Jon Hems

That sparked a rage

Interviewed on 22 February 2020
At Account 3
By Cherifa Atoussi, Community Participant

After the original interview was transcribed verbatim, further discussion was held with Jon to ensure accuracy. Jon edited the document and added more details. The original recording and the verbatim transcript will be handed over to the Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives (THLHLA).

I was born in Romford. After my dad got a promotion, we moved to rural Somerset when I was fifteen. The company my father worked for transferred him to manage a store there. I really did not want to leave London because at the age of fifteen I had just starting to explore the city properly. I had played truant a lot and much preferred to gamble shillings in Luciano’s Billiard Hall, above Burtons in South Street, Romford than go to school.

I was judged too young to stay in London on my own, so I had to go with my parents to a very rural Somerset. It was different and I missed Romford, but I made lifelong friends in Somerset. I left home, as soon as I could. At the age of sixteen, I found myself broke and homeless for the first time. I lived around Somerset and the South West for five years, getting into trouble, working in dozens of different jobs to survive, before returning to London, via Amsterdam, when I was twenty-one, in October 1978.

I was not in a good place or frame of mind at the time and my first few years back in London were very difficult. I ended up in 25 Parfett Street a year later on 25 October 1981. Before that I was homeless.

When I arrived in London, I had no money, no job, nowhere to go. I did not know anybody. So, I took my chances. I was street-homeless for a while. I made several temporary homes out of derelict properties, slept on other people’s floors, and then lived happily on a Council Estate in Hackney, for 18 months. In 1981 I was sharing a temporarily empty house, from which I was evicted (yet again). Walking about, with a rucksack with all my worldly goods, looking for a new squat, I went to a party I had heard about. There, I met a man called Charlie. He said he had a room spare and I was on his doorstep the next morning! That is how I got to Parfett Street. Just like that, out of the blue. What I did not know, as I said in my presentation in the meeting, was to have a ‘room spare’ in Parfett Street in 1982 was ridiculous. I was very lucky. Parfett Street was then one of the most overcrowded locations in London. When later we undertook our surveys, we found one house had 34 people living in it!

I knew number 25 Parfett Street was a squat when I walked through the front door, as was most of the street. So, I knew we had no legal rights. It was a communal household, consisting of me, Charlie, who I knew, Caroline, and her boyfriend, Clive, one other and an ancient cat named Rosa Luxemburg. There were only four houses in the street that were occupied as white households, all the rest were Bangladeshi, a community that I knew very little about. The Bangladeshi houses seemed all very overcrowded.

Each of the white occupied houses had a distinct character. Over the road, a house was exclusively occupied by women, who were all arts and cultural creatives, who were great fun, and down the street, another house was the ‘band house’, occupied by some cool young musicians. Our house, no 25, in this context, had a ‘politics tag’ as Caroline and Clive were Local Labour Party members and Charlie, a smart guy, was an early ‘techie’ and political activist.

So, I moved into number 25, settled down and got to know my housemates quickly. Finding them to all to be lovely people; friendly, accommodating, and supportive. After years of insecurity, it was a great relief to find a relatively secure home and new friends to share it with. They were organised. I remember we used to each contribute five pounds per week into a tin. And from that tin, all the basic household stuff was bought, there was no rent, no rates or water bill.

We cooked communally and for the first time, I learnt how to cook a proper meal, from scratch. I ‘contributed’ to the menu, by regularly stealing bags of veg in the middle of the night from the back of lorries queuing up at Spitalfields Market!

Despite the leaking roof, total lack of heating and general dilapidation, it very quickly became a happy home for me. My life stabilised.

Gradually I became aware of the previous history of the street. In which the cat, Rosa Luxemburg had played a headline role! In about 1971/2, Parfett Street was the scene of a housing battle between white-led squatters and the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.
The empty houses in the street had been occupied by squatters and the Council decided to evict them. In typical style, the Council approached the task with heavy hands, and after several eviction/re-occupation battles, the Council decided to end the confrontation once and for all – by bricking up the doors and windows and sealing into each empty house a guard dog, that they planned to feed by throwing food through a hole left in the brickwork!

Now, the great British public (back in 1972, as now) may not get too hot under the collar about homelessness, but cruelty to animals was another matter entirely. The squatter leaders of the time were smart and media-savvy and contacted the national press. They came to the street on masse and took pictures of the Council’s goons, in the act of bricking the dogs into each empty house. Media gold dust!

The incident led to total victory for the squatters as the London Borough of Tower Hamlets were forced to find a ‘legal solution’ to the mess and the first-ever Squatting Licenses were issued in the UK as a result. And Rosa Luxemburg? She had her moment of fame by appearing on the front page of several newspapers as a ‘Participant in the battle of Parfett Street’.

This was the history of confrontation that we inherited in our own battle with the London Borough of Tower Hamlets ten years later. We did not really know it at the time, but as with many things, we were unknowingly standing on the shoulders of giants, fighting the same old enemy, behaving in the same heavy-handed manner.

By the time I got to Parfett street in 1982, most of the white squatters were long gone (off to buy cheap houses in Hackney and Islington, I fancy?!) and most of the houses were unlawfully ‘sold’ on to Bangladeshi families. The rumoured rate was about £5,000, a lot of money back then.

The conditions of our house were not good at all. The roof leaked badly, the walls bowed, there was no heating, the electricity was dodgy, everything was generally falling apart. (No 25 and several other houses had to be demolished and completely rebuilt in the major works that took place much later). We did constant emergency DIY to stay dry and secure.

Later, in researching the conditions, ahead of the refurbishment, we found that there were no foundations! At the time when Parfett Street was first constructed, in about 1866-7 terraced housing of this type was highly speculative, being built rapidly to meet demand. These were not the classic ‘Solid Victorian Villas.’

It was common at the time for a small builder to undertake a part of a terrace of housing, by buying model plans through the post and the materials needed to build say, 8 or 10 houses at a time. To start they would level the ground, tamp it down and pour a layer of tar about 1 or 2 inches, directly on the earth. And then start building.

They were built to the plan they were looking at, but, of course, each one was slightly different. What we found later was if you took a window out of one house and tried to put it in another house to repair it, it would not fit because it was always a couple of inches different. They were each built individually by a craft team, from the same plan. These were fast, spec. and up for rent the moment they are finished.

Another consequence of this approach was for the builder to start running out of materials, purchased prior before they had finished. This is why some of the terrace division walls are ‘finished’ with found rubble, as they rise to the apex, the real bricks having all been used up. Each house was held up by the one next door to it. If you took one out in the middle, the entire terrace would probably collapse inwards.

Something that I got used to in Somerset was waking up on a cold winter’s morning and having to chip the ice off the windows (on the inside!) to be able to lookout. Parfett Street was similar. It was an urban slum by any description. But it did not matter. It was home. I had my own room. It was cheap, I could afford to live there. You had secure control over your door. No one was going to come to hurt you or steal all your stuff. So, security, affordability, and happiness with the people who I lived with. It was a dream. It was absolute dream come true for me.

When I moved in there, I did not have a job and I was in quite a lot of debt, that some nasty people were chasing me for. I had no exams, I was semi-literate, I had completely messed up education, I took whatever rubbish temporary work I could, just to survive. I had been in that circular trap: No home, No job, No benefits. No way out. Squatting saved people’s lives back in the 70s and 80s, when it was still possible to squat a long-empty house, without ‘breaking the law’. I do not know how I would have got out of that trap, without squatting.

So as soon as I had somewhere stable to live, I was able to get proper work and got a full-time garage job. A ten-hour night shift in a Taxi garage. So, from then on it was fine. I was getting a real wage for the first time. I paid off all my debts and was even able to save money. I bought a bicycle to get to work. Later, a car!

We did not really associate much, between streets in the area. Apart from the parties! (there were some great parties that took place at the time). It was a very intense environment. Fieldgate Mansions, which was next door had its own scene. And up the road there was Adelina Coop, that was getting going. But there was not a sense of we were working together in how to secure housing for ourselves. They had different routes and had completely different organisations to how they were going to achieve that and did stay quite separate from Parfett Street itself. Round the corner, we knew about the squatting activist, Terry Fitzpatrick. Which got us talking about what to do? We had a slow realisation that we were going to have to do something to carry on living there was very much self-growing in each Street. I think a neighbour just sort of talked to the neighbour and started getting organised from there.

I did not know Terry Fitzpatrick well. We knew him as a squatting activist. Left-wing politics at that time was fractious and separatist in every possible way (still is?). So, if you were in x party, then you certainly did not talk to anyone in y party. They were the enemy! That old bane of the left in Britain, they much prefer to fight each other, more than any common enemy.

The vast majority of the people living in Parfett Street were Bangladeshi. White and Bangladeshi activists were working together in the wider area. But not really in Parfett Street, when I moved in there. Being faced with eviction changed all that.
The area was also famous for ‘the spike’, Tower House on Fieldgate Street. A Victorian hangover, still going strong in 1981. Tower House was a temporary home to 200-300 hundred homeless men, one of London’s ‘Rowton Houses’, a chain of homeless hostels built around the turn of the Century.

It partly shaped the scene in Parfett Street. I remember being told (on going shopping for the first time) to check if the ‘tide was in, or out’, and did not know what it meant. It was when, each day, the homeless men were all turned out of the hostel, in one go, so they could clean the place. Two hundred plus almost exclusively white, elderly, mostly alcoholic men would suddenly appear on the street. An issue developed, involving these men and the surrounding Bangladeshi community. Some of the Labour Party local Councillors at the time were blatantly racist and sought to make an issue of the fact that Parfett Street was a hotbed of TB infection. They blamed the Bangladeshi community for ‘importing’ TB to the area.

This was not true. The truth as usual was more complicated. The men in Tower House had a high incidence of untreated TB. The twice a day tide of men from Tower House meant that the streets were suddenly crowded with people, drinking, spitting, and fighting in amongst an equally crowded close community of Bangladeshi people, for whom, back then, spitting on the streets was also common practice. The inevitable result was that TB spread like wildfire in the area.

With the free-ball nature of right-wing politics at the time and racial prejudice, I remember it became a hot little issue in the area, which reactionary local politicians sought to exploit.
The area had been previously a Jewish ghetto. And there were residual traces still left of that era. The Synagogue at the top of the road, right next door to the expanding Mosque.
Later, I was personally involved in an odd story, which illustrated the change. A few years after the Sylhet Housing Co-op got going, we had ‘decant rights’ to help sort out the overwhelmingly crowded housing situation. Every space was precious and if we could offer alternative housing outside of the area to those who would accept it and gain empty accommodation in the co-op, that was worth doing. With the (then) GLC’s help, we were empowered to make such offers, to almost anywhere in London, including Golders Green, the most sought-after location in London for people of Jewish origin.

There was a house in Myrdle Street, that the co-op had rights to, which looked completely empty, but Council records showed it to be occupied by unknown people. I was tasked with finding out who was in it. I monitored the house for a couple of weeks but saw no one coming or going. But I noticed that at night there was a light coming from the basement and one night, I knocked on the door until it was opened.

I explained I was ‘here on behalf of the co-op’ and asked if I could come in. The lady that let me in looked elderly, frail and scared. She led me down into the basement rooms, in the otherwise completely bare-boards empty house. There, I was introduced to ‘abba’, a chronically sick and aged father and the ‘boys’, two mature men in their mid-30’s, one of whom I think had learning difficulties.

After assuring them of my good intentions, they told me that, as a Jewish family, they had been offered the tenancy of the two small basement rooms, in 1971 by the Council, for the sum of 12 shillings and sixpence per week. They produced an old yellowing rent book to prove it. I asked about the completely empty house above them and they told me that each floor had been separately let and the tenants had both moved out before 1980, leaving them in the two basement rooms, which were, dark, damp, crowded and tiny.
As the conversation continued, I realised that the parents slept in the front room (also used as the living room and kitchen) and the ‘two boys’ slept in the back room. I asked the obvious question – of why, on earth, had they not moved upstairs to occupy the empty rooms, after it became apparent, after so many years, that the Council was not going to re-let them?

Their answer was immediate – ‘we did not have permission; our tenancy was for just the basement rooms’. I also asked them why they did not go out much? And how did they live? They explained that one of the boys had a local job, that single wage was what the whole family lived on, and also, after they moved in, there was a rapid change in demography in the streets around them, with all other Jewish families moving out, leaving them feeling isolated and fearful of the new Muslim community growing around them.
I was shocked by this and went to see what decant we could make happen for them. The co-op had some power by this time and we quickly secured a decant offer to Golders Green, through the GLC, a three-bed family flat. In return, I was able to make that offer to them. It took some convincing to assure them that this was for real- and not some cruel joke, which they felt, such an offer, must inevitably be.

Once the wheels started to turn and the offer was confirmed in writing, their disbelief turned to unmitigated joy. It was emotional. It struck me then how far we had all come. Just eighteen months ago, we all faced seemingly certain eviction, now the co-op had the real power to secure social housing for those who really needed it.

They moved, very soon afterwards, and I never saw them again.

Parfett Street was like living in a kaleidoscope of history, the physical infrastructure, the people, the communities, the call to Mosque each day, a living reflection of East End stories of migration, desperate poverty, hard work, aspiration, and fulfilment. It was, overwhelming at times. You did not know which Century you were living in – it was the lived-in circumstances and conditions of the 19th Century in a cultural/political car crash with a 20th Century Local Authority.

With respect to interacting with the Bangladeshi, initially, not at all in the sense of first moving into number 25. Finally getting a room of my own, meeting my housemates, you know. But, within a few weeks, it was sort of like, who is on the other side of the front door? I met people in the community quickly in the next few months, as individuals, got to know a few households and some of the local characters. Then we explored some of the cultural delights of the area, the wonderful Bengali Canteen on Fieldgate Street, the first time I had tasted a ‘proper’ curry. The Nags Head (Now the White Hart) pub, on the corner of Cambridge Heath Road and Whitechapel, used to put down sawdust in the public bar to mop up the spilt beer, blood and the spit! After hours I sometimes witnessed organised bare-knuckle boxing matches outside the pub, on the Whitechapel Wastes, with men gambling on the result. More 19th Century living.

In terms of national level and the local level politics Thatcher had come to power in ’79. I became involved in the late 70s, in left politics. I was not an educated politico, but I was angry at what I saw around me and sought to change it. Thatcher’s election changed everything. I remember standing in a room in Islington, with fifty-odd people in it, looking at a television screen of Thatcher winning. And I remember them saying, ‘one term’, we’ll soon reverse this’. I knew at that time, that wasn’t going to happen. This was a moment when British politics changed rapidly. I realised that this was going to be a Class war. Thatcher was going to carry out a right-wing revolution in Britain, fundamentally, socially, economically and politically. And so, it proved.

I was involved in the uprisings of ‘81 and ‘82, particularly in Dalston, where I witnessed Police violence, which led to the death of several people. Later, after I had left Parfett Street, I became involved in the Miner’s strike of 1984/5, where I witnessed the army being used (in no-badge police uniforms) to break up picket lines.

From that point on, the country had changed from the 1970s Britain I’ had grown up in, where social mobility was still a genuine thing, certainly outside London anyway, to one that was market-led, with social and community values dismissed as irrelevant. Thatcher’s famous line: ‘There is no such thing as ‘society. We all know what happened next.
But Parfett Street was not ‘political’. This was just as Bangladeshi activists got involved in the local Labour Party. Brick Lane was the focus of that. I remember our own little bureaucratic ‘village struggle’ we had in St Mary’s Ward trying to get Bangladeshi young men into the Labour Party, who were deeply resistant to them joining.

It was the time that the ward was controlled by Cllr Ashkettle and Cllr Saunders. I think it is fair to say, by anybody’s view, that the Council, which existed up until ‘86, in its old Labour form, had become a rotten borough. It had been divided up politically into sort of fiefdoms. With Councillors Ashkettle and Saunders in control of St Marys ward.
We were official members of the Labour Party. But as Militant supporters of the Youth wing, the Young Socialists. We had received enquiries from young Bangladeshi men to join the local Labour Party and the task was to help officiate this. In pursuit of this, the local ward meetings took on an almost Monty Python atmosphere.

Each month we would (again) present the names of the new prospective members and ask for them to be agreed upon. But this could only be done through ‘issuing a party card’ to each fellow. At first the ‘printer had lost the template’, then it was ‘the card needed to be re-designed’, then it was, they were ‘all lost in the post’. We were awaiting ‘the dog ate them!’ It took many months to force the issue.

To help control any votes needed, Cllr Ashkettle had his ‘knitters’. A group of old ladies, many of whom had been housed as Union widows in Council accommodation, that he controlled, who would sit in the front row of the meeting and vote, on direction by the Councillor, in the way he told them to. In one meeting they got it wrong by mistake, and a furious Cllr Ashkettle had to undo the original vote, propose a new vote, and start all over again. By the end of it, some of the ladies were very confused and near to tears.

It was not all comedic. As ‘bad’ members we sat in the back row and behind us on most occasions, two or three large, muscly chaps, in string vests, stood, breathing down our necks in an attempt at intimidation.

It all came down in flames in 1986, with the shock victory of the Liberal Democrats in Tower Hamlets and the radical decentralisation policies associated with ‘the Neighbourhoods’. It was no surprise.

With regard to the impact of the ‘righ-wing politics coming out of Westminister’, it did not really affect us locally, not directly anyway. We were living in a bit of a microcosm, in Parfett Street. What was happening in Brick Lane, although very close to us, was separate. Most of the local community was not engaged in national British politics, as such. Then, as now the politics of Bangladesh, from ‘back home’ seemed more important. It did translate into local politics, in the push to get Bangladeshi men into the local ward Labour Party. Perhaps most people did not see any relevance or the ability to participate in National politics, whereas local politics offered a better chance to gain influence and effect change.

There was a background of political street action, with what had been happening at the top of Brick Lane, for several years. The National Front turning up each Sunday, to sell their vile newspaper, protected by the Police.

This was another and bigger story altogether, well known in its consequences, as young Bangladeshi men organised themselves into groups to defend the area and communities from attack. I was not involved in any organisational way, that was above my head, but I did go along a few times, just for the fight! We used to creep up on a National Front newspaper seller, without the Police seeing us, grab them and give them a good kicking before we ran for it. It was most satisfying!

The racist murder of Altab Ali in 1978 had been a catalyst for local Bangladeshi politics in the area. The campaign that came after that was significant in organisational local politics, it woke everyone up. And from there local Bangladeshi leaders emerged to found and lead new organisations.

Regarding the Sylhet Housing Co-op, it all started with ‘the Letter!’ There must be a copy of it somewhere? It was from the GLC. It stated that the area had been chosen as a ‘Housing Action Area’ and this would lead to investment to refurbish the housing stock. Sounded great, until you read on and realised that it did not include ‘illegal occupiers’, who would be evicted. i.e., All of us!

I was devastated. I was very happy to be living in Parfett Street and now it seemed I would be evicted again. Then I got angry. I thought “I’m going to fight; they will have to drag me out of here and I’ll fight for every inch”. I had nothing to lose.

Many years later (when I was a Housing officer in Tower Hamlets!) I heard an ‘inside’ story, from someone who had worked at the GLC, at the time. I do not really know if this was ‘true’ as I didn’t witness it directly. But I was told that how the Housing Action Area had come about was from a single meeting between two people in the staff canteen of the ‘Island Block’ of the GLC, the one which used to be in the middle of the roundabout.
They said they had witnessed a lunch meeting between a politician, Leslie Hammond and a GLC Officer, Mike Yuki. They discussed their failing careers and tried to work out how to boost their chances. Their attention was drawn towards a scheme in Liverpool that had some recent press. It was called ‘Enveloping’. The concept was to refurbish the exteriors of a terrace of houses in ‘one go’ by mounting a movable scaffold over the whole terrace and gradually moving down the street, rebuilding the roofs, windows, gutters etc., in one go.

There had also been a recent press article in, I think, The Sun, which had featured Parfett Street as ‘The worst housing conditions in Europe!’ Housing Action Areas (HAAs) were a new concept, as well.

Over lunch, Leslie and Mike apparently hatched a plan. ‘Declare an HHA for the ‘worst housing in Europe’ and use the new technique of Enveloping to undertake it. That should put them back on the map! A few weeks later, the letter dropped through the doors of Parfett Street.

The letter caused confusion and much discussion in the street. Some individual families had ‘bought’ their house from the previous squatters. They thought that buying from a leaving squatter meant they owned the house. As such, the planned eviction would not affect them. For them, the Housing Action Areas (HAAs) would be a great benefit: a free refurbishment!

Of course, all the ‘purchases’ had been illegal, either deliberate and knowingly or a genuine misunderstanding. There were rumours at the time that certain people (who had ‘bought’ their house), were turning up at London airports, to meet new families coming in from Bangladesh and were posing as ‘landlords’, offering ‘rooms’ to each family for weekly rent. I think the ‘going rate’ was about £10 per room per week.

Others thought that there was nothing we could do about it and we would have to move out if the ‘authorities’ told us to, and we would all be arrested if we did not.
Yet others thought that they had a ‘tenancy’ (that had been ‘sold’ to them) and rights to stay in the house, which they did not.

An open debate followed as we all tried to work out what to do? The concept of forming a co-op came initially from No 25. Charlie and Caroline were both capable and organised and I had some experience of housing co-ops from friends in the Grand Union Co-op, near Victoria Park.

The co-op concept became the vehicle by which we could all try to defend our housing. It took a lot of convincing and some critical ‘events’ to get everyone on board.
In terms of whether the letter was a catalyst, what it did was to help level the playing field. Eventually, everybody in the street realised that we were all in the same boat and we were all vulnerable to eviction.

An event occurred. A violent eviction was undertaken by a housing association (still operating in TH today), hired in by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Looking back from here, 40 years later, I still wonder why did they do this? And who authorised it?
They (Labour controlled LBTH) must have assumed that they could intimidate the entire street, with sheer violence. I described the eviction in my speech. It worked to a certain extent; people were afraid of what they had witnessed. The hired thugs had dragged the woman out of the house by her hair, they had smashed up the entire inside, threw all the family’s possessions into the back of a rubbish truck, smashed out the windows and the door and blocked them up. They left the traumatised family on the street.

But it also backfired on them, they had done their worst. We knew what was coming. We were angry. It affected me. I thought – bring it on – next time you send your thugs here, we will be prepared for them. Now you have a real fight on your hands.

We reoccupied the house, repaired it and declared it ‘co-op property’. It was the first house we had claimed, in the name of the co-op. We held an allocation meeting and one family, living in awful conditions, in a damp basement, took the risk of moving into the house. We waited to see what would happen next.

There then followed a critical week or two. Many people thought that we would be arrested for re-entering the house. Each week we held a meeting in the street to say – we have not been arrested yet! Gradually the reality of the situation became clear. Tower Hamlets Council were willing to use extreme violence to evict us and they would do that to everyone if they could get away with it. But if we joined together and fought back, we could take them on.

A few weeks later the thugs returned, this time backed by a group of Policemen. A crowd of people assembled in the street and surrounded the eviction team and their police escort. I remember, a Police sergeant, very close to my face, who asked me if I could get the crowd to disperse? I told him no, and that I had no control over the people assembled.
You could see him make the decision, that to go ahead with the eviction, would lead to violence as this time we would fight back. He ordered the withdrawal of the eviction team and the Police. Tower Hamlets Council never attempted another violent eviction in Parfett Street. It felt like we had won something on that day.

After that, things moved fast. We officially formed the co-op, we found Solon and approached them for help. (Solon was riding high at the time. They were housing experts, recognised by the GLC, with many contracts, they helped co-ops and small housing associations get going. It was also useful that they were based in Whitechapel Road.) We could not have done what happened next without them.

Solon worked by allocating an individual case officer to each new co-op. and we got lucky to be allocated Maggie Jones. She was brilliant, smart, determined, enthusiastic, and knew what she was doing. That gave us a load of confidence. Every time we had a question – it was ‘ask Maggie’. If she says it is going to be okay, that’s gonna be good. She took on the sort of mother hen role in organising us all, in making us stand up and go, well ‘I’ll be the treasurer’, ‘I’ll be the chair’. We ended up with a scratch committee or something like six people. I think three were Bangladeshi and three were white, and all men.

Maggie worked hard for us and it cost her. It was important to validate our case, by undertaking surveys of who was living in each house. We had to do this, again and again. I was allocated to accompany her to each house, and we did this over several months. Unfortunately, Maggie contracted TB in this period, she became seriously ill and spent weeks in hospital.

Parfett Street was a ‘collective action’, that is why we were successful. But if there is one person without whom it would not have happened, Maggie is a good candidate.
Caroline (from No 25) also deserve credit for what she did. She was a teacher, a feminist, confident and very capable. She demanded that ‘women are involved in the co-op’. The Bangladeshi men involved were resistant to that suggestion.

To out-manoeuvre them, Caroline set up a ‘Women’s Sewing Circle’. It was a front for an alternate coop management committee. For some time, what was not realised by the Bangladeshi men involved in the co-op committee was that the issues had already been discussed and scrutinised by the women’s sewing circle, prior to the official meeting.
Another unlikely participant group involved was the children. As we started to have official meetings and Bangladeshi leaders came on board, the whole community started to get involved and saw themselves as part of a unified movement. This was exciting for the children in the street. To be part of something that was happening. We had lots of ‘volunteers’ from 5 years old, upwards, who wanted to know what they could do for the co-op? One summer, still wary of attacks from Tower Hamlets, we organised them into a ‘Neighbourhood Watch’. Equipped with rape alarms, their job was to watch for trouble heading our way (LBTH, National Front, Police. etc.) and if they entered the area, to let off all the rape alarms as a warning, so we could then assemble.

For many years afterwards, I was occasionally approached in Whitechapel Road, long after I had left Parfett Street, with the greeting: ‘Mr Jon!’ – by a young man I did not recognise at all until it dawned on me that this was ‘so and so’ – who I had known as a 12-year-old boy, back in 1983.

The Housing Action Area Committee was also established, by the GLC. They initially opposed the formation of the co-op. We had to lobby hard for them to recognise us. They were concerned by our unity that was evident by then; white people working with Bangladeshi people. I think it scared them. We were not ‘controllable’. They tried a number of tactics to try to stop the co-op, but we had little to lose, and we were not ‘going away’ – so, eventually they included us.

At the time, I was working at the garage every night and the shifts were heavy. I was doing six or seven nights a week. Setting off to go to work to start at 10 pm and work through to 8 am. Back to Parfett Street by about 9-9.30am each day.
There was always urgent stuff to do, a letter to answer, another survey, a meeting to go to, minutes that needed writing up. The co-op office was, initially No 25, before moving around the corner to Myrdle Street. So, correspondence was coming into No 25 and needed dealing with.

Someone had to open them, do something with them. I had no administrative experience at that time. None whatsoever. So, I was reliant on other people to help me. Caroline, Charlie and Maggie were invaluable. They were educated, confident, just knew what to do.

Another organisation which helped us – SHAPRS -Spitalfields Housing and Planning Rights Service, based just south of Brick Lane. They had legal experts and we used to go to them for help on how to write things up, what constitution to adopt, what the legal rules were?

We all took turns in being the Chair, Secretary and Treasurer. I think I did all three over a few years. Quite often it was – who is going to be the new Secretary then? Silence. These were not desirable positions! It involved a lot of work and responsibility and time.
I remember a particular moment, in a regular Solon meeting, quite early on. We were there for a review with Maggie and she had to report up to her boss. Up until then, they were helpful and had supported us, but I do not think they thought we would win. In the meeting, you could see her boss was reassessing. They must have had pre-notice from the GLC, that we were getting somewhere.

After that, they became much more business-like with us, and the activity ramped up. It became difficult to cope with their demands; ‘we need this by x’, ‘Do this now’, ‘provide figures for y’. They realised at that point, that this could work, and we could get considerable funding from the GLC and it was very much in their interests to help us. Suddenly, everything had to happen at once. We were preparing for the purchase, applying for the GLC mortgage, trying to determine the title of the houses, which houses?
The London Borough of Tower Hamlets did everything they could to stop us. They wouldn’t release details of the houses’ titles, they would not communicate with us, they saw us as ‘upstarts a threat to their established order.

On one occasion they sent officers to the street, without notice. They literally knocked on a random door, one of the ‘co-op’ houses, and said, to the person that answered the door: You’re living here? Yes. Would you like to buy the house? And the guy responded: ‘I’m not allowed to buy the house, it’s a co-op property. And it’s like, Yes, you can, we’re from Tower Hamlets, and we can sell you the house now. And the second question, ‘I cannot afford to buy the house’ and it was like: No problem, we’ll give you the mortgage. So, on the doorstep, there was literally a deal proposed, which was I think, we’ll give you 100% mortgage of five grand to buy this house right now if you sign up. Anything, to undermine us, to stop the co-op from going forward.

We originally laid claim to 37 houses, but we lost two and the purchase went forward with, I think, 34 houses, for the total sum of £77,000, with a 100% mortgage from the GLC. Somehow, against Tower Hamlets vehement opposition, the deal went through.
The GLC were our friends, Solon was our friend. The London Borough of Tower Hamlets, the Housing Action Area Committee, the local Councillors all opposed the co-op. And we played those cards heavily. Trying to set one off against the other. Always backed up by the ‘threat’ of united action at a street level. It worried them.

The Sylhet Housing Co-op was very organic. I’ve been involved in many other organisations’ developments since. And looking back on it, I realise it was extremely dispersed and organically led. Solon’s involvement from pretty much scratch was important because that kind of instantly got it on to a trolley that was moving because they knew what to do next.

The immediate street politic was more about resisting the evictions which would take place or tried to take place. Rather than organising and getting the co-op committees and administration going the co-op’s ‘authority’ came gradually – from each household leader coming on board, ‘giving their support’ to the concept of the co-op. Big decisions were made in street meetings, with a lot of individual talking and discussions behind the scenes. Not many people wanted to stand up and be exposed to public risk, or failure. For a while, everyone was looking at each other, with no one willing to come forward.
It was difficult to get new members to serve on the committee. I think the fundamental problem was, the same problem I had, a lack of literacy. No one felt ‘qualified’ to get involved. Many of the household heads did not have the basic English literacy skills to be involved and they did not want to be publicly embarrassed. None of us really had the administrative skills needed. I certainly didn’t.

The white occupied houses, no 25 and particularly the women across the road could see the potential and had the confidence and education to pursue it. So, the initial management committee was originally led by them with a few Bangladeshi men also involved.

In terms of the main challenges and barriers faced by the Sylhet Housing co-op, we had enormous amounts of paperwork to get something done and get access to funding, as is the case for any community action that ends up becoming more official. The amount of paperwork was ridiculous. I remember several days, weekends, sitting in the office in Myrdle Street, just surrounded by huge piles of paper. I did despair at times and realised I did not have the ability to get everything organised. I had never done anything like this before. But with Solon on board, we had no choice. Officially, we had to keep up to speed with them in administration terms. We just pursued it, used common sense, learnt how to write a business letter and begged other, more literate, people to help us.

The local people, the Bangladeshi squatters did not have to contact the Sylhet Housing Co-op. There wasn’t ‘somewhere to go’ to find the co-op. The Myrdle street office was just a room. A front room where we kept all the documents, the papers, and we sometimes met there. There was not a public office for the co-op. It was all around us; each house was part of a whole. We held meetings in each other’s houses and in the summer, in the street. Our support for what we were doing, was all around us.
Meetings were either regular reviews with SOLON, a few people meeting up to write a needed letter, or in the summer, on a sort of a mob basis in that we’d set up a table in the street and have a meeting there. And then, you know, and there would be ten-fifteen people gathered around and we would make a decision. That said, there was not a sense of anyone being ‘the leader’ of it. I think it was part of its nature. It was everyone’s desperate concern to make sure we would have a future in the homes and everyone became willing to get together and do things to try and achieve that objective. We had some sort of stormy meetings, but there was not a feeling of it being led.

I remember a critical moment after we had re-occupied the first house where the occupants had been evicted. We had drawn a lot of attention to ourselves with that action and a wide debate was ongoing in the street about whether to support the ‘co-op’ or not. A Bangladeshi friend came round to see me and said – ‘you have a meeting to go to’. I had no meeting booked and asked him – where?

He led me up to the Mosque and we went in through a back door and I was confronted by three gentlemen, who asked me to sit down and answer some questions. I realised that it was not an invitation I should refuse. They asked me a lot of questions, which took up about one hour. Then they told me to go.

Afterwards, I came out and met a friend and asked him ‘what was that about?’ – until then, when we had called a coop meeting only a few households would turn up. My friend said – ‘try calling another meeting’. We did and half the street turned up!
I realised we had been ‘given permission to continue’ and now we had official backing from the Mosque leaders. That moment was significant, it was a moment we realised we were now on our way. After that, most household leaders accepted the co-op properly.
Everything suddenly became a lot more structured.

We got better at the paperwork, and, with Solon’s and Maggie’s help, things happened. And that felt like, okay, this is becoming an organisation now. It is finally not just a front room dream, but it is going to be official from now on.

In terms of what kind of help we were offering, it was not much. We did not have the resources to get involved in any other issues. It was purely housing. I remember some conflict about that. Some people had thought ‘the co-op’ could do all kinds of things, benefits advice, family support, immigration advice, etc. We could not. We did not have the skills or capacity to react to needs other than the housing battle. The co-op was a single-issue organisation. We had a lot of requests for different things, and I think some were annoyed we could not respond.

Another crucial incident took place, which was controversial. This was after we had been given the heads up from the Mosque. It was a difficult issue, that had been outstanding for some time and threatened the whole concept of the co-op. The ‘private landlords.’
It was a historic situation. Since the previous squatting battle in 1972, when most of the street was occupied by white squatters, many of the houses had been ‘sold’ to Bengali men. Some of these individuals had set themselves up as landlords and had rented rooms to individual families, telling them that they ‘owned’ the house.

We knew we had to deal with this, to assert the rights of the co-op and make a level playing field, where everyone had the same rights, that of being prospective co-op tenants.

It was done in one day. In a couple of hours really. A small group of us, white and Bengali, approached the first house we knew in this circumstance and knocked on the door to explain the situation. We told him that from now on he could not charge people to live in the house and that everyone in the house now had the same rights to live there. He did not like that at all. There was a brief scuffle and a bit of shouting, but the point was made. We approached the next house, we knew about. The man who answered the door readily agreed to ‘join the co-op’. As did the third house and the one after that.

From then on people became aware of their rights and when asked to ‘pay their rent’, by a ‘landlord’, could reply ‘talk to the co-op’. It was a difficult thing to do, but it had to be done. We knew it could have got out of control, but thankfully it did not. I think, behind the scenes, without our direct knowledge, individuals went to complain strongly to the Mosque leaders about it, but they backed us. And that was that.

Looking back, it shows the power of collective action, backed by the authority of the Mosque leaders. It was not our little group that had any authority to impose that. It was the wider support, in the street, behind the scenes with the Mosque, from the people who had been victimised, that made it enforceable. The individual landlords knew they were outnumbered and what they were doing was wrong and public support was with us.
There were other conflicts in the area. I remember one afternoon there was a sort of washback from what had been happening in Brick Lane. Two young white fascist men came down the road, one carrying a brick, lobbed it through a car window driven by an elderly, Bangladeshi man, who was injured. That sparked a rage. It all happened very fast. There were lots of young Bangladeshi men in and around the area. Word spread quickly.
Within a few minutes the two men who had attacked the elderly chap were being pursued by a very angry group of Bangladeshi young men. They ran, fast and the group followed them at top speed. When they came back, I asked, what happened? They replied, ‘We chased them as far as Tower Bridge, but they went over into south London, so f**k them!’ Thankfully, no one got into trouble with the Police.

But it felt significant, it felt like things had changed in the Bangladeshi community, it was no longer ‘we can be victimised’. It was, “if you come here with the intention of causing us harm, expect us to fight back”. It was kind of liberating.

There was a sense of building resistance. We knew we were almost there. We could see ‘victory’. Gradually it spread through each household leader’s mind, “are we on the side of the co-op or not?” As we got nearer to getting the deal done, the momentum built.
And then it happened! Solon led us through the purchase of 34 Houses from Tower Hamlets council, for the sum of £77,000, with a 100% mortgage from the GLC. The houses finally belonged to the co-op! Wide celebrations all around.

The next day we contemplated our situation; we now owned 34 derelict, semi-derelict, properties with an enormous population of 340 people in them, that needed millions of pounds worth of repairs! It was a sobering moment. What was the point of owning them if it was always going to be a slum?

Solon knew what to do. They had huge experience and very good relationships with the GLC and the Housing Corporation. They explained that we could now apply for the grant monies needed to repair all the houses. No one was going to get evicted. Now, we all had the chance to decent, affordable accommodation. It felt like a victory.

There was a lingering feeling, how could we get this lucky? Was it a dream? Would we get another letter, saying ‘fooled you! now get out!’ It took a while to sink in that we had done it.

And I was done as well, ready to leave the co-op and Parfett Street.

I realised that if I were going to stay there and remain involved in the co-op, I would either have to give up work and work entirely for the co-op. Was there going to be a wage of some sort?

Or carry on doing the near impossible, doing a night shift and coming back and then doing four hours day work on the co-op, and ending up with four hours sleep. It was not a healthy situation to be in. I was exhausted by then.

So, at that point, I was able to use the experience of the past three years to get a job in a short-life Housing Co-op in Camden. After working on the garage night shift, it was a breakthrough for me. It was a great job and I spent three years there. What I had learned in being involved with Parfett Street, started my career in housing development. The irony of ironies, I ended up as the Housing Development team leader in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets! Before leaving that in 1999 and I started J-GO, the multi-faceted social enterprise.

I made a clean break and moved to another squat in Camden and left Parfett Street behind. The co-op went forward, with many people contributing towards its final success. They were awarded a grant of over £3.5 Million to completely refurbish the houses.

As far as I am aware, most people that were previously squatters in the street became secure tenants on affordable rents, in the improved housing. Sylhet Co-op did not survive as an independent organisation, but the houses were taken over by another Housing Association, with their future secure. I stayed in Parfett street for three and half years.

To conclude, I guess it proved what London is best at. It is the strange contradiction of the ability to live separate lives to your neighbour, who may live in ways that are completely different to you, which you have little hope of fully understanding. And then, in a sudden moment of adversity, to find yourself standing shoulder to shoulder, in a united front against a common enemy. As comrades in a fight, sharing and risking everything you have together.

It also proved to me that autocratic authorities, even when they have enormous power and arrogance, can be beaten by people united. If you push us too far, we will unite, whatever our differences and fight back. I found the whole experience inspirational. And you know, one of the best things to do in London, or was, I’m not sure if it’s still do-able, is get on the 253 at Aldgate Station and count the communities and countries you go through, because by the time you get to Warren Street, after ploughing through Whitechapel, up through Hackney, over the top to Stamford Hill and down Finsbury Park, and through Camden, down to Euston, and ending up in Warren Street. Oh, my goodness, you have been through something like, what? 24 countries, and yet many more cultures than that, that is a Worldwide tour in one bus trip.

Yeah! We are all Londoners.