50th Anniversaries - And All That
Battle of Britain, Pearl Harbour, D Day, VE Day, VJ Day; 50th anniversaries - doncha just love 'em? At least there will be an improvement this autumn, when Hiroshima and Nagasaki will be remembered in marches and other sane and purposeful actions. But shouldn’t we also be celebrating another history, especially when it’s so relevant to today’s struggles? What history is that then? Squatting activist Jim Paton looks at the post war squatting movement and finds some dates worth remembering.
Squall 10, Summer 1995, pp. 46-47.
Maybe we can’t quite compare the 40’s squatting movement with 1381 or 1649, because the population was a lot smaller then. But certainly 1945-50 saw a bigger squatting movement than in 1906, 1919, the 1960s or even the late 70’s or mid 80’s. In the 40’s people started taking over in numbers we’ve only dreamt about - and scaring the government shitless. Here’s some dates - some hidden history worth commemorating - for your diary:
29th June 1945.
Phase 1: The Vigilantes
Down in Brighton, VE Day was celebrated with some serious planning. A few weeks later, a merry scrunching of crowbars announced the occupation by homeless people of dozens of hotels and big houses being kept empty for post-war summer visitors.
“Vigilantes” seems a strange name nowadays. I think the idea was that they were vigilantly scouring the streets for empty places and opening them, not letting a single home go unused. They were otherwise known as “The Secret Committee of Ex-Servicemen”. By the beginning of July there were 1,000 people squatting in Brighton alone and the movement was spreading to towns all along the south coast as well as to Essex, Birmingham, London and Liverpool There was a huge public meeting in Brighton on July 8th and others elsewhere, lots of public support and massive press coverage. Churchill persuaded the press to stop mentioning what was happening - he reckoned it was spreading the idea - introduced requisitioning powers (but not duties) for councils to take over empty property and made anti-squatting propaganda part of his campaign in the 1945 election (which resulted in the biggest ever Tory wipeout).
The vigilantes included anarchists with experience of anti-fascist and other struggles in the 30’s. 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. Their way of making the demand was to do exactly that! This phase of the campaign may have been brief, but it struck a chord that lasted. I never heard of the camp squatters or the big London actions when I was a kid, but I do remember being warned to watch out for nasty Vigilantes. And that was in Clydebank five or six years later! They definitely ranked with Catholics and people who went in pubs as threats to us decent folk who paid our way and took regular baths.
8th May 1946.
Phase 2: The Camp Squatters
This actually kicked off on the first anniversary of VE day, but it’s unlikely it was planned that way. Things had gone a bit quiet on the squatting front for a few months. People were waiting to see what the new Labour government would do and what use would be made of Churchill’s requisitioning powers. It was soon clear the answer to both was “not a lot”. Meantime, thousands were homeless in a housing crisis so vast that it was on a similar scale to the one we have now.
There was, at least initially, no planning and no politics involved in this. All over the country there were redundant army and air force camps, with Nissen huts and other accommodation which was less than brilliant, but a lot better than conditions many people were having to live in. It was Mr and Mrs Fielding from Scunthorpe who finally got fed up and did the obvious thing. They moved into the officer’s mess of their local disused anti-aircraft battery with their children. Their friends joined them. Others heard about it and came along too. Two other local camps were taken over and the movement spread, first to Sheffield and then to virtually everywhere in England, Scotland and Wales. An organisation was formed: The Squatter’s Protection Society. By September, the government reckoned there were 45,000 people squatting in 1,100 camps, but this had to be wrong. It works out to about 40 people per camp, but most occupations were by one or two hundred people at least and some, like the famous “squat city” in Bristol, were nearly a thousand strong. Other places started being taken over; schools, hotels, even a greyhound stadium, and the movement kept on growing.
Of course there were some evictions, but most eviction attempts seem to have failed. Time after time council workers and even police refused to carry them off, or were seen off by sheer force of numbers (which meant a lot more than 40 people!). The government was in a tizzy. That great socialist orator and supposed tribune of the people, Nye Bevan, and others could only trot out the familiar crap about people “jumping the housing queue”. It was just too big and too energetic to repress - though they tried.
Life in the camps had to be improvised and communal. The “community spirit” and co-operation of the war years (which Major dribbles on about, but it’s the likes of us who actually practice) was well the fore, as people organised water, furniture, food and child care. Refusal of registration for rationing was a means of harassment unfamiliar to us which they had to overcome. There were lots of children - I wish I’d been one of them.
Eventually, just as in the 60’s and early 70’s, 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. By 1947, “OK, we’ll let you live here after all - as long as we’re in charge”, had become the line adopted by most bureaucrats. So, most squatters got to stay for several years before eventually being 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 the original 1946 occupations were determined to stay together and were eventually housed in the new village of Berinsfield in 1959. Colin Ward’s book (see below) quotes a telling description by a social worker of the difference between the “sheep” (the “official” squatters), who sat around freezing in squalor, waiting for the council to put glass in the windows, and the “goats” (the original squatters) who just blagged materials, applied ingenuity, sorted things themselves. As a result, they lived much more comfortably, as well as collectively, and had a more constructive outlook.
9th September 1946.
Phase 3: The London Spectaculars, Squatting The Rich
There was some camp squatting in London, mainly in east and outer London, but the opportunities were fewer and the camps smaller than in other places. London’s turn came later.
Two o’ clock on a humdrum Sunday afternoon, in a tightly organised operation, squatters seized Duchess of Bedford House, a luxury block of 150 flats in Kensington. Within 10 minutes over 1,000 people were inside, including 400 families, complete with bedding, water and food. Later that day a further 500 people took over a similar block in Marylebone, as well as big houses in Holland Park, Campden Hill and upper Philimore Gardens. On Monday, it was a second block in Marylebone and on Tuesday about 200 people took Fountain Court, another luxury block in Pimlico. Wednesday saw two very big blocks done: Abbey Lodge near Regents Park and the 630-room Ivanhoe Hotel in Bloomsbury (now renamed “The Marlborough”).
Initially the police were influenced by the ethos of the camp squats and made themselves useful, even organising a tea van at Duchess of Bedford House. But the atmosphere soon became repressive. This was (or was presented as) a much harder-edged political squatting campaign than its predecessors. There were specific demands that councils use their requisitioning powers to make these buildings available for homeless people. They had mostly become empty when the bombing started, as their rich occupiers fled to country retreats. Since Kensington, Regents Park etc. weren’t exactly the centre of the blitzkreig (unlike the East End) the government had used them for offices and crash pads for generals. Now they were about to revert to occupation by wealthy people who could pay up to £15 per week for leases. Some of the original organisers were activists in the Communist Party (CP), and the CP and their paper, The Daily Worker, vigorously supported the actions, making a major campaign of it. Although a minority party, the CP was strong enough then to get occasional MPs elected, as well as many councillors in working class areas. Ironically, it had denounced the Vigilantes the previous year.
The government organised an offensive on three fronts. A propaganda campaign combined the usual anti-squatting distortions with “red menace” rhetoric. The Daily Mail and Daily Express (which had been rooting for the British Union of Fascists 10 years previously) ran familiar hate and lie campaigns, causing padlocks to be sold out in the suburbs as credulous people believed their homes were about to be “stolen by communists”. Police leave was cancelled and cordons were set up around the squatted blocks to prevent new people joining and to keep food and other supplies from being taken in, whilst the electricity was cut off.
On Saturday 14th September, a huge rally in Leicester Square, followed by a march, supported the squatters and the demands made by the CP. Later that day, the government’s legal moves became clear as five CP “ringleaders” were arrested and charged with “conspiring and inciting trespass” (they were later bound over). Finally, High Court injunctions were obtained against the squatters and they subsequently left voluntarily in a “general evacuation” on Friday 20th September. There were no actual evictions. The squatters mostly went to a “rest centre” organised by the London City Council, from where they were eventually rehoused.
The role and tactics of the CP have been controversial ever since, and both Colin Ward and Andrew Friend (see below) have interesting observations on this. Although the CP was prominent, these actions were certainly much more than the “CP stunt” they have sometimes been presented as. Most people involved had nothing to do with the CP, and the whole thing looks much more like an opportunist attempt to exploit a movement which had already been established by the Vigilantes, the camp squatters and the Squatters Protection Society, and continued long after the London occupations were over. They did, however, show up the allegedly radical socialist government in their true colours and force them to step up the housing programme.
Squatting - The Real Story. Christian Wolmar & Nick Wates (Bay Leaf Books, 1979) Chapter 9 “The Post War Squatters” by Andrew Friend.
Housing - An Anarchist Approach by Colin Ward (Freedom Press, 1976 - still in print) Chapter 1 “The People Act”.
Squatting and the State by Peter Dickins. published in New Society 5/5/77.