Over the past few decades, London has become a melting pot for some of the world’s grubbier money. One knock-on of this has been rampant speculation on property, with local people being priced out of the market, and whole blocks being left empty. Such an economy forces most everyone within it to take part in the cycle of exhaustion and consumerism — or leave the city. More than last week’s closing of Fabric, this squeeze is exemplified by the eviction of Passing Clouds, a vibrant music venue and community centre that grew out of the East London squat scene ten years ago in response to a pre-Olympics wave of gentrification. Last year, their venue was sold to developers, who will no doubt knock it down and build overpriced flats.
Another victim of London’s colonization by capital has been the squatting scene itself. The squat movement flowered in London in the 1970s, when an estimated 30,000 people lived in squats in Greater London, and the movement provided the base for many London subcultures over several decades. In 2012, the scene took a legal body blow when squatting in residential (rather than commercial) properties was made a criminal offense; before it had been a purely ‘civil’ question (that is, a dispute between two parties). The impact of this change was huge, not just on squatting, but among ‘alternative’ and activist communities across the UK. Thousands of people suddenly found that sitting in their front room had become a criminal offense.
Many thought this would be the death of squatting, but in recent years there has been a resurgence of bigger, politicized squats in commercially-zoned properties. Squatting today implies a more frontline lifestyle than it did before, and on the whole attracts only highly committed individuals. Nevertheless, many currents of British radical politics still embrace it as one of the few tactics available to the dispossessed. Sisters Uncut, a feminist direct action collective, fighting the funding cuts for domestic violence services that the Conservative government has been rolling out since 2009, squatted a council flat in Hackney this summer and turned it into a centre for victims of domestic violence. Or there is Grow Heathrow, an ‘eco-squat’ in an abandoned market garden on land slated to be concreted over by the proposed expansion of the airport, which for the past six years has been a hub for community resistance to the expansion, as well as many national grassroots networks.
The success of these and many other initiatives shows how squatting in the UK still constitutes a coherent, well-organized and powerful tradition of resistance. With this in mind, it is worth considering the recent history of squatting in London, as it provides lessons that are applicable to the contemporary struggle against oppression and exploitation.
The modern squatting movement started on 18 November, 1968 in the kitchen of teacher Ron Bailey, with the founding of the London Squatters Campaign (LSC). The LSC initially comprised around 15 people, most of whom, Bailey later wrote, ‘were from the libertarian left – there were a couple of anarchists… three or four people from the solidarity group, and some ‘unattached’ libertarians.’ The immediate aim of the LSC was clear: the rehousing of poor families from slums or hostels in the swathes of local authority housing stock that at that time stood empty. Its broader goal was to spearhead a movement that would inspire homeless people and slum dwellers to squat en masse.
Bailey was a veteran activist. He had spent years travelling England, talking with people who lived in Welfare Department ‘temporary housing,’ largely hostels provided by local authorities. Unsanitary, crowded and cold, these hostels enshrined a workhouse mentality left over from the days of the Poor Law. By the end of the 1960s, hard as it may be to imagine today, there were three million families living in hostels and slums around the UK. These were the ‘invisible homeless,’ constantly passed between different welfare authorities, their children taken in and out of care.
Bodies such as the Committee of 100, an anti-nuke group, emphasized direct action as the only means to effect genuine social reform. Their mission to ‘fill the jails’ led in 1961 to 1314 people being arrested in Trafalgar Square for passive civil disobedience. Inspired by this and other experiences, Bailey’s LSC set the tone for the early stages of the squatting movement — young, highly-politicized radicals committed to direct action on behalf of disenfranchised elements of society. The great anarchist historian Colin Ward saw the LSC as a “harbinger of a new style of social and political activity that changes demoralized and helpless people from being the objects of social policy to becoming active fighters in their own cause.” This dynamic approach can be traced back to squatter messiah Gerrard Winstanley, who in 1649 wrote that “action is the life of all, and if thou dost not act thou dost nothing.”
The initial stages of the LSC’s campaign involved a series of brief, symbolic, protest squats to generate media attention. Their first action was to infiltrate a block of luxury flats on Wanstead High Street, East London, which had been built four years earlier but were still empty, largely because of the high rents being asked for them. Two members of the LSC posed as electricians to get in, and then opened the door for the rest of the group. They climbed to the roof and strung up banners, tossing leaflets to the crowd of supporters and onlookers below. After a couple of hours, they descended to give a press conference.
Then on 18 January, 1969, activists ‘cracked’ a condemned house in Notting Hill and moved in one Maggie O’Shannon and her two children. Owners the Inner London Education Authority reacted with predictable belligerence, but following an upswell of media support for O’Shannon, they pushed a rent book through her letter box. She became the first person since the 1940s to obtain permanent housing through squatting, and the movement began.
A key aspect of the LSC’s campaign was its targeted courting of the media. Crucially, the organizers were not the ones who were living in the squats they opened, nor were they the focus of the broadly sympathetic newspaper treatment of their campaigns. They focused the attention on others, though, crucially, this wasn’t true of all squatting movements of the period.
It would be simplistic to say that the squatting movement split as 1969 progressed, but there is no question that another, distinct tendency began to emerge alongside the LSC. This took the form of an increasingly prominent collection of countercultural types who saw squatting as a means to challenging mainstream values: private property, naturally, but also many of the ‘bourgeois’ characteristics that irked them in their parents. This second tendency was a somewhat grittier incarnation of the Hippy movement, and it was they who came to define squatting in the minds of the general public.
Certainly the hippy squatters did their part in changing prevailing attitudes, but they also often obscured and complicated the work of true activists engaged in the Sisyphen plod of social change. This divide still exists today: for every one more or less sober crew who want to save an abandoned public building from collapse or to protest against gentrification, there are two whose sole goal is to get in, do a rave, sell warm cans of Stella for three quid, and disappear on Monday morning, leaving behind only squalor and sleep-deprived civilians. The tension between these two approaches was exemplified by two famous squatting campaigns from 1969, one organized by the LSC in Redbridge and another that became known as Hippydilly.
Redbridge is a borough in North East London whose council in 1968 had been planning a major redevelopment, and evicted a large number of tenants from houses in the area, refusing even to make the properties available for short term lets. In February, 1969, the LSC stepped in, barricading four of the houses and installing four local, homeless, working class families. The Council tried to evict them again through the courts, but, thanks to the LSC’s understanding of the intricacies of the system, they failed. By March, squatting was spreading through the empty houses the Council was keeping empty, with many families approaching the LSC asking to be housed (after they were finally evicted, the houses stood empty until they were demolished in 1980).
The Council set a precedent of its own by turning to hired thugs, a firm of ‘private bailiffs’ run by a man with an aptly Dickensian name, Barry Quartermain; several members of his team were seen sporting National Front badges. In April, they smashed down the doors of three houses and evicted their occupants. The thugs then destroyed the furniture and fittings of the buildings. But when Quartermain returned in June, the squatters were prepared; they pelted the bailiffs with improvised missiles, and the invaders retreated using dustbin lids as shields. When Quartermain’s thugs returned two days later, the press were there waiting and Redbridge Council was vilified. A selection of headlines: BISHOP BACKS SQUATTERS; SQUATTERS FIGHT WINS SUPPORT; BEHIND THE BARRICADES: DAVID AND EILEEN HOLD OUT; FORD WORKERS BACK SQUATTERS; even I’D LET SQUATTERS IN HOUSE NEXT DOOR.
This was the high point in public support for squatters. Clearly the villains, Redbridge were forced to negotiate with the LSC and, in exchange for their pledge to vacate the houses and stop campaigning in the area, the squatters were given permanent housing. The Council overhauled its housing policy. What’s more, the fact the owners were forced to take legal action established a precedent that gave squatters a minimal amount of security. The LSC drew up a leaflet citing legal authorities and the Forcible Entries Act, a precursor of the Section 6 notice stuck to squatters’ front doors today. This success kick-started a broader squatting movement, with participants in the campaign scattering around London and sharing their experiences.
A few months later, some of these people joined forces with French students fresh from the barricades of 1968 to form the London Street Commune. Their first and only action was to occupy a grandiose mansion on Hyde Park Corner, 144 Piccadilly (since demolished). Headed by a Dr John, the squatters’ purported intent was to provide a home for the hundreds of hippies sleeping rough in London’s parks, and to establish a space for communal living. The LSC were keen to distance themselves, producing a pamphlet that rather snottily affirmed that “[T]hose of us who advocate and organize to secure the rights of the homeless and badly housed, are concerned to change and improve society – not to amuse ourselves.”
The building the Hippies chose was privately owned but had been empty for a while. This made it a very different kettle of fish to local authority properties, which, after all, belong to the public. Obscene and unjustifiable as such a concentration of wasted wealth may be, to reappropriate it from its rightful owner marked a departure from the Redbridge campaign. As Steve Platt put it in A Decade of Squatting (1980), at Redbridge, the “main issue…was bureaucratic inefficiency in the handling of local housing stock. Conflict between the needs of people for housing and the right of property owners to do as they wished with their property – including leaving it empty – was a secondary issue.”
With all their PROPERTY IS THEFT posturing, the Hippydilly squatters were essaying a much more direct critique of establishment values, a fact that was not lost on the establishment. A newsreel from the time offers a taste of the media response, narrated in Pathé accents of righteous indignation. The coverage generated a wave of negativity, and there were rarely fewer than 500 people outside Hippydilly, many of whom were very vocal in their disdain for the squatters. Until the eviction, the police presence was largely concerned with protecting the squatters from the crowd massed outside. One occupant wrote that a “line of bobbies separated us from a howling mob of skinheads in Green Park across the street. [They] reminded me of the orcs in Lord of the Rings.” Choosing to occupy such a prominent building was a move calculated to provoke just such a reaction. But, in the process, the squatters unleashed energies they were unable to control.
In the days leading up to the eviction, the building’s inhabitants became increasingly militant. Battle plans were drawn up and a ‘security force’ of Hell’s Angels drafted. Inevitably, the Angels took over, there were a number of violent incidents and the ‘commune’ rapidly dissolved. In miniature: the brief glory and whimpering implosion of the hippy dream. When the police finally went in there was no violence, and they reclaimed the building in four minutes. Ineffectual and, maybe, counter-productive as it proved to be, Hippydilly set the tone for how the public, press and authorities were to conceive of squatting from then on. Numerous important victories were to be won over the next decade, but squatting increasingly came to stand for a certain style of non-conformism and resistance, epitomized by its later relation to Punk. The evolution of the movement during the early and mid-1970s was exemplified by two distinct squat projects, both emblematic in their failures and successes.
The Free Independent Republic of Frestonia was founded on 30 October 1977, when the 120 inhabitants of Freston Street in Kensington, the entirety of which had recently been squatted, made a unilateral declaration of independence from Great Britain. They applied for full membership of the United Nations and the EEC, and sent a telegram to the Queen announcing their secession. A full cabinet of ministers was appointed; everyone who wasn’t made a minister became an ambassador.
The Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, David Rappaport-Bramley, articulated their aims in a letter to the Secretary General of the UN: “the GLC [Greater London Council] and the British government, through a long history of neglect and mismanagement of Frestonia, have forfeited the right to determine the future of the area…” The hoped-for media frenzy ensued, with tabloid photographers queuing up to take pictures of the Minister of the Interior in his pushchair. They showed the reporters their communal garden, which fed nearly the whole street, and eloquently communicated their desire to live together as a self-sufficient community (all the squatters had changed their last name to Bramley, in response to an earlier change in GLC housing policy). The GLC felt obliged to come to terms with Frestonia, and the street remained squatted for several years.
Frestonia built upon the lessons of a previous, similar project, based in a different part of London: Kentish Town, where in 1972 there were 292 people squatting in 52 houses. The community was centered around Prince of Wales Crescent, a whole street that had been standing empty for seven years, pending redevelopment. When they moved in, the squatters had to fix up the place, building, plumbing and wiring. A number of workshops were set up — electronics, engineering, silk-screening, jewelry, carpentry — and an eclectic mix of organizations instituted: the London filmmakers co-op, Little Sister of Jesus, European Theatre Exchange, and, naturally, a Polytantric Academy. There was a free restaurant that cooked unsold produce from local markets, and a free shop for recycling unwanted goods. There were two community newsletters, an informal police force, a Mental Patients Union, and a drug rehab clinic. The squatters also cleared a rubble-filled wasteland and built a public park.
Leaflets produced by the community described Prince of Wales Crescent as a “decentralized urban self-managed community…[a] green revolution in the city.” They put forward plans to Camden Council emphasizing mixed use and social heterogeneity: “It is a genuine organic community. Planners are searching desperately to produce this phenomena in new estates, so far without success. Prince of Wales Crescent is an excellent example of what people can do if left to their own devices.”
This heart-warming utopianism turned out to be unsustainable. As the ‘70s progressed, the squatting movement took on different characteristics, providing a refuge to the nascent Punk scene. In fact, there is a sense in which Punk was indivisible from squatting — all the luminaries lived in squats, from Shepherd’s Bush to Hampstead. Joe Strummer’s first band was named after their place at 101 Walterton Terrace, and the Clash were later heavily involved in the Elgin Avenue/Chippenham Road scene, comparable in scale to Prince of Wales Crescent. The Slits used to rehearse at Strummer’s house. Meanwhile, ‘God Save the Queen’ was written in a squat in Hampstead. As Johnny Rotten told Punk chronicler Jon Savage: “I went squatting with Sid. Hampstead, not the posh end, but those awful Victorian dwellings round the back of the station. Really desperate people lived up there. It was awful. I liked it.”
A rich portrait of the scene is to be found across many of the great Hanif Kureishi’s books and screenplays, which often take squatting as a prism through which to examine the fear and loathing of the ‘70s and early ‘80s (as he put it, “the revolution had come at last: Margaret Thatcher was its figurehead.”) Camden-dweller Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist also uses a dysfunctional squat as a symbol for Thatcher’s England. But before Thatcher came to power, the Labour government had already stuck the knife in, with 1977’s Criminal Trespass Act setting in motion a series of changes in legislation that in 2012 culminated with the criminalization of squatting in residential properties. 1977 was the turning point, the first formal pushback from the authorities, and the end of a golden age of squatting in the UK.
At the time, local councils were also applying another, more insidious technique to defang the squat movement: legalizing it. Increasingly, squatter collectives were allowed to remain in the properties they occupied on the condition that they formalize their organization and become legally responsible. This was an attractive option to those who were tired of insecurity and many jumped at the chance, creating housing co-operatives many of which are still operational today. The GLC even offered squatters an amnesty in 1977, giving them 28 days to give up their squats in exchange for permanent housing. At the time, there were 5000 squatters in GLC properties, 1000 of whom registered.
But squatting was far from dead, remaining the focus of the London alternative scene for several decades more, and even experiencing a boom with the emergence of the occupied social centre in the late ‘90s. Today, like all of London’s subcultures, squatting has been eroded by the implacable tide that is swamping the city. But it remains one of the few true alternatives to that tide, as well as a powerful weapon in the fight against injustice. In the words of the invaluable Advisory Service for Squatters, squatting is still legal, still necessary, and still free.