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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Squatters outside the Duchess of Bedford flats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Squatters demo in Hyde Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So that is how we ended up in the Workhouse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Workers from De Havilland factory demonstrate in support of squatters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worth reading

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

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

Housing, An Anarchist Approach, Colin Ward

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

Squatting in Britain 1945-55, Don Watson

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

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

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

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

The Communist Technique in Britain, Bob Darke

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

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

Today in London riotous history, 1821: the funeral of Richard Honey and George Francis

Continuing the story of the two men shot dead during rioting at the funeral of king George IV’s estranged wife Caroline of Brunswick in August 1821; the men’s funeral took place on 26 August and like Caroline’s became a public demonstration that ended in disorder.

here’s a contemporary account:

“PUBLIC FUNERAL OF HONEY AND FRANCIS. A number of Mechanics &c. having met at a public house, and resolved to attend in procession the funeral of the two unfortunate men who had been slaughtered by the Lise Guards; with this view they prevailed on the friends of the deceased to let the funeral be a public one, at Hammersmith church; a measure strongly reprobated by the well-disposed part of the community ; but which the original projectors would not relinquish. as anOU The following statement of the proceedings of the day is from a most respectable source: August the 26th, being the day upon which it was announced that the public funeral of these two unfortunate men was to take place, at the expense of the mechanics of London, an extraordinary interest was excited, not merely among the members of that numerous body, but in a very considerable proportion of the public of this metropolis. Upon the inexpediency and impropriety of the measure itself (which seems to have been resolved upon and effected by a committee of the bricklayers, and carpenters and joiners-of which two trades the deceased themselves were members,) we have already expressed a decided opinion. We condemned it as one which, under existing circumstances, was calculated rather to renew that animosity and irritation which on a recent which this day presented.

We should premise, that Mr. Sheriff Waithman – apprehending the possibility that the public peace might be endangered by the carrying in procession through the principal streets, and along the road to Hammersmith, the bodies of those who fell the unfortunate victims of the needless employment of the military power on the 14th – on Saturday addressed the following letter to several of the newspapers, with a view to dissuade the committee from the public execution of their designs:

Sir,-Seeing a paragraph that has appeared in some of the papers, that a procession is intended to proceed to morrow from Smithfield, to accompany the funeral of the two unfortunate men who were shot on the 14th inst. near Cumberland-gate, as I have assisted the relatives of one of those individuals in the investigating the circumstances which led to his death, I feel called upon to say, through the medium of your paper, that I highly deprecate such a proceeding, and particularly as the matter is now under judicial inquiry; and earnestly’ hope that the public will refrain from attending the proposed meeting. “ I am, Sir, your obedient servant, “ Bridge – street , Aug . 25 . ROBERT WAITHMAN.”

Finding, however, that the individuals in question were bent upon effecting their original intentions, the worthy Sheriff accompanied the procession in person. To his exertions and assiduous attention is mainly to be attributed the general good order in which the proceedings of the morning were conducted. It is very remarkable that it was not till four o’clock in the afternoon of Saturday that the Lord Mayor received the usual notification from Lord Bathurst, desiring him to take the proper measures for keeping the peace of the city during the next day. The Sheriffs of the county received no such intimation whatever; but the moment that the High Sheriff (Mr. Waithman) was satisfied that the procession would take place, he adopted the most prompt and vigorous measures to preserve the public peace. He wrote to Mr. Burchell, the Under Sheriff, desiring him to order out a sufficient posse of constables for the county, and sent a similar letter to the Secondary, with a like request for city constables. [ We subjoin a copy of the letter to , and answer from , these gentlemen . ]:

“ GENTLEMEN – A placard having appeared , inviting an assemblage of the people to – morrow in Smithfield , at twelve o ‘ clock , to pass up Holborn to Hammersmith , I wish you to have the officers and constables in readiness to prevent any breach of the peace . I do not wish to have them appear amongst the people , but to have them in readiness to act , in case there should be a necessity for their so doing.” “Sir, We have, agreeably to your directions, summoned the constables and officers to be in Charter-house-square to-morrow morning, at eleven o’clock precisely, ready to receive your further instructions. “ We are, Sir, your obedient humble Servants, ‘ “ Henchman and BURCHELL, “ Sheriffs’ officers, Red Lion-square, Aug. 25. “ To Mr. Sheriff Waithman, &c.”

Mr. Waithman met the chief officers of the peace, and gave similar directions for the attendance of constables; and having no apprehension of any tumults, save near the barracks, posted the larger proportion of the men in that vicinity, and, previously to the passing of the procession, he repeatedly rode in among the people, entreating them to abstain from hissing or using any other expressions of anger towards the soldiers. The general rendezvous was appointed for twelve o’clock in Smithfield; and long before that hour multitudes had congregated there.

A few minutes before twelve, some men on foot with mourning hatbands came down Long-lane; and shortly after them, Dr. Watson, of Spa-fields notoriety, attended by six or seven of his friends, entered the market-place by another avenue. Infinite confusion and uncertainty prevailed among the crowd, as to the direction which the first part of the intended procession was to take or had taken, when Dr. Watson addressed the spectators, for the purpose of dispelling their doubts. Having mounted upon the top of a post, he informed his fellow-countrymen, “that it would be useless for them to wait there any longer, as the procession was not to proceed from thence, but from Kingsgate-street, Holborn, in the neighbourhood of which the body of Francis lay.”

This information proved to be correct; but that some feud had sprung up, or that some misunderstanding existed between the Doctor and the managing committee, was evidenced by the appearance of several members of the latter, preserve the strictest order. At about half-past one the first part of the procession, consisting of the hearse and four, which contained the coffin of Francis, followed by four mourning coaches and pairs, and preceded by a man bearing a plateau of feathers, began to move from the neighbourhood of Red-Lion-square. As it advanced up Holborn, at a slow and solemn pace, it was met by one or two friendly societies, and by a band of music, which accompanied it all the way to Hammersmith, playing the Dead March in Saul, the 95th, the 100th, and other Psalms. The feeling which was apparent in the demeanour of the mourners, relatives and friends of the deceased—the undisturbed order and quietness with which they proceeded, and the general sympathy of the beholders, formed an interesting scene. From every street and avenue, at the windows of every house, in the carriage-road, on the pathway, crowds were collected, and a sense of decorum appeared to pervade the whole of them.

The procession having at length reached Oxford-street, was joined (nearly at that part where it is intersected by the Regent’s Circus and the other new streets) by the hearse which carried the body of Honey, and which had been waiting between Soho-square and Dake-street. This hearse was preceded by feathers, and followed by four mourning coaches, precisely in the same way as the other was, and we observed the High Sheriff and his Deputy a little in advance. The scene was striking, and neither the incredible numbers of the spectators, nor the long continued succession of vehicles of every description with which the streets were thronged, detracted from its general effect, which was mournful and extraordinary. When the procession had arrived near the end of Stratford-place, that effect was much heightened from the advantageous view which this position afforded. Two gorgeous banners, which were borne by the ‘Provident Brothers,’ and another society, offered a singular spectacle, in the contrast of their purple and yellow silks, decked in gold and silver embroidery, with long weepers of black crape, that were attached to them.

The multitude that was now assembled defied all calculation; yet the procession met with no obstruction in its course. It between that and Park-lane; and it was curious to observe from some point where these streets intersected one another, five or six dense columns of people, hastening down at once through as many streets, in order to arrive at Piccadilly in as little time as possible. Other individuals were not so fortunate; for, seeing the great concourse of equestrians, and vehicles of every imaginable variety, that almost choked up Park-lane, they ran to Cumberland-gate, in the expectation of getting through the Park. The gate, however, proved to be impracticable ; it was locked, and a chain was drawn across it. We did not see a single soldier near the place. In our way through Park-lane, we were struck with the utter solitude of the Park. We had almost said that not an individual was to be seen in it; but certain it is, that the Sunday promenaders, with whom it is usually so replete, were yesterday replaced by a small straggling party of the police horse patrol, who were riding up and down in undisputed possession. Stanhope-gate was not merely blocked up, but the iron gate was covered by a complete fencing of deal planks.

Before the procession reached to Hyde-park corner, every eminence between that and Knightsbridge barracks was thronged with spectators. Doorways, windows, and the tops of houses, for nearly the whole line, were crowded to excess. The footways on both sides of the road presented a dense mass of persons, as closely thronged together as it was possible for a moving mass to be. But the crowd was not confined to the footways alone : the carriage-road was so far encroached upon by pedestrians, that, at a first appearance, one would have thought it possible the funeral could pass through. As the procession advanced, however, way was made, and it came through, though in a much more compact body than it presented in any street from its first setting out.

Before it reached Knightsbridge barracks, every house and place, which commanded a view of that situation, was occupied. Indeed, so great was the anxiety for places from which to view the procession in that quarter, that as high as five shillings were offered for a single window- at another it was rumoured that the gates would be allowed to remain open, as they are on ordinary occasions. We were, however, very glad to find on our arrival that neither of those rumours had any foundation. For a considerable time before the arrival of the procession at the barracks, the gates were closely shut, and not a soldier was to be seen, except here and there a few who looked through the closed windows of the upper apartments. When the body of the procession was seen advancing towards Knightsbridge, some of the persons who had taken their stand in front of the barracks began to hiss and call out, “Butchers. This intemperate expression was no sooner enunciated than it was loudly condemned by the majority of the bystanders.

Mr. Sheriff Waithman was on horseback in the neighbourhood of the barracks, and exerted himself very earnestly to suppress every attempt which could lead to a breach of the peace. He was assisted in his laudable endeavours by a gentleman who acted as his Under Sheriff, and by a few other gentlemen on horseback, whose names we could not collect. Wherever the Sheriff went, he was loudly cheered by the people, who on every occasion paid the utmost attention to his orders not to disturb the peace. The first outcries against the Guards were very speedily put down. In a short time, however, they were renewed by a few individuals who had come on before the procession, but who had not been present at the previous expression of disapprobation by their predecessors. This intemperate conduct, we were happy to observe, was received with loud cries of Order, order,’ and was immediately put down. The persons who had the conducting of the procession appeared to us to be strenuously opposed to every act on the part of the surrounding thousands which could at all tend to disturb the public tranquillity.

We should here observe, that as soon as the first expression of disapprobation on the part of the people was evinced towards the Guards, they (the Guards) removed back from the windows through which they were seen. The greater part of them did not again make their W be properly denominated the funeral, approached close to the barracks, the utmost silence was observed; the greater part of the persons who walked arm in arm in front were uncovered, as were the majority of the by-standers. The scene at this instant was certainly very striking. Viewed from the tops of the houses in front of the barracks, the road, as far as the eye could reach on either side, was thronged as closely as it was possible for it to be by human beings congregated together. The hearses and mourning coaches had receded a little from the spot on which we stood, the parts above the wheels alone were visible, and they appeared as if floating in the midst of the thousands by which they were surrounded. From the spot of which we now speak, we do not think that the number of persons within view at both sides could have been less than from 70,000 to 80,000, though the exact numbers cannot of course be ascertained.

From Knightsbridge, the procession moved on in the same order, till it reached Kensington. Here there was a halt for some moments, in consequence of the difficulty of passing through the immense multitudes which had there assembled. Not an eminence from which a view could be commanded was left unoccupied. Here also the utmost good order prevailed among the crowds who formed, as well as among those who witnessed, the procession. It was every where received in a solemn and becoming manner. It then moved on from Kensington to Hammersmith. The houses along the road were all, as elsewhere, lined with spectators, who exhibited, if not a strong, at least a decent sympathy with the melancholy pageant which was passing before them. In many places the hedges were also filled with groups of observers.

About four o’clock the procession arrived at Hammersmith. The bell of the church began to toll as soon as it entered into the town, and did not cease till both the coffins were placed within its walls. The body of Francis was the first which reached the churchyard; and as soon as it arrived there, preparations were made for taking it out of the hearse. The persons who had taken part in the procession advanced first, England. It was carried by a person in deep mourning, and was followed by the supporters of the coffin, who were eight in number. A rich pall – and here again the difference between the funerals of these two poor mechanics, and that of the late Consort of the most potent monarch, George IV, presented itself to the mind – was thrown over the coffin, and thrown over it with a decency and solemnity which formed a striking contrast to the scene which was exhibited a short time before at Harwich.

Such of the mourners as were of the family of the deceased came next, and appeared to excite a strong interest amongst the crowds who were assembled in the church-yard. As soon as they had effected their entrance, which they did by the south gate, that gate was closed, to prevent a fresh influx of strangers upon those who were already assembled there, and who filled every inch of vacant ground that was to be found within the yard, to say nothing of the walls and trees which surround it. The clergyman, as is usual, met the corpse at the church gate, and read over it the solemn commencement of our burial service, – I am the resurrection and the life, ‘&c. &c. At that moment, as if by general consent, every head was uncovered, and not a sound was to be heard among the immense multitudes thus collected, except that of the trumpets accompanying the procession, which played a funeral psalm. The whole scene was impressive. It would be almost impossible to collect the same persons again together, and to influence them with a similar feeling with that which at that moment actuated them.

The coffin and its bearers proceeded at a slow pace through the midst of them, calling forth their remarks at every step. At last it reached the church porch, into which it was pre ceded by the two banners. As soon as the body of Francis had been placed on the rude kind of scaffold which was prepared in the interior of the church for its reception, orders were sent to admit into the church-yard the body of Honey, which for a few moments had been waiting at the entrance of it. It was ushered into the church with the same order and decency, and received by the people in the church-yard ‘with the same feeling, as had been evinced by them in the case of Francis. It was found, however, impossible to close the gates, which had been opened to admit this part of the procession. The wand-bearers endeavoured, but and on looking down into the chancel, we found it to be quite filled with the mourners who belonged to the family of these two unfortunate victims of military execution. The men who held the two banners which we have before noticed, placed themselves in the pew of her late Majesty, which, as well as the pulpit, was covered with black cloth, in consequence of her decease. The banners themselves, covered as they were with crapé, added to the picturesque appearance of the place, and increased the general melancholy which had been inspired by the sight of the escutcheons, between which they were ranged—those mournful memorials of departed royalty.

On the clergyman’s proceeding to read the impressive litany for the dead, enjoined by the Church of England, a vast, majority of the congregation drew forth their prayer-books, and followed him through it, thus giving another proof, if indeed any were wanted, that the lower orders of the people of England are not the immoral, irreligious, and infidel crew, which some of the unfeeling Pharisees of the age wish to represent them. After the funeral psalms, and that sublime and affecting chapter taken out of the first epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, had been read, the two coffins were carried to the grave. We do not know, sand shall not pretend to conjecture, what feelings influenced the people to such conduct; but were surprised at observing the eagerness displayed by numbers, both of men and women, to touch the coffins of the deceased as they were conveyed from the church to their last home. If they had believed in the efficacy of religious relics, and had conceived the coffin to contain the bodies of some of the earliest martyrs, they could not have touched them with stronger feelings of regard and veneration. The banners accompanied them to the grave, and on earth being committed to earth, ashes to ashes, and dust to dust,’ were lowered over them in the most impressive and CAS affecting silence.

On the conclusion of the funeral service, the different friends of the deceased retired to the mourning coaches which were waiting for them, attended by the warmest sympathies of all present. It ought not, however, to be overlooked, that the deep grief of the children of the either with the place, or the ceremony which they had just witnessed. With this exception in the conduct of a few, and but a few individuals, every thing which passed in the church-yard was highly creditable to their moral and religious feelings, notwithstanding the efforts which some individuals made, but in vain, to create a disturbance among the populace during the time that the funeral was in the church.

As soon as the motion of the mourning coaches made it known to the multitudes who were collected in the streets of Hammersmith, that the funeral was over, they began to turn their steps towards the metropolis. It was evident from their orderly conduct on the road to Hammersmith, that unless some irritation was given to them by the appearance of the Life Guards at Knightsbridge barracks, nothing would occur tó disturb the general peace and tranquillity which had prevailed on their whole line of march during the day. Mr. Sheriff Waithman, who, as our readers will have seen, had been most actively and successfully employed during the whole advance of the procession in using his influence to soothe the irritated feelings of the people, posted himself, and such of the posse comitatus as he had thought proper to call out, opposite to the barracks, in order that he might, if possible, prevail upon them to dispense with those expressions of indignation against the Life Guards, which the people thought, justly or unjustly, that the conduct of that corps on a recent occasion had richly merited.

About six o’clock a numerous group of soldiers planted themselves in a most conspicuous position before, the front gates of their barrack, and appeared by their behaviour to be challenging the attention of the passengers to their bold and undaunted demeanour. Mr. Sheriff Waithman, observing the manner in which they had ranged themselves on the footpath, along which a great part of the crowd were certain to walk in their return from Hammersmith, rode up to them, and requested them to withdraw from the conspicuous position in which they had placed themselves. The soldiers replied that they had a right to stand in the position which they then occupied, and declared their resolution of not moving from it. Mr. Sheriff Waithman then said to them, that he did not mean to insist, as he was justified in doing, upon their complying with his desire to remove from the footpath; that his sole anxiety was to preserve the public peace; and to effect that it been complied with in the first instance, would have indisputably prevented all the commotion which afterwards ensued, the soldiers persisted in retaining their station. The worthy Sheriff then asked them to give him the name of their commanding officer, that he might communicate with him upon the subject. To that proposition the soldiers, at whose head was either a corporal or a serjeant, gave a most unqualified refusal. Mr. Waithman made, however, another attempt to effect his object. He sent two or three of his officers into the barracks to find out the gentleman in command of the regiment, and ordered them to deliver his respectful compliments to him, and to state how expedient it would be to withdraw the military from the view of the populace. If the report of the officers is to be believed, the answer which they got from the officer to whom they delivered the Sheriff’s message was, “Tell Mr. Waithman, your Sheriff, he may go and be damned; my men shall stay where they are; I will not consent to have them made prisoners of.’ The import of this answer got’ spread among the people, and did not tend to a spirit of conciliation between them and the soldiers.

Different groups kept arriving from Hammersmith with feelings strongly excited by the melancholy fate of Francis and Honey. The news of this answer was not calculated to repress that natural irritation under which they laboured. The worthy Sheriff saw this; and in consequence went up to the gate of the barracks, and said to the men, “As your commanding officer will not give you the orders which appear to me to be necessary to preserve the public peace, I, as Sheriff of the county, to whom the King’s peace in that county is intrusted, take upon myself to act as your commanding officer, and order you to retire this moment within the barracks. If not, I shall look upon you as responsible for all the fatal consequences which may ensue from your obstinacy and perverseness. This was said in the presence of several individuals, both civil and military. The soldiers murmured, but at last reluctantly, and after considerable delay, withdrew within the gates. The people immediately gave Alderman Waithman three cheers. Shortly after this point had been soldiers, who had collected themselves in the windows of their respective apartments, laughed at them, in many cases most loudly, and, in several, shook their fists at the parties surrounding them. The populace retorted the insult by calling them. Piccadilly butchers, cowardly cut-throats, &c., and no longer confined themselves to hissing and hooting. Mr. Sheriff Waithman, whilst this scene was transacting, was riding up and down with his Under Sheriff, endeavouring to mollify the anger of the people. By threatening the more violent spirits that he would order his officers to seize them in case he saw them insult the soldiery, and by using milder arguments to the more peaceably inclined, he succeeded to a certain degree in accomplishing his object. The seeds of disturbance had, however, been sown among the people, and though his presence prevented them from striking deep root, they sprung up with greater vigour as soon as he retired.

Stones at last began to be thrown by both parties, and so simultaneously, that it would be difficult to decide which were the aggressors. In less than two or three minutes after the commencement of this distant warfare, several of the soldiers climbed over the wall into the street, and made an attack on the people, who, as we were informed by a respectable witness, though we certainly did not see the fact ourselves, were maltreating a drunken Life Guardsman, who was staggering through the streets to his quarters. A general engagement ensued between this man’s comrades (some of whom were armed with bludgeons, but none at this time with swords) and the multitude. The success was various; but during the barracks perceived that their friends were defeated, and immediately issued forth armed, some with swords, and others with carbines, to assist them.

It was at that exact moment that we ourselves became eye-witnesses of the scene, and we conceived, and are still inclined to conceive, that it was at this moment that the affray really commenced. It was a frightful spectacle. Soldiers, some dressed, some in their undress, were seen bursting out of the gates of their barracks, clambering over its walls, and rushing, with drawn swords and infuriated looks, into the midst of the unarmed multitude. Others were throwing stones and brickbats into the street from their private rooms, in much greater quantities than were thrown from the street. We saw several people around us struck by them. Some of the people now began to fly from the unequal contest which they were waging, but others stood up to the Guards, in spite of their superiority of offensive weapons, with the most undaunted fortitude.

Blood was flowing on both sides pretty freely, when Mr. Sheriff Waithman, in whose absence this tumult had occurred, rode up to the scene of action, and in the very throng of the contention. He endeavoured to part the combatants, who were then fighting at that end of the barracks which is nearest to Hyde-park. Not succeeding immediately in his efforts, he turned back his horse, and was riding on the foot-path towards the front gate of the barracks, out of which the men armed and unarmed kept continually issuing. As he was going along, he found another party scuffling with the military. He immediately ordered them to desist, and contrived to separate the corporal or sergeant, with whom he had been before conversing at the gate, and who, from the conversation which he had held with him, must have known him as the Sheriff-a point that is material to keep in mind_from the conflict in which he was engaging. The worthy Sheriff immediately desired him to return to his quarters and to induce his companions to return; the answer which the man made him was to slip aside and knock down an individual who was standing near him. Still the Sheriff attempted to persuade him to retire, and whilst he was doing so, a young officer, in plain clothes, came up, and, if we saw rightly, attempted to shoulder the Sheriff off the foot-path. The seeing this outrage, and immediately seized the Sheriff’s horse by the bridle, saying to him, “Damn you, I’ll soon show you the way off the foot-path. Mr. Waithman, around whom there were no more than five or six of his officers, all of whom were struck and wounded by the military, seeing himself thus assaulted, hit the individual thus wilfully impeding him in the discharge of his ministerial duties, a heavy blow on the top of the cap with a riding stick which he had in his hand. The blow stunned the man, but others of his comrades forced the Sheriff and his horse into the middle of the street.

Immediately afterwards every person who witnessed the transaction, either from the streets or the neighbouring houses, must have expected to have seen Mr. Waithman murdered. Two or three ruffians–for they deserve not the name of soldiers—ran at him with their pointed swords; his officers turned them aside; another was seen at the same moment, after having first deliberately taken a cartridge out of his pouch, and primed and loaded his carbine, to place it against his shoulder, and to take deliberate aim at the worthy Alderman. Whilst the carbine was in that situation, a Sheriff’s officer of the name of Levi, ran up, and knocked the ruffian down. The struggle continued a few minutes afterwards, and then suddenly closed, the men retiring, as we understood, by the command of their officers to the barracks.

The Sheriff was then fully occupied in calming the spirits of the enraged multitude, many of whom, even while the struggle was at the hottest, applied to him to know whether they had a right to repel the brutal force which was brought against them, adding, that, if they had, and he would lead them on, they were ready to die by his side. Of course, the Sheriff’s answer to these applications, was an injunction to those who made them to keep themselves quiet, and disperse. That, however, was advice not always very palatable ; for the irritation which these events had excited in the minds of the people was not likely to cease immediately. They stayed, therefore, for a considerable time before the barracks, hooting the military, and loading them with every term of vituperation that the English language could afford them. The women who were in the streets, and who had used towards them. This circumstance rendered it necessary for the Sheriff to remain riding up and down the road till nearly eight o’clock, to prevent the accumulation of crowds before the barracks. This he was at last enabled to accomplish, partly by threats, and partly by the influence which his conduct in the affray with the Life Guards had given him with the multitude. By eight o’clock the streets about Knightsbridge were comparatively cleared, and it did not appear that any interruption of the public tranquillity occurred, save that which has been just recorded. : Fortunately, there was not any person mortally wounded in this affray; though several of the people received heavy contusions, and some severe cuts. Several of the Guards were bleeding copiously from the nose and mouth, when they were called into their quarters.”

(from A Correct, Full, and Impartial Report, of the Trial of Her Majesty, Caroline, Queen Consort of Great Britain, Before the House of Peers, On the Bill of Pains and Penalties – Queen Caroline (consort of George IV, King of Great Britain), John Adolphus

A memorial stone was built to Richard Honey and George Francis in St Paul’s Churchyard, Hammersmith, after collections taken in pubs all over London.

The memorial reads:
Here lie interred the mortal remains of

Richard Honey, Carpenter,

aged 36 years, and of

George Francis, Bricklayer, aged 43 years,

who were slain on the 14th August, 1821, while attending the

funeral of Caroline, of Brunswick,

Queen of England

The details of that melancholy event

Belong to the history of the country

In which they will be recorded

Together with the public opinion

Decidedly expressed relative to the

Disgraceful transactions

Of that disastrous day

Deeply impressed with their fate

Unmerited and unavenged

Their respective trades interred them

At their general expence [sic]

On the 24th of the same month

to their memory.

Richard Honey left one female orphan.

George Francis left a widow and three young children.

Victims like these have fallen in every age

Stretch of pow’r or party’s cruel rage

Until even handed justice comes at last

To amend the future and avenge the past

Their friends and fellow-men lament their doom

Protect their orphans, and erect their tomb.

 

This stone is still visible in the Churchyard…

Today in London striking history, 1966: A series of guerilla strikes begin at the ENV Engineering Works, Willesden

E.N.V. was an early manufacturer of aircraft engines, originally called the London and Parisian Motor Company, their first model appearing in 1908. E.N.V. engines were used by several pioneer aircraft builders and were produced in both France and the UK until about 1914. They subsequently specialised in camshafts and bevel gear manufacture.

The castings and forgings for its engines were made in Sheffield where the company was originally based, then taken to France for assembly. The reason for this was that there was much more aeronautical activity in France than in England in 1908, but the French were taxing imported machinery.

The French works were in Courbevoie in the Paris suburbs. By 1909 there was more aviation activity in England and E.N.V. decided to begin full manufacture at home, at Willesden, North London. At that time a separate company was formed to produce the aero-engines in Willesden,

In 1964 ENV became part of the Eaton, Yale and Towne group, losing its identity in 1968: the Willesden Works closed in the same year.

ENV’s works in Willesden became a hotbed of rank and file union activity, which peaked in a series of strikes in 1966.

Militancy in the factory is discussed in this article, written at the time of the campaign against the works’ closure, in late 1967.

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A Working-Class Defeat: The ENV Story
(Winter 1967/68)
Joyce Rosser & Colin Barker

Nicked from International Socialism (1st series), No.31,Winter 1967/68, pp.21-32.

Authors’ intro: We are grateful to the shop stewards of ENV and to others in the North London labour movement who gave us so much of their time and help in writing this article. None of them will agree with
everything we say, and we should like to pay tribute to them for their patience with us. All responsibility for this article must necessarily be ours.
We hope we have not done them too great an injustice.

  1. Before the Attack

The initial emergence of ENV as a militant factory seems to have taken place in the period after the War, and particularly in the latter years of the Labour Government. In the context of a Government wage freeze, supported by the great majority of union executives, shop-floor action in support of local wage claims gradually developed.

Under a predominantly Communist Party leadership, the factory had a whole series of small stoppages, go-slows, overtime bans, etc. In general these actions were successful, and there was little managerial resistance to shop-floor demands, provided that the stewards and workers backed these up with action or the threat of action. The workers themselves were prepared to go on strike, as experience had shown that the strike-weapon was both effective and relatively speedy in operation.

In November 1951, however, there was a more serious dispute. One of the shop stewards wished to have a meeting with the works manager, but a foreman refused to arrange this. When the convenor, Bill McLoughlin, took this up with the management the foreman physically threatened him. The factory struck, demanding the foreman’s removal. This strike lasted 13 weeks, and ended with a Government-appointed Court of Inquiry. The issue was one of some importance, for it was the first time that so explicit a challenge had been made to the management’s own prerogatives of choosing their staff. There is some dispute as to whether this was in fact a good issue on which to lead a protracted strike. It is unlikely that, if the men had realised quite how protracted the struggle would be, they would have agreed to go on strike over this issue, in the absence of a long period of preparation, agitation, etc on the issue of managerial functions in the months before the stoppage. The experience of the previous few years had led them to suppose that all strikes would be brief, and no attempt was made to point out to them that no management was likely to give in as easily on an issue of this kind, intimately touching as it did their power within the factory. On the other hand, the strike was over a question of trade-union principle, and this was the central issue. In this connection, it is possible that the Communist Party at this time were anxious to have strikes called in the motor industry, in line with current WFTU (World Federation of Trade Unions, the Communist Trade Union international) policy, and that the Communist stewards at ENV were to a degree more concerned with having a strike than with the principle of the thing.

The strike was made official, after six weeks, and then only by the AEU (Amalgamated Engineering Union). The T&GWU (Transport and General Workers’ Union), however, decided to pay strike-pay to its members, although it did not recognise the strike. Only a small proportion of the strike fund, which amounted in all to some £14,000 by the end of the strike, came from the official unions; the majority of the funds came from factory collections organised by the ENV stewards themselves, not only in the North London area, but all over Britain. Teams went out to Birmingham, the West of England, Scotland, etc, and it was largely through the efforts of the strike committee in organising their own financial support that the strike was maintained for so long. One interesting feature of this collection was the fact that it was by no means from the largest, or reputedly most ‘militant’ factories that the greatest support came: Fords of Dagenham gave the ENV stewards only £25, and the Austin factory at Longbridge gave only £50.

In about the tenth week, the strike began to crumble a little, as about 100 of the men went back to work. (Up to the tenth week at most half a dozen had blacklegged.) In the 13th week the Court of Inquiry reported, and recommended that there should be a return to work on the following terms: that the foreman should be removed from any contact with trade unionists, and that McLoughlin, the convenor, should be replaced in the post by another steward. The strike committee decided to accept these terms, with one dissenting voice (who urged that it was for the stewards and not a capitalist court to elect the convenor).

The obvious candidate for the post of convenor among the remaining stewards was the deputy convenor, Sid Wise, an ex-member of the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party, and for a short time, with Gerry Healy, a member of the Socialist Outlook group. The Communist Party stewards, however, not wanting a Trotskyist convenor, proposed in his place Harry Ford. Much later Harry Ford was appointed safety and security officer by ENV, and was sacked in the summer of 1967 after he had played his part in the breaking of militant organisation in the factory (feeling against him after his promotion to management was considerable: one of his jobs was the setting of traps round the factory to catch the numerous cats that infested the place, and workers went around releasing the cats. Harry Ford complained of ‘lack of cooperation.’)

The two years after this big strike found the rank and file in the factory much more reluctant to take strike action. Until 1950-51 ENV had held a virtual monopoly in the manufacture of gears but from then on the car manufacturers (Austin and Morris in particular) started to make their own and the ENV management, fighting for a place in new markets, toughened their attitude.

From 1953 to the end of 1957 there were numerous strikes, almost without exception confined to particular sections of the factory. The most important activity during this period was the formulation of an eleven-point plan for fighting redundancy. This plan, whose main architect was Sid Wise, provided for a sliding scale of demands. It was discussed on a number of occasions at factory meetings in the middle of this period, and was accepted by the men as their policy on redundancy. It was not to be put to the test, however, until 1957.

A little before Christmas, 1957, the management informed the stewards that they would have to make ten per cent of the workforce redundant. The stewards were extremely concerned about the situation: it was just before the holiday period, the motor industry as a whole was in difficulties, and they were extremely doubtful about their ability to fight the management on this issue. True, they had a plan for dealing with redundancy, but although the men had given their support to the eleven-point plan in a period of prosperity, there had been doubt about it. Many of the men had felt that, although the plan was a good one, the management could not really be expected to pay a man for doing nothing.

At a factory meeting, however, when the stewards informed the men about the position, there was a demand from the men themselves that the stewards remember ‘our eleven-point plan.’ Many of them argued that it was better at least to ‘have a go with the plan,’ since there was nothing to lose anyway. The meeting instructed Geoff Carlsson, recently elected as convenor, to inform the management that they would not accept redundancy.

When Carlsson told Mr Pailing, the senior manager, that the men would not accept redundancy and that there would be a major strike if the management sacked anyone, Pailing walked out in a rage. The stewards told him that the furnaces would be closed down, and, after Pailing’s anger, fully expected to find next morning that the gates were locked against them. However, the management clearly decided that they would box clever, and informed the stewards that it was now their problem, and they would have to solve it themselves. Effectively this meant that the stewards would have to reorganise a considerable part of the production-arrangements, and the management no doubt expected that this would frighten the stewards into acceptance. They were unlucky.

The stewards’ committee accepted the responsibility and began the process of reorganisation. The men were put on to four and four-and-a-half day weeks, and were transferred from departments where there was a shortage of work to departments with enough to do. It took several months to sort the whole factory out, and the reorganisation was a process of continual improvisation. Although the reorganisation led to a certain amount of tension and jealousy, since it proved impossible to guarantee that everyone would suffer the same degree of inconvenience, the factory did stay united for nine months. For the whole of this period, although a number of men left voluntarily because of the work shortage, not one man was made redundant.

There was one incident which illustrated some of the conflicts and problems. Some men were supposed to be moved into one department, but the three men already working refused to accept them. Havelock, the manager, approached the stewards and asked them what they intended to do about their ‘three brothers.’ Carlsson told Havelock that he would either have to listen to the three men, or listen to the whole factory: if the three would not cooperate, then the management would have to sack them. This was done. As soon as the three men had been sacked, the stewards demanded that they be given a second chance. The three were visited and invited back to the factory; one refused, and two returned. This must be one of the few cases in which stewards have, in pursuit of a militant line, had men sacked; the essential thing in this case being, of course, that circumstances had turned the reorganisation itself into a dispute, and failure to cooperate with the majority was equivalent to crossing a picket-line.

The struggle over redundancy had several implications. Firstly, this was a period of fairly widespread struggles over redundancy. At BMC in the summer of 1956 there had been a strike over mass sackings. The labour movement was actively discussing policies for redundancy in various ways. Within the AEU, Communist Party militants were fighting for the acceptance of a rather dubious ‘right to work’ policy, whose principal demand was that workers should be retained on a firm’s books until ‘suitable alternative employment’ had been found for them; this rather legalistic approach left unanswered the whole question of what was ‘suitable’ and what was ‘alternative.’ In this general context the example of ENV stood out as one of the very few factories in which redundancy was actually fought successfully; managements in other local factories found that their stewards were less amenable, and were quoting the ENV example when sackings were demanded.

Secondly, the way the struggle had been conducted raised, although in only a partial way, issues of workers’ control within the factory. ENV management had to accept a situation for nine months in which the workers’ shop-floor representatives took over control of manning scales in the different shops, and organised production within the factory to an extent previously unheard of. It should be noted that this was done without any of the blueprints for workers’ control that are currently being offered on the Left, but was a process of continual improvisation in response to concrete problems in the factory.

Thirdly, the lesson was not lost on management. As we shall see below, when the ENV management finally set about the systematic destruction of the stewards’ committee they at no time attempted to remove the stewards on the pretext of a redundancy, for they knew that if redundancy were threatened the men would fight it. Given the history of the factory, the management’s choice of weapon – the (completely false) assertion that they were going to close the factory down – becomes more comprehensible.

Towards the end of 1958 trade picked up again and there was a return to the earlier pattern of national wage claims and disputes. In 1959 the stewards attempted to bring the factory together for a unified wage claim. The pattern of wage advances within the factory up to that time had been uneven, each shop fighting by itself for its own particular claims, and the whole factory’s wages going up by fits and starts through a process of leapfrogging and comparisons. The stewards, fearing the effects of differentials among the workers, proposed that the factory should fight as a whole, but at a factory meeting a majority of the men turned this idea down.

Six of the most militant shops then went out on strike on their own, in support of their own wage claims. This was not especially successful, since the balance of forces within the factory was now altered: the six most militant departments were outside the gates, and the weaker ones were still inside. As was traditional, the labourers immediately blacked all the work from the six shops on strike. There then arose a division on the stewards’ committee (composed for the occasion of the stewards from the shops remaining inside the gate). The majority of the stewards unfortunately argued that the question of blacking should be put to a factory meeting; the minority of militants urged that this was not necessary, since the labourers were already, on their own initiative, blacking the six shops’ work. But the majority argument was carried, and at a factory meeting (not including the men from the six shops) the blacking was rejected. The labourers then began handling the work again, and, with the factory’s strength evaporating rapidly, the men from the six militant shops had to make the best settlements they could.

Two years later there was again a similar danger that the factory might be divided. Under the National Agreements in the engineering industry piece-workers are supposed to be able to make an average minimum bonus of 45 per cent, or about 8£d per hour. In fact this agreement is completely out of date, at least for all but the most backward factories. At ENV average bonuses ranged from six to eight shillings an hour. But the existence of the agreement provided the ENV workers with a handy weapon; when working a go-slow they could justifiably argue that they were fulfilling the terms of the National Agreements and making the requisite 45 per cent bonus. The tactic was known as ‘working time-work.’

In the grinding shop a go-slow of this kind ran for a number of weeks. The grinding shop was of some importance in the factory’s production flow, and there were pile-ups of work from some departments and shortages in others. The action of one shop could seriously disrupt production throughout the factory, and this could easily create resentment, especially when, as in this case, the grinders were among the highest-paid groups already. In cases like these there was usually a certain amount of grumbling among the men in other shops, although it must be added that this grumbling never actually stopped them from giving the required support. Faced with the grinders’ protracted go-slow, and refusing to meet their demand for more money, the management approached Sir William Carron, president of the AEU, who informed the stewards that they must abide by National Agreements. The stewards’ answer was that they were abiding by these agreements, but Carron replied – in the spirit if not the letter of what the employers had intended – that the grinding shop must resume normal production. The stewards ignored this instruction. As the pile-ups and shortages continued, the rest of the factory decided to go on ‘time work’ as well: At this the management put out a notice stating that the grinding shop must resume normal working by 11 a.m. that day, or be sent home, and that the rest of the factory had until 2 p.m. to return to normal working, or be clocked out.

When these ultimatums were ignored, the whole factory was in fact clocked out. On the stewards’ instructions the men stayed at work. The foremen refused to give them any work-cards, so the men simply carried on with the jobs that were already in the shops. This went on for several days, with the management pretending that it had no workers, and the factory buzzing with activity. No wages were paid, and no record was kept of times on jobs. After a few days the management decided to come to terms, reached a settlement with the grinders and paid the whole factory back pay at a standard, consolidated time rate.

  1. An ‘organised’ factory

The above stories should make it clear that ENV was a highly organised factory from the trade-union point of view. Although there is always the danger of exaggeration, it seems clear, that it was one of the best-organised in the London area. It was the very fact of its high level of organisation, indeed, that was responsible for the major managerial offensive that developed there over the years 1962 to 1967.

In calling ENV an ‘organised’ or ‘militant’ factory one or two things have to be borne in mind. In the first place, the organisation was developed by the stewards and the men within the factory, with very little reference to the official union structure outside. The union outside was of very little importance; indeed, in general the stewards only had recourse to the union officials as a ‘face-saver.’ In situations where a return to work was necessary at the end of a dispute, and there was little possibility of going back on the terms the stewards and men wanted, then the officials might well be called in, to advise the men to go back. In this way the officials rather than the stewards would carry the blame for the element of ‘defeat.’

Secondly, one of the most important aspects of its ‘militancy’ as a factory was ENV’s readiness to help other sections of the labour movement who were in dispute. The stewards claim – not without justification – that the first place in London to which workers would turn for help was the ENV stewards’ committee. Any group of workers coming to ENV could be assured of an immediate donation from the stewards’ funds, and in a number of cases there were regular collections taken on the shop floor in support of disputes in other factories. Some of these collections were very considerable. During the 13-week strike at British Light Steel Pressings, Acton, in 1961, for instance, collections taken among the 1,100 workers at ENV amounted to over £1,500. During the strike of predominantly coloured workers at Marriott’s in Southall in 1963 a weekly collection of a shilling a head was maintained for 30 weeks – amounting to £1,717, or 18 per cent of the national total contribution.

This readiness to help other workers in dispute contrasted strongly with other so-called ‘militant’ factories in which assistance, particularly on this kind of scale, is very much the exception, or is subject to various conditions and qualifications. Mention has already been made of the poor response from a number of factories during the 1951 strike at ENV itself. One of the stewards, at that time a CP member, recounts how he visited the Austin factory at Longbridge and was only able to persuade the convenor there to help the ENV workers when he produced his Party card. During the Marriott strike, indeed, this kind of political exclusiveness led to serious divisions among groups within the Party itself. Due to the involvement of the Socialist Labour League in the dispute, the Southall District Committee, under CP influence, would do nothing to help the strike, declaring it ‘Trotskyite.’ And when Reg Birch and Bill McLoughlin of the London Committee (also Party members) wished to do something to help the Marriott strikers, they were verbally attacked by the Southall Committee. [1] At ENV, although there were serious disagreements over the way the strike was conducted, differences of this kind did not at any time inhibit the basic principle of solidarity with other workers in dispute. Even after it was felt that the strike should have been called off, ENV stewards and workers took part in the Marriott demonstrations, contributed to the strike fund, etc.

Thirdly, and most important, the term ‘well organised’ within the factory refers especially to the relationship that was built up and maintained between the workers and their stewards. Throughout the whole history of the factory this relationship was one of close support. Had this not been so, it is difficult to see how the 1957-58 fight against redundancy could have been kept up. Workers would not take orders from their foremen without reference to their stewards. On average a full meeting of the factory in the works canteen was held at least once a fortnight. What is more important, the calling of factory meetings was something decided by the stewards themselves without reference to management. In fact there was an agreement with the management to the effect that in the event of anyone working during a factory meeting they would not be paid wages. This came about as a result of a threat not to start work after a meeting if anyone had been working. As soon as an issue arose, a meeting would be called; there was no question of delaying a meeting to suit the convenience of the management or their production schedules. In effect, therefore, the very calling of a meeting amounted to a stoppage of production. Through this use of regular meetings the membership in the factory was kept fully informed of all developments in negotiations with management, and their feelings were communicated directly to the stewards. Thus the all too common phenomenon of a stewards’ committee that adopts a militant posture towards management but loses contact with its rank and file was avoided.

The stewards too met frequently. Apart from numerous ad hoc meetings on particular issues, there were regular meetings twice a week of the entire stewards’ committee. These meetings took place on Tuesdays at lunchtime and again after work. Unlike many other engineering factories, it was the policy of the ENV committee to refuse payment from the management for time spent at stewards’ meetings, apart from one hour’s wages every other Tuesday evening when the meeting began an hour before the normal working day ended. (This is a small point, but there are many factories where the stewards do, in a sense, gain material advantage from their positions: they receive payment for time spent at meetings, often after other workers have gone home; they perhaps administer overalls-cleaning schemes and receive a small payment for this. At ENV this kind of practice, which can tend to divide the steward from his ‘constituents,’ was rigorously opposed by the stewards themselves.)

All the various aspects of ‘organisation,’ of course, have a serious purpose: better wages and conditions. And at ENV wages were higher than elsewhere in the North London District, considerably higher than the District average and probably above the level in any other organised factory in the area. In February 1967, when the chairman and convenor were sacked, the average skilled man’s pay for a 40-hour week was just under £28. Like other militant factories, the atmosphere on the shop floor was very friendly. Also, ENV was probably unique in the engineering industry in that women workers got the same pay as men. One sign of the good conditions in the factory was the remarkably low rate of labour turnover: in the late 1950s the management told the stewards that on average 6 men a month were leaving (a rate of 6 per cent a year) of whom the majority were labourers. Of the others who left, most went because they were retiring or moving to another district. In fact the rate of labour turnover, most unusually, was higher among the clerical and administrative staff, and among the management themselves than it was among the men on the shop floor. There can be no doubt at all that militancy at ENV, as elsewhere, paid off in terms of good wages and conditions.

At no time did the stewards meet the management on any kind of formal ‘works committee’ with an agenda laid down by the management. All notions of joint production committees’ and other similar devices to get the workers’ representatives to take responsibility for the failures of capitalist production were strongly resisted as ‘stooge’ committees. Moreover, within the factory there were no rate-fixers allowed; in some departments there were even agreements totally banning the use of stop watches. The management had production departments and production advisers and other similar machinery of control, but in point of fact it was generally the men on the shop floor themselves who determined the amount and speed of production. To some degree this exists in every workshop, but at ENV this type of embryonic control was developed to quite a high degree: the workers had established tight ceilings on their earnings, which they varied as they saw fit, so that they could easily be used as sanctions against the management in case of dispute. At one point the management claimed that 55 per cent of the workers in the factory were on what was termed ‘dispute production.’

In the kind of environment that developed over the years at ENV, in which managerial control over a whole range of issues connected with discipline, production and so forth was hopelessly ineffective, it became possible for individual workers to develop their own special side-lines in open view of the management (some of whom did not even realise what was happening). Thus one man in the factory spent a large part of his time mending watches and clocks for his own customers – who included members of the management – while receiving a high average wage from the firm for his long hours of non-production. A labourers’ rest room gradually developed into a full-scale cafe, complete with a bar, tea-urn and sandwiches. In another part of the factory there was a highly organised cut-price shop. Proprietary rights to these ‘informal institutions’ were passed on from generation to generation. And one legendary worker had a dispute with his foreman, in the course of which he announced that he was not going to work for ENV any more. He came to work each day for six months, but for the whole of that time did nothing at all for the firm, spending his time making fancy metal goods for his mates. The wretched foreman let it pass for a couple of days, but then found that he could do nothing out of fear of his superiors. The possibilities for workers who wish to exploit the contradictions of bureaucracy are enormous! Another worker, who had been on a go slow the preceding week, refused to go home for his holidays without his correct pay, locked himself in the shop stewards’ room and phoned the national press. The management pleaded with him to come out, but he refused, and finally the money was pushed to him through a small hole in the window.

There were many more stories of small individual struggles against the management at the factory, as no doubt every other factory has its stories; what is important about them is that the majority would have been impossible without: a background of a very high level of organisation and control within the factory by the workers and their stewards.

  1. Problems of Organisation

The very fact of having a militant factory creates new problems for the shop stewards. In the first place, there is a constant tendency for the majority of the workers to assume that the situation is a stable one and to depend on their stewards for everything. This attitude threatens the whole strength of union organisation in a factory, which hangs on the maintenance of a continuous pattern of mutual interdependence between workers and stewards. Faced with a foreman attempting to get him to do something he did not want to do, a worker would immediately take the problem to his steward without attempting to handle it first himself. Stewards were relied on to help with all manner of personal problems, the writing of letters, marital questions and so forth. Much of this of course is a sign of the worker’s trust in his steward, but at the same time if it develops too far it tends to separate the stewards from the men as a special race apart.

Maintaining a high degree of organisation, and keeping the initiative in dealings with management, is not a simple matter of just going around ‘being militant’ but requires strategy and continual adaptation. No stewards who wish to maintain their organisation intact can afford to fight on every small issue that comes up for fear of wasting their strength and alienating sections of the factory. Issues for struggle have to be selected to some degree, and estimates made continually of relative strengths and weaknesses. Where, as happens all the time in a highly organised factory in a period of relative working-class political inactivity, workers ‘lean’ on the union there is a constant danger that the essentially fragile strength of the stewards vis-à-vis the management may be exposed. And this kind of problem is endemic. At ENV, for instance, there was a shop in which the men regularly finished work three quarters of an hour early, cleaned up the shop and then stood about waiting for the hooter with their coats on, deliberately provoking the management. The management knew very well that the men had finished their work for the day, and appealed to the stewards to get the men, not to carry on working, but to pretend that they were! On rare occasions men would come in drunk – an open invitation to the management to discipline them – and the stewards would have to get the other workers to keep them concealed until they had sobered up. Again, a rather unpopular worker urinated on the bins of work outside his shop instead of going to the lavatory, and was sacked. The stewards, feeling quite unable to call a strike over the man’s sacking, pleaded for suspension as an appropriate measure, and were relieved when the management agreed to alter the sacking to a suspension.

None of this in any way implies a weakness on the part of the ENV stewards: any militant, acting in a non-revolutionary situation, has to estimate all the time precisely how far he can push without exposing his weaknesses; an unimaginative excess of ‘militancy’ can weaken an organisation quite as much as the lack of it.

There are also various problems concerning relations between groups of workers within the one factory. Differentials are one: although the stewards resisted attempts to widen differentials, it was much more difficult to get them narrowed. Yet the existence of differentials can weaken the fighting capacity of a factory. If a highly paid shop goes on strike there is a danger that others in lower-paid departments will resent the cut-backs in production that follow, even though the higher-paid group are opening the way for further wage claims for the rest of the factory. Over the period from 1950 to 1965 differentials were probably maintained, more or less, in percentage terms, and of course widened quite considerably in cash terms. It must be noted, however, that this potential source of division, although it did on occasion lead to grumbling, did not at any time actually lead to serious divisions in the factory when one section needed support. For the whole of the period, some shops stayed in front of some of the others. In particular, the Hard Test shop were earning a significantly higher wage than the rest; they had a unique agreement whereby the whole shop’s wage was determined by one man’s production – with the result that whenever there was a dispute, all the men but one could go slow, cutting production by 80 per cent without loss of pay, while the one man maintained their earnings level by ‘highly organised scabbing!’ The management tried for years to get this agreement annulled, but without success. Although percentage differentials were not permitted to increase, attempts to reduce them were not very successful. The holiday bonus was changed from a differential to flat-rate system at a factory meeting, but generally it was not possible to overcome the feeling of the ‘skilled’ men (many of whom were in fact up-graded) that their differentials should be maintained. At the same time, the ENV factory did have an unusually high proportion of up-graded men, and the stewards never accepted the argument, regrettably still all too popular among some sections of the Left, that ‘skilled’ men had to have their position especially protected, at the cost of other sections of the class.

Within the AEU and other engineering unions there is, formally, a rule that overtime must not exceed 30 hours a month. This is a rule which is much more honoured in the breach, even in the majority of the organised factories. At ENV it was fairly rigidly adhered to, on the grounds that higher pay should be won through negotiations and not through extra work. The stewards won an agreement with the management whereby, if one man was asked to work overtime, the whole factory was immediately guaranteed three full months’ work. No evening or Sunday overtime at all was permitted, nor was overtime on the night shift. This policy tended on occasion to cause some dissent, especially among the labourers, who compared the hours they were permitted to work with the hours worked by labourers in other local factories. During overtime bans it was the labourers in particular who had to bear the brunt, but still the stewards insisted that if the labourers wanted more money they ought to win it by bar-gaming. The labourers were fortunate in their stewards, however, and their rates were higher than those obtaining in other local factories; thus the unity of the factory was never seriously impaired by this potential division.

Despite the fact that on many occasions the strength of the organisation within ENV was available to help other sections of workers in dispute, it would be a mistake to imagine that the ENV stewards were very popular in other factories. They were admired for the level of their organisation and militancy, certainly, but at the same time this admiration was touched with a degree of jealousy among less successful militants in other factories, a problem that was compounded by political differences between the leading elements among the ENV stewards (in the latter days) and the majority of the District Committee. They made several attempts to get a representative on to the District Committee, but on each occasion were blocked for political reasons. When they succeeded in getting Ron Johnson on, he was virtually isolated by other delegates for most of the time. When the final battle was joined by the management, there were reports of local militants remarking, ‘It serves them right. They were too greedy.’ Thus, through no wish of their own, the ENV stewards were really quite isolated from other local militants. Such a position of isolation is especially dangerous for a highly organised factory like ENV, which tended to stand out for local managements like a sore thumb. In the North London area, ENV was something of a symbol to all the enemies of militant factory organisation, not only the local managements and the Government but the union bureaucracies as well.

Thus for some time it was apparent that sooner or later the management at ENV, with the backing of other local employers, the majority of the AEU executive and others, would initiate action against the ENV organisation. The same thing had happened at other organised factories in the London area: the British Light Steel Pressings strike in 1961 and the Ford debacle in the winter of 1962-63 were the most obvious examples. There is a danger, therefore, in such a situation that the stewards will grow over-confident, over-estimate their actual strength and work on the assumption that they will be able to hold the situation in the factory static for as long as they like. This very much bothered a couple of the stewards’ committee, Carlsson and Hogan, who were convinced that sooner or later they would have to accept some form of increased productivity, if only to avoid a major management offensive against their whole position. Carlsson and Hogan did, therefore, work out a serious plan for presentation to the management, which would allow for the introduction of new work methods, etc, while keeping the advantage with the stewards. The cardinal point of the plan was a proposal to reduce differentials and demand a higher consolidated rate in such a manner that the lower-paid workers would get much larger rises than the higher-paid. The plan was worked out in the explicit expectation of an attack by the management, and rested on the recognition that some kind of change was inevitable. What mattered was that the stewards should anticipate the management and seek to keep such changes under their control. However, when Carlsson and Hogan presented their ideas to the stewards’ committee, the plan was turned down with very little discussion; the stewards most vocal against it (calling it a ‘sell-out’) were in fact the least politically aware of the stewards, and also the least militant.

Given the failure of this attempt to control the pace of change within the factory, it became almost inevitable that the management would initiate some kind of attack on the stewards. The form that it took was not however arrived at all of a sudden: the managements (who changed with great rapidity over the period 1964-66) tried a number of approaches without success before they worked out the final formula that led to the defeat of the ENV organisation. It is worth remarking in general, however, that in a factory which is both more highly organised than other local factories (and in which wage costs are consequently higher than elsewhere, and management control weaker) and which is isolated more or less from the rest of the local labour movement, the management is bound, sooner or later, to demand changes. The problem for stewards in this situation is one of finding a way of reacting in a realistic manner to preserve the essentials of their organisation, often while accepting that some concessions will have to be made. In a sense the final defeat of the ENV stewards is a measure of their failure to manage this. It is to the story of their defeat that we now turn.

  1. The American Takeover

In 1962 the giant American firm of Eaton, Yale and Towne bought the ENV factories at Willesden and Aycliffe. It seems that they were anxious to get a foothold in the aircraft industry and in the Common Market. Later they bought another factory in Manchester. They immediately set out to change things and in particular to destroy the power of the trade-union organisation at Willesden.

Initially they used a succession of British managers for these tasks. These were frequently given time limits in which to produce results – if they failed they left. During the next four years there was a very high turnover of managers at the factory as new men and new methods were tried. These managers were carefully watched by American managers, some of whom actually worked at ENV. Townsend, who later smashed the factory organisation, worked for six months as General Manager before taking over completely.

Some managers tried to win the support and cooperation of the workers by stressing that in the long run the interests of management and workers were the same; both would benefit from a prosperous factory. They made special approaches to the shop stewards. An American who worked for a year at Willesden as a ‘tool specialist’ took the stewards on trips to other factories and attempted to make friends with the workers. He later became Managing Director of the Manchester factory. Another manager called Hill tried the same approach, stressing that he was also only an employee and that he was really on the workers’ side. He would show his trade union card to everyone and was continually attacking the other managers. Another kept telling the stewards that he was working in close touch with George Brown (whom he assumed the stewards would support) and that the management were keen to do what the Labour Government wanted (which they were!).

A Dr Jarrett from CAV (a part of the Lucas electrical group) was then made Managing Director. He started productivity bargaining throughout the factory. As he said, ‘We want you to earn more money … this is the socialist approach of equality.’ Hill commented, ‘I’m a bit of a Communist myself and Dr Jarrett has got a real socialist plan.’

These crude approaches were hardly likely to fool anyone. Some of the managers brought in were just hatchet men with no experience, including ex-naval commanders and the like. Similarly approaches and offers made specially to the shop stewards were also rejected. For instance, they were offered a proper office, that the management deduct union dues from wages, and some stewards were offered supervisory jobs (as mentioned above, one ex-convenor accepted).

Jarrett introduced into the factory Emersons, the Work Study firm which had been responsible for the Fawley agreements. A meeting was arranged with the shop stewards at which the Emersons’ representative outlined their plan. Jarrett then said that he expected the shop stewards would like to ask questions; but the stewards walked out and refused any cooperation. They threatened that the workers would go out if the Emerson people as much as came on to the shop floor. So although Emersons had an office in the factory for several months, they never did a thing. This is the only known occasion on which Emersons have failed to get any concessions whatsoever.

It was also Jarrett who started productivity bargaining in the factory. The management had issued several statements about the unsatisfactory state of affairs at ENV and how they were losing orders. They stressed that everyone would benefit from greater productivity at the factory – ‘High wages and high productivity go together.’ They also produced outline proposals for a new wage structure, both simplifying it and making it fairer.

The productivity campaign had a certain appeal for the workers, because the management were saying that there was to be more money but no redundancies. Also there was discontent about the existing pay structure and differentials. Even though the stewards realised that productivity deals represented a disguised form of attack on union organisation and working conditions, the plausibility of management’s offer made it difficult for them to refuse participation, unless they were to cut themselves off from the rest of the workers. So the stewards participated in the central and shop committees which were set up. The management were then very desultory over productivity bargaining.

Many of the lower managers were reluctant to suggest changes as they did not want to carry the can if things went wrong. So most of the proposals and suggestions came from the shop stewards’ side. But after many months only a few agreements had been reached and there was no agreement on the new wages structure. Some of the agreements which were concluded revealed both the strength of the shop floor organisation on these issues and the general incompetence of the management. For instance the packers agreed to a reduction from 16 to 12 men when in fact there had been 12 all along and also agreed to help with loading and unloading lorries which they had also always done. For these ‘concessions’ they got 1s an hour extra. The stacker-truck drivers agreed to become ‘mobile’ for an extra 1s an hour. Before this agreement each driver had regarded himself as attached to a particular shop and would only take loads from his own shop but would not bring them back. The failure of productivity bargaining to produce any real result meant the end of Jarrett who admitted at one time that he had been given a deadline of only a few months to produce results.

In 1966 there was a dispute in the milling shop and work from this shop was blacked. The management then sacked a worker who refused to be moved to this department. At this time the management seemed anxious to provoke a strike and get the workers outside; the stewards on the other hand were trying to avoid this, preferring to choose their own issue and occasion for a major fight. A factory meeting was held over the sacking and three shop stewards went to see Jarrett. He refused to meet them, so the meeting decided to go en masse to Jarrett’s office; ‘If he won’t see three of us, he’ll have to see all of us.’ About 1,000 workers marched singing through the office to Jarrett’s office. Jarrett declared he would have a meeting the next day but this was not accepted. Finally he said that the man would not be sacked or suspended. This incident led to the resignation of Jarrett a few weeks later and was also referred to later by the management as an example of the ‘anarchy’ existing in the factory.

  1. The Final Offensive

On Jarrett’s resignation in June 1966 Townsend assumed full control and became Managing Director. Only a few weeks later he notified shop stewards that things had gone too far, the company was losing money and there were too many disputes. He announced that the management were not prepared to negotiate with the stewards until normal working conditions were resumed. He had asked the Engineering Employers’ Federation to approach the Executive Councils of the unions to arrange an informal Joint Composite Conference to be held at the Willesden factory. Until that Conference was held there were going to be no more negotiations with the stewards.

It seems probable that in the meantime Townsend had had a secret meeting with Carron at the Confederation of Engineering and Shipbuilding Unions Conference. Some of the stewards saw a letter from the management to the AEU headquarters trying to arrange this meeting. Carlsson made this public in the local press and was never disciplined for it. Townsend obviously wanted to make direct contact with Carron. There were other examples of contact between the ENV management and the AEU head office: the management for instance, used to collect all references to ENV stewards and workers in the press and agendas of factory and stewards’ meetings, and send them to Carron.

The joint Composite Conference was held on 4th July. Amongst the representatives of the AEU were Carron, Boyd, Berridge from the Executive, Reg Birch (then Divisional Organiser) and District Officials. Carron and Berridge warned the ENV stewards before the meeting that they must be prepared to compromise. National officers of the ETU, TGWU, ASPD and ASW were also present. ASSET were not informed and when Mike Cooley of DATA tried to attend the meeting he was refused admittance because the Conference was just for representatives of manual workers, not staff unions. All ENV stewards attended as did the top ENV management, some of whom were flown over from the States.

Townsend opened the Conference with a prepared statement illustrated with charts showing the company’s position. In his words he was ‘astounded, amazed and shocked.’ According to him the company was losing money and customers. He admitted that in the past there had been weak management at ENV and it was natural that the stewards would take advantage of this. But, he went on, ‘The main reason why we are here today is labour relations; the management will not put up with the actions of the shop stewards and therefore are refusing to negotiate with them.’ He complained of the ‘mass of domestic and verbal agreements’ at the factory, and of the fact that ‘two unauthorised mass factory meetings have taken place, one culminating in the march of an unruly mob through the Executive Offices … this is anarchy and will not be tolerated in the future.’

He went to warn the union executives that although he was asking them to support the management’s actions in making these changes, ‘if the unions are unable to do this, we will take the necessary steps ourselves.’ Even Carron could not accept Townsend’s approach: ‘If you insist on going forward in the way you are, then you must expect a revolution.’ Of course, Carron was merely defending procedure, not threatening anything. He insisted that whatever proposals the management had must go through stewards and local officials.

Townsend then went on to outline the management’s proposals which were presented in the form of two documents called Management Functions and Interim Agreement. The effect of the proposals would have been to wipe out all the gains and benefits won by the trade-union organisation at the factory over the previous 20 years.

Firstly, the management intended to check all domestic and verbal agreements and would renegotiate them in a revised form that would make them clear. Of course these agreements were one of the strengths of the shop-floor organisation, especially the purely verbal agreements which could be interpreted as necessary whenever a dispute arose. The management had often complained that they did not know of the existence of half of the supposed agreements.

Secondly, standards were to be set up by ‘modern time-study methods’ and would include multi-machine operation. At the same time that the new standards were applied a graded wage structure of between five and nine grades would be introduced. Payments to time-workers were no longer to be linked to pieceworkers’ earnings and when an established piece-work rate was in dispute, payment would continue at the established rate until agreement was reached through procedure. Townsend admitted that the management had not yet decided whether in the long run the factory would continue to operate on piece-work or on measured day-work.

Amongst the other management proposals were things like mobility of labour, shift working as required, tea breaks to be limited to 10 minutes, and so on. Also the management would be able to transfer work to other factories as it wished. Towns-end mentioned that if these proposals were not accepted the factory might have to close.

Carron and the other officials made it clear that they were not prepared to agree to this. If the management wanted to change the agreements they must operate through the procedure, which meant first of all discussing it with the shop stewards. Carron reminded Townsend that the employers had as much obligation to go through procedure as the work people. The employers accepted this point.

However after this Conference the ENV management still refused to meet the stewards. So at a factory meeting it was decided to have token stoppages in protest. A series of guerilla stoppages to start on 20th July was planned. Each evening different shops were to be told by the stewards to go out the next morning for a few hours. At this stage it seems clear that the workers were prepared to resist the management. In fact the workers were prepared to resist the management right up until closure was announced.

On the day before these stoppages were due to begin a conference was held at the Employers’ Federation headquarters. At this the ENV management agreed to resume negotiations with the stewards the following morning. However the meeting finished late and so it was impossible to inform the workers at Willesden about the decision.

On the morning of 20 July, as planned earlier, the stoppages started. The management now announced that they knew nothing about the agreement made the previous day. This is one incident quoted by the stewards to illustrate how it was impossible to trust the ‘new’ (i.e. American) management – at least the ‘old’ management did keep their word. This resentment of the methods of the new management was one of the reasons that the stewards used the contrast between the British and American managements and made it a political issue.

Anyway, on this morning the storemen and electricians were already out as planned. They were due to come in at 10 o’clock. When they tried to return to work the management would not let them in and locked them out for the rest of the day. Carlsson, the stewards’ chairman who went out to see them, was stopped at the gate but pushed his way in. Shortly after this the management threatened to sack a stacker driver who refused to pick up a load as a protest in support of the workers locked out. A factory meeting was held and it was decided that if some workers were out then they would all go out. They planned to come back the following morning.

The next day the workers came back to find the electricity switched off, and everyone being herded into the canteen. On the platform were half a dozen managers and two representatives of the Electoral Reform Society. When all the workers had entered the canteen the doors were locked and Townsend made a speech about the crisis the factory was facing. He said that it came down to a choice – either the factory could stay open upon new conditions or it would be closed. He told the workers that they must now vote on whether they were prepared to accept the management’s proposals. Ballot boxes had been placed by each door and as each worker left the meeting he was to take a form and put it in the box. The ballot would be run by the Electoral Reform Society.

After Townsend had spoken Carlsson made a speech from the floor in which he condemned the methods being used by the management and insisted that the proposals must go through the shop stewards. He launched attacks upon the recent change in behaviour of several of the managers on the platform, but excluded Wilson, a popular representative of the ‘old’ management. Mitchell, the convenor, then spoke and said that he was walking out of the meeting and wanted everyone to follow him

stewards and some workers left the canteen, but immediately after they had gone the management locked the doors behind them, leaving the majority of the workers inside. So the stewards and other workers forced the doors open, upturned the ballot boxes, and the meeting broke up. During this meeting police in black marias were stationed near the factory and a manager phoned for them to come round to the back gate. The press and TV came down to the factory immediately after the meeting. Possibly it was a mistake to walk out of the meeting rather than argue the case out in full in front of the workers, showing that there was an alternative and then letting them refuse to vote in the management’s ballot. However the next day a factory meeting was held to which the press were invited and the workers voted unanimously in support of their shop stewards and against the management’s proposals.

At this meeting the workers passed a unanimous resolution stating that they would rather accept closure than any worsening of their pay and conditions. This resolution was continually re-affirmed at further meetings throughout the following period, and to the time of writing (late October 1967) still represents the attitude of those who remain at ENV.

Townsend announced that this sort of ‘intimidation’ would not put him off and he was going to organise another ballot, but this time it would be a postal one. Again it was organised by the Electoral Reform Society, who used the same pre-paid envelopes which they had used in an ETU ballot. Apparently the ETU did not object to paying for this ballot; they said they were not interested in taking the matter up. On another occasion one ETU official remarked that the ENV stewards ‘deserved to be shot’ if the management’s story was true.

Reg Birch protested about the postal ballot, but Townsend refused to drop it. However a few days later the ENV management called it off themselves because of ‘interference’ by the stewards – ‘once more the stewards had wrecked it.’ The vast majority of workers had returned the ballot forms to their shop stewards.

At about the same time a factory meeting was held at which the stewards attempted to settle outstanding disputes. This was done in order to prevent management having an excuse for locking workers out. Several disputes were settled as a result of this meeting. Negotiations were going on between shop stewards and management over the management’s proposals. On all major issues ‘failure to agree’ was recorded and the issues were passed to local officials.

On 24 August all ENV workers received letters saying that the Willesden factory was going to close. There was to be a phased close-down to be carried out over the next few months. The management gave as the reason the financial position of the factory which was, they said, aggravated by the government’s economic policies.

The major issue for the next few months was whether this announcement was genuine or only a bluff. The majority of workers and stewards tended to believe that the closure was genuine; only the convenor and chairman believed consistently that it was a bluff and that they must act accordingly. Yet there was plenty of evidence that the picture the management painted of the financial situation at ENV was inaccurate. Firstly, the aircraft sections at ENV were always busy and work from other departments too was deliberately being transferred to Aycliffe and Manchester or abroad- Secondly, the Annual Reports of the company showed large profits and increases in orders. Finally the management’s account of the effect of government policy was clearly misleading. For instance ENV as a manufacturing firm would stand to gain considerably, not lose, from the Selective Employment Tax.

Looking back it is now easy to say that it was a bluff but at the time the great majority of workers and stewards were not sure. The ENV management’s campaign had had a long build up over the previous years, with frequent announcements of ‘crises.’ Now they stressed continually that the factory was to close, and without any qualification. And of course even if one did not accept the firm’s reasons for closure, there was still the possibility that if in the last resort they could not defeat the trade union organisation in any other way, they would close down the factory, even if only temporarily. Whether this would have been possible is more difficult to say; the fact that the aircraft sections had plenty of work throughout the next six months suggests that the management would have found it very difficult to transfer all the work that the factory was doing.

The other issue which became of increasing importance was that of redundancy payments. The workers started to think of these payments and what they were going to spend them on. Since most of the workers had long service, the sums involved were quite considerable – many of them over £500. The management argued that if there were a strike, this would count as misconduct and would mean that the workers would lose redundancy payments. The stewards denied this and got lawyers to back them up, but this type of rumour had a considerable influence.

  1. The Campaign Against Closure

At the beginning of September the unions challenged the management’s case at the longest Local Conference on record. McLoughlin, an ex-ENV convenor, now local AEU official, opened the union’s case. He rejected the management’s figures which showed falling profits and losses of orders, and quoted Eaton publications which gave a glowing report of trade prospects. The President of the Employers’ Federation, who had just been to the USA at Eaton’s expense, then said that the closure was definite, and even if the management’s earlier proposals were accepted by the workers, it would not make any difference. He stressed that this was the result of the government’s economic policy.

At the end of this Local Conference, a failure to agree was recorded and in October 1966 the issue went to Central Conference at York where there was still no agreement. The night before the conference Carron stated that he did not see why he should take up the reference since both the management and he had been criticised sharply by Carlsson, and he had to be reminded that the jobs of more than 1,000 workers were at stake. After the closure was announced the ENV stewards began organising their campaign. In their publicity, they attempted to show that the closure announcement was only a bluff to defeat the workers’ organisation. They also attempted to get support by arguing that the ENV management’s policies were against the Labour Government’s policy of increasing exports. They argued that the bulk of the goods produced at ENV were exported and that the balance of payments figures would suffer if the factory did close and the work was transferred out of the country. The ENV stewards got the support of Brent Trades Council which organised meetings and marches about ENV. Marches were held in Willesden and Wembley. The issue was also brought up at meetings of the Shop Stewards’ Defence Committee, which had originated months before out of a legal dispute concerning the ENV convenor, Mitchell.

Deputations of ENV stewards and workers went to the TUC conference at Blackpool and the Labour Party conference at Brighton where they held demonstrations. A group of workers went to the Farnborough Air Show and picketed the ENV stand in order to illustrate the conflict between reports of the factory closing down and attempts to get new orders.

The stewards issued regular statements to the press about ENV. They told the press that work was being transferred from Willesden to factories in the USA. But although some of the journalists were interested in the stories, nothing appeared. The stewards found out that some of the journalists had been warned by the AEU head office that if they did print the stories about ENV then they would not get any more stories from the union.

The stewards organised lobbies of MPs and tried to get support and questions asked in Parliament. When they first tried to contact the MPs, many of them, especially the Left-wingers, agreed to help. But very few of them did so. Russell Kerr, who expressed great interest, later walked into one of the ENV meetings by mistake, much to his embarrassment as he had done nothing. The MP for Uxbridge, Ryan, promised to help but never turned up. But perhaps the worst case was that of the two Willesden MPs, Laurie Pavitt and Reg Freeson. They had been in close touch with the factory for years and had often held factory gate meetings there. ENV had raised canvassing teams to go out for them at election times. When the closure was announced, the stewards arranged a meeting with both of them. Pavitt and Freeson came and announced that they could not interfere as they had just discovered that ENV was not in their constituencies! In fact it was just inside the boundary of North Hammersmith, and so the ENV stewards were told to go to their own MP, Tomney. Pavitt and Freeson then went off to a meeting with the ENV management and didn’t see the stewards again.

When a meeting of MPs at the House of Commons was called to discuss ENV, only four turned up. Two of these, Stan Orme and Norman Atkinson, who were AEU MPs, said that they could not stay because they had been advised not to listen as the AEU Executive was going to advise them on the case. The only MPs who did consistently try to help were Sid Bidwell and Bill Molloy. Bidwell and Molloy were warned for taking the matter up and Molloy lost his chance of promotion.

In general the Left wing MPs were useless on an issue like this. A few were genuinely sympathetic, but where they were required to be more than ‘social workers with connections,’ they were too frightened to come out openly.

A few questions were asked in the House of Commons but these were mostly ‘safe’ questions, about the value of exports which would be lost and so on. The fact that the gears which ENV made for defence purposes could not be made elsewhere in Britain and would have to be made in the USA or on the continent was never mentioned, although at the time it would have created quite a controversy.

It was known that the ENV management had already had meetings with members of the government. One of the American managers went to a meeting with Austin Albu and he took a copy of the Shop Stewards’ Defence Committee’s pamphlet on Incomes Policy with him.

The ENV stewards and the union officials had a meeting with Douglas Jay and then with Shirley Williams, both at the Board of Trade. Mrs Williams said that they seemed to have a good case and if any union asked for an investigation it would take place. Only the DATA representative took up this offer, but nothing happened.

The results from this type of campaign – contacting MPs, questions in the House, and so on – seem to have been nil. One serious criticism which has been made is that it diverted attention away from the factory and took up effort which could have been used in trying to get opposition organised inside the factory. In point of fact, the campaign outside was only an alternative because there was no action within.

Regularly after the closure was announced, calls for a factory strike were put to factory meetings. The shop stewards recommended strike action as they knew that this was the only way they could win. Yet the strike calls were always turned down by large majorities. Among the workers and some of the stewards, doubts about whether the closure was a bluff or not persisted. Most workers were prepared to let the stewards attempt to avert the closure but they were not willing to risk sacrificing their redundancy pay. In the meantime they were anxious to increase their earnings in order to increase the amounts of these payments.

During this period the management were transferring work from Willesden to Aycliffe and Manchester in order to lay off Willesden workers. This was well known at the time. One criticism of the stewards was that they should have foreseen the situation arising out of this transfer of work months before and should have prevented it. When the Manchester stewards offered to black this work, the Willesden stewards turned down their offer on the grounds that since there was no opposition in their factory it was not fair to leave it to Manchester when they themselves were doing nothing. In this way they deliberately passed the buck back to their own workers.

In October the management announced that they wanted another stock-taking and therefore some workers must do overtime. Since they were proposing to lay off workers because there was not enough work, the factory banned overtime. As a result some sections were locked out and others went out in support. The management then locked out the entire factory for a week, with the exception of the storekeepers. When the management tried to do the stocktaking themselves the storekeepers walked out.

During the lock-out a meeting of ENV workers was organised at Hammersmith Town Hall with 800 workers attending. (However the following day, Saturday, when a march was held in Willesden only 14 people turned up, and these were mostly stewards.) At the Hammersmith meeting Birch and Cooley spoke, as well as the ENV stewards. A solicitor also explained that any strike action would not lead to loss of redundancy pay. The meeting supported the fight against redundancy and closure. The stewards had previously agreed that those workers who wanted to leave ENV should be allowed to go as this would make the rest of the factory stronger, but no vote was taken on this at the meeting.

But after the Hammersmith meeting, nothing happened. The men returned to work the following week. Resolutions for strike action at factory meetings were still turned down. Although various proposals for departmental strikes were discussed and sometimes agreed, they never came to anything. In the continued absence of any action from within the factory, the stewards attempted to get an official strike.

At the end of October the AEU District Committee took the rare step of calling for an official strike at ENV. However this had to be endorsed at the next AEU Executive meeting. When this took place Reg Birch moved that the North London District Committee’s decision be endorsed, but could not even get anyone to second the motion (Hugh Scanlon, who was at the meeting, just kept quiet.) So the official strike came to nothing at all. No attempt was made to strike in the few days before the EC met, since unfortunately the majority of the workers wanted to wait for the EC’s decision. Thus the chance for a strike was missed, although some of the stewards now think that the majority of the workers would have come out then. One difficulty was that it was getting near to Christmas and hence there was a greater unwillingness to strike. Quite a few of the workers could remember the long 1951-52 strike which began before Christmas.

In November the first group of workers were sacked. Each week more followed. A large number of stewards and other militants went in the first weeks, often in spite of their seniority. Early in the new year the management offered to make a deal with some of the remaining shop stewards, especially Carlsson. If they would get the workers to agree to the management proposals then they would not be sacked. This Carlsson insisted on reporting to a full factory meeting. The factory refused to make any deal of this sort. After this, both Carlsson and Mitchell were sacked.

It was now clear to everyone that the management’s only interest was in getting rid of the militants and then keeping the factory open. Soon after the sackings of Carlsson and Mitchell, they announced that ‘due to changed economic circumstances’ they would be keeping the factory open with a labour force of between 400 and 500. The workers who remained at ENV, however, stuck strongly to their earlier decisions and refused to make any concessions on pay or conditions. At the time of writing, eight months after the chairman and convenor were sacked, the management has still not succeeded in changing one agreement. The new ENV stewards, as we went to press, had just won back control over overtime at a Local Conference, where the management was forced to stand by the agreement that forces them to ask the shop stewards for permission before they could approach any worker to ask him to work overtime.

  1. Assessment of the Fight Against Closure

Once the ENV management had announced their intention of closing the factory, the problem that faced the shop stewards was that of finding some realistic way of opposing the management and carrying the men with them. It must be remembered that only a minority of the stewards – and an even smaller minority of the men – were convinced from the start that the management’s declaration of imminent closure was in fact a fraud. As we have seen, the men were already planning how they would spend their redundancy pay, and the stewards’ efforts to convince them that a strike would not affect their right to redundancy money were not entirely successful against a barrage of management propaganda.

In the period before the actual announcement of closure, the stewards, aware that a wholesale attack of some kind was about to be launched, followed a policy of ‘clearing the decks for action.’ They urged workers to settle outstanding departmental disputes in order to avoid giving management the opportunity to provoke a strike before they were ready or on an issue of management’s own choosing. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems perhaps that the management would not anyway have risked provoking a major stoppage at this stage, for they had not seriously begun to shift work from the Willesden factory elsewhere (indeed some sections of the factory remained busy throughout 1966 and 1967). At this stage it seems that the management’s hope was still that they would make some kind of breakthrough in the negotiations, through their attempt to divide the stewards from the rank and file by devices like the ballot. However one unfortunate result of the ‘clearing the decks’ policy was that some of the men, not fully realising the way that the management were shaping up for a major struggle, began to think that the stewards were ‘going soft’.

It has been suggested that during this period the stewards should have pursued a militant policy on all fronts and tried to secure a large-scale strike before the closure was announced, in order to keep the initiative. Some critics have condemned the ENV stewards for not turning the dispute into a major political campaign in the North London area. But this criticism ignores the current level of consciousness in the labour movement. Certainly any realistic review of .the movement’s experience over the past three years suggests that the formula, ‘incomes policy equals political struggle’ is quite wrong, over-simplified and Utopian. The campaigns which have been successful have depended on the presentation of issues in very low-level ‘trade union’ terms: the role of the State has been seen as an additional cause for working-class indignation, rather than as the central element in a larger pattern. Outsiders see only the abstract possibilities – down on the ground in North London, the real response of other workers looks quite different. Of course, this does not mean that every issue must be reduced to the lower common multiple. A campaign of solidarity must operate on at least two levels – aiming to rebuild, through activity in fragmented day-to-day struggles, a meaningful labour movement, and to re-group the existing militants and formulate a more coherent and revolutionary political programme.

If a campaign outside the factory was, in the concrete conditions of the moment, almost fruitless, the campaign among the workers within the factory was also difficult. For, although the stewards knew very well that a management offensive was imminent, it was not easy to communicate this general awareness to the men until the management showed its hand.

The actual announcement of closure quite seriously disoriented the stewards’ committee. For one thing, there seemed to be no precedent for this – how, after all, does one fight a closure? Furthermore, as we have already seen, it was only a minority of the stewards who believed that the management was bluffing. And in face of the management’s repeated insistence that it would be shutting up shop in Willesden (and for economic reasons not directly connected with the shop stewards) it was by no means easy to win the other stewards over to a realisation of the actual state of affairs. (We might add, too, that it is by no means impossible that if a more successful fight had been waged by the stewards the management would have closed the factory for a time.) The belief that the management were serious in their stated intentions was in fact not really dissipated until early 1967, by which time a number of stewards had already been ‘made redundant.’ It took the management’s offer of a ‘deal’ to Carlsson and Mitchell to convince even some of the most militant and ‘political’ spirits on the stewards’ committee.

Unless this background is understood, it is difficult to attempt a fair criticism of the policy of the leading stewards. They were, and through no fault of their own, faced with a situation of undoubted difficulty, being the only ones who saw even that a fight was necessary. There was by this time, it is true, an IS [International Socialists, pre-cursor organisation to the modern Socialist Workers party. Ed] factory branch with about 12 members, most of them stewards. This met fortnightly after work. But it would be a mistake to see this as a highly conscious organised group. Throughout the ‘fifties and early ‘sixties, Geoff Carlsson had been completely isolated politically in the factory. The bulk of the stewards had been members of the Communist Party or had accepted a Party lead, although disillusion had gradually been setting in. It was not until well into 1965 that it proved possible to recruit the militant stewards to IS. Inevitably, given the political histories of these comrades, the development of the branch had hardly begun when the attack came. In a very real sense, as one of the ex-CP stewards remarked, the IS branch ‘came too late.’ Partly as a result of this immaturity of the branch, the group did not act in a very organised way on the stewards’ committee.

Given the failure of their repeated attempts to get a majority of the workers voting for strike action (although the minority in favour grew steadily) the question that arises is whether a minority or departmental strike of some kind was possible. In the past, faced with different circumstances, the stewards had encouraged the development of a tradition at ENV of abiding always by majority decisions. This stress on factory democracy – by no means present in all ‘militant’ factories – was of course very valuable. This kind of democratic procedure is particularly well fitted to a situation where workers and stewards are on the offensive, for then the more advanced can afford to wait for the more backward to catch up. In a defensive struggle, whose terms are set by the management, however, an unwillingness to lead, even from a minority position, is a definite weakness. And it is on these grounds that we feel the ENV stewards were open to criticism.

In a real sense, the stewards lost the initiative. It is not for us, at this remove, to specify that on such and such an occasion they ought to have pursued a particular line of action. What we do feel, however, is that they should have done something. Various suggestions have been made, from a ‘sit-in’ by the militants to a departmental walk-out. And many ideas were discussed by the stewards, but in each case they seem to have weighed the advantages to such a degree that they partially paralysed themselves. They were – quite rightly – afraid of being ‘adventuristic,’ but adventurism is better than nothing. In a way, the stewards’ legitimate fear of substituting themselves for the majority of the workers was, we feel, carried too far. Action cannot be determined mechanically by the existing level of consciousness; a spark of action could, perhaps, have altered the workers’ consciousness too. The stewards had a large fund of goodwill that they could rely on, and they should have risked more than they did. At the most general level, they saw only that substitutionism was a danger, but did not see that the theory of substitutionism (with which IS has often been identified) implies no rejection of the need for leadership. [2]

Would they have been defeated anyway? Almost certainly. But for socialists and militants this is not the sole question. What was sad about the defeat at ENV was that it was so quiet. For the stewards to go down without a fight was to miss the opportunity to generate any kind of campaign that could assist in the further linking of the militants in the engineering industry. Even if for example the pickets on the Myton and Sunley sites in London go down in defeat (as seems sadly probable at the time of writing), other militants in the building industry will have gained from their struggle, and from the solidarity movement that was built around it.

At the same time, the extent of the failure should not be exaggerated. An employer can be defeated fifty times, and he will still be there. A stewards’ committee cannot survive one major defeat. And in no sense was it a ‘sell-out.’ No concessions were made to management. Even today, fifteen months after the management’s final attack began, none has been made. One worker, still at the factory in October 1967, was amazed at the very idea that there had been a defeat: ‘We’ve never given them anything!’

And the positive elements remain. For years ENV provided a powerful instance of the possibilities of strong factory organisation. And it was, in a very real sense, the centre of militancy in North London engineering. Its defeat, as other militants in the area recognise, was a serious loss. The memory of the years of the struggle at ENV will serve for some time to come as an example to all those who are involved in the struggle for workers’ control and a new socialist movement. The unhappy manner of the final defeat should not be allowed to obscure that.

Footnotes

  1. This kind of division among the Communist Party’s industrial membership in the engineering industry undoubtedly played an important part in the development of the later split in the Party’s ranks over the question of the AEU Presidential election, the Shop Stewards’ Defence Committee and ultimately the expulsion of Reg Birch from the Party.
  2. See T. Cliff, The Revolutionary Party and the Class: Trotsky on Substitutionism, IS 2, Autumn 1960.

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past tense note:

NB: Regarding the question raised in the final section, Assessment of the Fight Against Closure,how, after all, does one fight a closure?” it is interesting that at this point factory occupations by workers as an attempt to prevent closures had not yet come to the fore. Occupations were to be a major tactic in the 1970s and into the early 1980s. Here’s one account of such an occupation only five years after ENV, at Briant Colour Printing

Today in London festive history, 1996: Reclaim the Streets Re-Wild the M41 motorway, Shepherds Bush

1996 was proclaimed (by the car industry) “Year of the Car”.
Reclaim The Streets turned that into ‘the Year We Squatted a Motorway’.

July that year saw RTS mount what was probably their most ambitious and gloriously subversive action – squatting a stretch of motorway. The short M41 link in Shepherds Bush – the shortest motorway in England then – was turned into a party zone for an afternoon and evening. The sight of thousands of people running onto an empty motorway shut off by large tripods is an image that stays with you…

The M41 was a hangover from a previous era of uninhibited road-building in the 1960s, similar to (if not worse than) the early 90s program that had sparked RTS’s existence. This was the West Cross Route of the Ringways project, a plan to encircle the capital with concentric rings of motorway and dual carriageway, with radial motorways and links roads fanning out in various directions. Two major elements of the Ringways scheme got built – the M25 and the North Circular Road. The South Circular expansion got bogged down; so did the third and innermost proposal, the ‘Motorway Box’ which would have formed an ‘inner ring road’; this was to have meant the demolition of thousands of homes and the relocation of over 100,000 people. In the north of the city new eight-lane motorways on raised concrete pylons were to be erected through Dalston, Highbury, Camden, Canonbury, Kilburn, Shepherds Bush… The South Cross route of the new autobahns would have driven through Barnes, Balham, Battersea, Clapham, Brixton, Camberwell and Peckham to Kidbrooke and Greenwich.

The M41 was one of only two sections of the Ringways actually ever built (along with the A102 in East London) – massive popular opposition scuppered the rest. Locals in all the neighbourhoods threatened with mass demolition got together and fought the ringway proposals in the later 1960s and early 1970s. In 1971, opposition movements coalesced into the London Motorway Action Group. The massive economic cost and opposition eventually led to the vast majority of the ‘Motorway Box’ being shelved in 1973.

The Party

Following on from two successful street parties in 1995, Reclaim the Streets set their sights on taking over a motorway. 

Thousands of partygoers were invited to gather at Broadgate near Liverpool Street, on Saturday 13th July. “a good humoured crowd gathered in the sunshine, buzzing with anticipation, as a handful of baffled policemen did their best to look like they were in control of the situation.”

Leaflets were distributed asking people to “follow those with pink armbands” and to “expect the unexpected”. At 12.30pm word spread that it was time to go and a three hundred strong Critical Mass set off, while the main group, aided by undercover organisers, moved underground to the westbound Central Line. “A huge roar went up as the first of the ribbon holders was spotted heading into Liverpool Street tube station, quickly followed by the surging crowd. The sound and spectacle of a multitude of drummers echoing down the tiled corridors and a kaleidoscopic range of hair and face colours proved a little too much for a party of Japanese tourists who stood by the escalators, jaws wide open in stunned amazement. This wasn’t in the tourist book!”

Fourteen stops and six packed tube trains later the crowd emerged at Shepherds Bush; the party commuters emerged to see the entire Shepherds Bush roundabout completely gridlocked and the exit surrounded by police vans. The cops, who had merely watched to his point, blocked off the roundabout exit to the M41. Some people, thought this was the actual party site, and began dancing there.

“Some guy felt inspired to jump up and down on a traffic box stark naked, gesticulating wildly at the unamused massed ranks of officers. Unfortunately, further down the road some potential road ragers were frothing madly at the hold-up. I argued with some guy who was effin’ and blindin’ loudly from his huge shiny car.

After some debate he came up with the conclusion that he didn’t mind if he was held up because of traffic, but being held up by *people* was an absolute outrage!

The crowds continued to build to a soundtrack of drums and car horns (not all sympathetic) until we embarked on what could only be described as a military-esque pincer movement.

The mass split into two, one heading directly to the roundabout, the other slipping round the backstreets to meet up at the opposite entrance to the roundabout behind the police blockade.”

At the opposite end of the motorway the blockade crew, aware that people had arrived, went for it; outmanoeuvring police spotters, they ran onto the road, crashed  two cars to block the road, and quickly threw up three tripods across the southbound carriageway. At the foot of the convoy two sound system vehicles drove on, chased by dozens of cops on foot, who managed to surround the vehicles on the empty motorway.

“The drivers were pulled out and arrested by smug police officers, certain that they had stopped the party. But the police had under-estimated the creativity of the crowd. Hearing that the road had been taken people began finding alternative ways onto it. Like a river breaking through a dam, the trickle grew into a flood. One large group walked far around the police line, coming up from behind and simply running past it onto the street! Others found ways through back streets and climbed onto the road further up… At the blockade, those not already arrested had clambered onto the sound system trucks and witnessed the amazing sight of thousands of people running up the motorway towards them. Police faces dropped quickly and as the crowd neared they began backing off. The arm-twisted, quick-cuffed arrestees, on a nod from a sergeant were swiftly de-arrested… and the vehicles were soon swarmed with partygoers. The sides of the lorries were opened and the sound systems kicked off. The people roared. The party was on!”

Within ten minutes the whole road was completely jammed with (in the parlance of various Sections of the 1994 Criminal Justice Act) a ‘large number of persons pursuing a common purpose’, enjoying the space and freedom to dance to ‘repetitive beats’ and take in the glorious sunshine.

With the crowd invading one side and the tripods and cars on the other, both sides of the motorway were now taken over… people set about transforming the landscape. Huge banners were unfurled from lamp posts… A huge sun, colourful murals; while others proclaimed ‘Destroy Power!’ ‘Support the Tubeworkers’  [who were in dispute] and the old Situationist slogan: ‘The society that abolishes adventure, makes its own abolition the only adventure’… musicians, stalls, bands, street performers and sound systems started playing… kids played contentedly in the ton of sand that had been dumped in the road. Graffiti was painted all along the concrete walls on the side of the road…

“A struggle ensued when police tried to stop other decorations and equipment being brought in from a nearby estate. One van containing the p.a. rig for live bands was impounded, but once again, faced with an active crowd, the authority of the police dissolved.”

A complete living room was set up in the fast lane, with people relaxing on a selection of sofas, playing guitars and reading newspapers, while their dog slumbered on the rug..

“Three thirty foot ‘pantomime dames’ glided through the party throwing confetti. Food stalls gave away free stew and sandwiches; graffiti artists added colour to the tarmac; poets ranted from the railings; acoustic bands played and strolling players performed. The tripod sitters, isolated by a police line from the party, negotiated their inclusion and joined the mass of people. The police retreated to the ends of the road settling for re-directing traffic and arguing amongst themselves.”

Some 7,000 turned up – “as far as the eye could see there were people dancing on the road and crash barriers with DJs and sound systems doing it for love not lucre. This was rave music as it should be heard – defiant, proud, full-on and communal – without a bomber jacketed doorman in sight!”

“Despite the vibe being very friendly and totally peaceful, a few of the police (as ever) did their best to get themselves a ‘situation’ or two, using the old tactics of intimidation and confrontation.

I went up with a small posse of 15 to help out the guys sat on the tripods, and we found ourselves in the ludicrous situation of being surrounded by over 90 (yes ninety!) officers – including several officers from an armed response unit with a helicopter hovering above!”

At the height of the festivities, beneath the tall pantomime dame figures on stilts, dressed in huge farthingale Marie Antoinette skirts, people were at work with jackhammers, hacking in time to the techno, to mask the sound to the officers standing inches away, digging up the surface of the road until large craters littered the fast lane. Collectors were later seen comparing ‘chunks’ of motorway!” As far as I know a trade in ‘bits of the M41’ has never sprang up like the ‘bits of the Berlin Wall’ you can buy (I bet if you put them all together it’d be larger than the possible total concretage of the actual wall, like the bits of the true cross found in various catholic/orthodox churches….) Tree saplings – rescued from the path of the M11 link road – were then planted in the craters –

– quite simply brilliant, literally rewilding the motorway.

“As the sun set on an extraordinary day fires were lit on the road, litter was collected and the banners removed. The sound systems announced another free party elsewhere in London, then at 11pm the music went off, and the trucks drove off to the cheers of a grateful crowd.

For nearly ten hours the M41 vibrated, not to the repetitive roar of the car system, but to a human uprising; the living sound of a festival, and as one activist put it to a disgruntled copper, ‘Think yourself lucky, we could have gone anywhere: Buckingham Palace, Downing Street, thousands of people climbing up Parliament.’ “

The police later traced down two people who hired one of the drills used to dig up the road surface. One was visited in the early morning and arrested. After searching his house and confiscating some belongings, including teenage diaries (very embarrassing), police could not find the other “suspect.”

All this would be laughable, as neither of them actually did any digging.

On the same day, police visited the (tiny) office of Reclaim the Streets and took computers containing among other things, the data base… Luckily all important information had been encrypted.

Shortly after the M41 party, one Jim Sutton turned up and got involved in Reclaim The Streets, proving useful and practical, as he had a van he could shift gear in etc; always willing to drive here to there… Only his real name was Jim Boyling and he was an undercover policeman from the Met’s Special Demonstrations Squad (SDS), protege of previous spy opportunity Bob Lambert

Interestingly for spycops nerds to examine Jim’s record – even after his involvement, it looks like his intel was not really used to prevent actions, in common with a lot of other SDS and other infiltrators. It’s true that exposing an undercover in return for stopping actions like street parties might have been weighed up and someone supervising might have felt the continuing source of inside info more valuable than busting one day’s activities/disruption. Perhaps they were waiting for ‘more serious disruption’: though June 18th definitely comprised this… But also – this isn’t Line of Duty. The Met and their secret arms have their own distinct interests and strategies, and allowing odd days of street blockading, occupations, even more serious sabotage etc, can be employed as an argument for more resources, greater powers and so on. They are also not homogenous, and struggles over strategy occur within the police too. Jim did commit perjury in court, testifying in defence of arrested RTS activists, and went on to drive for activists involved in sabotage of genetically modified crops, as well as exploiting several women for sex and fathering two children. Ever so sadly exposure from former ‘partners’ and activists has led to him being sacked from the police for misconduct – an unusual act for the cops. But then his usefulness was long at an end, publicity was bad, and the police hierarchy will shaft officers on the ground, dump them without even a thought, even undercovers, in the wider interest of their own PR and continuing operations. Prospective spycops take note.

The West Cross Route/M41 was downgraded from motorway to an A-road in 2000… What a comedown…

Here’s a fascinating account of organising the M41 party:

“I have a pain in my stomach. As the fog of sleep gives way to daylight, dawn and the strangeness of someone else’s house are the first things of which I’m aware. I don’t want to remember why. But my memory, usually unfailingly bad, lets me down again. It’s strange, this morning has been the object of so much nervous pondering over the last six months. Will it be raining? How will the police intervene? Will I panic? Will we panic? And now, as future and present collide, it’s as if there never was a past, there had always only been this day. I’ll explain. There’s a group organising what we hope will be a massive illegal street party. We want to fire an arrow of hope and life into the heart of our dying city. We’re going to take back the M41, reclaim it, steal it back from the machine. But occupying a motorway is no easy business. You can’t just walk up saying, “Excuse me, could you go away, we’re going to have a street party here.” We’ve been planning this for about five months. Everything has been looked at in detail. Every possibility scrutinised and coordinated. Even the likelihood (certainty?) that we’ll miss something. Backups for mistakes, contingencies for backups. It’s our own Frankenstein’s monster. Our own Catch 22. Once we’ve realised it’s essential to stop, to back out, it’s become impossible to do so. This is the basic plan. The crowd meet up at Liverpool Street station, the meeting place we’ve advertised in advance. Then when there’s around two thousand people, they’re directed onto the tube by people in the crowd. Then they’re taken right across London to Shepherd’s Bush where they’re directed out of the station in groups of eight hundred, and onto the motorway. The basic plan is quite simple but it’s the smaller details that really hold it together. The crowd block the northbound traffic, but for technical reasons they can’t stop the southbound traffic. That’s our job. At exactly the same time as the crowd arrives at Shepherd’s Bush, we have to drive onto the south lane, block it (by crashing two cars together and putting up tripods), and drive trucks carrying the sound systems, bouncy castles, etc. onto the road to meet the crowd. I’m in the group driving the trucks from their secret location to two points. One about two miles away, and then on signal, to another one about quarter of a mile from the motorway. A short wait, one more phone call, and we drive onto the road, block it and unload all the gear. That’s the plan anyway. I make Andy some tea. I’m staying at his address because it’s one the police don’t know. We guess they might bust the main organisers the night or morning before the event. It sounds paranoid, but it turns out to be sound thinking. I leave the house on my bike around 9.00 am. I don’t exactly feel calm but I’m on automatic, I’m pre-programmed. It’s a beautiful day. The bleached blue of sky cuts strange shapes against the jumbled horizon of a city full of question marks. I hope we can answer, I hope we can pull this off. After half an hour I arrive at the factory, our secret rendezvous. A group of Spaniards are squatting it and holding parties every now and again. Ian, a man with siesta in his blood, has sniffed them out and for the last few weeks we’ve been storing equipment and practicing the erection of our fortyfoot tripod which is to be used for blocking the road. The Spaniards hung out, sitting cat-like in the sun, looking sexy and listening to weird mixes of Mozart and techno. I think they liked us, the way you might like a furry alien. We must have seemed strange. Coming in at all hours, dropping things off, being very secretive. Then we’d rush around the courtyard, putting up creaking tripods in minutes with military precision. Well almost. Sometimes the contrast was ridiculous. Their endless dreamy siestas, us charging up and down shouting and sweating. One morning we caught the tail end of one of their parties. There were about 20 Spaniards lying around tired and happily stoned listening to very ambient, end of party music. We were there in the courtyard putting the upper section of our tripod on for the first time. Twenty bodies melting into the furniture haphazardly strewn around, us 12 maniacally constructing. Just as we lifted the last 20 foot section into place, the DJ started playing a dramatic remix of the Space Odyssey 2001 soundtrack. I realised that they were willing us on, hoping we’d succeed in our bizarre project. It’s quiet when I arrive. The sound crew are in the warehouse. They’ve been packing the trucks all night and their techno sculpture is now complete. My arrival is greeted with tired hostility which turns to laughter when they realise it’s me. But it’s the laughter of people bemused, worried even. The sound system people treat us with some suspicion. It’s not surprising. Ask anyone from a rig what they do and their answer will be reasonably clear. Ask someone from RTS and the answer will be as clear as the Thames on a foggy night. Ours is the politics of the margins, the margins where words fear to tread. But a shaman needs an audience, a religious site, and they know that we’ll try our best to provide it. Soon the RTS road crew (yeah I know) arrive, and yet despite enjoying the feeling of comradeship, the feeling of purpose, this feels like the spinning point around which months of fantasy become a terrifying reality. The two trucks are parked behind each other in the bigger of the two warehouses. The front truck contains one sound-system and three tons of sand (a beach for the kids). The other truck has a huge sound system and four 20 foot tripods, which together make the 40 foot tower. After some last-minute running around looking for that crucial remix, petrol for the generators, and so on, everybody is on board. Two drivers, two co-drivers, and the sound crews happily hidden in the back with their systems. It’s one of life’s rarer moments. Everything’s organised, we’ve taken our responsibilities seriously, and everything is going to plan. I feel like I’m going to burst but there’s also a sense of calmness that preparation allows you. Dean and I are in the front tuck. Dean’s driving, the others are waiting for us to move off. “Shall we…?” I venture. “Give us the keys then.” “Oh yeah, the keys.” I am water. The plug has been pulled. I’ve forgotten the keys. I’VE FORGOTTEN THE FUCKING KEYS. The keys to the truck. The truck with the stuff. The truck in front of the other truck. The other truck with the rest of the stuff. The truck with the tripods for the blockade, the truck with the sound systems, the beach, the everyfuckingthing. Two trucks. Eight sad tons of useless metal. One small piece of brass, a shudder of electricity, compression and life. But the key, the key whose ninety degree shift gives meaning, is four miles away. I slip from a rigidity of shock to a catatonic nothingness. It takes half an hour to drive to Muswell Hill. We’ve got to be parked up in three quarters of an hour. Without these two trucks there will be no blockade, no sound systems, and probably no street party. People are getting out, wondering what the hold-up is. I’m sitting in the cab shaking, unable to move or speak properly. This event confirms all my most firmly held doubts about myself. That: (1) I am, and always have been stupid. (2) I am not worthy of love, friendship, or trust. (3) That I will have a miserable life. Dean is staring at me from the driving seat. His eyes say it all. I know he’s thinking that I’m totally stupid, utterly untrustworthy and deserving of a miserable life. People, having discovered what’s going on, are pacing the courtyard like a troop of headless chickens. I pull back into my vacated self and maniacally start scraping every pore of my bag in the forlorn hope that…. A woman arrives in the courtyard in her car. It’s an old Fiesta, which to us shines with the perverted curves of a sports car. Like zealots we explain our plight to this goddess of fortune. She hands us the keys and a ghost of sadness shadows her face as we leave in the car, that in a strange, human way she kind of loves. Turnpike Lane passes in a blur as we speed towards the Hill. Somehow we get to the flat in 15 minutes. I charge up to the top floor. There are the keys. I run back to the car, clenching the key in fearful grip, a tiny sliver of brass thawing the ice that has entered my body. Dean’s smile mirrors my relief, and we race back towards the factory, our fragile hopes of success alive again. We arrive at the factory ten minutes over the 30 minutes we had in hand. A phone call to Liverpool Street establishes that the crowd has started to gather. I ask them to give us an extra ten minutes to get in place. Now we have to drive the trucks across London, park up in a quiet industrial estate and wait for a phone call which tells us to move to a final pitch less than half a mile from the motorway. We drive across London, every now and then spotting a group of people obviously heading for the meeting place at Liverpool Street station. I’m too vain not to feel a sense of pride, and too scared for it to make me feel anything but more nervous. We join the Westway, which rises majestically out of the chaos like a giant silver-backed reptile winding over the city. I feel young, like a child on a great adventure, the blue skies echoing our new found mood. London seems to be waiting, almost conspiring with us, as if somehow it’s a living participant in the day’s events. We pull off the motorway and drive to our first pitch. The industrial estate is virtually deserted. A jumble of silent, blank warehouses. Our cars, which are to crash and block the road, are parked at the back of the estate. With the cars are the four people responsible for the block: Louise, John, Anna, and Beth. You can tell they’re nervous. You would be if you had to stage-crash a car on one of London’s crowded motorways. A tailback of a thousand overheated motorists and you caused it. On purpose. We’ve bought the two cars for 100 pounds each. Scrap on wheels and it shows. One has died on us. NO amount of mouth-to-exhaust can bring it back. Blocking the road with one car is going to be difficult. Luckily we have a backup car. I call Des, the driver, who starts heading over. Now it’s just a case of waiting and hoping. Waiting for the call to say “move”, hoping that Des arrives before the call. So, of flesh and beating hearts we wait among the silent and formless warehouses. People are out of the trucks and lolling about in the sun. The phone rings. “Pete, it’s Des. I’ve run out of fucking petrol.” Maybe it’s right and proper that a group who claim to be against car culture should be jinxed when it comes to using them. Anyway, we’re going to have to manage the road block with just one. These problems aside, I feel surprisingly confident. It feels like some kind of miracle to be in this nowhere place waiting to pounce. If we can get this far, anything is possible. Every now and then the mobile rings. Things are OK at Liverpool Street. The crowds have started moving off and are heading towards us on the tube. And we wait. I feel like we’re on some strange island, isolated from a world we can only dream of. And then this guy wanders over, wearing a big coat and black clothes to match his long black hair. He seems vaguely pissed or stoned or both. “So, what’s happening?” “Errh… nothing much.” I sound nervous as hell. “So, what’s in the trucks?” It may have been a casual inquiry, but it’s like someone has thrown a bucket of icy water over us. I’m staring at the others and trying to look relaxed at the same time. Lee tries to shake him off, “What’s up, what you doing down here?” “Oh, my truck’s broken down. I’m parked up round the corner. Is that a sound system in the back?” Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. This is getting stranger. I’m feeling panicky again. My next words sound hollow, “Yea we’re doing a party in Hampshire tonight, should be good.” He ignores my synthetic voice and carries on, “Oh right, did you hear about the Reclaim the Streets party?” The words hang in the air like branding irons. He mutters something indiscernable and wanders off, leaving us to our paranoia. Then, as if to balance things, Des arrives. He’d managed to hitch to the petrol station and back to the car in under 20 minutes. Recent strangeness is soon forgotten as we explain the practicalities of the road-block to our new arrival. The crowd is on the way. We wait some more. The mobile rings again. It’s John. “The first tube’s gone past Marble Arch!” Now we have to move to the final pitch. It’s only just down the road, but we want to be as close as possible when the final call comes, so we can time our arrival just right. The next parkup is next to a riding school squeezed in behind a block of flats. We pull up and park in a line next to some bushes. This time there’s no lolling about, no jokes, just the weight of our nervous anticipation. If the plan goes well we shouldn’t be here for more than five minutes. The mobiles are going mad. There’s a call from Dee, her gentle nervous voice sounding strange amongst the aggressive chaos. She says there are police vans crawling all over the location, but that her group is in place. She’s part of a group of ten hiding behind a wall next to the motorway. When our cars crash, we pull the trucks up next to the wall and they all jump over, get the tripods out and put them up. We thought the police might work out where we were going by looking at the map and the direction we were heading. Our hunch was that by the time they’d worked it out we’d be too close for it to make any difference. Still, their arrival is like salt water to our already flayed nerves. In the distance we can hear police sirens above the low grumble of traffic. What is usually the slightly annoying sound of somebody else’s problem, today strikes fear into our hearts. There are probably only two or three of them, but to us it sounds like thousands. Then Clive calls. Clive is the spotter at Shepherd’s Bush, who will give us the final go ahead. He tells me that there’s a thick line of police blocking the crowd in at Shepherd’s Bush and they can’t get through onto the motorway. His words crash through me like a vandal in a greenhouse. In the background I can hear the noises of the crowd. It almost sounds like the party’s started. I tell the others, a desperate gloom envelops us, and our collective mood shifts with the speed of a retreating tide. I have spent months telling myself that even if we failed it will have been worth it. I could never have carried on if I’d thought everything hung on success. Now I see I’ve been conning myself. I feel sick. Everyone looks crushed. Jim calls. “Pete is that you?” “Yeah, fuck’s sake what’s going on.” “We can’t get through. We’re going to have to have it at Shepherd’s Bush. You’ll have to go round the back.” Even through the electronic echo I can hear the tension in his voice. He knows as well as I do that Shepherd’s Bush is a dire location. A strip of dog-shit covered lawn squeezed between two hideous shopping parades. It seems pretty unlikely that we could drive through the police cordons, and even if we could, would it be worth it? How could all those coppers get there so quickly? Why can’t the crowd break through the cordon? The hopeless, pointless, questions of loss drown out my thoughts. A mood of desolation fills me like the first cold rains of winter. It’s over. We fought the law and the law won. Sitting there in that truck in the London sunshine with those people feels like the end of hope. We start looking at the A-Z trying to work out a back route to Shepherd’s Bush. There’s no enthusiasm, this is a job now. Jen calls. She was to call if things were going badly. This call signifies a last ditch attempt to rectify things. When Clive sees there’s no way through he calls Jen. She’s waiting at the nearest station. She runs down the tube and tells people coming from Liverpool Street that there’s no way through. They then get out and approach the motorway through some back streets. “There’s a hundred or so people heading down through the back route.” By this time a small group of us are gathered round the front truck, analyzing all the information as it arrives. Everyone looks at everyone else. Hope releases tiny vascular muscles and blood lights our pale faces. A straw is floating out there on the stormy waters. This is the moment the plan comes alive. It’s like the question of artificial intelligence. I viewed the plan a bit like that. It was so complicated (too complicated) and intricate that I felt it might develop a life of its own. For months we’d worked on it in meetings without end, a tangled mess which often threatened to pull us under. Now, on the day, the plan is boss. Dean takes the initiative. “Come on, let’s fucking go for it.” The change of mood is instantaneous. A recklessness born of desperation, grabbing at straws that can give us our dreams back. This is it. The beginning. It’s like being interviewed for a job you don’t want – you can take it easy. An action that can’t succeed. I feel almost relaxed. As the convoy pulls off I’m hit by a wave of guilt. We may well be consigning thousands of pounds worth of other people’s equipment to the scrap heap. Appallingly, I ignore these moral qualms – my sense of relief is too great. It will take us a couple of minutes to reach the location. I swing between elation, “Thank fuck we’re doing something,” and profound doubt, “We’re doing this because we can’t face not doing it, we should be going to Shepherd’s Bush.” The cab is silent. Too much emotion, too much tension, words, forget it, they come from another dimension. I realise I haven’t called Dee. With fingers of lead I fumble desperately with the mobile. “Dee, we’re on the way.” “Oh, OK. I think we’re ready.” She doesn’t sound confident. We circle the final roundabout which leads onto the M41. There’s a riot van waiting on the roundabout. My sense of fatalism sets like concrete. We drive past, followed by the two cars. We take the second exit and follow the gentle curve of the slip road onto the motorway, a black unflowing river, the motorway of dreams. The slip road is held aloft by giant concrete pillars. A thin concrete wall bounds each side; on the left behind the wall there’s a skateboard park and our twelve hidden activists. Behind us the cars are slowing down to block the traffic, they hit each other, stop, and the road is sealed. We pull up next to the skateboard park and jump out. The tripod team are scrambling over the wall to join us. Now things just become a frantic chaotic blur. As we heave the tripods out of the truck I can see coppers coming through the blocked traffic towards us. Three tripods are up within 45 seconds and we’re trying to join them together. It’s like trying to communicate in a gale, we can’t hear each other above the adrenaline. The others look at me for direction, but my map has blown off in the wind. Only Dee knows what’s going on but she can’t raise her voice above the din of maleness. People climb the tripods. Incredibly the road is blocked. I look round and see the M41 stretching away from us like a desert. Utterly empty. No thousands of people, no hundreds, no-one. In the distance I can see the two trucks parked up on the hard shoulder. They’re already surrounded by coppers and still no party goers have arrived. I don’t think any of us know why, but we just start running towards the trucks. We arrive and find that Carl from Express Sounds has managed to dodge the police and get to our side of the wall. He looks dazed and wanders about aimlessly. He’s probably just lost his sound system. Just over the wall the police are arresting people and rifling through the lorry cabs. On the one hand I recognise that the street party is probably over, deep down I’m bracing myself for the humiliation of failure. On the other hand we’re all clutching at every straw, filled with a belief that even now it might still be possible. We realise that we’ve got to get onto the truck roofs. The police will want to move them, but the longer we can keep them there the more the chance of the mythical crowd appearing. The police are concentrating on their conquest. Flushed with the joy of victory they fail to see us skulking just feet away on the other side of the wall. They’re already arresting the drivers and searching the trucks. We see a space, a lucky moment when their attention is distracted. We haul ourselves over the wall and launch ourselves at the trucks. As we begin climbing I’m struck by a trembling fear that some unseen hand will grab my leg. But the police are too slow and two of us find ourselves standing on the thin aluminium tops laughing with relief. The coppers have handcuffed the drivers and sound crews, more of them are arriving all the time. Three hundred and thirty yards to the south, a wall of police vans and cop infantry has formed what looks like an impenetrable barrier blocking access from the roundabout. Anyone who managed to get through the cordon outside the tube station would be faced by this. And then we see it, our mythical crowd, shimmering mirage-like at the roundabout. They’ve managed to get through at Shepherd’s Bush. Ian and I start jumping and screaming at the crowd, our hopes alive again. Then, like a giant beast stumbling, the police line falters, and somehow the smallest breach seems suddenly to threaten the stability of the whole. The faltering becomes panic, police vans drive madly all over the place, and then the crowd bursts through. At first a trickle, the odd person sprinting onto the silent tarmac beyond the police line. Then, with sheer determination and weight, the dam bursts and 3,000 people charge onto the waiting road. At this point I look down and see a senior police officer walk over to the people under arrest and pinned to the wall. “De-arrest them.” If he hadn’t, we would have. I almost feel sorry for him. Within moments what was empty motorway, hot strips of tarmac, utterly dead, is living and moving, an instant joyous celebration. It is our moment; everyone and everything seems incredibly and wonderfully alive. Seconds later a sound-system fires up and our fragile dashed hopes become resurrected in the certainty of the dancing crowd.
(‘Charlie Fourier’)

Watch M41 – the film

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For another view:

This is the text of a leaflet written for distribution at a 1996 Reclaim the Streets occupation of the M41 motorway, looking at the limitations of such occupations in the broader context of the capitalist restructuring occurring at the time.

Returning to Upper Street a week or two after July ’95 “Reclaim the Streets” was unsettling and strange. Heavy traffic now roared through the area where a children’s sandpit previously was and where a settee and carpet had been too.

Reclaim the Streets is a hundred times better than the average boring demo, trudging along between rows of cops to a “rally” where we’re talked at by no-hope politicians and union bureaucrats. By seizing territory and using it for our own purposes, our own party, it’s already a victory (whereas every union/Leftist campaign is already a defeat).

Still, Reclaim the Streets has its limitations, most obviously in time and space. The actions are usually strictly timed; the minority who held on after the official end last time were abandoned to our fate; a police riot. And it was bizarre the way in Islington last year diners carried on their meals outside Upper Street restaurants only a hundred metres from the blocked off street and police lines.

The use of space in the street party was highly imaginitive. The kids sandpit and grown-up’s settee in the middle of the road were a good bit of fun, demonstrating the opposition between rising traffic and human relaxation and play. The action was also one in the eye for the ‘radical’ left-wing Labour council of Islington, who try to make themselves real representatives of the local ‘citizens’. Still their attempts to do this don’t always go to plan.

At the anti-Poll tax demo at Islington town hall in early 1990 the council showed their direct democratic principles and closeness to their electors by miking up the council chamber and relaying the sound to a PA outside so anti-Poll tax demonstrators could hear the process of democracy. This backfired quite a bit though as what we could hear was the Mayor saying things like “Can the demonstrators in the public gallery stop throwing missiles into the council chamber”! Fuck their democracy and their pseudo-radicalism! We weren’t letting them screw the Poll tax on us! We were penned into a small area just outside the town hall, surrounded by cops. The first violence I saw was when a few youngsters (10 to 12 years) started throwing bottles at the cops. When the cops dived in to arrest them we couldn’t do much to save them, just throw a journalist in the cops way to try and slow them down. The main trouble started when the demo was breaking up. I didn’t see exactly what happened, but a mini-riot started and we were chased all the way from the town hall down to the Angel: to the exact spot where Reclaim the Streets was last year and where the cops started chasing us from, when that finished!

There is more to the conflict between state and protesters over roads than just a growing environmental consciousness. The expansion of the road network has been a key element in capitalist political strategy for over two decades.

The defeat of fascism, and victory for totalitarian democracy in the West, and Stalinism in the East, marked a new phase in capitalism. Both east and west did their best to integrate the proletariat (people without social power or social wealth) through high employment and a high social wage (unemployment benefit, free healthcare and education etc.). This strategy was always a bit creaky in the east with its weak capital, but in the west combined with consumerism it helped bring relative social peace through to the late 60s.

But even in the rich west, not every section of the proletariat could be bought off, even temporarily. The first break with the post-war deal came from sectors normally ignored by, and incomprehensible to, the workerist left. First of all came the struggles by blacks, including many of the poorest and oppressed amongst all proletarians. Then developed a new wave of women’s struggles. Certainly both of these had their contradictions; they took time to find their feet and also the racial or gender basis, rather than specifically proletarian, made them especially wide open to co-optation. But even so these were important struggles, the first thrashings of a waking giant. As the sixties progressed, struggles spread amongst students in many countries. After several days of rioting around the Sorbonne in Paris in ’68, these “marginal” struggles kicked off a weeks-long general strike and occupation movement with strong revolutionary overtones. This strike sent reverberations around the world, with related struggles echoing in Mexico, Italy, Poland, Britain, Portugal, Spain and many other places over the next few years.

These struggles shook capital to its foundation but never became an authentically internationalist revolutionary movement. Capitalism’s knee-jerk response was to move investment from areas of successful proletarian struggle to more placid zones (or more fascistic ones). This original “flight of capital” was quickly developed into a coherent strategy. Industries or industrial areas with strong traditions of struggle were deliberately run down. Mass unemployment was used to slash wages, including the social wage. This was blamed on “the recession” as if this was some natural disaster. Capitalist production was dispersed and internationalised so as to make any revival of proletarian class power more difficult.

This dispersal of production naturally leads to greater need for communication, transport and co-ordination between the different elements of production. This strategic attack has had a major effect on the composition of the proletariat. In the UK for example, since 1981 job cuts in mining and utilities have amounted to 442,000; in mineral and metal products 435,000; in transport 352,000; in construction 307,000. All cuts in traditional areas of class power. The biggest growth areas have been information technology with 916,000 more jobs; as well as social work with 450,000; hotel and restaurants 334,000; and education 247,000. The biggest cuts have been in traditional industry, the biggest growth in IT, connecting together the new dispersed production system. This reorganisation has been carried out with the deliberate aim of atomising our struggles. So instead of using efficient rail transport, the new model has relied instead on road transport with massive state investment in road programs. The use of road transport against class struggle became crystal clear at the News International dispute in Wapping in 1986. The typographers’ jobs were replaced by computer technology and the rest of the printers sacked and replaced by scabs. Up till then, the Sun and Times had been distributed using British Rail. But Rupert Murdoch knew he couldn’t rely on BR’s workers to distribute scab papers. Part of his winning strategy was to use his own fleet of lorries instead of rail transport. Part of our struggle against Murdoch was the blocking of roads around Wapping to try and prevent the papers getting out.

Road building is a conscious strategy of capital against proletarian struggle. Reclaim the Streets sits in a long line of struggles including Wapping, The Poll tax, even May ’68.

Capital’s strategy has undeniably been fairly effective. Workers struggles in Britain reached an historical low a couple of years back. Most workers’ struggles remain trade union style disputes in the ever diminishing state sector. The newer sectors of the workforce have yet to make any major collective struggle. For the workerist left, this is a truly depressing time. But the increasingly politicised struggles outside the workplace; the interlinked struggles of the anti-roads, anti-Job Seeker’s Allowance, anti-Criminal Justice Act etc., are much more than so called single issue campaigns. These struggles are consciously linked and determinedly expansive. Their effectiveness is certainly limited, compared to the potential of a wave of wildcat strikes or riots, but who can say that these struggles won’t play the same role as the struggles of the blacks’, women’s and students’ movements in the 60s; first skirmishes of a new revolutionary movement.

This is a version of a leaflet that was written in Summer 1996, for the ‘Reclaim the Streets’ party on/occupation of, the M41 motorway in West London, UK. For various reasons, the leaflet was not produced at that time. This slightly revised version is made available here as the comments on restructuring and recomposition have a continuing relevence.

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What the (undistributed) Antagonism leaflet said about roadbuilding is interesting – but also links in to some thoughts we recently had about the M41. Roads have not only been used to defeat workers’ struggles; they are also a massive source of capitalist accumulation, of profit in themselves. The roadbuilding program of the early-mid 1990s – the trigger for the rise of Reclaim the Streets – was a hugely profitable policy for some of the UK’s biggest companies. In the end it was defeated by resistance – from the myriad anti-roads campaigns, from Twyford Down, through Oxleas Wood to the M11 and on to Newbury; there were lots of defeats, but the fightback, in the end, forced the road lobby onto the back foot and the government to pull the plug.
It was the same in the 1970s – the Ringways project was delayed and cut back so long by campaigns against the various routes, that the economy eventually ran out of steam.

The planners of all these projects always thought that massive destruction and obliteration of inner-city communities, or bulldozing through woods and fields, would be easily achieved… Massive destruction and upheaval did devastate cities in the post-WW2 decades, furthering the work of wartime bombers: building of new estates and highways made cities that functioned for car use, but isolated people in environments that quickly fell into decay or became alienating and ghettoised.

Roadbuilding has also been used to simply destroy areas – to just evict and disperse people seen as troublesome, unprofitable, rebellious, or just too poor. Some of London’s main roads were driven though ‘rookeries’ and slums in the 19th century with the deliberate aim of removing the thousands who lived in them – making profit for the road builders and shaving pounds for the well-to-do ratepayers; although quite often the inhabitants simply ended up in more crowded slums nearby… 

Today the planners and developers need to be more subtle – the outcry when you bulldoze neighbourhoods is huge, so they do things on a smaller scale, usually now picking off council estates one by one. But added together, demolition and ‘regeneration’ are affecting hundreds of thousands of people across the city.

Campaigns against roadbuilding and the attendant destruction of older housing and communities in the 1970s, typified by the Ringway protests, were among the first stirrings of a stand against wholesale demolition in favour of conservation, but also of a human level grassroots sense of community asserting against hitherto all-powerful planners and politicians. Although sometimes voicing a kind of reactionary, anti-progress, middle class nimbyism, often in fact the campaigns were quite broad, if usually limited to the immediate rolling back of the project at hand. The 1990s anti-roads campaigns were similar, but transformed in one way, by the wandering eco-warriors who went from camp to camp, linking up one campaign with another, spreading and sharing experience and ideas.

Twenty years after the Ringways, Reclaim the Streets went out into the some of the same roads, with different and wider aims – to push for a redefinition of urban space itself, focussed on the road, and how it’s used, but looking to use the streets as a route to a bigger challenge – to capitalism and its control over our daily lives. If the anti-roads campaigns that RTS emerged from were mostly themselves defeated, the campaign itself was more eventually able to halt some of the government’s road expansion program. RTS’ challenge to capital was always going to be more difficult – it could only ever be the start of a conversation, a sharing of ideas and spreading of tactics.

We have written a little bit elsewhere comparing RTS and 2019’s Extinction Rebellion street demos and occupations, which echoed RTS while simultaneously large, and yet ideologically sometimes more hidebound. 2019 and XR now seem a long time ago! – what with virus lockdowns, Black Lives Matter, the last five months have seen first streets emptied – of cars, though not entirely of people, and then a resurgence of urgent street action against racism and violent racist policing, which we are still in the midst of. It would be interesting if the awareness of impending eco-disaster, the explosion of mutual aid covid-19 encouraged, the BLM movement, and the growing coming together of campaigners against gentrification and for a sustainable housing system, find common ground and common cause. Poignantly, as we partied on the M41, we danced in the shadow of Grenfell Tower…

Interestingly lockdown, and the partial relaxing of lockdown, have seen a re-colonisation of streets and urban space in some areas – less cars, more bikes, people sitting on the street; as pubs re-open and people ‘bubble up’ we’ve seen people sitting out in the roadway, on the steps, on the corners, again, in places where it had kinda died; it’ll be interesting to see if this continues. Can it be built on? There are lots of campaigns in many localities to re-design streets to reduce car use and encourage more human shared space; to reduce pollution and accidents as much as anything.

Taking over motorways is really fun – for me I will never forget the M41 party, and would love to repeat it. But I will always also remember seeing people sitting on the road in the street I lived in, during the Brixton RTS party two years later, when we’d closed the whole of central Brixton. Both felt brilliant, but the Brixton party was more direct to me – we’d taken over the streets I lived my daily life in, and showed the potential for our own areas… This is the true lesson of RTS for me, and the arena where change in roads and cars, the future, capital, work, play, locality and life can be effected, on a daily level.

But every once in a while, you also have to squat a motorway and plant some trees in the tarmac…

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One of the biggest local victories against roadbuilding in the 1990s was the abandonment of the planned East London River Crossing – however, a new plan in the same area is being fought now in Silvertown.

Here’s an Archive of Reclaim The Streets parties (not by any means complete) 

 

 

Today in London’s anti-racist history, 1981: Southall youth burn down the Hamborough pub after racist skinhead provovations

On Friday 3 July 1981, several ‘Oi’ (streetpunk) bands were set to play a gig in Southall, an area of west London with a large South Asian population. The line up at Southall’s Hambrough Tavern included the 4-Skins, The Last Resort and The Business. Oi may not itself have been a solely fascist movement, for sure, not all its bands and adherents were racist. It was quite distinct from the White Power music scene around bands like Skrewdriver. But gigs by Oi bands did often attract skinheads with neo-nazi sympathies, and their presence in an area like Southall was asking for trouble. (The 4-Skins in particular had close links to nazi groups like the British Movement).

Southall was one of the most racially diverse areas in London: in five wards surveyed in 1976, 46 per cent of the population had been born in the Commonwealth: many were Sikhs from the Punjab.

This was an area where racists attacks had taken place: in 1976 a National Front-inspired gang had stabbed teenager Gurdip Singh Chaggar in Southall, prompting the formation of the Southall Youth Movement. After the killing, Kingsley Read of the National Party was quoted as having remarked, ‘One down – a million to go’. Chaggar’s killers were never convicted. The failure of the state to take action gave the later events at Southall their edge. The widespread belief that the police were generally sympathetic to the National Front, and institutionally (and in many cases personally) racist, was heavily reinforced in April 1979, when 1000s of police swarmed the area to protect a National Front election meeting. 100s of the demonstrators who came to protest the NF provocation were battered by the Met’s paramilitary Special Patrol Group, and anti-racist teacher Blair Peach was killed when police hit him over head. After the killing, a whitewashed inquest covered up evidence of police involvement, and a report which found a wide range of racist and fascist sympathies among the SPG officers – and identified the officers suspected of killing Peach – was suppressed (until 2010).

Rage in Southall was matched only by the solidarity of youth in the area. They knew police would not defend them against racists. One incident which particularly angered young Asians in Southall was an attack on Satwinder Sondh, by three white racists who carved swastikas on his stomach. The police did not believe the victim and charged him with wasting police time. Racism had been institutionalised in Southall Police Station for years.

The Southall Youth Movement formed in 1976, emerging from a meeting at the Southall Dominion theatre the day after Gurdip Singh Chaggar’s murder, where various groups of local youth came together in anger.

For the background to the Asian youth’s anger against racism – watch Young Rebels – The Story of the Southall Youth Movement – a great film made by Southall young people more recently interviewing people involved in the events of the 1970s and 1980s. Many of those who formed SYM had experienced ‘bussing’ in the early 1970s- Asian schoolchildren from Southall were transferred to schools across the borough of Ealing, dispersed after protests from white parents. Most were sent on coaches every day to school where they would be the only Asian child or one of a few, and all faced racist attacks and abuse on daily basis. School, police, authorities, did nothing. Many of their parents were keen to keep their heads down, not cause or attract trouble, to respect authority – a theme that emerges was youth feeling their parents had accepted racism and violence, but that they were not going to knuckle under…

The Southall youth organised self-defence and kept their memories sharp. So, when in early July ‘81, reports of racist incidents involving skinheads heading to the gig in the Hambrough spread through Southall, the youth quickly took to the streets.

The Hambrough landlord had helpfully warned shopkeepers near the venue that racist skins were coming and they might want to close up early. However, when one went to the police his warnings were ignored… Busloads of Skins on their way to the pub arrived in the area all day{ they harassed people, shouted NF slogans, smashed windows of Asian shops, abused an Asian shopkeeper, and kicked an Asian woman and threw a shopping trolley at her. This kind of racist provocation was routine in many areas with Black and Asian populations in the 1970s and early 80s. This time, though, the racists would not get it all their own way.

An angry crowd gathered and marched on the Hambrough. The police formed a cordon around the pub, protecting the skins (many of who  were sieg heiling and shouting abuse) and tried to disperse the ant-racist crowd by using truncheons on them. Petrol bombs were thrown and the pub was set on fire.

The police then herded the skins out towards Hayes, barricading the route behind them to prevent further attacks on them, but allowing many to fan out into the area and carry ut random attacks on Black and Asian people. Police also harassed and arrested passers-by.

A running fight between police and the angry local youth ensued. Cars and police vehicles were overturned, and a police coach was burnt out. Walls were demolished to provide bricks for ammunition. 61 policemen were injured and at least as many civilians; there were 70 arrests, 68 of black or asian people.

There’s some footage of the riot on youtube in the course of an old documentary about Oi

After the riot, police said they had no evidence that the white youths were members of the National Front, but locals begged to differ:

“The skinheads were wearing National Front gear, swastikas everywhere, and National Front written on their jackets,” said a spokesman for the Southall Youth Association. “They sheltered behind the police barricades and threw stones at the crowd. Instead of arresting them, the police just pushed them back. It’s not surprising people started to retaliate.”

The police claimed later they had been tipped off that there would be racial violence in West London, but their informant sent them to Greenford instead, two miles away. (Wonder if the tip off was deliberately misleading? And who was the informant? A copper with NF links? An – as yet unexposed – Special Demonstration Squad undercover officer embedded in the nazis?) Conveniently leaving the area free for skins to rampage?

The morning after the riot, some 6,000 people from Southall gathered around the ruins of the pub. “It became a shrine for the Asian community,” said Borough Councillor Shambhu Gupta…

The week of the Hambrough riot saw riots sweep across the UK, from Liverpool, to Brixton, Hackney, and many other parts of London and elsewhere… here’s a commentary on the 1981 riots written shortly afterwards: Like a Summer with 1000 Julys

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In the aftermath of the Hambrough incident, the Oi band the 4-Skins struggled to book gigs – understandably! – which contributed to their breakup in 1984. Some enlightening (?) debate can be read here on whether they were a racist band…

Here’s also a post linking to an article on the reggae and punk scene in Southall and its involvement in anti-racist movements.

There’s some photos of anti-racist demos in Southall here

Today in London’s sporting history, 1837: protestors invade the Kensington Hippodrome to re-open a blocked footpath

“From the most distant part of the metropolis they can ride in the omnibus, for sixpence, to the Hippodrome…’

“As long as the off-scourings of Kensington and its neighbourhood, backed by the redoubtable vestry of that parish, are allowed to intrude themselves into the grounds, it would seem that a much larger attendance of the police were absolutely indispensable.” (The Times)

The Kensington Hippodrome was a racecourse built in Notting Hill, London, in 1837, by entrepreneur John Whyte, who leased 140 acres (0.57 km2) of land from James Weller Ladbroke, owner of the Ladbroke Estate, who was in the process of developing much of his lands for housing. Whyte then enclosed “the slopes of Notting Hill and the meadows west of Westbourne Grove” with a 7-foot (2.1 m) high wooden fence.

The area bounded by the Portobello and Pottery lanes was laid out with 3 circular tracks; a steeplechase, a flat racecourse, and a pony and trap course; and was also to be used for training, ‘shooting with bow and arrow at the popinjay, cricketing, revels and public amusements.’ The stables and paddocks were situated alongside Pottery Lane.
The Notting Hill grassy knoll (where St John’s church now stands) was railed in as a “natural grandstand”, from which spectators could watch the races. The main public entrance was situated in Portobello Lane, at the point where Kensington Park Road now joins Pembridge Road, and through a gate at the end of Ladbroke Terrace, corresponding with the present gate into Ladbroke Square Garden.

[Interestingly, the southernmost section of the racecourse must have been built on or very close to what had been Kensington Gravel pits (which lay just to the north of modern Holland Park Tube to the west of Ladbroke Grove), where gravel was previously dug for road-laying, and also a sometime meeting place – in 1786/7: London bookbinders met there to plan a strike to try to get their 84-hour working week reduced…]

Whyte’s race course was an ambitious venture, his intention being to build a rival to the well established race courses of Epsom and Ascot. When the Hippodrome opened, Sporting magazine’s correspondent described it as “the most perfect race-course I have ever seen”, ” a racing emporium more extensive and attractive than Ascot or Epsom. . . . An enterprise which must prosper. . . . It is without competitor, and it is open to the fertilization of many sources of profit. . . . A necessary of London life, of the absolute need of which we were not aware until the possession of it taught us its permanent value.” It is stated to be eminently suitable for horse exercise especially ” for females,” for whom ” it is without the danger or exposure of the parks,” whilst the view from the centre is ” as spacious and enchanting as that from Richmond Hill, and where almost the only thing that you cannot see is London.”

The Hippodrome opened ‘under promising auspices’ on June 3 1837. ‘Splendid equipages’ and ‘gay marquees, with all their flaunting accompaniments, covered the hill, filled with all the good things of this life.’ The Sporting Magazine reporter prophetically summed up the first meeting and the area’s future with: “Another year, I cannot doubt, is destined to see it rank among the most favourite and favoured of all the metropolitan rendezvous, both for public and private recreation.” There were no drinking or gambling booths, and the prices charged were ‘strictly moderate’. Among the stewards were such ” dandies ” and leaders of society as Lord Chesterfield and Count D’Orsay.

But other reviews were less favourable; in one the horses were described as ‘animated dogs’ meat.’ The Times described the racetrack as a “disgusting … petty botheration” and cried “shame upon the people of Kensington” for permitting it.

For a (very) short while, the Hippodrome seemed on course to become a popular destination, a cross between Aintree and Glastonbury…

But, just as with Glastonbury back in its heyday, lots of people objected to paying to get in, and found other ways in – over, or through, the fence.

There had been some vocal opposition to the erecting of the racetrack ,some of which at least seems to have been based on the loss of open fields and public rights of way. A public footpath went straight through the land enclosed by Whyte’s fences. The path led from the present junction of St. Mark’s Road and Cambridge Gardens, running south-easterly, crossing the hill by the curve of Stanley Crescent and descended to Uxbridge Road by Ladbroke Place, as the north end of Ladbroke Grove was called then. Described as a ” public road ” in 1820, it led through the farmyard of Notting Hill Farm and communicated with Kensington by Lord Holland’s Lane. This right of way gave people a good legal argument for ignoring the fence, and would lead to the parish officials from Kensington Vestry getting involved…

There was also opposition to the Hippodrome on moral grounds  – racing directly encouraged gambling, and indirectly encouraged drinking, smoking, indecent behaviour and probably also riotousness… The temperance and moral reforming opinion of the day was that opening a racecourse was a green light to sin.

The racetrack bordered on the “Potteries and Piggeries” of Pottery Lane, at that Point then a notorious slum known as “cut-throat lane”, where a spot of mugging wasn’t unknown. Many of its inhabitants were skint and had a loose respect for entry fees. The footpath also allowed people to avoid walking down ‘Cut-Throat Lane’, so blocking it off also annoyed a more respectable demographic…

The opening day, June 3rd, saw a mass crowd invasion through a hole in the fence. Locals cut the hole through the paling, with hatchets and saws, where it blocked the public footpath to Notting Barns farm. Of the 12 to 14,000 in attendance, it was estimated that most hadn’t paid: “some thousands thus obtained gratuitous admission.” These “unappealing visitors”, accustomed to “villainous activities” were at least in part not the class of customers that John Whyte had in mind. The Times correspondent complained of “the dirty and dissolute vagabonds of London, a more filthy and disgusting crew … we have seldom had the misfortune to encounter.”

Whyte had the hole blocked up the hole with clay and turf: but if he thought that would end the matter, he would soon think again. By this point, either the invaders had never quite been as disreputable as the Times made out, or the blocking of the footpath and unwillingness to pay to get into the Hippodrome had spread to higher castes in the parish, as parish officials now got involved.

On June 17th 1837, “local inhabitants and labourers, led by the parish surveyor and accompanied by the police”, asserted their rights to walk the footpath, taking the form of Beating the Bounds – the traditional ceremony of walking parish boundaries and marking them every year, a practical task that had over time assumed a ritual role, and was often used to note down or demolish unsanctioned enclosures, buildings or attempts to move borders and fences.

The officials may have been co-opted by a crowd, or acted out of strict respect for parish rights. In any case, they re-opened the traditional footpath, by reinstating the original entrance hole, and knocking another hole in the fence on the other side of the racetrack to make a northern exit. Once this was achieved, these community activists gathered on Notting Hill to give three loud cheers for the parish of Kensington. It was noted that the crowd was a mix of the ‘righteous’ and the ‘unrighteous’: the footpath protestors “seem as a rule to have been orderly enough, but gipsies, prigs (thieves) and hawkers did not neglect the opportunity of mingling with the nobility and gentry.” As with many gardens and parks, the exclusion of the undeserving poor was a must. For lots of the local poor, the beating of the parish bounds offered a chance to cock a snook at the respectable and enjoy the sport for free…

The involvement of parish officials in maintaining the rights of way and preventing or removing what they could prove were illegal enclosures or encroachments on parish land and parochial rights may seem surprising when harnessed to invasion of the racecourse. However, this is far from a unique event – from the early days of enclosure parish busybodies were in fact heavily involved in ruling some enclosures illegal, even in actively tearing them down. The local disputes over private individuals fencing off land or blocking traditional paths and routes in their own interest led to continual splits in local bodies – not all the worthies were in favour of such landgrabs, either due to actual principled stands, local rivalries, or in some cases pedantic insistence on statute and local bylaw. Check out this enclosure battle from nearby Westminster in 1592.
And similarly, a local vicar was involved in the Richmond Park trespass in 1751.

The Times, already heavily prejudiced against the opening of the racecourse, was further enraged by the involvement of the parish officers in this action:

“The great annoyance experienced by the respectable company at the Hippodrome, from the ingress of blackguards who enter by the ‘right of way’, ought, at once, to convince the Kensington people of the impolicy, as well as the injustice of the steps they have taken in reference to this ground… The very urchins who were made the instruments of this piece of contemptible parochial tyranny, will, in after life, blush for the action. We allude to the little boys who accompanied the beadles and ‘old women’, in beating the boundaries of the parish. The reckless injury occasioned to the property, perhaps, is a minor consideration, when compared with the inconvenience attendant now upon the impossibility of keeping out any ruffian or thief who may claim his ‘right of way’ on the footpath… shame upon the people of Kensington!’”  (The Times, 1837)

The Times also reported somewhat inconsistently on the 4th Hippodrome meeting: “It is true that a large portion of the assemblage consisted of the dirty and dissolute, to whom the disputed path affords a means of ingress; but there was still a sufficient muster of the gay and fashionable to assure the proprietor that a purveyor of manly national sports will find no lack of powerful and flattering support from the largest and richest metropolis in the world… As long as the off-scourings of Kensington and its neighbourhood, backed by the redoubtable vestry of that parish, are allowed to intrude themselves into the grounds, it would seem that a much larger attendance of the police were absolutely indispensable.”

Local feeling was still very much against the racecourse. Petitions to close it were circulated, the Kensington Vestry asked Parliament for the closure of the racecourse, and the question was discussed by the Court of King’s Bench and before Parliament.

In order to pacify both the moral opposition and the local roughs, Mr. Whyte and his business partners promised to reform certain evils on the premises, and to admit the public free on Sundays, and for a charge of twopence on certain holidays. However, the moral reformers saw the latter proposal as a desecration of the Sabbath, when they thought no sport should take place at all. Although there restrictions on gambling and drinking within the Hippodrome, it merely took place instead in nearby “gambling houses, gin-shops, beerhouses, etc.,” which had increased in number, attracting all sorts of undesirables, “the scum and offal of London assembled in the peaceful hamlet of Notting Hill.”
Reminding us of the local middle class petitions against Camberwell Fair and other annual shindigs.

A year later the pathway was fenced off by an iron railing. But before the beginning of the 1839 racing season, Mr. Whyte gave up the contest and abandoned occupation of the eastern half of ‘Hippodrome Park’, which included the disputed pathway. However, the race-course was extended to the north-west, just avoiding the footpath from Wormwood Scrubs, (now St. Quintin Avenue). The Park became a bulb-shaped piece of land which reached as far as Latimer Road, and the race-course formed a loop on the western side of the training ground.

Portobello Lane was now connected by road with a new entrance on the top of the hill. (Part of this road was unearthed when a potato patch was made in Ladbroke Square Garden in 1916.) As part of this new extension, the old public way from Notting Barns to Uxbridge Road seems to have been cut through and done away with without any protest.

Apart from losing income to ‘trespassers’ and now having pissed off the parish sticklers for probity, Whyte had other serious problems, however. The next scheduled race-meeting had to be suddenly relinquished on account of the death of William IV on 20th June 1837. The sale of the royal stud after the king’s death was also a serious blow to horse-racing in general.

The ground was also shifting beneath Whyte’s feet… Heavy clay soil was characteristic of the neighbourhood, which was how the neighbouring Potteries had evolved – high quality clay was dug for brick making at Pottery Lane. This made for poor drainage, which meant the training ground became regularly waterlogged and was unusable for long periods. From 1837 to 1842 just 13 race meetings were held, with many jockeys refusing to take part, saying that the heavy clay ground made riding too dangerous.

A drawing by Kathleen McIlvenna showing the racecourse superimposed upon a modern street plan.

Two stewards of the Hippodrome, Lord Chesterfield and Count D’Orsay, attempted to improve the deteriorating image of the racecourse by changing its name to “Victoria Park, Bayswater”, after the new Queen Victoria. But in order to pay for the extensive alterations the charges for admission had to be doubled. Pedestrians paid two and sixpence instead of one shilling, and a four-wheeled carriage cost ten shillings instead of five.

However, the Hippodrome continued to haemorrhage money, and in 1842 Whyte gave up the struggle, and relinquished his lease back to James Weller Ladbroke. The summit of the hill quickly reverted to open country. Shortly thereafter Ladbroke resumed the development of the Ladbroke Estate, building crescents of houses on Whyte’s circular race track.

 

 

A Shabby London Suburb? A walk around the radical & working class history of Hammersmith

This walk was originally researched and drawn up by members of the West London Anarchists & Radicals group (since defunct), who guided about 30 people around the walk on Friday 3 May 2002. The walk was part of the Mayday Festival of Alternatives. The walk lasted about two hours and at the end we finished off with a few pints in one of Hammersmith’s oldest pubs, the Dove. The walk has been retrodden several times since.
Some additional information has been added by interested mudlarks with permission of the walk’s original architects.  

To contact the authors of the walk, email: hornet955@yahoo.co.uk

START: Hammersmith Tube Station

The most famous revolutionary in Hammersmith was William Morris, who we will encounter many times, but there is much more to our local radical history than Morris. For example, Hammersmith was a stronghold of the National Union of the Working Classes in the early 1830s; local NUWC ‘classes’ met at the Perseverance Tavern. Meetings were held here, as in other working class areas, in the lead up to the Battle of Coldbath Fields, where radicals fought a pitched battle with police in Clerkenwell. Later the local branch of the Chartist movement met a short distance from here in Hammersmith Road, many times between 1842 and 1848. Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor also lived in King Street in 1837.

Walk up Shepherds Bush Road to old Hammersmith Palais

Hammersmith Palais: The building was originally a roller skating rink and opened as the Palais in 1919. It was an important place of working class entertainment as a popular dance venue. You will no doubt remember it from the Clash song White Man in the Hammersmith Palais’. The Clash were closely associated with West London, the members of the band all living locally. The Palais closed a few years ago in dubious circumstances when the owners wanted to convert it to offices. When it was reopened and renamed Poo Na Na, the original sign was presented to a bemused Joe Strummer, lead singer of the Clash. It later reverted to its old name; but the Palais was demolished in 2012. The Fall played the last ever gig. When the then Tory Council gave permission for closure and demolition, radio DJ Robert Elms, whose parents met at the Palais, said “It’s all about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing”. Private student accommodation now stands on the site.

Hammersmith Police Station (Just up Shepherds Bush Road to north.) The police station is notorious. On Christmas Eve 1990 the cops rounded up lots of Irish men for being drunk. One prisoner, Patrick Quinn, was killed in the cells by the cops, who then framed another prisoner present in the cells, fellow Irishman Malcolm Kennedy, for his murder. It took Malcolm years to clear his name.

In the late 1950s, the area between Hammersmith and Notting Hill was, at the best of times, a violent playground for gangs. Leaving aside the local warriors, it was handy for Teds from Fulham, Battersea and Elephant and Castle in the south-east who would come over for a skirmish. Violence between the various factions, the police and any unfortunate bystanders was endemic. In 1958 several policemen were injured in Hammersmith when they went to deal with a crowd of youths who were ‘creating a public nuisance’ in Fulham Palace Road.

Up Shepherds Bush Road, at no 190, was for years the old Hammersmith and Fulham Unemployed Workers Centre. Sadly now shut.

Look towards Brook Green

Brook Green was the site of St Pauls School for posh girls. The school had to stop using the public baths in 1908 as the local bad boys of Hammersmith pulled their pigtails.

Dick Turpin was known to frequent the Queens Head pub (in which you can still enjoy a pint).

Brook Green Fair: This annual event was banned in the 1820s, when such rowdy gatherings were being suppressed as they terrified the authorities and upset religious reformers because of the explosion of sex and drink that accompanied them. They also were annoying the middle classes who were colonising the villages near London to escape the Smoke.

In the 1930s Hammersmith Council planned a grand new Town Hall in the middle of Brook Green; locals protested so much they built it in King Street instead.

Look towards Hammersmith Flyover: The flyover was built in 1966-70. There were protests at the opening from nearby residents, over the traffic noise. They demanded to be rehoused.

As you walk back through Hammersmith Broadway look to your left. Here you will see the building that in the 1980s housed the offices of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) Support Group. The ALF are the militant wing of the animal rights movement, best known for freeing animals from laboratories.

There was trouble on the Broadway in the 1926 General Strike. On 6th May TUC HQ sent a panicked letter after receiving reports of a  “bad riot at Hammersmith outside OMS HQ. it is said stones were thrown and police used batons.” It seems “buses were stopped near the station, and various parts removed by the strikers. When some of the buses returned at 8.30 pm some of the occupants began to jeer at the crowd some of which became angry and boarded some buses roughly handling the drivers and conductors one of whom was badly injured” (shame). “Local fascists began to throw stones from a building near by. Later the police made a charge using their batons, and arrested forty three people only one of which was a trade unionist and he was released owing to a mistake being made.”

A People’s Plaque Remembering the battles here during the General Strike was left, guerilla-style, as near to the spot as we could. this was a laminated poster cable-tied to a lamp-post… More permanent plaques – one day…?

Shortly after this time the local National Unemployed Workers Movement branch was campaigning over the means test & the dole. The NUWM branch had 1200 members here in 1931.

Walk up Beadon Road into the square

Where Turners Florists stands was the site of the Hammersmith bookshop from 1948 -1964, which was the supplier of revolutionary and radical publications. A plaque now marks the spot.

William Morris

William Morris moved to Hammersmith in 1878, when he was already well established as a designer. In 1883 he joined Henry M. Hyndman’s Marxian Democratic Federation (later the Social Democratic Federation, or SDF). Hyndman was known by the derogatory nickname ‘socialist in a top hat’. Morris (along with others) broke with the SDF in 1884 and formed the Socialist League. In a letter dated 1st January 1885 Morris complained of Hyndman’s jingoism and sneers at foreigners, pointing out that the SDF would at best bring about a kind of Bismarckian State Socialism. He said: “I cannot stand all this, it is not what I mean by socialism either in aim or in means; I want a real revolution, a real change in Society: Society a great organic mass of well regulated forces used for the bringing about a happy life for all”.

Morris is perhaps better known today as a designer of wallpaper, but he was an important revolutionary whose view of the transformation to communism was strongly influenced by the Paris Commune. He was anti-parliamentary at a time when only the anarchists supported such views. Indeed this was to become the reason for the split in the Socialist League. For the election in November 1885 the League issued a leaflet entitled “For Whom Shall we Vote”, which concluded by urging “do not vote at all”. Two thirds of the electorate usually take his advice! Instead the leaflet explained that “the time will come when you will step in and claim your place and become the new born society of the world”. Morris combined this outlook with distaste for politicians.

We are now standing at one of the places where William Morris spoke at open-air meetings (at an intersection north of the underground). For example on 17th April 1887 his diary records “meeting fair, also a good one at Walham Green [which is in Fulham] and at our room in the evening where I lectured”. Speaking at three meetings in a single day was common for Morris at this time.

Morris speaking

In April 1886 Morris spoke there ‘at the back of the Liberal Club’, in February 1887 the local socialists started meeting there regularly. For February 7th 1887, Morris’s diary reads: “I spoke there alone for about an hour, and a very fair audience (for the place which is out of the [way]) gathered curiously quickly; a comrade counted a hundred at most. This audience characteristic of small open air meetings also quite mixed, from labourers on their Sunday lounge to ‘respectable’ people coming from church; the latter inclined to grin, the working men listening attentively trying to understand, but mostly failing to do so: a fair cheer when I ended, of course led by the three or four branch members present.”

The William Morris pub is a recent addition, replacing a market. Inside you can see pictures of the Socialist League and examples of Morris’s designs.

One cause the Hammersmith Social Democratic Federation branch supported locally before the split was that of the local costermongers (poor street traders), in 1884, after the Board of Works threatened to ban the sellers from their kerbsite market…With help from the local SDF branch they resisted. Hammersmith costermongers were eventually forced to move by King Street shopkeepers in 1886, who feared competition. They resettled in North End Road, Fulham, which still has a cheap shopping ethos today.

Walk around the corner into Beadon Road:

On the morning of 23 September 1996 Diarmuid O’Neill, an alleged IRA member, was shot dead by the cops. He was unarmed and no weapons or explosives were found on the premises. Diarmuid was shot a total of six times and as he lay bleeding to death a police officer stood on his head. With blood pouring from him he was dragged down the steps of the house to the street. Just before Diarmuid was shot, another cop was heard to shout, “shoot the fucker”. The blood was left for 2 days as a reminder to us locals.

James Tochatti

Probably here, near the approach to the Hammersmith & City Line station, stood Carmagnole House, (sometimes described as being on ‘Railway Approach’, sometimes called 7 Beadon Road). James Tochatti lived here. Born in Canada, he became a tailor, and lifelong anarchist-communist activist and lecturer (as well as writing two plays about anarchist life!). A member of the local Socialist League branch from 1886, Tochatti spoke regularly at their outdoor meetings, and wrote for Commonweal. In 1889 he helped to organise a strike at Thorneycroft’s engineering factory in Fulham, and in 1891 was arrested for causing a ‘disturbance’ at a United Shop Assistants union strike… He remained in the Socialist League after Morris and the Hammersmith Socialist Society departed, and was involved in a Hammersmith Anarchist group around 1892. Despite the Hammersmith Socialist Society’s split from the Socialist League, Tochatti remained in close contact with Morris and the Society locally. He seems to have been closer in some ways to Morris than some of his fellow anarchists in the League, disagreeing with ‘propaganda by the deed’ (the current anarchist vogue for individual bombings and attacks against state and bourgeois targets). Tochatti started a new anarchist paper, Liberty, in January 1894, partly because of unease at the incendiary line Commonweal was taking. Despite his reservations about propaganda by the deed, in April ’94 The Liberty group organised a defence campaign for a French anarchist, Theodule Meunier, who had been arrested & was awaiting extradition to France for a bombing, but Meunier was deported & sentenced to life imprisonment. Liberty attempted to maintain a dialogue between anarchists, anti-parliamentary socialists & libertarians in groups like the Independent Labour Party – at a time when divisions between these wings of the socialist scene were increasing. Sadly, Tochatti’s ill-health led to the paper’s collapse in December 1896. Around 1911 however he became active again, speaking at meetings; “his book-lined cellar under his shop…became something of a centre in Hammersmith for ‘young workmen disillusioned by the timid programmes of other parties’“ as well as old comrades. Some meetings were held at the ‘Morris Studio’, in Adie Road, Hammersmith.

See a People’s Plaque Remembering Tochatti

Tochatti later lived at 13 Beadon Rd, and 6 Hammersmith Grove. He opposed World War 1; union activist and later Communist party leader Harry Pollitt described visiting his shop in 1918 and later, and debating conscientious objection to the War, with Tochatti “alternatively favour[ing] folded arms and shooting the officers.”

There were still anarchists of this or a related scene active in Hammersmith as late as World War 2, Several were involved in workers’ organising in the transport movement, as in the East End.

If you look round the corner into Hammersmith Grove: This seems to have been a regular meeting point for demos… In May 1913: A local contingent marched from here as part of a large London-wide anti-militarist demonstration as WW1 approached.

Walk through the square cross King Street & turn left, then right on the roundabout to St Paul’s Green

Hammersmith was known as a place for free thinking and troublemakers. Hammersmith folk were involved in the Peasants Revolt of 1381: Local rebel John Pecche (a Fulham fisherman) was specifically excluded from the General Pardon. But John Norman of Hammersmith was pardoned by name.

In 1647 the New Model Army agitators, elected agents of the rank and file of the army, to put forward their political and economic grievances, were quartered in Hammersmith in the Summer. At this time the radical political and religious views in the Army were not only leading soldiers to act independently against a growing alliance between moderate parliament and the defeated king, but also to make common cause with the Levellers against Army Grandees. These latter struggles against Cromwell and Ireton came to a head in the Putney Debates in November and the Ware Mutiny that followed… The Army dissidents set up a puritan chapel, probably in Union Court, now Foreman Court off the Broadway. The Levellers also had a group & printing press here in the late 1640s.

A People’s Plaque Remembering the Agitators… put up in the Broadway

In the 16th century Hammersmith was a place of non-believers, with no churches but many taverns. In 1722, in the first count, there were 28 public houses in the Broadway area, one for every 150 residents (the oldest was probably The George, which was originally called the White Horse). The Bishop of London (from his nearby house at Fulham Palace) had suggested taking a group of heretics to Hammersmith to be burnt. St Paul’s Church was consecrated on 7th June 1630 – very late for a large Parish. Between 1757 – 1783 the Rev

Burning of a group of vagabonds accused of heresy, Paris, 1372. MS 677, folio 103 verso

Thomas Sampson presided. He protested over being required to preach on a Sunday afternoon, on one Sunday refusing to perform his duties! The current church dates from 1887.

A People’s Plaque celebrating heresy in Hammersmith – more pubs less churches!

South from here is Fulham Palace Road, leading to Fulham. Where Charing Cross hospital now stands was the site of the workhouse, which was built in 1850 to house increasing numbers of the poor under a single roof. Later it became the hospital. In December 1991, there were 2 or 3 demos over NHS cuts here.

Opposite us (on the west side of Fulham Palace Rd) is the facade of Brandenbergh House. The home of the Lord of the Manor. Later it became a post office and the interior was removed to the Geffrye Museum. King George IV’s estranged wife Queen Caroline lived at Brandenburgh House 1820-21. Died here. She had become very popular because of widespread hatred of the king, who had treated her pretty badly. When she died her funeral procession (on 14th August 1821) from Hammersmith was turned into a riotous demo, erupting into fighting and two Hammersmith men, carpenter Richard Honey and George Francis, a bricklayer, were shot dead at Hyde Park Corner. A memorial stone was built to them in the churchyard after collections in pubs all over London. Brandenburgh House was pulled down after Queen Caroline’s death.

A People’s Plaque Remembering Queen Caroline. Past Tense have gone soft on royalty I hear you cry!

George IV had a hard time of it from locals: Radical journalist Leigh Hunt, who lived at 7 Cornwall Road (now 16 Rowan Road, off Brook Green), was jailed in 1816 for libelling Georgie Porgie (while he was still prince regent) in his paper the Examiner.

Walk to Hammersmith Bridge to left side and go under bridge

Hammersmith Bridge: The first bridge was a toll bridge was built in 1827. The current bridge dates from 1887.

Regular public talks were given under the bridge by William Morris on Sunday mornings, who complained when the Salvation Army, who had the pitch before him, used to overrun. To the meeting they bought the Socialist League banner, designed by Walter Crane and worked by May Morris. There were also reports of the meetings being interrupted by the police. After the meetings, the Socialist League often marched to Hyde Park or Trafalgar Square. On 13th November 1887 (which became known as Bloody Sunday) 200 socialists were hurt and 100 arrested at a demo in Trafalgar Square.

Morris described Mayday as: “Above all days of the year, fitting for the protest of the disinherited against the system of robbery that shuts the door between them and a decent life”.

A number of his lectures have been published, including “How we live  and how we might live” and “The society of the future”.

A People’s Plaque we left here commemorating Morris regular speaking under the bridge…

The bridge later became a favourite target for IRA bombers. The first was planted on 29th March 1939, as one of first mainland targets. A passer spotted the bomb by who threw it in the river so it caused minimal damage. In 1996 another IRA attempt was foiled, but they succeeded in 2000 and the bridge closed for over a year.

The IRA connection, unsurprisingly in an area long known for its Irish community, goes back much further though: Michael Collins, later IRA leader in the War of Independence, lived at 5 Netherwood road (off Brook Green) in 1914-15 and worked in the Post Office Savings Bank in Blythe rd.

Gustav Holst

Walk along the river to the west to the Blue Anchor Pub: In 1893 the composer Gustav Holst took rooms in Hammersmith. He attended meetings of the Hammersmith Socialist League and became a socialist. In 1897 he became conductor of Hammersmith Socialist Choir. Later, in 1905, he became musical director of St Pauls Girls School (remember those pigtails), as he needed the money. Although he composed works for the posh girls, he found them to be hopeless, so he preferred teaching working class boys at Morley College. He is best known for writing The Planet Suite, but he wrote the Hammersmith Suite in this pub, in memory of his socialist days.

Walk into Furnival Gardens and stop

Furnival Gardens: Originally the Creek ran from Stamford Brook to the river, and this was the site of slums, factories and wharves, an area known as Little Wapping. On the riverside was a local centre of heavy industry: Oil mills, lead works and Boat building. Behind this teeming slums where workers lived, in overcrowded and terrible conditions. Narrow alleys wove between factories, sheds and mills, each with their fumes and effluent.

In 1846 the District Medical Officer wrote: “Almost every house is visited with epidemic diarrhoea, so violent as to be mistaken for Asiatic cholera”. The same report recorded that: “The scanty supply of water, the crowded state of the dwellings, the overflow of privies and cesspools, all combine to poison and destroy the health of the poorer inhabitants of Hammersmith and are allowed to create and perpetuate more than half of the diseases which are incidental to human nature itself.”

The Creek was filled in in 1936 but the Furnival Gardens were not created until created in 1951.

Walk under the underpass down Macbeth Street and left through Riverside Gardens

The slums stretched from the river to King Street, an area now bisected by the A4. Histories of the area comment on the stark contrast between the slums and the grand buildings in King Street.

Riverside Gardens was part of the homes fit for heroes building program as slum clearance by the Council and completed in 1928. Neighbouring Aspen Gardens was built for returning soldiers after the 2nd World War and was opened in 1948 by Labour Minister for Health Aneurin Bevan. At the fifty years celebration a plaque was unveiled by Michael Foot to his mentor, Bevan.

The Aspen Gardens estate was the first to defy a local council and vote against voluntary stock transfer in the 1980’s.

Walk to Hammersmith Town Hall

The Town Hall was built in the 1930’s, when the creek was filled in.

Hammersmith first had a Labour council in 1937 and, save for a few short periods, it remained Labour – till 2006. The first black mayor, Randolph Berrisford, was appointed in 1975.

The Council and the health authority compete to be the largest employer locally. There have, of course, been many demonstrations here and strikes amongst council workers. One we remember was the nursery workers strike, when the Council decided in the early 1990’s to close all nursery provision. A couple of council workers scaled the town hall, removed the corporate red flag, and gave it to the striking nursery workers. It was last seen shredded on the front page of the local paper.

Walk along King Street to the Hampshire Pub

Hampshire Pub: this street was previously Hampshire Hog Lane, which ran into the slums behind, close to New Street. Formerly called the Hampshire Hog. In November 1905 it opened as a social (temperance) club for working men. A mock parliament was established here in 1906 and by 1910 it was debating a ‘Poor Law Amendment Bill’ and whether there could be a socialist government in office, but not in power.

Walk down King Street to the Bull statue

Hammersmith first returned a Labour MP in 1924. Prior to that it’s most famous MP had the great name of William Bull, who practised as a solicitor in the family firm of Bull and Bull! Bull was a Tory who supported votes for Women, and an egotist. The statute of the bull was moved here from the Black Bull Inn in Holborn in 1904. The gates of the park were erected in Bull’s memory in 1933.

Walk down King Street to Black Lion Lane

The corner of Weltje Road, which we have just passed, was another of William Morris’s public speaking haunts.

The Radical Club, which was located on King Street, although we have not been able to discover exactly where, was another regular meeting place for the Socialist League. Morris spoke here, in January 1887 he described the place: “The room was crowded, and of course our socialist friends there, my speech was well-received, but I thought the applause rather hollow as the really radical part of the audience had clearly no ideas beyond the ordinary party shibboleths, and were quite untouched by socialism; they seemed to me a very discouraging set of men…” Morris class origins emerge at times in his patronising tone, as he continues: “The frightful ignorance and want of impressibility of the average English working man floors me at times.”

There were two other local Radical Clubs, in Overstone Road and the Broadway, in the 1870s.

Also In King Street was the old Hammersmith Workhouse: After 1845 it was used for men and children only, as families were split up. Women were sent to Fulham Workhouse.

Look West towards Stamford Brook: The son of the anarchist sympathiser and impressionist painter Camille Pissarro, Lucien, lived here, as did the Russian anarchist Sergius Stepniak. A rarely used railway branch line ran from Stamford Brook to South Acton. On a fateful day in 1895 Stepniak was killed by a train whilst crossing the line. Given the infrequency of the trains, this was almost certainly an accident, although some authorities suggest he committed suicide. He had fled Russia in 1878 after being involved in the assassination of the Tsarist chief of police, and at the time of his death was living in nearby Bedford Park, and involved with Hammersmith Socialists. 1000s attended his funeral in Woking Crematorium. A footbridge was built over the line as a result.

Look down King Street

The trendy Hart bar, previously the White Hart pub, was a meeting place for Protestant dissenters in 1706.

Walk down Black Lion Lane on left side. Stop at the French restaurant.

In this street is the former home of MP Stephen Milligan, another radical Tory, at least in sexual practices if not political life. In 1994 Milligan was found dead, tied to a chair, wearing women’s underwear with a plastic bag over his head and a satsuma in his mouth. No one does it like a Tory MP!

satsumas were handed out on the original walk at this point! 

Here’s a People’s Plaque remembering Milligan’s heroic effort, which never got hung for one reason and another…

Unusually, St Peters Church was built in 1829 to attract rich residents, rather than serve an existing population. One of those attracted more recently is the doyen of the Workers Revolutionary Party, the Trotskyist actor Vanessa Redgrave, who still lives in St Peters Square (behind).

Walk under the underpass to the continuation of Black Lion Lane, at bottom turn right into Hammersmith Terrace and stop at No 8.

May Morris, HH Sparling, Emery Walker and George Bernard Shaw

This street has no less than 3 blue plaques, but there isn’t one on no 8, the home of May Morris, daughter of William and an important socialist in her own right. May later edited her father’s Collected Works. She was in love with George Bernard Shaw. Whilst he flirted with her, the love was unrequited and she later married Harry Sparling, another member of the Socialist League. Perhaps there is no plaque, because she was a woman?

Here’s a Plaque remembering May Morris we made ourselves and hung up to redress the balance…

At no 7 lived Emery Walker, another member of the Socialist League and a founder of the Doves Press (he had previously lived at no 3). A typographer and engraver, Walker joined his near neighbour William Morris in typographical experiments (which led to the founding of the Kelmscott Press), then in the Arts and Crafts movement, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and the local SDF and Socialist League branches. Walker served as the League branch secretary, organising the regular Sunday evening lectures. In 1900, Walker and

T Cobden-Sanderson founded the Doves Press at no 1 Hammersmith Terrace, (Cobden-Sanderson had begun bookbinding at 15 Upper Mall under the name of the Doves Bindery in 1893). Walker and Cobden-Sanderson didn’t get on, however, and Walker left the Press in 1909.

No 3 was also later the home of Edward Johnston, a “gifted but eccentric” calligrapher, who designed the type for the Doves Press books.

His neighbour and fellow socialist, T. J. Cobden-Sanderson, was a burned-out barrister whom Janey Morris thought capable of something therapeutic with his hands. And so the Doves Bindery and Press came about, first at 15 Upper Mall and later at 1 Hammersmith Terrace. After Walker left the Press, it gradually declined. One night in 1915, as blood flowed at the second Battle of Ypres, Cobden-Sanderson, by then a burned-out bookbinder, threw all the Doves type (from which the Kelmscott Chaucer and Bible were composed) off Hammersmith Bridge, to spite his old partner Emery Walker (with whom he had fallen out). The business closed down soon after.

Walk east along the river

In May 1906 a demonstration was held at Clare Lodge, the home of Mrs Dora Montefiore which was located near here. She was refusing to pay income tax as a protest at the exclusion of women from the parliamentary franchise’. The following month a further demonstration in her support was attended by 60 working class women who had walked all the way from Canning Town in the East End to lend their support.

Here’s a People’s Plaque we hung up to remember Dora Montefiore and her fellow suffragettes

It had been Sylvia Pankhurst who, in 1905, had helped to found the Fulham branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (the Suffragettes). William Morris of course had been an early influence on Sylvia, both politically and artistically. Later her influence was to be felt in Hammersmith, when a workers’ committee was formed at local factory Davidsons under the influence of her Workers Socialist Federation and the Russian Revolution.

A painting by Camille Pissarro contrasts the village of Chiswick with the heavy industry of Hammersmith, looking from Chiswick down the river. Ironically it is now in a private collection.

Continue along the river to Kelmscott House

The meeting hall at Kelmscott House

Morris lived in Kelmscott House from 1878 until his death in 1896, naming it after his country home Kelmscott Manor. The house is now owned by the William Morris Society and is open to the public as a museum on Thursdays and Saturdays. Inside you can see the printing press used by Morris, which is still used occasionally. On this was printed the Commonweal, the League’s paper. The second issue contained Engels “England in 1845 and England in 1885”, later published in “The Condition of the Working Class”. Other contributors included Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son in law, Shaw, Stepniak, and Belfort Bax.

George Bernard Shaw, echoing Morris’s views, said of the house: “everything that was necessary was clean and handsome; everything else was beautiful and beautifully presented”.

In 1885 Morris established the Hammersmith branch of the Socialist League with Eleanor Marx and her husband Edward Aveling, among others. Meetings were held in the Kelmscott House Coach House. Originally a stables attached to 26 Upper Mall,  Morris had it converted to a meeting room; it was described as unheated and cold in the winter. Speakers and lecturers here included:

• George Bernard Shaw, a Fabian. Reading Marx’s Capital in French had an overwhelming effect on him and he felt that he had discovered what was wrong with the world and why he was so miserable in it.

• The Russian anarchist, Prince Kropotkin, a founder of the Freedom newspaper. He maintained his independence by neither joining the League nor writing for the Commonweal.

• Stepniak, another anarchist, was a compelling speaker, but not always comprehensible.

• Lucy Parsons, the US Black revolutionary, and later founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World (as well as being the widow of the Chicago anarchist Albert Parsons, executed in 1885 after being framed for a bomb attack on police). She was a guest of the Socialist League in 1888 when she came on a speaking tour. She stayed at Kelmscott House.

• Socialist Annie Besant, one of the organisers of the 1888 East End matchwomens’ strike also spoke here.

The audience often included included figures such as Oscar Wilde, HG Wells and WB Yeats.

The League was increasing split between the ‘parliamentary’ (Eleanor Marx/Aveling) and anti-parliamentary (Morris) factions. In 1888 the anarchists seemed to be taking charge of the League and Aveling and Eleanor Marx split off. In 1890 Morris himself left the Socialist League and founded the Hammersmith Socialist Society, which again held their meetings here. His last lecture had as its title “One Socialist Party” and was given on 9th January 1896. On 3rd October that year he died. His body was taken up Rivercourt Road and by train to Kelmscott Manor.

Shortly after his death the Socialist Society folded, in December 1896.

But in May 1911, a Hammersmith Socialist Society revived, as a result of a direct action-oriented split from the Social Democratic Party (the old SDF). In the 1930s Guy Aldred’s United Socialist Movement had some support in London among old adherents of this long-defunct second Hammersmith Socialist Society.

Cobden-Sanderson lived at no 15 Upper Mall; here the Doves Bindery and Press were started. 

Kelmscott Press was located opposite the Dove pub at no 16 Upper Mall. Over the five years between its foundation and Morris’ death in 1896 it produced 52 hand-printed works, most with type and ornaments designed by Morris.

This ends our walk. But we can well imagine Morris, Eleanor Marx and the printers retiring to the Dove for a pint or a coffee!

 

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This walk is available as a pamphlet, ‘A Shabby London Suburb’ which can be bought from the publications page on our website.

And why ‘A Shabby London Suburb’ eh? Bit rude?
It’s from the opening chapter of William Morris’ classic utopian vision of a post-revolutionary communist society, ‘News From Nowhere’. The book opens with an argument ‘Up at ‘he League’ – the Hammersmith Socialist League’s meeting hall, at Kelmscott House ? – as to what Britain would look like ‘after the revolution’. Dissatisfied with the debate, the narrator storms out into the night:

“he, like others, stewed discontentedly, while in self-reproachful mood he turned over the many excellent and conclusive arguments which, though they lay at his fingers’ ends, he had forgotten in the just past discussion.  But this frame of mind he was so used to, that it didn’t last him long, and after a brief discomfort, caused by disgust with himself for having lost his temper (which he was also well used to), he found himself musing on the subject-matter of discussion, but still discontentedly and unhappily.  “If I could but see a day of it,” he said to himself; “if I could but see it!”

As he formed the words, the train stopped at his station, five minutes’ walk from his own house, which stood on the banks of the Thames, a little way above an ugly suspension bridge.  He went out of the station, still discontented and unhappy, muttering “If I could but see it! if I could but see it!” but had not gone many steps towards the river before (says our friend who tells the story) all that discontent and trouble seemed to slip off him.

It was a beautiful night of early winter, the air just sharp enough to be refreshing after the hot room and the stinking railway carriage.  The wind, which had lately turned a point or two north of west, had blown the sky clear of all cloud save a light fleck or two which went swiftly down the heavens.  There was a young moon halfway up the sky, and as the home-farer caught sight of it, tangled in the branches of a tall old elm, he could scarce bring to his mind the shabby London suburb where he was, and he felt as if he were in a pleasant country place—pleasanter, indeed, than the deep country was as he had known it.”

He has been transported to the future, to a world of free communist existence…
You can read this excellent vision of the future as seen from the past, for free, here

“Go on living while you may, striving, with whatsoever pain and labour needs must be, to build up little by little the new day of fellowship, and rest, and happiness.”

Yes, surely! and if others can see it as I have seen it, then it may be called a vision rather than a dream.”

 

 

Today in London aeronautical herstory, 1909: Muriel Matters flies suffragette airship over West London

Steampunk rebels eat your heart out…

If you thought the scene in the old Ealing Comedy film Kind Hearts and Coronets, where the suffragette aunty flies a hot air balloon to distribute ‘Votes for Women’ leaflets from the air, was made up – think again…

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Women’s struggle to win the right to vote in the United Kingdom in the first couple of decades of the 20th century was long and full of both inspiring actions and fierce repression.

As well as traditional methods of campaigning, lobbies, meetings, leafleting, some activists carried out direct actions, sabotage, arson and destruction of property. As the male establishment continued to lock women out, suffragettes developed novel ways of grabbing media attention, devising elaborate and eye-catching stunts.

One lesser known but brilliant action employed red hot technology: the launch of the suffragette airship, flown over London in 1909 by Muriel Matters.

Muriel Matters

Muriel Matters was born in Australia and became a professional actress. Moving to England, she got involved with the direct action wing of the suffragette movement. She became politically active after being challenged by the anarchist Prince Kropotkin to use her skills for ‘something more useful’ than the dramatic recitals she was earning a living from, after she performed at his home…

Kropotkin asserted that “Art is not an end of life, but a means.” Matters took this on board, and soon became involved with the Women’s Social & Political Union, and then the Women’s Freedom League (WFL), to further the cause of women’s suffrage. She later wrote that her encounter with Kropotkin, “proved to be the lifetime in a moment lived – my entire mental outlook was changed.”

Throwing herself into campaigning for the vote, Matters travelled the south east counties of England in 1908 as “Organiser in Charge” of the first “Votes for Women” caravan, holding meetings, spreading the word and helping found WFL branches. In October 1908, she took part in a WFL protest at the Houses of Parliament, chaining herself to a grille in the Ladies Gallery of the House of Commons, while declaiming a pro-suffrage speech. As a result becoming one of the very first women to make a speech in Parliament… (if unauthorised)! She was jailed for a month in Holloway for this action. She also formed the League of Light, an organisation to support women, particularly stage actresses, who were oppressed or abused by their employers.

The Women’s Freedom League ‘Votes for Women’ Caravan

On 16 February 1909, King Edward VII officially opened Parliament for the coming year. As a part of the usual bombastic festivities a procession was to be held to the Houses of Parliament, led by His Majesty.  To gain attention to the suffrage cause, Matters’ decided to hire a dirigible air balloon (similar to a modern-day blimp in appearance) and intended to shower the King and the Houses of Parliament with pamphlets headlined with the words “VOTES FOR WOMEN”.

Thirty years later she recalled the trip:

“That morning I went to Hendon and met Mr Henry Spencer who had his airship all ready near the Welsh Harp [These days renamed the Brent Reservoir.] It was quite a little airship, eighty eight feet long (25m), and written in large letters on the gas bag were three words, Votes For Women. Below this was suspended an extremely fragile rigging carrying the engine and a basket, like those used for balloons. We loaded up about a hundredweight of leaflets, then I climbed into the basket, Mr Spencer joined me, and we rose into the air.”

The dirigible, with ‘Votes for Women’ painted on one side and ‘Women’s Freedom League’ on the other, ascended to an altitude of 3,500ft (1,000 metres). “It was very cold,” Muriel recalled, “but I got some exercise throwing the leaflets overboard.”  She later described how Spencer had to climb out of the basket repeatedly and clamber ‘like a spider’ across the dirigible’s framework to make adjustments to the engine. “Suddenly I realised that if he fell off, I hadn’t the first idea how to manoeuvre the airship.” she said. “Not that I was terribly bothered about that. I was too busy making a trail of leaflets across London.”

Matters scattered 56lbs weight of handbills on the streets and houses below as she flew, with other leading members of the Women’s Freedom League, Edith How-Martyn and Elsie Craig, following behind by car.

However, airships and dirigibles, in these early days of steampunk, were difficult to manoeuvre, especially in adverse weather conditions… They tended to drift with the wind, having limited power of their own – in this case a small motor. The wind on the day in question blew somewhat against the suffragette Air Force, frustrating Muriel’s plan to fly over the Palace of Westminster, Instead they drifted around the outskirts of London, passing over Wormwood Scrubs, Kensington, Tooting, eventually crash-landing in the upper branches of a tree in Coulsdon in Surrey, after a flight lasting an hour and a half in total.

Despite failing to fly over the king’s procession, Matters considered the aerial adventure a great success. “The flight achieved all we wanted”, she said. “It got our movement a great deal of publicity, as you can imagine. In those days, the sight of an airship was enough to make people run for miles!”

Muriel’s airship adventure was also the first powered flight from what later became the London Aerodrome at Hendon, which was to feature prominently in both World Wars, and site of various pioneering aviation experiments, among them the first airmail, the first parachute descent from a powered aircraft, the first night flights, and the first aerial defence of a city.

Muriel Matters continued with her political life as an active member of the suffragettes lecturing all over the world.

Like many of her comrades in the Women’s Freedom League and the core group of Sylvia Pankhurst’s East London Federation of Suffragettes (and in marked contrast to the bulk of the women’s suffrage movement), Muriel opposed the slaughter of the First World War. In June 1915, one year after the outbreak of the war, Matters declared her opposition to the war in an address entitled “The False Mysticism of War”.

Returning to London from lecture tours abroad in 1916, Muriel became involved with the “Mothers Arms” project in East London led by Sylvia Pankhurst. With the help of others, she educated working class children in the Montessori method in addition to feeding and clothing them. (She had previously studied under Maria Montessori in Barcelona).

After the war, Muriel ran (unsuccessfully) as Labour Party candidate for the seat of Hastings in the General Election of 1924, on a largely socialist platform advocating a fairer distribution of wealth, work for the unemployed and furthering the equality of the sexes.

Muriel Matters died on 17 November 1969 in St. Leonards on Sea nursing home aged ninety-two.

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Being obsessed by airships as well as radical history, Muriel Matters’ flight over West London blew our minds when we read about it. Imagine if this had not been an isolated event, but the start of a free feminist flotilla; airborne activists defeating the male establishment’s control of the streets by taking over the skies… Imagine if we could build such a fleet today; dirigibles or drone-powered; link them together to form free-floating libertarian communist cities in the lower atmosphere, outside the alleged national airspace of the so-called nations… Our theory heavier than cannonballs, our dreams lighter than air…

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An entry in the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar – buy a paper copy here

Check out the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar online

 

Today in rebel history, 1972: sit-down strike in Wormwood Scrubs Prison.

As we related two days ago, Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners (PROP) was formed on May 11th 1972, by a group of mostly served time inside UK jails, to campaign and organise for improvements in legal rights and better conditions within British nicks. PROP had emerged during a wave of protests by both remand and convicted prisoners across a number of British penal institutions; the group’s formation and the publicity that accompanied its founding was to contribute and help escalate this movement.

There had been a number of protests, mostly peaceful sit-down demos, over various demands, between January and early May 1972; mid-late May saw many more. On 13th May, 350 men staged a sit-down at HMP Wormwood Scrubs in West London. The Scrubs was widely recognised to have one of the most brutal and inhuman regimes at the time.

During the following 6 days there were protest at Brixton, Gartree in Leicestershire (twice), and Strangeways (Manchester). By the end of May, there had been peaceful demonstrations in 15 jails, in which over 2500 inmates had taken part. In Armley Jail in Leeds, 996 men, the whole prison population, staged a 24-hour strike to protest the conditions they were held in. (PROP supported this action with a demonstration outside, which although it attracted on 27 people, did help the sitdown get some good publicity).

PROP’s main problem in supporting the spreading protest movement was communication with prisoners. Prison authorities routinely censored all communications between cons and anyone on the outside. The vast majority of letters sent to PROP from inside, or replies by PROP to any that got through, simply never arrived, if they were sent by regular mail… The letters that got out tended to be the ‘stiffs’ – communications smuggled out by visitors, or by sympathetic staff (often parole officers, though there was the odd screw). The difficulty of regular communication did cause some resentment and disappointment inside: some prisoners active in protests perceived PROP as not up to the job of supporting them on the outside. To some extent PROP were a victim of their own publicity, as they managed to make themselves seem larger, more effective, and more connected to, or responsible for, the protests inside. In reality a fairly small group, PROP weren’t able to fully mobilise the large numbers on the outside to match the willingness of prisoners to demonstrate.

However, these problems didn’t prevent the protests from spreading. In late May, PROP announced that the sitdowns and demonstrations would continue, and would culminate in a national prison strike at some (then unspecified) future date, unless the Home Office Prison Department entered into negotiations over PROP’s demands. The Home Office may not have gone that far, but the protests did force some admission that there were problems that needed addressing – that some of the inmates’ demands were based on legitimate complaints. Some concessions were granted to the remand prisoners at HMP Brixton, for instance, where cons had been among the most active. The prison governor and a Home office representative had met a sitdown protest there on 17th May and gave in to several of the most immediate and easiest granted demands (radios in cells, longer exercise periods, a movie a week), which the more aware cons saw as sops to try to keep them quiet, but also validated the collective tactics inmates were taking.

The collective form and peaceful approach to the protests had proved difficult for prison officers to respond to. Screws dealt out routine brutality and violence to cons on a daily basis, and were accustomed to dealing with the form resistance to this usually took – individual force. Which they could easily overpower by force of numbers (and greater availability of weaponry). Collective peaceful protest left them baffled and they didn’t know how to react. Picking out individuals and labeling them ringleaders also backfired – it generally provoked more inmates to join the struggle, and ‘ghosting’ (a quick move of an identified ‘troublemaker’ to another prison) only succeeded in spreading the movement across the system (this remained a factor in UK prion protest movements – the same dynamic also characterised some of the April 1990 demos following the Strangeways riot).

In June, there were further demos – 20 in the first fortnight, including five between June 11th and June 13th (two at Armley, two at Pentonville, and one at Albany on the Isle of Wight). The authorities may have been ignoring PROP, but on the inside, the organisation’s very existence was becoming a rallying cry. At a Lancashire Borstal, some boys threatened bullying staff with ‘the union’. The Home Office called all prison governors to a meeting in early June to discuss the growing unrest – the most concrete result was a Prison Dept agreement not to interfere with peaceful demos, or punish any prisoner to took part in them.

Home Office concessions to the prisoners’ movement encouraged them to continue with their protests – it also enraged the Prison Officers’ Association (POA), the screws’ union, generally a voice for repression and brutality, for treating inmates like the scum the screws felt they were. The POA were (and to some extent remain) usually critical of the prison authorities as being too liberal and allowing prisoners too much leeway. Governors and Home Office officials shouldn’t be meeting with convicts. On the ground, officers felt they were losing control of the prisons to uppity cons and needed to regain the upper hand. If the Home Office were going to give in to the protests, many screws felt the only course of action was to crack a lot of heads, hopefully provoking violence and confrontation, which would very likely put the concessions into reverse and result in tighter regimes and more repression. This would soon be put into practice…

The prisoners’ movement continued to grow into the summer of 1972. Lack of any large-scale reforms, or any offer to meet with PROP or even admit they had any legitimacy, resulted in PROP calling a national jail strike for August 4th, which achieved some measure of support in 33 prisons, and involved an estimated 10,000 prisoners., Given the difficulties in communication this was a fantastic result. A series of blustering Home Office and governors’ denials that many of the prisons involved had experienced any protest was undermined by PROP (and some journalists) gathering careful evidence, which undermined the authorities’ lies about numbers and nicks involved. PROP was taken more seriously the more obviously the Home Office blatantly denied what was obviously happening.

However, bitter sentiment among prison officers was soon translated into action. Since brutality was always present anyway, in the way that institutional life was generally administered, the provocation of trouble was easily planned. Regular cell searches, moving inmates around, visits etc can be handled carefully, or violently – escalations in bullying and brutality were strategically targeted in some prisons where the protest movement had been strong, and the inevitable angry response was highlighted to justify repression (with the help of tame rightwing papers, notably the Daily Express). In parallel, the POA introduced an official ‘GET TOUGH’ policy in response to the ‘state of emergency’ it said the protests had created – in effect a combination of an overtime ban and a non-co-operation exercise, so that in the event of a prison protest, screws would do as little as possible and sabotage the normal functioning of the jail, and the POA would back up any officer who was disciplined as a result. This put the governors and Home Office in a position of being forced to back the screws, even if they could easily see they were blackmailing them, as they couldn’t afford to completely lose the officers’ goodwill, or jails would grind to a halt. During some of the larger protests, prisoners in some nicks had come close to taking over the whole prison (eg at Brixton), and the authorities could see that to allow the movement to carry on risked literally losing control.

The twin tactics of targeted localised brutality and work-to-rule blackmail were, in the end, effective in helping to derail the prison protests in 1972. Although the demonstrations inside continued, vicious brutality at Albany prison (which had seen 8 protests throughout August) provoked angry resistance, which was splashed across the press as a riot and escape attempt. In fact it was a very limited protest, but the publicity bolstered the screws’ confidence and the beatings, harassment and assaults were stepped up. This provoked further agro; a ‘riot’ at Gartree in November resulted, after screws waded in to a group of cons who had failed in an escape attempt.

Although the prison protests had gained a high profile, and PROP’s constant press work had helped focus the spotlight on prison conditions, to some extent PROP’s claims to be either involved in the planning of, or even directing, the demonstrations proved to be something of a divisive tactic. One founding member, Mike Fitzgerald, later suggested that it had taken the group very much on a diversion from the solid reforming program the group had launched with, and hampered any efforts to establish PROP as a day to day representative group campaigning in prisoners interests and on bread and butter issues. Given the massive struggle going on inside though, it was very much inevitable that PROP’s energy would be focused on the protests. But under the pressure, PROP itself began to fragment internally. Divisions opened up over tactics, and the group in effect split into separate organisations. But both carried on doing good work for several years, supporting struggles, helping prisoners legally and on release, publicising brutality and resistance…

Much more on the formation of PROP can be read in Mike Fitzgerald, Prisoners in Revolt.

John Barker’s Bending the Bars has a good firsthand account of one of the May 1972 sit-down strikes in Brixton Prison, as well as being a cracking good read from start to finish.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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Today in London’s history: White crowds launch Notting Hill race riots, 1958.

“There was a battle, a pitched battle, in Powis Terrace where I lived. I looked through the fifth floor window where I was, and there was a battle between black men, policemen, white yobbos and Teddy Boys. I mean, the street was alight, except for fires and that – Molotov cocktails and so on. And blood was everywhere and it was awful.”

As the ‘biggest street party in Europe’, the Notting Hill Carnival, comes round again, it’s always worth remembering its origins… With the myth of British tolerance and a somewhat blinkered view of our past as rosy and open, the Carnival is often held up as an example of the best in multi-cultural Britain, evidence of how easily and warmly the UK welcomes incomers. It’s essential even for tory leaders to turn up, parade, or at least pretend to approve. The friendliest police are wheeled out. It’s even sometimes mentioned (though not on the bbc news) that Carnival was born after the race riots of 1958, when white gangs, inspired at least if not organized by rightwing groups, launched racist attacks on Afro-Caribbean migrants in Notting Hill.

Carnival evolved in the West Indies from a heady mix of Spanish and French catholic religious traditions, mixing with dances and parades from the culture of the African slaves shipped to the Caribbean in their thousands…

West Indians migrating to Britain in the 1950s, created Carnival in its west London incarnation, however, in 1959-60 as a way of both bringing white and black communities together, and celebrating the migrant Caribbean culture that was to some extent under siege by racism from whites in Notting Hill, West London.

Notting Hill was one of the areas where the first generation of West Indians moving to Britain after World War 2 had begun to build a community.

The initial migrants from the West Indies faced a wall of racism, hostility and discrimination in many arenas in those first years; housing was one. Many landlords wouldn’t rent houses or flats to black people (the infamous sign in the front window of houses to rent being: ‘No Irish No Blacks no Dogs’). In some neighbourhoods such restrictions were less rigidly applied. Often the poorest places, the slums, where vicious landlords were willing to let run-down, rat-infested housing at inflated rents to people who had nowhere else to go…

Notting Hill had been home to the poorest for a century – migrants, casual workers, the lowest paid. West Indians found homes here…

They also found prejudice: resentment from poor white working class locals, xenophobia and fear of the other and economic competition, all fanned by a jumble of fascist groups – the White Defence League, Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement, the National Labour Party and more… all active in the area, stirring it up, provoking hatred where fear already was… For instance, from January 1958 the Union Movement held regular street corner meetings in Notting Hill, outside Kensington Park Road synagogue. “When Mosley came down to Notting Dale some people were sympathetic to his cause, that can’t be denied. He recruited some workers from the Thames Gas Board coal and coke wharf near Ladbroke Grove and local Teddy boys. Some of these were little stinkers, but we were living in uncertain times and Mosley provided people with instant solutions; scapegoating the blacks and Irish, telling people that it was their fault that we had poor housing and that they would take all the jobs.” (‘The Story Of Notting Dale’, Ron Greenwood)… Colin Jordan’s White Defence League had its base on Tavistock Road, from where a swastika flag was flown, loud militaristic music played and ‘The Black and White News’ distributed… fascists also had a base in Princedale Road.

Teddyboys proved a fertile recruiting ground for the fash; young white working class teens, a growing subculture, already well-known for violence, both between teds from different areas, against the police and authority in general, but easily also slipping into racist attacks.

Racist attitudes increased turning into violent attacks on black people through the summer of 1958: coming to a head in the last week of August. On the 24th ten white youths committed serious assaults on six West Indian men in four separate incidents. Just prior to the Notting Hill riots, there was racial unrest in Nottingham, which began on 23 August, and continued intermittently for two weeks.

The rioting was triggered by an assault against Majbritt Morrison, a white Swedish woman, on 29 August. Morrison was arguing with her Jamaican husband Raymond Morrison at the Latimer Road tube station. A group of various white people attempted to intervene in the argument and a small fight broke out between the intervening people and some of Raymond Morrison’s friends.

The following day, August 30th, Majbritt was verbally and physically attacked by a gang of white youths who threw milk bottles at Morrison and called her racial slurs such as “Black man’s trollop”, she was also struck in the back with an iron bar.

Later that night a mob of 300 to 400 white people, many of them Teddy Boys, were seen on Bramley Road attacking the houses of West Indian residents. The disturbances, rioting and attacks continued every night until 5 September, although the worst of the aggro was over by the 3rd

Crowds of white youths roamed the area every night for days, attacking any black people in the street, attacking houses where black people were living, with bricks, petrol bombs… After repeated warning from the community had failed to rouse the police to take any action against the white mobs, local blacks got together to resist the racists by force… “black men used to come from surrounding areas, like Paddington and Brixton and Shepherd’s Bush, knowing they’re going to hit this particular street, knowing the whites were going to hit this particular street, this particular night. They would come in solidarity, to fight. In other words, many black people felt, In for a penny, in for a pound.”

“lt’s decided to make a stand at Totobag’s cafe at 9 Blenheim Crescent, between Portobello and Kensington Park Road… As the tension mounts the rest of the afternoon is spent amassing an armoury of weapons, including milk bottles, petrol and sand for Molotov cocktails. Then they wait. An estimated 300 in all, men in ‘The Fortress’ at No. 9, women across the road in No. 6, with lights out and curtain’s drawn. At 10pm a white mob starts sniffing around and there’s shouts of “Let’s burn the niggers out.” At which point the top floor windows of No. 9 are opened and Molotov cocktails rain down, scattering the whites. Baron Baker says he ironically shouts, “Get back to where you come from!” and everybody charges out of Totobag’s waving machetes and cleavers. Only a few of the white rioters stick around to throw missiles back. Then a Black Maria hurtles onto Blenheim Crescent and rams the front door of No. 9. Michael de Freitas, Baron Baker, 6 other blacks and 3 whites are subsequently arrested for causing affray. With Jamaican reinforcements coming in from Brixton to counter the white attacks, the police finally get their act together. Just before things develop into out and out race war. On the Monday night they mount one of the biggest co-ordinated policing operations of the 50s. 11 radio-cars and a few Black Marias are soon in the vicinity of Blenheim Crescent. While, at the same time, a house in Bard Road, back on Latimer Road, is attacked by 50 or more white youths, in retaliation for a fire-bomb attack on Mosley’s Portobello HQ, other side of Westway. A paraffin lamp is thrown through the ground floor window setting light to a bed. Then a big black woman runs out into the street brandishing an axe and shouting ‘I’ll murder you for this!’ Whereupon the white rioters turn and run.”

The West Indian resistance finally prompted the police (who had been widely accused of turning a blind eye to the violence if not actively condoning it) to make an attempt to get to grips with the situation. They couldn’t have people organising their own self-defence – where would it end? When a large crowd of would be white rioters marched down looking for trouble, this time the police dispersed them and made 50 arrests. The night of Tuesday 2nd was said to be relatively quiet’.

Sporadic incidents continued until September 5th, and black people, who had been avoiding going out, started to venture from their homes…

‘Only a few frightened faces were to be seen among the debris of bricks, broken glass and traces of blood that littered west London. Notting Hill was deathly quiet and unnaturally deserted and police kept a low profile. Pubs, which had been packed during the riot weekend, were now almost empty…’ A month after the riots some still kept their lights out at night and whites are also wary of going out after dark.

More than 140 people were nicked during the disturbances, mostly white youths but also many black people found carrying weapons to defend themselves. A report to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner stated that of the 108 people charged with crimes such as grievous bodily harm, affray and riot and possessing offensive weapons, 72 were white and 36 were black.

In 2002, files were released that revealed that senior police officers at the time had assured the Home Secretary, Rab Butler, that there was little or no racial motivation behind the disturbance, despite testimony from individual police officers to the contrary.

In January 1959, five months after the riot, the first carnival was held indoors at St Pancras town hall in central London as an act of solidarity and defiance in response to the racist events. Black radical Claudia Jones among others, was central to organising the event which in 1965 became an annual outdoor parade in Notting Hill. But the tensions that led to the riot had one more act to play out – in May 1959, a carpenter from Antigua, Kelso Cochrane, was stabbed to death in Kensal Rise by a gang of white men. More than 1,200 people, both black and white, attended his funeral, which, in some ways more than the riots, began the process of reversing the racist feeling…

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