David Hoffman

Hot as an oven in summer and I froze in the winter

David’s piece is a written response received
on 10 March 2021 to a set of questions sent to him by email

My name is David Hoffman, and I was born in Stamford Hill in London on 4 June 1946. My father, his family and his grandparents were 19th-century Jewish immigrants from, what is now, Ukraine. They moved around the East End, Whitechapel, Hackney & Walthamstow.

© David Hoffman

We moved to Stanmore soon after my birth, then to Berkshire when I was three and then to south London from when I was seven until I left home at seventeen. My most memorable experiences were the horror of Tiffin School and the London smogs that made it impossible to see your hand in front of your face or feet on the pavement.

The East End was filthy and crumbling when I arrived in 1970. The docks were on their last legs and it was the end of the road for many people. When things went wrong you sank and sank but by the time you got to Whitechapel, there was nowhere further to sink. There was a street population of alcoholics with occasional wild people shouting and raving in an atmosphere of hopelessness and dereliction.

A bonfire always burned in Spitalfields Market with broken ragged people around it, drinking cider or meth. There was frequent violence between the Maltese gangs on their way out and newer contenders. The police were authoritarian and aggressive because they knew that we were powerless.

Moving around, sleeping on floors, I landed a rickety Whitechapel slum of my own in Chicksand Street. After six months or so, someone who was living in nearby Black Lion Yard moved out and I took their room.

Black Lion Yard had been known as the ‘Hatton Garden of the East End’ because of its many jewellers’ shops. Now one side was partly demolished and there were West Indian cafés, a hairdresser, a butcher’s shop and maybe four or five jewellers’ shops left. Solly Grannatt, our landlord, was a seemingly ancient diamond dealer. Sometimes he’d have hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of jewels in his pockets and, sensibly paranoid, he’d grab onto my arm and make me walk him to the Tube.

Most of Old Montague Street was falling apart, crumbling terraces overfilled with impoverished Bengalis, single men crowded together sharing damp beds. Brick Lane curry was either the Sheba or the New Bombay. The New Bombay was our regular. A random selection of chipped plates and cockroaches running on the walls – but only 3/6d for a meat curry. Outside, prostitutes hung out on the street and in Black Lion Yard the dope dealers would flick a deal up through your window if you whistled.

I left London for university in the 1960s and towards the end of that period, I was squatting in York for about a year before returning to London. I rented places then until 1973 when LBTH demolished our home in Black Lion Yard, Whitechapel. That was when I moved to Fieldgate Mansions and squatted a top floor flat at 144 Romford Street.

I had been mixing photography with driving jobs until I started college in 1973. When I left in 1976 I took up press photography full time and have worked in that business since.

The people I lived with, in Black Lion Yard, were far more politically aware than me and active in the squatting movement. We would get a van, pull on overalls like council workers, turn up at the newly vacated house at seven in the morning, jemmy the tin off the doors and fit new locks. The people who moved into these squats spread the word to others who needed homes and shared similar ideas. There were drug dealers, prostitutes, architects, jewellers, silversmiths, motorcycle mechanics and me, a photographer. There was a guy, dealing heroin a couple of blocks down from me, and a guy making beautifully crafted hurdy-gurdies in the flat opposite. Artists and feckless layabouts, it was a lively mix. The empty streets filled up with kids playing, with people fixing old vans or heaving ‘salvaged’ building materials along, with Bengali families, friends of friends, and random people who needed homes. Corner shops and cafés came back to life. There is a world view that goes with squatting, it brings people together and creates a sense of community.

© David Hoffman

Fieldgate Mansions were well-built nineteenth century tenements with beautiful brickwork. I was in a top flat. The roof was slate, and the ceiling was plasterboard, so it was as hot as an oven in summer, and I froze in the winter. When I moved in there were still some council tenants. I got on well with Maria, a cheerful Cypriot woman who lived next door, and when she left, she gave me her keys, so we immediately put someone new in her flat. We had to be quick because as soon as a flat was empty council workers would go in, smash the lavatories and pour cement down the pan, take out the windows, knock off the doors and rip out the wiring. After they had finished, we had to go in and put it all back again.

We may have been swimming against the tide, but we were winning. As fast as the council decanted tenants we squatted the flats. Mine had a front room which became my darkroom, a backroom as my office and bedroom plus a tiny kitchen and a lavatory.
There was no bathroom. In my first winter, I found an old Ascot water heater in a skip and managed to get it working late on New Year’s Eve. My first hot water arrived to the sound of the ships on the Thames blasting their hooters in celebration.

Fortunately, no one was in a hurry to demolish Fieldgate Mansions. They knew that if they threw us out, others would move in and squat instead. In the early eighties, just to be rid of them, Tower Hamlets Council sold the buildings for one pound to the Samuel Lewis Housing Association. If we had not squatted, the place would have been demolished by the council in the seventies. Squatting did save Fieldgate Mansions, yet when we moved in, it was owned by the community, and now it is a hundred-million-pound asset on the books of a rich corporation. There is no stopping capitalism.

© David Hoffman

I was working as a photographer in the area and so I came into contact with many local people, groups and organisation. My social life was mainly visiting friends, going to local events such as productions at the Half Moon or getting involved with arts and media projects.

The Bengalis were very welcome. They added to the economic viability of the area with shops, cafés and restaurants reopening or expanding. The food was new to us and we loved the variety of new tastes that the Bengalis brought. Children filled the streets and that too raised our spirits in what had been a grey, decaying, hopeless sort of place. As more Bengali families joined us in Fieldgate Mansions it became harder for the council to try to remove us and we felt more secure in our tenancy of the squats. We’d have liked to have more social contact with the Bengali families, but the cultural differences were a brake on that.

I had been squatting in York in the late 1960s but rented when I came to London in 1969. When Black Lion Yard was compulsorily purchased by LBTH and the landlord left in early 1973, we stayed on and squatted in the building we had previously rented. In September 1973 I opened up my squat in Fieldgate Mansions and I stayed there until October 1984 when I moved to a derelict house in Bow that I had been restoring. I’ve lived in that house ever since.

I was a photographer, and it was squatting and the freedom from having to take other jobs to pay the rent that enabled me to work in that field and build what became a successful career when, at the start, I was earning next to nothing.