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
2015 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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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

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some things survive…

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

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A SHORT HISTORY OF SQUATTING’S EARLY YEARS IN BRIXTON

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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

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

Published in pamphlet form so far:

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

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

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

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

Trouble Down South:
Some thoughts on gentrification in Brixton.

Most of the above can be bought online at:

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

In preparation:

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