An Early History of British ‘Squatting’

If we take a broad definition of ‘squatting’ to mean more than the material occupation of private property without permission, then we might include within the lineage of squatting movements others examples where resistance has involved an intervention into public space and discourse. In this sense, squatting could be taken to include any direct action where the voiceless and unseen people of the disenfranchised and marginalized ‘part of no part’ (see Ranciere) have invaded the space of the mainstream in order to place their grievance onto a wider agenda and challenge common sense distributions. If we take contemporary squatting, for example, these are movements which have mostly been driven by a material necessity to repeatedly challenge the normality of private property, commodification, and eviction in major capitalist cities (such as social housing in London) and post-colonial cities (such as the slums in Rio).

Below is an historical overview which attempts to link this idea of squatting as an ‘intervention’ into space and ideology back through some of the more infamous movements of British history.

Magna Carta (1215-17)

While this agreement was drawn up between King John and rebel barons, it also formed the legal basis for protections of individual subjects against the despotic whims of sovereign power. Arbitrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, it is thought that he slyly included certain clauses that – while ostensibly designed to protect the barons from excessive taxation or confiscation of land – would also lay the foundation for a protection of the commons from the king. Sections which covered the Royal Forests, for example, were designed to limit their expansion and curtail the economic monopoly of the crown, which allowed the sovereign to exploit land for hunting, raw materials, and taxation.

As well as forming the basis of English property rights and common law protections from the arbitrary authority of the crown, three clauses remain in English law today:

  1. Freedom of the English church
    (a clause originally designed to placate the Pope).
  2. The ‘Ancient Liberties’ of the City of London
  3. The right to due legal process

‘No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseized of his freehold, or liberties, or free customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed, nor will we not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgement of his peers, or by the law of the land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either justice of right’ – Article 29 of the Magna Carta

The 2nd clause on the City of London is significant in shaping the autonomy afforded that district which persists until today. Even before the Magna Carta, William the Conquerer had granted the City a charter in 1075 (one of the few examples of the English retaining some authority) and, by 1141, the citizenry of the ‘square mile’ were regarded as a single community, founding the City of London Corporation, and gaining the right to elect their own mayor with Royal consent in 1189, and even bypass that accountability from 1215. As such, the City has survived as a distinct polity despite its geographical position and numerous local government reforms (for instance, they retained 4 MPs even after the 1832 Great Reform Act, which was reduced to two in 1885, and only ceased to be a separate constituency under the Representation of the People Act 1948). An attempt was made in 1894 to amalgamate the City with the County of London and end the distinction between the two, but a change in government at Westminster meant this was never taken up and the gradual economic centralization, political autonomy, and lack of accountability of the City of London, meant that this became a material focus for protests from the Peasants’ Revolt right up to Occupy London.

As well as the legacy of legal rights against the state arbitrarily confiscating property, the Magna Carta is also relevant to the history of squatting because it developed into a mythical foundational story for future movements. Many future lawyers, historians, and activists (including the Levellers, the Diggers, and even those who drew up the American Constitution in 1787) believed that the document had been an attempt to restore essential ‘English’ (Anglo-Saxon) freedoms which had been lost after the Norman Evasion of 1066.

Wat Tyler and the Peasants Revolt (1381)

Socio-economic and political tensions created by the Black Death, high taxes during the 100 years war with France, and the instability of local leadership in London had created a volatile atmosphere in the early 14th century. On 30th May 1381, John Bampton was attempting to collect unpaid poll taxes in Brentwood, Essex, when he was met with violent confrontation, and the uprising which followed led to the burning of court records, opening jails, and demands to end taxation, serfdom, and a removal of the king’s senior officials.

Inspired by radical cleric John Bull and led by Wat Tyler, Kentish rebels advanced on London and were unsuccessfully apprehended by representatives of the crown at Blackheath. King Richard III (who was 14 years old) retreated to the Tower of London, as most of the military were either in France or in Northern England. On 13th June, the rebels attacked jails, destroyed the Savoy palace, burnt law books and buildings in Temple, and murdered anyone associated with the government. The next day, the government met them at Mile End and acceded to most of their demands.

On 15th June, Richard left the city to meet the rebels at Smithfield, where Tyler was killed following an altercation. This defused the situation for long enough for Sheriff William Walworth to gather a militia and disperse the rebels. Most of the leaders were then systematically tracked down and executed (at least 1500 by November). By 30th June, the king had backtracked on his concessions and ordered serfs to return to work (although serfdom did start to decline for economic reasons, as Lords sold serfs their freedom to raise cash, and converted to leasehold agreements).

‘To play King Richard to somebody else’s Wat Tyler has always been a Tory fancy’ – G. M. Young, Portrait of an Age (1936)

As well as remaining a pertinent symbol for resistance, and even informing arguments surrounding the introduction of the Poll Tax during the 1980s, Tyler’s decision to march on the City of London also highlights the growing political and economic significance of the city which was increasingly targeted as a symbolic platform for resistance. This became particularly important as the industrial revolution, colonialism, and the slave trade got into full swing and London began its ascension as the global centre of finance, commerce and capitalism from the 16th century onwards.

The Levellers (1642-51)

The name ‘Leveller’ had previously been used as a term of abuse for rural rebels who had destroyed (‘levelled’) hedges during the Enclosure Riots (beginning with the Kett’s Rebellion in 1549), but it also encapsulated the movement’s ‘levelling’ egalitarian principles. The Levellers included regiments in the New Model Army (the parliamentarian force in the English civil war), but also found support among the populace in the City of London. Organised at a national level, with offices in London inns and taverns, the Levellers wore sprigs of rosemary in their hats and sea-green ribbons in order to identify one another. As well as seeing themselves as claiming compensation for their sacrifices in the civil war, these ex-servicemen also saw themselves as reclaiming rights which had been oppressed by the Norman conquest in 1066 (although they were divided over the status of common law and whether the Magna Carta was a foundation of rights and liberties or a maintenance of Norman power). Above all, however, they held onto the idea of ‘natural rights’ rooted in the bible, as well as ‘native English rights’ which they deemed to be freedom of conscience, freedom from impressment into the armed forces, and equality before the law.

By August 1647, the Levellers had seized the City of London and ensconced to Putney in order to democratically discuss a new constitution for Britain. The demands made in the ‘Agreement of the People‘ manifesto which emerged from the ‘Putney Debates‘ included universal male suffrage (one man, one vote), biennial parliaments, a reorganization of constituencies, and an end to imprisonment for debt. Driven by a commitment to end corruption, they also demanded a translation of law into the common tongue and that the House of Commons should have authority over the sovereign and lords, but Cromwell, who wanted to establish a plutocratic government based upon property, resisted these demands, insisting that the lords and sovereign should retain the power of veto over the commons, as well as a franchise based on property ownership. Fearing the popularity of the Levellers’ manifesto within the New Model Army, he began to order executions, arrests, and resignations to try and quell the demands.

One of the interesting questions to arise from the Putney Debates was around a phrase in the manifesto which defined the franchise ‘according to the number of inhabitants’, raising concerns that a foreigner who had just arrived in England and was living in a property would therefore have the right to vote. Henry Ireton (Cromwell’s son-in-law and general in the New Model Army)  argued that a person should have a ‘permanent interest of this kingdom’ in order to vote, and therefore should own property, but the Levellers disagreed with this argument, suggesting that their manifesto was a challenge to both the use of property to restrict the franchise (a restriction which persisted even to the first extension of the vote to women in 1918) as well as humanist principles which extended beyond national borders.

The ‘True Levellers’ (or Diggers) (1649)

Whereas the Levellers opposed the common ownership of property unless this was in mutual agreement with property owners, the ‘True Levellers’ – who were more commonly known as the ‘Diggers’ – advocated a more radical solution. By April 1649, spurred on by food prices which had reached an all-time high, the Diggers began planting vegetables on common land at St George’s Hill, Weybridge (near Cobham in Surrey). They invited all to come and help them pull down the land enclosures, promising meat, drink, and clothes.

Seen as the forerunners of modern anarchism and agrarian socialism, the Diggers envisioned a society free from private property and commercial exchange, citing passages of economic equality from the bible (especially Acts 2: 44-45 ‘All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.’). The idea was that, through establishing egalitarian rural communities, they could reform the existing social order. As with the Peasants Revolt and the Levellers, they were spurred on by common belief that England had been subjugated by the Norman conquest, and that the commons had been robbed of their birthright by being exploited by a foreign ruling class. They were also motivated by notions of an ecological interrelationship between humans and nature, acknowledging the connections between people and their surroundings.

‘England is not a free people, till the poor that have no land have a free allowance to dig and labour the commons’ – Gerard Winstanley, The State of Community Opened, and Presented to the Sons of Men (1649)

Local landowners reacted by calling upon the New Model Army to evict the squatters, but Thomas Fairfax (who met with Gerard Winstanley) concluded that they were doing no harm and advised the landowners to use the courts. The Lord of Manor reacted by organising gangs to attack the Diggers (including beatings and arson) as well as accusing them of being ‘Ranters’ (a radical sect associated with liberal sexuality). A court hearing (which the Diggers were not allowed to attend) warned them to leave or be forcibly evicted, and the squatters abandoned the hill in August 1649 (a few moved to Little Heath but were evicted by April 1650). By then, however, Digger camps had been established up and down the country, with a pamphlet written by the Iver Diggers (Buckinghamshire) naming camps in: Wellingborough (Northamptonshire); Barnet (Hertfordshire); Enfield (Middlesex); Dunstable (Bedfordshire); Bosworth (Gloucestershire); and Nottinghamshire.

The Diggers continue to be an inspiration for movements challenging norms of private property and inequality today. In the mid-1960s, the San Francisco Diggers opened stores which simply gave away free food, medical care, transport, and temporary housing, as well as organizing free concerts and works of political art. A revival of anarchism in the British anti-roads movement also celebrated the Diggers as precursors of land squatting and communalism. Since 2013, the Bolton Diggers have promoted ‘the commons’ as a foil to privatisation, establishing community food gardens, cooperatives, and the Commons Wealth pay-as-you-feel cafe using surplus from from supermarkets.

The Chartists (1838-57)

The first Great Reform Act (1832) had failed to extend the vote beyond those owning property and the working classes had felt that they had been let down by a Whig government (who had opted to placate the middle classes). This betrayal was then compounded by the Poor Law Amendment (1834) which deprived working people of outdoor relief and drove the poor into workhouses.

From 1838, mass meetings in Northern England, the East Midlands, the Staffordshire Potteries, the Black Country, and South Wales spurred a national movement which demanded six democratic reforms outlined in ‘The People’s Charter‘:

  1. A vote for every man over 21yrs, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for a crime (originally, this was every ‘person’, but the inclusion of women was dropped after middle class pressure);
  2. A secret ballot to protect the elector;
  3. No property qualifications for MPs;
  4. Payment of MPs so that workers could leave employment to attend parliament;
  5. Equal constituencies, securing the same amount of representation for  the same number of electors;
  6. Annual parliamentary elections in order to stop bribery and intimidation.

While seeing these principles as underpinning a fight against political corruption in industrial Britain, the Chartist movement also attracted widespread support for economic reasons (including wage cuts and unemployment). Petitions signed by millions were presented to the House of Commons in 1839, 1842, and 1848 to concede suffrage and, when the first petition was refused, preparations began for armed insurrection in Newport, Sheffield and Bradford  (which were ultimately quashed).

‘These cascades are dedicated to the memory of Samuel Holberry, Sheffield Chartist Leader, 1814-1842. He died in York castle on the 21st of June 1842 after suffering two years imprisonment for his part in the Sheffield Rising of January 1840. He gave his life for what he believed to be the true interest of the people of England: a democratic society that would guarantee freedom, equality and security for all’ – Plaque in Sheffield Peace Gardens

The Chartist movement were particularly scathing of the Church of England and the unequal distribution of state funds it received (resulting in bishops and dignitaries having grossly large incomes) and many called for an absolute separation of the church and the state. From 1839, however, Chartists also began attending CofE services in order to display their numerical strength and express dissatisfaction, forewarning the preacher to read from texts which were taken to support their cause (including 2 Thessalonians 3:10, 2 Timothy 2:6, Matthew 19:23, and James 5:1-6). In response, ministers would often preach the need to focus on the spiritual rather than the material, as well as the virtues of meekness and obedience to authority (e.g. Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17).

Once again, obtaining land and property was seen as crucial for empowerment, liberty, and egalitarian redistribution, and from 1843 onwards, Feargus O’Connor began to argue that land offered the solution to working class’ problems. This evolved into the establishment of a Chartist Co-operative Land Company (later called the National Land Company) in which workers would buy shares in order to fund the purchasing of estates and subdivide them into 2, 3, and 4 acre lots. Between 1844 and 1848, 5 estates were purchased and occupied by lucky shareholders chosen by lot, but in 1848 a parliamentary select committee deemed the scheme to be financially nonviable and ordered it be shut down. Chartist cottages can still be found in Oxfordshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, and on the outskirts of London.

The second Great Reform Act (1867) admitted some working men to the franchise and, slowly, all but 1 of the Chartist demands (annual elections) were implemented (with the secret ballot in 1872 and the payment of MPs in 1911). Chartism also reappeared in some colonial resistances after 1920, who called for improved welfare, upgraded education, freedom of speech, and greater political representation for colonised people..

Suffragettes (1903-14)

John Stuart Mill had first tabled the idea of female suffrage as early as 1865 and, with New Zealand being the first country to enfranchise women in 1893, pressure grew for extension of the franchise in the UK. The initial Suffragist movement encapsulated the frustration felt by women from upper- and middle-class backgrounds with their social and economic situation. Yet progress was slow, with fierce parliamentary opposition to women having the right to vote, incorporating ‘scientific’ justifications of the biological inability for women to possess rational thought and being ‘subjected to nature’ during menstruation.

Reacting to growing disillusionment with the Suffragist movement, Emiline Pankhurst began to advocate a more assertive and radicalised from of direct action for female suffrage, founding the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. The ‘Suffragettes’ (a name coined by The Daily Mail as a title of derision but defiantly adopted by the movement, emphasising a hard ‘G’ to render the name ‘Suffrage – Get’) were influenced by tactics used by Russian exiles from Tsarism, such as: hunger strikes, damage to property and vandalism – setting fire to postboxes, smashing windows, and detonating bombs, as well as targeting places frequented by men, such as cricket grounds and race tracks – chaining themselves to railings and other public displays of protest (such as Emily Davison’s death after running out in front of the King’s Horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby).  In 1912, there were even attempts to assassinate the Prime Minster (Asquith) including throwing a hatchet at his carriage and a failed effort to burn down a theatre he was frequenting, and in 1914 at least 7 churches were bombed or set on fire, including Westminster Abbey. Others, such as Princess Sophia Singh (god daughter of Queen Victoria) also used their status to add legitimacy to economic resistance and refusing to pay tax through the Women’s Tax Resistance League.

‘No Vote, No Tax’ – Women’s Tax Resistance League Slogan

From 1908, the WSPU adopted the colour scheme of violet (for dignity), white (for purity) and green (for hope). Around 1000 Suffragettes were imprisoned and were refused recognition as political prisoners (with the government fearing martyrdom). Many therefore went on hunger strikes and were force fed using techniques from mental asylums, until the development of the Cat and Mouse Act where hunger strikers could be released to recover before returning to finish their sentence.

Suffragists were critical of these tactics and argued that they were setting back the case for women’s suffrage by adding credence to the idea that women were incapable of rational or reasonable argument and thought. Either way, direct action was ceased as the First World War began and women began to mobilise as part of the total war machine. Some historians cite the increased economic role of women played during the war as being one of the main reasons that women over 30 (meeting certain property qualifications) were given the right to vote in 1918. The vote wasn’t extended to all women over 21 (on the same terms as men) until 1928.

Plaistow Land Grabbers (1906)

Prompted by mass unemployment, groups in Leeds, Manchester, Bradford and Plaistow (London) occupied unused land with the aim of cultivating food to feed themselves. While Manchester and Leeds were quickly and violently evicted, Plaistow continued to occupy a 3 acre site in an old gravel pit by the railway line between St Mary’s Road and North Street Passage. Although Plaistow was close to being completely built-up, there were still open areas of land nearby (having been a large rural village only 40 years previously) and while multiple enclosure acts between 1604 & 1914 may have meant that the common man was no longer part of the common land, the locals now had to fight to save the very land itself from being obliterated by industry and workers’ houses.

On 13th July 1906, around 20 unemployed men, who had grown disillusioned with government and local authorities to adequately help them and their families, set up the ‘Triangle Camp’ (including a main tent called ‘the Triangle Hotel’) and began cultivation.  Their leader, Councillor Ben Cunningham (nicknamed ‘the Captain’), told a local reporter that they ‘wanted to get the people back to the land’ and this ecological theme was emphasized in large white letters at the back of the plot, with the slogan: ‘What will the Harvest be?’ Local people donated plants for the garden (over 1000 on the first weekend) as well as other supplies, and an attempted eviction on 26th July was seen off by around 3-5000 supporters (with a journalist from the Western Times reporting that ‘there was no disorder, and the utmost good feeling prevailed’.

‘With all respect to your worship’s opinion, I don’t consider that I have acted illegally in taking possession of disused land which rightfully belongs to the people’ – Ben Cunningham’s response to the Mayor’s threat of eviction.

The site was eventually cleared on 4th August. Cunningham refused to leave and was eventually arrested. Attempts to reclaim the land were thwarted by an increasingly sizeable police force from the West Ham Corporation (which included 120 constables a month later).

After WW1

According to Ron Bailey (cited in Vasudevan 2017), a sharp rise in unemployment after the 1st World War also prompted many to seize empty municipal property in order to set up relief organisations for local neighborhoods. In addition, rent and rate strikes were common in the East End of London, and there was a significant rise in self-build housing on marginal land (mostly in Essex) which could no longer be used for agriculture (known as ‘three-horse land’). Some coastal sites were also reclaimed, including Jaywick Sands and Canvey Island (although these ‘plotlanders’ were not always strictly ‘squatters’ as many paid for the sites (see Ward 2002). Such ‘self-help’ house-building was ultimately ended by the Town and Country Planning Act (1947).

See this article for squatting after WW2


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