Housing and cleaners' struggles in London in the 1960s-70s - May Hobbs

May Hobbs
May Hobbs

In two chapters from her autobiographical account Born To Struggle, May describes her struggles against landlords, employees and council and union bureaucrats. As a result of her experiences working as a night cleaner, she set up the rank'n'file group Cleaners Action and led a cleaners' strike at the Ministry of Defence offices.

Submitted by Red Marriott on December 7, 2009

We lived in our new flat [in Tottenham] about three months. Then through one of my brothers and his wife we heard about somewhere else that was going that had more room and the rent not much dearer. It seemed a nice place, so we moved. As it turned out I never felt happy there. It was in a house that had been split up into six flats. When we moved in we found that the bathroom was not in working order, so we organized a rent strike. All the tenants refused to pay any more more until the bathroom was working. We kept it up for a fortnight, and when the landlord saw we were serious he soon had the builders in and we paid up. We had our ups and downs at that flat. It was nice enough, but I grew very depressed there and wanted to move. By now flats were getting harder to come by, especially if you had kids, but we started to look around again, and eventually found something through a friend who knew a friend. It was in some old buildings near the Blackwall Tunnel. Though the buildings were old, you had your own street door and the rent was only £1 a week for two rooms and a small kitchenette. We found it really suited us.

The buses used to go almost in a circle round the block of buildings, and Tony [her young son] spent nearly all day getting on them at the bus stop at the turning in for the bus to drop him off at the other side. There were plenty of other kids in the buildings and we felt we had got back into a community where everybody knew everybody else and people would try to help each other out.

By the time we had been there six months I was resigned to the fact that we would only ever have Tony, and then I found I was pregnant. I was quite delighted as I would not have liked to think of Tony as being the only one. I had got friendly with a Scotch girl called Margaret, and we decided to start up a second-hand stall down Crisp Street market. We did not do too badly at it. It was not like the Hoxton market, though, where no one would be envious if you earned a couple of bob over.

There were three others down there, and for every little thing they would be running to the market man to tittle-tattle about how we were trying to take customers away. When we got hold of a lot of slightly damaged children's dresses from a warehouse and put them on the stall, they went and told the market man that we were supposed to be a second-hand stall, not selling new stuff. But the bloke never said a word.

We went down there twice a week, and I always took Tony. By the end of the day I would owe the cafe and all the sweet shops where Tony had been in and said he could have so and so and his mum would come in and pay later. We also went to the Watney Street market twice a week and I did pretty well on Tuesdays, it being Family Allowance day. I continued with the market work till I was about six months pregnant, and then gave it up. It was getting a bit too much, and Margaret had packed it in. And, it being winter, standing out in the freezing cold and snow was no joke. That is the thing about stall work: it is lovely in summer, but treacherous in cold weather. Anyway, Chris was not earning too bad and it was coming up to Christmas.

Our first Christmas in there was really quite nice. We had in our food and drink, and never went outside. It was the first time we had really been on our own, in a place with our own front door. Now Tony was older he could enjoy his presents and play with them. We bought him a pedal car and a train set - though I am not sure who the trains were bought for: Chris [her partner] played with them more than Tony.

Then there came a cold and miserable day on 25 January. We were sitting watching telly when I started to have pains. They went on and got more rapid and as I was not supposed to be having the baby for another month I started to be a wee bit frightened. I told Chris he had better go and call the ambulance, and it did not arrive for about an hour. When it did they asked me, `How quickly are the pains coming?' I had got the needle by this time and said, `They'd be a bit slower if you'd come a bit faster.' At that they got quite snotty.

I said to Chris that he had better stay at home - I was sure we would end up having a row the mood I felt in. The lady from next door went with me, and the hospital was only about fifteen minutes away. We reached there at 10.20 p.m. We were just into the lift as the baby started to arrive. They were just about able to get me into the labour ward with my skirt and that off when she was born. At 6 lb. Debby was a pretty good weight, considering she was a month early.

When she was born Debby never had a hair on her head but she was a lovely looking baby, though I know every mother says her baby is great. The one thing I was worried over was Tony's reaction. For three years he had been the centre of attraction, and now some of that would have to slip. But I need not have worried. He just kept on kissing her when we got her home. The only thing Tony would not stand for was that she might come into our bed. He had a bed of his own, but he always crept into ours. All our kids have done this - even Trevor, the latest recruit; he says he is looking after us, in case anybody gets in during the night. But that first night back with Debby, when Tony came into our bed as usual he turned to Chris and said, `Now you've got her, you ain't going to sling me out, are you?' It really choked us that in his little mind he could have thought that he would have to leave because of the new baby.

When Debby was about three weeks old I started to do night work. We had been living in that flat under the previous tenant's name, and as soon as the landlord found out he sent us notice to quit. There was nothing for it but to try and get the money together for somewhere else. On Chris's wage we could not afford to offer key money. We looked around and eventually found a place at Clapton where kids were tolerated : two damp basement rooms for £7 a week, and a charge of £100 just to get in. They said it would be a returnable deposit, but a load of old toffee that turned out. The landlord you could never get at as he had put the flat to be managed by an agent. If you went in to the agent's to tell them about something that needed doing, they just said `Yes', and sat back on their backsides.

Once we were there I had to keep on with the night work to pay the rent. After six months of that and coming home to look after the kids during the day I was feeling really -exhausted and irritable. Then a friend called Gladys came to live across the road, and that was a help. She used to take the kids for a few hours each day to give me a chance to sleep.

Then I was pregnant again. This time it really was the last thing I wanted. I continued night work till I was about six months gone, then thought I had better pack it in for a while. At seven months gone I decided it was time to book in at hospital. What a day that was! I went to the Mothers' Hospital at Clapton, which is run by the Sally Army. I went in there about 10.30 in the morning after saying to Gladys, `Have the kids for a couple of hours.' When I arrived I felt some twinges start and asked the nurse, could I have some pills. `The doctor isn't in yet,' she said, `but go in there and wait and he'll be along to examine you in half an hour.' As anyone who has waited around in hospitals knows, half an hour according to their timetable means something more like two. Along he came at a quarter to twelve and slapped me straight in the labour ward. I had a baby girl there at five past.

Michelle weighed only 4 lb., and so had to be put straight in an incubator. It was funny how, with the two girls, I had easy times, while the boys never seemed in any great hurry to come and not to worry about giving pain.

After eleven days in hospital I went home without Michelle. They let her come home three weeks later, and she had only been there four hours when she had to be taken off to Hackney Hospital with German measles, which she must have picked up in Clapton. It was another fourteen days before she was home again. Now I had three kids to look after.

People might say to me, why did you always wait so long before you booked in at hospital? Isn't that what we've got a National Health Service for? The reason why I put it off was because I could not bear to be pulled about by doctors who treated you as a moron and herded their patients from place to place as if they were a load of cattle in a market place. After every child I had I was told I ought not to have any more, and when I asked to be sterilized they told me I was too young. Makes you laugh, don't it?

By this time things got pretty tough. We were paying the rent and bringing up three kids on a man's wage of £14 a week. So the rent took second place: my kids were not going to die of malnutrition. When we had notice to quit I went to the agent and said, `Take the rent I owe you out of the £100.' `That was for fixtures and fittings,' he said, the lying bastard. As we could not raise the rent they said we owed, they sent in the bailiff. Instead of evicting us there and then, though, he said we could have two weeks to find somewhere else. In fact he found us a flat at Wood Green. The rent was still £7, and it was for only two rooms, but we were not faced with any choice. We took it. There was already living in the house a family who were coloured. They seemed amazed to get some tenants in who were not racist. During our time there we were all good neighbours and we have kept in touch with them ever since. They have their own house today.

It was about this time that Rachman [a notorious London slum landlord of the time] was thriving, and it was what I saw then that started to make me political. Seeing all the problems of homelessness and disgusting rents being charged for rotten accommodation took me in that direction. I joined the local Labour party at Harringay, though it seemed to me to be more full of false than of true socialists. We helped at council election times by canvassing for our candidates and doing the tote, which was work which really took us into contact with people and their troubles. They didn't mind telling me about them, they said, because they felt I was genuinely interested (which I was). They didn't feel that about the people on the council, they said. When people told me their problems, I always relayed them on to Eric Page, who was the one councillor I could trust to do something about them. He always checked them out straight away.

In 1964 Harold Wilson got the Labour party more working-class votes than he would have done otherwise as a result of his promise to stamp out Rachmanism and put a stop to illegal evictions. I know people who voted Labour then who had never voted in their lives before - and never have done since. But when it came to it, in typical fashion, the new laws left plenty of loopholes for the landlords to creep in.

By now I had started back on night work, and again it was to try to bring us in enough to live. We took our rent to the tribunal, and had it reduced to £3 10s. a week by the rent officer. But then we also had to pay £2 a week in rates, so the actual reduction only came to £1 10s. Meanwhile the landlady began to get stroppy, and was working behind the scenes to turn us out - though we did not know it yet.

The work I found was in one of the big office blocks in the West End. The cleaning contractors paid £9 for working through the night from 10 p.m. till 6 a.m. five days a week. There were about twelve of us working there, and though we realized we were being exploited - by that I mean used to make money for the contractors - and moaned on about it, we never really did anything to change things.

One night, as we were sitting having our dinner break, we decided the only way to better our pay and conditions would be to organize into a trade union. And we did, but we never told the supervisor yet. We did not want to get the sack before we were properly off the ground. We got some forms from the Transport and General Workers' Union office and all filled them in.

After about three weeks the supervisor has found us out, and that Friday morning, as we are leaving to go home, out comes Effie, the one and only coloured girl on our building, looking mad and informing us she has got the sack. Effie had taken up night cleaning to help support her five kids; though she was a nurse, the hours in that profession never fit in with domestic life. She has been working on the building for about six months.

Back we go and ask the supervisor why. `Her work is no good,' she says. To which we reply, `Well, where've you been for the last six months, or have you had shit in your eyes?' A big row follows and in the end she screams out that she hates blacks and is not having any on her building.

It was too late to do anything then and there, but we agreed that we would meet at Warren Street tube station before going back to work on Sunday night, and then, if Effie was not reinstated, that we would stay out too. We informed the union by phone, and then we all went home.

Come Sunday night and we all meet as arranged and go along to the building to ask the supervisor once again if she is going to let in Effie. `No,' she says. `Well in that case,' we say, `we aren't coming in either.' She scuttles off to phone the night manager. When he comes down he says that, if we will go in, he will put Effie on another building. This we refuse: this is her building, we tell him, and it is this one or none at all. He cannot go against the supervisor, he tells us. So we stay out.

We tried to get a union officer to come down. If one had come the strike would probably have been settled on the spot, but we had to wait till nine o'clock the next morning. It seems that a night union officer exists for the big industries where the big money is, but when it comes to inconsequential people like night cleaners, no such person is available. Eventually a union representative and one of the directors of the company got together to look into the sacking, and that night Effie was reinstated. The supervisor was advised to take a holiday - and anybody given a holiday by the company was usually on permanent holiday.

After that things went smoothly for three to four weeks. Then one night they asked me and my mate Brenda - another very militant type - if we could help out and go on another building. And, like fools, we agreed.

As it was a fairly small building we reckoned that we would get through all the work before stopping for our dinner break. We had just begun our tea and were reading the paper when three supervisors and a manager came in. `You were sleeping,' they said. `You must be joking,' we told them. `It's your word against ours,' they said, `and there are more of us.' We were out at a minute's notice.

We should have seen that it was a set-up job, but you would never think anyone could be so snidey, though you ought to expect anything from those bastards. The union made their half-hearted attempt to have us reinstated, but in the circumstances, they said, there was not much they could do. So there we were, sacked. It was about a year before I got another job - and then it was only by going under another name.

Though I was out of work I never went back into the quiet life of a little housewife. Right, I thought, I'll really get into the politics of things, especially where it is all to do with people without homes, where they go and what happens to them if they are evicted. One of the first cases we got involved with concerned another friend of mine called Ann.

Today Ann has eight kids. In those days it was six, and they were all living in two rooms in Wood Green, paying £6 10s. and £1 in rates a week. She just could not manage on the wages her bloke brought in, and as they could not pay the rent the landlord had given them notice to quit. Feeling mad, she came round to me to tell me that he was taking her to court.
When they had the court hearing I went along with her, and after everybody else had gabbled on and on it came to Ann's turn to speak.

`Do you agree with what the landlord has said?' the judge asked her.

`No,' Ann replied, `I think he's got a fucking cheek, throwing me out. I only owe him £625 rent. If he wasn't charging so much I wouldn't owe so much.'

I was sitting there in stitches, she was so serious about it. As you might guess, though, she got her month's notice to quit. With Ann, it never seemed to matter what a bother she was in, the funny side always came out. We went from the court straight round to the Homeless Family Unit at Harringay Town Hall to tell them she would be without a home in four weeks. `Come back when you're on the street,' they said.

The day before she was due for eviction the landlord arrived and started to ask which her furniture was so he could take some to pay towards the arrears.

`You don't get any of it,' Ann told him. `Anyway, it wouldn't do you any good. If you grab it I'll phone the shop and tell them to come and get it. None of it's been paid for.'

He was well choked.

That night we used Ann's pram to take all her furniture piece by piece round to our place. We must really have looked a sight, pushing all that gear through the streets, and no one guessed we would find ourselves in the same boat a few months later l The next day, with all her furniture stacked in one of our rooms, Ann went up to the Town Hall to ask where she was having to go. In fact she knew one thing that so many homeless families do not know - that she was not going to be separated from her kids or her man. She had already been told by Eric Page that the worst that could happen to her was being put into hostel, and that that would be in Wood Green.

It happened as he told her. She had two rooms in the hostel, and shared a kitchen, and they let her take in her own furniture. It was just like a two-roomed flat, except that she only had to pay £1 10s. a week instead of £7 10s. They told her she could be there three months.

While Ann was in the hostel, she decided to get a night job, and I said I would try with her. We applied for a job to one of the big contractors and found they had work going at the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall, where they needed a supervisor and cleaner. I applied for the supervisor's job, as by then I had had experience of being one. And then, with a job like that, it gave better opportunities of building up contacts with the cleaners. Back came the forms and we filled them in and sent them off. Mine came back as I had omitted to put in my parents' names and I sent it off again. We were two weeks waiting to hear.

When the answers came, Ann had been given her job but I had been rejected. Even Ann was amazed. She had convictions stretching from Wood Green to Holloway gaol. I asked for a reason, and the guv at the contractors said he did not know what it was. I asked him outright, `Is it because of my conviction?' 'No,' he said, `that isn't the reason.' There was only one thing left it could have been: my dad's name, which was Samuel Benjamin Bemrose. The moral of this story seems to be that you can have as many cons as you like, but if you have a Jewish name in the family the government reckon ou are likely to be a real subversive. Ann turned down the job they offered her.

In the end I found some evening work helping in the kitchen in a posh cafe in Wood Green. The hours were 6 to 10 p.m., but the job fell through after two weeks. When they closed at ten you were expected to clear up, which meant you never got away until eleven. I stood it for a few nights, and then went to the manageress to ask for overtime. She looked at me as if I was out of my mind. I told her, well, I was being paid for six to ten, so the extra hour was overtime. Wouldn't she stop me an hour's pay, I asked her, if I told her one evening I was not coming in till seven? But she couldn't see it that way. People had done it for years, she said. So I said, `That's why you're always advertising for a kitchen hand.' After that she started to get on my back, so I quit.

My next evening job was at the Standard Telephone factory, which was a union firm. But the girls on the evening shift were not particularly militant. They said they only did it to get a couple of extra shillings and because it suited them - none would admit they were there for economic reasons. Mind you, the shop steward - a woman who worked there during the day - would always come back to the factory in the evening to sort out any problems if you had them.

It was about this time that our landlady said I owed her £75 in rent. I had always sent her the rent by registered post and enclosed the rent book. One week she never sent the book back, and when I kept asking for it, she said she would send it on. Instead, she sent a notice to quit. Again I asked her for the rent book, and she'd lost it, she said. When I told her I could prove I had been sending the rent, she said it would never hold up in court; there was no proof for how much money had been in the envelopes. So I was sent a court order, and the hearing was set for three months ahead. From that day I did not pay her a penny more rent. What was the point when she said she never received it?

The few times I had seen her she had talked to make me feel sorry for her - telling me about how she had been in a Nazi concentration camp, how her husband was blind and ours was the only house she owned, how she had to take in dressmaking to make ends meet and send her daughter to college, and how tough her life was. It turned out she owned five houses and her old man was his own boss in a dressmaking firm while her daughter was marrying another businessman. You could not take such a woman's word on anything.

I packed up the evening work when I found I was pregnant again. By now I was whacked out with looking after the kids and being pregnant. Chris was working away from home just then, so I had to be home for the children. The money started to get really tight. I began to buy things on the book round the local shops and pay them at the end of the week. Ann now had seven kids, and she did the same. Our troubles started when we could not pay the shopkeepers. Then when we wanted to meet up somewhere else, she would go one route, past the shops where I owed, and I went the other, past the ones where she owed. It meant about a mile's detour. The shoe leather we must have got through.

To collect our Family Allowances we had to go down the Post Office in Commerce Road. It was five minutes as the crow would fly, but it took us twenty by the time we had gone by our roundabout routes. Then Ann owed the greengrocer's next the Post Office. So I would go into the shop to buy some potatoes or something and keep the bloke occupied while she ran in to get her allowance. One day he came out just as she did.

`Oy!' he was shouting down the road after her. `You owe me some money.'

We just hurried on, saying to people, `That man must be mad. He's shouting after someone when there's no one about.'

In spite of our troubles we always had some good laughs together: me and Ann and our other mate, Brenda. It was Brenda, you remember, who had been with me when we agitated to have Effie reinstated. We used to go round to see Brenda maybe once a week.

One particular day we go to see Brenda and are sitting there having a cup of tea when a man comes to the door as white as a ghost.

`Do you know where your kids are, missus ?' he asks.

`Yes,' Brenda says. `Upstairs, playing.'

`You call it playing,' he replies, `but I call it acrobats - they're swinging on the curtains out of the window.'

So we all rush upstairs to the bedroom, and sure enough there they are, playing Tarzan out of the window and swinging on the curtains.

The time came round for the court hearing, and Ann went with me this time. We arrived at ten o'clock - the only time, I think, that I have ever been early for one of those places. The landlady had a solicitor to represent her, but I did not. We were only in there about half an hour because, for some reason or other , the judge thought I should be represented and they put it off another fortnight. I went home browned off and feeling I would rather have had it seen to there and then so I would have known where I stood. In the meantime I got myself a solicitor - for all the good he was.

Came the day when we were back in court. The landlady's solicitor got up to say her piece for her and tried to make out I owed the money - though as she had lost the rent book they had no more proof than I did. Then I had to go into the box for her solicitor to ask me a load of questions. So I asked one myself: `You've been told by her that I owe this money, yet she has already shown herself to be a liar, so why take her word against mine?' Straightaway the judge told me not be to so cheeky - except he used a long word I could not spell.

All through the hearing my own solicitor never asked one question so I could not have been worse off without him. The whole thing droned on, and then the judge asked me if I had anywhere to go if I was evicted. He was going to evict me, I told him, so what did he care? Anyway, I said, I wanted to be evicted because that was the only way I was ever going to get a proper place of my own as it would then be the council's duty to rehouse me. Even if it meant having to go into a hostel for a time, I was prepared for that, I said. The judge made out the eviction order for two months ahead, and I told the landlady not to bother about expecting the rent. Then I went to the council to tell them the date set for my eviction and they said that my case was coming up on the Rehousing Committee's agenda.

About a week after the hearing I went into hospital. I was about six months gone by then, and the doctors said my blood count was low. They advised me to go in for a rest, otherwise I might land up with another premature birth. So I left Chris and our friends to look after the kids. The first three days in there I did nothing but sleep, but after that I began to feel bored and pretty depressed. I soon bucked up when a really lively girl called Pat was put into the bed next to mine. The times we were caught doing handstands up the wall.

After I was in there about three weeks we were joined by another woman called Beatty, whose husband had his own car business. One particular night it was Beatty's birthday and he brought in two bottles of champagne. Somebody else's husband had brought some beer and Chris had brought food and fruit. We all had a great time getting pissed until all the husbands were thrown out about three hours later. Being in a side-ward, they had forgotten about us, and it was only when the sister did her night rounds that she found the blokes were still there. She had to admit the next morning, though, that we had all slept like tops - we hadn't even needed our sleeping pills.

Meantime other things had been happening on the outside. Our landlady sent somebody down at nine o'clock one night to try and evict Chris and the kids, and when Chris told the bloke I was in hospital, he said, `How could I evict you, mate? You've got enough on your mind as it is.'

Then there was Michelle. She has more scars on her than any kid I know. She has always been climbing trees and jumping and falling. As soon as she started school she began jumping around on the desks and fell and cut her head open. So up the hospital she was carted, and in she came to see me that night, her head all bandaged up. Inside about three days she was back: this time she had swallowed a sixpence. They X-rayed her and told Chris that nature would have to take its course - which it did. A few days later, as Chris was walking down the road from work one evening, the kids came walking up to him chewing sweets with great enjoyment. One of them says to him: `All your worries are over, Dad.'

`How's that?' he asks.

`Well,' they say, `you know that tanner Michelle swallowed? We just bought some sweets with it.'

After four weeks in the hospital I had my baby: a boy, still premature, but a fine weight at 6 lb., pink and bald as a badger. I was pleased it was a boy. We called him Trevor, and out of all my mob he has turned out the funniest. I was in hospital about ten days more, and then we came home. The others really took to Trevor.

I was only home two days before there came a knock on the door and there was the bailiff stood on the doorstep. I asked him in and he told me the length of time I was permitted to stay had expired and he was there to evict me. But when I told him I was just out of hospital and had not been able to get myself together, he behaved quite human and asked how long it would take for the council to see what they would do about us. I told him about a fortnight, at least. `Right,' he said, `I'll be back in two weeks' time,' and he gave me a date and time. Then he said, `Don't forget to get everything out that's yours, because the landlady could come down and claim it for rent arrears.'

I went up the council with the new date I would be evicted and up came the same old story: `Wait until you're out on the street. You aren't homeless until you're on the street.' Then they had their Rehousing Committee meeting and said they could not rehouse me because I owed rent. I said yes, I did owe rent, but I only owed it since the court hearing and I had no intention of paying it to a woman who said she wasn't getting it. They still said they could not help, and though Eric Page and a few other councillors kept on hammering the council, they would not budge.

When there was a week to go, a man from the Homeless Families Unit came to see me, and I told him that if the council was not going to do anything for me, I would squat. There were plenty of people willing to help, including Eric Page - in fact, he had a house picked out already if things came to it. He said that would not be necessary. I was going into a hostel at Muswell Hill where conditions would be better than those we were living in now. He even took me up to see it. If I had not known I would not have guessed it was a hostel. It was a big house in a turning off Muswell Hill with a lovely garden. Inside it was really clean. Three families were living there, one on each floor, but one was on the move, and we would take their place. After that I did not feel so bad or frightened about being thrown out. No one who has not been through that experience of being turned out on to the street and wondering where they and their family will spend the night can imagine that feeling.

The day before the eviction Ann came round with another mate, Joan, to help me move my stuff to Joan's place. It was only round the corner, so we thought Ann's pram would come in handy again. As we were loading it Eric Page arrived to lend a hand, and bit by bit we took the gear round to Joan's house while having a real good laugh on the way, it suddenly seemed so comic. We spent the night at Joan's as no beds were left at the old house.

Next day I had to be back there at ten o'clock for the bailiff to secure the key and make the eviction official. Joan had Trevor and the other three went off to school.

The bailiff and the landlady were already there when I arrived. As we went in she spotted a table and four chairs. `I can claim them for the arrears,' she said. On the quiet the bailiff asked me whose they were. Mine, I told him, but I was leaving them as somebody had given me some others. Could he have them for a family he knew, he asked. So I said to the landlady, `You can't take them. They're not mine and the person's collecting them later.' When they had checked that everything was all right, I handed the key to the bailiff and went out of the door. By now the landlady was shouting about the rent I owed her, so I told her to go through the proper channels. Off she went, seething, and off I went to the Town Hall.

Eric Page was already there at the Homeless Unit with his wife Jan to give me moral support, and about half an hour later Ann also came in with her seven kids. By now she had been given her own house in Tottenham, but only by agreeing to get officially married. They kept us all waiting a couple of hours, and then I had to fill in a load of forms, while all the time they kept asking if there was anybody I could go and live with, and I kept telling them, `No.'

`I don't know where you are going to go,' this woman said. `We could take your children off you and make you find your own accommodation.'

Eric asked her to repeat that as he thought she was trying to intimidate me, so she asked who the hell he was. `I'm Councillor Page,' he told her, and her attitude changed at once. Then the official who had been to see me the week before came in and asked why I was still sitting there. I told him, `They say they don't know where I'm going.' `I told you where you're going,' he said. The woman must have known all the time. He gave me the keys and told me he would be there to see me tomorrow. Could I take my dog, I asked, but as that was not allowed Eric and Jan had him for twelve weeks.

It might sound that the Harringay Homeless Unit are a heartless load - they seemed that way to me at first. But the real heartless ones are the council officials who are never seen and who shelter behind the social services departments. Given the circumstances I now think the Harringay social services department is one of the most human. Since then I have dealt for other people with other boroughs over one thing or another, and I can tell you some of them are right pigs. Just for sticking up for the people who are their victims I have been called a pseudo-revolutionary. They can call me that if they like. It sounds better to me than a petty-minded bureaucrat making a living out of the people's money and using the public service for an alibi.

We moved into the hostel, on the top floor. There was one big living room and we shared the kitchen, bathroom and toilet with the two other families. These were two separated mums: one had five kids and the other three. They had been there about three months waiting to be rehoused. Our two girls transferred to a nice little school, almost like a village school, and were really liking it. Tony was still at his old school, and they picked him up and brought him home by coach, which was a great burden off my shoulders. Then, after a week or so, Trevor was taken ill. The doctor came at once and called an ambulance, and he was taken back to the hospital in Edmonton where he was born. There they put him straight in an oxygen tent with what the doctors called infantile asthma. He was more ill that I thought, and the next day he looked even worse. We had the trek over every day for two weeks.

When Trevor was better it was getting near to Christmas and we decorated the hostel up and really worked up some festive spirit even though we were not in what we could call a home from home. Once Christmas was over I decided it was time I got back to work as the other women in the hostel said they would keep an eye on the kids, but on New Year's Eve Trev was taken ill again. He was, in fact, in and out of hospital until he was six months old. The doctors said he would grow out of the infantile asthma as he got older, and he has.

Still no one seemed to have any idea when we would be rehoused. I wrote to a couple of the Labour councillors without getting any reply, so right, I thought, I'll see if we get any joy out of the Tories. At that time they had the majority in the council. So I wrote to Douglas Smith, who was then leader of the council. He answered at once that he would look into it, and he did, and he kept us informed of what he was doing. It rather took my breath away, because he knew what my thoughts were on his party. Whether they are Labour or Tory, those councillors who are not out for their own egos or business interests, really care about people as individuals, and act on what they have been elected to do, must always, it seems, be among the few.

One Friday night three weeks later a social worker came to ask if we would like a house in North London. `I don't care where it is,' I told her. `Have you found one for me ?' She gave me the keys and the address to go and take a look. It was an old property, but roomy, and no hot water or bathroom. At that time I really didn't care. I was just glad to be getting my own house at last. It was three-storeyed, with seven big rooms and a loo outside - but it had possibilities and a big garden. We moved in a couple of days later. The kids were so excited they kept running up and downstairs during the first few days and asking, `Is it all ours?' I do not think I really believed it myself after all those years of paying high rents and begging and pleading with landlords and landladies. To think I actually had a house of my own, even if it was owned by the council.

We have lived there ever since and it has been transformed somewhat since we moved in. For one thing, we now have hot water, even if they have still not put in a bathroom. The kids changed schools once again and I got my furniture back from my mates. Then I decided that now I was settled I was going to start night work again and get really active in politics.

The first job I was offered was as a supervisor at an art college in Cockfosters which was an annex of the Hornsey College of Art. The wages, the contractors told me, would be £13 a week. Well, I thought, they had not risen much since I last did the work. I decided then and there that the union must be got going again for the cleaners, but this time we would inform the union bureaucrats what we wanted and no fucking us about. The first night I arrived I could hear these two voices talking in the corridor, and one of them saying, `I'm packing up if she's a bastard.' `Pack up, then!' I shouted. I would have known that voice at once anywhere as belonging to my mate Ann. `Well,' she said, `they told us a new supervisor was coming, but they never told us no name.' They wouldn't be leaving, they said, seeing as how it was me, so I asked how many women were on the building. `Just the two of us,' they said. So, with me, that made three.

Three women to clear up in one night an area the size of at least five football pitches consisting of art rooms with paint and everything on the floor, studio rooms full of drawing boards and models, the canteen, the admin offices, stairs, toilets and a mile of corridors l I went storming down to the caretaker and asked him, `How many women are supposed to be on this building?' `At least eight,' he said, `but the figure the contractors mentioned they'd put on it was twelve.' It did not take me long to find out how, for that contract, the contractors were being paid £135 a week. If you reckon up my £13 with £12 each for the other two girls and add in a fiver for cleaning materials and gear, you would not need to be an Einstein to work out the balance in the contractors' pockets as coming to about £92 a week!

One night over dinner break I said to the others, `You're always moaning. Why not do something instead?' So we decided to join the union, but this time we were not going to put up with the male trade union officers of the T.G.W.U. just doing a little bit for us when it suited them. Once we were paying our dues we looked on that as contributing a part of their wages. We also decided that I would phone the contractors in the morning to say we wanted more money and more women on the building. So I phoned the manager to say we wanted to see him and that we would not go into work that night until he came. Down he came and I told him I would not work on that building with only three women, and besides, the money was diabolical. He agreed to give me a rise of £1.50 a week, the others a rise of £1 a week with £1 extra to each of us for fares. Don't worry, he never paid the fares out of the goodness of his heart; it was because they had trouble getting anybody to travel out that far. Getting home when you left the college building at 5.30 in the morning was no joke, I can tell you, especially on very cold mornings. The road to Cockfosters station was in darkness and we kept well together. The station was never open yet, but the man going on duty there got to know us and used to arrive early to open up for us. Then he would let us sit on the train which was always there as it was the end of the line but which never moved till half past six.

One thing about the early-morning train was that you got to know the people that were regularly on it. It was quite a friendly atmosphere, you might say. You noticed if anyone was missing, because the same people used to come and sit in the same seat in the same carriage day after day and week after week. It was almost as if they had their seats reserved for them.

When I started to push the manager about having more people on the building, he said he would see what he could do. I knew what that would be: nothing. So I took on two more women myself, as part-timers, and then there were five of us. We decided that that being that we would just do one section a night - then, when the complaints started to pour in, they might change their tune and make up the numbers. No such luck.

The complaints started all right. The people at the college began to moan about the standard of the work, and then they started to leave nasty notes. So we wrote nice notes to explain our position. But the complaints and nasty notes kept on coming, so our notes turned nasty as well: If they worked half so hard as we had to, we told them, they'd be too tired to complain. Why didn't they make some effort to keep things cleaner in the first place, we asked them.

Then we had the electricity strike. You must not think for a moment that we were against it. We supported the electricians all the way, and I was only sorry they did not win a complete victory. But even when all the power was turned off we were still told we had to go on in. One of the girls fell down a flight of stairs, hurting her legs and back. She needed to take time off, so I asked the contractors what they were going to do. Were they going to pay her? It was her fault, they said, she shouldn't have been going down the stairs. Anyway, they said, we should have been carrying torches.

Can you imagine it: office-cleaning by torchlight? Mind you, that would have put the industry into perspective and where it belonged in terms of conditions and pay: in Dickens's days.

One Saturday morning the phone rang. It was the area supervisor to tell me that the three of us and the two part-timers had been given the sack. I was to tell the others not to bother to turn up on Sunday. The administrator of the building had said he did not want us back, she told me. The fact was, as I found out when I rang the caretaker, the firm were going to lose the contract, as they deserved to, and it was going back to direct cleaning, which it should have been all along.

We were to go and pick up the money due to us from the college at the caretaker's office, but when we did we found there was no pay in lieu of notice or holiday pay, so the next day I joined forces with Ann, and down we went to the contractor's offices. We would wait there till they gave us the money which was ours by rights, we told them.

They sent down person after person to tell us we were not entitled to it, and when we kicked up a fuss they said they would call the police to have us removed. Great, we said, you do that, and we'll tip the table up to give even more of a reason. To have the police come down was just what we wanted, we said. Then we would be in court, and that would give us just the platform we needed to expose their methods. While we would get a two-quid fine and be bound over, they would have the truth told about them, and where better than in a court room.

With that they changed their tack and promised to fetch the money round to us at my house by four o'clock. They had better, I said, otherwise I would be up there tomorrow. Sure enough, at four o'clock the manager was there with two weeks' money each for us, and our National Insurance cards. We came off lucky. There is a saying in the cleaning industry that there are more dead bodies than live ones. I can give you a couple of examples to show you what that means.

There was one Indian taken on by that company who was already doing one job during the day when he went to work nights for a full seven days from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. At the end of the week one of the night managers tells him he is not wanted any more. `Give me my money, then,' he says. `Oh,' they tell him, `there's none to come.' He could cause what stink he liked, the night manager told him, as there was no proof he had ever done any work; they did not have any card for him and nothing had been signed. Such incidents are not uncommon.

One woman had been working fourteen solid years when she was made redundant. She could have another job, they said. Except it was miles from where she lived and impossible for her because of the fares and her family commitments, as they well knew. But by offering her another job they managed to side-step their obligation to give her redundancy pay. This is typical of the way they treat their workers.

After the work at the college stopped I applied for another post as supervisor. By now my photograph and bits about what I was up to had begun appearing in the papers. When I met the area supervisor to look at where I would be in charge, she recognized me at once. As soon as she started to say what a good thing the union was for the cleaners I felt suspicious. She had sacked me inside three days. The old supervisor wanted her job back, she said. O.K., I said, I would stay on as a cleaner in that case, seeing how she was short-staffed. Oh no, she did not think that would be appropriate, after having been a supervisor. I knew what she meant: the pressure was on and I was already blacklisted.

From that moment going around and organizing the cleaners became a full-time job for me, especially the night cleaners, who to my mind were the worst exploited. I enlisted the help of anybody who would be willing to give up an hour of their time once a week to go around the office blocks and start talking to the cleaners themselves. We formed ourselves into the Cleaners Action Group and printed leaflets saying that all cleaners should join the union, while at the same time pointing out they could not expect big increases overnight and would have to do their bit to keep the union on its toes. Otherwise the union would just accept their dues and leave it at that.

In our first two months it was amazing the way people rallied to help. It was a new thing to them. People had not realized the way women were working all through the night to keep life turning over for others. We got quite a few buildings organized as union labour, and as soon as the contractors woke up to the fact that it was not only some five-minute wonder in came the strong-arm gang.

They would send in their managers to issue warnings that if it was found any woman had joined a union it would mean her instant dismissal. At the time my old mate Brenda was night cleaning at the Canadian Embassy in Trafalgar Square. She comes across one of our leaflets there, and sees it has on it my name and address. `Oh yes,' she says, `I know May. We worked together on an office block. She's my friend,' she says, and is telling the other women how it is quite right that they ought to join the union just as the manager stalks in. He gives her the sack there and then, and when she asks him why, he says he is not having any of his schemes messed up by the union.

One Saturday afternoon the manager of one of the big contractors tried to get me on the phone, only it was Chris who answered. He had got himself drunk, said Chris, to give himself the guts to do it. You could tell he was drunk by the way he spoke. What he had phoned to say, he said, was that if I did not lay off he would break my arms and legs and stuff my leaflets down my throat.

'O.K.,' said Chris, `we'll meet you, because it will take someone bigger than a slag that is drunk to do it.'

`She's getting into something bigger than she thinks,' said the bloke, and I knew what he meant knowing the bandits involved in that business.

So, we told him, that was why we were carrying on with it until we had exposed his people and all the corruption in the getting of government contracts and won a fair deal for those that did the work.

Life got busy from then on. I started to get letters asking me to go and speak at meetings or to university groups. Then we were going out one night a week with two of us to a building and we were starting to get the area well covered. The main area of concentration for office cleaners was in the big blocks in the City of London. The contractors find it more profitable to make it night work, because then the type of person they get to do it is someone who needs the money for such luxuries in life as rent and food for their family and who is hence in a poor bargaining position.

The first building to become unionized had been the Board of Trade building, Sanctuary House. The women there were getting £12.5o for a forty-hour week. Then Companies House and Shell-mex House at Waterloo were also unionized. The Sanctuary House cleaners elected their shop steward and deputy shop steward, and the two of them were sacked at once on some flimsy excuse. So we had our first major strike, with Companies House coming out in support.

It was a good strike. For the first time the cleaners saw how they could get something done through solidarity. Jean Wright, the supervisor, came out with the women, which was unusual. Then we had the support of Women's Lib and the Socialist Women, among others, and many stuck with us all night on the picket line, where we enjoyed ourselves. The cleaners also saw that other people were concerned about them once they knew something about the situation.

We also got a good press coverage - better from the Tory press than from many of the so-called left-wing papers. I suppose we were not politically aware enough for the latter, so they did not see us as potential recruits.

Within a day we had had a five-hour meeting with the contractors and they had agreed to reinstate the two shop stewards. The strike was off but it was still only just the beginning of the fight. The important thing was that more and more people were getting to know about the plight of the cleaners. Now we had to show the cleaners that they need not be scared of the racketeers that ran the contractors' empires - an industry that still in 1971 had individual companies spinning profits of over a million pounds a year, paying the workers that made their businesses possible not much over 3s. an hour for a full working week, with no rights to sick pay, holiday pay or redundancy pay and holding over their heads the power of instant dismissal.

People began to ask me to go and help with organization in other parts of the country, including the University of Lancaster, where they had a lot of problems. How were they going to get the union officials to do anything for them and take them seriously, they wanted to know. They had to do things for themselves, I said, and then keep the officials up to the mark to make sure the wages paid to them were being earned.

I was more and more away from home, and always took Trevor with me - the reason why he is so forward and knows all the answers today, I expect. Other people would help out with the older ones. Meanwhile I was beginning to feel very ill and was still putting off going to the doctor with some `woman's trouble' I had been having for two years.

In March 1971 I spoke at the Women's Lib rally in Trafalgar Square and then decided I really must see my doctor. She referred me on to the hospital and the doctor there said he wanted me inside within five days for a hysterectomy. He gave me to understand it would be a dodgy operation and said that my husband would have to sign for me to have it.

`I'll be the one to sign,' I told him.

`But,' he said, `your husband's got to sign.'

`It's my body you'll be cutting about,' I said, `so I'll sign,' and I did.

It was going to be one fortnight for the operation and another for convalescence, so I had to rush about to fix things for the children and make sure they were going to be looked after as Chris could not be home from his work. Tony went to Mrs Lovall, a coloured lady just round the corner and a very motherly type who I knew would treat him as one of her own. Debby and Michelle went to a children's home at Hertford, where they quite liked it, but that left little Trevor, still only three and a half. He went off on his own to a lady in Potters Bar.

I went into hospital and came through the operation and after that had quite an interesting time talking to the nurses, who are about the most exploited people in any industry. They were well aware of it, but did not see what they could do about it, short of striking. Well, they might try doing just the job their pay covers them to do: looking after the sick. If they once said they were not doing any more administration or paperwork the hospital authorities would about-turn soon enough and pay them a decent wage.

For my convalescence I went to Ireland. Dublin I did not like much: the thing which struck me most there was how the off-licences put bars on their windows but the jewellers did not. The Irish countryside, though, was lovely. As soon as I got back to England I had the kids back with me.

Trevor had been really upset by being away from home, and for weeks I could not leave him even to go to the shops. Even though Chris had been to see him every other day it had been a mistake to separate him from the girls, especially from Michelle, who has always been close to him and looked after him. I understood just how he must have felt after all my experiences.

Meanwhile things were moving again with the cleaners. The campaign was really hotting up. Our first big confrontation came at the end of July 1972 when ten cleaners came out at the twenty-six-storey-high Ministry of Defence building, the Empress State Building, in Fulham. They were demanding a rise of £3 on their earnings of £12.50 for a forty-five-hour week and recognition by the employers for their union - in their case, the Civil Service Union. Cleaners Action and Women's Lib co-operated to set up round-the-clock pickets and messages of support and solidarity came pouring in. The spirit that existed on that picket line was really beautiful, and the wonderful shop steward they had on the building, Maria Scally, worked all out to help the women stay united.

The strike lasted into the middle of August, with, on the 6th, twenty women on the Old Admiralty building in Whitehall also joining in with the same demands. The G.P.O. engineers stopped servicing their telephones, the dustmen left their bins full, no mail went in and there were no deliveries of bread, milk or beer to the canteen. The whole thing really snowballed, and on the 13th twenty more came out at the Home Office's Horseferry Road annex over the arbitrary sacking of a supervisor.

On 16 August there was a meeting chaired by the Ministry of Employment between the Civil Service Union and the contractor's representative. It was agreed: £16.50 a week plus a 50p night allowance for a normal week's work and no victimization. The supervisor at Horseferry House was reinstated. On the next day the girls were back at work.

It was a big victory, all right, as most of the newspaper headlines said. The only thing which spoilt it was that the cleaners at the Old Admiralty building got notice to quit almost at once as the contract there was falling through. When some of them reapplied to the new contractor, surprise, surprise, there were no jobs available. Which just goes to show, one victory does not win any war.

The great thing was we had won in this case and shown what might be done. We had got the whole subject aired in the press and in the House of Commons by such M.P.s as Lena Jager and Joe Ashton and people knew a bit more about what went on in their offices, while they were snugly tucked in their beds, to keep things nice and civilized for them when they got in for work.

Meanwhile the struggle goes on and we have to work harder as the employers go on getting more cunning. It seems a lot of the time that we are not only up against the contractors and their spies and their ruthless methods in breaking up a group of cleaners as soon as there is a union nucleus. We are also up against the big bureaucratic unions, who seem to suck closer to the government and get more away from the working class every day. They are as bad as the capitalists as they go about it in a way that will bring them in the most money without considering the situation of the individuals in the movement.

The window cleaners are a case in point where the union collects its dues by issuing tickets of convenience to the cleaning contractor. Then, if a convenor or shop steward comes out of a factory to ask a bloke cleaning the windows whether he has a union card, the bloke says, `It's in the office, mate, at the contractor's.' Only if they were to check more closely, they might well find that the names on the cards did not always tally with those who cleaned the windows. It is things like that that keep the level of organization low in the industry, and the workers docile, which suits the contractors, while the union bureaucrats aid and abet them by issuing the tickets, because that suits their purposes, too.

People say to me, `May, you ought to be in Parliament.' But if I was in Parliament, that would put me out of reach of the people I am trying to help, while it would suit a lot of the ones on the other side to see me muzzled by all their parliamentary procedures and compromises. What I have to do for people I can do best by sticking well outside the establishment. Someone has got to stay in touch with the people and all their problems on the level of individuals.

I think of my Jenny [her step-mother] and a thousand like her who slaved their guts out in return for a raw deal. So that is my work for the moment: Cleaners Action, working for the homeless, campaigning for the rights of young mothers and their children, and anything else where justice needs to be fought for in the face of reactionary governments, big business, bureaucracy and the parts of society which say they couldn't care less. If I am a militant it is what I see going on makes me into one.

Source: Born To Struggle - May Hobbs, Quartet Books, London 1973.



14 years 6 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Jae on January 15, 2010

I would like to know more about this amazing lady. Have read her book but any additional information would be most appreciated. Could you please email me [email protected]

Red Marriott

3 years 10 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Red Marriott on August 29, 2020

According to Maggie Gee in her story 'May Hobbs: A story on the Night Cleaners' Strike' and its Afterword by Sally Alexander, May Hobbs was blacklisted by employers. After the cleaners campaign died down she moved to Australia. That seems to be the last known of her.
There is a 70s documentary film about the cleaners struggle; https://lux.org.uk/work/nightcleaners