For nerds like me there are a bunch of things that could be added – and it will be fascinating to see how the project develops now its been launched.
Tue 28 Feb, 18.30-19.30: Hackney History have a talk at Hackney Archives on “Serious Money and Hackney: Urban explorer Caroline Knowles explores how finance has taken up residence in Hackney & Shoreditch. What does this mean for those who live there?” (Free)
Hackney Counci’s Housing Department was haven to a host of dodgy dealings in the early 1990s. A number of staff were involved with handing over keys to vacant council flats for cash payments.
The same department had a dubious history – it was also embroiled in a scandal about racism in 1984, after which much seemed to have been done to improve things in that respect.
At least 40 council flats across the borough were fraudulently marked as uninhabitable by council staff and then offered to friends and acquaintances for cash payment. (Later estimates suggest 50 flats on Woodberry Down Estate alone). Rent on these flats was then collected by the same staff using bogus rent books.
Alongside this, housing benefit was fraudulently claimed by council staff for bed and breakfast accomodation that was not being used.
Squall magazine estimated that bent council staff had pocketed £20million from all this.
According to MP Diane Abbott, Hackney had “41,000 tenants, 8,000 people on the waiting list and 3,000 homeless.” in March 1991. As well as the highest number of (supposedly) “void” flats in the country…
How it was exposed by a squatter
Text below from Hackney Heckler #10 December 1991:
“Keys for cash” was exposed by a squatter living on Woodberry Down Estate, who was convinced the council were evicting squatters. on the estate illegally.
He became suspicious of the fact that once a tenant left a flat, notices appeared immediately on the doors with a named “Protected Intended Occupier” (PIO). ‘How often is the council efficient enough to fill an empty straight away?’ he asks himself. He then noticed what were meant to be council workers arriving to do up empty flats at 5am in the morning and leaving by 7am!
The only people who seemed to be getting housed were young single men. To find out for sure, he went to the area housing office saying he was the brother to one of those named as a PIO and asked for the keys to the flat. In this way he managed to get the keys and rent books to five flats on the estate!
He decided to contact Janet Jones the then Director of Housing. He told her what he knew, giving her copies of the false PlOs and rent books. She assured him she would look into the whole affair.
However it was obvious he knew too much. A few days later he was confronted in his local pub by three men who offered him £800 and a council flat for life if he returned the keys and rent books and kept his mouth shut. He refused.
At 3am that night they smashed their way into his flat. Rushing into the nearest room where his girlfriend was asleep, they attacked her with baseball bats, only stopping when the man they were after ran at them with a crowbar. The police and ambulance were called as the woman was badly injured in the attack. The police were far from sympathetic, no statement was taken with one of the officers saying “we know what’s going on here, and we can understand if you want to do something about it yourself.”
He tried to get back in touch with Janet Jones who never seemed to be prepared to talk with him. He finally managed to see her, and again told her all he knew including the attack on him and his girlfriend. She seemed very flustered and said she would look into it and contact him in a couple of days. The next thing he heard she had left her £50,000 a year post and was living in Brazil! He decided to tell all he knew to Liberal councillor Colin Beadle who duly contacted the police and media. So that is how the cat got out of the bag!
It is worth remembering that Hackney Council was extremely hostile to squatters in the late 1980s and 1990s – there a numerous references to them occupying housing that could be given to families and those supposedly more in need of the universal right to a roof over their heads. The council boasted of its huge initiative to evict over 3,000 people from all of its squatted properties by April 1992. (By 1993, there were an estimated 1,152 squatters in Hackney which is a serious reduction. We were still number one in the country though!)
Whilst the squatters were being presented as evil incarnate, council staff were trousering filthy lucre from letting out the very flats they were supposed to be allocating to those in need…
…and ultimately it was whistleblowing by a squatter that put a stop to the corruption!
What happened next?
I’ve not found comprehensive information abot this, but at least 13 staff were suspended and at least five were sacked after a council investigation costing £250,000.
The Hackney Heckler noted that management were treated very differently from frontline workers in the investigation:
A Mr D Evans, manager in the Hall lettings department was found to be pocketing £1,000s to supplement his bloated salary. According to the report “the police treated the matter as a normal case of theft, issuing the individual with a warning”! He later left his job with no disciplinary hearing, promising to pay back the cash.
Compare this to another case where a housing benefit worker claimed housing benefit from another borough by failing to disclose his employment. He was arrested and charged by the police and sacked by the council. A typical example of the police and council working together, protecting the fat cats at the top while those at the bottom carry the can.
Hackney heckler #10 December 1991
The hostile tone of the investigation was met with resistance from the staff – a hundred of them staged a walkout. This was followed by a one day strike of 500 staff members.
A number of families who may (or may not) have gained council flats in good faith were evicted.
The council then proposed a rent increase of £15 a week, presumably to try and recover some of the costs of all this.
In 1995 the acting CEO of the council stated that:
In the past five years the council has sacked 110 employees for fraud- related offences, and successfully prosecuted 24.
In the case of job fraud, an investigation of all staff who had joined the housing directorate in the previous two years was begun in November 1993. Of 352 employees investigated, 11 were subsequently dismissed, two resigned and one died who would have been sacked. Two are suspended pending disciplinary action.
Mike craig “ANOTHER VIEW; Hackney’s fraud squad” in the independent
There are a number of press cuttings about “cash for keys” below, which are all culled from the scrapbook of Hackney Community Defence Association for 1991, which Mark Metcalf has generously uploaded to his site.
The council outsourced its housing dept to Hackney Housing in 2006. This “Arms Length Management Organisation” was then rocked by a corruption scandal in 2015, before being taken back in-house. Seven staff were sacked and eight resigned. Throughout the 1990s and noughties a number of Hackney council estates were handed over to housing associations…
“Cutting libraries during a recession is like cutting hospitals during a plague.”
Eleanor Crumblehulme (Library Assistant, University of British Columbia, Canada)
Hackney Library staff will be on strike on Tuesday and Thursday this week because of the Council’s plans to make 19 of them redundant. There will be pickets at Dalston CLR James Library, Dalston Lane and Hackney Central, Mare Street, so please go and show your support.
Libraries are more than bricks, mortar and books. I’ve generally found Hackney Library staff to be very helpful with my often quite esoteric queries and their curation has been spot on over the years. I’ve often stumbled across a random book which has made my day and their CD selection helped to keep me sane during a skint patch after my daughter was born some decades ago…
Whenever there is a financial crunch, libraries are the acceptable bit of public services the Council feels can be diminished or dispensed with. But people feel passionately about protecting these community assets, so there is always resistance. It’s important to remember that the libraries we have today only exist because of the struggles of previous generations.
Previously, in “the fight to save Hackney Libraries”
1988: 3 Libraries Occupied for 6 Months
In December 1987 the Council proposed to cut four libraries, two out of three reference libraries and the Schools Project Loan Service. After a series of protests, there was an occupation of three of the libraries planned for the chop on 11th of March. (Howard Road, Somerford Grove, Goldsmiths Row).
Meetings and cultural events were organised in the occupied premises and local estates were leafletted to raise awareness. Library staff continued to work in the occupied Libraries.
In June the Council took the occupiers to court. The hearing was preceded by a mass walk out of council staff which apparently “shut down every white collar intensive service”.
The court awarded the council a repossession order. But this was not acted on until September, when a series of battles took place:
“The time of the eviction was obtained by the simple ruse of ringing the bailiff’s office and pretending to be from the Council. So when the bailiffs, and eventually, eight coppers turned up at Goldsmiths Row Library in Haggerston at about 7:50am on Friday 9th September they found a building filled with 50 people and a picket of 30 outside… they withdrew.”
“Promising to return in an hours time, they then cased Somerford Grove Library where there were about 100 people including TV crews… at this point the Council apparently called the operation off”
“Bookworm revolt” – direct action issue 52
Bailiffs returned to the libraries at 3am on Thursday 22nd September and smashed the doors in, evicting the occupiers. A protest took place later in the day at the Town Hall.
Two of the libraries were then reoccupied:
There was a third and final set of evictions on Friday 30th September at 1am, which resulted in two arrests. The three libraries were then permanently closed.
Thanks to Neil Transpontine for the scans from City Limits above. Other sources used:
The old Library that used to stand here was closed in the 1990s. It was squatted in late 1995 (or early 1996), by Hackney Squatters Collective (“with our usual finesse – crowbar through the window”… “hiding quietly while cops shone their torches though the big glass doors just after we cracked it”) who had previously run great squat centres in Mildmay Park, 67a Stoke Newington Road, and the Arch refugee squat (directly opposite the latter), and went on to occupy (and save from demolition) London Fields Lido. One of the soundest bunches of people you’re ever likely to meet.
One of the old collective offered some recollections: “The library was made use of by various groups from the local Finsbury Park Action Group to Class War. Most significant for us was Reclaim The Streets (who at the time we thought were a bunch of crazy hippies), however we would go on to become irresistably entwined.
While we continued our open cafe and bar social nights, Zapatista benefit gigs etc, Peter Kenyon (local Labour scumbag), sent out letters to the neighbourhood declaring that as soon as the squatters had been evicted he would ‘return’ the place to the community. Being a politician, he lied.”
Another recalled “late nights, drinking too much, good friends, Victor’s Spanish punk band rehearsing, games nights, xmas and birthday parties, cold (until we turned the gas on), repairing the roof, getting pissed off with people who just treated the place as a late night drinking club and repopulating the library with books from Middlesex Poly…
There was also a ceilidh held jointly with a local community group who wanted to see the library put back into use, though possibly not quite in the way that we were doing it…”
The Library was a great centre, the local campaigners that had tried to save the library and wanted it re-opened were mostly supportive, there were weekly cafes, regular events, benefits, meetings. Always a friendly atmosphere, kids everywhere… Accessible to all. It lasted about three and a half years, and was evicted by the council. Who then left it empty again despite local campaigns for the library to reopen. Bleuugh.
In 2008-9 the place was squatted again for a while, but later that year work began to demolish it and build housing.
I would recommend Past Tense’s London Rebel History Calendar 2023, which is available online and from all good radical bookshops in London.
Defending Hackney Libraries in the 21st Century
At the turn of the Century, Hackney Council bankrupted itself by purchasing a dysfunctional computer system (ITNet) for its housing benefit payments. To balance the books a huge sell off of community assets was planned including nurseries, council owned properties (most infamously Tony’s Cafe on Broadway Market) and of course several libraries, including Clapton. My recollection is that all the threatened libraries survived this particular battle.
Following the global financial crisis of 2008, the UK government launched a brutal austerity assault on public spending with severe cuts to local government budgets. In Hackney this resulted in yet another proposal to reduce library services which was opposed by Save Hackney Libraries. The campaign resulted in some significant concessions from the council.
This is probably just the tip of the iceberg – if you can remember other campaigns to save Hackney Libraries, please leave a comment.
And do what you can to support the current protests!
Bonus feature: Radical meetings at Hackney Libraries
There is a long history of Hackney Libraries hosting radical events too, with meetings by the Suffragettes and the Women’s Freedom League and radical communist theatre performances by Hackney Peoples Players being held at Stoke Newington Library alone in the early 20th Century alone.
It’s a mixed legacy though…
Also bad things…
If you wanted to be scab during the 1926 General Strike, the library was where to go:
Strikebreaking was enthusiastically encouraged by Hackney Borough Council, now no longer in Labour hands. Right from the start they issued a notice calling for volunteers to man essential services. An office was opened in the public library opposite the Town Hall where strikebreakers could sign on and this was kept open from 9am to 8pm.
In September 1981 a Council meeting was severely disrupted by Hackney Ethnic Minorities Library Consultative Committee who felt that they weren’t getting anywhere with the issues they were raising with the Council about inclusivity and removing racist and sexist material from the stock. (Hackney Peoples Press October 1981 – front page).
There was a marked improvement after this protest, and it is notable that in 1985 Dalston Library was renamed the CLR James Library in honour of the Trinidadian born writer and political activist Cyril Lionel Robert James. During the redevelopment of Dalston Square, there was some indignation that the relocated library would not retain the name, but sense prevailed. (On a more personal note, a lot of my self-education in black history was through books from Hackney Libraries).
The Radical History of Hackney site sprung out of some conversations with some younger friends of mine. I was trying to explain some of the events of the 1970s and 1980s I’d heard about. They looked at me a bit sceptically, so I promised I’d send them some links. But there were no links to be had. Just my fading memories.
With the help of the comrades at 56A Infoshop I scanned in some old newsletters. But that didn’t really do it all justice. So I started writing and researching and following up links and one thing led to another.
And now there are links about a multitude of struggles, strugglers, victories, defeats and inspiring events on this site. And it’s been gratifying to see people engaging with the various stories here and linking to them or citing them in their own writing. Perhaps one thing that’s missing is telling these stories in a cohesive and non-nerdy manner. Bringing it all together in one entertaining package that is easily digestable. Like a novel maybe.
White Riot is a crime novel set in Hackney from 1978-1983. The crime is primarily committed by the police.
The book draws extensively on material from this site AND is a gripping read. The author does an incredible job of bringing the various strands and events to life – The Rock Against Racism carnival in Victoria Park, the National Front HQ in Hoxton, the death of Colin Roach, the drugs trade and cops, old pubs of Hackney, music, it’s all kicking off here.
I especially liked the way that the same events were looked at by different characters – a downtrodden Hackney Council bureaucrat (who may be based on the author’s Father), a radical female photographer who lives in squats, an anti-racist cop, a Turkish teenager and a Spycop.
About a third into the book my trainspotter tendencies were defeated. I stopped trying to figure out which documents things were from and just enjoyed the unfolding plotline.
I have no doubt that people who were around in the timeframe will have some criticisms of the way that things are described, as do I. For example I think the Spycop is portrayed too heroically given the wideranging testimony of the havoc that these police officers have unleashed on people’s lives – although it is possible this side of things may be dealt with in greater detail in future instalments, as White Riot is the first of a trilogy.
But creating a space for these criticisms to be made is good. One of the valuable things about the book is drawing attention to the struggles of the past and what lessons can be learned from them.
I’m excited to see how the story is received and what conversations can be had about the subject matter.
The book includes some useful notes and bibliography which clarifies which parts of the story are fictionalised and what sources are used.
White Riot is published by Arcadia Books on 19th January. You can pre-order it through Pages of Hackney.
The Stoke Newington 8 Defence Group was an organisation set up in 1971 in solidarity with the eight people arrested in connection with the Angry Brigade bombings. This post looks at the activities of the defence group through its publications.
During 1971 and 1972 dozens, if not hundreds, of people were raided or arrested in connection with the Angry Brigade bombings of targets as diverse as a BBC van outside the Miss World competition/meat market, Barclays Bank in Stoke Newington, the Department of Employment and Productivity (the day after a big protest against the Tory Industrial Relations Bill), the homes of two cabinet Ministers, the building hosting the Metropolitan Police’s new computer, and fashionable clothing boutique Biba. Nobody was killed or seriously injured as a result of these bombings.
Jake Prescott was the first to have his collar felt, in February 1971. The following December he was sentenced to 15 years, for conspiracy to cause explosions – i.e. his handwriting on some envelopes used to send the Angry Brigade’s eviscerating communiques.
Ian Purdie was arrested in March 1971, but later acquitted. There are a few scans of posters and leaflets from the Ian Purdie and Jake Prescott Defence campaign here.
Speaking to the Guardian from his Hackney home in 2002, Jake reflected:
“‘As the only working-class member, I was not surprised to be the first in and last out of prison. When I look back on it, I was the one who was angry and the people I met were more like the Slightly Cross Brigade.”
The most high profile arrests took place in August 1971, including the notorious raid on 359 Amhurst Road, Stoke Newington. The accused would become known as the Stoke Newington 8:
(Weir went on to be Angela Mason, who rose to fame as director of the LGBT rights charity Stonewall.)
It’s worth pointing out that a number of other raids and arrests happened before, during and after August 1971.
An extensive defence campaign was swiftly organised, which John Barker characterised as:
“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.”
I’ve made a number of scans of SN8 Defence Group material available at archive.org
Conspiracy Notes issue 4, a 16 page booklet with a useful chronology of events. (This also scanned by Sparrows Nest). This also contains some examples of the Angry Brigade’s infamous communiques claiming responsibility for bombings:
I’ve previously transcribed a copy of Stoke Newington 8 Defence Group: A Political Statement, which seems to have been published at some point between February and May 1972:
There is also PDF of that here. This is a rallying call in defence of the arrestees that sets the trial in the wider political context of repression of the time:
“If we are to survive as a movement, we need to do more than just mouth polite phrases of support and outrage in the underground columns as one of us is sent down for fifteen years: this is what happened to Jake. We cannot shout in defence of comrades who are political prisoners in other corners of the world while remaining blind to the fact that eight brothers and sisters, after a year of imprisonment and house arrest will be appearing alone in the dock at the Old Bailey in June in a confrontation with the state, that is, unless we say:
that those who are captured are a part of us — they have our total support. that those the state accuses of political offences belong to our movement which itself, and itself alone, is responsible for its actions.“
If You Want Peace Prepare For War is a longer document, also from 1972 which I’ve typed up here and scanned as a PDF here. It was also republished in 2020 by See Red Press recently, with a new introduction I had some mixed feelings about. If You Want Peace is more confrontational in tone than the Political Statement above:
“What happened to Prescott, and what is in danger of happening to the SN8, cannot be dismissed as isolated acts of repression against maverick sections of the left. The present large-scale operations of persecution which have been going on for the past two years only make sense as an exercise in CONTAINMENT. They are intended as a deterrent against any sort of active resistance undertaken by people on the left, inside or outside left parties.”
The trial of the Stoke Newington 8 concluded on December 6th 1972. It had been the longest criminal trial in British legal history. The outcome was as follows:
John Barker (10 years)
Chris Bott (acquitted)
Stuart Christie (acquitted)
Hilary Creek (10 years)
Jim Greenfield (10 years)
Kate McLean (acquitted)
Anna Mendelssohn (10 years)
Angela Weir (acquitted)
Jake Prescott’s sentence was also reduced to 10 years at this point.
The campaign did not stop there. The Stoke Newington 8 Defence Group organised a march on Wormwood Scrubs ten days after the trial concluded:
Campaigning for people who have been convicted is a harder job than when they are on trial. Release The Five makes a number of valid points though:
None of the five werre actually convicted of the bombings. They were convicted on charges of “conspiring to cause explosions likely to endanger life or cause serious injury to property”, which isn’t the same thing. (For example Jake Prescott being convicted of addressing some some envelopes in which communiques were posted).
The sentences were much more severe than those handed out to people convicted of racist and fascist bombings during the same period.
The four acquittals showed that the police work was questionable in many instances:
“The unsatisfactory nature of the verdicts was also demonstrated іп the acquittal of Stuart Christie on all possession charges, thus strongly implying that the jury believed he had been planted with detonators by the same police officers that it is claimed planted Amhurst Road.”
Christie was for a time the most famous anarchist in the UK, having been jailed in Spain for his part in a plot to assassinate fascist dictator General Franco. He died in 2020 and there is a useful online archive dedicated to him at Mayday Rooms which includes over 100 pages of press cuttings about the Angry Brigade trial.
The Stoke Newington Five Solidarity Committee was based at 54 Harcombe Road, London N16.
“The Stoke Newington Defence Group” organised a “teach-in” about the trial and the prisoners in February 1973. Acquitted defendants from the case were due to attend…
Those convicted served a varying number of years in prison. John Barker later reflected:
“In 1971-72 I was convicted in the Angry Brigade trial and spent 7 years in jail. In my case, the police framed a guilty man.”
Conversely Anna Mendleson continued to maintain her innocence. According to Wikipedia she was:
“quietly released on parole in November 1976, just four years after the end of the trial. Her father gave an interview to BBC Radio explaining that prison had had a terrible effect on her, making it impossible for her to concentrate. He also said that she had taken no part in the bombings and that she and the other defendants were ‘good young people’ who tried to help others.”
Dan Taylor suggests that people involved with the Stoke Newington.8 Defence Group continued to work in similar fields:
“Members of the defence group would become involved in the Up Against the Law collective with several publications over 1972-75, and involvement in other justice campaigns, like the ‘Free George Ince’ and ‘Free George Davis’ campaigns (the latter memorably sabotaging The Ashes of 1975 by destroying the turf at Headingley), as well as assisting the work of PROP [Preservation of the Rights of Prisoners] and the Claimants Unions.”
Inevitably the Stoke Newington 8 Defence Group came to the attention of Spycops, but as far as I am aware, there is no evidence of actual infiltration of the group. Indeed the closest seems to be attending the December 16th march and an undercover officer picking up some literature at a feminst meeting:
Having cited the Angry Brigade as one of her true targets, she was asked about her reporting on them.
Davies had reported attending a women’s liberation conference in 1972. She wrote that one woman associated with the Angry Brigade gave out copies of their ‘Conspiracy Notes’. The ‘Stoke Newington 8’ – a group of people facing serious charges connected with the Angry Brigade – were reaching out to other radical groups at the time for support.
The meeting was reported as chaotic, with calls for better structure to the discussion being heckled by Gay Liberation Front activists.
That appears to be the extent of her reporting on the Angry Brigade.
The John Barker quotes in this article are all from his excellent review of Tom Vague’s book on the Angry Brigade. This remains one of the best things to read on the subject. There is a great two part interview with him by Working Class History podcast too.
A slightly exasperated/exhausted Hilary Creek and Anna Mendelssohn were interviewed (in a prison garden?) for a World In Action documentary, first broadcast on the day after the trial finished. It is currently on Youtube here.
The Angry Brigade: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Britain’s First Urban Guerilla Group is a feature length documentary first broadcast in January 1973. It is currently on Youtube here. It includes interviews with people involved with the SN8 Defence Group at the 32 and 47 minutes mark.
This events programme for Hackney Women’s Centre Lesbian Group is typical of some of the social events programmes and flyers which we have throughout the archive. It illustrates the wide range of social activities that these groups promoted amongst the women that used those spaces. Flyers like this are often interesting because they can often underline the intersectional approaches to organising that feminist and lesbian spaces often tried to institute around building access for wheelchair users, childcare facilities and language interpretation.
Glasgow women’s library
I also like that the events are social rather than overtly political – precisely because in the 1980s lesbians socialising together would haven been a political act in itself in many ways.
Hackney Women’s Centre appears to have been based at 27 Hackney Grove E8 and then at 20 Dalston Lane E8 around 1984/5.
The Centre’s origins stretch back to at least 1981, with this call to action in Hackney People’s Press:
The group seems to have prioritised a feminist approach to the entire project – the commitment in the article above was matched by ensuring the premises were accessible to disabled women.
Similarly, the renovation of the Dalston Lane property was overseen by Matrix Feminist Design Co-operative – an feminist architecture co-op who were also based in Dalston at the time:
There is an interesting post about their work on Hackney Women’s Centre at Matrix Open Feminist Architecture Archive including a scan of some pages from a brochure about the renovations needed at the 20 Dalston Lane building.
In “Evaluating Matrix: note from inside the collective” Julia Dwyer and Anne Thorne note that not all of the GLC funded women’s centres were as successful as the Hackney one:
Matrix was involved in projects for Hackney, Brixton and Bermondsey. Of these, only one, Hackney Women’s Centre, was built. The borough council had made a rundown shop building on Dalston Lane available, and much of the limited funds for building work went into repairing it before it could be converted for use: here the kitchen, built by women joiners, was at the heart of the social space, and as much of the building as possible was made accessible for disabled people.
Alongside the technical renovations and building work, the Centre commissioned some lovely stained glass by femalie artist Anna Conti and the photos on her site are the only tantalising glimpse of the interior of the Centre I have been able to find:
The flyer below gives a flavor of the sort of activies that the organising group were hoping the Centre would be able to offer. And of course there is the inevitable mail box at Centerprise!
Aside from the Hackney Lesbian Group flyer at the top of this post, I’ve not found a huge amount of material on what actually happened at the Centre after it opened. There are some interesting adverts in the Black Lesbian and Gay Centre Project newsletter from 1988 and 1990:
The longevity of these events suggest that the Centre was able to maintain the commitment to intersectionality noted by Glasgow Women’s Library.
Inevitably it was not all plain sailing, as is evident from this unpleasant exchange of letters between the Pan African Congress Group and the Centre. They concern an argument over a group obtaining a Malcolm X tape which is mainly about homophobia in the black community:
It appears that Hackney Women’s Centre was in operation until at least 1993. A lot of organisations that had been supported by the GLC struggled to maintain funding beyond this point. (Although it is worth noting that London Irish Women’s Centre was at 59 Stoke Newington Church Street until 2012).
The Centre appears in several novels: “Calendar Girl” by Stella Duffy (1994), “Hello Mr Bones” by Patrick McCabe (2013) and “All Girl Live Action” by Sara Faith Tibbs (2015)
If you have any memories of Hackney Women’s Centre – or access to archival material, stories, people relating to it, please leave a comment below.
Sources and further reading
Petrescu, D. (ed.) (2007) AlteringPractices: Feminist Politics and Poetics ofSpace, New York and London: Routledge – includes “Evaluating Matrix: note from inside the collective” Julia Dwyer and Anne Thorne.
Grace Quah – Beyond the Home: Re-evaluating feminist representations of domestic space through contemporary cinema (Thesis for Bartlett School of Architecture, 2017) – available on academia.edu
Norman and Gerald Jacobs were both members of legendary Jewish anti-fascist organisation The 43 Group. Any more information on the excellent Mrs Rae Sims would be very welcome.
Alt text for the visually impaired and search engines:
PC Pushed Her – So She Hit Him
PASSING through Dalston, London, during a Fascist meeting on her way to visit relatives, Mrs. Rae Sims was pushed by a policeman. She hit him.
“She was a bit annoyed because she could not get through,” said her counsel at North London yesterday. “She is not a politician.’
Mrs. Sims was stated to have said: “Do you think I’m afraid of a — policeman?” and given him a blow that was “more of a scrabble” on the mouth. She was fined £2.
Norman Jacobs, 22, and Gerald Jacobs. 19, charged with insulting behaviour, were said to have flung tomatoes at the “British League of Ex-Servicemen” speaker in Ridley Road on Sunday. Police Sergeant Davis said that a crowd of 50 “surged forward” shouting “Out with the Fascist rats,” and threw tomatoes, apples, potatoes and electric light bulbs. Both Jacobs were fined £15.
from the 1985 Women Against Pit Closures anthology of children’s writing, More Valuable Than Gold. Welcome to the Notts miners We put a big sign up in the hall of our school and it said, ‘Welcome to the Notts Miners’. We had Punch and Judy, Doctor Smarty Pants and a big party in the hall. The miners’ children came and we played. One boy had a funny badge. It was a little clown saying, ‘If Thatcher gets up your nose, picket.’ Some of the children said they weren’t allowed to talk about the strike in their school. The newspapers said our school put little children out on the street for Arthur Scargill, which is silly. Then an inspector came to our schools, and the teachers were worried. There shouldn’t be any inspectors – all the children and all the grown-ups in the school should be the inspectors.
Christine contacted me to ask whether I’d be interested in a scan of Hackney Womens’ Paper – a publication she had been involved with producing in 1972. And of course I was!
The Paper includes invaluable first person accounts from women about their experiences at Hackney Hospital and some demands for better treatment and conditions:
Alongside this, there are some great insights into the paternalistic/patriarchal views of Doctors, and analysis and commentary on contraception, welfare provision, health & class and the effects of proposed Council rent increases on women. And some sharp asides on everyday life for women in the early 1970s:
I think it holds up really well in 2022.
The scan of Hackney Womens Paper #1 that Christine kindly provided has now been uploaded to archive.org so you can read it cover to cover for yourselves.
Christine also agreed to have a chat with me over Zoom about her time in Hackney. We talked about Hackney Womens Paper, communes, squatting, healthcare and a whole lot more…
How and when did you end up in Hackney?
I went to India overland in 1969 when I was 20, as many young people did those days. On the way back, I met two guys having breakfast in a railway station. We got talking, they were architecture students from Cambridge university who had dropped out, which was what I was also doing.
And they wanted to start a commune. It ended up being in Hackney, Hackney Wick. We bought a house in Hackney for something like £6,000 pounds. A four-story Victorian house with a big garden, near to Victoria Park.
We moved in there in the autumn of 1970 and lived there for a couple years or so. These were heady times. It started with six of us and a plan of sharing everything. Soon lots of other people were turning up, and coming to live in the house, going in and out of the house, having meetings. We had lots of radical ideas but only slowly asked ourselves “what exactly are we doing here?”
Well, that was going to be one of my questions. Was it already an overtly politicised thing, or just simply a convenient way to live – or was it both?
I guess it was different for different people. Basically, we were idealistic, some were more politicised than others. We all knew there was definitely something not working with society and the world as it was. So much injustice and inequality. I can’t remember exactly the basis of the politics at that time, it was fairly eclectic but we definitely thought that we could live together and share everything and there was a political aspect to that. I’d never particularly thought of myself as political – but I used to hang out with some ‘anarchists’ when I was at university…
There was “flower power” and there were hippies. Actually, where I first became more politically aware was through Civil Rights movement in the US and then the Vietnam War and Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist teacher – reading his poems in Peace News. When you are, 17, 18, 19, there’s sort of real energy, where you really see the suffering and want to do something, help people, see a change….
I had been to a Bob Dylan concert in 1964 when I was 14 and what he was singing really touched me and changed my life in a way. So I was political, but it wasn’t like I was a ‘Marxist’ or a “this” or a “that”. What did we call ourselves? I don’t know, libertarians maybe. And by the 70’s, the women’s movement was also coming up – “consciousness raising” groups!
Were those groups held in your commune?
No, that tended to be something that the women from the house went and did with other groups of women. But we held women’s meetings at the commune too. Interestingly, looking back, we had this idealistic naivety, to think that we could just all go in and share everything. We’d all had fairly middle-class backgrounds and didn’t know what was hitting us [laughs]. It went right up against our habits.
So, doing it became quite difficult, I guess? In the way that communal living throws up all sorts of psychological, economic and political issues. You said you stayed there for a couple of years. Is that why you left?
No, that wasn’t why I left. It was why it was psychologically difficult. We had lots of great times too. There was a wonderful big round handmade table, we used to cook meals together, we renovated the house, grew vegetables, there was always something happening, people coming and going. I moved on because I wanted to focus more on community action.
There was another similar commune nearby, in Grosvenor Avenue, which was much more politically orientated. Some of the guys there had also been in Cambridge with the people that I was with. It was the same tendency you might say.
Absolutely. I saw a talk recently by some of the Grosvenor Avenue people. Some of them disrupted the Miss World contest at the Albert Hall in 1970…
And I remember watching it on telly knowing it was going to happen. It was incredible.
So maybe that leads us onto the context of producing Hackney Women’s Paper. It sounds like it was a natural reaction to the experiences people were having. But in a way, putting something out there – putting pen to paper and printing things is a bit of a step up from what might be a quite insular communal world? So how did it come about and how was it received?
Just to say one other thing about the atmosphere of those times. There had been a Dustmen strike in Hackney and one night we got word “the people in the flats have put all the rubbish out on the road”. So we headed straight down to Cassland Road and there’s lots of people around and there was loads of the rubbish that had accumulated blocking the road. To get the Council to deal with it, you know? So, there was that sort of energy around, fighting back, not taking it lying down. Of course, the working-class tradition in England is just remarkable. So well organised over many years. I think the Women’s Paper also came out of that.
There were three or four women living in the community who were interested in taking more community action and what galvanised us was the experience of our friend who had her baby in Hackney Hospital. She did have a really hard time, especially because she was unmarried and was French.
And so to begin with, we just researched, we went around the flats knocking on people’s doors and saying, “have you had a baby in Hackney Hospital?” – a mixture of courage and naivety! And so, we collected a lot of these stories and we put them together in the paper.
And actually, I read it all today, which I hadn’t done for years. The first time I tried to read it recently, I thought “oh, I can’t look at this language. I can’t go there.” But I quite enjoyed it today, really.
The interesting thing is over the last 10, 15 years, I’ve worked in a place we call the spiritual care center. It’s a place for people who are living with illness or facing dying can come and find spiritual and emotional support. And I also helped run workshops with nurses and carers to explore how to offer that sort of support. So that was interesting, because I’d not made the link, that I’ve always been interested in this.
I can’t remember all the details of putting the paper together, there were three of us, three of our names are on it. I remember we worked together well, each offering different skills and ideas, and we had some fun with the cartoons. I think the front page is great and actually there’s a lot of humour there and the cartoons are all pretty good. They go in there – at the right sort of level.
It stands up really well, I think. I was really surprised when I saw it because I’m a massive Hackney radical history nerd and I hadn’t heard about it.
You wouldn’t have heard of it. I mean, it was number one, but there was never a number two.
Do you remember roughly how many you produced?
I imagine hundreds rather than thousands?
Yes, absolutely. We knew guys who had a printing press so they did it for us. I think this came out before Hackney Gutter Press?
Yes there were things like Hackney & Stoke Newington People’s Paper that I think became Hackney People’s Press. But certainly, most of the ones that had quite a big distribution seemed to be a couple years later…
At the time that we were putting this together, my address is given as is 96 Eleanor Road [Hackney Central / just north of London Fields]. And that was a squat. I moved out the commune into a house squat in early 1972. So actually, [the paper] must have come out in early 1972.
So that was exciting, opening up an empty house, putting on a new lock and moving in.
Lots of empty houses to break into, presumably?
Yes there were. I actually found an article today from October ’72, when Hackney Council took us and the women next door to court to try and evict us. Our neighbours were West Indian, extended families, lots of children. The women were the strong ones, there were men living there as well of course, but the women were holding it together. In fact, it was these women who showed us how to get into the house. Amazing. So, we ended up living next door.
When we went to the court, we all went together. We took all the kids, 14 adults and eight kids. And we all went to court and we fought it. What happened was the judge granted the eviction order, but said it couldn’t be enacted until the council actually needed the house.
And I think that was the first time that had happened. I’m not sure. It says in the article that there was a Councilor involved, but I don’t remember him at all. I thought we did it all ourselves!
We weren’t a housing cooperative or anything at that time. We just wanted to stay in the houses. There are some great quotes in the article:
“And people are just saying, we’d like to stay here until the places are needed. We don’t want to be moving into substandard accommodation. We’re angry at the situation. The council leave many houses empty. People around here are glad to be involved because we cleaned up the rubbish and discouraged rats and mice.”
And we had sort of testimonials from a lot of neighbours saying that we were great neighbours and everything. So that’s a bit of a diversion from the paper…
But that’s the interesting thing for me – that it isn’t just the paper, it’s the wider social context that produces it. By today’s standard, it’s quite an alternative lifestyle and then the paper springs out of that. I was going ask about how it was received – how much tension there would’ve been with men?
Yes, we were looking for an alternative life style. There wasn’t a lot of tension with the men. In the house, they supported us but also left us to it…
Actually, looking back and seeing what’s happening now, in many ways there have been very positive changes, and there’s a much greater awareness. But these days, I sometimes feel for the young men, it can be hard on them to ‘get it right’ and they come in for a lot of criticism. I can see real paradoxes in where this has got to now, you know?
At the time, there were guys like Roger. [When you sent the link to me] I thought, “is this tongue in cheek?” But I think it was probably just too much psychedelics!
My impression is that there was that very druggy hippy current and the political one. And at a point they had to break part and be different things…
I think there was a whole spectrum, from very stoned or trippy to hardline left-wing groups, So at the extremes they were very different, but there was also overlap, people found where they wanted to be and also moved around.
Coming back to the Women’s Paper, after printing I think we took them around shops and left them there. We also just gave them away. I mean, it said two pence but I’m sure that we weren’t busy collecting the 2p’s. There were quite a lot of other things going on at that time.
Because we do say, [in the paper] “if anyone has been bothered by this, please come and contact us.” But I don’t remember many people coming. I remember the contact with people more from going around and talking and collecting the stories.
And actually, all the stuff about doctors – it’s interesting again, how things have changed over the last 50 years. But there was a bit at the end, I thought, “wow, were we really writing that then?”.
Do you know this book called Being Mortal by Atul Gawande? It’s a tough read but very good. Basically, it’s about how we’re all going to die, and how people aren’t treated according to what they actually need or want. And particularly around death and dying, because dying is seen as a bit of a failure of the hospital system. Doctors don’t like people to die so there’s all these heroic measures for keeping people alive these days.
And there is an article in the paper saying “we’re being treated not for what we need, but what for others need.” So that’s interesting – 50 years ago, we were writing things like that.
My impression of being a man who’s gone through the birth of our daughter, in Homerton Hospital is that there was still some way to go. But it was described in the paper as being like going to a factory. And from my perspective, in the year 2000, you could see that there was at least a little bit of sensitivity around the parents’ needs and different ways of doing stuff.
Yes, back then the hospital structures were more regimented so it became a bit factory like. Nurses were told ‘You are here to do a job so get on with it’ Today there is a lot more acknowledgement of the need for sensitivity, but staff are still overworked and underpaid which makes this hard to maintain. In 1970’s nurses were also fighting back, looking for better wages and working conditions.
Sometimes when I speak to people that are a lot younger than me, they seem to feel that things are just terrible – it’s gonna be the end of the world – we’re all doomed. And I think we do need to tease out the things that have got better. Because otherwise, what’s the point?
Things have got better and they’ve got worse. I live in Ireland now, in Southern Ireland. I was talking to someone today who was involved in a similar movement, at the same sort of time but in Ireland. It was different in Ireland. They were fighting for the right to buy contraception, you know?
And we were saying that we really thought the world was going to come to an end at the beginning of 1980s, we thought capitalism would collapse and that would be it. So we didn’t look for long term jobs. We didn’t get careers. We really thought it was going to happen. Then slowly but surely, we realised “oh, maybe this isn’t happening”.
But it makes me think of how it is for people today, because these days we think “climate change, it’s got to be the end.” Not denying that the situation is very serious, but who knows what solutions will come. My generation thought – nuclear war, we’d wipe all ourselves out. When I was a teenager main thing was CND. There had been two major world wars in that century already. So, in my childhood, my grandparents talked about the first world war. My parents and their friends talked about the second world war. And now there was nuclear weapons. So that radicalised us. And that’s what was making us look for alternatives. You could say it was a revolutionary time.
I really can’t tell you much more about what happened with the paper, only it was very formative for me! And obviously I ended up carrying these views with me.
I did think of myself as a Marxist for a while, after the paper. We had been busy being active, squatting and working in the ‘Claimants Union’ supporting people to get what they were entitled to, sometimes harassing people working at the social security office. Also helping people to open up houses and squat, all of that. We aspired to be ‘revolutionaries’, so at a certain point we started to study Marx and other communist writers, to learn and understand more about the history and dynamics of class struggle.
Some of the guys from the other commune, were more politically oriented than we were and we started meeting together. Interestingly enough, I only realised afterwards that one of them, his parents were in the Communist Party. It was quite male dominated. I remember saying very little. I bought into it a lot. It was Marxism but with quite a lot of influence from Wilhelm Reich? [Sex-positive psychotherapist and communist].
We called ourselves, but never publicly, The East London Anti Rents Group! We talked, but we didn’t really take much action. This was like ’74, ’75 and there was a bit of a feeling like “it’s not 1968 anymore”. That energy was gone and I think Margaret Thatcher was already around. And so, it was falling apart, in a way.
Sometimes people have their radical youth and then edge away from it, but still retain some of the values. Especially if you’ve been involved with something quite intense, like squatting and communal living and being a Marxist. So I guess that’s the question: what happened then? Would you still call yourself a Marxist and where did you end up? I don’t want create an idealised version of you that just exists in squats in the early 1970s…
I’d love to show you where I ended up. [Christine turns her camera around and shows me a lovely view out of her window of the sea.]
[laughs] OK that does look quite good!
I love showing it to people. It’s an amazing place, but very windy. In 1977, I moved to Ireland. Because the group disbanded and it seemed the revolution wasn’t happening, I actually worked in Hackney Hospital for a while in the laundry and I delivered glue around shoe factories and I did meals on wheels, different stuff working around in Hackney.
And, my Mum died suddenly around that time. I was quite young and that threw me into a lot of grief and I decided wanted to move out London.
I drove around England and in a Morris Traveler [iconic 1970s mini-van with wooden window frames] trying to work out where to go. And then someone suggested I went on holiday to Ireland. So I came to Ireland and – there’s space here, you know? At that time, there was something like 4 million people in the whole of Ireland. And there were 8 million people in London or something [laughs]. And things just fell into place for me. I got a job, I found a place to live. I moved to Dublin to begin with.
I’d been doing Tai Chi and I got interested in Buddhism, which is something that quite a lot of the political people did. It’s a bit like the Gandhi quote: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”. And there was always an element of that with the Wilhelm Reich stuff, that we carry the political structures within us. There was a level of trying to work with that within ourselves already.
Reich said that there could be issues around hyper political activists and their character armour and repression and things like that…
A certain level of it could be very male dominated. Which is probably why there had to be a women’s movement at that time. Because the men articulated and the women…
…did the typing and washing up?
Yeah. Cooked cherry pies and all these things. I couldn’t type!
So this is where I’ve ended up. I helped to found a Buddhist Retreat Centre in the West of Ireland. Which is now building the first Buddhist Temple in Ireland. And we built this spiritual care center, which is quite unique. Though again, it was a little bit, “what are we doing here?”
We started off thinking we were going to build a hospice two hours’ drive from the nearest big hospital, on the edge of a cliff. It was a new thing. We were saying in Hackney Womens’ Paper that there’s need for spiritual, emotional, care and this is what we were trying to offer. Particularly for people who are facing death or facing an illness that might lead to their death.
So that’s what I’ve been doing, but it’s still being invented… this [is now an issue] for the next generation.
Yeah I think “dignity in dying” is going to be a huge issue as opposed to keeping everyone alive for as long as possible regardless of the situation…
I think, these days there’s a certain denial of death, partly because of our expectations of modern medicine. So within the hospitals, there’s not an acceptance of death in a certain way. So, people are heroically kept alive over a prolonged time. I worked for a while as a hospital chaplain in Cork and I remember one woman, she was 86 and she just had major heart surgery. And when I was talking to her, she said “I can’t believe God didn’t take me”.
I recently heard someone say “we need to die because it makes space for other people on the planet, so more human beings can enjoy this planet”. My generation’s been incredibly fortunate actually, just for starters, better pensions than ever before. But there’s a quite lot of us… so it’s a drain on the younger people who are keeping it together, always paradox.
It sounds like you have done your bit, though! I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me, Christine.