Content warning: this post includes some brief textual descriptions of violence and threats against women. Hackney Council’s domestic violence support services can be accessed here.
“Women make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”
In 1974 Jennifer Davis was awarded the tenancy of 13 Nisbet House, Homerton High Street. (Nisbet House was built in the 1930s as part of the council’s slum clearances. A previous entry on this blog covers another resident of Nisbet House – tenant activist Bob Darke.)
Jennifer’s partner Nehemiah Johnson was added to the tenancy at his request and they moved in together and later had a daughter. Jennifer was in her late teens, Nehemiah in his late thirties.
Jennifer Davis was the victim of what the court of appeal described as “extreme” violence from Johnson.
Nehemiah’s violence became so extreme that on 18th September 1977 Jennifer was forced to flee with their two and half year old daughter and live in the world’s first Women’s Refuge in Chiswick. Nehemiah then threatened to kill Jennifer – and dump her in the river or chop up her body and put it in the freezer.
This resulted in an important legal case, which Susan Edwards (Professor and Dean of Law at the University of Birmingham) has written about in her chapter of the book Women’s Legal Landmarks: Celebrating the history of women and law in the UK and Ireland.
Parliament had recently passed The Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act 1976 (DVMPA). The act originated as a Private Members Bill authored by Jo Richardson MP, and was the culmination of many years’ campaigning by the women’s liberation movement.
But laws are of little consequence until they are put to the test in court. Someone has to have the unfortunate privilege of being first – and this time Jennifer Davis was one of the women to take on that mantle.
On 11th October 1977 Jennifer applied to Brentford County Court under section 1 of the DVMPA for injunctions restraining the Nehemiah from using violence against her and ordering him to vacate the flat and stay at least half a mile away from it. (It seems reasonable to speculate that she was assisted by the staff at the women’s refuge and perhaps others in doing this.)
“The judge found that the violence and threats of violence, to which Miss Davis had been subjected, were of a horrifying nature. He thought that there was a real risk of further violence in the future. […] The exclusion of [Johnson] from the flat and the prohibition upon his return were necessary to protect Miss Davis and her child in their own home.”
Lord Scarman, 1978
The injunctions were granted. But Johnson appealed – and sickeningly was successful in being granted the ability to return to the flat. The legal arguments around this essentially boiled down to a conflict between property rights and the right to live without exposure to violence. This may not come as too much of surprise to my more cynical readers. (There is more to say here about the historical legacy of women being deemed to be the property of men, for example in marriage – and the struggle to gain the vote, etc).
Jennifer Davis in turn appealed this decision, which lead to further wrangling by men in wigs. The Court of Appeal found in her favour by a majority of three to two judges. The original judgement was restored. According to Lorraine Radford this led to some sexist furore about the decision being “a mistresses’ charter”.
On returning to her flat in Homerton, Jennifer found it completely stripped of all its furniture.
Johnson would not let it lie and appealed once again to the House of Lords (it would be interesting to know where he was getting his funding and advice from?). The profile and importance of the case ensured that Jennifer was well supported on the day:
The discussion in the Lords included the out of touch snark characteristic of the place and era, including several references to the “child of their illicit union” who was also “illegitimate”.
But to their credit, the Lords agreed that unmarried women should be treated the same as married ones in this regard and also dismissed Nehemiah Johnson’s appeal, establishing an important legal precedent. William Twining and David Miers describe the decision as “a leading case on the doctrine of precedent and the use of extrinsic aids to interpretation”.
I’m sure this was of less value to Jennifer Davis than being able to live with her daughter in peace in their flat in Homerton. And to the women that followed her…
Susan Davis concludes:
“Without doubt Davis v Johnson was a turning point in both law and judicial understanding of domestic violence. The problem of domestic violence, despite these changes, remains a significant problem in its extent and the failings of the criminal justice response. Over a quarter of women have experienced domestic abuse since the age of 16. On average two women in England and Wales are killed by their current or former partner every week. Cuts to legal aid are making it significantly harder for women to access the courts to protect themselves and their family.”
The problem of domestic violence has recently been greatly exacerbated by the COVID-19 lockdown.
Sources / Further Reading / Plagiarism
Susan Davis “Davis v Johnson (1978)” in Erika Rackley, Rosemary Auchmuty (eds) – Women’s Legal Landmarks: Celebrating the history of women and law in the UK and Ireland (Bloomsbury 2018)
Astrid Proll was a household name in the 1970s along with her comrades Ulrike Meinhof, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and other members of the Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Faction – aka The Baader-Meinhof gang).
Astrid’s older brother Thorwald Proll introduced her to the circle of radicals that would become the RAF – indeed, she would be one of its founders. The group’s politics were broadly anti-imperialist: opposed to the Vietnam war and outraged by the prominence of former Nazis in West Germany. The state would brand them “anarchist violent offenders”, but most anarchists I know would categorise them as Maoists (and point out that urban guerilla movements with no connection to the working class do not end well).
On 2nd April 1968 (before becoming the RAF), the group had organised arson attacks on two Frankfurt department stores. This was in revenge for the killing of Benno Ohnesorg (a protestor shot by a policeman during a demonstration opposing the Shah of Iran’s visit to West Berlin. The killer would eventually be revealed as an East German Stasi agent) – and also against the ongoing Vietnam war. Days later, Baader and several others including Thorwald Proll were caught by the police and imprisoned.
Baader was eventually freed by armed members of the group during a staged interview with Ulrike Meinhof at a library on 14 May 1970. Astrid Proll was the getaway driver. She was also involved in bank robberies around this time to raise funds for the RAF’s operations and underground existence. She became one of the most wanted women in West Germany.
Proll and RAF member Manfred Grasho were stopped by the cops on 10 February 1971 but managed to get away under police gunfire. It was falsely claimed that she had shot at the two officers attempting to arrest her. However in Hamburg on 6 May of the same year, Astrid was finally caught after a pump attendant at a petrol station recognised her from a wanted poster and alerted the authorities. She attempted to flee but was surrounded by armed officers and arrested – and then charged with offences including attempted murder and robbery.
In November 1971, Astrid Proll became the first of several RAF members to be held in solitary confinement in the new “dead wing” of Cologne-Ossendorf prison. She was 24 years old. The “dead wing” or “silent wing” was an ingenious facility of six cells in which the walls and furniture were painted entirely white. A bare neon light turned on 24 hours a day was supplemented by meagre daylight through a narrow slit too high to see out of. The cells were designed so that no external sounds could penetrate them. It was forbidden for prisoners to hang pictures on the walls.
These conditons amount to torture and would be one of the factors that led subsequent RAF prisoners to go on hunger stirke. Proll spent two and half years in solitary confinement (four and half months of which were in the dead wing). She developed circulatory problems, difficulty breathing, panic attacks and was sometimes unable to walk.
On February 4, 1974 Astrid’s trial was adjourned because of her ill health, and she was granted bail. Shortly after this she fled West Germany under a false passport. After spending some time in Italy, she arrived in London in August 1974.
Astrid in London
I fled to Britain […] and realised how overtly ideological and misguided the German left had become. In Britain the left was more pragmatic and had more realistic goals; it was also more tuned into the real world. A concept as deluded as “armed struggle” would never have come to pass here.
Astrid Proll, The Matured Spirit of ’68
Precise details of Astrid’s early time in London are hard to pin down. She seems to have moved around a lot, living in Holland Park, Mile End and Kilburn as well as several addresses in Hackney. In interviews she has mentioned the support she received from feminists, squatters and Hackney members of the libertarian marxist group Big Flame.
Using her false passport, Astrid got married to Robin Puttick at Stepney registry office on January 22, 1975. She took the name Anna Puttick. This is generally believed to be a marriage of convenience as she was on the run – and a lesbian. As she told Iain Sinclair “I had to have papers, I was so German.”
Living in Hackney
“Solidarity was the precept of the counterculture. The squats were the material basis and preconditon for the emergence of political activism, art and alternative life. These houses, removed from the circulation of capitalist valorisation, were open spaces for experimentations of all kinds towards a life lived without economic constraints”
Astrid Proll, Goodbye To London
So where did she live?
Several contributors to the Kill Your Pet Puppy website mention her being hidden away in the squats of Brougham Road near Broadway Market (the street would later be an epicentre of anarchist punk activity in the 1980s).
Court documents from the time mention her “first squat” at the end of 1974 being 25 Marlborough Avenue E8. Astrid herself in Goodbye To London recalls “squatting with a female friend in a former shoe store in Broadway Market” and she told Iain Sinclair:
“When I heard about the death of Ulrike Meinhof in Stammheim Prison, I lived in a street that no longer exists, Lamb Lane. Beside London Fields. I lived around Broadway Market a lot. There was a huge women’s movement thing, a whole scene.”
Meinhof died in mysterious circumstances on 9 May 1976. The general trajectory of the RAF after Astrid left Germany had been increasingly desperate. Life in exile would have been stressful, but must have seemed like the better option.
There was a thriving alternative scene in the capital at the time and Astrid mentions attending women-only dances as well as suppoting the striking Asian women workers on the picket lines at the Grunwick dispute in West London. But the past was never far away…
Writer Philip Oltermann suggests that Proll and “a group of lesbians from Bow” were in the crowd of 80,000 at the free Rock Against Racism / Anti-Nazil League gig in Victoria Park on 30 April 1978. He mentions her “panic rising” when she saw the RAF logo onstage on the t-shirt worn by Joe Strummer of The Clash:
(Incidentally the burgeoning “punkademic” industry seems inexorably drawn to making connections between the RAF and punk. Personally I think it’s clear that Strummer was a poseur with a nice turn in protest music and social observation, but he was sorely lacking in political analysis. Tom Vague concludes his RAF book with a fantastic photo of Sid Vicious and John Lydon posing in front of a Baader-Meinhof wanted poster in Berlin in 1977. In the same year anarchist punks Crass pasted up a poster near Covent Garden’s Roxy club with the slogan “Germany got Baader-Meinhof, England got punk but they can’t kill it”. I’d say one t-shirt, one photograph and one poster were slim evidence, but I’m not a lecturer with a quota of publications to fill. I’d be much more interested to hear about what other gigs Astrid Proll and her social circle were going to in mid-70s London…).
“I always knew that a photo of me could give me away and destroy my London life. So I avoided being photographed. When the book ‘Hitler’s Children:The Story of the Baader-Meinhof Terrorist Gang’ was released, female friends went out and stole the book off bookstore shelves or tore out the pages with my photograph”
Astrid Proll, Goodbye To London
Friends from the time mention her being a good neighbour and putting down roots:
“The children would be in and out of her house at the weekends, she’d be delighted on the occasions they stayed the night there because she revelled in their company and because it left me free. [She put] all her energy into her work, into friendships, into the squatting and local communty as a whole.”
Anonymous friend quoted by Friends of Astrid Proll
This lifestyle and support network would do a fine job of keeping Proll out of sight of the authorities… for a while.
“Women Work In Hackney”
Astrid’s work in London is better documented than where she lived. Each of her three jobs had a Hackney connection.
In the Spring of 1975 she was employed as a gardener by the council:
“I went to get a job with Hackney Council. I was a park keeper. In Clissold Park, my favourite park. I was working with an Irish guy, raking, mowing. They threw us both out, him and me. After six months. […] I had Clissold Park. I had London Fields. I had a little park which was in Shoreditch. It was around a church, a little garden. I had to go out in the morning and open it.”
Quoted by Iain Sinclair
Hackney Council also paid for Astrid to train as a car mechanic:
[…] in 1976 [she] enrolled on a government training course in car mechanics at Poplar Skill Centre. She left the course with a City and Guilds Certificate and, [had] taken an evening class in welding […] She had obtained all the necessary qualifications; national insurance card, union card and driving licence in the name of Senta Puttick.”
She was apparently the only woman on the training course. Car mechanic was an unusual profession for a woman in the 1970s and especially one trying not to attract attention. Not to mention being photographed for an exhibition:
“I did not live underground in England,” she insists. “I lived with other youths who also read Marx and idealised the working classes. I worked on the shop floor and as a car mechanic. This attitude was very admired in the Seventies.”
Quoted by Tina Jackson
Her new skills got her nicknamed “Anna the Spanner”. She put them to good use, running a car maintenance class for women and in 1977 got a job at the iconic Lesney factory next to Hackney marshes. Lesney’s made “Matchbox” toy cars and was a big employer in the borough. She started as a fitter’s mate and was eventually promoted to be a supervisor. She was a member of the Amalgamated Electrical union. (Speculation – the Big Flame group were quite big on this sort of shop floor activity?)
“At work, Anna had to cope with the suspicion, ribaldry and loneliness that comes with being the only woman in a traditionally male job. At Lesney’s some of the men wouldn’t work with her because she was a woman, and one of the supervisors was always really down on her. Anna is an inspiration to me, and to other women, in her determination to fight this sex discrimination and not let herself be discouraged.”
Anonymous friend, quoted by Friends of Astrid Proll
In late 1977 she got a job training young offenders as mechanics at Camden Enterprises on Finchley Road, West Hampstead. Accordng to journalist Tina Jackson she subverted the training programme by “showing some of her students how to use the skills she’d taught them to steal cars”.
It would be her last job in London for some time…
On 15 September 1978 a couple of uniformed policemen visited the Camden Enterprises workshop. Astrid’s manager Vincent Wilcox assumed they wanted to speak to him about a motoring offence. He soon realised he was off the hook:
“The next moment about ten plain clothes officers from Scotland Yard came in and took her up to the recreation room, pushed her up against the lockers and searched her.”
Quoted in BBC: On This Day
Proll did not resist arrest. It is heartening that she doesn’t seem to have been grassed up by anyone in the London counterculture:
“I was most likely recognised by a policeman when I accompanied a young man who was always stealing cars and getting into trouble to the police station. As the officials from Scotland Yard took me away from the garage, the young men looked at me, stunned. I just said ‘I won’t see you again’.”
Astrid Proll, Farewell To London
She quickly released a statement through her solicitor: “I have lived in England for the past four years – I have no contact with the Red Army Faction and I have tried to settle down as best I could in the circumstances.”
The RAF women had long been salivated over by the media and so Astrid’s arrest was predictably sensationalised. Her contacts were interrogated by reporters and every aspect of her lifestyle picked over:
Proll would later tell journalist Kate Connolly “The British tabloids were one of the most terrifying things I have experienced.”
Whilst Proll was being held and questioned at Paddington Green police station, her support network sprang into action:
Graffiti backing her rapidly appeared. Lee Nurse and a friend cycled late one night down to Old Street where they painted ‘No extradition for Astrid Proll’ across the top of the large ventilation shaft in the centre of the roundabout. It remained in place for many years and only disappeared when the new ‘silicon roundabout’ appeared as part of the transformation of the area into a ‘technology hub’
One of the most remarkable things about the story of the RAF is the widespread support they seemed to have had in West Germany at the time – with some estimates suggesting 10,000 sympathisers. Similarly in London, the “Friends of Astrid Proll” solidarity campaign appears to have been sizeable and multifaceted.
“The Passions and the Nips, Shane MacGowan’s pre-Pogues group, appeared at a Rough Theatre benefit for the defence fund of Astrid Proll of the Baader-Meinhof gang”
“We actually helped to organise the Astrid Proll thing because she was a friend, we knew her as Anna and she worked as a mechanic teaching young people at a youth project in North London. I remember her being very interested in my old Vauxhall and then later reading about her Baader Meinhof exploits, it seems she was their getaway driver! I also remember Crass phoning up and desperately wanting to play at the gig (being anarchists I suppose they would), but there wasn’t space on the bill for them. They were very disappointed. It was a good gig, well attended if I remember correctly.”
Richard Williams, drummer for The Passions
The gig was followed by a discussion at the Scala Cinema and a film benefit at the Womens Art Alliance, showing “Shirin’s Wedding” – which is about the unfortunate life of a young female Turkish migrant to West Germany:
Singer Nik Turner (most famous for his time in Hawkwind) was inspired by Proll’s plight (and apparently her time squatting in Brougham Road?). The first single by his new band Inner City Unit was originally called “Solitary Astrid”. However “to avoid controversy” the song was given the title “Solitary Ashtray”. Which does beg the question why the b-side was called “SO T RY AS I D” (“so try acid”)?
Before performing the song in Bristol in 2016, Nik told an amusing tale of donating to the Friends of Astrid Proll support fund – and because of all this being raided himself by Special Branch for drugs and terrorist materials.
This cultural solidarity provided the funding and wider context for the political work being done. Astrid was transferred to Brixton prison shortly after her arrest. Friends of Astrid Proll organised pickets of the prison and protests at Bow Street Magistrate’s Court where her case was being heard:
Brixton was – and remains – a male prison. There were two other female prisonsers at the time: Iris Mills (an anarchist arrested as part of the “Persons Unknown” case – who would be acquitted) and young Palestinian activist Khloud al Mugrabi (who may have been Iraqi or Lebanese? And spoke no English). All three were “Category A” prisoners – requiring maximum security.
Proll was allowed visitors though – and was able to write letters to supporters that were used in their literature.
Naturally one of the objectives of the campaign was that Astrid be transferred to the female Holloway Prison in North London. Alongside this the main demand was that she should not be extradited on the grounds that she would not get a fair trial in West Germany and that the new anti-terror laws there were draconian.
She was understandably terrified of returning to Germany as she was still suffering from the trauma resulting from her imprisonment in the “dead wing”:
“Not even today, six years later, have I completely recovered […]. I can’t stand rooms which are painted white because they remind me of my cell. Silence in a wood can terrify me, it reminds me of the silence in the isolated cell. Darkness makes me so depressive as if my life were taken away. Solitude causes me as much fear as crowds. Even today I have the feeling occasionally as if I can’t move.”
“I do not expect to survive if I return to Germany.”
Astrid Proll quoted in Friends of Astrid Proll literature
Three leaflets from Friends of Astrid Proll are available as PDFs here.
Extradition and Trial
Various attempts were made to thwart the extradition process including Astrid applying to be a British citizen by dint of her marriage and several years of residence. This was a longshot – complicated by her using false papers to get married and the lack of affection for her by the British state and media. The case is still cited today in legal textbooks.
The legal battles were eventually exhausted and Astrid returned voluntarily to Germany in June 1979. Her trial there commenced in September and went a great deal better than anyone was expecting.
The most serious charge was of the attempted murder of police officers during an attempted arrest back in February 1971. This was dropped when it emerged that the state had evidence all along that she hadn’t opened fire.
In February 1980 Astrid Proll was sentenced to five-and-a-half years for bank robbery and falsifying documents. But as she had already spent more than two thirds of her sentence in British and West German jails she was released immediately. She was 32 years old.
Freedom and aftermath
The British Home Secretary banned her for life from entering Britain. After a lengthy legal battle she was allowed to return in 1988.
She studied film and photography in Hamburg and subsequently worked as a picture editor for the German magazine Tempo and The Independent newspaper in London.
Her 1998 book Baader-Meinhof: Pictures on the run 67-77 apparently documents the pre-London years (and is now prohibitively expensive).
In 2010 she contributed to the exhibition “Goodbye To London: Radical Art & Politics in the 70s” and edited the accompanying book which includes some excellent material about squatting, LGBT culture, Hackney Flashers, Grunwick etc – as well as an essential foreword by Proll that is quoted above.
“…the Stoke Newington 8 Defence Committee which, not uncommonly, was more interesting than the Angry Brigade itself, a widely-based, politically creative organisation of very different people.” – John Barker
Below is a complete reprint of a Stoke Newington Eight Defence Group booklet. It’s a good example of a document which you see mentioned everywhere but can’t actually read without access to private libraries or the money to pay for antiquarian books. Until now.
There is a lot here to disagree with, but it does perhaps show the sort of debates that were taking place at the time.
The text has now been reprinted with a new introduction and endnotes by the enigmatic See Red Press who kindly sent me a copy. It is a beautiful edition, but the introduction does intensify my unease about the contents:
Regardless of the illegitimacy of the prosecution evidence, it’s likely that at least some of the defendants were actively involved in carrying out the activities of the Angry Brigade. John Barker later said, “In my case the police framed a guilty man.” Bombs and explosions have been associated with anti-authoritarian struggle across the world for centuries, but in more recent years in the UK the idea of ‘terror’ – and its identified perpetrators – have been increasingly individualised and racialised, enshrined in state programmes such as Prevent. It has equally been restricted. Those who undertake direct action against the state increasingly seek to distance themselves from the label of terrorism, often enforcing its use against those with less leverage in society. If authoritarian terrorism is ideology maintained by force, what does, and could, anti-authoritarian terrorism look like? And is there a place for it now, in 2020 in the UK?
The short answer to this latter question is no. A longer answer is: whilst this is an interesting question, it is the wrong one. This is an anti-authoritarian blog and I shall place my cards on the table and say that I would like those in power to be considerably more scared of the rest of us than they currently seem to be. There is a class war raging and we are losing it.
The “terror” card is one weapon in the state’s armoury that is used to divide us. A whole swathe of completely reasonable groups have been accused of terrorism or “domestic extremism” in recent years, including anti-fracking protestors, trade unionists, anti-fascists and volunteers fighting ISIS in Syria.
“Direct action against the state” can take many forms and the Angry Brigade’s tactics are a useful historical example of something that creates a lot of noise but achieves little in isolation.
Reviewing issues of Hackney Gutter Press from the early 1970s shows us that 137 people were identified by the state as Angry Brigade suspects and many of them were subjected to dawn raids, arrests and lower level persecution. At the same time large numbers of radicals were diverted from their day to day community and workplace campaigning to defend arrestees as part of organisations such as the Stoke Newington 8 Defence Group. This collateral damage needs to be included in any analysis of this period.
There are unfortunately no shortcuts to “peace”.
These reservations aside, the booklet is recommended as a useful slice of Hackney’s radical history. It can be got cheap here from AK Press.
Hackney Gutter Press was the most revolutionary, counter-cultural and colourful of the plethora of community newspapers published in the borough in the early 1970s. Previous entries on this blog have covered issues 2-5.
Issues 3 and 5 can be found on archive.org – so as far as I know, the complete set is now online. (If you were involved with the project or know more about it, get in touch!)
Most people in Hackney don’t like the way their lives are controlled by work, rents, councillors, police, schools etc. A lot of us are organising to fight their control – but we feel we don’t know enough about each other. For example with the coming tenants’ campaign against the Fair Rents Act we’re going to need a united fight if we are going to win – women at home, people going to work, claimants and kids together: we’re all tenants.
We want this newspaper to be used as part of getting to know each other. Organising to fight together. We want it to be used as a WEAPON TO FIGHT FOR OUR OWN CONTROL OF HACKNEY.
This first issue was produced by a group of people whjo are involved in organised activities such as Claimants’ Unions, squatting, Womens Liberation, playhouses for children, food co-ops.
We have intense discontent with the Hackney Gazette. Not only do they always report in favour of the rich and those in authority, but even this reporting is inadequate, amateurish and often totally inaccurate.
HACKNEY GUTTER PRESS is non-profit making and its policy will be decided from issue to issue by open meetings.
The first meeting witll be at Centerprise, 34, Dalston Lane on Thursday May 4th at 8pm. This is open to all wishing to help produce the paper, writing, drawing cartoons, distributing, reporting, etc.
Introduction from Hackney Gutter Press issue 1
It looks like the debut issue was published in April 1972. (Judging by the dates referred to in the articles)
Contents of the first issue include:
Why Not Squat? On direction action to solve the homeless issue. The Council faces resistance when it tries to evict four families squatting Grayling Road in Stoke Newington.
The Stoke Newington 8 – update on the arrests of 6 people in Amhurst Road the previous year in relation to Angry Brigade bombings.
Mildmay Action House, 26 Mildmay Park N1.“We’d had enough, kids around the house all day, fed up with endless housework and nowhere else to go. So we took action – women and children from Grosvenor Avenue marched on the Council last summer and demanded a house and money – we got both, and started work straight away on repairing and painting the house, clearing the garden” – plans to run the house collectively as community/childcare centre and Claimant’s Union.
Militant protests outside two different Hackney Social Security Offices, both broken up by police.
Last train to Dalston Junction? North London line station (i.e. Dalston Kingsland now) threatened with closure.
In the Courts – defend yourself with McKenzie advisors – Three members of Highbury and Hackney Claimants’ Union were charged with criminal damage for painting slogans on the side of a Social Security Office. They defended themselves in court were initially fined £30 and then acquitted on appeal. “The defendants told the magistrates what a load of deathlike, corrupt, prejudiced, bastards they were, representing a law designed only to prevent people taking back what is their own.” The defendants also demanded a minute’s silence for the 13 people murdered in Derry recently! (NB – do not do any of this now, Radical History of Hackney will not be held legally liable if you happen to spray paint a benefits office and/or are convicted after defending yourself in court).
Rents Will Double – Then There’ll Be Trouble. Calls for rent strikes if council rents increase from £3.50 to £7.47. And quite right too. Suggestion that the tenants associations run by the Labour Party will not be aggressive enough in challenging the increase.
The design for issue 6 was more sombre. Perhaps reflecting the contents or possibly the budget. It seems to have been published in December 1972.
The cover story is on the conclusion of the trial of the Stoke Newington 8 “after 111 days and nearly £1,000,000 in costs”:
Hackney Gutter Press was concerned about the policing of the suspects, the safety of convictions and the wider implications of the use of conspiracy to imprison radicals. It called for James Greenfield, Anna Mendelssohn, John Barker and Hilary Creek (who were found guilty) to be regarded as political prisoners.
There are some reprints of the wildly lurid coverage of the trial from the tabloids:
Also in this issue:
Demonstration at the Town Hall against the implementation of the government’s Housing Finance Act.
Up The Squatters! 25 people squatting 4 houses in Dalston take on Second Actel Housing Association. Scenes of disorder in the courtroom. The case was thrown out, eviction staved off. Also a new squat at 98 Richmond Road E8.
Freedom of the Press? Or ideology of the State? on BBC and media bias.
Justice in Action – British Home Stores in Mare Street takes a 75 year old pensioner to court for allegedly nicking 16 pence worth of sweets.
Securicor – concern that private security firms will be used against protestors / poor people more generally.
Fight To Live – unemployment and the radical demand for an equal living income for all.
Hackney Dossers – survey of rough sleeping in the borough.
The back page has the usual contacts for radical and community organisations as well as a bold short piece slagging off a magistrate:
Also on the back page, a plea for assistance. with production and sale of the magazine. “The Gutter Press needs helpers if it is to keep going”. This looks like the last issue though. After this the paper merged with the more moderate Hackney Action to form the much longer running Hackney People’s Press.
The building in question was 27 Stamford Hill, which is now a posh nursery. It caught fire in the early hours of Wednesday 3rd June 1987, eight days before the general election.
The blaze severely damaged the three storey building used by Hackney North and Stoke Newington Conservative Association.
The fire started at at about 3 o’clock this morning and completely wrecked the second floor and the roof. Scotland Yard say traces of petrol were found on an internal staircase leading to the basement. Fire investigation officers are now sifting through the debris for more clues.
The Conservatives say valuable computer equipment was lost as well as 45,000 letters containing election literature that was being sent out to voters. They say they have received threats before.
Thames News – transcript of clip above. Reporter Christopher Rainbow
Chairman of the Conservative Party, Norman Tebbit arrived later that day for a press conference outside the building. He remarked on the wider context of anti-Tory violence during the campaign:
Not far from the gutted building in Stoke Newington is a billboard poster which someone has tried to burn down – and four vans displaying Tory posters were set alight near Vauxhall bridge four days ago.
Inspector Peter Turner went on:
A mob of youths damaged cars bearing Conservative stickers outside Stoke Newington Assembly Hall in nearby Church Street earlier in the evening. But we are not linking the two attacks at the moment.
The Gazette also noted that the Fire Brigade had evacuated women and children from the council-run hostel for single mothers next door.
2. Who was Oliver Letwin and how did he end up in Hackney?
Letwin was born in London in 1956. His parents were conservative academics. He went to Eton and then Cambridge University. After a few years of academia, he joined Margaret Thatcher’s Policy Unit in 1983.
It was Letwin who recommended that the hated Poll Tax be road-tested on Scotland before being inflicted on the rest of the population. (Hackney had its own Poll Tax Riot in 1990 and was number one for non-payment at one point.)
In 1985 he stated (in private correspondence only recently released under the 30 year rule) that the Broadwater Farm riot happened, not because of endemic police racism and poverty, but because of “individual… bad moral attitudes” – and that this was the reason black people were apparently more likely to riot than white people. Therefore these areas should not be invested in as this would “subsidise Rastafarian arts and crafts workshops” and black “entrepreneurs will set up in the disco and drug trade.”. He has since apologised for this.
I’ve not been able to find out how Oliver Letwin came to be selected as a Conservative Party candidate in 1987. He mentions in his autobiography that he left Downing Street the day he was selected, but he doesn’t say how that happened. What had Letwin done to piss people off so much that he was given one of the unsafest constituencies in England? Journalist Terry Coleman followed him around on the campaign trail: “In the streets a few people yelled at Mr Letwin to fuck off”. The Independent mentions that “he was chased down the street by a knifeman“.
3. What about the election?
Terry Coleman’s book Thatchers Britain is a travelogue covering the 1987 election. The chapter on Hackney is interesting for a number of reasons, but one of them is that Letwin’s voting base featured two distinct demographics. The first were orthodox Jews in Stamford Hill (where Hackney’s sole Conservative councillors are today). The second were people who would usually vote Labour but weren’t going to this time because of the party’s new candidate – Diane Abbott: “‘You see the colour of my face?’, said one elderly white man. ‘That’s where I’ll be voting'”.
Abbott and the SDP-Liberal Alliance candidate both condemned the arson attack in the HackneyGazette. These two clips show that a few days after the fire there was also vandalism against the Labour Party HQ and that of… Red Front.
The upper clip includes a classic Letwin gaffe: “I’m afraid it’s a very unpleasant place” [awkward pause] “to be campaigning”.
(Lefty trainspotter aside – Red Front was a brief electoral alliance between the middle class academics of the Revolutionary Communist Party and ultra-workerist anti-fascists Red Action. There is an excellent piece about Red Front at New Historical Express. Red Action have cropped up here previously because one of their members who lived in Stoke Newington was convicted for the 1993 IRA bomb attack on Harrods.)
The outcome of the 1987 election in Hackney North and Stoke Newington was definitive. Diane Abbott won with a 7,678 majority. She therefore became the first black woman to be elected to House of Commons and has remained in post ever since. Red Front got 228 votes.
4. So Whodunnit? (aka Wild Speculation)
As far as I’m aware nobody was ever charged with setting the fire, which has lead to some imaginative theories about the identity and motivation of the culprit.
Norman Tebbit was first out of the starting blocks at the press conference in front of the smouldering ruins:
One can only assume if it is arson it was an outrage perpetrated by the extreme Left. I don’t know whether by members of theLabour Party, or the SWP (Socialist Workers Party), or anything else. But what I do know is that all of us in democratic parties would deplore this sort of thing. I’m sure Mr Kinnock would deplore this extremely vigorously. I recollect his vigorous denunciation of violence during the coal strike.
Terry Coleman – Thatcher’s Britain: a journey through the promised lands (Bantam, 1987)
But there were much more dramatic suspects to point the finger at:
There was no real evidence of who did it. But just down the road, Anarchist posters were pasted on the walls. One said “Never Trust A Politician. They Always Lie”. Another, which showed a Rolls Royce being bashed in, said “Let’s Kick Out The Tories? Let’s Kick Them In”.
Terry Coleman – Thatcher’s Britain: A Journey through the Promised Lands (Bantam, 1987)
It’s undeniable that there was a huge counterculture of squatting and anarchist and animal liberation activism in Hackney throughout the 1980s. The account of the fly-posters seems real and people I have met reminisce fondly of consistent low level acts of violent subversion against Barclays Bank (hated for its investment in Apartheid South Africa), butchers’ shops etc. But glueing locks and a bit of fly-posting is several notches down from an arson attack on a major political party during an election, you’d think?
Letwin himself doesn’t hold back from speculating about the culprits in his autobiography:
As I came the next morning to the point on the road outside the headquarters, I could see that there was something wrong. Gradually, I focused on the fact that what was wrong was the headquarters building itself. Not to put too fine a point on it, the building wasn’t there any more. It- and all the hand-addressed election manifestoes within – had been burned to the ground.
It was considered to be a case of arson, and it seemed at least possible that whoever had done it might have been associated with, or perhaps inspired by, a now defunct organisation known as Class War. Class War (though not directly participating in the election on the grounds that elections were bourgeois conspiracies) had been campaigning actively under the perspicuous slogan “We will bomb, blast and burn every bourgeois out of Hackney”.
Oliver Letwin – Hearts and Minds: The Battle for the Conservative Party from Thatcher to the Present (Biteback Publishing, 2017)
It’s also undeniable that Class War were all over Hackney in 1987. Indeed, the edition of the Hackney Gazette which has the fire as its cover story also features, coincidentally, a full page article on Class War and its anti-yuppie campaign. Which itself raises an interesting issue with Letwin’s accusations above.
The language in Letwin’s quoted Class War slogan is a bit off – and I have not been able to find a source for it other than his book. Class War was infamous for its “tabloid” approach to propaganda and its unlikely that they would have used the word “bourgeois” – directing their bile instead at yuppies, cops and the rich. Similarly “bomb, blast and burn” seems like an incitement to individual terror that was out of step with the organisation’s fetishism for collective working class violence (like rioting) – and their understandable desire not to get nicked for incitement.
Also, oddly for anarchists, Class War did actually stand a candidate in the 1988 Kensington by-election – and more recently put up seven candidates in the 2015 general election.
I remain unconvinced that “people associated with” Class War in particular, or non-specific anarchists in general, burned down the Hackney Tory HQ in 1987. I think that’s a bit of neat scapegoating and misjudges the often wide gap between insurrectionary propaganda and actual anarchist deeds. Mind you, I doubt there were many anarchists who were upset by it at the time.
Just as plausible non-anarchist options:
Far right? Letwin is Jewish and as we have seen, ten years earlier fascists were trying to burn down Centerprise.
Disgruntled party activist? Being a Hackney Tory must bring its own tensions and internal disputes and who I am to discount an “inside job”?
Criminal/insurance? The front cover headline of the Hackney Gazette the week after was “Man Dies In Shop Blaze” which the paper feels could have been part of “a string of arson attacks” on empty shop properties in Dalston.
One of the countless victims of eight years of Thatcherism? The circle of suspicion would be quite wide in an increasingly impoverished borough, where Tories are told to fuck off in street or chased by knife-wielding assailants.
Each issue included listings for community and political groups which make fascinating reading.
Here are some other highlights from 1977:
Issue 23‘s cover includes some dizzying references to price increases – Hackney People’s Press itself undergoing a two pence increase to 7p – and unhappiness about the rent on Hackney’s 26,000 Council homes going up by £2.50 a week. Whilst inflation means that these increases were fairly dramatic at the time, what is more interesting is that people felt that price increases should be apologised for – or resisted. These days they are often seen as a natural phenomenon like rain or the sun rising. Indeed the centre pages include a detailed account of several Labour councillors resigning – or being expelled – from Hackney Labour over protesting the rent rises.
Other bits in this issue:
An expose of the prospective GLC election candidate for Hackney Liberal Party, his connections with the National Front and views on immigration.HPP congratulates John Pilger on his cover story for the Daily Mirror on the state of Hackneys hospitals – including “fungus on the walls”
Hackney Women’s Aid open a new refuge.
Chats Palace – a new community centre in Brooksby’s Walk
Hackney Law Centre – a critical review of its first year.
An emergency supplement about the prosecutions under the Official Secrets Act that would become known as the ABC Trial. Crispin Aubrey, a founder of HPP, was one of the three journalists prosecuted.
Finally, a great cartoon on the back page encouraging people to get involved:
Issue 24 lead with a story on the forthcoming GLC elections and included a handy centre-spread on who not to vote for (National Front). Joan Margaret Morgan, Labour candidate for Hackney South was campaigning on a platform including “A Chelsea – Hackney Tube line” which sounds a bit like the Dalston Overground (opened 2010):
Also in this issue:
“March Against Beynon’s Bill – Tory MP (and Hackney property owner) William Beynon wanted to restrict the upper limit to abortion to 20 weeks. (It is usually 24 weeks at the moment)
Hackney Homeworkers organise
More on Crispin Aubrey’s official secrets prosecution
Rio Cinema – “a concerted effort is being made to buy the Rio Cinema in Kingsland High Street. The idea is to turn it into a Centre for the arts and entertainment for the people who live in and around Hackney”
Hackney Marsh Festival
“Winkling” – property developers putting pressure on tenants to vacate
A letter from the allegedly racist Liberal Party member exposed in the previous issue
Concern about plans for a new lorry park in the borough
Friends of the Earth campaign for more allotments
Expansion of Haggerston Park – could some of it be given over to Gypsies?
The main story in issue 25 was a report on a demonstration opposing an election meeting held by the National Front in Shoreditch School on 30th April. At the time schools and other council buildings were obliged to allow their use for election rallies. An advert for the meeting in the Hackney Gazette lead to a walkout of journalists. Teachers, parents and other locals picketed the meeting. According to Dave Renton (in Never Again: Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League 1976-1982), there were about 500 protestors. Later that summer the NF would face serious protests when attempting to march through Lewisham.
Also in this issue:
Squatters under attack by the council free-sheet The Hackney Herald. The council rep interviewed by HPP doesn’t want to comment on how many empty homes there were in Hackney at the time.
Tenants on Morningside Estate getting a raw deal in the run up to the widening of Morning Lane.
Tenants on Frampton Park win control of their own community centre.
Looking back on the Metropolitan Hospital 1836-1977.
The September issue (the last of the bi-monthlies) leads with an arson attack on Centerprise – just two days after the National Front tried and failed to march through Lewisham.The article mentions other attacks on community bookshops at the time. Six weeks previously the shop had been vandalised with racist slogans and the locks glued.
“After Lewisham” on the anti-NF protest and its implications.
Critical support for the council’s “Health in Hackney” guide, distributed to all households – but reservations about funding cuts and rundown facilities
Fire Station on Brooke Road, Stoke Newington to become a community centre
An epidemic of apathy at Hackney Hospital Radio
Evening classes – Hackney Workers Educational Association
“Hackney Gasbag” – 8 page insert produced by Hackney children – squatting, hooliganism, skateboarding, Centerprise, National Union of School Students, Hackney history, live music reviews, puzzles, fashion – all the good things in life, basically.
November marked the first tabloid edition of HPP in a new monthly format – along with an apology for another price rise, up to 10 pence! The cover featured Hackney’s biggest march against racism and the National Front. This would be a long (and of course ongoing) battle – the NF opened up its National HQ in Shoreditch in the following year.
Homelessness – proposal for the formation of Hackney Community Housing Action Group to survey empty homes in the borough
Lead stories on the Fireman’s strike, the council collaborating with anti-abortion hostel on Kyverdale Road, Stoke Newington, the possibility of a £5m grant for Hackney and Islington from central government – HPP is sceptical of the council’s ability to seize this opportunity.
Cuts to pensioners organisation, Task Force, homelessness, criticism of John Pilger’s coverage of Hackney hospitals (also notes that the infant mortality rate in Hackney was 25% higher than the national average – “a crime against the people of Hackney”). Looking back at the first year of the Food For All on Cazenove Road (still there!) and the opening of a Womens Centre in the same building. Kids review comics.