[IMC-Audio] A History of Squatting in the UK
aaron at resist.ca
aaron at resist.ca
Wed Mar 19 17:13:19 PDT 2008
===A History of Squatting in the UK===
Jim is a resident of London, England, and a long-time organizer with the
Advisory Service for Squatters, A.S.S. Here he speaks about the history of
squatting in the UK, going as far back as the 1300's. This interview looks
at squatting's relationship to the anarchist movement in the UK, the
changing legal framework around squatting, and squatting within a
framework of other social movements in the country.
The Advisory Service For Squatters is a collective of unpaid workers who
have beenrunning a daily advice service for squatters and homeless people
since 1975. It grewout of the former Family Squatters Advisory Service,
which was founded in the late 1960's. ASS publishes The squatters
Handbook, the twelfth edition of which is the current one, and has sold in
excess of 150,000 copies since 1976. ASS offers advice on how to squat,
legal help to squatters and helps fight evictions and challenge police
abuse of the homeless.
====For an audio version of this interview, visit=====
Interview by Aaron Lakoff
Aaron: Why don't we start at 1381!
Jim: Squatting was one of the big issues in the peasants revolt. It was
the original form of land tenure. The new idea, the very recent
development is this notion that people can own land. That's what's new.
That only comes with settlement and agriculture - in other words 5 minutes
ago in our history. The whole thing is a right mess, I think! Because then
people start having boundaries, saying this is my land and this is your
land, and you've got inheritance in the male line and all that.
Anyways, squatting has a long history on this island. What everyone knows
about are the Diggers in the 17th century. We had a big commemoration in
1999 for the Diggers 350 anniversary. What does the first of April mean to
A: April fool's day...
J: No, it's diggers day! Because that's when the diggers kicked off! And
there was so much work done on the Diggers. Christopher Hill got us all
going. He's still alive, as I've heard. That book "The world turned upside
down" wasn't just about the diggers. It was about all the radical
movements of the 17th century. That book and Leon Rosselson's song ("The
world turned upside down") really has turned thousand of people on to the
What's often forgotten about the middle of the 17th century is that there
weren't only civil wars, these were years of famine as well. A lot of them
were actually the people who kicked up most of the shit during the English
revolution. A few of the diggers, those that we know about, had been quite
comfortably off and had been made poor by the wars.
A: I've often heard of the Diggers in the context of a history of
anarchism. Would you say there is any continuity between the Diggers
movement and what we know as anarchism?
J: What you hear more often is that the Ranters were proto-anarchists. And
I think that's wrong. I don't think the diggers were anarchists at all.
They wanted a just state. One of the Diggers radical ideas was that they
were IN FAVOUR of promoting young people and their ideas, and this was
very much against prevailing views. Its a criticism of the Diggers,
however, that they didnt really seem to have much to say about the
position of women in society. Winstanley defines mankind as meaning
everie man, both male and female (inclusive language being unheard of at
the time) he had worked for a female boss before the wars (very unusual)
and after the Diggers settlements were suppressed, several of the best
known Diggers went off to work for one of the women prophets of the
A: What about urban squatting? Has there been a long tradition of that?
J: Well yes, I mean theres a long tradition of squatting. Squatting has
never gone away in this country. There was a lot of squatting in the 19th
century, mostly quite individualistic. We tend to hear about squatting
after it becomes organized and when it becomes not so much individualistic
but at least when some people doing it have a political perspective on
what they're doing.
There was a squatting movement after the First World War, but the big one
was 1946. There was a squatting movement in 1945, which was quite
viciously repressed by the Churchill government. They called themselves
the Vigilante movement. I think the idea was they were vigilantly scouring
the streets for empty houses and making sure they were occupied by
homeless people. The 1945 Vigilante movement started in Brighton and the
people involved were anarchists, which probably made them more of an
immediate target compared with the 1946 Camp Squatters. Then the huge one
kicked off in 1946 and was still going in the 50's. There was all sorts of
places squatted. It was all the army camps and RAF stations that were now
empty after the war. People moved in and took them over, as well as many
The trouble with 1946, what you always hear about is the Communist Party
(CP) stunt. In May 1946, the CP, which was very strong then, not like now,
was slagging off squatting. In fact lots of the CP members were involved
in squatting, but leadership was slagging off squatting, saying that
socialism is the language of priorities and all that sort of stuff. By
September it had got so big that they thought, Oh fuck, we had better
jump on this bandwagon!
So they organized these three big spectacular squats: Duchess of Bdedford
Mansions near Regents Park, and 2 hotels in Bloomsbury that had all been
accommodations for offices. Well, the Dorchester Bedford Mansions was once
again gonna get rented out to the rich. Rich people rented flats in those
days for 30 shillings per week (that's 1 pound 50p), which was huge rent
which working-class people couldn't afford. And (these squats) had huge
publicity at the time. There was a big rally in Trafalgar Square in
support of the squatters. The cops surrounded these squatted places.
(There are) video clips of people chucking food up to the windows, most of
it not getting caught. But it was all over in a few days, because they
arrested so-called ringleaders and the CP backed out and left all those
people who had been used as cannon fodder. They were left very much in the
lurch. So as far as squatting in the 40's went, the CP arrived late and
A: Who were these squatters in 1946? Were they mostly soldiers returning
from the war?
A: And what was the outcome of that? Was it the first big political
J: Well, how political was it? I think what you have to understand about
squatting here, which is very different from squatting everywhere else in
Europe, is that most of the time, for most people who are squatting,
squatting is about housing. It is about the dire shortage of housing, and
it always has been. It is far less overtly political, and there are all
sorts of people involved. And that's very different than the squatting you
get everywhere else in Western Europe. Squatting here has a very different
character than, say, in Germany, where it's very much overtly political.
Well, of course it is! Taking over empty buildings that used to belong to
private capital or elements of the state IS a political act. But that's
not how most squatters here have historically seen it. It's just about
doing what you have to do to get a roof over your head, and people being
angry that they've got nowhere to live and here are these places standing
A: How did the laws around squatting develop? How has the British state
traditionally dealt with it?
J: Well, the basic thing is that squatting was, and still is (although
they try to nibble away at it) a civil matter, not a criminal matter. It's
a civil dispute; it's got nothing to do with the cops, although we're
constantly having to remind the cops of that.
There were attempts in the 1970's to make squatting a crime. It is in
Scotland. I'm only talking about England and Wales. And the reason why
it's a crime in Scotland is because of the Trespass Scotland Act, which
was passed after the clearances, to make sure the clearances worked and
that the people didn't come back. And so there's virtually no squatting in
Scotland. Mind you, squatting is illegal in the USA, but a surprising
amount of it happens. And some of the squatting in the USA, especially in
New York, has more the sort of character of squatting here. Not so much
people squatting places to live, but poor people squatting space to make
gardens and other things they need, and to create community facilities.
This is a bit more like the character of squatting in this country than in
A: And so criminal trespassing isn't an issue here?
J: Yes, it's a crime to trespass in certain places. You know, Ministry of
Defense places, army bases, foreign embassies, and places like that. Or
prisons. You mustnt trespass in a prison! And railways. So there are
certain places where it's a criminal offense to trespass, but basically
trespass is not a crime. So whenever you see a notice that says
trespassers will be prosecuted, it's bollocks. Trespassers CANNOT be
prosecuted. It's a civil matter. It's a tort, not a crime. It doesn't
involve the state. So trespassers will NOT be prosecuted.
A: So this has meant that the owners of the buildings have had to take the
squatters to court?
J: Yes, to a civil court.
A: You mentioned that in the 1970's the government tried to make it a
J: But that didn't work; they had to back down from that. It would be very
difficult in England and Wales to make trespass a crime. You couldn't
really. It would bugger up the whole basis of land tenure in English law.
So what eventually came out in the 1970's was the Campaign Against a
Criminal Trespass Law, and in response the government created Protected
Intending Occupiers, which is another thing where you can be given a
notice without going to court. Fundamentally they weren't able to make
trespass a crime. Cops are constantly telling people that the laws have
been changed, and that's why we're always telling people that squatting is
still legal, necessary, and free. Legal, but not lawful in other words,
it's civil, not criminal.
A: When you were comparing squatting here with the rest of Western Europe,
it's interesting because there's been that distinction made in Canada
between the more individual squats and political squats...
J: Well, I wouldn't say individual. I mean, you get some sorts of
community action type squatting, which isn't overtly political. In fact
the people doing it don't see it as such, but I think it is. The people
doing it aren't ideologically driven, they're doing it because there are
buildings empty and they need a place to live, or there's this derelict
fucking site and we can make a community garden and our kids can play
there, and things like that. That to me is political, but that's not how
it's perceived by the people doing it.
A: Why have people squatted?
J: All sorts of people have squatted. There are the sorts of lifestyle
squatters people who squat because they like it. They don't have to
squat, housing-wise, but they want to squat. There might be lots of people
who have an alternative way of getting a roof over their head, but they
don't have a way of living the way they want to live, with a bunch of
other people living collectively and doing stuff together. That's all fair
enough too. Squatting to live the way you want to live is often a minority
of squatters, and this isn't often realized. You do realize it if you sit
in the A.S.S (Advisory Service for Squatters) office.
A: In terms of social housing or affordable housing in London, has there
always been a lack of that?
J: Oh yes! This term affordable housing now, it's very English. It's
like how public schools are actually private schools. Well affordable
housing means UNaffordable housing!
A: Can you tell me about some of the squats that have made a big impact in
London over the years?
J: Well Huntley Street did. That was huge news. We had solidarity actions
all around the world the night of the eviction. That was in 1978. There
were lots of big squats in those days. There was Freston road in West
London that declared UDI Unilateral Declaration of Independence. They
wrote to the United Nations demanding recognition as a sovereign state!
And the people who went to negotiate with the GLC (Greater London Council)
were called ambassadors, and everybody was a minister for something! There
were lots of ministers for alcohol, I seem to remember. Freston road did
the best squatters paper the Corrugated Times.
A: Are any of these squats that existed in the 60's and 70's still in
J: No. But there are a few, especially in South London, very long-term
squats, which, if people had their act together, they could have had them
now. But they haven't got the evidence together and places have been
thrown away. People have got 12 years adverse occupation.
A: Does that mean that if you stay in a place for 12 years it's yours?
J: Yes, effectively. It's a bit more complicated than that, and they
changed the law 3 years ago so that if it's registered land it's much more
difficult. But if its not registered, or it is registered and you
completed your 12 years before October, 2003, then you can make the place
effectively yours... but you've got to have your evidence together. Loads
of people lose places that could be won by not having stuff together.
A: How long has the Advisory Service for Squatters (A.S.S.) been around for?
J: Since 1975. It started with a breakaway. There were loads of groups in
1968 that started opening empty buildings for homeless families. And there
was this big division between oh no, only families with children should
be squatting, and everyone who needs a home should squat. Single people
are homeless, too. The latter perspective was a breakaway from the Family
Squatters' Advisory Service. The A.S.S moved its current office two and a
half years ago.
A: I'm interested to know about squatted social centers too. Is that
something that has had a long history in London?
J: Yes and no. It has more of a history outside of London. The whole
concept of social centers has only come around in recent years. I don't
think anyone would have thought of it going further back, because back
then we had local squatting groups. If you look then, you'll see this
history of totally squatted streets and totally squatted blocks. And of
course when you get a completely squatted street and a completely squatted
block, after a while people set up communal spaces.
They did this with the whole resistance to the M-11, which was very much
political squatting. That was bringing into London the campaigning tactics
against road developments. That was a very special kind of squatting, and
that's when social centers really started. And most social centers aren't
squatted. But there's this big argument of squatted vs. non-squatted. But
the vast majority of squatters have never even heard the word social
center, and if they have, they'd probably think it's far too scuzzy for
For every lifestyle anarchist sort of squatter, there must be at least 10
of the current jobs-and-babies wave of squatters. For fucks sake, the
lifestyle anarchists squatters are not THE squatters! Squatting is a much
bigger world and a much wider range of people than they even dream about!
I want to say to these people 'you are living in a little fucking
And some people are on about the terrible damage done to the social center
movement by these alleged bastards from the rented or mortgaged social
centers, but in fact thats what most social centres are. Its all
needlessly divisive, though I think were beginning to get beyond these
silly arguments now. Squatted, rented or mortgaged social centres each
have their drawbacks and problems, as well as their advantages. In
squatted social centres we can get on with doing what inspires us, without
having to worry about selling ourselves loads of beer to pay the bills. On
the other hand, what we dont have is a long-term presence, so that we can
become a resource for many other campaigns and movements and a radical
part of the life of a particular community.
A: Is that a completely separate movement, the people working for the
squatted social centers and the people working for squatted housing?
J: Not in London, but outside London a lot of people have been involved in
squatted social centres who havent needed to squat for their housing.
Leeds and Manchester are examples. But things changing. The big cities in
England which have traditionally had less of a crude housing shortage than
London are now facing a real housing crisis and there is an increasing
amount of residential squatting in those cities. Bristol and Brighton have
always had a fair bit of residential squatting.
A: When I think of squatting, I sometimes picture something that is unique
to the anarchist movement...
J: Oh no! Not at all. That's the problem! People just aren't aware of the
breadth of different people who are squatting. Please don't think I'm
putting down any squatted social centers I'm not. But it's just such a
narrow vision. There's a lot more to squatting and there's a lot more
going on than that. Most of the squatting in England and Wales has been in
London, with two notable other places that were big; Brighton and Bristol.
If you look at the 1940's, it was the same. But there's been a lot more
going on in the last few years in other parts, especially in Leeds and
Manchester, because more and more people haven't got a place to live.
[Aaron Lakoff is an independent journalist and social justice organizer
based in Montreal. He can be reached at aaron at resist.ca]
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