Terry Fitzpatrick

How it all began

Interviewed on 24 February 2020
At Stepney Community Trust
By M Ahmedullah (Project Co-ordinator)

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

My name is Terry Fitzpatrick. I was born in Liverpool in 1946, which makes me 74 this year. My family were themselves immigrants, all of them. They came from Ireland. Liverpool had a huge Irish immigrant community, very, very Catholic and very religious. I was brought up in a quite strict Irish Catholic family, which is very different from now. We had to go to church on Sundays and had to go to mass. Everybody went to mass. I didn’t like it personally, the kind of restrictions that there were those days.

When I was 15, I joined the British Army, which you could do in those days as a boy soldier. I spent two years in the British army and came out. I didn’t like it, once again, the restrictive atmosphere in the army.

The 1960s was a new beginning. There was a lot more freedom around. There were various kinds of music and social movements. So, I moved to the south of England to a place called Hayward Heath in Sussex. I got [into] the building trade and got myself a job as an apprentice bricklayer.

While living and working in Sussex I knew people who lived in London and met them socially, and one of them was squatting. So, I came up to see them and then I thought well, this is much more exciting than what I’m doing. So, I moved into a squat in Poplar, which I had opened up myself. I just broke into this house, connected up the electricity and the gas, decorated it and lived there for a few months. Then, I went to the squatters’ movement in Poplar and the squatters’ movements were very big at the time. But the centre of the squatter movement activity in East London was around Stepney. So, I moved and opened up another house that was bricked up by the GLC – these properties were pretty much council-owned.

I attended squatters’ meetings in 1974. There, I first met Bangladeshis who were squatting and were having trouble. The GLC was trying to throw them out. What originally happened was that there were many criminal elements around Cable Street. They were West Indians, some Somalis and some Maltese people. They would break into a squat and sell it to the Bangladeshis and give them a rent book. And the Bangladeshis would think, well, this is it. I’ve got a rent book. And the GLC would come around and say, well, you’re a squatter. Then the squatting movement got involved. I became involved with them, saying, well, they’re squatters, they’re the same as us, so they then got the protection of the squatting movement.

In early 1975, I met some activists from something called the Race Today Collective, which had come out of the Black Power movements of the 1960s. In particular, two people called Farrukh Dhondy and Mala Sen. Mala is now dead. She has written two incredible books about women in India. Farrukh, as anybody who knows the media, was for 20 years one of the commissioning editors of Channel Four television. They were very serious activists.

We started to meet other Bangladeshis who squatted, some of whom had relations who were homeless. So, we then started to help them break into other places. We also came to know that Bangladeshis, GLC tenants in Tower Hamlets – in Poplar and the Isle of Dogs – were being harassed and they wanted to get out of those areas. So, we would then help them get out of there.

They were legitimate tenants, but women were having their saris pulled off in the streets, they were having st pushed through their letterboxes, terrible f**g times. They just gave the rent books up and moved into squats in Varden Street and Nelson Street, breaking into empty council flats. Some of these council flats had been empty for two years. The council just left them as they were. They were bad managers and negligent.

This movement, not a formal movement, gradually developed. In January 1976, we brought together the heads of about 50 families, 50 squatters, to the Montefiore Centre. We formed the Bengali Housing Action Group (BHAG). While sitting there at the meeting, I saw these blocks of flats out through the windows, block of old tenements. When the meeting finished, I walked around and saw that the Pelham buildings were nearly empty, on the bottom of Woodseer Street. So, with Farrukh and six families – Mala Sen was in India at that time for a while, on Easter Saturday 1976, we broke into that building, ripped it off, and within, I suppose six or eight weeks, there were 300 Bangladeshi men, women and children living at Pelham House.

It all started from there. There were 300 Bangladeshi men, women and children concentrated in one block of tenements. When I look back on it, I still wonder how we got away with it. Why didn’t the state come in? Why didn’t the police come in? And I think the answer is, nobody wanted to be seen. Nobody wanted to authorise kicking 300 immigrants out onto the streets. The publicity would have been just too dangerous. Nobody was going to sign their names to that. So basically, we ended up with a very strong organisation.

Splits arrived then. Because it’s Bangladeshi politics, there will always be splits. Somebody wants to be the leader. Then in 1977, the Tories came to power at GLC. The Tories had always been against squatting. We thought that we were going to have trouble. We were invited to a meeting in a GLC office in Vauxhall Bridge Road and I went there with three representatives. We went in expecting, you know, you are gonna have to get out. But they just said to us that you are all going to have one offer of accommodation. They said that they knew that the Bangladeshis were different from white squatters. They said that if we can tell them the estates that they want to be re-housed, they will put them on those estates. And it was agreed.

Then we made a list of thirteen estates, and later added one more which made a total of fourteen. They included starting from the Highway to Cannon Street Road, Farnham Street, St Jubilee Street, and right the way up to the Shoreditch area. I could go on about how this happened. It was a Tory administration in 1977, who at a meeting with an immigrant group told them that, essentially, they were illegally occupying their properties, but that they will offer accommodation to where they want to live. That means they just gave up.

A conservative administration of the GLC said you tell us where you want to live. We’ll put you there and your community can grow from there. As far as I know, it’s the only time any immigrant community has forced a national government or a city government to change their minds by saying we’re not moving. There were by then 2,000 of them, 2,000 and me. How are you going to evict 2,000 people? The answer is, you can’t. You’ve got to negotiate. And that’s what they did. From that one decision by a guy called George Tremlett, the Conservative member for Twickenham on the GLC, it made a lot of difference. Re-housing started and in December of 1978 Pelham buildings was knocked down. To me, in 1978-79, the squatting movement wound down.

It took a lot a long time for the Bangladeshi tenants to get rent books because that was Tower Hamlets. It took a while for Varden Street and Nelson Street squatters to be rehoused, but there were no evictions. And the important thing to remember is that 2,000 Bangladeshis occupied state-owned properties and there was not one single eviction because the government, the state, whether it was labour or whether it was conservative, were frightened of the consequences.

The local council at the time had 60 counsellors and they were all Labour. They were the old white working class who, to be fair to them, had fought against private landlords and fought for State Housing. But they were running a family business. Everybody was related to everybody else. If you were related to this Councillor, you went to the top of the housing queue. It was the usual municipal corruption. They didn’t like Bangladeshis and they didn’t like squatters.

But the national government, which was also Labour – Callaghan and Wilson governments – weren’t prepared to change the law and kick the squatters out. When the Tories came to control the Greater London Council, in the May of 1977, they started to negotiate and there was nothing that Tower Hamlets could do.

At that time, there were different freeholds. Tower Hamlets Council owned a lot, like the big old blocks, all the stuff around that was built in the 1930s and 40s, particularly 30s, was GLC owned, because the GLC had built them. They were then called the London County Council, changed to the GLC in 1965.

It was a mix, the freeholds were. Some were Tower Hamlets, but what you did, the GLC didn’t have its housing list. What you do is you apply to the borough, which is Tower Hamlets, and they would nominate you to the GLC. Or their own, but their properties they saved for themselves. You have to be white, Irish, Jewish.

The joke was, it was run by the kosher nostra, which were the Jews, to play on the mafia, and the Murfia, which were the Irish, and they ran the council between them. But they’d been through tough times in the 20s, 30s, and 40s. They’d suffered the bombing. And they thought, well, we fought against the private landlords. I understand where they were coming from because I had long conversations with them. And they said, yeah, we fought for this, our kids. And all these Bangladeshis come in and they want somewhere to live. And it’s a similar thing now. I know Bangladeshis are saying we’ve got to stop all this immigration. There are too many people in the country. And you’ll never solve the housing problem until you’ve [done it]. There are too many people in the country. There are too many people on the planet. And there’s nowhere to build property. So, when politicians say I’m going to solve the housing problem, I just say you’re lying, mate. You haven’t got the money, and there is no land to build it on. So, to answer your question, we go back to a statistic.

Something like 85% in 1974, something like 85% of the residential property in the London borough of Tower Hamlets was owned by the state, either the Council, LBTH or the GLC. It was the biggest proportion of state-owned property outside of Eastern Europe. It was run by a small group, 85% of the housing was run by the Housing Committee. And if they didn’t like you, you didn’t get anywhere to live or you got the crap.

In terms of the Isle of Dogs, we’re talking about the decline of the dogs. Because the docks, from Tower Bridge, down to Silver Town, the Isle of Dogs, was a driving force of employment. The first docks closed at St Catherine’s by the Tower in 1968. Eight years later, every dock in Tower Hamlets had gone. Warehouses were closed. There was no employment and unemployment had rocketed.

You had all these rundown council estates and there was no investment in housing. In all these rundown council estates in Poplar or the Isle of Dogs where people had moved out, there were flats left empty, about 25% of some of the total number of flats. So, where do we put the Bangladeshis? Where do we put the Somalis? We put them down there, you put them into a white community that is itself being rundown and is resentful of it?

They can’t take it out on the council. The Council is too powerful. So, they take it out on Mrs Uddin, Shanara Begum, (or whatever the name is), and pull her sari off in the street. Some of the women we took out were absolutely catatonic; they’re on the verge of a nervous breakdown. People used to push s**t through the letterboxes, ‘get out Pakis, get out’. Kids couldn’t go to school? It was a different time.

My squatting life came to an end when the thing wound down. Don’t forget, those are the centralists. I’m a builder and a property developer. I used to earn a living from a van that I had and certain bricklayers tools. I would always go and do work, build a back extension out in Chingford for somebody, for example. I’d always make money. But it was stressful because, particularly in terms of Pelham Buildings, because we had gone to people, me particularly, and said, come and squat here, it’s going to be all right.

What about if it wasn’t all right? What if the police and the bailiffs come in and they throw everybody out onto the street? That was always at the back of my mind.
The left would pick up an issue and walk away and leave it. I got myself into a situation where I invited these people to come and squat and told them that it was going to be alright. That means that I have got to stick with them through thick and thin. So, I was there right till the end. And yeah, it was great. They were the best years of my life.

I had nothing to do with the Sylhet Housing Co-op, but I knew it was going on. I helped to set up the Spitalfields Housing Co-op. But by the time the Sylhet Housing Co-op was set up in 1983, I was buying property and underpinning buildings. I had a skip company and was making some money.

There were loads of white squatters around here and they knew the rules. There had been evictions of white squatters in Parfett Street and the private landlords put dogs in and then left, and the squatters broke in again. The squatters made the dogs into pets. So, most of the Perfect Street was occupied by squatters and there were squats all over Fieldgate Mansions.

So, when Bangladeshis started moving in, they had a ready-made support base. Nobody was going to kick out the Bangladeshis because all the white squatters would have come out to help. The white squatters were left-wingers, anarchists, libertarians, that kind of person. All of them are gone and a lot of them are dead. So really, you were moving into an established little squatting community? How many properties have you got?

There is no Sylhet Housing Co-op any more. I think it was in 1994 that they decided to disband, and the properties went to two housing associations.

Finally, looking back, your community came into a hostile environment. It was hostile. Most people couldn’t speak English. Could they? I mean, the women certainly couldn’t, which is why I’d learnt to learn Bengali in Pelham Buildings, otherwise you couldn’t get through to the women. When something broke down, the plumbing, there’s a leak … ‘fanifore’. What’s fanifore? Does it mean it’s raining, or does it mean the plumbing is leaking? It can mean either one, couldn’t it? Fani phuri gache, ok fanivore, so I’ll bring my plumbers tools. I’ll fix the plumbing of whatever is wrong with it.

I watched women who’ve been brought out of a flat on the Isle of Dogs and put down into Pelham Buildings completely change. I mean had they stayed down there they would have had a nervous breakdown. Because don’t forget a woman, she comes from a village in Sylhet, gone to Dhaka airport, come to London, down to the Isle of Dogs and people are putting shit in her letterbox.