. R. was demobbed in 1946 they lived for a time with his mother in Watford. There was no room for them both there, and by this time they had a baby almost a year old. They put their name down for a house, before he was demobbed, at the Marylebone Council, then at the Watford Council, then, this year, at the L.C.C. There was nothing doing; no definite date. From then on theirs was a life of wandering. They went from his mother’s to his wife’s relations at Exeter; then, when relatives there came home from the war, to more relations in Kent. When more family turned up in Kent, to Mr. R.’s brother in St. John’s Wood. Then back to Exeter and so on. While they were at his brother’s in St. John’s Wood a friend rang up and said, ‘Would you like to squat ?’ and told them about Melcombe Regis. They arrived there too late and at last managed to get in with the squatters at Abbey Lodge, the flats that were most strictly guarded by the police. The police had had orders from the owners not to let anybody in, and anyone who went out for stores or blankets was sure to find himself barricaded out on his return. There were not enough blankets to go round, and many of the men gave up theirs to the women and babies, as their friends who arrived with blankets were not allowed to leave them.

Finally the crowd of sympathisers outside, the majority of whom Mr. R. knew personally and could vouch for their not being Communists, did a sit- down ‘squat ‘ in the road, so that traffic had to be diverted. The police relented so far as to let in twenty-five blankets. Other sympathisers, amongst whom were well-to-do people in cars, rolled up with gifts of food and even hot water bottles.

The R.’s said they had a lovely flat on the first floor that would have accommodated two families. There were two bathrooms. Some resourceful squatters rolled themselves up in the rich carpet they found in the hall. Mr. R. said the squatters’ morale at Abbey Lodge was very high. Again he knew many of them personally, and of the ones he knew none were Communists. The squatters formed their own committee. The R.’s stayed at Abbey Lodge a week and then were intending to go back to his brother’s, but heard indirectly that by staying with him they might be letting him in for trouble. His was a Council-requisitioned house and if he was caught having people there he might lose his tenancy. So, hearing from a friend about Alexandra House, they came along on Monday, September 23rd.

If the R.’s could choose, they could have a prefab. on an estate at Stonebridge Park, or as near London as possible, but they would be prepared to go anywhere as long as they could have a home of their own. The chief disadvantage of squatting for Mr. R. was that he couldn’t get out to go to work and so had lost more than a week’s wages and still has the difficulty of fares to Watford, where he is in the same engineering job. ‘I know I could get money off the Communists,’ he said, ‘but I wouldn’t, because squatting is for my own benefit, not theirs. However,’ he added, ‘I feel by squatting we shall definitely shorten the time of waiting which the councils said would probably be for years.’ Then he said, with vehemence ‘If the Government go on allowing luxury flats now untenanted to be done up for luxury people they ought to be chucked out.’

His wife added, with as much feeling ‘If they don’t accommodate us from here-and we won’t shift from here till we must-we shall go and squat for ourselves somewhere else. The Communists have nothing to do with it. We would have squatted in a prefab. if it hadn’t been for taking it away from the people who wanted it.’ Mr. R. would have voted labour at the last election, but had been too young to vote.

I asked every squatter I spoke to what their politics were, and they told me either that they were Labour or no particular party. One of them remarked that, as far as they could see, the Communists were the only ones who were ready to do anything for them, and that they had been marvellous. But as to the argument that the Communists gave them the idea of squatting, they said there was nothing to it. Many of them had been squatting of their own accord before the taking over of the flats. In some cases the huts they had been squatting in had been taken away from them.

Whether or not the Communists were responsible, their enthusiasm for the squatters’ well-being made it unlikely that the taking over of the flats had been organised for publicity reasons. Those who were organising, both at the Duchess of Bedford and at Alexandra House, were extremely hard-working and never had a moment that they could call their own. They seemed to treat the Press curtly and to answer aa few questions as possible’.

The two that I pursued for information were Stan Henderson, one of the Communists arrested for organising the squatting at the Duchess of Bedford, and the woman organiser already mentioned.

From both of these I tried to find the explanation of how the squatters had so miraculously assembled at the flats on September 8th. Henderson, who was under arrest at the time, was unable to make a statement. The woman organiser, although willing to do all she could to help me, was, on every occasion, either too busy or too tired to say a word.

From the answers I was given by the squatters it can only be assumed that, as the number of the families at the Duchess of Bedford House was officially fifty-five, instead of a hundred as stated in some daily newspapers, and as all the squatters I spoke to had either heard of it through friends or on the wireless, and had gone straight along or followed the next day, there was not such a general taking-over en masse as I had been led to believe.

On October 8th I rang up Alexandra House for the last time, to try and get an answer to this question. The squatters were still there in force. Five families had now been found homes. But the same woman organiser from whom I was trying to get the information had had a nervous breakdown and had been ordered a complete rest from the squatters by her doctor. However, what was more important, before she became ill she gave me access to the squatters’ case-histories, on condition that a committee member was present when I read them.

Here are a few of them, as they appeared in the files.

Husband and wife, no children. 1 room and kitchen (lodger slept in kitchen). Roof leaked, water came in. Mice in room, rats in basement. 14/- rent. Officially over- crowded. Husband-in Nary 3 years. Demobbed May 46. Applied Kensington B.C. Was told no good as had not lived in Kensington 5 years. Must apply again in one year.

Husband, wife, 5 children (M.19, twins M.M. 13, F 12, F.7). 2 rooms, one very small used as kitchen. All slept in one room. Shared lav. In bad repair. Draughty. r4/- rent. Husband demobbed45. (Dunkirk, Invasion). Applied Paddington 1 year ago. Called again recently, no sign of application.

Husband, wife, 2 children under r4, baby expected. Room damp infested. Officially overcrowded. Shared bath, w.c. Rent 12/- Husband P.G.U. 18 months on housing list. Husband in R.A.F., France, Malta, Belgium, boarded out of RAF. with perf. G.U. On Kensington Housing List.

Husband, wife, 4 children (16, 10, 3, 9 mths.). Had two rooms, but one burnt out so living in one room. Beetles, damp and rot. In Hammersmith 17 years at several addresses. On waiting list all that time. Renewed application with each new child. Applied to Kensington B.C. for house four months ago but were referred back to Hammersmith and there told no hope. Wife under hospital treatment with fibrositis. Allen (r6), chronic sinovitis of knee. Dennis (9) under hospital treatment for rheumatic heart and chorea.

Widow, 2 children (6$ and, z). Lived in Portsmouth since 1939. Husband (R.N.) killed D-Day. She left Portsmouth 1946 when offered resident job as caretaker in London. Gave up home in Portsmouth because told job permanent. Brought furniture with her. Two months later evicted by employer, who said he did not want children. Applied to Portsmouth for house, told she could no longer be considered-as living there. Applied to Marylebone. Refused because not lived there long enough. Applied to L.C.C. County Hall 3 weeks ago.

Man, had home in Lambeth destroyed in blitz, 1941. Wife had half face torn away and died leaving baby daughter. He was discharged from Army on medical grounds 1942 and tried to make home for child without success. Remarried 1945 widow with one child, now in hospital with new baby. They had to leave their furnished room 6 weeks ago because wanted for landlady’s family. Unable to find home, slept on railway stations 4 weeks. Husband discharged army duodenal ulcers. When rest centre bombed left London so could not follow up application for house. Applied again 3 weeks ago. Refused by Westminster. Almoner of hospital where wife still is trying to find them temporary home.

Widow, 3 girls, 13, 7, 4. Three rooms basement and ground floor. Running with water and ceiling falling down. Slugs and beetles all over floor, climbing on tables and shelves. Rats. Been there two years. Sanitary inspector called, nothing done. Had to have light on all day. Dirty rubbish in cellar. Girl, 7, had bronchitis. All kids getting nervy and afraid to go to toilet alone. Mrs. – under hospital treatment for rheumatism. On Marylebone housing list.

Husband, wife, 2 c. (7, 2). 2 rooms. No kitchen, no bathroom, no sink, no water laid on. One room used as bed living-room. Husband and wife and child of 7 slept on one bed. Cot for two-year-old. 2nd room (8 ft. by 6 ft.) contained gas cooker, table, two chairs. No room for anything else. W.c. down one flight, shared with four. Wife suffers from duodenal ulcers in stomach and is on diet. On Hammersmith Town Council rehousing list. 9,760 people before them. No hope of living decently is aggravating illness. Rent 30/- per week, 10/- gas and electricity.

Husband, wife, one baby, another expected. One room. No bath. Shared w.c. with 7 others. House on bombed site. Officially overcrowded. Baby ill. Husband was in Marines, Normandy and Germany. Rent 10/- per week. On Barnes and Kensington housing list 18 months. Number on list about 5000.

Husband, wife, 1 c. (8). Husband six and a half years in Army, Lance Corp. 5 years P.O.W. in underground camp. Demobbed Feb. 1946. Wife then living with her mother, furniture stored in basement room. Mother had 3-roomed flat with 6 adults and 1 child, so, on husband’s return, moved to basement room. Plaster off ceiling, very damp. Fire needed continuously. Gas lighting. Overrun with mice. Husband on essential work as Rlwy. Loco. fireman. Night Work. Rest constantly disturbed (came back from Germanv with bad nerves.) Rent plus heating and light approx. £1/2/6 (N.B.-This family was fixed up by Council on September 18th.)

Husband, wife, 1 c. (18.mths.) (Boy (4) in L.C.C. home). Occupied one of mother’s 4 rooms, the other 3 housing father, mother, And children (17, twins of 15, 12). Baby under care Westminster Hospital all last winter. Medically advised to leave. On Westminster Council priority list 2 years. They said ‘Come back in 3 months’, but never offered anything.

Husband, wife, 1 c. (14 mths.). Husband had job as caretaker in Hampstead. Lost job when employer went to prison. Had one furnished room in same house at 15/- for short time. Then room in Chelsea with no furniture and no cooking facilities for 1 week, and slept on floor. Spent few days in a hotel but could not afford to continue. Friend offered shelter in workshop, and slept under machine with 14 mths. old baby. Applied to St Pancras 4 weeks ago.

Father, mother, 2 sons (8, 15). (Son 14, hospital, Leicester). 1 furnished room, 9 ft by 9 ft. Shared cooking facilities 4 other tenants. Rain came in. Sanitary Inspector said house unfit to live in. Recommended by Westminster M.O.H. for L.C.C. list. On list at Brixton since May, 1946, and at Finsbury Park.

Husband, wife, 2 c. (4, 9 mths.). Wife lived with mother during war. Husband in R.A.F. Four and a half yrs. When returned refused admission by wife’s parents. Wife, told to choose between him and parents. Left to find home with husband. Nowhere to go. Two attempts to find home. Turned out of room in Paddington because of children. Went to rooms in Earls Court. No Iav. accommodation. Landlord did not keep promise to put one in. Applied Barnet B.C. Sanitary Inspector called, said premises with no lav, unsatisfactory. Would not put on waiting list. Kensington would not put on waiting list.

Husband, wife, 7 children, 2-20 years. Son in Army, one girl paralysed, wd. have home if accommodation available. 2 rooms (gas cooker and sink in one room). All seven slept in one room. One wc for whole house. Been there two years. Children evacuated till close of war. Husband bad health, chest disease, pneumonia, pleurisy. Bombed out twice. poverty, struggle with large family. Soldier son refused to come home on leave because of overcrowding. Applied Kensington B.C. 6 mths. ago. Told thousands before them and discouraged from putting name on list.

These case histories, a small proportion of the total of similar ones in the file, speak for themselves.

Anyone studying them can see that in no case could any of the lodgings that were the squatters’ previous homes be described as anything but inadequate and squalid. The vast majority of the families mentioned, both in the case histories and earlier in the article, were, regardless of the size of the family, living in one room. The facilities were often shared by many others and often in bad repair.

Mice, rats, slugs, beetles were not uncommon. There were also many cases of damp and draught. Many of the families were suffering from some illness or nervous complaint which was aggravated by these conditions. Children were being shattered by them.

Three families had been thrown out of what homes they had.

Quite a number of the families had had no home at all, but had led a nomadic life over a considerable period, wandering from one place to another.

With few exceptions all had applied to local councils for new homes. The exceptions were those who had been discouraged from doing so. Many had been refused by Councils and some by their circumstances did not qualify for any list.

It will be quite clear from this that all the families mentioned were desperate and that the idea of waiting and being patient can have meant nothing at all to them. Many had waited and been patient with no results. It was therefore quite natural that during their period of squatting they should feel not only more comfortable and therefore happier than they had been for some time, but glad to have embarked on any kind of action, especially as it was shared by others like them. If only a few of them found homes it would have been worth it, and the ones who were not placed for some time were better off in institutions than in damp cellars, however much they felt the lack of privacy. Their solidarity, in such circumstances, was not surprising, and needed the very slightest jogging, if any, from any political party.

One can see how unfounded was the idea that the squatters should regret their action.

As to the most common criticism against the squatters, that by forcing the issue and not waiting their turn they were depriving other people of homes, this can be explained away by looking at their treatment by the housing authorities. There was often no apparent reason in their order on the housing lists, and more chance than design in whether they were refused or accepted.

Added to this, many of the squatters felt that in challenging the housing authorities they were not doing their homeless friends a bad turn but a good one, and that, by their violent action, they were making more immediate the consideration of the thousands of others on the same lists.

Today in London housing history, 1946: mass squat of Duchess of Bedford House, Kensington

At the end of WW2 there was massive homelessness around the country – a pre-war shortage of housing had been made worse by the destruction of houses through bombing and a total halt in the building of new housing.

“During both wars, the demands of wartime production meant that house-building was almost halted for the duration while the population needing homes grew; but in World War II there was the additional factor of damage to the housing stock from air raids, which had been minimal in World War I. According to official estimates, enemy action destroyed 218,000 homes and so severely damaged a further 250,000 as to make them uninhabitable. In addition, only around 190,000 houses were completed during the war, probably around a tenth of what might otherwise have been built. The number of useable houses, taking account of enemy action and change of use for wartime purposes, probably fell by around 400,000 between 1939 and 1945, against a rise in the housing stock of nearly two million in the six years before the war.
In contrast, the number of ‘potential households’ rose from about 12 million to approximately 13.2 million during the war. If there were around 500,000 more potential households than houses in 1939, this had grown to something like 2.1 million by the end of the war. The housing shortage had never been as acute as in 1945 – the previous peak, after World War I, was 1.5 million.” (Howard Webber).

The demobilisation of thousands of servicemen jacked this up into a crisis… Demand for housing was greater than ever; on the flip side, there were thousands of empty houses in London; mainly houses and flats that had been left vacant as better off folk moved out of London during the blitz. This had resulted in a glut of empties in middle class areas while working class communities were put under massive pressure for lack of decent housing.

Around the country, the housing crisis produced the 20th century’s first mass squatting wave. Empty army camps and depots, and some houses, were squatted all around the UK.

In Brighton, a group called the Vigilantes, or the “The Secret Committee of Ex-Servicemen” began squatting houses for the many homeless. This spread to towns all along the south coast as well, then to Essex, Birmingham, London and Liverpool. The Vigilantes included anarchists with experience of anti‑fascist and other struggles in the ’30s. They didn’t bother much with conventional politics or lobbying. There was still very little council housing and their campaign was mainly against private landlords. They demanded that privately-owned empties be taken over for immediate use by homeless people.

From May 1946 a new phase began: the squatting of empty army camps. All over the country there were redundant army and air force camps with Nissen huts and other buildings – rudimentary, but mostly better than the conditions many people were having to live in. From Scunthorpe, the movement spread to Sheffield and then virtually everywhere in England, Scotland and Wales. An organisation was formed – the Squatters’ Protection Society. Other places started being taken over – schools, hotels, even a greyhound stadium, and the movement just kept on growing. This was a largely spontaneous movement, organised from below by working class people, though both communist and Labour activists had a hand st local level in helping people squat and supporting them.

There were attempts to evict the squats, but most eviction attempts seem to have failed. Council workers and even police sometimes refused to carry them out – or were seen off by sheer force of numbers.

Life in the camps had to be improvised and communal: people organised water, furniture, food and child care… Camp committees elected by the squatters themselves co-ordinated work to house people and gather and allocate resources.

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

There was some camp squatting in London, mainly in east and outer London, but the opportunities were fewer, partly as army camps were generally smaller around the capital than in other places.

In early September 1946, squatting entered a new phase, as several large buildings in central London were occupied.

Squatters outside the Duchess of Bedford flats

On 8 September, the a seven-storey Duchess of Bedford flats, off Campden Hill Road in Kensington, was squatted. The building was owned by the Prudential Assurance Company, but had spent much of the was being used by the Ministry of Works, who had done several thousand pounds worth of refurbishments, and had proposed to Kensington Borough Council that the buildings be used to house some of the borough’s 4000 homeless. In keeping with the attitude of the modern RKBC (Kensington was merged with Chelsea in 1965), the Borough Council refused to use its powers of requisition to take control of the building, preferring that it should return to its pre-war use for high-rent flats for toffs.

The Kensington squat came about due to planning by the Communist Party London District, but there had been pressure on them in the few weeks prior to this:

“People from many areas were pressing on the London District offices of the Communist Party, asking – no, demanding – that something should be done and the Party must take the initiative, as it had done in the past on many occasions. I can reveal that what happened on September 8th. 1946 was not the result of long planning, committee meetings and so on. It was a 48-hour effort…

On Friday September 6th. Ted Bramley, as London District Secretary, and Dennis Goodwin, as District Organiser, discussed the whole question and decided it was time to act. Leading members from the various areas were called in, including people like Bill Carritt and Joyce Alergant (Communist councillors on Westminster City Council who were later arrested for their part in the squatters movement) and Stan Henderson, Secretary of the Hammersmith Communist Party. At this meeting members were asked urgently to identify suitable empty dwellings, preferably blocks of flats. These were then pared down to a few. First on the list was Duchess of Bedford House…

On the next day, Saturday, local leaders got in touch with the many people they knew – mostly not Party members – who were living in bad conditions, told them what was to happen and asked if they would like to join in. If
so, they would meet at agreed spots on Sunday afternoon, would bring bedding,
etc. and see what happened. Nobody was led to believe that they would have a long term place.” (Jack Gaster)

On the afternoon of 8th September around 100 families occupied Duchess of Bedford House, and some nearby empties in Upper Phillimore Gardens and in Holland Park Road. According to the Times (9 September 1946), “Groups of people carrying bedding converged on High Street Kensington at 2 o’clock in the afternoon… Within ten minutes 1,000 people, about 400 families were through the doors and being directed to individual flats”.

That evening, the action was announced in a speech by Ted Bramley made at a Communist Party public meeting held in the Palace Theatre that Sunday evening. That this speech was recorded was due to the diligence of  of Detective Sergeant Gibson of the Special Branch who kindly sat in the dress circle and made a note of that speech – it subsequently formed the basis of a criminal charge against Bramley.

Sergeant Gibson’s statement:
“I was present in the dress circle of the Palace Theatre from 6.15p.m. until 9.45p.m. on Sunday 8th. September attending a meeting organised by the Communist Party..

At 8.40p.m. the Chairman of the meeting said that Ted Bramley was to make an important announcement. Ted Bramley, who is known to me as the Secretary of the London District Committee of the Communist Party, then rose and with a piece of paper in his hand, said: “At 6 o’clock this evening the B.B.C. made the
following announcement.” He then read what appeared to be a verbatim report of the news bulletin to the effect that between 2 and 3 o’clock… about 100 London people occupied three blocks of luxury flats and a number of houses in Kensington and adjacent areas. Bramley then read with special emphasis to the members of the audience: “The operation appeared to have been organised to the last detail by the London Communist Party.” Bramley then said: “I should like to point out that we only heard of the accommodation becoming available 36 hours ago and it was clear that it just what was urgently needed by the homeless workers of London. It was clear to us that there was some danger that if we remained idle or waited to discuss it, the accommodation would go to those who were in the least need of it. Within 24 hours we had contacted a representative number of London
families who were in desperate need of homes from a representative number of boroughs.
Fifteen minutes before zero hour, some hundreds of people had arrived at the appointed place, some with suitcases and some with lorries loaded with furniture,
They proceeded to occupy Duchess of Bedford House owned by the Prudential Assurance Company. There were a hundred self-contained flats, in which we placed 100 families and in which some of the 400 people were lodged. They then entered Moray Lodge owned by (apparently the Police Sergeant missed the name) and ten families were placed there.”

A picture of the squatting operation in progress was described by Police Constable Arthur Smith, during the later court case:

“At about 2.30p.m. on the 8th September did you go to Kensington High Street?
Yes.
Is that near the Underground station?
Yes.
What did you see?
I saw about twenty persons crossing the road from the station to the north side of
Kensington High Street where they tuned right into Horton Street.
Did they walk along Hornton Street?
Yes.
What happened then?
On turning into Hornton Street there was quite a crowd the whole length of the street, some 100 persons.
Were they joined by people coming from another street?
Yes, from several other streets, Argyle Street and other roads in the vicinity.
Where did they go?
They turned left into Duchess of Bedford Walk…
Were they going to any particular building?
Yes. I found them already inside the Duchess of Bedford House.
Did you notice which entrance they were using?
Yes. It appeared to me to be the first tradesmen’s entrance at the rear of the Duchess of Bedford House.
Were other doors open later on?
Yes; several other doors were open back and front.”

Smith then went on to describe how one of the defendants, Councillor Rosen of Stepney (known in the Party as “Tubby” Rosen) stood near the steps of the building and directed people into it. Bill Carritt was also there helping to organise the event. Stan Henderson was one of the squatters; they elected him secretary of their committee.

According to the Times (9 September 1946), “Groups of people carrying bedding converged on High Street Kensington at 2 o’clock in the afternoon… Within ten minutes 1,000 people, about 400 families were through the doors and being directed to individual flats”.

A number of serving soldiers and ex-servicemen and their families were among the were mainly young married couples who moved in. The police did turn up but did nothing to prevent the action, and in fact “made themselves helpful to people and an inspector arranged for a WVS van to supply hot drinks.”

Block committees were quickly set up to co-ordinate arrangements for heating and cooking. Nominal rents were collected from all the families.

When the Duchess of Bedford House was full, other buildings in nearby streets were squatted – people were also redirected to a squat at Moray Lodge, and then to the Melcombe Regis Court, in Marylebone where Councillor Joyce Alergant was waiting to welcome them. [Moray Lodge was an empty 2-room mansion, the pre-war home of Lord Ilchester, according to the Daily Worker.]

Ex-marine Arthur Hill wrote an account of the squatting of Duchess of Bedford House:

“And there I was, three piece grey chalk stripe suit, brown trilby in hand, trying to be a civilian again.

With a wife and baby, living in one room in my gran’s house, where my mum and dad also lived, life was difficult. It didn’t help at all to have Lil, the next door neighbour, a friend (?) of the family, winding things up all the time.

Constantly quoting how people were ‘getting housed by the Council’, and ‘all you have to do is keep reminding them’, so that you won’t be overlooked.

I must admit, it didn’t take a lot to wind me up. Having been barred from the Housing Department for causing trouble, I went in through the back door, through the Borough Surveyor’s Office. I knew my way round the council house better that most, as it had been used as the control centre of the A.R.P. where I was a messenger in 1939. Still protesting and asking where was the ‘Land fit for Hero’s’ that we’d been promised, and what was our new Labour Goverment going to do about it?, I got escorted out once again, with instructions not to return until sent for.

That was when I decided to pitch my tent on the Council House front lawn.
This time the police were called, and the ban enforced.

Ginger Cooley (ex-Marine oppo), often talked about our housing problems. We went to his wedding, and of course, had met his and his wife’s families, and there were a lot of them! After they had wed, he was living with his family, sharing a bedroom with his brothers, while she stayed with her parents, sharing with her sisters.

We thought they were daft to have married under the circumstances, at least we had a room, but as Ginger said, it did put them on a housing list.

Several times, when the subject was raised, he said that a Nissan hut could be made quite comfortable, and he knew places where we could go squatting. My reply was always the same, that I’d seen enough of Nissan huts to last a lifetime. If I went squatting it would have to be something better than that.

So, this was why, when early one Sunday morning Ginger phoned to say that a large group were preparing to squat in a block of luxury flats in Kensington, that I dropped everything and went.

A boy carries possessions up to a Duchess of Bedford House squat, September 1946

This was it, the BIG ONE! The first ever mass squatting. We hit the headlines! Not that we ever had time to read them…

there must have been at least 200 of us, and we went straight in. Somebody had opened everything for us, and it was just like staking a claim – and we did!

It was a block of luxury flats, halfway between Kensington (where we got married), and Notting Hill (where Carrie, my darling, came from). Ginger and I, together with our wives, took over a flat on the 2nd. floor. It was enormous, more space than the average house, and divided in two as night and day accommodation. Just the job.

Within the next week or two, other mass squattings had taken place, the other main big one being Fountain Court, Pimlico, and from what we heard they never had anything easy at all.
Because we were the first, we were regarded as a test case, and everything had to go through the Courts. The owners had file a complaint and prefer charges, but who were the owners?

Apparently the Ministry of Works had requisitioned the buildings, to house Maltese building workers, who were repairing bomb damage. They had all been moved on, and the place had been standing empty, but somebody had neglected to return it to the original owners, who the newspapers said was the Prudential Assurance Company. Because of the adverse publicity, they were denying ever to have owned it.

All this confusion was to our advantage, we were left alone for weeks, except for a few attempts to turn off our mains supplies, but we were taking turns on picket duty round the clock, and were able to thwart these manoeuvres. The support we had was marvellous, from the media, and the public in general, and especially the papers.

Carrie and I had moved in all our furniture, -we must have been daft, but we were fully committed. On her 21st.birthday, and baby Maureen’s first., we had a party, one never to forget. Family and friends, and some representatives from the unions turned up with reporters in tow. Pictures were taken, but there was no feedback, so we’ve never seen them. I suppose that they are in the archives of the papers somewhere and could probably be found, at least we do know the date!”

A couple of buildings nearby or adjacent were also squatted, as Len Smith later related: “I was in the Stepney Young Communist League, and the Borough Secretary suggested to me – very quietly – that I ought to go down to Kensington with one or two others… There were not many people to be seen until we got into an arcade where we discovered hundreds of people. Eventually the whole lot moved in a matter of seconds across the road, down a side street, round a corner and all disappeared. Following them up, we discovered that what we were allocated was a couple of buildings which were not part of the main squat. They were something separate. There were a lot of people gathered round outside the doors, so two or three of us got in, opened the doors and let the people in. Then I was sent up to the top floor to climb through a skylight, get down over the roof and into the next building and I opened the doors there. We did this for two or more buildings. After this I was asked to go and organise more assistance from Stepney, which I did. Later I organised a collection of camp beds and tinned food, etc. for the squatters at Abbey Lodge.” (Len Smith)

When the Duchess of Bedford House was full, some families were moved on to a block known as Melcombe Regis Court in Weymouth Street, Marylebone. It had been requisitioned by the Government for the use of the US army during the war, and had been offered to the St Marylebone Borough Council for housing purposes. But the Council had refused this offer, after which the block had stood empty for seven months. Tess Gorringe lived in Wandsworth in South London, and was a member of the London District Committee of the Party. She took charge of the Melcombe Regis squat for the first few days:

“I was a member of the London District Committee and on Friday September 6th,
Dennis Goodwin, the London organiser, asked me to pop over and see him in
Clapham. I went, and he said to me “Do you think people would be prepared to
squat with no guarantee about anything?” I said “yes.” He said “Do you know such
people?” I said, “Yes; I’ll pass the word around.” And that’s what we did. On Sun-
day morning, when I got up, there was drenching rain, and I thought “Nobody will
come.” But I went to Kensington High Street, as arranged, and saw this stream of
people going up to the place where we were to meet. I saw someone with a bar-
row with bedding and pots and pans. I reported to the person I’d been told to get
in touch with, and he said: “We’ve got too many people here; will you go over to
another building, we have someone will take you there, and get you in, to take
over till we get someone to relieve you.” I said: “That means setting up a commit-
tee and getting it all started?” He said “Yes.”

So I went. A building worker comrade took me to the back door of the place and
we went in through a basement window. I went and opened the door when the
people started arriving, I said “Come in, go and pick a flat, come down and register.” I was in a small room at the side. I sat down and made a register of everyone coming in.

The thing I’ll never forget was the way people co-operated. We started off with

people volunteering to do certain things. A couple of blokes came in and said
“Look, the water isn’t on and the lights aren’t on.” I said “Can you do it?” They
said “Sure we can.” And they did. They came back presently and said we might
get the central heating working and the lifts. I said “Wait a minute, let’s get every-
thing else sorted out first.”

And then people began to call on us from outside. They brought in camp beds and blankets, and a woman from a nearby flat said, “If you get anyone with babies, they can come and wash them at my place. I’ve got dome spare milk.” Very, very co-operative.

We had to put a guard on the door. The people who were an absolute menace were the press; they wanted “human interest stories”. We began to set up an organisation. People came forward to volunteer for the committee to get things straightened out.

I slept on a camp bed in the side room, and the following morning I was up at
seven, and we started the day’s think. One of the things we needed to do was to
get emergency ration cards, and to make contact with the food department so we
could get milk and vitamins and orange juice for the kids and baby food. So I had
a bright idea. I said, “Fetch me one of the press in.” It was the Daily Express man.
I said, “If you will take a group of women to the food office and bring them back
you can find a human interest story, you can interview them.” So he did. And we
made bargains with the press to run errands for us.

I was there from Sunday to Wednesday morning, and hadn’t been able to go to
work, so on Wednesday when someone came to see how we were getting on, I
asked to be relieved of the job, and they sent someone down to take over.
The thing I’ll never forget is that if I’d ever had any doubts about the problems of
working people taking on and managing their own affairs, I lost them forever
during this squatting thing. Because without any hassle, fuss, argument, they found what they could do, and collectively decided that it should be done, and then went off and did it.”

Peggy Venes helped in the Weymouth Street squatting: “I held the squatters’ ration books for milk and bananas. The WVS let us have cooking stoves on each floor for the families, and we managed to get paraffin for them. I made them sandwiches for a sing-song and get-together for talks, etc, of an evening.
When they were sent to a rest home in Camden, a deputation came to our flat to
ask me to go and sort out the sleep and food question. I carried on every day with
them, until Dr Joan McMichael took over as I was too ill to continue.”

The day after the occupation of Duchess of Bedford House and Melcombe Regis
Court, squatters took over several other blocks of flats, one of which was Fountain
Court in Westminster which had just been de-requisitioned by a Government department. One of the people involved in helping to organise the squatters was Dr Joan McMichael, then a Communist councillor in Westminster:

“We in Westminster had a tremendous problem with returned ex-service people,
We had a campaign on a resolution which got through the Westminster Council
to requisition all those houses where a conviction had been secured for their use
as brothels and use them for those on the waiting list. Although it was the Communist councillors who had moved this resolution, it got through not only on the Westminster Council but was agreed by all twenty-eight of the Metropolitan
Boroughs. But it was turned down by Bevan, presumably because of the enormous church interests in property in Soho and Covent Garden.

We knew at the time of the discussion on the London District and were also dis-
cussing the matter in the Westminster branch of the Communist Party. I had a case book of the worst housing cases in our area, and we were discussing with
them whether we should take over Fountain Court, then being de-requisitioned,
having previously been used for building workers. Many of us were present on the
Sunday when the takeover at Bedford House took place, but on Monday morn-
ing everything appeared the same as usual. I was working in Stepney and when I
came back to meet the branch at 5 o’clock I found that occupation of Fountain
Court was already taking place. Not only were people handing babies and prams
over the railings, but the police said, “Oh, don’t do that, we’ll open the door.” So
the police opened the door and ushered the families in.

We were in a particular position, of course, because I was a member of the
Westminster City Council and we agreed to call an official from the Westminster
City Council to come down and meet the squatters and discuss what we intended
to do. It was a remarkable meeting at which the official laid down all the threats
about writs and possible evacuation and about breaking the law and so on. We
gave him about twenty minutes and then we put the squatters’ case, and what they felt about it, and then we had a break for twenty minutes while everyone discussed among themselves what their reaction would be. We took a vote, and it was absolutely unanimous that we stay, there was tremendous feeling.

Then we got down to practical details. We elected a team for Red Cross if necessary, a group to run a creche so that women could go to work the next day, guards for the door so that the door was covered for twenty-four hours, and cooks – we had two volunteer ex-army cooks who said they would cook for all the squatters. Everyone was entranced with their new flats and put their names up on the flats until we were warned that, in order to issue writs, names had to be found – so everyone hastily took them down again.

Then we had a problem. The electricity council cut off the electricity. So we went
out on to the steps of Fountain Court (and every time we went on to the steps we
would always get a couple of hundred people waiting around wanting to know
what was happening) and I appealed for candles, because, I said, we had families
in pitch dark. Showers of candles arrived, groceries arrived and were stacked,
anything we asked for, the local people responded immediately. The next day we
organised a poster parade in Trafalgar Square in the dinner hour saying that
Westminster Council was endangering the lives of its citizens. So electricity was restored.

On the second day, I rang up from work at midday, and was told that the council
had refused to empty the dustbins. This was pretty serious, so I raced back at 5
o’clock and said, “What’s happened about the dustbins?” “It’s all right,” they said,
“We’ve tipped them into Buckingham Palace Road.” After that the dustmen came
round and resumed emptying the dustbins.

It all went on for ten days until the crunch came. The decision was taken with the
Party that it would be impossible to defend the squatters against forcible evacuation and therefore we should go out as a whole, as we had come in. I have a clear recollection of the filthy trick that the LCC played on us. We went up to join the Duchess of Bedford squatters, where we were held from 11 o’clock in the morning until 4 o’clock in the afternoon. We bad babies and young children and no
food, no lavatory accommodation, and so on. We arrived at Bromley House at 5
o’clock at exactly the time when the building workers arrived back from work.
They had been told there was no food, it was to be only for the squatters. After
enormous discussion we all went in together and shared the food. Discussions
went on until 9.30. The builders remained in their own rooms, but they brought
their bedding down to the hall where the women and children slept and we set up
a special clinic for milk. It only lasted one night; after that we moved into Alexandra House. The Squatters Committee continued to negotiate until every individual family was housed. We kept a record of every single family until their problem was solved. I think it was a tremendously positive achievement which redounded to the credit of the Party.

Other buildings in Westminster were quickly occupied: over the next two days 60 families forced their way into Fountain Court, Pimlico and Abbey Lodge, a block of flats near Regent’s Park.

Abbey Lodge, a block of luxury flats near Regent’s Park in Marylebone, was another of the buildings occupied on September 9th. It had been used for the RAF during the war, but had since been empty for several months. Marylebone Borough Council had 3,300 families on its waiting list, but was refusing to requisition empty flats to accommodate them, so the block was expected to be re-let shortly at exorbitant rents. Lou Kenton was the chief organiser of the Abbey Lodge squat:
“I was at the meeting of the London District held on that Friday before the squat-
ting took place on the Sunday. I was secretary of the North West Area Sub-Dis-
trict of the Party. The Party was already under great pressure to organise a squat.
Our area stretched from Cricklewood to Boreham Wood, and we knew that some
squatting had already been taking place. At the initial stages it was not the Party
that organised it, but very soon the squatters turned to the Party for help; we came
under pressure that we should do something for the people in our area. We had
already found a block of flats in Regent’s Park: Abbey Lodge. So we organised it
– took about twenty families in. Most of them were already squatting somewhere,
some were quite homeless and living rough; they were all ex-servicemen. Most
had married during the war, gone into the forces and when they came back, suddenly found themselves in terrible conditions and having to live with in-laws.

We went in as a group. We took two large vehicles with all their furniture, drove
into Abbey Lodge and two policemen and a porter helped us to get in. They didn’t
stop us, but showed great friendliness. Forty-eight hours later it changed. On the
second or third day, they cut off the water, cut off the electricity, and surrounded
the building so that none of the squatters could get in once they’d left. So we were
in a very difficult position, not being able to feed them.

The thing that struck me most about that period was the support we had from out-
side – every night there were massive demonstrations outside – and the ingenuity
of some of the squatters in finding ways of getting out and coming in. Several of
them had to go out to get to work, and very soon they found all sorts of ways, including climbing over the roofs of adjacent buildings and down the side. We were able to feed the squatters during the whole of that period in that way.

After about ten days we were informed by the Party that writs might be issued
against myself and Maud Rogerson, area secretary of another London area. We
had organised the occupation, and the rest of the squatters had asked us to stay
on to help them, and we had agreed. Now we were advised by the London District that the squat would need to end. We had a meeting of the squatters and they
agreed unanimously to leave as one body, and they instructed Maud and myself
to leave early because they knew writs were coming. This we did.

I think it had a tremendous impact on the whole movement at the time. It showed
that the Party cared. In our case, seven people joined the Party and they joined
on the day we decided to leave. They did not go to Alexandra House. The local
area of the Party looked after them; many of them were re-housed.”

Ivor Segal was a member of the Islington (London) Young Communist League,
and was asked to help the squatters who had just occupied Abbey Lodge:
“The police had a fairly heavy patrol which tried to stop supplies going into Abbey
Lodge, where the leader of the squatters was a Party member named Lou Kenton. They needed cooking facilities as the gas had been disconnected. But how?

I had a primus stove which I padded all round with corrugated cardboard and
tied securely with string; likewise a pint bottle of paraffin. Lou Kenton had removed
one of the windows, and while a policeman’s attention was diverted, Alec Miller
threw the primus and then the bottle of paraffin through the window. They both
arrived safely.

The question of food was better organised once a pulley had been fixed up be-
tween the flats and the house next door. At night, boxes of tinned food were continuously and quietly pulled across from the house to Abbey Lodge. The police
Were puzzled as to how the squatters were receiving food until one night the pulley broke and the cargo” nearly hit a copper down below.” [Apparently the house next door from which the pulley was operated was in Kent Terrace. The author and communist Montague Slater lived at the other end of this terrace, and he and his family helped organise the cooking and packing of the food which was then go in at night.] We stayed outside Abbey Lodge for nearly two weeks, giving both physical and moral support. All the time, the newspapers were reporting fresh takeovers of houses and flats. In Islington, the Borough Council started putting large houses back into repair – something they had not attempted to do before.”

On the morning of September 9th a deputation from Duchess of Bedford House went to Kensington Town Hall to ask for the flats to be requisitioned and for all amenities – gas, water and electricity  – to be supplied.

Many of the London Communist Party (CP) members involved had been active in pre-war tenants’ struggles in the East End. The London occupations had a more directly political edge than the wave of camp squatting. The Communist Party launched a high profile campaign, through the pages of the Daily Worker, and in letters delivered by delegations to Downing Street and the Ministry of Health, for the Labour government to both legitimise the existing squatted buildings and to take the initiative by Requisitioning. The CP’s demands consisted of

  • Requisitioning the occupied buildings,
  • connection of services and security of tenure for squatters.
  • the ending of the policy of de-requisitioning buildings that government had taken over in wartime
  • central government to compel councils to take over empty houses
  • stricter control on licences for repairs (i.e. that working class houses should be repaired first)

Squatters demo in Hyde Park

Party propaganda identified West London local authorities as ‘acting as though the housing emergency was over and that property developers could go ahead irrespective of the conditions in which many thousands of families were living.’ The Labour government had also allowed blocks and houses to be returned to their private owners when they could have been -re-requisitioned’ for the homeless. With around half a million on London housing waiting lists, nevertheless there was enough empty accommodation in the capital to house a good proportion.

Duchess of Bedford House was an ideal focus for this campaign; Kensington Council had refused the block when offered it by the Ministry of Works on the grounds that the flats were not suitable (i e too good for) homeless families, and the block stood in a bourgeois area where many houses had lain empty during wartime, as the upper classes had generally fled London during the Blitz. In addition, precious public resources were being spent on repairing the block for its return to the luxury end of the private rented sector.

In contrast, another of the large squats, Fountain Court, was not such a good target, as unlike the others it was already destined for the public sector, and Westminster Council had already approved a scheme of works. Tactically occupying Fountain Court was a mistake, as it played into the hands of government anti-squatting propaganda, which claimed that the block occupations were the work of queue-jumpers.

Ministry of Works officials try to break in to evict Duchess of Bedford House, 11 September 1946

The Labour government was desperate to put a stop to the wave of squatting as a whole, but the generally supportive mood of many people in the country to the squatters – especially among Labour’s own supporters – put them off from large-scale repressive measures. At a Cabinet meeting on the day of the Duchess of Bedford seizure, it was felt that criminal prosecutions against squatters could fail because juries might be unwilling to convict because of sympathy with the squatters’ cause. The cabinet itself was also divided on the issue of requisitioning homes. Aneurin Bevan, after indicating the slow progress of the rehousing programme and the seriousness of the housing shortage, requested that some London hotels about to be de-requisitioned should be used for the homeless.

But the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the President of the Board of Trade said they would have very great difficulty in agreeing as there was ‘a serious shortage of hotel accommodation in London.’ This was needed to attract trade in the interests of the export markets, and to bring in tourists and the wealthy who would spend money in London.

However, Bevan and other ‘left-leaning’ cabinet members were strongly against any concessions to the squatters. Bevan insisted on a line that no cooking or other facilities be supplied to the new squats, and he and his disciple (future Labour leader) Michael Foot wrote a vicious attack on the Communist Party in left Labour magazine Tribune (though they carefully avoided having a go at the squatters themselves, sharply aware of the public sympathy for squatting in general). They labelled squatters’ demands as ‘queue-jumping’, that would divert resources from other needy families, and claimed the CP had in practice allied itself with rightwing critics of Labour with an aim of making capital for themselves. Another leftwing Labour cabinet member, Ellen Wilkinson, said that ‘the government has to govern and cannot be faced with anarchy of this kind which is the negation of everything the Labour Party stands for – the organised meeting of people’s needs’. Ie – we know best and you should know your place till we tell  you to move…

The Cabinet’s first step was to step up police patrols around central London to keep a watch for groups of potential squatters and an eye on likely buildings. Cops with their recently issued two-way radios prowled  the West End. orders were also given to blockade existing squats and resist attempts to bring in food and amenities. Anyone leaving (eg to go to work) was to be refused re-entry. Water was cut off at Abbey Lodge and no-one was allowed to enter the building. The squatters and their helpers showed considerable ingenuity in breaking the blockade. Men went out to work across the rooftops. As detailed above, a primus stove and paraffin for brewing tea was thrown in, and food, cooked in the neighbouring house of a Party member, was supplied by means of a pulley
rigged between the two houses.

On Wednesday morning, while a crowd of 150 people gathered outside Abbey Lodge, the squatters displayed a crudely written placard for the press photographers: We Want Water and Bedding’. A Communist organiser told the
crowd:
“Their conditions in there are shocking. There is a pregnant woman, and there are babies, all doing without cooked food, and sleeping on the floor – babies sleeping on the floor! You people must help by shouting …”
“Give the babies water …’, yelled the obliging crowd, and a deputation marched off to the Town Hall, while others tossed apples, sandwiches and parcels of food through the open windows.” Eventually the police allowed some blankets in for the children. At around 11.00 pm that night, however, chanting ‘twenty-five blankets are not enough’, the crowd surged into the street – the main road on the west side of Regents Park. After marching up and down for fifteen minutes they sat down, while from the besieged building the squatters sang ‘There’ll Always Be An England’. Stewards distributed the disputed blankets among the demonstrators and for a time it looked as though they intended to stay all night. Shortly before midnight, however, the police agreed to allow the rest of the blankets in and the
Communist loud speaker van announced: ‘There’s no need to hold up the
traffic any longer. On Thursday morning the papers were full of photographs of demonstrators sitting in the road. At Abbey Lodge the police finally agreed to allow sympathisers to take in pails of water and limited food supplies. But crowds who gathered again later that day were dispersed.

Despite the security precautions, another squat was cracked on Wednesday 11th: the 630-room Ivanhoe Hotel in Bloomsbury

The cabinet’s next move was to set out to discredit the squatters as ‘queue-jumpers’. A Cabinet memorandum of 12 September records:

‘Ministers considered that further steps should be taken to bring it home to the public that the squatters were overriding the claims of many people who had been waiting a long time for houses and that the effect of their activities would be to delay the completion of rehousing.’

The Labour Government now found willing allies in the Tory press. The pro-upper class newspapers not been particularly hostile to squatters while they confined their activities to army camps – state property – which embarrassed Labour government (generally considered as the enemy by the press barons) and made it look incompetent. But squatting of private property in central London blocks was going too far: soon newspaper editorials called for stern action in defence of the legitimate rights of property owners and rallied to the government. ‘The homeless who are being duped by the Communists’ became stock characters in the reports.

The Daily Mail and the Daily Express as usual gleefully hyped up squatters as a new bogy to scare the respectable, running (largely unsubstantiated) front page stories of householders afraid to go out shopping for fear their houses would be squatted, and of a rush to buy padlocks throughout suburbia. Very similar lies have been used to whip up fear of squatting in the decades since…

The government also gave instructions to the police to guard large empty buildings in the centre of London, and all police leave was cancelled. Further instructions were sent to local authorities (both in London and other major cities) ordering them to refuse to connect services to squatted buildings, and Sir Hartley Shawcross, the Attorney General, launched possession proceedings to recover government property, and to encourage any private owners to do the same. The Met’s Special Branch (which had to admit to having had no advance knowledge that the occupations were being planned) was instructed to investigate the squatters organisation and try to determine what future plans they had.

Harry Pollitt, general secretary of the Communist Party, addresses a meeting in support of the squatters, Cranbourne Street, London, 11 September 1946

Police cordons were set up surrounding the Abbey Lodge and Ivanhoe Hotel occupations; food and bedding was allowed in, but people were barred from coming and going as they wished. The central London squats became sieges. The squat committees appealed for candles’ paraffin stoves, water and food, and supporters brought these and tried to smuggle them in – sometimes by climbing over roofs, hauling items via pulleys from neighbouring buildings and so on.

An attempt was made on 11th September to evict the Duchess of Bedford flats by Ministry of Works officials, who were forced off after being threatened with iron bars…

Although crowds of supporters gathered, confrontations between squatters and both foot and mounted police could not break these cordons, and a number of squatters’ supporters arrested. Whether or not plans had been made to squat further blocks, the government’s tactic may have worked, as no more large blocks were occupied in the latter half of the week. However some isolated privately-owned houses were squatted independently in the London suburbs. Squatters’ demands around housing and delegations to try to meet local or national authorities were ignored and rejected.

At the same time, legal proceedings were begun to evict the squats. Writs for possession were served on Duchess of Bedford House on September 12th by the Ministry of Works, demanding the building be vacated by the 17th.

On the 13th Bevan issued a government circular denouncing the squats and restating government policy, that local authorities were responsible for allocations for housing and that process could not be short-circuited by individuals taking matters into their own hands.

On Saturday 14 September, five CP members prominent in the central London squatters’ organisation were arrested on orders from the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Cabinet. They were Ted Bramley, London District Secretary and member of the London County Council, Bill Carritt and Joyce Alergant, both Communist councillors on Westminster City Council, “Tubby” Rosen, a Communist councillor in Stepney, and Stan Henderson, the leading figure
in the Duchess of Bedford squat. All five were charged with conspiring and incitement to trespass. That afternoon 12,000 people rallied in Leicester Square in support of the squatters. A large public meeting also took place in Hyde Park on Sunday 15th.

Bill Carritt, one of the five arrested, declared, “We will resist, to the last man, woman and child… They will have to carry us out bodily.” Stan Henderson announced “I shall be the last to leave, and tear gas won’t move me.” However, defiant language aside, the arrests and unco-operative government approach did put a spoke in the Communist Party’s plans. A telegram was sent out from Party headquarters around the country: ‘No more squatting’. Plans for occupying other buildings (possibly including Kensington Palace!) were put on hold.

Two days later, the five appeared in court and were bailed to reappear. The next day, the High Court granted the Attorney General an interim injunction, ordering certain named people at Duchess of Bedford House to end their trespass (names had possibly been obtained from looking at noticeboards in the blocks, see below). Downing Street issued a press release, offering a combination of carrot and stick to the squatting families:

‘Her Majesty’s Government think it right to call the attention of all those in unauthorised occupation of houses and flats and certain other buildings required for public purposes to the fact that the High Court today made orders at the instance of the Ministry of Works against various trespassers in the premises known as Duchess of Bedford House forbidding the continuance of the trespass.

A baby girl squatter from Duchess of Bedford house, taken by ambulance to hospital on 11 September 1946

The High Court has accordingly made it clear beyond all doubt that the action of those occupying the premises without legal authority is illegal. Those who have squatted in such premises no longer have any excuse for not recognising the illegality of their actions and should quit the premises at once. It will be the duty of the police to prevent further occupations. The Government will not press proceedings for damages against those who have left voluntarily. HMG will recommend to local authorities that those who now leave voluntarily should not lose such claims to priority rehousing as they may already have had.’

The day after this press release, the families at Duchess of Bedford House announced they would leave the following Friday: “Our committee had been in negotiation for other accommodation, and decided that if we were going to be picked off piecemeal, it would be better to go voluntarily in style.” (Arthur Hill)

They also asked for the London County Council to make a rest centre available for those who had nowhere else to go. Squatters occupying the other central London buildings had already left voluntarily.

The decision to leave Duchess of Bedford House in fact did not originate with the occupiers – it was decided at Communist Party headquarters: “I was at a meeting at King Street with Harry Pollitt, Peter Kerrigan, a number of other members of the E.C. I remember Harry Pollitt said at one point after everybody had expressed attitudes, “Well, what about the man who is on the spot?”
It was on this question as to whether we should withdraw at that point from the
Duchess of Bedford, the argument being that there was a great danger of break-
up and disarray of the whole thing. I remember saying at the time: “My feeling is
that the members of the Communist Party associated with this movement are held
very high esteem by the squatters, and if the Communist Party makes a recommendation that we withdraw, then I’m sure that the body of squatters will agree with them that the contrary is also the case, and if we say “Right, let’s stay”, they would agree with that also.” The argument was, you see, that we should possibly try passive resistance; I made the point that I could not see these returned warriors from the Second World War sit passively by whilst coppers mauled their womenfolk and kids about; you knew that it would end up in a bust-up.” (Stan Henderson)

James Hinton concluded later, however, that the party hierarchy also wanted to avoid a confrontation that would completely jeopardise its relationship with the Labor government. To some extent the CP’s top officers put pressure on the activists most involved in the squats to pull out.

Although Communist Party activists made much of the unity of the squatters and their willingness to in effect obey CP instructions, the decision to leave was actually not universally popular or agreed without argument: Henderson later said that a number of the Kensington squatters were up for staying and fighting the eviction, and that he had to persuade them to agree to depart: “They wanted to run up the Red Flag and fight it out.” It took a whole evening’s debate for a resolution to leave to be agreed on.

The squatters’ public statement read, “The situation created by the judgement granted today against the Bedford House squatters has received our careful attention. We deplore the inhumanity of a law which can only act so on behalf of property, and against the welfare of human beings. We came in here, not for ourselves alone, but for the hundreds and thousands of others in similar plight. Two of our cases have been heard in court today, they were by no means the worst. Our residents include a large proportion of ex-servicemen who, after years of service for their country, are homeless. In the services we fought on behalf of all, and we resent and repudiate the charge that now we are out for ourselves alone. We resent also the charge that we are a lawless mob.
The charge is made by those who a short while ago were clapping and cheering
as we marched in the ranks. The court decision makes it impossible for our elected leaders to stay here. We came in together, and we have decided to go out together, confident that we have achieved our purpose. those who were ignorant of our plight now know, and those who knew and ignored, are now shamed into a sense of urgency that London’s homeless shall be housed.
“When we march out on Friday, we expect the public authorities to show us that
human consideration that should be shown to all the homeless and ill-housed. We
ask that a rest-centre be put at the disposal of the vast majority who have nowhere to go; that our cases be investigated, and that we take our place with the other Londoners who are fighting for a decent home. We will continue to fight with
them for housing to be treated as a military operation, and for all local authorities
to bring a fresh urgency to the problem, never resting until property interests and
the black market have been completely prevented from standing in the way of
decent homes for London’s people.”

The squatting families, who had reduced waiting lists by housing themselves in empty property, were bussed around London from one temporary accommodation to another, and were eventually gradually rehoused by the London County Council.

“We made a ceremonial exit with a little band and banners waving. Before we left,
we had already met members of the builders’ committee who represented the
building workers who were based at Bromley House. They had told us they didn’t
want to leave; we said we did not want to be used as a lever. So we had already
established friendly relations with them. But later we were told that they had in
fact left Bromley House, and it was then that we said “Alright, we’ll go to it” and
so left Kensington.” (Stan Henderson)

Arthur Hill again: “The Communist Party… organised a band to march us down the road, to a fleet of coaches, and then on to our destination – the Old Workhouse at Bromley by Bow.

So that is how we ended up in the Workhouse.

Leaving the ‘Duchess of Bedford’ was closing a chapter of our lives, arrangements were made to store our furniture, and the same removal men, (friends of my Dad), took to the storage, the same pieces that they had so recently delivered.
Outside, the band played, creating a festive atmosphere, and in the mood of the moment, we all piled into

The Duchess of Bedford House squatters arrive at their ‘new accommodation’ in Bromley By Bow

the coaches, looking forward to the next stage.
Alas! Someone was out to stir trouble. As we approached our destination, every side road and turning was occupied by Police vans, Black Marias and Police cars, what a welcome! Was it Political? the Communists were’nt in favour at this time, or was it big business having a whisper in high places?
The scenario was, the old ‘Workhouse’ at Bromley by Bow, was being used as a dormitory for Itinerant workers. Mainly Irish and from the North, all working on bomb sites and housing repairs. Apparently they were told, at the last possible moment, “Go to work as usual, and when you finish for the day, you will not be coming back here, but to other accommodation, your personal effects will be moved for you” At the same time, we squatters were told, “all the accommodation has been prepared for you” Human nature being what it is, all the building workers refused to go to work, but instead of a riot, they stayed to welcome us. They did the best they could for us, in what can only be described as primitive conditions, a mattress on the floor, in what could only be called a tunnel, no windows, it was underground, arched roof of black dirty bricks. The last time I had stayed in such a place, was in the catacombs, when in transit with the Marines.
Who-so-ever engineered this scheme, came unstuck.
Because then the builders representatives and our committee got together, and a joint deputation was sent to The Houses of Parliament, to the Ministry of Works and the G.L.C. at City Hall. The reporters followed every move, they had, in all probability, been primed for other reasons, but the publicity did us a power of good. From what we heard, this was front page news, and the support for our cause nationwide. (Must look up the Newspaper archives some day). Quite suddenly, what a coincidence, there was on offer, a fresh start, at a home that had formerly housed G.I.Brides, prior to shipping out.
Now that the pressure was on, our side of the negotiation thought it was time to press for a few concessions. They won us the right to have our own committee to represent us in the home, and to have the use of the main hall, for meetings and for social functions. The building workers were restored to their original status, and so we all moved on.
At Chalk Farm, dormitory quarters, screened off into cubicles, in charge of a Master, (just like the Workhouse). A bit of shuffling around, and we sorted ourselves into some sort of order, people with families, tended to clump together, as did young couples with no other ties. The building was about 5 stories high, I say about, because it was’nt evenly disposed, sitting as it was on a steep hill, the lower floor was hall and offices, the rear half of the hall being underground. The first floor housed the original residents, mainly old ladies, the next two were ours, plus a little overlap, and above, all the staff. We barely had time to settle when a meeting was called, everybody to the hall.
As soon as we were seated, we were addressed thus,
“I am the Master of this House, and these are the rules”
With a shout, “Objection” our committee leader was on his feet, “Has’nt anybody told you ‘Sunshine’, that no longer applies, without our consent” At this, all the little old ladies started cheering, one shouted, “It’s time that miserable sod got his come-uppance”
And so began our new period of Mk.2 Workhouse…” (Arthur Hill)

“Jack Gaster was sitting behind me on the coach taking us there and, as we ap-
proached the building, we went past a side street and I said to him “Those are
police “hurry-up’ wagons stationed there; there’s something odd going on.” Jack
said to me “Don’t let anybody out for a moment; let’s see what’s happening.” We
got out and walked inside; the building was a blaze of light and the building workers were still there. They said they had no intention of leaving. We immediately called a meeting of our committee with their committee; we discussed the matter in amicable terms and came to an agreement, at our insistence, that we would not occupy their beds or their rooms. We would camp down on the floor and spend the night, and the following morning we would go on a joint deputation to 10, Downing Street. It was a betrayal by the London County Council and the Government. They were hoping to discredit the squatters movement and the builders, presumably by having a brawl which they could make a feast of.

Next morning a small deputation of us went to Downing Street and, of course, Attlee was not there. We left a written document in which we laid at his door the
responsibility for anything of a serious nature which might happen because, as we
pointed out, there were young babies sleeping on the floor in the hostel. Then
Jack arranged a meeting at County Hall in a main committee room and the end
of the table and said “Sit there”; so I sat in a big, red leather, gold ornate chair and
our committee were all around. I remember making the point that we had lost our
trump card: we had been levered out into the open; we had no Duchess of Bed.
ford to fall back upon and we were on the spot. The thought occurred to me that
we might put pressure on Mr. Bligh and this man said “Bligh of the Bounty” you
know, do you remember? I suggested that we might occupy that committee room
and refuse to be shifted and Jack said That’s a good idea”. So we sent for Mr.
Bligh who was somewhat non-plussed at hearing this proposition. We said we
wanted the L.C.C., as the Executive arm of what had been decided between the
Government and the L.C.C., jointly, to honour their word and provide us with a place where we could retain our organisation as promised and where we could
continue to function as a body of squatters.

Bligh said it was impossible. He then went out and came back within five minutes.
“By a coincidence” he said, and produced information about Alexandra House at
Chalk Farm from where, he said, some elderly ladies were in process of being
moved to other accommodation. Would we go there, he said. We said we had yet
to hear of a coincidence operating in our favour, but we said “Yes” and he said
Well then, let’s move on”. We said “No, we want to look at it first, we’ve been
caught out before”. So a deputation went out and looked at it, and agreed that we
could make a go of it, and we moved there. It was that betrayal thing which really got us, because we had been manoeuvred out and promises had been broken.”

100 families eventually ended up at Alexandra House, the Duchess of Bedford people had been joined by Melcombe Regis and Fountain Court. “This was an improvement on Bromley House. A committee was formed, chosen by the squatters… The drawback was the lack of privacy, as we all had to sleep together, wash together and eat together. The dormitories were separated, one for mothers with babies, one for mothers with children over 3 years, one for women without children and one upstairs for men and boys over 8 years old. Meals were prepared by L.C.C. staff and served at large tables. Men who were at work were given meals in the evening and the women’s committee members noticed that these were bigger and of better quality than those served to the women and children. Consequently, we saw the supervisor and told him of our findings and asked for the same treatment for everyone; this he granted and the matter was rectified.

Already a lot was happening, as two families had been rehoused, the Ministry of
Health had launched a new housing drive and the L.C.C. had agreed to deal with
all squatters’ cases instead of the local town halls. By October 8th, five families
had been found homes.

We stayed at Alexandra House for about another six months. My husband be-
came the Secretary when Stan Henderson left, and I continued on the Women’s
Committee. We proved we could handle the day to day problems of which we
had many, whilst the men were away, and always managed to solve them amicab-
ly. We were able to get a few improvements where families could be together
rather than apart, though this only meant separate curtained spaces depending
on the size of the family, but it was preferable to being apart. Gradually people
were being rehoused, those with children and particular problems being given priority.

Eventually, about Easter time 1947, those that were left were moved to an L.C.C.
halfway house at Queens Gardens, Lancaster Gate. Here we all had our own sparsely furnished room. Meals were supplied in a communal
dining room. This proved to be much better. People continued to be rehoused. We were finally offered a very derelict pokey flat at Rotherhithe which we refused, so had to leave. This was about October or November.
We did not obtain the accommodation we had hoped for, but it was a very worthwhile and enlightening experience and one we will never forget.” (Hilda and Barney Lewis)

Duchess of Bedford House was eventually returned to its owners for luxury renting after the Ministry of Works had spent £5,000 on repairing it. The owners then rented it out again to anyone who could afford the £15 a week rent (high rent in them days…)

Having been remanded twice, the five arrested CP organisers’ case came to trial at the Old Bailey at the end of October. The trial lasted for two days. “Sir Walter Monckton defended four of us; Ted Bramley conducted his own defence. To those not directly involved I have no doubt that the brilliant display of dialectics and the biting irony on the part of Sir Walter was most impressive. Pointing out that we were being tried under an Act of Richard II he asked: “Was the arm of the civil law so weak in this matter that it required the first prosecution in our history for a criminal conspiracy to trespass?” (Joan Alergant)

Although expecting jail, they were merely bound over to be of good behaviour. The judge observed: ‘I am satisfied the motive was primarily to find homes for these unfortunate people’, and he almost advised counsel for the defence to appeal the verdict. However, it is worth noting that counsel for the Prosecution admitted that the charges had been mainly aimed at denting the squatting at its most active phase, and now that the big squats had stopped the government had little interest in creating Communist martyrs.

Bob Darke, who was active in the Communist Party in Hackney at the time of the squats, but later left and wrote a detailed critique of CP tactics, took a cynical view of the Party’s motives and practice regarding the squatting movement, suggesting they had always thought the West End squats would be shortlived and used the exercise as a publicity vehicle:

“During the serious housing shortage of the mid-forties the Party worked the most sensational confidence trick in its history – the Squatters’ Movement. So pathetic were the hardship cases exploited in this deception that for a while even Fleet Street was convinced that it was normal, a spontaneous demonstration on the part of the homeless. But when the almost military-like precision of the campaign became obvious there should have been no doubt in anybody’s mind that the Party was at the back of it.
The Party never openly admitted that it ran the squatting in the West End blocks of flats, or the rash of small house squatting that spread across London. The Daily Worker covered the campaign with the same poker-face inscrutability it wears when Party members paint anti-American slogans on cars in Grosvenor Square or demonstrate against American bomber stations. If you only read the Daily Worker it always sounds as if the party has been taken as much by surprise as everybody else.
The London Squatter Movement was conducted by Ted Bramley, from the offices of the London District Committee. Bramley actually appeared in person to run the taking-over of blocks of flats in Kensington, and members of his staff occupied rooms in one of the blocks to conduct the campaign more efficiently.
In Hackney the Party was instructed to ear-mark vacant houses, to collect homeless families
(there were names enough on my lists) and move them in on the word go… Let it be understood that I was as angry as anybody else to see these flats vacant at a time when the housing situation was so desperate. And for a time I believed the Party had found the right solution to the problem, arbitrary seizing of property.
But I soon realised that the Party’s real attitude was no less cynical than usual. It regarded the various ‘Squatters’ Committees’ we had formed as no more than propaganda vehicles. The Party’s leaders knew that the authorities would not allow the situation to develop and would suppress it forcibly. It knew, in short, that the squatters’ campaign would be defeated.
But win or lose the Party was going to benefit on two scores:
1. It would get the kudos for making the only forthright effort to grapple with the housing shortage and the anomalies that existed.
2. It could use the opposition to the Squatters’ Movement as proof that the Government was refusing to live up to its Socialism.
Conclusion? ‘Only the Communist Party fights for the workers!’
And that was how it worked out. Heaven only knows how many wretched pram-pushing families were moved into flats and rooms found for them by our eager-beaver comrades, only to be moved out again by the police.
The siege of the West End flats, the blockade running of food and water by Communist flying squads, got full play in the Party press with full use of epithets like ‘fascist technique’. ‘Labour’s Tory tactics”.
For weeks after the defeat of the Squatters’ Movement the Party in Hackney was capitalising on the misery of the debacle. Homeless families, coming back to the now defunct Party Squatters’ Committee, were told ‘Go and see Councillor Bob Darke. He’ll raise your case in the Council. And don’t forget, the Communist Party has been the only political party to help you.’.”

Without doubting genuine motivation from the CP’s point of view – housing the homeless and putting pressure on the Labour Government to improve housing options – the CP both acted with its usual murkiness – trying desperately to catch up and cash in on an autonomous movement that had outflanked it – and failed to keep up the pressure when government action came at it fast and hard.

The September squats in fact might be described as stunts, which had no real lasting impact, whose importance in terms of the squatting movement of 1946 is minimal, compared to the self-organisation of the vigilantes and the camp squats.

James Hinton, who later wrote an account of the 1946 squatting wave, suggested part of the motivation was the CP’s need to re-assert a political identity. The Party hierarchy had imposed a line of opposing strikes in the last years of the war, and had supported the continuation of the wartime coalition government – this had angered some party activists and also fell out of step with the electorate (who would shortly elect a landslide Labour government). The CP desperately needed a popular cause to indicate a position to the left of labour, that would also win support among working class people; strategists may also have felt successful popular action on housing could push the government leftwards on requisitioning and house building. The CP was trying to regain or keep hold of a precarious relationship to the wartime government that it had built by having a strong organisation in armaments factories but restraining industrial action and strikes in the interests of the war effort. The end of the war meant this influence was waning. Ironically, if getting heavily involved in the squatting had been intended to rebuild this influence and give it a lever over the Labour administration, it may have had the opposite effect. (James Hinton also suggested that some behind the scenes contacts between Labour ministers and leading Communists, including Ted Bramley, in fact ceased after the events of September).

But could more have been done to spread the squatting movement in London? The CP kept tight control of the organisation  – but the lack of a truly self-organised basis to the September London squats is obvious in its sudden collapse under state pressure. There was potential for mobilising popular or trade union support for the occupations; but the CP did not really attempt this. Despite threats to spread mass squatting of houses in other cities, CP general secretary Harry Pollitt in fact issued an instruction that squatting was to cease. Party activists continued to support and aid camp squatters in some areas but no more initiatives like the London squats was taken.

Workers from De Havilland factory demonstrate in support of squatters

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

So the potential for workplace action in support of occupations of residential property existed… But the CP didn’t call for industrial action to get services connected to the squats, or to push the demand for wider requisitioning of housing. A more concerted fight in the courts could also have been put up, as the CP did have access to good lawyers – this did not happen either.

When the court orders were granted, there was no attempt to organise resistance to the evictions: in fact, as noted above, Stan Henderson for one argued down squatters who wanted to physically fight any eviction. The Party confined its activities to organising a demo in Leicester Square and sending delegations to Atlee, Bevan and local town halls.

It is also however, worth noting that, while there seems to have been mass popular support for the camp squats, to some extent feelings about the central London squats were more ambiguous. Many people did view seizing empty pubic property and empty private property as distinctly different, and support for seizing empty private houses was markedly lacking compared to very widespread approval for occupying disused army camps.

Even some of the camp squatters themselves thought occupying the Duchess of Bedford flats and other private property was a mistake, or even morally wrong. Despite a broad sense that the government should house people, and that public property was fair game, in the sense that it ‘belonged’ to all anyway, there was, it would appear, no real popular mood for expropriating the wealthy, even on a small scale.

April 1946: Schoolchildren helping the workmen construct a new estate of pre-fabricated houses in Watford, Hertfordshire.

Various commentators have characterised the post-war squatting movement as not really an example of militant workers action, or even especially political. Undoubtedly the movement was born out of practical need, not ideology. At times some of the post-war squatters exhibited individualist and reactionary tendencies – as in Buckinghamshire, where racist and nationalist sentiment against Polish emigres (many war veterans) being housed in former camps was mobilised to encourage its being squatted instead. The Communist Party to its shame snidely contributed to this, as the Poles were viewed as ‘anti-communist’ since they were refusing to return to the new ‘communist’ Poland.

The CP was to claim that the London squatting actions had helped accelerate the housing repair and building programme; while Labour denied this, it seems clear that the post-war squatting movement as a whole did contribute to pressure on the government to bring forward construction projects, and ramp up solutions like pre-fab housing. Some 6000 properties the government had been in control of were also released for housing over the following year;  in parts o London, at least, some local authorities did step up requisitioning  of empty buildings.

How much the London squats contributed to that pressure is open to debate; the potential for the mass squatting wave to spread into a large-scale campaign of occupation in cities was lost. Local authorities gained control over most of the squatted camps, and kept control over the housing allocation process; working class direct action on housing was mostly pushed back to the margins, for a decade or so…

As a follow-up to this, read ‘Who Are the Squatters?’ – an article from 1946, based on interviews with squatters from the Duchess of Bedford House and Abbey Lodge occupations…

Worth reading

We haven’t talked much about the squatted camps here, which deserves a whole other article. Another time. The following are useful reads on the 1945-6 squatting movements.

Self-Help and Socialism: The Squatters Movement of 1946, James Hinton

Housing, An Anarchist Approach, Colin Ward

London Squatters 1946, Noreen Branson (Communist Party ‘Our History series)

Squatting in Britain 1945-55, Don Watson

Squatting: The Real Story, ed Nick Wates and Christian Wolmar.

A Domestic Rebellion: The Squatters’ Movement of 1946, Howard Webber

Advisory Service for Squatters Info Sheet on the post-war squatters

The Squatters of 1946: A Local Study in national Context, Paul Burnham

The Communist Technique in Britain, Bob Darke

Who Are the Squatters? Diana Murrray Hill (published in Pilot Papers, vol 1 no 4, 1946.)

There’s some film footage of the Kensington squatters here:

Spotlight on London’s squatted streets: Villa Road, Brixton

Villa Road, Brixton, was once one of the UK’s most famous squatted streets; many of the houses that remain in the road today are part of housing co-ops which trace their origin to the squats of the 1970s.

Brixton, late 1960s: A century and a half of social change had transformed a 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.

In response the local Planners came up with a massive crash programme of redevelopment; of which the Brixton Plan was the central plank.

Imaginative depiction of ‘Brixton Towers’ plan for the Villa Road area

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, (part of Coldharbour Lane was to have been turned into an urban motorway under the Ringway plans…)

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.

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 on the Recreation Centre). The building of new housing slowed down. The Council had aimed at 1000 new homes a year for 1971-8 – this target was never met.

By the early 70s 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. Two main results of all this were a rapid increase in the number of squatters in the area, and an upsurge in community, radical and libertarian politics in the Borough. Villa Road became a centre of both.

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 organising 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.

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

The demolition of squats in Brixton Road, early 1970s.

In Villa Road, just north of Brixton’s town centre, empty houses cleared for the Brixton Towers plan had been gradually squatted between 1973 and 1976. The houses had in many cases been gutted or smashed up by the council as they became empty, or had been squatted, to be rendered totally unliveable in, in an attempt to deter squatters from moving in or staying. This was a policy used across the borough. In some cases this got highly dangerous: squatted houses in Wiltshire Road (which adjoins Villa Road) were smashed with a wrecking ball while an old woman was still living in the neighbouring basement, while squatters 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 Lambeth Housing Department thinking up demolition plans and ordering them done on the sly.

However sabotage of houses didn’t deter people moving into Villa Road:

“We would go along perhaps late at night and get in the houses and get the electricity sorted out and then help the people to clear out the houses and make them habitable really. When we moved into the houses, they had had council wreckers in them who had broken a lot of the fabric of the houses. They broke the toilets and they poured concrete down them. The broke a lot of the windows, they tore up floorboards and pulled down ceilings. And we all set to fix them, and when I look back on it, the sort of things we did were quite astounding. Because they had poured concrete down the drains, it meant that you had to dig up the connection to the main sewers out in the street. We just used to dig up the whole lot and connect it up to the mains. What do you remember about that house, 39, when you got there?
-How terribly filthy… it was, and…
-No floorboards…
-No, no floorboards.
-There was an old guy who had shell-shock, caught him living there.
-That’s right.
-The basement was full of excrement,
-because he had mental health problems.

-It needed a lot of cleaning up. We went out skipping
– skipping was going round and looking in the skips that were on the streets and… collecting whatever it was you needed. So that was, you know… There were two activities, skipping and wooding. Wooding was going out and reclaiming all the wood from the houses that were being demolished, and, you know, you basically built your environment. In winter, the ice was on the inside of the windows. Heating was like one bar, one of those long fires mainly for bathrooms, I think. We used to cook on that as well, beans on toast – total fire hazard. The wiring was totally bent and, you know, illegal, the gas was. It was, you know… I remember seeing a huge rat coming up from the basement at one time. Yeah, it was pretty rough.”  

As houses were slowly renovated, Villa Road became home to several hundred people, residents who created lots of alternative projects: An informal economy evolved, though partly subsidised by the various DHSS giro payments of residents (some of who used to drive the van the good quarter mile to the dole office or post office to sign on or cash in, by some accounts!) The communal arrangements included a food co-op, (based on vegetables skipped from New Covent Garden market in Nine Elms), a ‘pay what you can’ street café, a medical service run by Patrick and Maureen Day, who were both qualified GPs (‘Check up for

Villa Road graffiti, 1977.

the price of a smoke’, and an adventure playground for kids A women’s group formed c.1975-6; a musical collective was set up around the same time (at least 3 bands formed here too) The street had its own newspaper, the Villain, edited by squatting activist (and now transport guru, cycling advocate, and Labour Party politician) Christian Wollmar…

As with elsewhere in the squatting movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s, there was a mix of people from a variety of backgrounds, though a core of the original group that kicked of the occupation of the street included a number of   white, middle class graduates, some of who had been to Oxford and Cambridge universities.   Politically, there was an early contingent from left groups like the International Marxist Group, though spiced with a typically 70s hotchpotch of new age therapies and, er, cults…

No 31 Villa Road, was, for a while, the base for the more IMG-oriented types.

“There were two influences on us. One was obviously Marx. We were Marxists, we saw ourselves as Marxists. We were in things like Marxist reading groups and we studied Marx. But we were also influenced by people like Laing and Cooper and were into the death of the nuclear family. This rejection of the nuclear family was born of an intellectual analysis which saw the family as an essential unit of a capitalist society. We felt it was necessary – or should be possible – to have supportive, economically viable, emotionally rewarding relationships, familial sexual relationships, with people without creating, or commodifying as we like to call it, commodifying the family unit. We had a lot of theories around the family unit being the building block of capitalism. These beliefs made life complicated at the squatters’ resource centre that Paul helped to run. If people within a sexual relationship had or wanted… to have an intimate physical relationship, whether it was sexual or not, with other people, then that had to be acknowledged and it had to both be acknowledged by both partners, but also allowed to happen. It was agonising, because you were supposed to say it before you do it, not just come back and say, “Oh, by the way, I’ve bonked Bill.” You would…have to explore the feelings you had, the pressures – emotional and sexual – on you and the other person with the group or with the people it directly impacted on before you did the deed. I mean, I don’t know anybody who like thought they want to get married. I certainly didn’t think I wanted to get married and I consider myself proud never to have got married. And it is quite different again now, but, yeah, I mean, nuclear family… a lot of us had come from pretty unpleasant nuclear families. And that does open up ideas for how you might live. It seemed that the nuclear family was really in crisis. And…you know, the idea of a stable couple having children was not really part of most people’s experience in that particular kind of sub society, you know. And it also implied a degree of isolation from others. I mean, there was a great collectivist vibe at that time. How you live together was very much open to question, and I think we…partly just out of necessity, but we tended to live in communes, and that seemed as if that was the way that that could work more generally in society.”

No 12, however, became the base for the ‘Primal screamers’… Jenny James was a follower of both communist sexologist Wilhelm Reich, and Californian psychotherapist Arthur Janov, who had developed a therapy known as primal scream, in the course of which patients relived the trauma of their own birth.
Despite having no formal training, Jenny set up a primal therapy commune in Donegal in Ireland. At the same time, she established a sister commune in a squat at number 12 Villa Road.

‘Villa Trek’ cartoon, spoofing Star Trek

“The idea was that therapy should not be the preserve of the moneyed bourgeoisie, but should be available free of charge to anybody. I was called the black sheep of the… Oh, I’d brought the therapy movement into disrepute. This came from the big, posh therapy centres. What it boiled down to was I wasn’t asking money. Anyone can do therapy if they go through things themselves. They don’t need some posh training. It was just a question of human empathy and, of course, knowing yourself really well, being honest with yourself. And so I just opened the doors. It was primal scream and it did involve…screaming. Letting… Which was… Sorry, I’m not laughing at that. It was very genuinely felt. It was about letting out your inner anguish. Um, it was noisy. SHE SCREAMS That’s what I say to you! Ah…! It is extremely organic and well worked out. Nothing’s false. It is something that comes out. When things do really come out from very far down in the body, they can sound quite animal-like.”

They can be quite scary. What wasn’t nice was that they were all naked while they were doing it. When you’re six, and there’s a big group of people rolling round the floor naked, you’re thinking, “What is going on here?” There was my friend’s mum – she was the one that did it – Babs. You just think, “It’s so strange,” cos you’re playing out in the garden, you pop in for a drink, and someone’s in the kitchen naked.”

From a Villa Road songsheet

“Our one-to-one sessions were extraordinary and incredibly valuable. I wouldn’t ever regret any of that or want it to be any different. Um, but the downside was the group. Living… The thing was, we’re all there, we’re all feeling really vulnerable. We’re all looking for ourselves. We’re all looking for friends and support and home and family and answers. So everybody was vulnerable and everybody was at different stages of this exploration, this journey. And there was no account taken of that in any structured way or in any way really. Throughout the years, what would happen is, now and then, some of the stronger characters would actually cross the metaphorical line. They’d cross the line, come in, get involved. We had a lot of lovely-looking women in our commune. -They’d form relationships. They’d start to look at it.
-So was that what drew them in?
-The women?
-I would say that was probably obviously a first hook, if you like. But then they’d see and it was very interesting what we do. They’d see that and they’d see that it worked. They’d get interested. It was a deeper way of living. I remember that, um, the primal screamers… The story was… I think it was probably true, too. ..that the primal screamers sort of sent vixens out onto the street to seduce the handsome boys who were on the left, and to get them to scream instead of, you know, agitate or something. I don’t think it was that organised. It sounds a bit of a conspiracy theory to me.
– You weren’t lured in by a woman?
– I was lured in by a woman, actually. So, you never know, do you? I don’t think she was acting on orders. I think she just fancied me. It always reminded me of that film, The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, in that one would wake up and discover that somebody else from the street had been captured by the primal scream.”

Other women formed a women’s group: “I think over time we had several different Marxist reading groups going on. The one I remember in Villa Road, the one I remember going to, was an all women’s Marxist reading group. Through that, I think we started to think about redefining our role as women. We were doing consciousness raising. We would go away for weekends and have weekends away and stuff. We did things like…we had a book called Our Bodies, Ourselves, which was fantastic. Women learned about how to have orgasms through Spare Rib and vibrators, which was absolutely fantastic. And, um, I think, yeah, that was brilliant. We read books, sort of Marxist books, I suppose. We did self-examination, which was quite popular in those days.
-What does that mean?
-You know, when you examine… I remember one meeting that we had a speculum, because Maureen’s a doctor. So she could have them, and we examined ourselves and learnt about our bodies. Which bit of your body? You’re getting me so embarrassed! We, you know, we tried to find out where our cervixes were, which was a journey in itself. Do you remember examining your cervix? No, I didn’t do any of that. But, yes, that was going on. Lots of use of mirrors.”  

Some on Villa Road saw their inner world as the route to changing society. Luise Eichenbaum had come to London from New York as a trained psychotherapist, attracted by British feminist writing. From her squat in Villa Road, she set up the Women’s Therapy Centre with Susie Orbach, believing that therapy could be harnessed to left-wing goals. “For me, psychoanalysis and psychotherapy absolutely came right out of my political activity, because, as a feminist, we really understood that in order to change one’s self, you couldn’t just say, “I no longer want to be this person, the person I was raised to be, “the little girl raised to be a certain kind of feminine character, “who defers to people, who is submissive, who feels insecure, who doesn’t feel entitled and so on.” We knew that we no longer wanted to be that person, and so, if one wanted to change deeply, we had to look to the unconscious. I think people came to see that bringing change wasn’t just about changing physical social aspects of society. I think people started to recognise that change actually maybe has a psychological dimension, an internal dimension, as well.” 

To some extent, the Villa Road community attempted to govern itself outside the scope of the law beyond:

“Would you ever have called the police?
-No.
-What did you do instead?
-Well, where there were instances of theft and so on within the street, then those were dealt with at street meetings. One incident I remember, we jailed the guy for a week, I believe. Everyone was losing their stereos and, um… we eventually managed to catch this young, black guy, who was, I think, 15 at the time. And, um, so…he said that he had been thrown out of home, that he had nowhere to go and he was stealing all this stuff so that he could survive. And so in typical Villa Road fashion, we held a street meeting, emergency street meeting, what to do about him. And we decided that we would give him a home, give him somewhere to live and we would give him money. And so he lived with us then.”

As with other squatted streets of the era, the leftist political slant of many occupants led them into taking part in solidarity action with other struggles that were going on. Villa Road residents regularly joined picket lines at strikes like Grunwick, marched in support of striking firefighters…

In response to tenants’ campaigns, the Council pressed ahead with attempts to evict through the courts, all the houses in Villa Road, 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.

“The barricades came about because… the, um, Lambeth Council wanted to demolish the whole of Villa Road. This had been their long-term plan. They couldn’t do it because we were living in the houses. But they, I think, probably served eviction orders on us and we decided that we were going to stay, and so, we thought, “Well, we’ll barricade ourselves in. “The bailiffs will come, but if they can’t get into the houses, they can’t evict us.” So that was another form of direct action. We would scour Lambeth, looking for wood, sheets of corrugated iron, barbed wire. There were a lot of building sites that went short of things in those days! And the ingenuity of people to get all these materials together was phenomenal. The barricade in front of 7 and 9 Villa Road was very beautiful, because we painted it. It was a carefully tended barricade. “Victory Villa” was the big sort of slogan. “Property is theft.” That was another of the slogans on the barricades. We were all into that. … The first thing I and the two chaps who moved in with me began to do was to sort out the barricades on our house. We had, um… It was like triple barricades of corrugated sheets and joists, and then more corrugated sheets, then joists and props, all put together with six-inch nails. Then on top of the barricade was barbed wire and a gutter, the plan being that we would fill the gutter with petrol and have bits of burning tyre, so we would have a sheet of flame to meet the bailiffs, before they could even get to the house itself. And we also had this huge, great, big wooden ball, like, um, on the ball and chain, but this was made of wood with big six-inch nails stuck in it, on the end of a rope, that you could swing and it would lazily move in front of the house as another disincentive to come anywhere near us.”

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. Links with local workers were helped by squatters’ previous support for a construction workers picket during a strike at the Tarmac site in the town centre, and for an unemployed building workers march. 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 in Vauxhall, the day before. The local UCATT building workers union branch had passed a resolution blocking the gutting of liveable houses.

In November 1976, the Villa Roaders launched an ‘Agitvan’ to tour the streets of the Borough spreading the word about life in Villa Road… 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.  When Lambeth Council attempted to push through its demolition policy by destroying the squatted street at St Agnes Place in January 1977, Villa Roaders went off to support the occupants:

“Very early in the morning, we found out that the council were moving in bulldozers, there were large busloads of police turning up at the end of the street, and all the rest of it. We all shot off down there. Quite a lot of the residents had already climbed up onto the roofs, basically saying, “If you’re going to knock the house down, you’ll have to knock us down with them!” Got all the council workers digging up the pipes, down at the front. They filled the drains with cement, and took out water and gas pipes. They really went to town to make sure they were uninhabitable. In this picture, you can see a protester. He’s one of the squatters who tied a rope round his waist… There was a few of them. ..and actually walked across the top of this, what’s left of the main framework of the house. We, together with the lawyers from the Law Centre, managed to get an emergency High Court injunction by midday or one o’clock that day, forcing the council to withdraw their equipment, ‘and to leave us alone.’ St Agnes Place was saved, and the council was publicly and humiliatingly defeated. Lambeth Council had to rethink its approach.”

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…

Villa Road was still under threat – in fact the barricades stayed up for another two years…

The following account of the battle to save Villa Road was nicked from Squatting: the Real Story, published in 1979.

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Victory Villa Challenging the planners in South London

(Squatting: the Real Story, Chapter 12) by Nick Anning and Jill Simpson

The Planners’ Plan

The area around Villa Road is still rather quaintly labelled ‘Angell Town’ on the maps; a legacy of a past which includes the old manorial estate of Stockwell and the eccentric landowner John Angell who died in 1784.

To those who live here now, this is part of Brixton in the London Borough of Lambeth with the market and the Victoria Line tube station a few minutes walk away.

Planners’ vision for central Brixton, late 1960s

But the change wrought in just a few years by Lambeth Council’s planners has been far more radical than that gradual transformation. The majority of houses which stood in 1965 have been demolished and Villa Road too, would have disappeared if the planners had had their way. The fact that most of it still stands is the result of a protracted battle between the squatter community and the Council’s bureaucrats and councillors.

The origins of this battle can be found in The Brixton Plan, an intriguing document produced by Lambeth in 1969, and in the events that led up to its publication. Indeed, Villa Road’s very existence as a squatter community arises from the Plan, its initial shortcomings, its lack of flexibility in the face of economic changes and the refusal of leading Lambeth councillors and planners to engage in meaningful consultation. Their intransigence in refusing to admit that the plans might be wrong or open to revision was a further contributing factor.

The Plan had its roots in the optimistic climate of Harold Wilson’s first government in the early sixties. The Greater London Council (GLC) asked the recently enlarged London boroughs to draw up community plans in line with the GLC’s overall strategy for taking the metropolis gleaming into the seventies. Lambeth responded eagerly to this prompting, only too anxious to establish itself as one of the more enterprising inner London boroughs.

The scale and scope of its redevelopment plan was tremendously ambitious. Lambeth was to be transformed into an even more splendid memorial to the planners’ megalomania than neighbouring Croydon with Brixton as its showcase. Brixton town centre was to be completely rebuilt, incorporating a huge transport interchange complex where a six-lane highway, motorway box, main line railway and underground intersected.

Brixton’s social mix was to completely change with middle-class commuters flocking south of the Thames, to bring renewed prosperity and to rejuvenate business and commerce. Ravenseft, the property company which gave nearby Elephant and Castle its unloved redevelopment, expressed interest in the plan for Brixton. Tarmac, the road building firm, was given permission to build an office block on condition it helped to fund a new leisure centre. The Inner London Education Authority talked of new schools and a new site for South West London College. The dream seemed possible.

The plan would involve demolishing the fading bastions of Brixton’s Victorian and Edwardian splendour, epitomised by the very name Villa Road. These houses were to be replaced with modern homes for the working class of Lambeth. Angell Town was zoned for residential use, Brixton Road was to become a six-lane expressway and three proposed new housing developments (Brixton Town Centre, Myatts Fields and Stock-well Park Estate) would completely remove old Angell Town from the map. About 400 houses were to be demolished and their occupants ‘decanted’. Some low rise, high density modern estates were to be constructed but at the core of the plan was the construction of five 52 storey tower blocks. Brixton Towers was the apt name chosen for this development which, at 600 feet high, was to be the highest housing scheme outside Chicago. A large park was planned, in line with the GLC’s recommendations, to serve the 6,000 residents of the new estates. The scheme was a tribute to the planners’ megalomania.

The aim seems to have been to establish pools of high density council housing with limited access, restricting traffic to major perimeter roads where a facade of rehabilitated properties would give a false respectability to a disembowelled interior. Stockwell Park Estate, the first of the three estates to be completed, has already proved the disastrous nature of this type of development. Completed in 1971, it has suffered from dampness, lack of repairs and vandalism. For several years, its purpose-built garages remained unused and, until recently, it had a reputation as a ‘sink estate’ for so-called ‘problem families’.

In the heady climate of the sixties, this type of ‘macroplanning’ was taken as approved by the ballot box and by public enquiries. It was assumed that the professional planners ‘knew best’ and the majority of Lambeth’s 300,000 population were unaware of, let alone consulted about, the far-reaching nature of these plans.

First stirrings

In 1967 Lambeth Council obtained a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) on the Angell Town area, despite a number of objections at the public enquiry. The familiar pattern of blight set in. Residents, promised rehousing in the imminent future, no longer maintained their houses as they were soon to be demolished. Tenants in multi-occupied houses found it increasingly difficult to press the Council for repairs and maintenance, and tried to obtain immediate rehousing. The long years of Labour dominance in Lambeth were interrupted with three years of Tory rule but this was of little consequence to the monolithic plan. It drew support from Conservatives and Labour alike, although a radical caucus in the Labour Party known as the ‘Norwood Group’ began to voice misgivings during Labour’s spell in opposition. By the time Labour regained control in 1971, Angell Town was a depressed and demoralised area, as voting figures for the ward in local elections showed. Though staunchly Labour, turn-out in Angell Ward has been the lowest of all Lambeth’s 20 wards since 1971, averaging only about 25 per cent of the electorate.

The newly returned Labour administration of 1971 contained a sizeable left-wing influence through the Norwood Group and had high hopes of cutting back the massive 14,000 waiting list for council homes. However by now they were prisoners of processes originating with the Plan. Population counts in clearance areas were proving inaccurate, mainly because live-in landlords, multi-occupiers and extended families were reluctant, through fear of public health regulations, to give full details of the number of people in their houses. As ‘decanting’ took place from development areas, more and more people began to find themselves ineligible for rehousing, or were given offers of accommodation unsuitable for their needs. Most houses were boarded up or gutted, adding to blight. Homelessness grew rapidly.

Despite the Labour Group’s optimism, the building programme slowed down. Lambeth’s target of 1,000 new homes per year from 1971-8 was never met. Many people, particularly Labour Party members, began to realise that sweeping clearance programmes destroyed large numbers of houses in good condition as well as unfit ones. With a tighter economic climate and a Conservative Government opposed to municipalisation in office, some of the steam had already gone out of Lambeth’s redevelopment plans by 1971, only two years after the publication of The Brixton Plan.

The neighbourhood council

The Norwood Group of councillors both paralleled and reflected the upsurge of radical, libertarian and revolutionary politics in Brixton during the early seventies. 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 in the main section of Lambeth’s population whose housing needs went unrecognised.

The St John’s Street Group was one of several street groups set up in 1972 under the wing of the Neighbourhood Council. Its membership included residents of both Villa Road and St John’s Crescent as the two streets were suffering from blight arising out of the same plans. Most of the immediate area was scheduled to be pulled down to form part of the new Angell Park. Villa Road tenants wanted rehousing while those in neighbouring St John’s Crescent were campaigning about the poor state of repair of their properties. The Street Group began a series of direct actions (eg a rent strike and the dumping of uncollected rubbish at the nearby area housing office) to put pressure on the Council. As a result, many Villa Road tenants were rehoused and their houses boarded up. Most also had their services cut off and drains sealed with concrete to discourage squatting. More sensibly, a few of the houses were allocated on licence to Lambeth Self-Help, a short-life housing group whose office was round the corner in Brixton Road.

Squatters enter the fray

Some of the Neighbourhood Council activists moved into No 20 Villa Road, one of the houses handed over to Lambeth Self-Help, in early 1973. That summer another house in Villa Road was squatted. No 20 became the centre of St John’s Street Group activity, providing an important point of contact with the Neighbourhood Council, Lambeth Self-Help and unofficial squatters. In 1974, other houses on Villa Road were squatted, mainly by groups of homeless single people. 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 which was to be the strength of the Villa Road community. The fact that a certain number of people came from outside Lambeth was frequently used in anti-squatting propaganda.

Meanwhile, the Labour Council was moving to the right and a strong anti-squatter consensus had begun to emerge, particularly after the 1974 council elections. The new Chairperson of the Housing Committee and his Deputy were in the forefront of this opposition to squatters. 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 fact, the autumn of 1974 saw the formation of All Lambeth Squatters, a militant body representing most 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.

The rightward-leaning Council took all the teeth out of the Neighbourhood Councils and the one in Angell Ward, torn by internal disputes, ceased to function by the end of 1973. That was not to say that the issue of redevelopment for Angell Town was not still of major interest to the local residents. The Brixton Towers project had been dropped, throwing into question the whole plan. Furthermore, the programme of rehousing and demolition was proceeding slower than expected forcing the Council to consider its short-term plans for the area. It came up with the idea of a ‘temporary open space’ which was to involve the demolition of Villa Road and St John’s Crescent.

According to a Council brochure published in June 1974, this open space was to be the forerunner of a larger Angell Park with play and recreation facilities. Walkways linking the park to smaller areas of open space (‘green fingers’) alongside Brixton Road were to be built and a footbridge over that busy road was to link it with the densely populated Stockwell Park Estate.

The justification for the plan was that the high density of housing proposed for the nearby Myatts Fields South and Brixton Town Centre North estates required open space of the local park variety within a quarter of a mile radius. What was not publicly admitted was that the construction of these estates would involve a much smaller increase in the area’s population than had been originally envisaged. Instead of 3,000, the figure was now admitted to be nearer 800, hardly enough to justify the creation of a park that would involve the demolition of much good housing. In any case, money for the open space, let alone the park, was not to be available until autumn 1976, and in June 1974 housing officials declared that the Council would not require Villa Road houses until summer 1976.

Arguably, this amounted to a legal licence to occupy the houses. Probably the Council would have had little further trouble from the Villa Road squatters had it not been for two factors: the continuous programme of wrecking and vandalising houses in the vicinity and the Council leadership’s adherence to a hardline policy on squatting and homelessness. The combination of these two factors increased militant opposition to the Council’s politicians and bureaucrats which culminated in a full-scale confrontation in the summer of 1976.

A week of action in September 1974 led to more houses being squatted and saw the first meetings of the Villa Road Street Group (not to be confused with the by-then defunct St John’s Street Group). The members of the Group had come together fairly randomly and their demands were naturally different. For instance, there were Lambeth Self-Help members for whom rehousing was top priority; single people who demanded the principle of rehousing but wished to develop creative alternatives; and students and foreigners who were in desperate need of accommodation but whose transient presence or precarious legal status kept them outside the housing struggle which was taking place around them.

By the end of 1974, 15 houses in Villa Road and one in Brixton Road (No 315) had been squatted by Street Group members who now numbered – about a hundred. Like in other squatted streets common interests drew people together and gave the street its own identity. The Street Group became a focus for the organisation of social as well as political activities. For instance, in the summer of 1975, a street carnival attracted over 1,000 people. A cafe, food co-operative, band and news-sheet (Villain) were further activities of the now-thriving street.

But it was a community living under a permanent threat and a stark reminder of that was the eviction of No 315 Brixton Road in April 1975. The house along with two others which were too badly vandalised to have been squatted, were pulled down as part of the Council’s preparation for the footbridge linking the proposed park with the Stockwell Park Estate. The dust had hardly settled after the demolition when the Council announced the cancellation of the footbridge plan. The site was left unused for five years and then grassed over.

Events like this tended to harden the opposition to the Council in the Street Group. Another five houses had been squatted during 1975, including those with serious faults which needed a lot of sustained work like re-roofing, plumbing, rewiring and unblocking drains.

The population of the street was now approaching 200. Three houses in St John’s Crescent which had been emptied in preparation for demolition were taken over with the help of the departing tenants. Several other houses in the Crescent and Brixton Road were wrecked and demolished by the Council, still intent on implementing its temporary open space plan.

Squatters were increasingly becoming a thorn in the Council’s side. 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. The policy was eventually passed in April 1976 after considerable opposition both within the Labour Party from the Norwood Group and from homeless people and squatters.

In a sense, Villa Road, and later St Agnes Place, were the testing grounds for this new policy. Although the Council had agreed to meet Villa Road Street Group representatives in February, its position was unyielding. Twenty-one of the 32 houses in Villa Road were to be demolished within four months and the street would be closed off for open space. Moreover, the Council told the Street Group that when the houses were evicted, families would be referred to the Council’s homeless families unit but single people would just have to ‘make their own arrangements’. The future of the remaining 11 houses was less certain as they were earmarked for a junior school that, even in 1976, was unlikely ever to be built.

The Trades Council Inquiry

It was clear that the Street Group could not fight the Council without outside support. There was already considerable local dissatisfaction with the Council for its failure to change the plans for the area and the Street Group, in an attempt to harness available support, organised a public meeting in April 1976 to discuss courses of action. At the meeting, which was well-attended, it was decided to initiate a Trades Council Inquiry into local housing and recreational needs. This idea was supported by a wide range of people and groups including the vicar of St John’s Church which overlooks Villa Road and the ward Labour Party. A committee including two Street Group representatives was set up to collect evidence and prepare a report.

The Trades Council Inquiry report was to be presented to a public meeting of 200 people at St. John’s School two months later. Lambeth’s Chief Planning Officer, its Deputy Director of Housing and an alderman came to hear their critics and see the meeting vote overwhelmingly in favour of the report’s recommendations. These were:

  • No more demolitions, wreckings or evictions.
  • Smaller, more easily supervised playspaces should be created from existing empty sites, rather than clinging stubbornly to a plan for one large park.
  • Money saved by stopping evictions, wreckings and demolition should be spent on repairs on nearby estates or rehabilitation of older property.
  • The Council should recognise the strong community in the area and take that as the starting point for allowing active participation by local people in the planning process.

The Council’s representatives made no concession to these views except to suggest rather insultingly that the report might be admissible for discussion as a ‘local petition’. They firmly rejected the meeting’s recommendation that the Trades Council Report should be considered at the next Council meeting.

Whilst the Inquiry had been collecting its evidence, there had been a further series of confrontations between squatters and wreckers. The Trades Council had passed a resolution blacking the wrecking of good houses and the Council was forced to find non-union labour to do its dirty work. The squatters managed to take over one house in Brixton Road before it was wrecked (No 321) but another (No 325) was gutted by workmen under police protection. The culmination of these battles between squatters and wreckers was to be at St. Agnes Place in January 1977, an action which attracted widespread national publicity.

Both these wreckings and the Inquiry attracted local press coverage and support for the squatters widened. Several Norwood councillors, prompted by a letter from the Street Group, began to give active support as well as inside information on the Council’s position. Links with the local labour movement 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.

To the barricades

With careful timing, the Council made its initial response to the Inquiry’s report the day after it was released when all the houses occupied by the Street Group (except those on the school site) received county court summonses for possession. The court cases were scheduled for 30 June, a couple of weeks away, and the Street Group’s response was immediate: a defence committee was organised to barricade all threatened houses, coordinate a legal defence, publicise the campaign, set up an early warning system and much more.

benefit poster for Villa Road defence campaign

At the court hearing, the judge criticised the Council for its sloppy preparation and only eight out of fifteen possession orders were granted. Although this was a partial victory, the barricades obviously had to remain. The Street Group embarked on a series of militant actions with support from other Lambeth squatters aimed at forcing the Council to reconsider the Trades Council Inquiry’s findings which it had rejected at a heavily-picketed meeting and at getting the Council to offer rehousing to Villa Road squatters. First, the Lambeth Housing Advice Centre was occupied for an afternoon in July and, a month later, following the breakdown of negotiations, the Planning Advice Centre received the same treatment. This did not prevent the planning and housing committees from formally rejecting the Trades Council Report but both occupations achieved their primary objective in getting Lambeth round the negotiating table. The Street Group’s initial position was for rehousing as a community but as the talks continued, it was decided to agree to consider individual rehousing. Staying in Villa Road on a permanent basis was not an option considered seriously by either side at this stage. After the second occupation and a survey of empty property in the borough by the squatters, the Council representatives said they might be prepared to look for individual properties for rehousing. The Street Group’s minimum demand was rehousing for 120 people knowing full well that any offer of rehousing would breach both the squatting and homelessness policies.

In October, the Council made an offer of 17 houses to the Street Group but the houses were in such a bad condition that the sincerity of its motives could clearly be questioned. The Street Group had no option but to reject them despite the strain that living behind barricades was causing. The defences could never be made impregnable and the difficulties of living permanently under the threat of immediate eviction was too much for many people who left, sometimes to unthreatened houses up the street. They were generally replaced by even more determined opponents of the Council and morale in the street was further boosted by the occupation of the remaining tenanted and licensed houses in the threatened part of the street whose occupants were all rehoused.

After the rejection of the offer, no further word came from the Council though it seemed clear that it was reluctant at this stage to send in the bailiffs. A war of attrition set in, marked by two interesting developments.

First, a sympathetic councillor was selected to stand in the by-election of November 1976 caused by the death of an Angell Ward councillor. The selection was a success for the Street Group’s members in the ward Labour Party whose votes were decisive. It was a rebuff for the Council’s leader whose nominee failed to win selection and helped to chip away the right’s narrow majority within the Labour Group, contributing directly to the leftward movement that eventually put the Norwood Group with a left-wing leader in power at the local elections of May 1978.

Secondly, in October, the Department of the Environment (DOE) held a public inquiry over the Council’s application to close Villa Road. Several local organisations, including the Street Group, presented evidence against closure. An inquiry which should have been over in a day stretched to ten. Each point was strongly contested since the Street Group realised that if the Council was unable to close Villa Road its plan for the park would need drastic modification. The DOE inspector promised to make his report a matter of urgency.

The turning point

As the Council still did not have possession orders on all the houses, it now restarted court proceedings against all the squatted houses (except those on the school site) – this time in the High Court. The Street Group hurriedly drew up a detailed legal defence, arguing a general licence on the grounds that official negotiations with the Council had never been formally terminated. Villa Road’s case was strengthened by statements from two Lambeth councillors. The hearing opened in January 1977, marked by a picket, street theatre and live music outside the High Court.

Judging by its legal representatives’ response at the preliminary hearing, the Council had not anticipated any legal defence and the case was adjourned twice. The Council’s reason for going to the High Court instead of the county court was that a High Court order for possession allows the police to assist directly in carrying out the eviction. A county court order did not give the police power to intervene except to guard against a possible ‘breach of the peace.’ Events at nearby St. Agnes Place in January had set an ugly precedent and showed the Council was now prepared for full scale battles with squatters. Over 250 police had arrived at dawn in St Agnes Place to preside over the demolition with a ball and chain of empty houses although the demolition was stopped within hours by a hastily initiated court injunction by the squatters.

In the event, the St Agnes Place affair put Lambeth Council at a moral disadvantage and had an important effect on events in Villa Road. Labour Group leader David Stimpson had staked his hardline reputation on an outright confrontation but the failure to demolish all the houses and the resulting bad publicity put his political future in doubt. To make matters worse for Stimpson, the DOE inspector’s report on the public inquiry into the closure of Villa Road was published around the same time. It ruled against the Council: Villa Road had to stay open until revised plans for Brixton Town Centre North were devised ‘in consultation with all interested parties’.

The remnants of The Brixton Plan had already started to crumble around the Council when Ravenseft, one of the major backers, had pulled out the previous summer. With the unfavourable report from the DOE inspector and news that the construction of the school planned for the top end of Villa Road was to be deferred indefinitely, 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 resumed in March, the Council had been forced into a position where it had to compromise. The judge encouraged the Council and the Street Group to settle out of court as, in the end, the granting of a possession order was inevitable. After some hard bargaining, the Street Group got a three months stay of execution to 3 June 1977 and costs of £50 awarded against it, a considerable saving on the estimated £7,000 the case had cost Lambeth.

June 3 passed uneventfully as did the first anniversary of the erection of the barricades. Indeed, they were to stay up almost another year until in March 1978 the squatters felt confident enough of the Council’s intentions to take them down. No attempt had ever been made to breach them.

With the DOE inspector’s decision not to close the road and the absence of revised plans for the area, the possibility now emerged that the fate of the two sides of the street could be different. The south side (12 houses) backed onto a triangle, two-thirds of which was already demolished for the open space. On the other hand, the north side (20 houses) backed onto a new council estate and its demolition would add little space to the park area even assuming that permission to close Villa Road were obtained. Therefore, the Street Group decided to accept demolition of the south side provided that everyone was rehoused, and to push for the houses on the north side to be retained and rehabilitated, ideally as a housing co-op for the existing squatters. Negotiations were resumed on this basis and Lambeth kept talking: clearly, it didn’t want a repeat of the St Agnes Place disaster.

A new Council

The first tangible gain for the Street Group came in March 1978, when two short-life houses were offered to people being rehoused from the south side. But the most important event came two months later, when a new left-Labour Council was elected with Ted Knight, a ‘self confessed marxist’ and Matthew Warburton, a first time councillor, as leader and housing chairperson respectively. It was a significant victory in that it represented as radical a shift in policy as a victory by the Tories – in the other direction, of course. 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.

Lambeth housing department officials now pressed for the demolition of houses on the south side, to make way for the new Angell Park, and suggested that all Villa Road Street Group members join Lambeth Self-Help Housing. It appeared that a new atmosphere of negotiation was being created but the same housing department officers did the negotiating and the Plan had not been totally abandoned. Eventually the Street Group agreed, very reluctantly, to the south side of Villa Road being vacated, with all occupants being rehoused in property with at least 18 months life. Demolition was to begin on 24 July 1978 and the fourth annual Villa Road carnival was made spectacular by one of the vacated houses on the south side being burnt down as a defiant gesture of protest. All the houses accepted for rehousing were in the borough, though some were in Norwood, several miles away.

The Street Group, left to its own devices, requested details of the Council’s plans for the rehabilitation of Villa Road north side. It’s main aim was to keep the north side houses. Inspired by the growth of housing co-ops in other areas, the Street Group decided to propose a co-op for Villa Road. In January 1979 an ‘outline proposal’ was sent to the housing directorate suggesting four possible types of co-op but with an expressed preference for a management co-op. In this type of co-op, the Council continues to own the property whilst handing over responsibilities for rent collection, maintenance and management to the co-op. Rehabilitation is financed either by local or central government. It was felt that other types of co-op involving the sale of council housing stock were politically unacceptable.

The co-op proposals were presented to the housing committee in April 1979 and formal approval was given for the chairman to continue negotiations with the Street Group for setting up a co-op. The climate had certainly changed and although squatting was still regarded as a ‘problem’, the Council now negotiated rather than evicted, at least with large groups. Lambeth officers were reluctant to embark on this scheme which was entirely new to the borough and instead suggested a joint management/ownership co-op. Houses in Villa Road would form the management wing, and the ownership branch would be in a nearby Housing Action Area. This was to ensure that four or five houses in Villa Road could be used to accommodate large families from Lambeth’s waiting list. It seemed ironic that Lambeth was now short of large houses when the previous administration had operated a policy of systematic demolition of such houses. The planning machine had done a complete U-turn.

The Street Group now had to change its tactics. Instead of militant campaigns with barricades and regular occupations of council offices, it had to get down to the nitty gritty of filling in forms to register as a friendly society and as a co-op, finding a development agent (Solon Housing Association was eventually selected) and working out detailed costings for the rehabilitation. It was no longer a matter

Remaining houses on the north side of Villa Road, early 1980s

of just saving the houses, it was a question of getting the long-term best deal for Street Group members and Lambeth’s homeless.

After Solon had submitted detailed costings in January 1980 (it worked out at about £7,000 per bed space), the housing committee agreed, the following month, to support Villa Road’s application to the Housing Corporation (a quango through which government money is channelled to housing associations and co-ops) for funding to rehabilitate the houses. Lambeth would grant Villa Road a 40 year lease. The recommendations were not passed without dissent. Some of the old anti-squatting brigade were still on the committee, intent on eviction without rehousing for Villa Road squatters. But Street Group members now no longer had to live day to day under threat of eviction – they could dream of still living in Villa Road and collecting their pensions.

Not everything was different. Two houses on the corner of Villa Road, Nos 64 and 66 Wiltshire Road were demolished in April 1980. They had been squatted in October 1976 following an unsuccessful wrecking attempt by the Council. They had provided housing for some 20 people for three and a half years and were now being pulled down to make way for the Angell Park play centre scheduled to start in June 1980. Yet three months later, not a brick had been laid. At least now Lambeth offered all the occupants short-life or permanent rehousing.

The first scheme was rejected by the Housing Corporation but a different plan was submitted in July 1980 involving the conversion of the houses to accommodate 12 or 13 people each, rather more than the number already living there. Conversion costs were appreciably lower (under £4,500 per bed space) and the scheme had, in the words of the manager of the housing advice centre, ‘top priority’ from the Council with support from both council officers and councillors.

Victory Villa?

The change in relationship between Villa Road, a squatted street in Lambeth, and the local council between 1974 and 1980 from a harsh anti-squatting policy to negotiations for a housing co-op could not have been more dramatic. But what else has been achieved by six years of squatting in Villa Road? The squatters arrived late in Angell Town and it would be nice to imagine that had they arrived earlier, they would have posed an even greater challenge to the lunacies of the planners. But, in the event the achievements of the squatters have been significant, both for themselves and for the immediate community:

  • Homes have been provided for the equivalent of 1,000 people for a year in houses which would otherwise have been gutted or demolished.
  • About 25 people have obtained two year licences and 15 have obtained council tenancies from Lambeth.
  • About 160 people are in the process of obtaining permanent housing as a co-op, remaining together as a community. Working with Solon’s architects, they will be able to have a considerable measure of control over the rehabilitation of the houses, retaining many of the collective arrangements and physical adaptations which have developed over the years.
    • Twenty elegant 19th century houses have been saved from demolition and a useful street prevented from being closed.
  • Control of Lambeth Council has significantly shifted partly thanks to the Villa Road squatters.

And, less tangibly, although few people stayed in Villa Road for all the six years of struggle, a cohesive street community was created which many people enjoyed living in. Squatters in Villa Road, like those in other streets in Lambeth which won concessions from the Council (St Agnes Place, Heath Road, Rectory Gardens, and St Alphonsus Road) challenged the complacency and smugness of the bureaucrats and won. That was the real victory in Villa Road.

What happened in Villa Road could have happened just as easily in other blighted streets in Lambeth or elsewhere. The squatters organisation, their use of direct action and their insistence that planning and housing are two sides of the same coin challenged the complacency and smugness of the bureaucrats. Villa Road’s real victory was to prove that plans are not inviolable, and that people can affect and be directly involved in planning processes that determine their living conditions. Considering what Villa Road was up against, that is no small achievement.

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Some of those moved from the demolished ‘south side’ houses in Villa Road were rehoused in council-owned shortlife property – including the flats in mansion blocks on Rushcroft Road, next to the Library in central Brixton. They would face 20 years of mismanagement, bad repair, and uncertainty from Lambeth Council and then and London & Quadrant Housing Association (after the flats were off-loaded onto L&Q)… and then eviction in the early 2000s as the Council decided to flog off their flats off to developers. However, many of the flats cleared of short-lifers were then squatted again – a mass eviction of 75 squatters took place as late as 2013.

The houses on the north side of Villa Road mostly remained, becoming a housing co-op which survives  – although many of the original residents moved out gradually, lots of other ex-squatters, subversives and other ne-er-do-wells have passed through since then…

 

 

 

 

In 2006, the BBC screened one episode of a series called Lefties which interviewed ex-Villa Road residents, you can watch it on youtube:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Erp2utEgZp4

 

Some of the above info was gleaned from the transcripts from this program.

Read a slightly longer account of the growth of squatting in Brixton, with more details on the Brixton Plan,

 

 

Today in London riotous history, 1982: Evictions & demolitions of squats spark rioting in Brixton

A year and a half after the April 1981 Brixton uprising, (which was followed by uprisings throughout England in July), a smaller riot took place, in November 1982, as Lambeth Council attempted to use a large force of police to evict and demolish many of the squats and blues clubs that dominated Brixton’s ‘Frontline’ around Railton Road.

Since the 81 riot, the surface appearance in the area had changed a lot. On the High Street the gentrifiers had been busy at work, welcoming visitors to Brixton ‘and its famous market’ in hope of some tourist trade. On the Frontline, the corrugated iron stretched even further, (then covered with graffiti about Poland – the (Labour Party-controlled) Lambeth Council policy was to erase immediately any slogans about working class revolt at home but not those about such revolt elsewhere!)

What else had changed since the previous year’s uprisings? At least since February 1982, a police helicopter had often been seen hovering over Brixton. It had given instructions to police cars on the Loughborough Estate, where stop-and-search (SUS) operations were frequent (SUS had been a major element in the anti-police hatred that had sparked the 1981 riot). The copter had also been conducting night operations, shining its searchlight all over the area-previously a familiar sight only to nationalist areas of Northern Ireland.

Also the Council had constructed flower boxes in all the open spaces in the shopping area on Brixton Road. Perhaps the boxes were intended merely to prettify the area but they also, conveniently, made it difficult for crowds to gather in those strategic spaces.

Meanwhile the most important aspects of daily life remained little changed. The police had gradually resumed their stop-and-search harassment of working class (and especially black) youth on the streets. Long-term squats on the Frontline were receiving eviction notices. Inhabitants still got up and trudged off to useless and boring jobs, or sign on at the dole office for fortnightly Giro cheques from the DHSS. Even though the uprisings didn’t transform those fundamental conditions of work, wages and policing, for many they had marked at least a temporary shift in social relations – the breakdown of the authority normally imposed by the market economy upon people’s lives, as the experience of ‘shopping without money’ gave a new, unintended meaning to Brixton’s ‘famous market and freed some from the compulsion to buy and sell.

In 1982 a Tory controlled Council (with the support of the Social Democratic Party, which for you young ‘uns was a rightwing split from the then Trendy Lefty Labour Party. They’re all in the Lib Dem shower now) briefly replaced the Labour administration. In charge of the Housing Committee was the repulsive Mary Leigh, whose business interests running a firm specialising in selling off council housing, while she ran the Housing Dept, fit right in with National Govt policy of the time. They stepped up the policy of attacking squatting, by legal and illegal methods. 300 eviction notices were issued in their first few months. Leigh also refused to deal with shortlife housing co-ops, blocking any renovation money for council properties run by co-ops, vetoing licenses on sites where demolition was planned, but not due for years, while at the same time she pushed privatisation of council property, right-to-buy and joint Lease/purchase schemes. The regime also permanently excluded single people from any possibility of rehousing. £9 million of the housing budget was deliberately left unspent and houses allowed to decay. As a result there were soon more empties than ever.

In response to attacks on squatters, some SDP/Tory councillors homes and cars were vandalised: some naughty people kept phoning them up, and all 64 councillors were sent spoof eviction notices on genuine council notepaper, signed, so it would seem, by acting Chief Executive John George. Inquiries failed to find the culprit – some in the council accused other insiders of siding with squatters.  Cue paranoid fallout.

Special Patrol Group attacks on squatters around Brixton were widespread: in Arlingford road, in June 82, they attacked no 51, evicting the squatters, despite the Brixton Squatters Aid network getting 40 people out. Later this house was resquatted and evicted violently again some 6 months later. There had been a small squatters community in Arlingford and Brailsford roads since 1973; by late 84 there were 16 squats, including  ‘The Bunker’, a community caff, which was holding women’s nights and had other events over weekends… When 121 was faced with possible eviction in that year, it was proposed to move Brixton Squatters Aid to the Bunker.  Brailfsford/Arlingford squatters set up their own alarm list… 50 squatters chased off bailiffs there earlier in ’84.  Although many tenants there were supportive, there was a minority who persecuted the squatters; there were also some problems with junkies.

But it was the Frontline the Council hated the most. In early October ‘82, some opening shots were fired… several squats in Dexter Road, then the heart of the black Frontline, were evicted and demolished. The Council also demolished the neighbouring adventure playground. Any sign of resistance brought a swarm of cops rushing in. “…they’re closing in on the frontline, with an army of cops, council and social workers. Today they cut off the electric. Incidents are daily. Next week I bet they’ll wreck them…” They did.

THERE’S A NEWMAN IN TOWN…

On Monday November 1 1982 there was a riot on Brixton’s front-line. It was just three days after Sir Kenneth Newman took over his new job as Police Commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police. He brought with him his own street credibility learned from the back of squad cars and helicopters patrolling the streets and sky of Ulster. Everyone in the know knew he would one day make Commissioner. He was groomed for the part. In Ulster he was known as ‘Mighty Mouse’ on account of his small stature but ultra-tough reputation. There he pursued a policy of criminalising all forms of resistance, while at the same time polarising the support within the communities given to those at the front line of attack from the paramilitaries.

He succeeded in developing a force expert in all the latest techniques of intensive policing, riot-control, intelligence gathering, counter-subversion and torture. It was the latter that got Newman into hot water when the Castlereagh Detention Centre was condemned for using ‘inhuman and degrading’ treatment. Clearly Newman, having completed his ‘experiment’ now needed to learn a bit more about what was happening in the rest of the UK. So off he went to Bramshill – the specialist police establishment for serving officers – to lecture on his experiences in Ulster and on how he saw the future of policing in Britain and to learn from his future troops just how far they are capable of being pushed. He became “a bit of a celebrity” and gave lecture tours abroad and it was on one of these tours that he made his much publicised controversial remark about ‘West Indians being indigenously anti-authoritarian’ (sic).

BLUES CLUBS

Meanwhile, as Newman was courting power, there was the continuing saga of Brixton’s ‘Frontline’, which consisted of a number of squatted houses and shops in Railton Road, used mainly as ‘Blues’ houses by local black hustlers. These houses provided all-night entertainment and a place to score dope, gamble, and get boozed up. Such unlicensed pleasure was out of the majority of cops’ grasp, while to the local Council the premises in question were but an eyesore, contrary to their new clean-up Brixton sanitisation programmed. Since the ’81 riots on the Front-line, the Council had, in fact, systematically employed a policy of ‘rearranging’ the landscape, involving the destruction of liveable homes (and even the local children’s playground), the squeezing out of shop-owners, and the removal of squatters. With the latter they were none too successful.

BRIXTON SQUATTER’S AID

Since early 1981, some of the squatters in the area spreading out from the Frontline, had got together to form Brixton Squatter’s Aid, an autonomous association primarily concerned with maintaining basic survival. Over the 8 months or so from its inception BSA successfully opened up scores of squats all over the Brixton area, helped to elicit the support of squatters not previously organised around any particular set-up, started a squatter’s aid alarm list for those squatters who came under attack, successfully defended several squats that were raided, and published a regular fortnightly bulletin  (the ‘Crowbar’) reporting on local and international squatting news.

CULTURE CLASH

The two scenes – the Squatter’s Aid Network and the ‘Blues’ Houses’ – rarely came into contact with each other. They had different interests and different viewpoints. Many of those involved with the ‘Blues’ clubs were racist/separatist and authoritarian, especially in their general attitude and treatment to women; they were into their own culture and had hard and fixed attitudes about other cultures. On top of all this, the clubs tended to attract petty hustlers to the area to ‘scare and make out’. For a while there were almost daily reports of locals – black and white – being mugged and harassed and at one point an anti-mugging campaign was begun, producing posters that equated the violence on the streets to the violence received at the hands of cops and the violence of fascist attacks. The muggings and the response all led to a degree of bad feeling.

While all this was going on Lambeth Council periodically made noises about how they were just about to close down the Frontline houses and how local street-crime had to be squashed once and for all.

Threats of eviction were a weekly occurrence and added to the increasing tension. As these threats increased so many of the hustlers began to look for new premises for their clubs. Reports of new sitings came thick and fast and rumours abounded. Some petty pimps even made attempts to muscle in on the nearby homes of existing squatters and if they had succeeded this would have forced an unwanted confrontation. In the end, after many threats and resistance, the tension diminished.

SKIRMISHES & DIRECT ACTION

Such confrontations, though, were minor compared to those that everyone – black and white – faced from the local cops and the Council bureaucrats. After the ’81 riots the police developed a deliberate policy of avoiding Swamp ’81 type tactics. An alternative had to be sought. They made one or two mistakes. Early in ’82, on two separate occasions, skirmishes occurred over the way the cops handled some minor incidents in the Railton Road area. On each occasion the cops were chased out of the Frontline area but restrained themselves from launching a counter attack: they were beginning to learn. For a while Railton Road managed to give the impression of being a ‘no-go’ area although when the cops did show up they did so suddenly and with force. For example, it was not uncommon during the summer to witness police helicopters circling overhead – sometimes hours on end – providing support to an operation down at street level. At night the helicopters would use searchlights (and probably infra-red surveillance devices).

Since the ’81 riots the local Council had gone Conservative (only just, with the help of SDP/Liberal Alliance Councillors and the mayor’s vote) and immediately implemented a policy to get rid of the squatters on a large scale. Very few of their attempts succeeded and the ensuing campaign to resist these attempts reached a crescendo with attacks by local activists on the homes and property of appropriate councillors. Certain Councillors were even sent fake eviction notices on Official Council Note paper – leading to recriminations, accusations and counter-accusations within the municipal offices. The Council had to ‘do something’ to ‘restore public confidence.’ At the same time the cops were itching to sort out the ‘no-go’ areas once and for all…and then came along Newman. The Stage was set.

Newman started the ball rolling with his flying visit to Brixton cop station and to Notting Hill, where he advised his troops that they were to take no more insults from now on and that they were to remain firmly in control of their respective localities. His message: that there was to be a new era of policing: sophisticated and more precise in its methods. Two days later at 4am the Frontline houses came under siege.

BESEIGED

Newman’s troops moved in quietly. None of the nearby residents heard them arrive. It was a smooth operation, well timed and successful. The cops stood guard while demolition workers began their task. By mid-morning a crowd had gathered, but by then the police presence was considerable. Coming into Brixton from Central London was like walking into an act for a film by Costa-Gravas. The only thing missing were the armoured vehicles … everything else was there. The cops, of course, only admitted to a small presence and this mis-information was regurgitated in the Press and on TV. But the reality was that almost every Instant Response Unit, and every other back up unit across Greater London had been drafted in to lend support. Every street leading to the Front-line, together with secondary routes, had been blocked off; and stop and search was being used in a blanket manner. Brixton had been closed down, sealed off and placed under siege.

While the operation was being effected, so some of the squatters in the area, together with some of these directly affected by the demolition of the clubs, decided to march to the Town Hall (in fact a picket had been pre-planned before the cop attack, due to increased evictions). There were about 80 on the march. They achieved their objective and made their protest (all the Political Parties had agreed to and signed the Council Eviction Notice). But the main confrontation was yet to come and it was clear that it wasn’t just one side that desired it.

ATTACK AND COUNTER-ATTACK

The Battlelines were drawn. But then the cops suddenly withdrew all their personnel out of immediate sight and the frontline was left empty like a ghost town. They knew this would have one effect and one effect only: to encourage the illusion that the police had made a strategic withdrawal. The trick worked and people poured in from all over Lambeth and beyond (they would have come anyway after school, work, it got dark, they saw the news) The Front-line drew them like a magnet. The Pincers opened up to let them in and then closed again. Meanwhile on the Frontline itself: jubilation. It was April ’81 again. Barricades suddenly began to be erected and someone in a mask turned back traffic, firmly redirecting them out of the immediate area. The crowd was young and almost all male. There was an eerie silence. Then a fire broke out. It was the work-huts on the demolition site. A nearby house opposite the Blues clubs was set alight. The crowd grew and suddenly windows were smashed, Molotovs thrown. The crowd – around 150 – turned down Railton Rd towards Herne Hill. They came to the Anarchist Bookshop, smashing windows on the way, and as with the ’81 riots, the shop was passed by, untouched. Suddenly the cops appeared: it was the IRUs dressed in black fire-proof overalls and wearing protective helmets and visors. They carried long thick staves and as they charged down the road they let out war whoops, banging their batons on the shield. Zulu fashion. The crowd held out until the cops got within spitting distance, and then dispersed. They regrouped and threw whatever they could at their attackers. They were dispersed once more. It was stalemate.

MOPPING UP

Then came the mopping-up. Frustrated by their failure to catch any of those directly involved in the riot in Railton Road, the cops turned their attentions on anyone foolish enough to be wandering the streets aimlessly and who could become the object of their revenge. We know of one incident where a group of punks had just left their home in Talma Road and were set upon by these thugs. They were ordered to stop, and, out of fear, one of them ran off but was caught at the next turning. The cops viciously set upon him, dragged him to their van and beat him up. He sustained serious injuries to his arms and legs and was charged with assault. He was 17 years old. No one was safe on the streets and the cops continued to hunt down potential victims.

Back at the town hall, meanwhile, a Council meeting was in session to discuss the eviction of some squatters in North Lambeth, and some people from Brixton Squatters Aid arrived to cause trouble. They managed to disrupt the proceedings for a while and then left to provide whatever back-up they could to comrades being attacked on the streets. Elsewhere incidents were increasing; word had got around and looting took place in several main streets, and a police coach was set on fire. In Notting Hill the locals made trouble in solidarity and in Tottenham an IRU was called in (from Brixton!) to disperse a crowd. Cops were also stoned from the balconies of Stockwell Park Estate.

By 8pm more crowds had gathered in central Brixton, but realising the sheer force of the numbers against them, wisely decided to play it cool, ‘take notes’ and learn about the enemy. Later in the evening another building near Coldharbour Lane was firebombed but by then the confrontation was coming to a close. The Brixton community was left to spend a long sleepless night, with the cops well & truly in control of the streets.

The next day, and for successive days, the cops continued to maintain their grip of fear. Coach loads of police were stationed on street corners day and night, while foot patrols wore ridiculously frequent. At first little use was made of Stop and Search, although a group of people entering the anarchist bookshop were asked if they wore carrying ‘bombs’ and their box of vegetables was examined. This policy of total saturation continued for a further 2 weeks. The squatters remained but the hustlers were nowhere to be seen. They had, in fact, merely moved around the corner to another street where they opened up new clubs.

‘INCITEMENT’

The day after the riot the press was full of the usual accusations. The most ridiculous being that the local ‘anarchist’ group – specifically 3 whites, a woman and two men – had roused the ‘mob’ and incited them to riot. Councillor Robin Pitt claimed to know their names but told the papers that the police were unable to make arrests due to lock of concrete evidence. The farce continued when the next day a woman from the Workers Against Racism South London group (a Revolutionary Communist Party – Trot – Front) admitted she was one of those that the Councillor was accusing and that she had been in the thick of it and proud of it, taking a ‘leading role’. This self-appointed saviour and publicity seeker got her come-uppance when she was told, in no uncertain way, to fuck off by local black activists at a post mortem held that week. (She went on to run as a Parliamentary Candidate in the much publicised Bermondsey Bye-election starring Peter Tatchell and others.) The Press, however still looked for scapegoats and for a while raids were expected: incitement, something usually associated with books on 19th Century history, was the main accusation and the very impreciseness of the law associated with this charge only helped to increase the general feeling of vulnerability.

SURVEILLANCE

About 2 weeks afterwards, and a couple of days prior to the Press Release giving details of the new Police Powers Bill, the local Police Commander for Brixton, Inspector Fairburn, announced that Officers from CII (Intelligence) and the A.T.S. were being seconded, on a permanent basis, to help monitor future developments on the Frontline. Further more, he admitted that the cops on the Frontline had been using and will continue to use sophisticated listening devices to “keep track on the activities of potential ‘muggers’.” Coincidentally, Brixton was also the first area in Britain to incorporate the new System X switching system devised at Martlesham, Ipswich, by British Telecom. Apart from making it more difficult to sabotage the telephone network, system X provided the capacity to monitor all telephone calls automatically as well as automatic re-routing/blocking in State states of emergency, or whenever the authorities desired it.

Brixton (and Toxteth) had now become to the rest of Britain, in terms of policing, what the North of Ireland had been to the UK, in terms of militarisation…

After the November 1982 riot, the police/press/council tried to revive the old charge of incitement against the local anarchist suspects at 121, which, as the anarchist paper Black Flag pointed out “ridiculous and totally groundless. It is also elitist (and in this particular case racist) as it implies that those who participated in the action were incapable of deciding things for themselves: they need others to encourage or ‘lead’ them. Given the somewhat uneasy relationship between black and white residents of the frontline area, the charge was even more laughable.

It’s not at all surprising that hierarchical gangs run on orders from tiny cliques should attempt to present resistance as only being possible if run by secret leaders. The whole idea of people organising and fighting back together on their own behalf and under no-one’s orders clearly threatens the entire basis of social control. The whole idea of it has to be suppressed and rebellion has to be presented as a secret conspiracy of fanatics pulling the strings of mindless dupes. The llluminati anyone?

Raids on the Frontline continued, as houses were evicted and demolished; 28 officers were assigned to full time work there. In early December ’82, dozens of black and white people were dragged out of houses, in Railton Road, and Talma Rd, round the corner, where the evicted blues clubs had set up anew after November. The raids as usual produced a couple of charges for possession of small amounts of dope, theft of electric fuses, etc. In Talma Road, they besieged a squat, padlocking it on the outside. The squatters, trapped inside, fled, leaving the house to be smashed up. The following week 70 people were lifted in street arrests and more raids.

On top of announcing they’d be using long-range mikes to listen to inhabitants of the Frontline, cops had seemingly prevailed on the council to make some alterations to the local geography: walkways in some estates (eg Angell Town) were demolished, after the youth had pelted cops from above in November. Overhead walkways made moving around estates easier, especially for rioters holding off invading police. (As cops in North Peckham would find to their cost in 1985, when concrete rain fell on them). Traffic priorities were changed in Stockwell Park Estate to make police control easier.

Stockwell Park, from the dreams of the Brixton planners, had become a grim dumping ground, rife with crime and depression. Getting burgled during the day while you were in was not a rare occurrence; the walkways and cubbyholes may have been a tactical gift during riots but could make daily life paranoid and threatening. As a result there was some racial trouble on the estate: a sizable white population feeling under attack from ‘the blacks’. This led to splits within the Tenants Association, and a breakaway “White Defence Association” was set up, demanding more high profile policing. Because of their agenda, this development received some substantial publicity in the South London Press and Daily Mail, always keen to play up and make points about ‘racial’ aggravation. As with the “rightwing white residents’ of the frontline (see above) who supported the demolition of the blues and squats, some of the opposition to Brixton’s rebel culture/support for hardline policing came from both genuine daily experience of crime as well as an undeniable old-style prejudice and respect for authority. The fact that many especially older local whites were racist has made it sometimes harder to get a genuine discussion of very real problems they went through; as with the anarchists’ anti-mugging campaigns, many people were unwilling to talk about racial elements in muggings etc.

POSTSCRIPT:

Commander Fairburn was replaced not long after the riot as Police Commander in Lambeth by Alex Marnock who had in the past been a commander in the SPG.

No helicopter was seen during the riot because the one generally used by the Met for Lambeth had to turn back: on its way it suddenly collided with an exploding flare which was let off. The flash probably affected the ultra-sensitive night vision cameras. Just showing what could be done with a simple firework!

This prompted the following poem (which appeared in Hooligan Press’ From Beneath the Keyboard’ collection a couple of years later:

CAN PIGS FLY?

Helicopter, Helicopter where have you been?
We all miss the sound of rotor-blade scream!
And Infra-red cameras, recording the signs,
of extortionate rents, food, dope and fines.

Helicopter, Supersnoop! Is it true what they said?
That youre mothballed away in the maintainence shed,
lenses of scanners all scarred by a Bash
from yacht flare or rocket, nearly causing a CRASH????

Chocolate chopper! is there nothing to do?
-even if we pay for a nimrod or two,
to watch o’er you as you watched o’er us
plus satellites and marksmen atop every ‘bus!

MACHINE SUPREME! Don’t leave us this way
your almighty din gave such fun every day
comforted mothers and children Abed
just can’t hear crimes with you overhead!

Where oh, where can you now be seen?
Dispatched to the Falklands or Camberwell Green.
In Kensington, if it is allowed ……..
directing lost tourists up Pem-br-oke Road!

There’s another job we need air support for,
tracking infringers of safety-belt law,
no point in letting criminals run to ground,
call ’em David Martin, claim your five Rounds.

PLEASE TELL US DEAR READERS, HELP US TO TRACK THE MILLION P0UND PIG WITH EGG ON IT’S FACE!

Rev. ARMITAGE. Can’t Pray-GOTTA RIOT!

The Tory reign in Lambeth lasted barely a few months. Labour, then in the hands of Red Ted Knight and his Trotskyist entrists, were back in power by late November 82, due to the defection of SDP councillor Gordon Ley, a prime victim of squatters’ hate campaigns (he had had his lorry attacked, his shop smashed up, his car nicked and burned out), although he claimed it wasn’t fear of continuing moonlight visits that made him swap sides. Pull the other one Gordy.

The new Labour Regime DID give licences to some squatted houses in June 1983, as long as they joined co-ops: most of these were in Clapham, although some houses in Millbrook Road and Loughborough Park were recognised. None were in the Frontline. And a year and a half after the November clearances, a remaining frontline outpost of squatting, Effra Parade, was also to face eviction…

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Account of the November 1982 riot from Black Flag, 2 Feb 1983)
With notes from Crowbar no 6, 8 October 1983, and no 7, 22 October.

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An entry in the
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Today in London anarchist history, 1999: the 121 Centre evicted, Brixton

It was twenty years ago today…

… the legendary 121 Centre was evicted in Brixton…

Squat centre, bookshop, black radical space, anarchist space… Over 26 years of its life, the three-storey Edwardian building on the corner of Railton Road and Chaucer Road went through many incarnations…

After so many years the rollercoaster came to an end on 12th August 1999, when 121 was evicted by Lambeth Council, with the aid of 150 cops, some armed, after a six-month stand-off and 24-hour occupation.

One day we will write the full story of 121… there’s just so much else to do… For now, here’s a short and very incomplete history, written off the cuff last night, with some cut and paste from other things we have published… which we fully admit it inadequate and definitely biased. We worked there, see, played there, learned and got off our heads, discussed heavy shit, mates died there, other mates who shared all that with us are also gone now too. With all its many faults and downsides (how long have you got?), it is a part of us and we’re a part of it.

The first squatters to take over part of 121 Railton Road were Olive Morris and Liz Obi.

Olive Morris, who had been a member of the UK Black Panthers as a teenager. Like many of the Panther generation, Olive arrived in the UK from the West Indies as a child, and went trough school and teenage years in Brixton experiencing the xenophobia and inequality that characterised the migrant experience. From it she emerged a fierce and uncompromising fighter against the powers that be.

“Olive and I went to the same school. Even then she had that streak in her – in school, they would have called it rebelliousness or disruptiveness, but it was really a fearlessness about challenging injustice at whatever level… She would take anybody on…”

In 1969, aged 17, Olive went to the aid of a black man the police were harassing, was nicked herself and strip-searched at the police station. She never looked back from then on, becoming a Black Panther, and gaining a reputation locally for her willingness to get stuck in and help people in battles with the authorities; whether over housing, social security, police, or the courts…

“I saw her once confronting a policeman – it might have been when she was evicted. She went for him like a whirlwind and cussed him to heaven. And this policeman looked really taken aback, he didn’t know how to deal with someone who had no fear of him. He was meant to represent the big arm of the law. But because she was angry and she knew he was in the wrong, she didn’t hesitate.”

Olive was an early squatter, and helped to develop the black squatting scene in Brixton.

Liz Obi relates: “We were introduced to squatting by some white women who were squatting a shop with a flat above it at the top end of Railton Road and who had opened it up as a Women’s Centre. We had visited the Centre on a couple of occasions and learnt from them about squatting and the law and we decided we would look for somewhere to squat ourselves. 121 was the derelict Sunlight laundry on Railton Road consisting of a shop downstairs and a flat upstairs – we managed to get into the building one night and we had a look around and the following week some squatters from the squatters group came along and showed us ho to change the locks, turn on the water and the electricity supply, and we moved in.

We faced three illegal eviction attempts where our stuff was thrown out onto the street by the landlord and the police but we always managed to get back in and we stayed there for about a year before a possession order was granted to the landlord and we had to move out.”

Olive breaking into the back of 121 makes the cover of the Squatters handbook…

The Women’s Centre at 207 Railton Road was a focus for a whole array of radical causes at this time. They helped well over 300 people to squat in the mid-70s.

“At that time a squatters’ movement was developing and one of our sisters who is dead now, a woman called Olive Morris, was involved in that and in setting up the study group. This was important, that we saw ourselves as an organic part of local community based political struggle. She was also involved in trying to set up Sabarr which was the Black book shop, because that was a time when we, as Black people, were particularly vocal, both in Britain and in the US, in expressing the need for the learning and writing of our own history, literature being central, particularly resistance literature.
This also related to the whole question about imperialism politics, where literature was seen as a part of the resistance struggle; you know, the decolonisation of the mind and all that. Olive in fact got the Sabarr bookshop, the original one we had at the end of Railton Road, by going out as a part of the collective and claiming the building. In fact, when the council was going to evict them she went up onto the roof and said “I won’t come down until you let us have the building”. So what I’m saying is that the history of the group started as a study group, out of two locally based Black organisations, but saw itself very much as part of a community based organisation, campaigning on a number of issues.” (Gail Lewis, in interview, included in Talking Personal, Talking Political, originally published in radical feminist magazine Trouble & Strife, no 19, 1990. With a text on the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent, it’s now available as a Past Tense pamphlet, Black Women Organising).

Olive Morris died in 1979, aged only 26, from non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Check out a website dedicated to her memory

Railton Road then was a hub of life, known as ‘the frontline’ – home to the street culture that had migrated with the West Indian communities that had gradually come to represent the area’s majority population, and a squatting culture – or rather two. White and black squatting were not separate but had distinct qualities, mingling but quite different at their outer fringes, and sometimes hostile or frosty. The area was often filled with (mostly) young lack folk, out in all weathers… But many of the buildings, left empty after a Lambeth program of compulsory purchasing for a redevelopment that had never happened, were squatted, providing homes for thousands of people, black and white, local and from far afield, usually poor and/or working class, but not always. Other buildings became ‘blues’ clubs, shebeens in effect, self-organised clubs based around heavy reggae, toasting, cannabis… Others again became activist spaces, hosting feminism, lesbian and gay groups and communities, anarchists, leftist or every hue… From the late 60s to this century, this mixed ocean of cultures defined Brixton – along with police and authority’s response to it.

Because the cops hated the frontline, hated the West Indians – especially the young ones who didn’t look down and tug their forelock – and to a lesser extent, they also hated the radicals and white squatters, subversives all, uppity women, queers… Police activity on Railton Road and in wider Brixton tended to take the form of an occupying army, and not without reason: that’s how the cop brass saw it, how the plod on the ground also saw it, and how the locals saw it. Raids, repression and racism were endemic in the police, many of who were members of the rightwing National Front, especially the paramilitary Special patrol Group. Their invasion tactics and willingness to steam in would spark the Brixton riots in April 1981 and then a couple of re-runs that July, again in 1985… 1995… It helped the evolution of the British Black Panther Party and other black power groups, and a general sense of us and dem – cops against community. This has never entirely gone away, as the same dynamics keep cropping up. In the week we write this new Stop and Search powers are being drawn up – carbon copies of the ‘SUS’ laws that led to the 1981 uprising. There have periods of more softly softly approaches, but there’s a basic hostility and racism, that keeps bursting the PR bubbles.

Liz and Olive squatted 121 in 1973. Initially the leadership of the Black Panther Party in London was divided on the subject of squatting: “it caused a bit if a stir within the central core, with Darcus, Farrukh and Mala supporting us and seeing squatting as a political act while some of the other leadership saw it as a hippy type thing. However not long afterwards the movement itself would squat a property on Railton Road and open the Unity Bookshop…” (However, this ended badly with the building burned out in what was most likely a fascist arson attack)

After the Panthers fragmented and evolved into other projects, Olive was later involved in setting up the first black bookshop at 121 Railton Road, Sabarr Books, and then became a founder of Brixton Black Women’s Group (based at 65 Railton Road, though it later moved to 121 in the late 1970s, and then a mile or so away to Stockwell Green).

Sabaar Books, a black bookshop run by a black radical collective, occupied the building for several years, then, in late 1980, moved to new premises down on nearby Coldharbour Lane, more central to Brixton (a move controversial to some other black radicals in itself, who denounced them for taking state funding and letting themselves be bought off.

So the building was empty again, but not for long.

Local anarchists had been using Sabaar, the Black radical bookshop that occupied the space from 1977, as a postal address to get their mail. When Sabaar moved out, quick off the mark the place was squatted for an anarchist centre.

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 Kilner house, in Pegasus Place (off Kennington Oval), in October 1980, where 50 squatters occupied empty flats in a mass action. As the Greater London Council planned to do up the flats & sell them off, the squatters had a lot of local support on the estate – soon there were 200 people living there. The squatters were kicked out in a mass eviction, on 9th January 1981.

During the April 1981 riot, the Anarchist Bookshop escaped trashing by rioters – as happened to most of the other businesses in the area – only to have its window staved in by the cops when they re-took the frontline. (The fact that there was a poster in 121’s window celebrating the riot in St Pauls, Bristol, the year before, is credited with its remaining intact).

Daft as ever, press, cops and council combined to accuse anarchist of fomenting the riots and being secretly behind the trouble. Given the tensions between blacks and whites, the actual size of Brixton’s anarchist community, and most anarchists’ basic attitude to secretly controlling social movements – this was laughable. But in the hysterical atmosphere after April ’81, white authority couldn’t believe black people could get together and organise an uprising. Hilarious and racist. Anarchists had been involved in the riots, like many other white radicals, but as participants side by side with their black neighbours.

As well as local tensions, other eyes were on Brixton. In June, the anarchists at 121 received a hilarious visit. 3 black-raincoated gentlemen claiming to be from the Municipality of Rotterdam came in for a “tete-a-tete”, sincerely desiring first hand information with the aim of preventing similar uprisings in Rotterdam!! It was explained to them that anarchists don’t collaborate with governments, local caring ones or otherwise. They bought 1 Libertarian Workers Group Bulletin and one said he’d come back later as a ‘human being’ as he’s ‘very interested.’”” (From the 121 Daybook, June 9th,1981).

Anarchists around 121, together with local gays, lesbians, feminists and mostly white squatters, formed People Against Police Oppression in the wake of the April 81 riot, as white defendants from the riots had been excluded from support by the larger Brixton Defence Campaign. PAPO was the most ad hoc of all the groups, as it existed only for as long as did the heavy police presence. It consisted mainly of friends and acquaintances who were excluded from the BDC and averse to the additional plethora of left-party-based defence groups. They sought to represent no one but themselves and felt no pressure to ‘represent’ anyone else, being a small group. They sought to direct the struggle against the police but, being so small, could do little more than organise a picket of the police station which succeeded in drawing 150 people. But divisions around class and colour caused huge dissension in the wake of the uprising, which are detailed to some extent in ‘We Want to Riot, Not to Work’, and anarchist account of April 81.

Successive waves of police and council evictions and clearance programs would begin the development of central Brixton, to dismantle the culture that created the riots and the physical spaces that helped rioters defend and move around their manor. 121 survived this, while many other squats did get cleared and bulldozed, including many blues clubs. Locals squats where anarchist lived including the 121 collective, were targeted – for instance the squatted terrace of Effra Parade, just around the corner. There was a clever policy of divide and rule; street by street, the frontline was gradually reduced, buildings demolished or re-taken. Although often evicted squats would be left empty by the council, from a mix of lack of money, incompetence and uninhabitability, and then re-squatted, the program was in the long term successful – for a number of reasons which it would take too long to detail here (another time, because they are very instructive).

Over the next 18 years the erosion of the autonomous cultures that 121 had formed a part of, left the centre more and more out on its own, halfway out along the road to Herne Hill, with the movements that create it changing, settling down, into housing co-ops, ageing, moving out…

But the place was pretty much always a hive of subversive activity. To list the groups that used 121 as a meeting space or office would take up a book. Just some of the most significant being

  • Black Flag, the long-running anarchist paper – for several years in the mid 1980s the paper was bi-weekly, printed elsewhere but folded upstairs at 121. Years later you could find piles of one page from issues from a decade earlier;
  • the Anarchist Black Cross (linked to Black Flag for much of its existence), a support group for anarchist/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, then to the US),
  • South London branches of the anarcho-syndicalist Direct Action Movement (which later evolved into the Solidarity Federation);
  • the London end of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp;
  • South Wales Miners Support Group, during the 1984-’85 Miners’ Strike;
  • Brixton Squatters Aid – which gave practical advice to would-be squatters, kept a regularly updated list of empty properties (we also kept a list of council-owned property in the borough, nicked during an occupation of a housing office… and BSA’s newspaper Crowbar, initially a freesheet duplicated onwaste paper, which became a rowdy class war type magazine that loved to wind up the police, council, lefties and pretty much everyone except the collective (having inherited this from another 121-linked project, the provocative South London Stress mag, which started as an underground bulletin among council workers…
  • anarcha-Feminist paper Feminaxe

Later in its life, 121 hosted Community Resistance Against the Poll Tax, an anarchist based anti-poll tax group; ‘young women’s magazine’, the uproarious Shocking Pink (in its third collective by then), and radical women’s mag Bad Attitude; the Fare Dodgers Liberation Front; anarcho freesheets Autognome and Contraflow; Lesbian and Gay free sheet Pink Brick, the list goes on.

And hundreds more groups met there, debated, sold their propaganda in the bookshop, held benefits there, cooked communally… Thousands of people turned up there from all around the world looking for somewhere to live – South Americans on the run from rightwing death squads, Spaniards and Italians avoiding military service, eastern Europeans with firsthand experience of ‘state socialism’… Africans, Caribbeans, too… Though without any intention it was always mainly a place for whitey, odd and often fractious relationships arising (dudes and fucked up people often targeted the place hoping for an easy robbing of someone who they knew wouldn’t go to the cops).

And fascists also tried to burn the 121 down, at least twice…

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 first Queeruption was held here…

The anarchist bookshop on the ground floor was 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 supposed 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 closedetc), calls to revolt and general abuse.

Collective Meetings were sometimes held in the Hamilton Arms up Railton Road, in winter, when the gas ran out and the money was low.

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 generally carried out in a viciously racist style, with a side-helping of anti-squatter violence… Special Branch carried out regular surveillance of the centre’s post throughout the 80s (a pretty boring job I would say…) – our postman told us the Branch were holding our mail, opening it at the depot, then forwarding it on to us. Hope you got Dullness Money Sgt…

In August 1984 this police attention climaxed in a raid on 121 and four local squats where some of the collective lived: “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 121, 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.”

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 121 myth goes that the uncovering of the basement by the police during the raid was an ironic gift to the squatters, as the basement was rapidly explored and put into use as the dancefloor of the 121 Club, dark, 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…

We know the police took an overt interest in 121. 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, as did some names people are suspicious of but have not yet been confirmed as definite police spies. We’re still wondering if any other old mates were narks in disguise… Watch this space…

There had been some desultory attempts to evict 121 in the early 1980s. The left-Labour clique controlling Lambeth Council may have hated the tory Thatcher government and entered into a battle over ratecapping – but they also hated anarchists, who kept on not doing what they were told by the central committee. Squatting had been tacitly tolerated at times in the 1970s, when the squatters were sometimes linked to young new Left Labour types, and some careful PR had helped squatters get licences, form housing co-ops… By the early 1980s this attitude had hardened, money was tight and council waiting lists were long, and the Brixton counter-culture had little interest in making deals in most cases. The riots added an impetus – squatting, both black and white, had provided the ‘footsoldiers’ of the uprising, and was clearly an obstacle to any kind of regeneration – at least as the council saw it. Even Ted Knight’s Socialist Organiser diktatoriat was basically interested in doing up the area and attracting money to the place (money they, their mates and those with an ear managed to often snaffle or divert – corruption was rife).

121 was an obvious target for eviction – they were literally advertising that the squatters network was run from there, they were sticking two fingers up to the Council (often in the pages of Crowbar) and laughing at the Leninier than thou pretensions of the leading councillors. But two court appearances foundered, partly due to good legal footwork from the 121 side, head-scratching fuckuppery from the council, and sheer apathy – at one point the council lawyer accepted an ‘undertaking’ that Crowbar would ‘leave the building’ (it changed its postal address but carried on as before) and the case was adjourned. However, in the 1981-85 period, the squatters claimed they had a verbal licence, or asked to pay rent (with a certain amount of crossed fingers…!), just to try to prolong the life of the place. Noone really thought it would last as long as it did. But these tentative negotiations over a possible licence or tenancy would do for us in the end…

In later years 121 had been often quite isolated from much of its surroundings, more so as the squatting scene that produced it declined into the 90s…

Since the 80s 121’s position had become in many ways more and more anomalous. When Brixton had been full of squatters, overflowing with alternative projects, 121 had been an important cog in this scene. By 1998 it was out on a limb; not that there weren’t still squatters in the area, but the strength of the eighties had been dissipated. The building had passed through several collectives, different groups with different agendas had introduced contrasting atmospheres. Although lots went on in the space, it was left behind from the social changes around it, and had little continuous involvement in community or social struggles since the Poll Tax, apart from resistance of anarcho-squatters around the 121 to their own evictions… some of us saw it declining, becoming an inward-looking social club for anarcho-punks. Not a bad thing in itself (if you like that sort of place), but irrelevant to the lives of most of the people living around it. It’s also worth pointing out that the streets around the old Frontline were increasingly dominated by the middle class that was taking over the area. You could sit there and watch people passing by, glancing at the shop, not even knowing what it was. The building was also in physical decline, the back wall was falling down, many repairs were too expensive to even contemplate. At times the physical decay and social isolation seemed like parallel metaphors for each other.

“The cafe nights could be great or dodgy depending who was in the kitchen. I remember one night when some crusty was serving. His hands were black! I think I gave it a swerve that night!”

The café had begun as a cheap communal meal, but evolved into a money-raising venture, cash for the bills, benefit meals for good causes… Hilariously, over the years, anarchist inflation took regular price of meals down from £3 in 1981 to 50p/pay whatever you want by 1999… We understand economics, see?

Its also true that in the early days the more class struggle/migrant oriented collective cooked meat regularly, though later it went veggie and then exclusively vegan. The food was variable, at best – some times excellent (is there truth in the rumour that Franco, later supremo of pizza chain Franco Manca, spun pizza in 121 in the early days?); other meals were inedible mush. For a long time veg was liberated from New Covent Garden market (in Nine Elms), from the skips for unsellable food – mostly it was fine, just a bit over ripe. Some people had little quality control however.

One incident relating to the skipping of veg at New Covent Garden – the security guards were always out to catch you, since taking food that has been thrown away still counts as stealing, breaking the capitalist ethos… Occasionally you’d get chased off; once or twice they’d call the police and you’d get nicked. one time out whole skipping crew was nicked on a Friday morning and held all day. In the spirit of the show must go on, some of us went down Brixton market, begged borrowed and skipped enough food for a passable meal, and put the cafe on anyway that evening. When the arrestees were let out, late in the afternoon – without charges – they were welcomed back not only with food and drink but a song written in their honour, a pisstake of an Irish rebel song about their brave attempt to liberate mouldy veg. A lovely evening in the end and tears of laughter. There were many such nights.

As well as days and nights where noone came. Or nights dealing with the nutters who were always attracted to free spaces, hard to deal with, damaged, or abusive.

All the debates and arguments – not just political differences but rows about the building’s upkeep. One problem with social or squatted centres is that you open them to be organising hubs for your actions, your movements, but alot of the time you end up working hard just to keep the space together, physically, pay for stuff, do building work. We learned how to plaster, do wiring, glazing, plumbing, rebuilt the kitchen, re-slated the roof; we could do little about the structural issues that were slowly causing the back wall to move away from the building… One image that stays with me is Irish Mike up to his knees in water in the basement, pumping out water that had flooded in from a burst pipe next door, two days before the ten-year party.

There was death and tragedy too. Mick Riddle died after falling down the stairs into the basement in February 1991, during a party to celebrate ten years of 121 as an anarchist space. The stairs were rickety and dangerous, but the coroner ruled that he had in fact collapsed due to alcohol poisoning and been in the wrong place. He died on the pavement as we waited for an ambulance.
Black Flag’s Leo Rosser killed himself… Veteran anarchist Albert Meltzer died… Irish Billy, who used to live upstairs at 121 for a while – whatever happened to him…? Others moved away, succumbed to drugs, cancer, suicide.

The building’s energy dipped and rose, and the atmosphere changed tack several times. Always volunteer-run, with a high turnover, unpaid, with people turning up then moving on… Periods of stability and strategic approach would give way to occasional chaotic change. From a serious class struggle collective in the early days, through more agit-prop arty folk, to anarcho-punk… Sometimes these influences co-existed uneasily, sometimes one group would dominate. This process accelerated as Brixton changed socially.

The centre hosted regular film showings, from the political to the purely entertaining (including a pirate showing of Terminator 2 before it was out in the UK); a food co-op where members could by cheap wholefoods, a Reiki massage parlour for a while (?!?). We helped to put on national events like Stop the City, international events, from Queeruption to the 1994 International Infoshops Meeting, through to the Anarchy on the UK ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’ festival in 1994. This last brought a whole new scene of local squatters to the area, who took 121 in a punkier direction again. Anarcho-punk gigs began to dominate that building, spilling out into what was by now almost quiet residential area, which didn’t endear us to the neighbours. For some of us who had built up 121 to try to move out to other communities and become a base for local class struggle again, this led to arguments and tensions. Now it seems daft, as 121 was never going to evolve back into something it had been fifteen years earlier – the area just wasn’t like that any more. Those of us who were involved in what we saw as local community activity sometimes got pissed off with 121 and stormed out to do things elsewhere… Other squatted spaces like Cooltan arose and formed a much more broader link to local scenes, but that is a story for a another time…

1997-99 saw the revival of the long-abandoned attempt to evict the 121. The Council may have felt when it failed to turn up in Court in ’85 that moves on 121 were still too risky, with it being on Railton Road; or maybe they just forgot to set their alarms that day. It was the legal position then that twelve years occupation of a squat in continuity, unevicted, meant that the owners lost their title and you got it – or that was the basic case – in reality this ‘adverse occupation’ law was much more complex, and nuanced, and not as clearcut as we thought.

For years we had not really believed they would ever bother, or had forgotten they owned the building (not unheard of in other cases), or had lost their own papers… Frustratingly some of our legal papers were lost due to stupidity (you know who you are! But it’s all water under the bridge now…)

In January 1999, after some 18 months of legal to and fro, 121 went to court; we claimed 12 years adverse occupation. We lost. In 1983-5 the 121ers had claimed they had a licence from the Council – the right thing to do at the time, to stave off immediate threat – but it turned out to be a no-no if you go for adverse occupation to show any recognition of the owner’s right to the place. The Council had restarted proceedings just 2 weeks before the 12 years after our last communication with them in which we recognised their title to the building, just by asking for a deal. But hey ho. What could we do? Squats don’t last forever.

Funnily enough, the threat to evict 121 galvanised the energy around the place, and we made a spirited last stand, barricading the building, entering into a 24-7 occupation, and producing rainforest-fulls of lively propaganda, including a weekly newssheet size revival of the old South London Stress. When bailiffs were rumouredly on their way in early February, 100 people blocked the street and launched a mini-street party (some of us being involved in Reclaim the Streets paying off); till the cops turned up, and persuaded us they’d called them off. We promptly dismantled the barricades – but went on the offensive, invaded the Town Hall and were dragged out of Council Leader ‘Slippery’ Jim Dickson’s office. We held a couple of small street parties, with bands, sound systems, campfires…

We made some productive links with several other campaigns against council cuts, notably disabled users of the Centre for Independent Living, who had occupied the centre when the Council announced planes to close it. The Centre provided support for disabled people living independently; Lambeth Social services Committee decided to cut the service, (an alleged consultation meeting was rigged, then moved to a room without wheelchair access!) and so on February 1st 99 the users took over the space. They were supported by activists from the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network; the occupation continued for several weeks… There were also campaigns against plans to close 5 libraries, and campaigners against the closing of several primary schools, playcentres, special schools…. The long-running Tenants Corner Advice Centre in Oval Mansions (Kennington Oval) was evicted (along with the rest of the building, squatted or licensed; after many years and several court cases everyone was forced out. The block lay empty for several years, it has now been renovated.)

In contrast with many weary and cold days spent in 121 in recent years things were actually fun. We were out causing trouble almost daily again… invading the Firkin pub (bugged by he chain with the connivance of the local police), holding a street Drink-In in defiance of the anti-Drinking bylaw, harassing the council, and the Queen too when she turned up for some daft school ceremony.

A 121 street party in Chaucer Road down the side of the building, 1999

A lot of energy got spent, maybe too much too soon. In the end the Council waited 6 months, till many of those involved were exhausted, and then at 6.30 in the morning on the 12th of August, 150 cops, some armed, with a helicopter fluttering overhead, broke in and evicted the few people staying there at that time… The end of 121. Bit of a damp squib. So many people had been forced to leave Brixton, our response was subdued. Maybe we just accepted the inevitable.

Some of the ex-121 crowd were later involved in squatting a disused Button factory in Hardess Street in Loughborough Junction, mainly for punk gigs… though some actions were also organised there around June 18th I think.

Much more could e written… and will be. Send us your memories! And your gripes… But remember that an end-of-terrace ex-laundry can turn into something amazing for a while…

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Dedicated to

Olive Morris,
Leo Rosser,
Gerald ‘Fiddler’ Farthing,
Jill Allott,
Nikki Campbell,
Asti Albrecht,
Maggie Marmot,
Mick Riddle
Albert Meltzer
Katy Watson. true Brixtonites and 121ers all

no longer with us, and we miss them all.

Today in radical history, 1649: the ‘Diggers’ take over common land, St George’s Hill

“In the beginning of Time, the great Creator Reason, made the Earth to be a Common Treasury, to preserve Beasts, Birds, Fishes, and Man, the lord that was to govern this Creation; for Man had Domination given to him, over the Beasts, Birds, and Fishes; but not one word was spoken in the beginning, That one branch of mankind should rule over another..

…we begin to Digge upon George-Hill, to eate our Bread together by righteous labour, and sweat of our browes, It was shewed us by Vision in Dreams, and out of Dreams, That that should be the Place we should begin upon; And though that Earth in view of Flesh, be very barren, yet we should trust the Spirit for a blessing. And that not only this Common, or Heath should be taken in and Manured by the People, but all the Commons and waste Ground in England, and in the whole World, shall be taken in by the People in righteousness, not owning any Propriety; but taking the Earth to be a Common Treasury, as it was first made for all.”
(The True Levellers Standard Advanced, 1649)

On April 1st 1649, a small group of men and women moved onto wasteland at St George’s Hill, near Weybridge, in the parish of Walton-on-Thames in north Surrey, and began to dig over the land and plant vegetables.

This followed a brief prelude when on a Sunday, (either a few days before, or on April 1st itself) several soldiers had invaded the parish church at Walton, startling the congregation by announcing that the Sabbath, tithes, ministers, magistrates and the bible were all abolished. To disrupt the pious sermons of the parish was shocking; just as outrageous to religion was to disrupt the Sabbath by digging the land. The group carrying out such actions knew they were flaunting their questioning of conventional religious practice, as well as challenging the ‘common’ assumptions about use of land. Pun intended.

On April 2nd, several other people arrived to join them, and they continued to dig and pant for several weeks. Although in number they amounted to 30-40 people, they confidently predicted that they would soon be joined by 5000 more…

Based on their proclamations and Gerard Winstanley’s writings, the ethos of the group can be said to be a roughly egalitarian agrarian communism: they advocated the taking over of waste lands of the manors, by the poor, to be worked collectively, to grow food and raise animals, to feed all, for need, not profit.

The enclosure of common land – fencing off open fields, waste and woodland, for more intensive pasturing of sheep or more intensive agriculture, by landowners or their tenants – had become a major grievance in English rural society. Lords of the Manors, newer aspiring farmers seeking profits and speculators were enriching themselves by shutting out people who had traditionally used common land to graze animals, collect wood and other fuel, and gather foodstuffs. The loss of this access was catastrophic for many in rural communities, especially the poorest, for whom these customary rights formed a part of their precarious subsistence.

Revolt and protest against enclosure had been increasing for a hundred years, but social and economic change had strengthened the pressure to enclose and ‘improve’. The economic upheavals that contributed to and were then reinforced by the English Civil War laid even more pressure in the rural poor.

Hand in hand with desperation, the civil war was a product of, and also unleashed a further flood of, a spread of new rebellious ideas about religion, social order, and the rights or liberties of wider and wider sections of society. Everything came into question, as a broad alliance of religious non-conformists, rising classes seeking more power, and opponents of arbitrary royal rule rebelled against the monarchy. The floodgates opened, censorship collapsed, crowds began bringing radical politics into the streets as well as the print shops.

Opposition to the aristocratic and mercantile control of the land, fundamental to daily existence, was bound to come into question too. Royal lands previously enclosed but under parliamentary control were thrown open or raided by crowds for food. And as the civil war came to an end, the radical ideas that had emerged, often among the soldier-citizens of the New Model Army, found themselves expressed as ground-breaking thought and action on how land should be controlled, worked- and for whose benefit.

The group who took over St George’s Hill called themselves ‘True Levellers’, but we’re derogatively nick-named ‘Diggers’ – both names referencing both the current Leveller movement for political change, and previous social movements which had challenged enclosure of common land, in the ‘Midlands Revolt’ of 1607. Their adoption of the Leveller moniker upset the leadership of the Leveller group in London, who made it clear in several publications that they were not for the expropriation of anyone’s property, and not fully for the full emancipation of the social classes the ‘diggers’ were addressing and to some extent representing. In effect, that they weren’t up for ‘levelling’ at all… However, the Levellers we’re not united on the question of land; some of the agitator petitions had called for reversal of enclosures, and in other Leveller tracts more sympathetic mentions are made of opening up the commons. The pro-Leveller newspaper, the Moderate, printed the ‘True Levellers’ manifesto in full and uncritically. Later, after their political defeat by Cromwell, the Levellers were to stress resistance to enclosures more fully in their programs.

They may have chosen their local common and waste to dig on, but the site was perfectly placed to make the news and arouse both support and hostility. Close to London; close also to Windsor Great Forest, where hundreds of people had raided the king’s deer since the beginning of the civil war. Close to the routes from the capital to Portsmouth, where news travelled fast. Near to Kingston, a radical centre in religion and politics for several years before and after, with a long puritan tradition and a recent stronghold of the New Model Army in their fight against parliamentary moderates in 1647…

From the beginning of their project, however, thy encountered the violent opposition of some local residents. Over the first few weeks of the colony’s life, they were raided and attacked by mobs, sometimes numbering over 100, who burned houses they had built, stole and destroyed their tools, forcibly dragged some of the ‘diggers’ to Walton Church where they were assaulted and abused.

The local landowners, led by Francis Drake, lord of the Manor of Walton, John Platt, lord of the Manor of Cobham, and Sit Anthony Vincent, lord of the Manor of Stoke d’Abernon, co-ordinated attacks on the ‘diggers’.

News of the commune spread quickly: by April 14th, only two weeks after they had launched their experiment, the leaders of the Levellers in London issued a manifesto, in which, despite not mentioning the St George’s Hill events, saw them refuting any links to those who would ‘level all men’s estates’. Opponents of the Levellers were clearly seizing the chance of associating them with the communists in Surrey to attempt to scare people into backing off from supporting them. It shows the limit of the Leveller programme, and their organisational weakness at the time, that they feared the association and took steps to distance themselves from the ‘True Levellers’.

Later in April, one or more of the ‘diggers’ again invaded the church at Walton, filling the pulpit with briars and thorns to prevent the parson from preaching…

Despite the attacks, the St George’s Hill commune continued. Their activities had brought them to national prominence – on April 16th the group were discussed in the Council of State, after Henry Sanders of Walton informed the Council of their actions.

“On Sunday night last there was one Everard, once of the army but was cashiered, who termeth himself a prophet, one Stewer (Star) and Coulton and two more, all living in Cobham, came to St George’s Hill in Surrey and began to dig on that side of the hill next to Campe Close, and sowed the ground with parsnips, carrots and beans. On Monday following they were there again, being increased in their number and on the next day, being Tuesday, they fired the heath and burned at least 40 rood of heath, which is a very great prejudice to the Towne. On Friday last they came again, between twenty and thirty, and wrought all day at digging. They did then intend to have two or three ploughs at work, but they had not furnished themselves with seed-corn, which they did on Saturday at Kingston. They invite all to come and help them, and promise them meat, drink and clothes. They do threaten to pull down and level al park pales, and lay open, and intend to plant there very shortly. They give out they will be four or five thousand within ten days, and threaten the neighbouring people there, that they will make them all come to the hills and work; and forewarn them suffering their cattle to come near the plantation; if they do, they will cut their legs off. It is feared they have some design in hand.”

The Council (whose president, John Bradshaw, might have been thought biased – he owned the old manor house of Walton) wrote to General Fairfax, commander of the New Model Army, suggesting he took action against the group, on the grounds that

“although the pretence of their being there by them avowed may seeme very ridiculous yet that conflux of people may bee a beginning whence things of a greater and more dangerous consequence may grow to a disturbance of the peace and quiet of the commonwealth.”

Ie – this example might spread…

The Council also ordered the Justices of the Peace in Surrey

“… to send for the contrivers or promoters of those riotous meetings and to proceed against them…”

Two troops of mounted soldiers were ordered to Kingston, to investigate and put down any trouble. Their captain, Gladman, reported three days later to Fairfax that Gerard Winstanley and William Everard had agreed to come to London to explain their actions to the General. Gladman himself seems to have visited the commune at this time, and thought the Council was over-reacting.

On Friday 20th April, Everard and Winstanley appeared before Fairfax, refusing to remove their hats as assign they had no respect for social rank. Everard declared that since the Norman Conquest, England had lived under a tyranny more ruthless than the Israelites endured in captivity in Egypt; but that God had revealed to the poor that their deliverance was at hand, and that they would soon be free to enjoy the fruits of the Earth. Everard reported that he had had a vision, in which he had been commanded to “arise and dig and plant the earth and receive the fruits thereof.” The two men denied that they had any intention of seizing anyone else’s property and destroying enclosures, but were only claiming the commons, the rightful possessions of the poor. These they would work collectively, seeking to relieve the distressed. They did, however, give voice to their hope that the poor throughout the land would follow their example and take over common land, and named Hounslow, Hampstead Heath and Newmarket as places where they felt groups would shortly follow their lead. And though they refuted allegations that they were out to seize the lands of the wealthy, they did confidently assert that they believed soon that people would give up their property voluntarily, joining with them in community. Everard declared that they would not use force even in self-defence.

On the same day as this interview with Fairfax, April 20th, the group issued a manifesto, The True Levellers Standard Advanced, or the State of Community opened and presented to the Sons of Men.

The True Levellers’ ideas

The True Levellers Standard presents the True Levellers’ political and social program very much through what seem like a religious and mystical prism; as did many of the tracts and pamphlets of the civil war years. The Christian heritage of all the radicals was a common launching point; in the preaching and writings of the 1640s and 50s the texts of the bible are opened up to a flowering of a thousand interpretations, many of with them carrying subversive and ground-breaking thoughts…

The pamphlet takes the biblical idea of the Earth as God’s gift to all, equally, and turns it into social commentary, echoing John Ball in the Peasants Revolt, who had preached ‘When Adam delved and Eve Span, Who was then the gentleman?’ – God had intended no man to be lord over others. Greedy men had, by force and violence, set themselves up as lords over their fellows and over the earth.

“And hereupon, The Earth (which was made to be a Common Treasury of relief for all, both Beasts and Men) was hedged in to In-closures by the teachers and rulers, and the others were made Servants and Slaves: And that Earth that is within this Creation made a Common Store-house for all, is bought and sold, and kept in the hands of a few, whereby the great Creator is mightily dishonoured, as if he were a respector of persons, delighting int he comfortable Livelihoods of some, and rejoycing in the miserable povertie and straits of others. From the beginning it was not so.” (The True Levellers Standard Advanced)

Private property is described as the original sin: “For it is shewed us, That so long as we, That so long as we, or any other, doth own the Earth to be the peculier Interest of Lords and Landlords, and not common to others as well as them, we own the Curse, and holds the Creation under bondage; and so long as we or any other doth own Landlords and Tennants, for one to call the Land his, or another to hire it of him, or for one to give hire, and for another to work for hire; this is to dishonour the work of Creation; as if the righteous Creator should have respect to persons, and therefore made the Earth for some, and not for all: And so long as we, or any other maintain this Civil Propriety, we consent still to hold the Creation down under that bondage it groans under, and so we should hinder the work of Restoration, and sin against Light that is given into us, and so through fear of the flesh man, lose our peace.

And that this Civil Propriety is the Curse, is manifest thus, Those that Buy and Sell Land, and are landlords, have got it either by Oppression, or Murther, or Theft; and all landlords lives in the breach of the Seventh and Eighth Commandements, Thous shalt not steal, nor kill”

… while Christ and the early Christians had shared their goods and labour: ”It is shewed us, That all the Prophecies, Visions, and Revelations of Scriptures, of Prophets, and Apostles, concerning the calling of the Jews, the Restauration of Israel; and making of that People, the Inheritors of the whole Earth; doth all seat themselves in this Work of making the Earth a Common Treasury; as you may read… And when the Son of man, was gone from the Apostles, his Spirit descended upon the Apostles and Brethren, as they were waiting at Jerusalem; and Rich men sold their Possessions, and gave part to the Poor; and no man said, That ought that he possessed was his own, for they had all things Common, Act. 4.32”

But the time was coming when equal and free enjoyment of the earth would be restored, when the mastery of the landlords would be set down.

In seeing their actions on the commons as the beginning of that restoration of the earth as a Common Treasury, the ‘diggers’ also hail the Millennium – the impending return of Jesus, prophesied in the Book of Revelations, when earthly authority would be set down and a thousand-year rule of the saints begin. Almost all the civil war radicals thought the Millennium almost upon them; things began to get dangerous for the powers that be when, like the millenarians of the middle ages, the sects started to see themselves as the instruments who would bring the change about…

“But when once the Earth becomes a Common Treasury again, as it must, for all the Prophesies of Scriptures and Reason are Circled here in this Community, and mankind must have the Law of Righteousness once more writ in his heart, and all must be made of one heart, and one mind. Then this Enmity in all Lands will cease, for none shall dare to seek a Dominion over others, neither shall any dare to kill another, nor desire more of the Earth then another; for he that will rule over, imprison, oppresse, and kill his fellow Creatures, under what pretence soever, is a destroyer of the Creation, and an actor of the Curse, and walks contrary to the rule of righteousnesse: (Do, as you would have others do to you; and love your Enemies, not in words, but in actions).”

War and force developed, and continued to exist, only to defend private property:

“… wherefore is it that there is such Wars and rumours of Wars in the Nations of the Earth? and wherefore are men so mad to destroy one another? But only to uphold Civil propriety of Honor, Dominion and Riches one over another, which is the curse the Creation groans under, waiting for deliverance.”

In response to force, the True Levellers Standard Advanced firmly states the group’s position as one of passive resistance, of Pacifism and healing the divide with collective labour:

“And we shall not do this by force of Arms, we abhorre it, For that is the work of the Midianites, to kill one another; But by obeying the Lord of Hosts, who hath Revealed himself in us, and to us, by labouring the Earth in righteousness together, to eate our bread with the sweat of our brows, neither giving hire, nor taking hire, but working together, and eating together, as one man, or as one house of Israel restored from Bondage; and so by the power of Reason, the Law of righteousness in us, we endeavour to lift up the Creation from that bondage of Civil Propriety, which it groans under.”

Oppression is analysed as being not only down to some men raising themselves up to command others, but the rest accepting this, seeing themselves as unworthy and lesser… The rulers and the ruled both collude to allow the inequality to continue; in revolt against this, he asserts a social duty NOT to work for the rich: “This Declares likewise to all Laborers, or such as are called Poor people, that they shall not dare to work for Hire, for any Landlord, or for any that is lifted up above others; for by their labours, they have lifted up Tyrants and Tyranny; and by denying to labor for Hire, they shall pull them down again. He that works for another, either for Wages, or to pay him Rent, works unrighteously, and still lifts up the Curse; but they that are resolved to work and eat together, making the Earth a Common Treasury, doth joyn hands with Christ, to lift up the Creation from Bondage, and restores all things from the Curse.”

The ‘Standard’ strikingly references the sufferings of the civil war, the promises of liberty made by parliamentary leaders to enlist support from the common folk – promises broken:

“O thou Powers of England, though thou hast promised to make this People a Free People, yet thou hast so handled the matter, through thy self-seeking humour, That thou has wrapped us up more in bondage, and oppression lies heavier upon us; not only bringing thy fellow Creatures, the Commoners, to a morsel of Bread, but by confounding all sorts of people by thy Government, of doing and undoing.

First, Thou hast made the people to take a Covenant and Oaths to endeavour a Reformation, and to bring in Liberty every man in his place; and yet while a man is in pursuing of that Covenant, he is imprisoned and oppressed by thy Officers, Courts, and Justices, so called.

Thou hast made Ordinances to cast down Oppressing, Popish, Episcopal, Self-willed and Prerogative Laws; yet we see, That Self-wil and Prerogative power, is the great standing Law, that rules all in action, and others in words.

Thou hast made many promises and protestations to make the Land a Free Nation: And yet at this very day, the same people, to whom thou hast made such Protestatins of Liberty, are oppressed by thy Courts, Sizes, Sessions, by thy Justices and Clarks of the Peace, so called, Bayliffs, Committees, are imprisoned, and forced to spend that bread, that should save their lives from Famine.

And all this, Because they stand to maintain an universal Liberty and Freedom, which not only is our Birthright, which our Maker gave us, but which thou hast promised to restore unto us, from under the former oppressing Powers that are gone before, and which likewise we have bought with our Money, in Taxes, Free-quarter, and Bloud-shed; all which Sums thou hast received at our hands, and yet thou hast not given us our bargain…”

(It’s worth comparing this to the pressure for social change post World War 1 and WW2 – the narrative of collective suffering, the hardships gone through deserving a new social contract: ‘we haven’t gone through all of this for nothing’…)

The belief that the time of righteousness was almost upon them must have seemed justified. Momentous change was already afoot… only two months before, the king had been tried, executed and monarchy abolished. The struggle between the army leaders and rank and file soldiers & their political allies was coming to a head; mutinies we’re breaking out in the New Model Army. The sense of possibility, of boundaries being broken, of the social order of the world being turned upside down was electric.

General Fairfax thought the ‘True Levellers’ largely harmless, considering Everard slightly mad. Many others in power and influence were no so sure, as many of the newsbooks and papers of that month illustrate.

While some dismissed them as “a distracted crack-brained people” (A Perfect Summary of an Exact Diary of some passages of Parliament, April 16-23 1649), others feared their example would indeed lead others into following them. Mercurius Pragmaticus warned “What this fanaticall insurrection may grow into cannot be conceived for Mahomet had as small and despicable a beginning whose damnable infections have spread themselves many hundreds years since over the face of half the Universe.”

In the following week, a crowd drove the ‘diggers’ from St George’s Hill, but they soon returned and resumed their planting.

Around this time, William Everard left the group… Although Winstanley is much better known as leader of the’ Diggers’, because his writings expressed their ideas clearly and have survived. Everard was early on reckoned as the spokesman. Like the overwhelming majority of the radicals of the time, it seems likely that he had fought in the New Model Army – a man of that name appears as a scout in 1643 and another William Everard as an Agitator in 1647. Arrested after the mutiny at Corkbush Field, near Ware, in November 1647 (together with William Thompson, later shot attempting to travel to the Wellingborough digger commune, and other mutineers), he had been cashiered out of the Army. Thereafter he may have considered himself a prophet or preacher – if this is the same person as a man called Everard, staying with the radical John Pordage in Berkshire, in 1649, who later was ‘seen in London in a frantic posture’ and ‘committed by authority to Bridewell’. It may be the same man as the digger, who Fairfax in 1649 thought ‘a madman’.

Everard was later said to have left the St George’s Hill commune in April 1649 to join the mutiny against Cromwell at Burford, but this may be a confusion with a Robert Everard, who was present (and who also published radical pamphlets between 1649 and 1652); although William Thompson, arrested with Everard after Ware, was involved in the Burford events, leading some of the mutineers.

The thousands the True Levellers hoped would shortly follow their example, however, did not materialise. There were some expressions of solidarity. In May, A Declaration of the Wel-Afected in the County of Buckinghamshire (echoing some of their argument and language) asserted that the ‘middle sort’ of the County had been labouring under oppression, championed the ‘diggers’ and denounced anyone interfering with the “community in God’s way”. (An earlier tract from this county, A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, had possibly influenced, and certainly chimed with, the ideas of Winstanley and his group.

Fairfax passed by St George’s Hill on May 29th, and met with the diggers again, and although he told them off, seems to have been satisfied they were pacifists posing no threat to order.

However, the local worthies of Walton and Cobham were surer about the threat to their private property, and again and again they led attacks on the little commune, repeatedly smashing houses, destroying plants and tools, and harassing and arresting diggers. In response, the diggers issued a second manifesto, written in late May, A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England, in which they announced they would cut and fell trees on the common to sustain themselves while they were waiting for crops to grow. The wood on the common belongs to the poor, they said, and they warned the lords to stop carrying off this wood.

In early June, the ‘Digger’ community was attacked by soldiers hired by the local landowners, commanded by a Captain Stravie, who wounded a man and a boy working on the land and burned a house. Two days later, four diggers were attacked on the common by several men, who beat them brutally, mortally injuring one. The thugs also smashed the diggers’ cart.

In July, an action was brought against the ‘diggers’ for trespass on the land owned by Francis Drake, and they were called to appear at Kingston Court. Indicted were Gerard Winstanley, Henry Barton, Thomas Star, William Everard, John Palmer, Jacob Hall, William Combes, Adam Knight, Thomas Edcer, Richard Goodgreene, Henry Bickerstaffe, Richard Mudley, William Boggeral and Edward Longhurst, all described as ‘labourers of Walton-on-Thames, and accused of ‘by force of arms at Cobham riotously and illicitly assembled themselves… to the disturbance of the public peace and that the aforesaid did dig up land to the loss of the Parish of Walton and its inhabitants.”

Their plea to be allowed to speak in their own defence (as they couldn’t afford, and on principle were opposed to, hiring a lawyer) was refused, and a hostile jury found them guilty. They were fined ten pounds per person for trespassing and a penny each for costs, but couldn’t pay this, and so two days later bailiffs raided the settlement and carried off some of their goods and four cows (though these were subsequently rescued by ‘strangers’. Henry Bickerstaffe was also imprisoned for three days.

At some point, John Platt of Cobham, one of their main opponents, pledged to join the group and bring in his property in common, if Winstanley could show to his satisfaction that justify their actions in scripture; however, this was either a trick or Platt was unconvinced, as his backing for attacks on the commune continued.

In August, Winstanley was arrested again for trespass, and fined four pounds. Bailiffs again unsuccessfully tried to drive off the diggers’ cattle, though they were pastured on a neighbour’s land. More attacks sponsored by the landowners took place – five diggers were assaulted, arrested and spent five weeks in prison. On November 27-28, a group of local men and soldiers were ordered by the lords of the manor to again destroy the houses the group had built and carry off their belongings. Not all the men carrying this out were happy to be the tools of the landlords – one soldier gave some money to the diggers.

Still the communists continued to return to St George’s Hill and replant crops of wheat and rye, and build little houses, declaring that only starvation could deter them from their mission of making “a common treasury” of the earth.

The church also entered the struggle against the True Levellers. Surrey ministers preached to their congregations that they should not give any food or lodgings to the communists; they were denounced as atheist, libertines, polygamists and ranters.

At some point, the St George’s Hill commune sent out a delegation to travel around and urge the poor in other areas to follow the group’s example and to collect financial aid for the beleaguered experiment. This delegation, consisting of at least two of the original group, travelled through Buckinghamshire, Surrey, Hertfordshire, Middlesex, Berkshire, Huntingdonshire and Northamptonshire, visiting more than thirty towns and villages, carrying a letter signed by Winstanley and twenty-five others, declaring that they would continue their struggle but appealing for funds, as their crops had been destroyed.

These ambassadors were arrested in Wellingborough in Northamptonshire; perhaps because here their message inspired a second digger revolt. In March 1650, poor inhabitants of the town began to dig collectively on a “common and waste-ground called Bareshank”. [a piece of land on the left-hand side of the road coming from Wellingborough (from the Park Farm Industrial Estate past the “Mad Mile”) at the junction where it meets the Sywell to Little Harrowden Road.] They managed to secure the support of several freeholders and local farmers, but faced similar repression as the Surrey commune.
On April 15, 1650, the Council of State ordered Mr Pentlow, a justice of the peace for Northamptonshire to proceed against ‘the Levellers in those parts’ and to have them tried at the next Quarter Session. Nine of the Wellingborough Diggers – Richard Smith, John Avery, Thomas Fardin, Richard Pendred, James Pitman, Roger Tuis, Joseph Hichcock, John Pye and Edward Turner – were arrested and imprisoned in Northampton jail and although no charges could be proved against them the justice refused to release them.

Captain William Thompson, a leader of the failed 1649 “Banbury mutiny” of Levellers (most of whom were killed in the churchyard whilst trying to escape) was apparently killed – in a skirmish on his way to join the Digger community in Wellingborough – by soldiers loyal to Oliver Cromwell in May 1649.

Another digger collective also started up at ‘Coxhall’ in Kent; the location of which is uncertain (it as been suggested it was northwest of Dover; or was Cox Heath near Linton, Cock Hill near Maidstone or even Coggeshall in Essex, the latter being a radical hotspot). Its worth noting that in 1653, a pamphlet was published in Kent, anonymously, called No Age like unto this Age, which according to Christopher Hill showed digger influence.

It’s though that the travelling delegation visited areas where the diggers had contacts or thought they would meet a sympathetic audience. There may well have been digger groups or attempted communes at Iver (the origin of the Light Shining in Buckinghamshire pamphlet), Barnet in Hertfordshire, Enfield in Middlesex, Dunstable (Bedfordshire), Bosworth (Leicestershire), and other unknown locations in Gloucestershire and Nottinghamshire. Many of these are listed as being visited by the digger ambassadors, as was Hounslow, where another colony was definitely planned. Hounslow Heath and Enfield Chase were regular venues for anti-enclosure struggles; it’s likely some of those resisting landlord encroachment onto common land were also involved in digger-like actions.

Enclosure battles at Enfield also inspired local resident William Covell to write a pamphlet, known under two alternative titles, A Declaration unto the Parliament, Council of State and Army, and The Method of a Commonwealth, suggesting a radical new approach to land use, which bore some resemblance to the diggers’ program.

It’s worth noting that both Covell and the Diggers did not take their starting point as the re-opening of enclosed common land with a resumption or preservation of common rights as then understood. Common rights as evolved under several centuries of tradition were a complex web of custom, class relations and toleration. Although they had been created by struggle between landowners and local residents, they were rarely simple. Rights could be bought and sold, and ‘commoners’ with defined interests in manorial waste or fields could be wealthy themselves, sharing some but not all interests of the poor whose access was a matter of tradition. Commoners in one manor could be enclosers or encroachers on the common there or elsewhere; some supported enclosure with promise of compensation; some opposed from their own point of view or from feelings of social conscience or desires to maintain social peace.

In contrast to this, Winstanley proposed common land be collectivised for need, by those in most need, and worked and controlled from below. In this can possibly be seen their class awareness that commoners and poor did not share the same interests. Rights of well-to-do commoners would go out of the window with the ‘rights’ of the lords of the manors. The common good would determine land use. This in itself was a threat not only to the landowners but the wealthier tenants and the church, and to many ‘commoners’ as well. It also may have unsettled some poorer residents who feared their own slender rights were under question: these last may have been easy to whip up against the diggers by the richer locals, ‘Look these people will take away the little you have!’ (say the ones already taking it away with the other hand…)

The communists moved from St. George’s Hill to nearby Cobham Heath early in 1650.

In February 1650, the Council of State again ordered army intervention, bidding Fairfax to address complaints of woods being ‘despoiled’ by arresting the offenders, to prevent the diggers encouraging “the looser and disordered sort of people to the greater boldness in other designs…”

By April 1650, the St George’s Hill commune was in effect defeated and the second experiment at Cobham also followed shortly. A week before Easter Parson Platt attacked a man and a woman working on the heath; a week later he returned with several men and set fire to houses and dug up the corn. Eleven acres of corn and a dozen houses were destroyed; a twenty four hour a day watch was put on Cobham heath to prevent any resumption of digging.  The diggers were threatened with death if they returned. A ‘Humble Request to the ministers of both universities and to all lawyers in every Inns-a-Court’ complaining of Platt’s actions, but without result.

This marked the end of the active communist phase of the True Levellers, though Gerard Winstanley continued to write and set out radical egalitarian ideas.

Subsequent centuries

Land and access to it remained a central issue for English radicals. Enclosure gained pace, and agricultural improvement brought in new farming methods, displacing thousands from rural existence. The profits of enclosure partly funded the Industrial Revolution… all these factors led to a massive influx into cities and a transformation from a mostly rural to a mostly urban industrial society. But the grievance of dispossession remained a bitter memory, and a yearning to regain or take control of land remained part of radical traditions: giving birth to the ideas of Thomas Spence, among others, whose agrarian communism echoed Winstanley. Whether through emigration to more open societies where land was plentiful (eg the US), resettlement projects like the Chartist Land Plan, nationalisation movements such the Land and Labour League… the feeling that land ownership, land use and control was crucial to creating a more equitable society was at the heart of social programs.

But Winstanley’s and the True Levellers’ program remained revolutionary – most of the plans and proposals for use of land developed by radials in the hundreds of years following 1649 had nowhere like as ground-breaking implications. Their ideas for the sharing of land, both in use and in its produce, for need not for profit, are still revolutionary today.

In the last century, food production has become more and more divorced from urban life, as capitalism and mass production have altered how people farm, distribute and consume agricultural produce. Land ownership remains largely the province of the wealthy, much of UK open land and farmland is still in the hands of the aristocracy, though huge transnational corporations or utility companies and quangos also now won large stretches…

The True Levellers’ words remain as true as ever: “The common People are filled with good words from Pulpits and Councel Tables, but no good Deeds; For they wait and wait for good, and for deliverances, but none comes; While they wait for liberty, behold greater bondage comes insteed of it, and burdens, oppressions…”

We’re still hounded and bounded by “taskmasters, from Sessions, Lawyers, Bayliffs of Hundreds, Committees, Impropriators, Clerks of Peace, and Courts of Justice, so called, does whip the People by old Popish weather-beaten Laws, that were excommunicate long age by Covenants, Oaths, and Ordinances; but as yet are not cast out, but rather taken in again, to be standing pricks in our eys, and thorns in our side… Professors do rest upon the bare observation of Forms and Customs, and pretend to the Spirit, and yet persecutes, grudges, and hates the power of the Spirit; and as it was then, so it is now: All places stink with the abomination of Self-seeking Teachers and Rulers. For do not I see that everyone Preacheth for money, Counsels for money, and fights for money to maintain particular Interests? And none of these three, that pretend to give liberty to the Creation, do give liberty to the Creation; neither can they, for they are enemies to universal liberty; So that the earth stinks with their Hypocrisie, Covetousness, Envie, sottish Ignorance, and Pride.”

But as they wrote, our time is coming…

“Take notice, That England is not a Free People, till the Poor that have no Land, have a free allowance to dig and labour the Commons, and so live as Comfortably as the Landlords that live in their Inclosures. For the People have not laid out their Monies, and shed their Bloud, that their Landlords, the Norman power, should still have its liberty and freedom to rule in Tyranny in his Lords, landlords, Judges, Justices, Bayliffs, and State Servants; but that the Oppressed might be set Free, Prison doors opened, and the Poor peoples hearts comforted by an universal Consent of making the Earth a Common Treasury, that they may live together as one House of Israel, united in brotherly love into one Spirit; and having a comfortable livelihood in the Community of one Earth their Mother.”

Here’s a version of ‘The Diggers’ Song’ or ‘You Noble Diggers All’, words composed by Winstanley, sung by Chumbawamba.

1999 Commemoration

In 1999, 300 people, under the banner of campaign group The Land is Ours, re-occupied part of St George’s Hill as a commemoration of the 350th anniversary of the launch of the Diggers’ Commune…

More on this action here

And some film of the march/occupation

The Land Is Ours were attempting to kickstart a new movement to discuss land use and ownership and encourage action for social change on control of land… As well as the diggers re-occupation they carried out some other brilliant actions… check out The Land is Ours

Also worth getting in touch with:

The Land Justice Network, a non-hierarchical network of groups and individuals including academics, farmers, housing activists, architects, ramblers, coders, musicians, planners, artists, land workers and bird watchers.

We recognise that present land use and ownership are the result of policies and decisions that have little basis in social justice or in considerations of the common good.

We work together to raise awareness of land as a common issue underpinning many struggles and injustices, and to turn this awareness into action that will challenge and change the status quo.

We are committed to working together using all tools available – including policy writing, direct action, land occupation, running workshops and events, sharing our skills and creating beautiful and compelling videos, pamphlets, films, infographics, flyers, songs, art and zines.

Join us to build a diverse and inclusive modern day land reform movement!

https://www.landjustice.uk/

Read more past tense writings on resistance to enclosures in the London area here

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On 31st March 2019 (yesterday), a few of us visited the Diggers memorial stone in Weybridge, erected in 1999, and St Mary’s parish church in Walton on Thames, where the diggers proclaimed the abolition of ministers, magistrates, tithes and the Sabbath in April 1649… We were remembering 1649, but also in memory of Brendan Boal, a major mover in the 1999 Commemoration, who died in October 2018.

Theres some pix here from yesterday…

RIP Brendan. Cigars got smoked.

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An entry in the
2014 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

Follow past tense on twitter

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

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

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

According to one account of rampART’s founding:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Nicked from here]

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

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

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

rampART’s constitution stated that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A rampART statement after the eviction:

“Priests and Chainsaws Revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something of rampART can still be seen at their old website

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

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?

Clipping on the raid, from Monochrome, 1984

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…”

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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