Squatters Heritage Walk

Developed by the Community Participants

Ahmed Chowdhury, Cherifa Atoussi, Hayette Atoussi,
Kamrul Islam and Rosy Awwal
With training support from Dr Georgie Wemyss

Parfett Street and Myrdle Street, and surrounding areas, have been a historically significant place in the narratives of squatting in London. One main difference in squatting and the squatting movements in Tower Hamlets from many other areas of London, that sought to support and justify squatting in boarded-up, public sector housing properties, was the role it played in developing and sustaining local Bangladeshi activism.

In Tower Hamlets, there were empty boarded up properties that the local authorities tried to keep in a damaged and unsafe condition so that no one tried to squat in them. But the area also attracted ingenious and creative individuals, who not only defied the authorities’ attempts to prevent people living in those properties but helped homeless Bangladeshis to break in, reconnect gas and electricity, and make basic improvements. Furthermore, they helped the Bangladeshis with advice and guidance on their rights and to become better organised for campaigns and negotiations with the authorities.

There are several locations in and around the Parfett Street and Myrdle Street area that played an important role in the history of local squatting and housing activism. Many left-wing and young artists were attracted to come to the area, some of whom tried to live a communal life. There were actors and photographers, some of whom used their talents to further the causes in which they believed. The Queen’s Head pub, known as George the Pole, has become the well-known Tayyeb Restaurant, but at that time it was an important place for trendy squatters in the area to get together, socialize and discuss serious political and social issues, the dominant discourses undertaken through the prisms of Marxism.

There are locations that played significant roles in the life of both squatters and non-squatters in the area, and one particular building, Tower House, created a lot of nuisance because, as a hostel, it attracted a lot of transience people, some of whom lived on the margins of society. In fact, in the early 20th century, Joseph Stalin stayed at Tower House, in Fieldgate Street, for two weeks when he came to attend a conference in 1907.

The Whitechapel Centre in Myrdle Street and the next-door special needs school were also important local resources in the life and development of the local Bangladeshi community, including squatters. There were English language classes, musical and poetry lessons and drama rehearsals and performances. Local children got entertained and played games, such as Corram Board and badminton. The venue also held events, community meetings, and Bangladeshi national celebrations, such as the annual Victory Day on 16 December.

It was as a direct result of the eviction of a Bangladeshi squatter family, from 54 Parfett Street in 1983, and the subsequent attempt to evict another family, who were helped to move in by a group of local activists, that consolidated the efforts in the creation of the Sylhet Housing Co-op. Although it was called Sylhet Housing Co-op, it was not exclusively for Bangladeshis. Out of the thirty-four properties that came under its control, white people, some of whom were also on the board of the organisation, occupied about six or seven houses. It was a multi-community effort to fight for decent housing.

The movement started from Bangladeshi housing activism and led to the community demanding and getting a local primary school, Kobi Nazrul School, established in the area on the location of a former rubbish vehicle depot.

A community Centre was set up at 46 Myrdle Street, called St Mary’s centre in 1982, which spearheaded efforts in community development, helping members of the community access welfare, and promoting education and community engagement with the mainstream.

The main squatting locations in the area were Parfett Street, Myrdle Street, Fieldgate Manson, Verdan Street, Nelson Street and Rampart Street (on the other side of Commercial Road). The mass squatting of Bangladeshis in Pelham Buildings in Woodseer Street by Bengali Housing Action Group (BHAG), in 1977, forms a part of the walk, although it is outside the immediate area of the project. It has been included because it provides the context and background to subsequent squatting and organised action and for being the single largest squatting by Bangladeshis.

Th walk will take people, both local and from wider areas, through a journey of historical locations, Altab Ali Park to Stepney Community Trust, 46 Myrdle Street, the former St Mary’s Centre. A pack with information on each stop will be developed. East End Connection will run more detailed Heritage Walk training to help train up local people to enable them to deliver interesting public walks. The route identified is as follows:

Heritage Walk Stops

  1. Start at Altab Ali Park – the location of the 1978 murder of Altab Ali
  2. Pelham Buildings – the first organised BHAG squatting
  3. Nelson Street – Bangladeshi squatters
  4. Verdan Street – Bangladeshi squatters
  5. Rampert Street – Bangladeshi squatters and Prince Charles visit in 1987
  6. Whitechapel Centre – training and cultural activities
  7. Fieldgate Mansions – Squatters
  8. Tayyeb Restaurant (former Queen’s Head Pub, George the Pole)
  9. Tower House – single person accommodation
  10. Myrdle Street and Parfett Street – famous squatter resistance and eviction, creative squatters and Sylhet Housing Cooperative properties
  11. Kobi Nazrul School – the school founded through the struggles unleashed by the Bangladeshi squatters
  12. Finish at Stepney Community Trust (St Mary’s Centre)
Struggles of Bangladeshi Squatters