1970s ACTIVISM & AUTONOMY: stories from East London Big Flame


Docklands and housing

Squatters are human too! cartoonWhy we did it

Some of us in Big Flame had been involved in organised squatting for a long time on our own behalf as well as helping homeless families to squat empty houses and abandoned blocks of flats. 

There was a lack of affordable housing and many lived in slum conditions. Although in Tower Hamlets there was a lot of council housing, there were long waiting lists and they only housed local families. Bengali families, if they were offered housing at all, were sent to flats in areas that were not safe because of racist attacks. There were mass squats all over London – see below re Sumner House, Stephen & Matilda.

For us, squatting offered the possibility of being part of a wider community and being able to live as we wanted, instead of in bedsits or expensive private rentals. We also squatted houses for Women’s Refuges, advice centres, playgroups. We took over houses or other buildings that had been left empty because of a road building programme, or condemned because of their conditions. We had to become experts in legal house-breaking, as well as becoming plumbers, electricians and carpenters, learning from each other or from friendly skilled builders.

What were the issues?

The City was advancing from the west with its offices, luxury flats and international trade centres.  Changes in practices in the docks – especially containerisation – had made the Docklands area available for ‘re-development’ and the speculative boom in office building was just beginning.  Plans for yuppie residences and marinas did nothing to answer local people’s needs for jobs and cheap housing.

As for council housing, the waiting list kept getting longer and the number of new homes being built got shorter. On most estates, not even basic repairs or re-decoration were done.  Meanwhile flats were left empty by the authorities for years, derelict and unused.

The Housing Acts of 1961 and 1964, which intended to give tenants in the private rented sector better conditions, paradoxically resulted in an acute housing crisis as private landlords refused to let their properties under the new rules. At the same time, whole streets and communities were boarded up awaiting slum clearance and road development programmes which seemed to be indefinitely delayed.

The desperate housing situation led to people taking direct action to get a home by squatting (it was not illegal at that time and the movement was widespread with about 30,000 people squatting in London).


What we did

The East End Development Action Group (EEDAG) was formed to campaign against the docklands area being turned into a speculators’ paradise (see leaflet Dockland Goldrush Co.). From June 1974 some of the ELBF group got involved in their meetings.

This group later became Joint Docklands Action Group (JDAG) which was a community and trade union campaign trying to stop the Dockland area being handed over to the private company the London Docklands Development Corporation, which would mean it was removed from locally controlled planning. The initiative aimed to protect local people who were being evicted to make way for redevelopment.

Some of us lived in Tower Hamlets, and some further north in Hackney, where there were also housing problems (see Hackney Housing Crisis). Several of us lived communally in houses we had squatted, and we helped other East End families to squat homes for themselves and their families.

In the Mile End collective, one house was owned privately, one was rented, and two of the houses we were living in were squatted, and we used one of them as the base for a community playgroup. We went to meetings with other squatters (see minutes of the All-London Squatters Federation) and took part in protests against the legislation that was being brought in to outlaw squatting (see leaflet Demonstrate against the Criminal Trespass Law). 

As housing shortages in our area increased, some of the ELBF group got involved in regular meetings of a pro-active group, the Tower Hamlets Housing Action Group – set up in late 1974 – which highlighted the problems and aimed to unite the struggles of tenants, building workers and squatters. (See leaflet A Home is Everyone’s Right.)

Not far from us in east London in autumn 1974 there was a mass squat by a group of over 50 families who occupied a whole empty block of flats called Sumner House (see Newsletter article Mass Squatting in Tower Hamlets, London, and Sumner House entry in Women’s Struggle Notes No.3). The Housing Action Group supported this and other initiatives, including involvement there in practical ways, e.g. helping to organize a children’s party at Xmas 1974 for children from Sumner House and from the Lincoln Estate Food Co-op that we belonged to. There was some hostility towards squatters from rent-payers nearby, and (in late 1974?) we produced a leaflet Squatters are human too! to counteract that prejudice and help local people see their common interests. There was also another mass squat in nearby Corfield Street.

Some of us were also involved in the Bengali Housing Action Group (BHAG) and the mass Stephen and Matilda squat near Tower Bridge (see BHAG and Stephen & Matilda).


Looking back…

Squatting – a personal account

When I graduated from university in 1968, a beneficiary of the huge university expansion of the 1960s, I was reluctant after three or four years of education, political activism, and unconventional student lifestyle, to return to my provincial hometown and to the dull public sector jobs for which I had been prepared.

Rented housing in London in those days was mainly in dismal bedsits with shared facilities. Council housing was inaccessible to those without children, and in any case involved long years of waiting on housing lists. The streets of boarded-up Victorian houses were tempting, and, at least at the beginning, easily accessible.

The first house I squatted, with two women friends, was a small terraced house in Bow that backed onto the main Liverpool Street to Fenchurch Street railway line. We staked it out, checked that it was empty and belonged to the Council, and late one night, we broke a pane of glass in the front bay window, unscrewed the window latch and heaved up the frame. I can still remember the terrified beating of my heart as we scrambled in with our sleeping bags. For although squatting was not an offence, breaking and entry was, and if you were caught in the act, or the neighbours heard something happening and called the police, you would be arrested and charged with criminal damage at the very least.   

We didn’t sleep much that first night, stretched out on the bare floorboards, taking in the unfamiliar smells and sounds of our new home, and wondering what we’d let ourselves in for. I must have dozed off, because around 5am I was woken by a shuddering roar that felt like an explosion, but turned out to be just the first commuter train of the day. In the feeble light that filtered in through the grimy windows, we got up and started to explore our domain. It didn’t take us long to work out why the Council had decided it was unfit for habitation. First things first: there was no loo. Eventually, I located one, out in the back yard. The flush worked, but there was no door, and at the bottom of the yard, some 5 metres away, was the railway line. Most of the time, the trains just flashed past, but occasionally one would stop.

There was also no bathroom, but there was a cold tap at the kitchen sink. It was one of those old pot ‘butler’ sinks, which are now considered trendy, but which still make me shudder with horror when I come across them in friends’ houses. For the year or so that we lived there, that was where we washed ourselves, the children, the dishes, the ashtrays, the clothes that couldn’t wait for the launderette, and everything else that needed washing.

We furnished it with stuff from local skips, which we painted up in primary colours, and fixed our posters to the walls: Victory to the Vietcong; Sisterhood is blooming; the classic Che Guevara. We were part of a commune of some seven adults and four children spread across three houses, one squatted, one rented, and one that we owned. Although we kept our own rooms, meals, money, childcare and occasionally sexual partners were shared (though we were much more straight-laced and sober than the student household who live next door to me now).

Having mastered Metaphysical poetry or the Hegelian dialectic at university, the mysteries of wiring and plumbing (which were often in a primitive state in the houses we occupied) seemed an interesting challenge. Sometimes we got help from genuine proletarians.

The houses we squatted, like the one described above in Lichfield Road, or Swaton Road, Bow (see picture on Food Co-op page) were usually in or close to working class areas, which enabled us to link up with local communities in an explicitly political way. This closeness could lead to intense and occasionally very amusing mutual education. The breaking down of social and intellectual barriers remains one of the richest legacies of this period, similar to the early days of the 1984-5 miners’ strike.