“The lessons of the past are clear. All obstacles created by landlords, Building Societies and others can be swept away by the collective action of the people themselves.” – Ted Bramley
On September 8th 1946, some 1500 men, women and children occupied properties in Kensington and Chelsea as part of the largest single direct action of trespass in a year marked by the squatting of military camps and empty residences across the UK. Over 100 families entered the luxury flats of the Duchess of Bedford House, via conveniently unlocked doors and skylights. Within days overspill properties were opened near Regent’s Park, spreading through the city to the Ivanhoe Hotel in Bloomsbury and Fountain Court on Buckingham Palace Road. In defiance of the risk of arrest and absolutely zero guarantee of any rights to remain, these actions were executed with meticulous planning and coordination, with people arriving with their possessions in lorries and being directed by volunteers. As the occupations went on the squatters would form management committees, organise creches for children, mass deliveries of supplies and press conferences to deal with the ever-present attention of journalists, police and curious passerbys.
Organised by members of the London District Committee of the Communist Party who had previously taken direct action to open the London underground as bomb shelters, the occupations were part of a mass movement of both political intent and practical necessity. The case for squatting argued that as part of class struggle the occupations would put pressure on the Labour government to requisition properties from the wealthy that lay empty and use them to house people in need rather than to generate profit. A contemporary Gallup poll estimated 1/3 of Britons were looking for housing, with demobilisation after World War 2 bringing home thousands of people no longer content to share crowded accommodation with others, wishing to partner up and raise children in the ‘homes fit for heroes’ they had been promised for their commitment to the war effort. The UK had lost more than 200,000 houses to aerial bombardment, with many more damaged beyond repair. A generation of ex-servicemen and equally involved women were not content to wait for the promised building of council houses, instead organising to solve their own problems in defiance of the logic of submission and capital which scorned them as ‘queue-jumpers’.
One ex-servicemen at the time reported the exhilaration of applying the blitz spirit of collective action to their housing problems:
“This was it, the BIG ONE! The first ever mass squatting. We hit the headlines! Not that we ever had time to read them, but Monday 9th September 1946 The Times ran a headline:
‘1500 SQUATTERS OCCUPY LUXURY FLATS
— AUDACIOUS OPERATION IN WEST END’
The Duchess of Bedford House in Campden Hill was invaded, there must have been at least 200 of us, and we went straight in. Somebody had opened everything for us, and it was just like staking a claim, – and we did!
It was a block of luxury flats, halfway between Kensington (where we got married), and Notting Hill (where Carrie, my darling, came from). Ginger and I, together with our wives, took over a flat on the 2nd. floor. It was enormous, more space than the average house, and divided in two as night and day accommodation. Just the job.
Within the next week or two, other mass squattings had taken place, the other main big one being Fountain Court, Pimlico, and from what we heard they never had anything easy at all. Because we were the first, we were regarded as a test case, and everything had to go through the Courts. The owners had file a complaint and prefer charges, but who were the owners?
Apparently the Ministry of Works had requisitioned the buildings, to house Maltese building workers, who were repairing bomb damage. They had all been moved on, and the place had been standing empty, but somebody had neglected to return it to the original owners, who the newspapers said was the Prudential Assurance Company. Because of the adverse publicity, they were denying ever to have owned it.
All this confusion was to our advantage, we were left alone for weeks, except for a few attempts to turn off our mains supplies, but we were taking turns on picket duty round the clock, and were able to thwart these manoeuvres. The support we had was marvellous, from the media, and the public in general, and especially the papers.”https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/01/a2053801.shtml
First groups of desperate houseless people tired of languishing on waiting lists for housing that stretched to years had turned their attention to the many army camps scattered across the UK. A projectionist from Scunthorpe had been living in a cinema with his family until he broke into a camp near his town and was interviewed by a cinema news-reel on why he did so, with this publicity triggering a mass movement across the UK involving thousands of people. By the end of 1946 it is estimated the squatter’s movement in the UK numbered around 40,000 people, with the act of ‘going squatting’ referred to by some there as undramatically as ‘going blackberrying.’
The escalation of tactics to seizure of properties in urban environments and the political connotations of anarchy and self-organisation rattled the nerves of Clement Attlee’s Labour government, with the Cabinet ordering gas, water and electric to the properties to be cut. The actions of the squatters were condemned as chaos and lawlessness, similarly to how squatting was demonised in 2011 shortly before its criminalisation. Contemporary politicians derided self-housing as opportunist selfishness, and compared it to a starving person snatching meat from the butcher’s shop window. However, the sheer scale and popularity of the movement and the reluctance of police and bailiffs to go toe-to-toe with demobbed war veterans soon forced local government to compromise.
“Eventually, the state had to give in and try to absorb and co-opt the movement. Councils started to organise “methodical squatting”. This was exactly the same as the “short-life licensing” of more recent times. “O.K., we’ll let you live here after all -as long as we’re in charge” had become the line adopted by bureaucrats stamping their little feet, by 1947. So most of the squatters got to stay for several years before being eventually rehoused. Councils also started to use the camps themselves for “official” short-term housing, moving in thousands more people. The last of the camps was not closed until 1961. In Oxfordshire, over a hundred families from one of the original 1946 occupations were determined to stay together and were eventually housed in the new village of Berinsfield in 1959….”https://pasttenseblog.wordpress.com/2020/09/08/today-in-london-housing-history-1946-mass-squat-of-duchess-of-bedford-house-kensington/
After 12 days of occupation and mounting threats of writs and arrests, the ‘luxury squatters’ marched en masse to hostels in East London that they had been offered as an alternative to eviction from the hotels. 5 organisers from the Communist Party were arrested and put on trial for ‘conspiracy’, yet avoided jail, most likely to avoid making them martyrs to the growing movement of support.
75 years on and now, as then, the United Kingdom is in the grip of a housing catastrophe consciously exacerbated by landlords and a government that celebrates the opening of a new food bank as a success, but now compounded by a global pandemic and a collapsing ecosystem. The spirit of ’46 still echoes in the humanitarian actions of defiance and necessity against the injustice and inaction of those in power, with the tradition of self-organisation and direct action resurgent as the anger and desperation mounts. In 2015, activists and residents occupied and fought for the largest housing estate in Europe to be redeveloped rather than demolished in direct action against the ongoing decanting of working class people from inner city London. From 2015 to 2017 the Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians (ANAL) squatted a series of luxury mansions in order to bring attention to the housing crisis and the scandal of empty buildings. In 2018 anarchists and activists housed over 100 houseless people in a disused block in Great Portland Street during deadly weather conditions. Across the UK, a resurgent environmental activism movement has occupied land and buildings in order to protest and resist against the recently much curtailed HS2 high-speed rail link, with high profile resistances featuring month-long underground occupations at Euston Square. In 2020 and 2021, in direct protest against the complicity of the police in protecting the rights of property and the rich whilst participating in systemic racism and the murder of Sarah Everard, groups such as the Green Anticapitalist Front and the Serious Annoyance have occupied former police stations in Paddington, Camberwell and Clapham. In Brixton, local black radical housing group the House of Shango squat buildings to give free food out and highlight inequalities in access and opportunity.
The examples of solidarity and community are multitude, with there being countless examples of resistance across the UK without even mentioning the daily individual struggles against eviction and oppression that pass unmarked in our neighbourhoods. The Black Lives Matter movement and the Kill The Bill protests have embodied our revolt and disillusionment as people organising to voice their rejection of the current system have faced brutal police repression. The pandemic brought mutual aid to a wider public energised to help those formerly anonymous strangers around them, again forcing councils to co-opt and co-ordinate with them for fear of becoming irrelevant. The imminent ecocide has motivated thousands to participate in occupations of public spaces and lead to the biggest mass arrests in UK history. In retrospect, the government’s decision to house homeless people in empty hotels during COVID seems less like an act of benevolence and more like a shrewd lesson from history, seeking to compromise when popular dissent starts to loom. Similarly, the Daily Mail’s invoking of the fairytale of wartime spirit as they slandered squatters occupying of a police station as violent apolitical drug users is equally hollow and ironic when the undercover journalist signs off with:
“they slept downstairs on chairs and mattresses – in the same rooms where police officers had slept during the Blitz. Officers such as sergeants Harry Bass, WE Douglas and J Davison, whose wartime bravery earned them George Medals. Quite what they would have made of the takeover of their police station some 80 years later one can only guess.”https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9410191/Is-symbol-invisible-cops.html
Yet rightwing propaganda mouthpieces like the Daily Mail have not always been so dutifully anti-squatter, reporting in 1946:
“for the right, this was a perfect example of post-war national pride and the continuation of the ‘Blitz Spirit’, with The Daily Mail celebrating the squatters ‘robust common sense… [in taking] matters quietly but firmly into their own hands’ and presenting them as ‘exemplifying an English traditions of self-help made necessary by the government’s failings – a view which the squatters were happy to share’”https://threeacresandacow.co.uk/2020/06/daily-mail-celebrates-squatting-in-1940s-a/
Yet doubtless this is indicative of how far the struggle between left and right wing politics has moved from the halls of power and into the streets, with the current forms of socialist political parties a bastardized shadow of their former incarnations. The upcoming criminalisation of protest and trespass seems like the Tory government knowing full well how tenuous its grip on power could be if evermore committed movements continue to defy the law and organise for collective liberation. Of course the capitalist press will fall in line to support the status quo, much as the Labour party lapses into evermore complicity with the economic forces driving the destruction of the planet and the repression of the class they are supposed to represent.
We remember today the spirit of 1946 and how people then defied authority to actuate their desires rather than passively submit to circumstance. Now, more than ever, we have the opportunity to seize back what has been systematically stripped from our class and remind those who would oppress where the power truly lies. Collectively, autonomously, innumerably peoples are rising up to challenge the inadequacy and fallacy of government, gaining more tacit, direct experience of equality, egality and true liberty. Now, as then, the capital is weak, and all it may take is a cinema projectionist from Scunthorpe to take action to tip the balance and allow the current tsunami of resistance and reclaimation to wash away the debris of those who would cling to power at the cost of humanity and the very world we share.