Direct Action for Houses- Justice for Squatters

Submitted by Reddebrek on October 29, 2017

Asses, swine, have litter spread,
And with fitting food are fed,
All things have a home but one,—
Thou, Oh Englishman hast none!

—SHELLEY: The Mask of Anarchy.

THE POLITICIANS OF THE POST-WAR LABOUR GOVERNMENT who were taken by surprise by the "Squatters' Movement" which swept Britain (and other countries), in 1946, showed, by their astonishment and unpreparedness, how far out of touch they were with the desperateness of the housing situation, and with the mood of the people. They were blind to the evidence provided by the earlier seizures of empty buildings by homeless returning servicemen which occurred in 1919, or by the Scottish examples during the 1939-1945 war — the "Blitz Hotel" incident in Glasgow, and the occupation of empty houses at Blantyre in the spring of 1945. Above all, they ignored the lessons of the Vigilante campaign of the summer of 1945 — that far-off summer which saw the beginning of the "peace", and of the atomic age.

The picturesque, but perhaps ill-advised name of "Vigilantes" was adopted by committees largely composed of ex-servicemen, who, under cover of night, installed homeless families and their furniture in un-occupied houses — usually successfully since no action could be taken to evict them once they were in, until the usually absentee property-owners could initiate legal proceedings against them. This campaign started, and was most active, in seaside towns, for example Southend, Hastings, and, most of all, Brighton, which has a rather unique place among the South Coast resorts, in that it has a large working-class population. The original and outstanding grievance against which the Vigilante campaign was aimed, was the way in which big seaside houses were being kept empty for most of the year in order to be let a very high rents during the short holiday season.

From this, as the movement spread, it became an attack on the right of landlords to keep property unoccupied for any reason. The success of the Vigilantes forced the government to grant wider powers to local authorities to requisition property for housing purposes, while the threat of further direct action ensured that the councils would use these powers. Thus the campaign began with an effort to put

The author of this account witnessed and assisted the occupation of army camps by squatters in the summer of 1946.

right an obvious public scandal, it spread to become a challenge to the hitherto hardly disputed right of the landlord to do as he liked with his property without reference to public needs, and it ended with the official sanction of this challenge.

The squatters' movement of the following year sprang from another of these scandalous anomalies — the emptiness of hundreds of army and air force camps during the worst housing shortage we have known. The first of the 1946 squatters was Mr. James Fielding, a cinema projectionist at Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire, who, desperate for somewhere to live, moved on May 8th with his family, into the former officers' mess of an unoccupied anti-aircraft camp. As soon as the news of their action got around the town, other young couples in a similar predicament moved into the other huts, and the first colony of squatters was born. Shortly afterwards two other camps in the same area were seized, and this was followed by the occupation of several camps around Sheffield. The Sheffield settlers formed a Squatters' Protection Society and quickly linked up with the pioneer squatters at Scunthorpe.

These events were rapidly followed by the seizure of hundreds of camps in every part of Britain. The authorities who at first disclaimed any responsibility for the squatters — passing the buck from one department to another — were forced into recognising the occupations, and local councils were instructed to turn on water and electricity and provide essential services. Later in the year the Ministry of Works, which had previously declared itself "not interested", found it possible to offer the Ministry of Health (which was then the government department responsible for housing) 850 former service camps.

The government announced on 11th October, 1946 that 1,038 camps in England and Wales had been occupied by 39,535 people, and on 5th September it was stated that four thousand people had squatted in Scotland.

Since the government could not destroy the movement, it tried to absorb it, and expressed itself confident that the settlers would "see reason" and "move out when the situation had been explained to them." A leading article in The Observer commented:

The Ministry piously hopes that squatters, after certain explanations, will 'return to the homes from which they have come.' What homes? Bits of caravans or crannies in the over-crowded lodgings or the premises of others from which they are desperately trying to escape? The fact that ex-soldiers who have had plenty of camp life in their time should now regard an army hut as a little bit of heaven is surely strong enough evidence of their misery and despair. Nor are they likely to be terrified by the talk of winter weather.

As the camps began to fill, the squatters turned to other empty buildings: houses, shops, mansions, disused school buildings, race tracks and a stadium, were among the places occupied, and on August 26, two Aberdeen hotels and a hostel were taken, while on the 29th two big hotels in Glasgow were seized, though they had to be abandoned later.

The final, and most spectacular phase of the campaign began in London on Sunday the 8th September, when the 148 luxury flats of Duchess of Bedford House, Kensington, another block in Weymouth Street, Marylebone, and houses in Holland Park and Campden Hill, were invaded. On the following day three more houses in Beaumont Street, Marylebone were taken over, and on Tuesday 60 families entered Fountain Court, a block of flats in Victoria. On Wednesday the flats at Abbey Lodge, Regents Park and the 630-roomed Ivanhoe Hotel, Bloomsbury, were occupied.

The tactics adopted by the police in this final stage of the campaign varied from day to day. At first, at the Duchess of Bedford House, their human sympathy seems to have got the better of their role as protectors of the interests of the propertied class, and, according to the press, "Police called to the scene made themselves helpful and an inspector arranged for a W.V.S. van to supply hot drinks." But on the Tuesday, they were organising a watch on unoccupied property to prevent further squatting, and the Home Office instructed Scotland Yard to "inquire into the origin of the organisation behind the squatters" and to keep the government "fully informed of the activities of political agitators who foment trouble." (Needless to say, the CID soon announced "secret documents"). On the Wednesday, after Abbey Lodge and the Ivanhoe Hotel had been seized, the police cordoned the buildings. Their refusal to allow any more than twenty-five blankets into Abbey Lodge for the children, caused a scene outside in which demonstrators lay down five-deep in the road and held up traffic for a quarter of a mile. Later, food and blankets were allowed in.

There were similar scenes at the Ivanhoe Hotel. The state of siege was resumed during the night at the four main "squatters' fronts" and the blockade continued on the following day, while the police took more action to prevent people from entering or re-entering the buildings. The same scenes were repeated on the Thursday night, and mounted police were used to disperse the crowd at Abbey Lodge. On Friday there were rumours that they intended to use tear-gas. Police leave was stopped, and the route to the Sunday meeting in Hyde Park was lined with mounted police. The first arrests, apart from the usual ones on charges of obstruction and insulting behaviour, were made on the Saturday, when five Communists were charged with "conspiring together with other persons to incite persons to trespass on property." (They were subsequently found guilty and bound over).

On the same day, the Minister of Health, the late Aneurin Bevan, who was just back from his holiday in Switzerland, instructed all local authorities to cut off gas and electricity supplies to all property under their control occupied by squatters. The Labour government advised all owners of empty buildings to ensure that all doors and windows were secured, but it did not ask them why, at a time when families were being prosecuted for sleeping in fields and ditches, their property remained empty.

The Communists, although a year earlier they had denounced the Vigilantes, were very active amongst the squatters in London. So much so that people who had to rely on newspapers for their information assumed, and have assumed since, that the whole thing was a

Communist stunt. Diana Murray Hill, the only person to make a serious study at the time of who the squatters were and what kind of straits they had been in (Pilot Papers, November 1946), reported from Abbey Lodge that "as to the argument that the Communists gave them the idea of squatting, they said there was nothing to it. Many of them had been squatting of their own accord before the taking over of the flats. In some cases the huts they had been squatting in had been taken away from them." And, "Finally the crowd of sympathisers outside, the majority of whom Mr. R. knew personally and could vouch for their not being Communists …" and of the squatters themselves: "Again he knew many of them personally, and of the ones he knew none were Communists. The squatters formed their own committee."
Or as we put it in FREEDOM (21/9/46):
"The fact is that the Communists wish to exploit the movement now that it has become widespread. One must recognise this fact even when one expresses sympathy for the arrested leaders, and solidarity with those rank and file Communists who have given genuine support to some squatters. Nevertheless the support of the Communists is a real danger to the movement. Legal action against the squatters was obviously very difficult; but the attempt of the CP to organise them has provided the government with just the handle they needed. The legal prosecutions will deflect attention from the real issue — the desperate plight of the homeless. It will lower the whole question to the level of political strife and opportunism. Perhaps most dangerous of all, the CP themselves will seek to turn the movement into legalistic channels. They have already formulated 'demands' of the government. Soon they will be urging the homeless to avoid further direct action and "do nothing to hamper the realisation of your demands".

The truth of this evaluation was shown in the anti-climax of the "general evacuation" by the London squatters when the High Court injunction was granted. This was treated by the press as the end of the squatters, and the fact was concealed that the many thousands of camp settlers were not affected by the set-back, and had settled down until they could find something better, while many of the London squatters were eventually provided with accommodation of one sort or another by the LCC.

In October, Aneurin Bevan sought to turn public feeling against the camp squatters by suggesting that they were "jumping their place in the housing queue", when in fact they were jumping out of the housing queue by moving into buildings which would not otherwise have been used for housing purposes. It took most of them years in fact to get into the "housing queue". Over a hundred families who in 1946 occupied a camp known as Field Farm in Oxfordshire, stayed together and in 1958-9 were rehoused in the new village of Berinsfield on the same site.

* * *
A notable feature of the whole campaign was the way in which, quite spontaneously and without disputes, the accommodation was divided among the would-be squatters in accordance with their needs, the size of their families, and so on. The best huts and buildings, usually the former Officers' Mess, needless to say, went to large families, while the ordinary Nissen huts were divided among the childless couples. Of one of the earliest squatters' camps, it was reported on 24/7/46,

The campers today discovered a 20,000-gallon water tank and have turned on the water. A youth, appointed as water inspector, is carrying out hourly checks to ensure that taps are not left running. A camp committee has been elected and the camp is being run on communal lines. Tradesmen call with their vans.

In camps I visited in Hampshire I found everywhere that hopeful, adventurous spirit that springs from independence and spontaneous co-operation. Everywhere I saw attempts to make those bleak huts look "more like home". Communal cooking, laundering and nursery facilities sprang up. Fathers took turns to stoke the boilers, mothers took turns to do the settlement's shopping, and the children collected up the rubbish left by the army and made bonfires of it. For them at least, it was a real adventure. Squatters Protection Societies and Federations were formed to protect their mutual interest. Some memorable scenes of solidarity were seen during the seizures at London hotels, when, in the face of police opposition, complete strangers threw into the buildings blankets and parcels of food, without hope of recompense.

One of the remarkable features of the squatters' communities was that they were formed from people who had very little in common except their homelessness — tinkers and university dons were amongst them. A very revealing report on the squatters, in the series "How Are They Now?" appeared in the News Chronicle for January 14th, 1947. The correspondent describes a camp in Lancashire:

"… There are two camps within the camp — the official squatters (that is, people who have been placed in the huts after the first invasion) and the unofficial squatters (the veterans, who have been allowed to remain on sufferance).

"Both pay the same rent of l0s. a week — but there the similarity ends. Although one would have imagined that the acceptance of rent from both should accord them identical privileges, in fact, it does not. Workmen have put up partitions in the huts of the official squatters — and have put in sinks and other numerous conveniences. These are the sheep; the goats have perforce to fend for themselves.

"An interesting commentary on the situation was made by one of the young welfare officers attached to the housing department. On her visit of inspection she found that the goats had set to work with a will, improvising partitions, running up curtains, distempering, painting and using initiative.

The official squatters, on the other hand, sat about glumly without using initiative or lifting a hand to help themselves and bemoaning their fate, even though they might have been removed from the most appalling slum property. Until the overworked corporation workmen got around to them they would not attempt to improve affairs themselves."

How much this story reveals, not only about the squatters, but about the difference between the state of mind that induces free independent action, and that of dependence and inertia: the difference between people who initiate things and act for themselves, and the people to whom things just happen.

* * *

When the squatters' movement is viewed against other historical examples of direct action applied to the housing problem in a non-revolutionary situation, four definite phases, common to them all, can be discerned. Firstly, Initiative, the individual action that begins the campaign, the spark that starts the blaze; secondly, Consolidation, when the movement spreads sufficiently to constitute a real threat to property rights and becomes big enough to avoid being simply snuffed out by the authorities. The third phase is that of Success, when the authorities have to concede to the movement what it has won; and the fourth phase is that of Official Action, usually undertaken unwillingly in order to placate the popular demand, of which the direct action has been the most effective weapon, and to avoid further attacks on the interests of the propertied class. For nothing succeeds like success, and governments usually realize that, as Kropotkin observes, "Once the principle of the 'Divine Right of Property' is shaken, no amount of theorising will prevent its overthrow".

The first phase was seen in Glasgow in 1915 when the Govan housewives refused to pay the rent increases demanded by rapacious landlords, while Partick women rough-handled the rent-collectors; it was seen in Vienna in 1921 when homeless ex-soldiers seized land in the ex-Emperor's hunting park, and began to build houses; it was to be seen again in 1938 when 250 tenants of Quinn Square, Bethnal Green refused to pay any more rent until repairs were done and rents reduced; it was seen in Brighton in June 1945, when ex-servicemen moved a homeless family into a house in Round Hill Street, and thus began the Vigilante campaign; and it was seen in May 1946, when the Fielding family initiated the Squatters by settling in the Scunthorpe camp.

The second phase was represented by the great demonstration of housewives in George Square during the Clydeside Rent Strikes, and the strike of the shipyard workers who passed a resolution that "unless the government took action to reduce rents to their pre-war level, a general strike on the Clyde would follow". In Vienna it was the formation of the Land Settlement Movement whose banners were inscribed with the words: "Give us Land, Wood and Stone, and we will make Bread!" In the London Rent Strike Movement, this phase was apparent in the development of the Stepney Tenants' League and the spread of rent strikes all over the London area; in the Vigilante campaign it took the form of widespread occupation of empty apartments and among the squatters it was still more noticeable in the seizure of service camps in every part of this country.

The third phase was implicit in the Glasgow Sheriff Court's decision in favour of 18 workers summoned for non-payment of rent, after a deputation had pointed out to the Sheriff that: "These men will only resume work in the event of your deciding against the factor. If you do not, it means that the workers on the lower reaches will stop work tomorrow and join them". It was seen in the Vienna Municipality's recognition of the Co-operative building clubs; and it took a very obvious form in the rent strikes before the last war when the landlord of Brady Street, Stepney, had to agree to big rent reductions, and to repairs costing £2,500 for one year and £1,000 for each year afterwards, or when, in the Municipal Tenants' Strike in Birmingham, 15,000 people got rent reductions amounting to £30,000 a year. The official sanctioning of the first wave of camp squatters was the latest example of this phase.

In the final phase we see the complete justification of direct action as a means of forcing the authorities to take radical measures that they would not otherwise have considered. Fearing further big strikes on the Clyde, in the First World War, a government completely representing the landlord class, was forced to pass the first Rent Restrictions Act, and, remembering this, and with the 1938-9 rent strikes fresh in their minds, Chamberlain's government hastened to introduce the 1939 Rent Restrictions Act on the outbreak of the Second World War. The militant action of the Austrian workers made it necessary for the authorities, at a time of complete economic and financial collapse, to initiate the Vienna Municipal Housing and Town-Planning Scheme, one of the biggest and most comprehensive in Europe. In 1945 the Vigilantes coerced the government into granting local authorities wide requisitioning powers and the threat of further action made sure that they used them. In the same way, the announcement that "Eight hundred and fifty former service camps are being offered by the Ministry of Works to Mr. Aneurin Bevan to help him in his emergency housing drive", was the measure of the success of the camp squatters. But for the opportunist intervention of the Communists, it seems likely that the seizure of hotels and luxury flats would have forced even more significant and spectacular concessions from the authorities.

* * *
Today, direct action is again overdue. Isn't it extraordinary that in a period where homelessness in London has been building up steadily, State House in Holborn, one of the vast new prestige office blocks should have stood empty for at least two years? In the new Solidarity pamphlet, Homelessness!, Sheila Jones of the Tenants' Association at one of the LCC's "half-way houses" says,

To some of us it is beginning to be clear that if we want anything done we will have to do it ourselves. The LCC tries to keep these places as terrible as possible to prevent others taking advantage of the 'facilities' provided. An imaginative and selective breaking of the artificial LCC rules might be an effective method of protest. What would happen for instance if a group of families got together and decided to bring in their own furniture to replace the LCC stuff? Would the LCC wardens call the police in … against tenants whose only crime was that they had tried, at their own expense, to make living conditions more bearable for themselves and for their children?

And another contributor, Ken Jones points out that there are possibilities for the unfortunate occupants of the reception centres who have literally nothing to lose. He suggests for example that husbands should disobey the "curfew", so that if the authorities dare, they must use force to separate a man from his family.
But must the homeless and dispirited be left to fight their own battles?