At the vigil for Brianna Ghey in Soho Square we were encouraged to turn to the people next to us and tell them that they were loved. This was an important demonstration of solidarity at a time when most trans people in the UK will be feeling even more persecuted than usual. But it may not surprise you that my middle-aged cis-hetero English repression prevented me from participating.
That said, I have been thinking about my trans friends and comrades a great deal this last week. Young people talk about their “love language” and I guess, if that is a thing, then I will express my love through writing about the radical history of Hackney.
And radical history brings us nicely to the elders of the British trans community and what we can learn from them.
Roz Kaveney was born in 1949 and transitioned in her late twenties. She is a writer, critic poet and activist. Roz was a member of the Gay Liberation Front, helped found Feminists Against Censorship and is a past deputy Chair of Liberty (The National Council for Civil Liberties). Her life in London in the 1980s features in the superb Rebel Dykes documentary, which I would recommend to anyone without hesitation.
Roz moved to London in 1974 and “lived in various flats in the borough [of Hackney], in the middle and late 1970s.”. As she told Hackney Museum:
“My living in Hackney is very much a function of the housing situation for young queer people in late 1970s and early 1980s. It was possible to get a tenancy in Hackney, if you were young and vulnerable, and I got one.”
Roz’s collection of poems The Great Good Time (2022) reflects on her early time in Hackney, as she explains in the foreword:
“Back in the late 70s, when I transitioned, I acquired as my peer group a bunch of slightly younger trans women who I met around Soho, and for a short while became their landlady, bail person and wailing wall. I had middle class and education privilege and they didn’t – I hope I used it for the greater good… It taught me a lot about solidarity.”
It’s clear from these poems that life was far from easy for trans people in this period (when has it been?), and that the mutual solidarity the group provided took many forms. There is a lot of help with recovery from violence, from police and doctor induced trauma and some often comical examples of simply navigating existence together as complicated and difficult people.
The final poem “Ridley Road 1981” is a beautiful evocation of Roz and her friends styling it out in Dalston, on the way to buy a late night kebab “protected by the nothing left to lose”.
Alongside everyday psychological and material support, a very concrete form of solidarity was providing a home:
“So, in 1979 I lived, first of all on the Hackney end of Amhurst Road and then on Colvestone Crescent in Dalston. This will be one of the things that will interest you most, because that’s the period when, because I had a licensed squat, I filled it up with a number of very slightly younger trans club workers that I knew from the trans community in Soho. There was briefly, first of all on Amhurst Road and then on Colvestone Crescent, The Dalston Trans Commune.
Looking back it only lasted a few months, because I think it lasted a while after I left, because there was a point when I got my flat on the Kingsmead, I tossed people the keys and said “You are on your own kids, I am out of here.” Because I didn’t much relish being everyone’s parent. That whole thing I was, what, 28 or 29 and they were 24 or 25 I mean, one of them was a bit younger, one of them was 19 or 20. Mostly they were people in the 23, 24, 25 area. But I nonetheless had to be the responsible adult.”
Hackney Museum interviewer: What led you to be the grown up in there?
“It wasn’t particularly a plan. […] One of my friends got out of jail, so I let her stay, while she was between engagements in jail. She had been evicted while she was in jail, so she needed somewhere to stay, so I let her stay, and then she went back to jail for a short period, only a couple of months.
While she was in jail along with one of her friends, two slightly younger trans women, who had been living with the friend who went to jail at the same time that she went to jail, got thrown out of the flat where they were living in the middle of the night. Basically [their flatmate’s] boyfriend, decided to make a pass at the pair of them, in the middle of the night, and they walked out, and then realised they had nowhere to go. Literally, I mean, at 1 o’clock in the morning I found two drowned rats on my doorstep. Obviously, I let them stay and there was nowhere else for them to go immediately and I thought, “Oh what the hell.” Then they moved with me from Amhurst Road to Colvestone Crescent, and then Maz, and for a while Bieber, came out of jail, needed somewhere to stay. Yeah I mean it was a big house.
Suddenly, there were all sorts of people wandering in, it became a crash base as well. It was a matter of very much policing people because, well, the border of Amhurst Road and Sandringham Road which is the first one, was in those days a front-line for drug dealing. So, I made an executive decision that this was a drug-free house, otherwise we would be people of interest, which meant being quite firm about dope. But also it meant, one of them, Vivian, had, I won’t say an addiction problem, but certainly a barbiturate habit, I had to tell her, “what you do when you are not here, is your concern, while you are in the house, you are clean”, and that meant that she didn’t get a key.
And it’s these things that everyone who finds themselves in that kind of alternative housing has to learn quite fast. You make people pay some rent, because otherwise they don’t feel a commitment. You make people contribute to a food kitty, because otherwise they take advantage. It’s all token things and you have to be prepared to throw someone out if they do something wrong, which I found myself having to do on one occasion, but I won’t mention the specific thing, because it was something quite hard. Someone else who lived in the flat briefly did something extremely criminal and I evicted them on the spot. Again, you have to be prepared to do this. I mean, I then went to a house and called a house meeting and said, “I have just done this, any objections?”
“So, and then I moved up to the Kingsmead, where I was fine for a while, because on a different floor of the same building was a gay male commune made up of reformed skinheads. Which meant that they dyed pink triangles on to their scalps, and adopted anti-fascist politics, having had fascist politics, but were still quite scary people. On the other hand, they were on my side… there were a couple of times I got into arguments in clubs in the West End, and they appeared sort of out nowhere and said, “She is our mate,” which was nice, but then they moved off to a farm in Wales or something. Farm or what, I don’t know. I don’t ask.
At that point, things on the Kingsmead got a little less pleasant. There was a very speed addled gang on the Kingsmead in those days, and I’ve made the mistake of ringing the police when I saw them doing a burglary. As a result of which, the police came around to my flat to take a statement, rather than ask me into the station to take a statement. What kind of idiot does that? As a result of which, I got threatened with being firebombed, and this is how I ended up living down in Haggerston, but I had to move out fairly quickly and go on paying rent in a flat I couldn’t live in, because the police had fingered me.”
Roz survived all this – and more – and remains a Hackney resident to this day. She mentions the current climate of hysteria about trans people in The Great Good Time:
“I noticed a lot of bleakness creeping into trans social media and thought it my job as a community elder to remind young people that things had been, if not worse, at least as bad in different ways… The important thing about life in an embattled community is to have each others backs.”
I hope that’s useful and perhaps inspiring context and perspective for anyone who has read this far, but especially to younger trans people. You should know that you are loved and wanted and that there is a place in this world for you.
Sources and further reading
The full transcript of the excellent interview for Hackney Museum is here.
Roz was interviewed at length about her life in a recent episode of the recommended What The Trans podcast. (Starts 37:30)
Her collection of poems about trans life in the late 1970s and early 80s, The Great Good Time is published by Team Angelica and can be ordered by your local independent book shop. Or from Amazon if you must.
The header image is a photograph of Colvestone Crescent during the “winter of discontent” of 1979 and is by Alan Denney. I have taken some liberties with it.
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
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.
Gender balance seems to have been a serious issue for Hackney communes in 1972. I have previously posted a similar notice from the same year by a gay collective in nearby Abersham Road E8. The difference is that Abersham Rd notice explicitly mentioned “we are into smashing our male patriarchy” whereas this would not appear to be a concern for Roger (and/or “the gang”).
For me this speaks to a clash of subcultures – on the one hand the hedonist druggies of 86 Sandringham Road. On the other the hard-edged feminist political milieu that would host figures like the Angry Brigade, Astrid Proll and Dalston Men’s Group. The hedonist faction is less well documented, for obvious reasons… I’d love to speak to Roger and the gang about their time in Hackney if they are still around.
“Daughters of Amazon” attack Hackney porn shop (1983):
Anti-Apartheid activists attack Barclays Bank on Green Lanes (1986).
Damage to property as direct action was reasonably common in the 1970s and 1980s. It had a dual function of “propaganda by deed”, where the business owner (and the community) were left in little doubt about the strength of feeling against them – and of course there was economic damage to the business too.
Furthermore, activists were able to claim responsibility anonymously through the underground and anarchist press via their political statements. The Angry Brigade excelled at this in the 1970s, with some very powerful manifestos – and one of their early targets was Barclays Bank on Stoke Newington High Street (now Stoke Newington Books) which was firebombed on October 26th 1970.
But most damage to property was far less spectacular than that meted out by the Angry Brigade. Indeed, the attraction of low level vandalism was precisely its accessibility – it was cheap and could be done by one or two people at night, etc.
In the 1980s Animal Liberation Front activists must have damaged thousands (if not tens of thousands) of butchers shops and other properties involved with animal exploitation in the UK. Common actions would be anything from graffiti, to glueing up the locks so that the building could not be accessed the next day.
Hackney based anarchopunk band The Apostles (who lived at Brougham Road E8, off Broadway Market) captured the spirit of this particular direct action subculture in their 1983 song “Pigs For Slaughter”:
“Glue the locks of all the banks and butchers – or kick them in, Spray a message of hate across a Bentley – or smash it up, Sabotage the meat in supermarkets – poison them all, Go to Kensington and mug a rich bastard of all his cash.
We’re knocking on your door, We’re taking no more, For this is Class War.
Put sugar in the petrol tank, Deflate the tyres with six inch nails, That’s the way to wreck a Rolls, So get stuck in it never fails. We’ll smash it up and we’ll bum it all down.”
The Apostles – pigs for slaughter
This kind of politically motivated damage to property seems far less common now, mainly because of the increased prevalence of CCTV, but also the laws around incitement are much harsher, so I think people that published manifestos or seemed to be encouraging this sort of thing might find themselves in far greater trouble with the law…
There’s probably a lot more to be written about this area, so any pointers about direct action generally in Hackney or Animal Liberation / animal rights activity in the borough would be welcome.
Write Women Into History: Recollections by older Hackney Feminists was published last year as part of the HOWL (History of Women’s Liberation) project.
HOWL was established in 2019 to mark 50 years since the earliest UK Women’s Liberation Groups were formed and to:
“reveal and collect the wealth of stories by grassroots women from diverse backgrounds who were part of this important movement”
The fourteen contributors met online during the lockdown to discuss their lives, their writing and to draw each other for the cover artwork.
The resulting booklet is nicely produced with a great variation of styles from diverse contributors and numerous photographs and illustrations. I especially enjoyed Sue O’Sullivan’s recollections of the Sheba feminist publishing collective in 1980s Dalston, BJ & MJ’s dialogue about their mother/daughter relationship and Gilli Salvat on the first UK black lesbian support group – but there is something of interest on every page. (I was also excited to see a chapter by my next door neighbour – hello!)
The concise (and very readable) contributions tend to focus on the positive (and frankly we all need a bit of that). So this isn’t the place for extended accounts of fallings out and schisms. There are some simply stated differences though. For example Stephanie Henthorne’s “political lesbians (what was that all about?)” is perhaps affectionately at variance with Jan S’s “For me, heterosexuality seems incompatible with feminism”.
I think the most striking aspect of the book is the general impression it gives of the oppressions women faced in the late 20th Century in the UK, the courage it took to join a movement that was battling them – and the fun that could be had being part of that. Of course, some progress has been made since – not least because of the hard work done by the contributors and their allies in the feminist movement. But if you’re reading this, I’m sure you’d agree that there is still a long way to go – so it’s gratifying to see that many of the Hackney HOWLers are still active in a number of radical projects today.
The following piece appears in the book It Ain’t Half Racist Mum: Fighting racism in the media edited by Phil Cohen & Carl Gardner and published by Comedia/CARM 1982.
It’s a remarkable account of a young black female reporter of working at the paper at the time, and what she had to overcome.
Since this was published, Juliet has worked in a wide range of senior roles including Education Careers Manager at Hackney Learning Trust and with a huge number of local community and voluntary organisations. Her Linkedin profile will tell you more. She tweets at @julietshares
Two tokens in one: the only black and the only woman reporter… Juliet Alexander interviewed
Juliet Alexander was a reporter on the Hackney Gazette in East London for five years. At her initial interview the editor said that taking her on meant that he was killing two minorities in one. He was joking. She is interviewed by Geoffrey Sheridan.
I started at 18, when most people in the office were young, left of centre, and anti-racist. Being black didn’t affect what I did at the beginning — that was in 1975. Being a junior reporter meant that I had to do all the crap that was going. Even after I had been on the paper for a few years, if a kid drowned or something like that, I was the one who went to see the family to get a picture of the kid. That was mainly because I was female. Yet in an area that is a quarter black there was no way I could cover all the black stories. And there was no reason why I should go out on those stories, with a few exceptions.
An obvious case was Maurice Hope, the light middleweight world champion, from Antigua. A reporter went out to interview him, and he couldn’t understand a word that Maurice said. His mother had an even heavier accent. So I was taken along. Maurice was anti-white before he won the world championship and the white press had ignored him. He said in the interview that the Hackney Gazette was the only paper that had given him any publicity, apart from the West Indian World.
Some blacks would only deal with me, such as Eddie Grant, who set up the first black recording studio, and Pastor Morris, who does the Finsbury Park Carnival. I covered news from the estates and word went round like wild fire that Juliet did housing stories, so there were lots of blacks there, but whites, too. They found it hard to separate the fact that I was a reporter from the fact that I was black, which is as it should be, I think.
Before I went on to the Gazette there had been trouble at Dalston police station. A black youth had his head flushed down the loo. It was felt it might do the police some good if they got to know a black person in a different way. I probably did very good PR work on behalf of black people. The only blacks the police met were those they arrested. Meeting a black person on professional terms was as much an experience for them as it was for me.
Sexism and racism
In fact their attitude was of a bunch of men to a woman, rather than to a black. They were incredibly sexist in some cases, and began with the attitude: ‘This silly little girl can’t do her job, so we’ll go out of our way to help her.’ Realising that not all blacks wear woolly caps, there was a slight shift in their thinking. With another reporter they’d say: ‘Two niggers were picked up for mugging an old lady.’ With me it was: ‘Two muggers were picked up…’ But sometimes they’d say ‘mugger’ meaning ‘nigger’. It was ingrained.
Racism came from outside the office, not inside. This man called Sid rang up one day complaining about blacks vandalising his estate.‘He didn’t mind blacks,’ he said, but it was obvious he did. That’s what a lot of people who rang up said. ‘I’m not racist, but…’ I told Sid his experience was really awful — I was doing my middle-class Tory lady bit. I invited him over to the paper and met him at reception. He recognised my voice, dropped his head in his hands, and called himself ‘Sid the Shit’. We had a long talk. There was one of those phone calls every day.
The paper’s policy led to abusive phone calls. We followed the NUJ policy of not putting in someone’s colour unless it was material to the story, such as a black musician where his colour is part of the description of what he does. We would never put emotive terms into the headline or the introduction of an article. The North London branch of the NUJ was very militant and backed the union’s guidelines. The editor agreed with that. But if it was common knowledge that someone was black — if the evening papers had said so — we’d get abusive phone calls wanting to know why we didn’t call ‘a spade a spade’.
Striking against racism
We had a walk-out over racism. During the Greater London Council elections in 1977 a reporter noticed that an advert for a National Front meeting was due to go into the paper. The management said they couldn’t remove it. It was an immediate decision to go out on strike. I was doing the front-page lead article that day. I put it in my bag and walked out. We were out for three days, and picked up a hell of a lot of signatures supporting our action. We normally completely ignored NF meetings. The only time we mentioned them was in unfavourable terms — who they’d beaten up that week. In elections we gave details of all the candidates except the NF’s. We simply said they were standing two candidates, or however many it was.
Before I went to the Gazette it had given coverage to Derek Day — a leading NF member — and to tenants in Hoxton, which was a fascist base. Things changed a bit. When Day’s address was published in the paper, because his son was involved in a court case, he came down to the office, distressed the receptionist, and demanded to see the editor. I volunteered to go down. He was ranting and raving. He came up to me, nose to nose. ‘I’m Derek Day,’ he yelled. `I’m racist and proud of it.’ He described the Gazette in unglowing terms, tore the paper in shreds, and threw it over me. I thanked him for his comment and excused myself.
As far as the NF was concerned, we were a ‘Nigger-loving Commie rag’, which is what they sprayed on the building. When flags were put up for the Jubilee, someone came into the office to lower them. ‘We had no right to fly the British flag,’ we were told.
(Juliet Alexander left the Hackney Gazette to work on the BBC Radio London programme Black Londoners. She now works in TV in the Midlands.)
Some new notes
1. Geoffrey Sheridan who interviewed Juliet also has Hackney Radical History connections. He was son of a tailor, and Communist party member and grew up in Stamford Hill. He was a member of the International Marxist Group and wrote for a number of radical and socialist publications, From 1987 until his death in the year 2000, he worked in business planning for Hackney council. Guardian obituary here.
2. The legendary Coach House Recording Studios, founded in 1972 and based at 81 Osbaldeston Road, London N16.
3. Derrick Day was a notorious racist thug and National Front member. He was in charge of security at the NF’s headquarters Excalibur House in Shoreditch in the late 1970s. Veteran anti-fascist Martin Lux described him thus:
“Times were much harder then and a lot of the NF were very hard, violent people. You just have to look at the head of the Hoxton NF back then, Derrick Day, a fuckin gorilla with a face covered with razor cuts.”
It should go without saying that it would be remarkably brave for a young black woman working as a junior reporter, to volunteer to meet a ranting and raving fascist bully. Derrick Day died in 1995 during a protest against live animal exports in Brightlingsea, where he then lived. It’s unclear whether he had recanted his support for violent white supremacy later in life.
In May 1971 American soldiers in London handed a petition to the US Embassy expressing their opposition to the Vietnam War.
As you can see from the bottom left of the above flyer, this event was supposed to be followed by a celebrity Peace Concert. (“People Emerging Against Corrupt Establishments” was a UK newspaper “by and for GI’s with the intent to foster a more humane military. Published underground and RAF Mildenhall, England”.)
The concert apparently happened in Hackney according to Peoples Press (a newspaper “by and for the G.I.s at Fort Campbell” in Tennessee.):
I was initially a bit sceptical that this had actually happened, but a comrade came up trumps with this from The Guardian:
The same comrade pointed me to a photo of Vanessa Redgrave at the event here.
In the summer of 1971 a sturdy group of U.S. airmen presented a petition to the embassy in Grosvenor Square, calling for an end to the war in Vietnam. In the afternoon we held a concert for them in Victoria Park, Hackney. Mia Farrow took part in this. Jane [Fonda] had sent me the texts of some sketches she and Donald Sutherland had used in their antiwar concerts. Gerald Scarfe, the political cartoonist, made some papier-mache heads of the president and his wife, Pat.
PAT: Dick! Dick! Who are all those nasty men on the lawn waving cards at us? Can’t you do something?
NIXON: I don’t know what I can do, Pat.
PAT: Send in the army and clear them off my lawn!
NIXON: Pat, they are the army.
Victoria Park was jointly run by Hackney and Tower Hamlets until 1994, when it unfortunately escaped our clutches for our Easterly neighbours. Any memories from the Peace Concert would be very welcome, please leave a comment.
From June 1967 until February 1968, the VSC national HQ was at 49 Rivington Street, EC2 – a building owned by the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation that would subsequently host the Anti-University.
Hackney also had its own branch of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign in the late 1960s. Its distinctly unsinister activities included a social at the White Hart:
Veteran socialist feminist Sheila Rowbotham has her own recollections of the mundane work being done at the time:
My own Vietnam Solidarity efforts that January in Hackney were not exactly at the cutting edge, being rather the revolutionary equivalent of ‘doing my bit’. The saga of the jumble sale for East London VSC was continuing. At the eleventh hour, with jumble bursting out of my bedroom, I discovered the Trotskyist secretary had considered himself too much the grand revolutionary to book a hall for the jumble sale.
Suspecting sabotage and hardly able to move around in my room for boxes, I defiantly stuck up the notices in the newsagent’s anyway: ‘Victory to the Vietcong Jumble Sale, 12 Montague Road.’ Sure enough, the tough gangs of elderly women who were regulars at all the local jumble sales were in the door, down the corridor past the `Dialectics of Liberation’ poster on the wall and bargaining fiercely. Then off they went, like the proverbial greased lightning, leaving sad little piles of debris in their wake.
The momentum of the jumble sale went with them. A few lost Hackney souls, bemused and aimless, were left ambling around my bedroom, evidently disorientated at finding themselves in a house. Indeed, one Caribbean man, who must have decided the solution to this oddness was that we were an extension of Mr Archie’s business next door, propositioned Mary and me. I steered him past the ‘Victory to the Vietcong’ posters and out through the front door.
Sheila Rowbotham – Promise of a Dream: Remembering the Sixties
(It is probably worth mentioning that not all opponents of the war were quite so gung ho about supporting the Vietnamese regime. Bob Potter’s Vietnam: Whose Victory? published by the libertarian socialist Solidarity group is a good example of principled opposition to the ruling class in both the USA and Vietnam at the time.)
I’m sure a lot of Hackney residents attended the many large demonstrations against the war. I would be interested in hearing about any Hackney protests or solidarity work, so please do leave a comment below if you have memories of them.
The Vietnam War finally ended in 1975. From the 1970s onwards thousands of Vietnamese people displaced by the conflict and the regime that followed it resettled in the UK. Hackney hosts one of Britain’s largest Vietnamese populations. Hackney Archives is in the process of documenting the history of the Vietnamese community here.