While many trace the history of London’s contemporary squatting movement back to 1968, the seeds were sown well before then. After the First World War, for instance, a sharp rise in unemployment and rent strikes in the East End saw occupations of municipal buildings with a view to setting up neighbourhood relief organisations. The interwar years also saw a rise of self-build housing on land in Essex which was no longer used for agriculture (known as ‘three-horse land’) as well as reclaimed coastal sites (such as Jaywick Sands and Canvey Island), although many of these weren’t strictly squatting as the land was often paid for.
It was after the Second World War, however, that squatting took place on an unprecedented scale ‘as a direct-action movement against rising homelessness and the lack of social housing for veterans and their families’ (Vasudevan 2017, p44).
An early precedent was set by a group in Brighton known as the ‘Vigilantes’ who occupied 3 empty homes in July 1945 to much national media attention (representatives from the movement even travelled up to Hyde Park Corner to explain the theory and practice of squatting). The Vigilantes won a small victory in that the Ministry of Health (which, at the time, was still under the war-time coalition government) subsequently gave local authorities full power to requisition unused residences for housing.
Another defining moment came the following year in May 1946 when James Fielding of Scunthorpe (who had been working and sleeping in a cinema) moved his family into an officer’s mess on an abandoned army camp, before being joined by 20 more families in early July. An interview with Fielding by ‘Newsreel’ was shown in cinemas nationwide and there were, of course, thousands of empty military bases and POW camps all over the country. Fielding’s occupation was soon followed by further squats in Sheffield and Doncaster, before spreading nationwide.
Motivations for squatting army bases
Come summer 1946 there was a severe housing crisis in the UK. There had been almost no house-building during the war (due both to a lack of materials and building industry workforce) and many major cities had also seen extensive bomb damage from the blitz. According to official estimates, enemy action destroyed 218,000 homes and further damaged 250,000 so as to make them uninhabitable, in comparison to only around 190,000 houses completed during the war (probably a tenth of what might otherwise have been built) (Webber 2012). What’s more, the housing crisis had been further impacted by the return of 3.5 million ex-servicemen and a baby boom, meaning that ‘this housing crisis was not a matter of high prices, but rather a problem of supply’ (Burnham 2009, p1).
All parties had promised housing in the 1945 election and Atlee’s government inherited an ambitious commitment from the coalition to provide ‘a separate dwelling for every family that wishes to have one’. What’s more, the Labour Minister for Health, Nye Bevan, was particularly committed to ‘high standard’ social housing which was larger, better built and equipped, but this aspiration had made progress very slow. Housing wasn’t even a priority within the Labour Party (with Chancellor Stafford Cripps prioritising ‘first exports, second capital investment, then the needs and amenities of the family’).
Subsequently, Bevan found himself immediately under attack over the housing crisis from both Conservative opposition and the right-wing media (despite this clearly being a legacy of the war). He therefore, reluctantly, opted for the stopgap of prefabs, which were relatively expensive to build (especially for temporary housing), materials were in short supply, and councils had to compete for builders. By August 1946, the majority of local authorities had not completed a single house and there was a 7-8 year waiting list. A public sense of a need for fairness and a new deal for the working class, and especially ex-servicemen, was being frustrated by slow progress.
Mass squatting began in August 1946, often organised by specific groups of ex-soldiers, the Communist Party and even the Labour Party, but the BBC also noted at the time a ‘strange new mood of orderly lawlessness’ which had its own momentum as ‘once people realised that it could be done, it was done, all over the country’ (Burnham 2009, p2). The squatting of army bases was certainly a challenge to the government, but it was ‘not yet a direct challenge’ as ‘these were low value dwellings and private houses had not yet been squatted’ (Burnham 2009, p3). Labour therefore reacted with sympathy and calculation, not wanting to be known as the party that evicted war heroes onto the streets, announcing instead that the squatters could stay in the short term and that they would reconnect facilities. Many of the squatted camps received funding from local councils and the National Exchequer.
An interesting thing about the Homefront squatters is that they found support from both left-wing and right-wing politics. For the left – especially the Communist Party – the argument was that, just as the state had taken the lead in the war effort, ‘now a similar national effort to build houses was needed’ (Burnham 2009, p2). Whilst 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’ (Webber 2012, p146).
Overall, then, the actions of the ex-servicemen were well-received in the press and publicly celebrated as an expression of English patriotism. There were some councils (such as Amersham) who had tried to tame the squatters in their jurisdiction, yet the local cinema continued to show squatter messages on the screen and, when the council sent contractors to demolish huts, they failed to turn up. When Amersham Council took the squatters to court, they were publicly humiliated as the judge demanded to know why the council was not helping these people instead of evicting them.
The camps lasted well into the 1950s and become formally organised, with coalmen, milk rounds, and the postal service, all on offer. The houses were fixed-up and began to resemble formal homes. The squats were also attractive as an alternative to the common multi-generational households of the day, often offering a place for single parents, divorcees, the remarried, and the promiscuous.
Yet there were tensions which arose within the occupations. The demobilisation of the Polish army in Britain, for instance, had left 123,000 soldiers refusing to go back to Poland (which was now under USSR rule). The government therefore sent them to live on the military bases which had either not yet been squatted or had only been partly squatted. The Communist Party were particularly hostile to this, especially given that they had publicly expressed anti-communist views. They accused them of taking accommodation which should be given to British citizens and the local residents association at Chalfont St Giles even put forward the argument that the Polish should be housed on Salisbury Plain or in Cornwall (Burnham 2009, p5-6). However, relationships with the Polish in the squatting communities become more amicable over time.
A further tension is highlighted by a series of reports from the news agency Mass Observation which suggested that the majority of the camp squatters were not, in fact, politically motivated or committed to overthrowing private property. Many actually expressed resentment at the involvement of the Communist Party in some squats, insisting that they were driven only by an immediate need to secure housing. As argued by Webber, ‘one of the key characteristics of the squatters was their eschewing of ideology… in their own minds, and as presented in much of the press, they were just decent people who wanted a home; and the fact that most were service people and their families led to a view among the general public, the press and much of government that this was no more than they were due’ (2012, p126). Animosity towards the Party become heightened even further later in the decade as the Cold War began to change attitudes towards communism.
‘The Great Sunday Squat’
Following the example of the military bases, the Communist Party – with help from the Women’s Voluntary Service and even some police officers – moved over 100 families into luxury flats in Central London, on 8th September. They selected flats which had, in fact, been used for official use during the war, and then offered to the Tory councils of Kensington and Westminster to help with post-war housing (but had been refused). So many families turned up on the day that further squats had to be established, including buildings in Marylebone, Pimlico, and St John’s Wood.
The government were now under pressure and, fearing a spread of direct action, reacted harshly. They arrested 5 leaders of the Communist Party (all elected local councillors) who were imprisoned and charged with the novel offence of ‘conspiracy to trespass’. Police began laying siege and blockading the squats in full view of the media, cutting off facilities and preventing food and supplies from reaching them. The cabinet also instructed the Home Office to draft a new law that would make squatting a criminal offence and guards were placed in empty buildings across the city.
Webber argues that this extension into luxury flats ‘changed [the] mood of almost casual acceptance [of squatting] by public and press’ and that it was ‘the occupation of private property that finally led central government to act’ (2012, p134-5). The Labour leadership justified their actions by framing the Central London squatters as acting against society: ‘their crime, it was spelled out, was against the all-important waiting list’ (Burnham 2009, p4). By taking over the properties, these squatters had unfairly ‘jumped the housing queue’, and the government – which was establishing the welfare state – ‘had to uphold its policy of fair shares for all’ (Webber 2012, p139-40).
Yet the government also had to be careful and show ‘sympathy for ‘ordinary people’ seeking to put a roof over their head in order to avoid the danger of creating Communist martyrs’ (Webber 2012, p140) and the records of cabinet discussions from September 1946 show an ‘evolution in thinking from complacency before the Sunday squat, to a punitive approach, to a broader view of the situation… covering the need to provide alternative accommodation for those leaving the London flats; for local authorities not to punish squatters by putting them to the bottom of the housing list; for police not to use force against the squatters which would increase sympathy for them; and for the service departments to be clearer about their accommodation needs and to make space available for housing wherever possible’ (Webber 2012, p140).
Eventually, Labour offered immunity from prosecution to any squatter who left voluntarily and made efforts to secure temporary accommodation for the homeless (although they were often double-crossed and some were even housed ‘in the dormitories of the former Bromley-by-Bow workhouse’ (Burnham 2009, p4). The squats crumbled within a matter of weeks and plans for criminal legislation were dropped. The squatters at Duchess of Bedford House – who had been the high-profile media example of the activity – left on the 20th September accompanied by a marching band and were temporarily housed at an Old Ladies home in Hampstead.
Many of the squatted military camps were handed over to the occupants and were eventually incorporated into wider public housing systems (being used as social housing well into the 1950s). It therefore seems clear that one of the main legacies of the 1946 squatters was that they ‘contributed to the high priority of housing, and specifically of council housing, in public policy in the ensuing years and decades’ (Burnham 2009, p4-5). Yet the 1947 ‘Town and Country Planning Act’ put an end to self-help house building. And, in subsequent years, the Conservative Housing Minister from 1951, Harold Macmillan, ‘cleverly responded to the need for numbers of new houses, setting a high numerical target of 300,000 new homes a year’ achieving ‘this target by cutting standards, incentivising high-rise, promoting the ‘residulisation’ of council housing, and replacing true direct investment with council borrowing’ (Burnham 2009, p9).
For Vasudevan, ‘the 1945-6 campaign served as an important if often forgotten point of reference for the next wave of squatting which emerged in London and elsewhere in the UK in the late 1960s’ (2017, p46), and Webber even goes so far to suggest that ‘…after the war, the acts of the squatters were as close as Britain came to revolution’ (2012, p144). But Webber also insists that…
‘…these were no social revolutionaries; and it is clear that they were a movement only in the sense that they were inspired by the example of others… as class warriors; as victims of the Labour government, fighting for their rights; as respectable people doing what any young families would in their situation; and as English patriots, preventing Polish ex-servicemen and German prisoners of war from stealing accommodation from them. It was such attitudes which led to pro-squatter alliances by interests as diverse as the Daily Mail and the Communist Party’ (Webber 2012, p142-3).
Addison, P. (YEAR) Now the War is Over p65-70
Bailey, R. (1973) The Squatters London: Penguin
Branson, N. (1989) London Squatters 1946 (Conference proceedings, Communist Party event, 1984)
Burnham, P. (2004) ‘The Squatters of 1946: A local study in national context’, Socialist History 25
Burnham, P. (2009) ‘The Squatters of 1946’ Tenants’ History Conference
Friend, A. (1980) ‘The Post War Squatters’, in N. Wates and C. Wolmar (eds), Squatting: the Real Story.
Hill, D. (1946) ‘Who are the Squatters’ Pilot Papers I (November 1946). p11-27
Hinton, J. (1988) ‘Self-help and Socialism: The Squatters’ Movement of 1946’ History Workshop Journal. 25; 1; 100-126
Kearns, K. (1979) ‘Intra-urban Squatting in London’. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 69; 589-98
Kearns, K. (1980) ‘Urban Squatting: Social Activism in the Housing Sector’ Social Policy. II, p21-9
Kearns, K. (1981) ‘Urban Squatter Strategies: Social Adaptation to Housing Stress in London’ Urban Life 10, p123
Vasudevan, A. (2017) The Autonomous City: A History of Urban Squatting. London: Verso
Ward, C. (1963) ‘Direct Action for Houses: The story of the Squatters’, Anarchy 23
Ward, C. (2002) Cotters and Squatters: Housing’s Hidden History. Nottingham: Five Leaves
Webber, H. (2012) ‘A Domestic Rebellion: The Squatters’ Movement of 1946’ Ex Historia.