Squatters are those who occupy, without permission, properties that belong to others
Human existence, the nature of life and how societies organise themselves around the world, inevitably, create conditions that compel some people to practice what we today call squatting. Squatters are individuals and groups who squat in properties – houses, offices, factories or enclosed lands – that belong to others. Squatting means moving into and occupying spaces by people who do not own them or have permission to do so from their legal owners. But inequality, privilege, history, economy, religion, private property rights, politics and hierarchy have always meant some people possessing more than others. The existence of a ‘more than others’ category means that there also exist a ‘less than others’ group, which includes various degrees of relative and absolute dispossessions that people experience.
Dispossession has always created conditions where people, by necessity, have had to transgress limits set by rules and laws. History has shown many examples of people – out of desperation to survive or to put a roof over their heads or of their families – taking control of lands and properties that belong to others.
Criminals and armies also take over other people’s lands but that is not considered to be squatting. In the latter’s case, conquests by power and force have been mostly glorified by the victorious side. In the case of criminals, this usually happens in countries that have weak institutions and involve the poor. They rarely, if ever, take over the properties of the rich and powerful. In time, through immoral means and influence, many manage to gain legal ownership of properties taken through criminality.
All human beings are born equal. But when they come into the world, they find the reality different from their innate rights. Some find themselves privileged to different degrees, while others are on the opposite side with various degrees of dispossessions. It includes, in some cases, people in absolute situations where they have nothing. So, there arises a need for ideas, justifications and programmes to enable those who possess nothing or very little to gain a bit, or a bit more of a share of the world and its bounties.
The recent history of squatting relates mostly to post-war developments and the banning of residential squatting in 2012. Soldiers returning from war, taking control of abandoned military compounds, and urban squatters breaking into boarded-up houses, mostly but not exclusively, publicly owned properties have been discussed extensively.
The phenomenon of urban squatting in the UK and in several European countries are thought to have started in 1968 with ‘the London Squatters’ Campaign’s first action… a publicity stunt on 1 December’, when they ‘staged a demonstration on the rooftop’ of ‘The Hollies’, ‘with banner and a press conference’. The London Squatters Campaign (LSC) was set up by Ron Baily. This event was soon followed in February 1969 by ‘two hundred people’ marching ‘to a street containing multiple empty council properties in Redbridge’. They were careful not to break any laws and followed some procedures before entering and housing several families. (The Politics of the Crowbar: Squatting in London, 1968-1977, by Rowan Tallis Milligan). In the 1970s, there were famous squatter movements in Maida Vale, Brixton and Camden and elsewhere. The relatively less known history of squatting and the squatting movement in Tower Hamlets is the subject of this project, but not about all of it.
In 2019, East End Connection (EEC) received a grant of £10,000 from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to undertake a project called ‘Struggles of Bangladeshi Squatters of Parfett Street and Myrdle Street. The focus was specific in terms of geography and ethnicity. However, as nothing exists in isolation and there are all kinds of dynamic relationships between areas and peoples, this project inevitably involved looking at a slightly wider scene. Within the catchment area of the project, the story of Fieldgate Mansion squatting is an important element.
There are two reasons why the project names two streets in its title First, Myrdle Street and Parfett Street witnessed widely publicised dramatic events in 1973 that involved squatting, court orders for evictions, resistance and evictions. Second, the properties that came under the control of the Sylhet Housing Co-operative in 1983 were all situated in Myrdle Street and Parfett Street.
The relationships and interactions between Bangladeshi and non-Bangladeshi squatters, the appalling local housing conditions and what happened in surrounding areas were an integral and important part of the story of Bangladeshi Squatters of Myrdle Street and Parfett Street. This includes, for example, squatting in Pelham Buildings, Old Montague Street and Rampart Street. Without an understanding of these, the wider context, what happened in Parfett Street and Myrdle Street. would be lost.
A project launch was organised on 3 July 2019 at the Kobi Nazrul Primary School in Settle Street. It attracted a wide response, including people associated with that period as activists or squatters, who contacted East End Connection to share their stories. One email from Jobeda Ali, who was suffering from a terminal illness, made the whole thing very poignant.
“I used to be one of the original squatters, but it was in Old Montague Street. Before that, the family also squatted in other places but I’m not sure my mum remembers the names of those streets. I was under 5 during this time. I was born in 1975 and we came to London in 1975 and I’ve been trying to get some history of the early days from my mum. But it’s hard to get parents to tell us their history sometimes so I would like to volunteer my mum (and myself) to participate in recording some of this history. We lived in dilapidated accommodations which were not fit for human habitation. One place didn’t even have floors and mum and dad had to make improvised flooring! Also, I have a few pictures (colour!) of us from the 70s. Unlike anything you see today among British Bangladeshis, feels like a different demographic sometimes.
Anyway, how can I get involved? I’m also writing my memoirs. I have a chronic illness and it’s terminal so I’m trying to write down my history anyway. I should say I have a history degree from Cambridge University, so I hope I’d be an asset in your endeavors with this project. I wish you every success.”
When the project was ready to interview Jobeda Ali in early 2020 – after recruiting the volunteer community participants, providing them with an induction and training on oral history and allocating roles – she was contacted by phone. She answered from a hospital bed and said that she was very ill and unable to give an interview. Sadly, in April 2020, she passed away.
In total, 34 properties – 9 in Myrdle Street and 25 in Parfett Street – came under the control of the Sylhet Housing Co-op. But the organization in reality provided some structural support, in several different ways, to local Bangladeshis living in both squatted and non-squatted properties, including in other nearby roads.
The project was designed to be an introductory account of the world of the struggles of Bangladeshi squatters of the period, focused mainly on the Parfett and Myrdle Streets and surrounding areas. Rather than something comprehensive it was meant to be a catalyst to inspire others to undertake more detailed work.
Its target was to interview fifteen people in total – nine Bangladeshi squatters, three non-Bangladeshi squatters and three individuals, who supported the squatter movements and can say something about Bangladeshi squatters from a non-Bangladeshi perspective. However, as soon as the interview started, the Covid-19 emergency got going and the lockdown began. So, the whole process that was set up to complete the project came to a halt in late March 2020. But, by then, seven face-to-face interviews had been collected and, since then, three other individuals shared their stories with the project – two written and one recorded from a safe distance.
The completed project consists of ten interviews – six Bangladeshi squatters and three non-Bangladeshi squatters, some of whom were also activists and were actively involved with the Sylhet Housing Co-op, and one non-Bangladeshi activist. Between them, they have provided access to a world not known to many people living now. Their experiences were diverse and together they shared complementary accounts of the time, what life was like, their struggles and triumphs.
After the initial interviews, the recordings were transcribed verbatim. Some of the interviewees were then contacted to ensure accuracy. During the process, additional information has been added and the texts edited to ensure a good read. In one case, Nora Connolly produced a shorter version, written by herself. So it was decided to include both in the publication as they complement and add dimensions. The recorded interviews and the verbatim transcripts will be handed over to the Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives (THLHLA) to add to their local history collections.
The project also included the provision of training several local people to develop a Squatters Heritage Walk. In this regard, Dr Georgie Wemyss delivered two training sessions. After that, participants that were trained produced a Squatters Heritage Walk proposal that consists of twelve stops, starting from Altab Ali Park and ending at the former St Mary’s Centre, called Stepney Community Trust since 2002. The pack consists of a route map, twelve stops with arrows from start to finish and information on each of the stops.
The accounts provided by the ten people bring to light the multi-dimensional and complex nature of the squatting phenomenon. On the one hand, during the 1970s, there was an increase in families joining Bangladeshi men already in the UK. Most of the women were young and came with one or more children to join their husbands. They found themselves in very confined, overcrowded spaces, sharing poor-quality rented housing. In many cases, a family with several children shared a single bedroom and one kitchen with other families or a combination of single people, couples and families. Most of the properties were damaged, had holes, broken windows and very cold. They also lacked indoor toilet facilities. The cold environment, the lack of proper heating and confined overcrowded spaces caused many Bangladeshi women and children to suffer from a variety of illnesses.
Most of Tower Hamlets was also a no-go area for Bangladeshis who experienced extreme levels of racism and racial violence. In order to protect themselves, they mostly tried to live in the western end of the Borough where the majority of the jobs in the tailoring sector existed and had more ethnic minority presence. Many of those that managed to get council housing in other parts of the Borough soon came back to the western end or tried to come back due to racial violence and fear.
In all likelihood it is impossible to know precisely who the first Bangladeshi squatters were in Tower Hamlets. But it is certain that some Bangladeshis were squatting quite early on, even though the numbers were small. From discussion with individuals and groups, and published materials, it is clear that by the mid-1970s there were many Bangladeshi squatters in the borough. For example, Jubeda, quoted above, mentioned that her family was squatting from 1975, the year of both her birth and when she came to the UK.
‘In the summer of 1975, the first mass Bengali squat in Spitalfields opened up the empty houses in Old Montague Street. Twenty-two adults and 50 children had put a roof over their heads. The squats had an electrifying effect. For the first time, through their own efforts, Bengali people were making housing freely available. Verdan Street was squatted, Nelson Street was taken over. As more squats were secured, everyone became increasingly safe from eviction. It was becoming too big for the council to deal with, although it did try a show of force against the Faceless Homeless in 1975’.
(Spitalfields: A Battle for Land, by Charlie Forman)
In line with squatting movements elsewhere in London, mutually feeding from each other, Tower Hamlets also experienced, quite early on, squatters taking over boarded up properties, including in Myrdle Street and Parfett Street. They were mostly white young people with a background in arts, teaching, music and other creative professions. There are press cuttings of squatters in Myrdle Street being evicted as early as 1973. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some Bangladeshis also squatted from the start of the London squatting movement in 1968.
In an article in The Guardian on 12 January 1973, under the headline, ‘Judge regrets lack of legal backing for ‘good squatters’. This was in relation to several squatters occupying properties in Myrdle Street and Parfett Street, describes as ‘good squatters’ by the judge hearing an eviction request order from Epracent the property owners. The judge granted the request but he ‘ordered that it should not be executed for 14 days’. A few day later the Evening News on 17 January 1973 covered the story of the ‘good squatters in more details and names the individuals concerned.
‘THE SO-GOOD squatters today swept up the crumbs and dusted their books ready for the bailiffs bang on the door.
The Very Special Squatters of Myrdle Street and Parfett Street, Stepney, who got their “good people” accolade from a county court judge were keeping everything trim and tidy for the day they are evicted.
The squatters include two teachers, a theatre director, a community worker and an articled clerk…
The judge said he had “considerable sympathy” with the squatters. He regretted that councils’ powers to requisition property had lapsed since the war.
The “good people” before the court, he said, had simply been trying to get a roof over their heads…
They pay rates, use gas meters and pay electricity and phone bills. Hot water has been installed in each house, leaky roofs repaired and rooms decorated.
Four people have been squatting in Parfett Street since June, and five in Myrdle Street since April and every one has his own room.’
University – educated Tony Mahony – a 28 years old community worker with East End children said: “It is a crime that any property should be left empty when there are thousands of homeless.
“Property speculators just leave houses empty until prices spiral and then they sell. If we had not moved in these houses would not have been used for years.”
Said theatre director Guy Sprung, 30 who lives with his wife, Judith, 25, in Parfett Street: “There must be a moral law which says that people should not sleep on the streets.”
The only solution
Guy, one of the pioneers of the Half Moon Theatre in Alie Street, Whitechapel added: “I have no qualms about squatting. I tried for months to find a place in the East End and the nearest I got was Shepherds Bush.
“It is important I live here so that I know the people and realise what they enjoy and understand in the theatre.”
Judith who teachers at a school for special children in Newham, said: “The court said bailiffs can put us on the streets any time after January 25 and I do not like the uncertainty, but Guy needed to live here.”
English teacher Ann Pettitt, aged 25, said she did not like the uncertain life at Myrdle Street, but I spent months sleeping on the floors of friends while flat hunting. When I did find places the rents were outrageous.
“So squatting was the only solution. My children would suffer if I did not live in the area because I would never understand them.
Asked of she though she was setting a bad example for her pupils at Hackney Downs Secondary School, she said: “the Children are very aware of the desperate housing problems and will understand.”
The article included a picture of Tony Mahony, Ann Pettitt and Ann Zell showing them to be scanning ‘the property columns of a local newspaper in their search for homes’.
Another article on 23 January 1973 in the Hackney and Kingsland Gazette reported of ‘Marchers locked out by property firm. It reported that
MILITANT squatters fighting eviction from two Stepney houses were joined by over 100 friends and sympathisers when they marched on the registered office of their “landlord” – Epracent Properties – on Friday afternoon.
Epracent have warrants to evict the squatters from their two houses at 20 Myrdle Street and 42 Parfett Street next Friday.
But when the shouting and singing demonstrators arrived at the company’s building at 54 Brick-lane, Stepney , they found not offices but a clothing workshop with the name “Epracent” above it.
But the squatters ordered to be evicted did not go quietly. The East London Advertiser reported on 16 and 23 February 1973 of a Myrdle Street siege with dramatic photographs of squatters using ingenious methods to prevent their eviction. Eventually the occupants of number 20 Myrdle Street were evicted, the Parfett Street eviction being completed a bit earlier. However, this did not end the story of these groups of squatters. They quickly occupied and squatted Epracent owned properties in Parfett Street.
Attempted evictions followed but this time without success. The Squatters’ creativity, public support and the entertainment values and press interest of their activities and resistance made it very costly for Epracent to evict them. These squatters subsequently helped open up other boarded-up properties for more squatters to move in.
Eventually, the Tower Hamlets Council in 1975 decided to buy the properties through a compulsory order and the squatters were allowed to stay and issued a licence for £2 a week.
The young white squatters came from a range of mostly arts and creative backgrounds. Some among them included radicals with left-wing political agendas and anarchists. Many lived in communes and explored and sought to develop alternative lifestyles. Some have been described as drug users. Although all kinds of people became squatters, all kinds were not part of the same squats or parts of the same groups. One individual, a previous squatter in Parfett Street, interviewed talked about how they lived in a commune and all the crazy and creative things they got up to. But she became horrified when, inadvertently, got associated with squatters that used drugs.
On the one hand, many areas in the East End were cleared and boarded up due to bomb damage – some taken over by trees, shrubs, grass and urban wildlife. On the other, there were boarded-up housing units – terraces, tenements and blocks – earmarked for demolition. But, due to lack of funding, the authorities failed to develop them, leaving areas derelict and blighted. In order to prevent people from squatting, the authorities would damage toilets, doors and windows, and cut off utilities. The squatters would move in, repair and get the utilities re-connected and start living there. However, in many cases, especially in some of the overcrowded Bangladeshi squats, the quality of housing restored by squatters were appalling, due to the quality of the housing in the first place, and the low income of the Bangladeshis who could not afford to repair them to high standards.
Regular evictions of squatters and attempted evictions kept the squatter movement dynamic. A series of victories against attempted evictions kept the movement’s morale high and inspired them to carry on.
The Bangladeshi squatter movement officially began with the set-up of the Bengali Housing Action Group (BHAG) in 1977. A public meeting was held at the Montefiore Centre in Hanbury Street, attended by about sixty Bangladeshis, where they established the BHAG organization. Following that, from April 1976, the formally organised occupation of the first Bangladeshi lead squat began. It was the Pelham Buildings situated in Woodseer Street, behind the Montefiore Centre.
In this, the names of Terry Fitzpatrick, Farrukh Dondhy and Mala Sen stand prominent. They provided the theoretical justifications and practical know-how to break into boarded-up housing blocks and restore them to liveable conditions, at least for a short while. Darkus Howe from Race Today was an important figure in all these activities.
Farrukh Dondhy worked for Race Today. Their fight against racism, in terms of a theoretical understating of race issues and programmes of actions to change things for the better, guided the perceptions and actions of the local activists. At that time, London was run by a two-tier system. The Local Councils and the Greater London Council (GLC) and their roles were divided to ensure better city governance.
The interviews carried out by the project and included in this book, provide rich details of what happened, how the Bangladeshis squatted, what life was like for the squatters, who helped them, and how the GLC and the local council in Tower Hamlets were persuaded to provide the Bangladeshi community with the housing that they wanted to live in and raise their families.
Around the same time, as the Sylhet Housing Co-op was created, with thirty-four properties in Myrdle Street and Parfett Street under their control, the St Mary’s Centre was established to create a resource for local people. Initially, in 1983, it was called St Mary’s Housing and Welfare Resource Project. Later, in 1984 it managed to purchase 46 Myrdle Street, with the help of the GLC, just before its demise, and it established itself as a local community centre. In 2002, the name was changed to Stepney Community Trust.
Since it came into being, the centre played a very important and active role in spearheading campaigns, initiatives and detailed work to improve the local housing and environmental conditions and provide services for the cultural, health improvements and employment needs of the local community. In addition to the St Mary’s Centre, other Bangladeshi organizations and bodies that played a significant role in the life and development of the local Bangladeshi squatting and non-squatting communities in the area were the Bangladesh Youth Movement (BYM), Dawatul Islam, Young Muslim Organisation (YMO), East London Mosque, Whitechapel Centre, Shapla Shangha and Asha Women’s Group.
Between these groups, they provided both religious and non-religious activities. Although the YMO, Dawatul Islam and the East London Mosque provided mostly for needs related to religion, they also played some part in helping people with their other needs, including, for example, education, through mathematics and science classes at 52 Fieldgate Street. In this regard, they also acted as a source of motivation and provided role models for young people to pursue higher education.
Under the leadership of St Mary’s Centre, both in their premises and in other venues, many types of activities, in addition to welfare advice, were organised for the local Bangladeshi community. Some examples are provided below:
Pensioners’ Luncheon Club
Youth and cultural activities – holiday projects, play schemes, camping, trips abroad
Women’s development work – English as a Second Language (ESOL), cookery classes, sewing classes and health education c
National celebrations – Martyr’s Day (Shoheed Dibosh), Victory and Independence Day
Supported the annual Bernier Festival organised by Bangladesh Youth Movement (BYM)
Christmas and New Year gatherings
Through these activities, the local Bangladeshis, both squatters and non-squatters, were supported with their needs, development and integration within the mainstream.
As the 1980s progressed into the 1990s, all the thirty-four properties were restored, some renovated and others demolished and rebuilt. By the end of the 1990s, the houses in Myrdle Street and Parfett Street became Grade II listed buildings that required additional funding to carry out work to certain standards. The renovation work was carried out by Solon Co-operative Housing Services.
The Sylhet Housing Co-op members decided in 1994 to transfer the properties to be managed by more traditional housing associations. About fourteen eventually went to Bethnal Green and Victoria Park Housing Association (BGVPHA) and twenty-one went under the management of the CDS Co-operatives.
By then the St Mary’s Centre became an established local resource, providing increasingly more sophisticated services and activities and holding public consultations. It developed training and employment projects, campaigned to help improve educational standards of pupils, and played a part in renaming the St Mary’s Park into Altab Ali Park, installing the initial architectural decorative gates and a plaque as part of the commemoration of the tragic murder of Altab Ali, a machinist working in the local rag-trade, in 1978.
Several pages from the 1988 progress report produced by the St Mary’s Centre and some photographs, below, show clearly the energy and activism of the Bangladeshi community at the time. They got energised by the struggles of the squatters for better housing, supported and guided by white squatters, anti-racist activists and housing experts.