Story of an eviction

LATE LAST YEAR A MEMBER OF TUNBRIDGE WELLS COMMITTEE OF 100 was approached by a woman whose dustbin he was emptying, who asked him if he knew of a vacant flat or small house she and her family could rent. From the conversation which ensued, it transpired that she—let us call her Mrs. Smith—had been living with her husband (then recovering from a road accident in which the small truck indispensable to his “general dealer” business had been smashed up, thus putting him out of work) and their two children, in this house, working for the owner-occupier, an old woman, as housekeeper and getting board for her family in exchange. The old woman had gone into hospital and sold the house and since they had no rent book and were therefore not legal tenants they had become trespassers overnight and were threatened with eviction.
The motor accident had been a severe blow to their income and the new owners had cut off the electricity.

The story was brought up at the next local Committee of 100 meeting and we decided to set up a sub-committee to deal with it. Over the next three months we were in constant touch with the Smiths and went to see the local council for them several times. The Council would do nothing. saying that the Smiths had not been on the waiting list for a council house long enough. There were 1,300 on the waiting list already and six or seven were in a position more desperate than that of the Smiths. Anyway they weren’t going to discuss it with the Committee of 100; it wasn’t our business. Then a Labour councillor (and Parliamentary candidate) was approached. He went to see the Smiths and then saw the council’s Housing Committee. He endorsed the Committee’s decision to put the wife and children in West Malling “Rest Centre”. By now the owner’s solicitors were securing an eviction order. The Smiths, who represent a social strata peculiar to towns in rural areas—people who have been displaced from the farm labourer jobs by machinery and have consequently come into the nearby towns, which have little or no industry and therefore no jobs—had not appeared in court to contest the eviction order and it was secured against them for 12 noon on January 8th. We decided to mount a demonstration.

Accordingly 500 leaflets were printed, giving a history of the case. On the day before the eviction was due to take place the Housing Committee turned down the case for the second time. Plans were made to squat the family in an empty house if it were willing. (A list had been drawn up a month before of houses for which the Council could have secured Ministerial permission for compulsory purchase if it had so wished.) The night before the eviction the street was leafleted and the press and Southern Television were notified.

By 11.30 in the morning the demonstration had started. The TV cameras and reporters were there and by 12 noon about 30 Committee of 100 supporters were standing under the banner hung from a first floor window, holding hastily made posters. Bailiffs walked up and down the road looking worried and a crowd began to collect. Statements to TV and Press were made. A policeman came up and said he wanted a spokesman to come and talk with him. Feeling flattered we asked him to talk to all of us. He looked annoyed and said that after all there would be no eviction that day. After about 1.30 people had started going back to work and the demonstration had dwindled to six people when the bailiff and several policemen came and forced the window open and evicted the family at 4.15. We had kept them off for nearly five hours.

A crowd of neighbours—housewives with children—now began pouring abuse on the police at the top of their voices. We engaged the bailiffs in a long wrangling dispute lasting till six o’clock. By six all the family’s possessions were out and piled on a small van. They had five shillings and sixpence. The whole thing had brought them down and they didn’t want to squat in any empty house so after settling their dogs in the local RSPCA kennels we held hurried collections among ourselves to pay for bed and breakfast accommodation for them.

At this stage, Jim Spellman, a man unknown to us, turned up at the house where we had taken the Smiths for tea and said that we had been sent by the workers from the local telephone exchange to see if we needed money. This was terrific and actually solved our problem eventually, since we have been paying their rent in one room with the money he and his fellow-workers provided, plus money contributed by the Society of Friends and collected elsewhere. And now Jim Spellman has managed to find the Smiths somewhere to live—half his own house!

This demonstration has proved one thing at least to the local council: that what it claims it can’t do, with all its resources, can be done by an organisation such as the Committee of 100, with working class support, and as long as it can be done, it will be done.

The writer would be glad to receive details of housing in other parts of Kent and Sussex with a view to publishing a full report on the situation, and is grateful to those who have sent him information from Margate.