Squatting the City

Words: Danny Magill

Contemporary London, as a centre for global finance and its attendant trends of all-encompassing precarity, housing speculation and cultural homogeneity, can feel isolating – totalising even: a place where everything is touched by the undeniable presence of capital looming over the city’s skyline. 

Against these pressures, the desire to rediscover and reflect on London’s history of rebellion, resistance and cultural resilience seems natural. Exemplified by the success of David Rosenberg’s Rebel Footprints or Marc Matera’s Black Londoners, these explorations of what might be called London’s ‘radical inheritance’ remind us that London’s progress towards uncompromising capitalist dystopia is not inexorable; it is the product of decisions which can be resisted, fought and shaped to suit the needs of ordinary people.

The squatting movement is an oft-overlooked but powerful aspect of this radical inheritance. This underappreciation is perhaps not surprising: in recent years squatting has been pushed, politically and geographically, to the margins by increasing property speculation and criminalisation. There are also few academic histories of squatting, with any material tending to be compiled by squatters themselves, driven by the ‘need to document the spaces they created and the identities they performed, often in the face of imminent destruction’. 

But the fact remains that squatters formed a bona fide social movement in the capital of the 1970s, with an estimated 50,000 squatters in London by 1975. Contrary to many preconceptions about squatters, this movement was genuinely diverse, attracting students, runaways, workers, families, anarchists, punks, gay and lesbian activists, queer and trans groups, black nationalists, refugees and environmentalists. 

What’s more, the squatters were a political force capable of action on a spectacular scale: take, for example, the 1974 occupation of Centre Point, a 34-storey office block on Tottenham Court Road that had been left empty for years against a backdrop of increasing homelessness, or the residents of Freston Road in Hammersmith, who in 1977 attempted to secede from the UK to form the Free and Independent Republic of Frestonia.

Frestonia and other squats like it point to the squatting movement’s wider impact on the history of radicalism in London: for many, squatting wasn’t just a response to London’s perpetual housing crises, but also an attempt to assert a degree of autonomy within the urban environment and, in doing so, to explore ways to live differently. In this sense, squatting also played a decisive role in the development of many grassroots urban movements, providing vital, experimental spaces where networks of activism and community were nurtured. 

Perhaps the most evocative example of this role could be found on Railton Road in Brixton, which became a hub of radical activity in capital in the 1970s, housing groups including the Race Today Collective, the Gay Liberation Front and The Brixton Black Women’s Group, as well as The Brixton Women’s Centre (one of many squatted women’s centres set up across the capital), The Anarchist Black Cross and The Brixton Advice Center. 

But where do the roots of the squatting movement itself lie? Squatting was not unheard of in the immediate postwar period: in the aftermath of the Second World War many returning soldiers seized houses, disused army service camps and even seaside resorts in response to a lack of social housing for veterans. It would take a number of practical and theoretical innovations, though, for squatting to become the mass movement that it did in the 1970s, many of which are directly attributable to the London Squatting Campaign.

The campaign was founded in November 1968, at the East London home of Rob Bailey, by 15 activists heavily associated with the Committee of 100, the direct action wing of the peace movement led by Bertrand Russell. As the decade neared its close, these activists began to apply theories of direct action to the problem of homelessness (which had become a key object of public concern following Ken Loach’s 1966 film Cathy Come Home), becoming heavily involved in housing struggles across the country. It was during these struggles that activists and the families they worked with were able to articulate the role of squatting in a wider campaign of direct action that would not only seek to house people, but would also attempt to spark a mass movement of people taking housing into their own hands in what Bailey called an all-out attack on housing authorities’.

London’s progress towards uncompromising capitalist dystopia is not inexorable; it is the product of decisions which can be resisted, fought and shaped to suit the needs of ordinary people.

The campaign began with a series of symbolic occupations in Wanstead and Leyton, but the campaign’s first real test, out of which many of the practical and legal strategies adopted by the wider squatting movement were born, came in the Borough of Redbridge. Redbridge Council had been planning a major redevelopment in Ilford, but the scheme had stalled and houses in the development area had been left vacant for over a decade. Beginning in February 1969, the London Squatting Campaign began to move families into the Ilford homes.

Redbridge Council responded swiftly, but after multiple defeats in court, the case was suspended indefinitely. Incensed, council leaders turned to Barrie Quartermain, a notorious facist once described as ‘a man who tears a London phone directory into halves and then into quarters as he lectures you about the toughness of his henchmen’, to illegally evict the squatters. The month before, Quartermain’s men had violently and illegally evicted squatters from a house owned by the Greater London Council. In the process one of the squatters, Olive Mercer, was struck in the stomach with an iron bar, miscarrying as a result.

On the morning of 21 April, Quartermain and his men arrived at three of the houses. Statements from the squatters describe Quartermain’s men, many of whom wore National Front badges, tearing children from their beds and forcing the squatters from their homes with punches and kicks while council workers pulled up floorboards, smashed sinks and toilets and tore bannisters from the walls. One squatter had his jaw broken while police and welfare workers looked on. 

The April evictions were a blow to the campaign. But by June, the campaign had squatted more houses in the area, prompting Redbridge Council to hire Quatermain again. This time, however, the bailiffs were met with stiff resistance, as well as the presence of national and international media who had been alerted to the plight of the squatters by members of the campaign. Images of bailiffs in helmets attacking squatters with bottles and bricks appeared in newspapers and on television screens across the country, leading to an outpouring of support for the squatters and anger at Redbridge Council’s use of extreme violence against homeless families. 

By July, the council, under intense public scrutiny, had negotiated a deal with the squatters, agreeing to provide many of the families with permanent accommodation and licensing out its vacant properties for short-term occupation by the borough’s homeless families in return for the Redbridge campaign’s end. In fact, the deal did little to change council policy: many of the properties were still vacant in 1980, and Redbridge later adopted a policy of ‘prior demolition’, pulling down houses on land not needed for several years. 

Nevertheless, the campaign’s partial success in Redbridge set a template for what was to become the squatting movement of the 1970s, situating squatting as part of a broader campaign of direct action and providing a guidebook of strategies the squatting movement would use for decades to come. Before long, campaigns were set up in Notting Hill, Wandsworth, Fulham, Greenwich, Harringay and Lewisham. By the early 1970s, licensed squatting, which the London Squatting Campaign helped to create through its actions in Redbridge, was common in Camden, Tower Hamlets, Greenwich and Lambeth, and by the end of 1971, twelve separate London Councils had reached deals with squatting groups representing over 1000 families. A true social movement had been born.

The campaign, renamed the East London Squatting Campaign, continued to operate well into the 1980s. But as the squatting movement approached its zenith, contradictions began to surface. Communes like the ‘Hippidilly’ squat at 144 Piccadilly and the antagonistic coverage of it in the media not only sapped the reserve of public goodwill that was so crucial to early squatting struggles, but also pointed to a growing divide between those who viewed squatting as collective organisation and a growing libertarian tendency for whom any formal organisation was oppressive. Partially as a result of this divide, squatting was, as activist x-Chris puts, more or less ‘dumped by the Left as a political project and as a solution to the housing crisis’ by the mid-1980s, with squatting increasingly characterised by its relation to specific subcultures and disconnected from wider struggles. Successive governments used these divides and the moral panic around movements like the free party scene of the early 1990s to further criminalise squatters – a process which David Cameron’s Conservative government more or less completed in 2012 by effectively banning squatting in residential properties.

Nevertheless, the history of the London Squatting Campaign and the squatting movement it precipitated can serve as a timely reminder of the power of urban social activism. It can draw our attention to the ways in which regular people, acting for and of themselves, can provide solutions to the social problems that affect them, and offers a great many lessons in how to overcome the powerful interests that stand in the way. It shows the value of community, how physical spaces undergird movements and, most importantly, that cities like London are not dictated to us, but are made and remade in concrete struggles.

learn more

  • BOOK: The Autonomous City – Alexander Vasudevan
  • Book: The Squatters – Ron Bailey
  • Blog: Squatting London

Danny Magill is a writer and activist from London. He writes about climate change, the urban environment and culture.