“Most Awful Place in Britain”: Hackney 1982

Paul Harrison was a journalist whose first books were on the Third World. His 3rd book is concerned with the London Borough of Hackney based on  his research between May 1981 and July 1982.

It includes a lot of depressing detail on the deprivation which was prevalent in Hackney at that time. The statistics can be a bit wearying, but this is compensated by the numerous personal interviews which are included and the general insights the author provides.

Harrison’s book is a good counterbalance to the romanticism some people have about the “good old days” in Hackney. The intensity of the poverty, horrendous working conditions, terrible housing, violence and racism is remarkable – the author makes a compelling case that the Borough was the worst place to live in the UK (although neighbouring Tower Hamlets was also a contender by many measures).

I am obliged to say that wherever there is oppression you will also find resistance (something I definitely believe… in my more optimistic moments…). Alongside the crime and crumbling infrastructure of 80s Hackney, the book also includes some brief pieces on community organisation and a really good report on a dispute at the Staffa Products factory in the Lea Valley which included an occupation of the premises by striking workers. I got quite excited about that before I realised Staffa Products was in Leyton rather than Hackney and therefore slightly out of scope for this blog.

There is also a great first person account of a riot in Dalston in 1981 which I will post up here soon.

Paul Harrison went on do work for the UN and publish a further book on “pantheism”. He has a website here.

I found my copy for a quid in the basement of Housmans, London’s leading radical bookshop. You can also buy second hand copies of the book cheap online.

Below is a section from the prologue of the book which gives a reasonable overview of Hackney’s grimness at the time:

The Breaker’s Yard

Hackney, like most urban settlements of any size, is a patchwork. It exists as a unit only as a local-government entity. It possesses an aorta: the long straight road, once the Romans’ route to Cambridge, that begins in the south as Shoreditch High Street and ends in the north at Stamford Hill, changing its name half a dozen times along the way, from Kingsland Road to Kingsland High Street, and from Stoke Newington Road to Stoke Newington High Street.

But Hackney is a place curiously without a heart, an uneasy amalgam, still only in its late teens, of three older boroughs —Shoreditch, Hackney and Stoke Newington — themselves formed by the fusion of several parishes. Hackney is an archipelago of islands, each with its own distinctive geo-morphology and ecology. In Shoreditch, atolls of dilapidated small factories, warehouses and offices, cut off by a sea of metropolitan traffic.

To the north, Hoxton, a concrete forest of council blocks, still largely inhabited by Cockneys, one of the few places in the borough’s boundaries where some networks of community and kinship survive, albeit much weakened and frayed. Further north again, De Beauvoir, whose stately terraces — by far the best built and best laid out in Hackney — increasingly house the upper-middle and professional classes.

East of that, Haggerston and Queensbridge wards, more than three-quarters council tenants, and planning-blighted London Fields and Broadway Market, with shops boarded up or burnt out and streets of houses either empty, with doors and windows breeze-blocked up, or housing squats of radicals and feminists: Why pay rent when they don’t give a damn about you? reads one painted slogan.

Demolition of Metal Box factory on Urswick Road (c) Alan Denney
Demolition of Metal Box factory on Urswick Road, 1983. © Alan Denney.

East again, Homerton and Lower Clapton, streets of humble Victorian terraces, many of them not much above the level of the Hackney Marshes and the River Lea that bound the borough’s eastern limits. The Marshes, Hackney’s only area of ‘natural’ wildlife, are marred by motorbike scramblers, electricity pylons and what little exists of large-scale industry in Hackney — Lesney’s Matchbox Toys (closed down in 1982), Metal Box, James Latham Timbers.

Inside the bend of the river, stretching from Stamford Hill down to the flyovers of Eastway, a long succession of council estates, each cursed with its own subtle combination of torments: the rain-penetrated towers of Trowbridge; Kingsmead with its air of a high-security prison; crime-plagued Clapton Park; and a row of grim blocks — like Wren’s Park, Wigan House, Lea View and Fawcett. Along the borough’s northern edges, bounded by Seven Sisters Road and Amhurst Park, lie the more desirable wards of Hackney, becoming fashionable among radical professionals and long the home of most of Hackney’s large Jewish population, including members of the revivalist Hasidic sect whose bearded men wear broad-brimmed black hats, long black coats and hair in ringlets.

And in the heart of Hackney lie terraces of the worst Victorian housing, originally dominated by cheap rooming houses, now in the process of changing over to gentrification, housing associations and infill council housing: a chaotic mixture of races and classes where whites, West Indians, Asians, Africans and Cypriots are shuffled like the suits in a pack of cards.

Even a superficial tour would show that most of Hackney is not healthy or prosperous. There are piles of refuse in ‘many streets, and run-down shops with safety grilles left up even when they are open. There is an air about people in the street or in the bus queues: of patience adopted not out of a tranquil mind, but out of necessity, holding in a tense bolus of sufferings. An air, not of open despair, but of lack of hope; not of misery, yet of an absence of joy. An air of aggravation and diffuse anxiety. For Hackney is a sump for the disadvantaged of every kind, a place to which those with the fewest resources sink, and from which those who gain any freedom of choice escape. It is a place of deprivation, of poverty, of toil and struggle and isolation, a knacker’s yard for society’s casualties,
a breaker’s yard where the pressure of need grinds people against each other and wears them down.

Ridley Road market, 1982. © Alan DenneyRidley Road market, 1982.  © Alan Denney.

You can get a glimpse of the problem from the statistics. Even by Inner London standards, Hackney is an unusually underprivileged place. It has the second highest proportion of overcrowded households in Inner London, the second highest proportion of manual workers (two-thirds), the second highest proportion of households with no car (two-thirds), the second highest male unemployment rate (22 percent in January 1982), and the second highest proportion of children in care (one child in forty). On all these criteria, Tower Hamlets, usually known as London’s East End, pips it to the post. But Hackney leads Tower Hamlets in other indicators: it has the second highest proportion (after Haringey) of people living in households with a New Commonwealth head (27 per cent), the second highest incidence (after Lambeth) of violent street crime. And Hackney leads the field for a string of other factors. It has the highest female unemployment rate in London and the highest proportion of single-parent families (with 15 per cent of children under sixteen). It has by far the highest proportion of dwellings unfit for human habitation — one in five — and by far the lowest educational attainments in London. It has the highest proportion of registered disabled in London. It has the highest level of smoke pollution. And it has the honour of being the only Inner London borough without a tube station. Incomes in Hackney are the lowest in London, and well below the national averages despite much higher than average housing and transport costs. In April 1981, average weekly earnings were £133.50 for men and £94 for women — bottom of the Greater London league in both cases. One in three male manual workers earned less than £100 a week, one in ten earned less than £72.30. These figures are for full-time workers whose earnings were unaffected by absence: average incomes in Hackney, dragged down by high levels of part-time or short-time working, by lay-offs and absenteeism, and by unemployment, are far lower.

There is no objective way of weighing one type of misery against another. No one can construct an unchallengeable index of total deprivation that would enable us to rank locations in the lower reaches of hell. There are, of course, subjective measures. In 1978 the National Housing and Dwelling Survey asked people in inner-city areas what they thought of their neighbourhood. The proportion of respondents in Hackney who were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the area was 42 percent, by far the highest in the country — a full 11 percent ahead of Tower Hamlets, the nearest London rival, and almost double the highest figure outside London (22 percent for Manchester).

It is invidious to make comparisons, but I believe that Hackney is one of two or three contenders for the title of the Most Awful Place in Britain.

There are many people who live in Hackney who will deny this: middle-class owner-occupiers will tell you aggressively that it is not at all such a bad place to live. And probably it is not, for people with cars, telephones, bank accounts and self-contained dwellings. They do not have to walk along dangerous streets with all the money they possess in their pockets, or queue for hours at bus stops, or search for unvandalized phones when someone falls ill. They do not have to share toilets or baths. They do not have to wrestle shopping and pushchairs up stairs or into lifts that often do not work. They do not have to suffer damp and cold. They do not have to be humiliated in social-security offices or wait months for essential repairs. Above all they are there by choice, not by compulsion. They can leave at any time they want: they do not have the sense of imprisonment, of closed options, that plagues those without the incomes or the saleable skills that would enable them to get out. Whether a place is tolerable to live in, or intolerable, depends on your income; that is as true of Britain as a whole as it is of Hackney.

For the poor, Hackney is something akin to the Slough of Despond, a place so terrible that the only recourse seems to turn tail and run. Yet most of them lack the means of escape — the money to buy a house elsewhere, the skills or certificates to get a job elsewhere.

Sat 22nd November: Film about Haggerston estate (Rio Cinema)

1-670x466
SAT 22 Nov • World Premiere
ESTATE, A REVERIE (12A) 2.30(UK 2014) dir. Andrea Luka Zimmerman 83m.

ESTATE, A REVERIE tracks the passing of the Haggerston Estate (1938-2014) in Hackney and the utopian promise of social housing it offered, with an unruly celebration of extraordinary everyday humanity.

Filmed over seven years, ESTATE, A REVERIE seeks to reveal and celebrate the resilience of residents who are profoundly overlooked by media representations and wider social responses. Interweaving intimate portraits with the residents’ own historical re-enactments and dramatised scenes, the film asks how we might resist being framed exclusively through class, gender, ability or disability, and through geography even…

+ post-screening discussion & opening set from singer-songwriter Olivia Chaney & short introduction by Ken Worpole

£4

http://www.riocinema.org.uk/

http://estatefilm.co.uk/

Haggerston Food Co-Op opposes market forces, 1973

An incredible short documentary about a food co-op providing cheap food to estate residents – and being opposed by local shopkeepers.
Note the copy of Hackney Peoples’ Press on the wall at the 6:57 mark.

The dorlec01 Youtube Channel has a bunch of material of interest, which I’ll return to soon I think!

 

A Radical History of Hackney Parks

IMG_1288

“The Park is called the People’s Park
And all the walks are theirs
And strolling through the flowery paths
They breathe exotic airs,
South Kensington, let it remain
Among the Upper Ten.
East London, with useful things,
Be left with working men.

The rich should ponder on the fact
Tis labour has built it up
A mountain of prodigious wealth
And filled the golden cup.
And surely workers who have toiled
Are worthy to behold
Some portion of the treasures won
And ribs of shining gold.”

An ode to Victoria Park, 1872
(from Victoria Park, East London: The People’s Park)

The text below was originally published as a pamphlet, bashed out for the Radical History Network meeting on “Community Empowerment and Open Green Spaces”, July 10th 2013. (I have a couple of the pamphlets left – drop me an email if you want one.)

It’s full of holes, a work in progress. Get in touch with additions, criticisms, comments.

late20c2

1275 The area that is now London Fields was recorded as common pastureland adjoining Cambridge Heath. In 1540 the name London Field is found recorded as a separate item consisting of around 100 acres in changing ownership of land. London Field was one of the many “commonable lands” of Hackney where the commoners of the parish could graze their livestock on the fields from Lammas Day (Anglo Saxon for bread mass), August 1st, celebrating the first loaf after the crops had been harvested, to Lady Day, March 25th. This arrangement was known as Lammas Rights and was protected by law. (from here)

1700s In the Marshes towards Hackney Wick were low public houses, the haunt of highwaymen. Dick Turpin was a constant guest at the “White House” or “Tyler’s Ferry” and few police-officers were bold enough to approach the spot.

1750 onwards Clissold House (originally named Paradise House) was built, in the latter half of the 18th century, for Jonathan Hoare, a City merchant, Quaker, philanthropist and anti-slavery campaigner. (His brother Samuel was one of the founders of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade.). The grounds of the house went on to become Clissold Park.

1793 Big open-air demonstration on Hackney Downs, in support of the revolutionary gains in France. The tutors Richard Price, Joseph Priestley and Gilbert Wakefield organised lectures on the French Revolution at the New College, a non-conformist academy (“by-word for revolutionary opinion”) at Lower Clapton.

1840 Abney Park Cemetery opens as the first fully non-denominational burial ground in Europe (where anyone could be buried, but especially non-conformists, dissenters etc). Many anti-slavery campaigners are buried there.

1845 Victoria Park is opened following a petition by 30,000 local people to Queen Victoria. “There was no bathing pool provided and local youths were in the habit of bathing – naked! – in the adjacent Regent’s Canal.  Attempts to police such shocking behaviour were unavailing and within a few years a pool was provided in the park itself.” – Victoria Park, East London: The People’s Park

1848 Chartists meet at Bonners Park (near Victoria Park) to march on Parliament.

1860s Hackney Downs open space (originally common land) preserved as parkland as a result of pressure by the Commons Preservation Society.

1866 Widespread pickets and demonstrations for universal male suffrage as advocated by the Reform League during summer. After disorder at Hyde Park the Tory government banned all protest meetings throughout London. The ban was widely ignored; a huge “illegal” rally took place in Victoria Park.

1872 180 acres in Hackney are preserved as public open space and protected from the encroachment of development. Including Clapton Common and Cockhanger Green (now boringly called Stoke Newington Common).

1886notice

In the 1880s the grounds of Clissold House and the adjacent Newington Common were threatened with development, and two prominent campaigners, Joseph Beck of The City of London and John Runtz of The Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) persuaded the Board of MBW to buy the land and create a public park. (from Clissold Park User Group, as was the image above)

1885 William Morris speaks at Victoria Park:

The political culture of the day was not simply confined to the clubs and indoor meeting places. The open-air meeting, whether in the park, or on the street corner, remained the principal forum for addressing the uninitiated, convincing the unconvinced, spreading the word. William Morris was one of the mast well known public speakers for socialism of the period, and visited Hackney often. There is a fine portrait of him speaking to a crowd in Victoria Park in 1885 in Tom Mann’s Memoirs:

He was a picture on an open air platform. The day was fine, the branches of the tree under which he was speaking spread far over the speaker. Getting him well in view, the thought came, and has always recurred as I think of that first sight of Morris – “Bluff King Hal”. I did not give careful attention to what he was saying, for I was chiefly concerned to get the picture of him in my mind, and then to watch the faces of the audience to see how they were impressed…. Nine-tenths were giving careful attention, but on the fringe of the crowd were some who had just accidentally arrived, being out for a walk, and having unwittingly come upon the meeting. These stragglers were making such remarks as: ‘Oh, this is the share-and-share-alike crowd’; ‘Poverty, eh, he looks all right, don’t he?’ But the audience were not to be distracted by attempts at ribaldry: and as Morris stepped off the improvised platform, they gave a fine hearty hand-clapping which showed real appreciation.

(From Hackney Propaganda: Working Class Club Life and Politics in Hackney 1870-1900)

1887 Free speech demo in Victoria Park in March.

1889 Clissold Park was opened by the newly formed London County Council (LCC). The two ponds in the park are named the Beckmere and the Runtzmere in honour of the two principal founders.

1926 Victoria Park is the site for some enthusiastic speeches in support of the General Strike. The park is closed briefly to the public during the strike when the army is stationed there – for reasons which seem to be unclear.

redstagelogo

1930s Hackney Red Radio (a branch of the Workers Theatre Movement) perform agit prop and pro-working class skits and plays. The group performs in parks, streets etc, including London Fields, where they are pelted with over-ripe tomatoes by an unappreciative audience on one occasion.

“We are Red Radio,
Workers’ Red Radio,
We Show you how you’re robbed and bled;
The old world’s crashing,
Let’s help to smash it
And build a workers’ world instead.”

1936 British Union of Fascists holds regular rallies in Victoria Park including clashes with anti-fascists. Also a large anti-fascist meeting in July organised by the Trades Councils of North and East London: “A mile long procession headed by a brass band culminated in a large public meeting which declared its unalterable opposition to fascism and to the war which it would inevitably lead.” Fascists attempt to march through East London in October for another Victoria Park rally, but are prevented from doing so by anti-fascists: The Battle of Cable Street. They did not pass.

1939 Trenches are dug in Hackney Downs, Victoria Park and other open spaces at the outset of the 2nd World War.

(There is a bit of gap here! Can you help fill it? What happened between the 1930s and the 1970s?)

banners:Layout 1

1978 80,000 attend huge Anti-Nazi League concert in Victoria Park (apparently the stage was in Hackney but the audience was in Tower Hamlets!).

1980s Three GLC-organised festivals in Victoria Park. Two are themed around peace / against nuclear weapons – including one on Hiroshima Day, 6 August 1983.

1981flyer

1981 Funk The Wedding concert takes place in Clissold Park on the day of the marriage of Charles and Di. (from History Is Made At Night, as is the image above)

1983 Clissold Park Free Festival, August?! (mentioned here, any further info welcome)

1990s The demolition of London Fields Lido is resisted by the people of Hackney, including standing in front of the bulldozers. Local people led campaigns to reopen the Lido and cleared away vegetation. The children’s paddling pool which was closed in 1999, was reopened by local people for summer seasons. In 1998 the Lido was squatted for housing, a café and communal events. In August 1998 there was the Carnival of the Dispossessed, a benefit for Reclaim The Streets. The Lido was squatted for a second time 2002-2005. (From Past Tense)

1990 Hackney residents burn Poll Tax bills in Clissold Park.

afa-unity

1991 Anti-Fascist Action sponsor Unity Carnival on Hackney Downs:

“AFA had surprised everyone by organising the biggest anti-fascist event for over a decade, drawing 10,000 people to the Unity Carnival on Hackney Downs. Supported by a wide range of organisations, from the Hackney Joint Shop Stewards Committee, to the Fire Brigade Union, the Carnival programme again drew attention to rising levels of race attacks and urged people to become pro-active: ‘We have organised today’s event to draw attention to the growing number of racist attacks especially in east London. The fact that some sections of the community virtually live under siege is unacceptable and we hope you are prepared to do more than just come to this symbolic show of unity. Support the activities on the back of this programme to get organised and do something to stop racist attacks.'”

Sean Birchall – Beating The Fascists: The Untold Story of Anti-Fascist Action (Freedom, 2010) p250

902fe01d-967a-46c0-ad57-fd0d0ae7b7f5

1994 Hackney Homeless Festival, Clissold Park – 30,000 people. Clashes with police afterwards. (image by Jamie from tribe.net)

1996 Hackney Anarchy Week, a ten day festival including a punks’ picnic and 3-sided football match in Clissold Park.

2007 After much resistance and protest, the Manor Garden Allotments (near Hackney Wick, but apparently not technically in Hackney!) are demolished to make way for the Olympics. Similar struggles take place on Hackney Marshes (where football pitches are closed to make way for a coach park)

2012 A small “Occupy London” camp sets up briefly in Haggerston Park.

Sources/Acknowledgements

http://www.londonfieldsusergroup.org.uk/

http://www.clissoldpark.com/park-history/

Victoria Park, East London: The People’s Park

Barry Burke and Ken Worpole – Hackney Propaganda: Working Class Club Life and Politics in Hackney 1870-1900 (Centerprise, 1980) (William Morris)

Barry Burke – Rebels With A Cause: The History of Hackney Trades Council (Centerprise. 1975)

History Is Made At Night (Funk The Royal Wedding)

Past Tense (London Fields Lido)

Getting Involved

Hackney Council’s list of Park User Groups.

Further Reading: Modern

The Rise of the Friends Groups Movements, by Dave Morris

Finsbury Park: A History of Community Empowerment, by Hugh – Friends of Finsbury Park

The Community-Led Transformation of Lordship Rec, by Friends of Lordship Rec

Further Reading: Older

Down With The Fences: Battles For The Commons In South London, by Past Tense

Subversive of Public Decency: Open Space In North / North East London: radical crowds, immorality, and struggles over enclosure, by Past Tense (not online yet)

Lenthall Road Workshop, E8: 1976

Radical and Community Printshops is a new (to me at least) site chronicling radical printers, typesetters, posterists etc:

The presses were part of a network: activists in organisations wrote and designed the books, pamphlets, posters, newspapers and leaflets which they needed to further the cause. Typesetters and printers produced them. Activists, distribution cooperatives and independent bookshops distributed them. And today? Still activists, still typesetters (digital) and a few presses (eg Calverts, Aldgate, Footprint), still sympathetic distributers (Turnaround, AK, Bookspeed) and independent bookshops (eg Housmans, Centerprise, News from Nowhere)… But to a huge extent the internet provides the means for radical communications.

The Lenthall Road Workshop entry is of particular interest – a feminist screenprinting and photography collective which started in Haggerston in 1976.

The entry mentions a film from 1980 entitled “Somewhere in Hackney” which features the collective. I’ve found another entry about the film here which includes this quote:

Lenthall Road Workshop is a print-shop producing silkscreened posters, T shirts etc. It began in 1975, and the workers are quite clear about what it is for: “once you start seeing yourself as a person who can do things then you’re in a position to take control of your life”. In the film we see them working with Hackney Women’s Aid to design and produce a set of T shirts.

Obviously I’d love to see the film some day…