“Sisters: There is a collective/Commune/Household, of gay people living in Hackney and we want some sisters to come and live with us. We are into smashing our male chauvenism and giving up our privileges as men over women. You do not have to be gay, just full of good energy and love, and if this society has fucked you up, maybe we will be able to work it out together. At the moment there are five men and we want about four more people….. please contact The People, 4 Abersham Road, Hackney, London, E8.”
Tony Gibson was a registered conscientious objector during World War two. He worked initially at an ambulance station in London before heading off for agricultural work in South Wales. Tony made his way back to London in March 1945 (about six months before the end of the war):
“Then I got my cards from South Wales and obtained employment as a carpenter in a firm repairing the bomb-blasted houses in Hackney, East London.
Here again pacifist and anarchist contacts stood me in good stead, for the building firm belonged to pacifists, and most of its workers were Conscientious Objectors of one kind or another – Christian pacifists, members of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, anarchists, fringe Trotskyists, and a few deserters from the forces who lived precarious lives without proper identity documents. When inspectors came round, the foreman told these latter characters to make themselves scarce for a while, since they didn’t appear on the firm’s books.
We even had one genuine Fascist, a mild little man who admired Mussolini (who had recently been killed). This fellow had a bad time in arguments with his work-mates, and was threatened with violence to drive him off the job, until a brawny young socialist declared that he would be his protector: ‘A man is entitled to his opinions, however daft'”
Tony Gibson – Burgess Hill School: A Personal Account
I thought this was a really interesting insight into the various strands of radical thought that were floating around in Hackney during the war. Anarchists are often seen as a chaotic destructive force, but this is a good example of one rebuilding people’s homes after they’d been destroyed by the Luftwaffe. This ties in with the hundreds of anarchist squatters in Hackney who would repair and redecorate derelict houses after the war right up to the 1990s.
Tony’s account above is the preamble to a longer piece about his work as a handyman at Burgess Hill Free School in Hampstead which was set up on anarchist-ish principles. This was published in the anarchist journal The Raven in 1987 and can be read on Libcom.
Whilst working as a labourer in Hackney, Gibson was also one of the temporary editorial team of the anarchist newspaper War Commentary, when most of the regular staff were imprisoned in 1945. He went on to some prominence in the field of psychology and remained an anarchist until his death in 2001. Libcom has also republished a Guardian obituary for him with more details of his life.
On 20th July 1994 a lobby of Hackney Council, held by trades union and community groups to protest at the Criminal Justice Bill and the Council’s plan to use the new powers to evict tenants and squatters, was attacked by riot police of the Territorial Support Group. Officers were seen head-butting, punching and kicking protesters, before arresting seven people, some of whom they injured badly.
“Criminal Injustice In Hackney” – Public Service Worker’s Network
What was the Criminal Justice Act?
The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 was incredibly wide-ranging and repressive (although it did also include lowering the age of consent for “homosexual acts” to 18). The legislation curtailed arrestees’ right to silence, increased police stop and search powers and infamously clamped down on the ability of squatters, hunt saboteurs and ravers to organise.
In May 1994, Hackney Homeless Festival in Clissold Park had concluded peacefully, but revellers were attacked by the TSG afterwards outside the nearby Robinson Crusoe pub (now the Clissold Tavern). Alongside this, there was the day to day harassment of residents by the notoriously bent Stoke Newington police – and a general climate of cracking down on squatting.
All this meant that the demo was pretty lively:
A large demonstration outside Hackney Town Hall on July 20th ended up as a brief occupation inside. Over 250 squatters and supporters gathered to protest against the council’s ‘para-municipal’ eviction squad, the Tenancy Audit Team, and the worryingly right-wing (Labour) Chair of Housing, Simon Matthews. The occupation and disruption of the first full council meeting since the local elections, was broken up by the police, who violently intervened to eject the occupiers.
Hackneyed Hypocrisy – Squall magazine
DefendThe Hackney 7
Those arrested now face serious charges, which could involve heavy fines or imprisonment. Those with the worst injuries have been charged with assaulting the police. All are denying the charges against them.
“Criminal Injustice In Hackney” – Public Service Worker’s Network
The contact address for the Hackney 7 Defence Campaign was the Colin Roach Centre. The charges included criminal damage (to the town hall doors) and obstruction. The Council wouldn’t leave it there though:
The response of Hackney Council to this attack has been to support the police. In an unprecedented move the Council took out injunctions against those arrested which banned them from council property and a named squat in the borough. This blanket ban would prevent the defendants from using public toilets or housing benefit offices, without written permission.
Likewise, those who work in Hackney would be unable to go to offices of their unions without written permission, or they too would be risking arrest.
“Criminal Injustice In Hackney” – Public Service Worker’s Network
The defendants successfully challenged the Council’s injunctions in court and that part of the case collapsed.
Two of those arrested worked for the Council – one was a teacher and the other worked for Hackney Independent Living Team (HILT) – and was also an active trade unionist. The Council applied political pressure to get these workers sacked before the charges got to court. The police also gave out information to HILT and the media about the arrests, breaching confidentiality.
It appears that John McArthur, the HILT worker, was sacked and I can’t find anything to suggest he was reinstated. It looks like he continued to play an active role in trade union matters in North London, later writing about his experiences with striking JJ Fast Foods workers in Tottenham.
The seriousness of the charges and Council’s victimisation was slightly lightened by the tragic/comic events of another protest later in the year:
Hackney 7 Trial
The trials of the seven people nicked on the Hackney Town Hall demo are now complete. They were arrested during the picket against attacks on squatters and tenants in the borough, and against the then impending Crimjustbill.
The bad news is one bind-over, one conditional discharge and one pleading guilty. The other four got off in exciting courtroom dramas. The cases against Ronnie and Mervyn ended, after a long and fairly positive week of disproving the cops’ stories, when one of our barristers collapsed, and the prosecution decided they couldn’t handle a retrial.
In the other case Simon got off when the magistrate disagreed that the four punches shown on video were ‘reasonable’ restraint as PC Moore claimed, and the prosecution gave up over Jake after the other police witness couldn’t explain his complete invisibility. Countercharges for assault, perjury and conspiracy are planned.
“Hackney Seven Results” – ContraFlow
Simon had been charged with assaulting a police officer, but video footage taken by activists at the protest showed that the reverse was true:
In two cases the judge recommended that video evidence of assaults by members of the Metropolitan Police Territorial Support Group (riot squad) be passed on to the Director of Public Prosecutions. We are not holding our breath.
“Council Conspires With Police To Sack Union Activist” – Public Services Workers’ Network
According to the Anarchist Communist Federation, some of the defendants were issued with fines of “up to £3,300”.
The Criminal Justice Act became law on 3rd November 1994. The Labour Party abstained.
For squatters this is a simple extension of the logic of turning empty buildings into homes. Here are people in a strange country with very simple and urgent needs: somewhere to live and something to eat. Here is a borough with a record for keeping properties empty and here are some activists willing to crack a few buildings. Simple.
82-90 Stoke Newington Road was a Magistrate’s Court from 1889. Barbara Windsor may have attended with Ronnie Kray when he was done for receiving stolen goods. The court would naturally be one arena where the oppression of working class residents of North London played out and it is gratifying to see that it was also a site of resistance to this:
The building is now St John’s Court (flats). As Alan Denney notes – a large “Police Court” sign was removed before the conversion, as presumably state-sadism is not a good selling point. St Johns Court is now a listed building. A one-bed flat can be rented there for £1,321 a month at the time of writing.
But… between the building being a court and becoming ‘luxury” flats, it was put to better use…
1996 was the last gasp of John Major’s Conservative government before New Labour were elected in the following year. On February 5th 1996 the Tories cut off benefits to asylum seekers who did not apply for asylum at the port of entry, and to those who lost their application but were awaiting an appeal.
Contrary to the bullshit spouted about asylum seekers “taking our jobs”, they were actually legally prevented from working. As London freesheet ContraFlow put it:
With no possibility to work legally, and now no way of getting any other money, increasing numbers will be left to starve, in the hope that they’ll return to wherever they had to flee from, unless we do something about it. Because of this situation, and the fact that the Refugee Council, who had money to open a hostel, hadn’t, a large squat was opened up in Hackney as an emergency shelter, and to highlight the situation, a squat called ARCH – Autonomous Refugee Centre Hackney.
The building was the old Magistrates Court in Stoke Newington Road, empty for years and with steel doors and windows but with an open window on the first floor that had been tempting the locals for ages.
According to anarchist magazine Black Flag, ARCH “was set up by local squatters, The Refugee Support Group from the Colin Roach Centre and others” and was supported by “local Kurdish and Turkish Groups, some churches and local shops”
Squatters’ magazine Squall interviewed some of the organisers:
Chris Locke of ARCH explains: “We wanted to provide homes for refugees affected by the Social Security changes. On the way we found lots of other stuff to do; ranging from getting decent solicitors for people to finding them clothes and food.” Warren, another member of ARCH, states the group’s intention to create alternative solutions: “We understand these people are alienated, some come from war zones and oppressive regimes to the big city. Providing bedding, conversation and a good meal is enough to give the basis of what they need; the dignity to keep their sanity and keep on living.”
ContraFlow went into more detail on the logistics:
The first mistake was going in before checking who owned it – it was assumed that as it was still for sale it still belonged to the state, which would’ve made it appropriate and make procedings predictable.
In fact it had been bought by Harinbrook Properties, a small property company connected to Eugena, a building outfit, who liked to pose as security guards, bailiffs and anything else. They tried three illegal evictions, which were foiled by physical force, with great assistance from the local Turkish and Kurdish community, and the cops. The cops only tried once to force their way in, but were eventually convinced that their legal position was rather dubious.
All this made the situation rather stressful and tiring, as 24-hour watches were kept until the owners finally decided to go to court.
After ARCH was evicted, Squall spoke to some of the people that needed its help:
Meanwhile in a Stoke Newington pub, two ARCH volunteers stroll in with a couple of young refugees; Varben from Kosovo in former Yugoslavia and Antonio from the Angolan enclave of Cabinda.
Antonio, a doctor from Cabinda, tells his story: “I left because of the civil war. I was afraid I would be killed. I had many problems because I was treating people from all the different parties who are at war. Some parties didn’t like me helping all sides but I am a doctor, I must help anyone who needs it. They put me in prison for a long time. Then I escaped and came here.” Antonio had no idea he had to apply for asylum as soon as he arrived and is currently waiting for the Home Office to process his asylum application. On average this takes nine months.
Varben hitch-hiked to England in a lorry from Macedonia: “When I got to London I slept out on the streets at Victoria Station for three days. I met an African who told me to go to the Home Office.” Varben says there were at least ten other refugees sleeping at Victoria whilst he was there: “I don’t know what happened to them, they didn’t speak English.” The Refugee Council referred him to a hostel for five days and then on to a church. He believes that squatting is a logical solution: “Why have houses empty? Why have people sleeping in the church?” He is looking forward to an English course organised for him by ARCH and the Churches Refugee Network. He too awaits a Home Office decision.
The ARCH crew eventually squatted a house for refugees further north in Stoke Newington. I vaguely recall from a radical history walk a few years back that this was somewhere around Manor Road/Lordship Park?
Before that, there were some lessons learnt and some reflections to be had, as ContraFlow put it:
The second mistake was thinking that the problem of accomodation could be dealt with separately to all the other problems faced by refugees. It was assumed that other groups and networks would step in and take over all the social work stuff, but the first refugee showed that it wasn’t so easy, and that being in a strange country with a strange language makes it pretty damned hard to do anything for yourself, apart from whatever stresses and depression you might bring with.
Anyway, a few people found themselves taking on a whole lot of social work, and running around finding groups that might be able to help out. After three weeks the centre was evicted and plans to move on to a new place immediately were postponed to give time to work out what was actually needed next, and because the squat centre, where some of those involved lived and which was generally used as a base, was also being evicted.
But work continued, with a local church network and community groups, sorting out places for people to stay as well as working on other aspects of the struggle, and support for those refugees who found their way to the network.
The Refugee Council, who had been desperately calling for churches to make space available, stopped referring refugees to the church network because of their connection with ARCH, but the churches remained supportive, and a house was eventually opened up. which is now housing a number of refugees, and one non-refugee for support. Many contacts were made, and networks are being organised around London to try to open up houses and centres in other areas, but it isn’t easy.
One of the vague ideas behind ARCH was that it would take off and become autonomous, that space would be created for refugees to take up their own fight. It hasn’t happened yet. partly because of the low numbers involved so far, and because it will always be easier for activists, who will always have to be around, to give support. The skills are out there, to find and provide what’s needed, if we can bring them together.
This isn’t just another benefit attack to be tagged on to our fight against the JSA. It’s not just another attack on housing adding to homelessness. It’s an attack on the ability of ordinary people like us to escape unbearable conditions created by the global (but still hierarchical) squeeze on our conditions, by local states’ attacks on behalf of global, asylum seeking capital. If money is going to zap around the world looking for cheaper labour and better investments, it can’t allow us to wander off looking for higher wages and better conditions. At best we’ll be allowed to be guestworkers, with our families and the costs of reproduction left behind, and with no rights to settle, organise.
This is an attack on London and its beautiful cosmopolitan mix of cultures and people, an attack on the communities here and on our history of refuge and struggle. In a way it’s a last chance for us to act locally and globally at the same time, to carry out direct actions that make us part of the world instead of just acting against increasingly localised political structures, with occasional solidarity actions to protest at the nastiness of other states. It is also a chance for us (the vast majority of ContraFlow readers, and writers) to break of our ghetto of our European “alternative” scene, and discover the world that is collected together in our cities.
For me ARCH is an inspiring example of practical solidarity being provided to those most in need by people with scant resources. For all its problems, this was direct action at its best. Since 1996 the pace of gentrification in Hackney has accelerated to the point where there are very few empty properties and this increase in value has been reflected in some changes to the law on squatting too. Nevertheless squatting is still happening, but generally in a less open manner. The veterans at the Advisory Service for Squatters are still doing a excellent work in difficult circumstances.
The support mechanism for migrants in the borough have been professionalised and there are obvious advantages to that, although I am sure that the constant worries about funding and simply not having the resources to do what needs to be done must be very stressful: Hackney Migrant Centre is seeking donations and volunteers.
The controversry about the Museum of the Home’s racist memorial to slave trader Robert Geffrye continued this month. The Hackney Citizen reported that:
Of the 2,187 respondents to the [museum’s] consultation, 71 per cent voted to take the statue down, with 29 per cent saying to leave it up. Four per cent did not respond to the question.
Protests have been taking place regularly outside the still-closed museum and persons unknown have upped the ante with some radical redecoration to the exterior wall as can be seen in the photo above. Police are apparently investigating this as well as the impressive makeover of the statue itself:
Having steadfastly ignored the wishes of the community, the PR geniuses at the museum raised hackles across the borough with a tweet inviting people to implicate themselves in the ongoing shitstorm:
In happier news, the The Rio Tape/Slide Archive: Radical Community Photography in Hackney in the 80s book has now been published and if you like this blog you should get it. It’s a lavish production with 254 pages filled with amazing photos and some great commentary from participants in the original Rio Tape/Slide project as well as Michael Rosen and Hackney photographer Alan Denney.
My copy arrived a few days ago and the few pages I have managed so far have already piqued my interest for some future entries here.
The book is £26 direct from Isola Press (and I think from the Rio itself and Artsword bookshop on Broadway Market) and is apparently going quick. If you can’t afford that, then check out the related free exhibition at the newly opened Hackney Museum (the museum that knows how to do things properly in Hackney).
The exhibition online launch event is online with some great presentations about Hackney in the 1980s and the background of the production of the book:
Alan Denney is also in conversation with the Hackney Society on 10th December. This free online event will cover his own incredible photos of Hackney in the 1970s and 1980s.
Some great 1980s posters from the Hackney Empire were unearthed this month. The poster on the left was tweeted by Hackney Museum who had this to say:
Opposition to South African Apartheid was widespread in 1980s Hackney In 1985 workers at the British Tyre & Rubber factory (SA) went on strike over rights, pay and conditions. Within 72 hours they were dismissed.This play was put on to raise money for the strikers #bhm2020
The poster on the right was posted by Hackney ranting poet and author Tim Wells on his excellent Stand Up and Spit blog. Tim’s skinhead werewolf pulp horror shocker of a novel Moonstomp was a highlight of last year and was mainly set in late 1970s Hackney. This month he announced his second novelShine On Me which promises “Skinhead werewolf, mod witches, dead Crass fans!”
Veteran radical Hackney historian Ken Worpole wrote a fascinating obituary for his friend Mick Hugo in the Guardian this month, covering his work as a merchant seaman and his time in Hackney the 1970s as a squatter, housing activist and Centerprise volunteer amongst many other things.
Meanwhile in horticultural history, The Happy Man Tree was voted “Tree of the Year”. It’s a 150 year old grade A London Plane street tree near Woodberry Down which is (still?) slated for demolition by Berkeley Homes.
Hackney Archives is sadly still closed but Friends of Hackney Archives are going strong and have unusually published a copy of their newsletteronline with an update on the archives and articles including Philip Twells MP (a slave owner who lived on Stoke Newington Church Street), the campaign to restore the Hackney stocks, Hackney in London Parish maps circa 1900 and more.
Hackney Account is an inspiring youth-led police monitoring group launched earlier this year. They just published their reportPolicing in Hackney: Challenges From Youth In 2020 with some excellent statistics and commentary about stop and search and other recent policing issues in the borough. I was struck by the title and its resonance with the essential book published by Karia Press in 1988 and how some things have improved since then, while some things have stayed the same.
This summer statues of John Cass were removed from St Botolph’s Church (Aldgate High Street) and the Sir John Cass Institute (Jewry St). Cass’ connections to Hackney are documented in a previous post here.
These include PDFs of Hackney Union News from the late 1980s, a number of Hackney Community Defence Association pamphlets and three issues of Revolutions Per Minute – a cultural magazine produced by the Colin Roach Centre.
I am conscious that personal websites can get hacked or go offline for various reasons, so have taken the liberty of arranging for these documents to be added to the archive.org site alongside dozens of other radical Hackney documents from the seventies to the noughties.
Astrid Proll was a household name in the 1970s along with her comrades Ulrike Meinhof, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and other members of the Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Faction – aka The Baader-Meinhof gang).
Astrid’s older brother Thorwald Proll introduced her to the circle of radicals that would become the RAF – indeed, she would be one of its founders. The group’s politics were broadly anti-imperialist: opposed to the Vietnam war and outraged by the prominence of former Nazis in West Germany. The state would brand them “anarchist violent offenders”, but most anarchists I know would categorise them as Maoists (and point out that urban guerilla movements with no connection to the working class do not end well).
On 2nd April 1968 (before becoming the RAF), the group had organised arson attacks on two Frankfurt department stores. This was in revenge for the killing of Benno Ohnesorg (a protestor shot by a policeman during a demonstration opposing the Shah of Iran’s visit to West Berlin. The killer would eventually be revealed as an East German Stasi agent) – and also against the ongoing Vietnam war. Days later, Baader and several others including Thorwald Proll were caught by the police and imprisoned.
Baader was eventually freed by armed members of the group during a staged interview with Ulrike Meinhof at a library on 14 May 1970. Astrid Proll was the getaway driver. She was also involved in bank robberies around this time to raise funds for the RAF’s operations and underground existence. She became one of the most wanted women in West Germany.
Proll and RAF member Manfred Grasho were stopped by the cops on 10 February 1971 but managed to get away under police gunfire. It was falsely claimed that she had shot at the two officers attempting to arrest her. However in Hamburg on 6 May of the same year, Astrid was finally caught after a pump attendant at a petrol station recognised her from a wanted poster and alerted the authorities. She attempted to flee but was surrounded by armed officers and arrested – and then charged with offences including attempted murder and robbery.
In November 1971, Astrid Proll became the first of several RAF members to be held in solitary confinement in the new “dead wing” of Cologne-Ossendorf prison. She was 24 years old. The “dead wing” or “silent wing” was an ingenious facility of six cells in which the walls and furniture were painted entirely white. A bare neon light turned on 24 hours a day was supplemented by meagre daylight through a narrow slit too high to see out of. The cells were designed so that no external sounds could penetrate them. It was forbidden for prisoners to hang pictures on the walls.
These conditons amount to torture and would be one of the factors that led subsequent RAF prisoners to go on hunger stirke. Proll spent two and half years in solitary confinement (four and half months of which were in the dead wing). She developed circulatory problems, difficulty breathing, panic attacks and was sometimes unable to walk.
On February 4, 1974 Astrid’s trial was adjourned because of her ill health, and she was granted bail. Shortly after this she fled West Germany under a false passport. After spending some time in Italy, she arrived in London in August 1974.
Astrid in London
I fled to Britain […] and realised how overtly ideological and misguided the German left had become. In Britain the left was more pragmatic and had more realistic goals; it was also more tuned into the real world. A concept as deluded as “armed struggle” would never have come to pass here.
Astrid Proll, The Matured Spirit of ’68
Precise details of Astrid’s early time in London are hard to pin down. She seems to have moved around a lot, living in Holland Park, Mile End and Kilburn as well as several addresses in Hackney. In interviews she has mentioned the support she received from feminists, squatters and Hackney members of the libertarian marxist group Big Flame.
Using her false passport, Astrid got married to Robin Puttick at Stepney registry office on January 22, 1975. She took the name Anna Puttick. This is generally believed to be a marriage of convenience as she was on the run – and a lesbian. As she told Iain Sinclair “I had to have papers, I was so German.”
Living in Hackney
“Solidarity was the precept of the counterculture. The squats were the material basis and preconditon for the emergence of political activism, art and alternative life. These houses, removed from the circulation of capitalist valorisation, were open spaces for experimentations of all kinds towards a life lived without economic constraints”
Astrid Proll, Goodbye To London
So where did she live?
Several contributors to the Kill Your Pet Puppy website mention her being hidden away in the squats of Brougham Road near Broadway Market (the street would later be an epicentre of anarchist punk activity in the 1980s).
Court documents from the time mention her “first squat” at the end of 1974 being 25 Marlborough Avenue E8. Astrid herself in Goodbye To London recalls “squatting with a female friend in a former shoe store in Broadway Market” and she told Iain Sinclair:
“When I heard about the death of Ulrike Meinhof in Stammheim Prison, I lived in a street that no longer exists, Lamb Lane. Beside London Fields. I lived around Broadway Market a lot. There was a huge women’s movement thing, a whole scene.”
Meinhof died in mysterious circumstances on 9 May 1976. The general trajectory of the RAF after Astrid left Germany had been increasingly desperate. Life in exile would have been stressful, but must have seemed like the better option.
There was a thriving alternative scene in the capital at the time and Astrid mentions attending women-only dances as well as suppoting the striking Asian women workers on the picket lines at the Grunwick dispute in West London. But the past was never far away…
Writer Philip Oltermann suggests that Proll and “a group of lesbians from Bow” were in the crowd of 80,000 at the free Rock Against Racism / Anti-Nazil League gig in Victoria Park on 30 April 1978. He mentions her “panic rising” when she saw the RAF logo onstage on the t-shirt worn by Joe Strummer of The Clash:
(Incidentally the burgeoning “punkademic” industry seems inexorably drawn to making connections between the RAF and punk. Personally I think it’s clear that Strummer was a poseur with a nice turn in protest music and social observation, but he was sorely lacking in political analysis. Tom Vague concludes his RAF book with a fantastic photo of Sid Vicious and John Lydon posing in front of a Baader-Meinhof wanted poster in Berlin in 1977. In the same year anarchist punks Crass pasted up a poster near Covent Garden’s Roxy club with the slogan “Germany got Baader-Meinhof, England got punk but they can’t kill it”. I’d say one t-shirt, one photograph and one poster were slim evidence, but I’m not a lecturer with a quota of publications to fill. I’d be much more interested to hear about what other gigs Astrid Proll and her social circle were going to in mid-70s London…).
“I always knew that a photo of me could give me away and destroy my London life. So I avoided being photographed. When the book ‘Hitler’s Children:The Story of the Baader-Meinhof Terrorist Gang’ was released, female friends went out and stole the book off bookstore shelves or tore out the pages with my photograph”
Astrid Proll, Goodbye To London
Friends from the time mention her being a good neighbour and putting down roots:
“The children would be in and out of her house at the weekends, she’d be delighted on the occasions they stayed the night there because she revelled in their company and because it left me free. [She put] all her energy into her work, into friendships, into the squatting and local communty as a whole.”
Anonymous friend quoted by Friends of Astrid Proll
This lifestyle and support network would do a fine job of keeping Proll out of sight of the authorities… for a while.
“Women Work In Hackney”
Astrid’s work in London is better documented than where she lived. Each of her three jobs had a Hackney connection.
In the Spring of 1975 she was employed as a gardener by the council:
“I went to get a job with Hackney Council. I was a park keeper. In Clissold Park, my favourite park. I was working with an Irish guy, raking, mowing. They threw us both out, him and me. After six months. […] I had Clissold Park. I had London Fields. I had a little park which was in Shoreditch. It was around a church, a little garden. I had to go out in the morning and open it.”
Quoted by Iain Sinclair
Hackney Council also paid for Astrid to train as a car mechanic:
[…] in 1976 [she] enrolled on a government training course in car mechanics at Poplar Skill Centre. She left the course with a City and Guilds Certificate and, [had] taken an evening class in welding […] She had obtained all the necessary qualifications; national insurance card, union card and driving licence in the name of Senta Puttick.”
She was apparently the only woman on the training course. Car mechanic was an unusual profession for a woman in the 1970s and especially one trying not to attract attention. Not to mention being photographed for an exhibition:
“I did not live underground in England,” she insists. “I lived with other youths who also read Marx and idealised the working classes. I worked on the shop floor and as a car mechanic. This attitude was very admired in the Seventies.”
Quoted by Tina Jackson
Her new skills got her nicknamed “Anna the Spanner”. She put them to good use, running a car maintenance class for women and in 1977 got a job at the iconic Lesney factory next to Hackney marshes. Lesney’s made “Matchbox” toy cars and was a big employer in the borough. She started as a fitter’s mate and was eventually promoted to be a supervisor. She was a member of the Amalgamated Electrical union. (Speculation – the Big Flame group were quite big on this sort of shop floor activity?)
“At work, Anna had to cope with the suspicion, ribaldry and loneliness that comes with being the only woman in a traditionally male job. At Lesney’s some of the men wouldn’t work with her because she was a woman, and one of the supervisors was always really down on her. Anna is an inspiration to me, and to other women, in her determination to fight this sex discrimination and not let herself be discouraged.”
Anonymous friend, quoted by Friends of Astrid Proll
In late 1977 she got a job training young offenders as mechanics at Camden Enterprises on Finchley Road, West Hampstead. Accordng to journalist Tina Jackson she subverted the training programme by “showing some of her students how to use the skills she’d taught them to steal cars”.
It would be her last job in London for some time…
On 15 September 1978 a couple of uniformed policemen visited the Camden Enterprises workshop. Astrid’s manager Vincent Wilcox assumed they wanted to speak to him about a motoring offence. He soon realised he was off the hook:
“The next moment about ten plain clothes officers from Scotland Yard came in and took her up to the recreation room, pushed her up against the lockers and searched her.”
Quoted in BBC: On This Day
Proll did not resist arrest. It is heartening that she doesn’t seem to have been grassed up by anyone in the London counterculture:
“I was most likely recognised by a policeman when I accompanied a young man who was always stealing cars and getting into trouble to the police station. As the officials from Scotland Yard took me away from the garage, the young men looked at me, stunned. I just said ‘I won’t see you again’.”
Astrid Proll, Farewell To London
She quickly released a statement through her solicitor: “I have lived in England for the past four years – I have no contact with the Red Army Faction and I have tried to settle down as best I could in the circumstances.”
The RAF women had long been salivated over by the media and so Astrid’s arrest was predictably sensationalised. Her contacts were interrogated by reporters and every aspect of her lifestyle picked over:
Proll would later tell journalist Kate Connolly “The British tabloids were one of the most terrifying things I have experienced.”
Whilst Proll was being held and questioned at Paddington Green police station, her support network sprang into action:
Graffiti backing her rapidly appeared. Lee Nurse and a friend cycled late one night down to Old Street where they painted ‘No extradition for Astrid Proll’ across the top of the large ventilation shaft in the centre of the roundabout. It remained in place for many years and only disappeared when the new ‘silicon roundabout’ appeared as part of the transformation of the area into a ‘technology hub’
One of the most remarkable things about the story of the RAF is the widespread support they seemed to have had in West Germany at the time – with some estimates suggesting 10,000 sympathisers. Similarly in London, the “Friends of Astrid Proll” solidarity campaign appears to have been sizeable and multifaceted.
“The Passions and the Nips, Shane MacGowan’s pre-Pogues group, appeared at a Rough Theatre benefit for the defence fund of Astrid Proll of the Baader-Meinhof gang”
“We actually helped to organise the Astrid Proll thing because she was a friend, we knew her as Anna and she worked as a mechanic teaching young people at a youth project in North London. I remember her being very interested in my old Vauxhall and then later reading about her Baader Meinhof exploits, it seems she was their getaway driver! I also remember Crass phoning up and desperately wanting to play at the gig (being anarchists I suppose they would), but there wasn’t space on the bill for them. They were very disappointed. It was a good gig, well attended if I remember correctly.”
Richard Williams, drummer for The Passions
The gig was followed by a discussion at the Scala Cinema and a film benefit at the Womens Art Alliance, showing “Shirin’s Wedding” – which is about the unfortunate life of a young female Turkish migrant to West Germany:
Singer Nik Turner (most famous for his time in Hawkwind) was inspired by Proll’s plight (and apparently her time squatting in Brougham Road?). The first single by his new band Inner City Unit was originally called “Solitary Astrid”. However “to avoid controversy” the song was given the title “Solitary Ashtray”. Which does beg the question why the b-side was called “SO T RY AS I D” (“so try acid”)?
Before performing the song in Bristol in 2016, Nik told an amusing tale of donating to the Friends of Astrid Proll support fund – and because of all this being raided himself by Special Branch for drugs and terrorist materials.
This cultural solidarity provided the funding and wider context for the political work being done. Astrid was transferred to Brixton prison shortly after her arrest. Friends of Astrid Proll organised pickets of the prison and protests at Bow Street Magistrate’s Court where her case was being heard:
Brixton was – and remains – a male prison. There were two other female prisonsers at the time: Iris Mills (an anarchist arrested as part of the “Persons Unknown” case – who would be acquitted) and young Palestinian activist Khloud al Mugrabi (who may have been Iraqi or Lebanese? And spoke no English). All three were “Category A” prisoners – requiring maximum security.
Proll was allowed visitors though – and was able to write letters to supporters that were used in their literature.
Naturally one of the objectives of the campaign was that Astrid be transferred to the female Holloway Prison in North London. Alongside this the main demand was that she should not be extradited on the grounds that she would not get a fair trial in West Germany and that the new anti-terror laws there were draconian.
She was understandably terrified of returning to Germany as she was still suffering from the trauma resulting from her imprisonment in the “dead wing”:
“Not even today, six years later, have I completely recovered […]. I can’t stand rooms which are painted white because they remind me of my cell. Silence in a wood can terrify me, it reminds me of the silence in the isolated cell. Darkness makes me so depressive as if my life were taken away. Solitude causes me as much fear as crowds. Even today I have the feeling occasionally as if I can’t move.”
“I do not expect to survive if I return to Germany.”
Astrid Proll quoted in Friends of Astrid Proll literature
Three leaflets from Friends of Astrid Proll are available as PDFs here.
Extradition and Trial
Various attempts were made to thwart the extradition process including Astrid applying to be a British citizen by dint of her marriage and several years of residence. This was a longshot – complicated by her using false papers to get married and the lack of affection for her by the British state and media. The case is still cited today in legal textbooks.
The legal battles were eventually exhausted and Astrid returned voluntarily to Germany in June 1979. Her trial there commenced in September and went a great deal better than anyone was expecting.
The most serious charge was of the attempted murder of police officers during an attempted arrest back in February 1971. This was dropped when it emerged that the state had evidence all along that she hadn’t opened fire.
In February 1980 Astrid Proll was sentenced to five-and-a-half years for bank robbery and falsifying documents. But as she had already spent more than two thirds of her sentence in British and West German jails she was released immediately. She was 32 years old.
Freedom and aftermath
The British Home Secretary banned her for life from entering Britain. After a lengthy legal battle she was allowed to return in 1988.
She studied film and photography in Hamburg and subsequently worked as a picture editor for the German magazine Tempo and The Independent newspaper in London.
Her 1998 book Baader-Meinhof: Pictures on the run 67-77 apparently documents the pre-London years (and is now prohibitively expensive).
In 2010 she contributed to the exhibition “Goodbye To London: Radical Art & Politics in the 70s” and edited the accompanying book which includes some excellent material about squatting, LGBT culture, Hackney Flashers, Grunwick etc – as well as an essential foreword by Proll that is quoted above.
Hackney Gutter Press was the most revolutionary, counter-cultural and colourful of the plethora of community newspapers published in the borough in the early 1970s. Previous entries on this blog have covered issues 2-5.
Issues 3 and 5 can be found on archive.org – so as far as I know, the complete set is now online. (If you were involved with the project or know more about it, get in touch!)
Most people in Hackney don’t like the way their lives are controlled by work, rents, councillors, police, schools etc. A lot of us are organising to fight their control – but we feel we don’t know enough about each other. For example with the coming tenants’ campaign against the Fair Rents Act we’re going to need a united fight if we are going to win – women at home, people going to work, claimants and kids together: we’re all tenants.
We want this newspaper to be used as part of getting to know each other. Organising to fight together. We want it to be used as a WEAPON TO FIGHT FOR OUR OWN CONTROL OF HACKNEY.
This first issue was produced by a group of people whjo are involved in organised activities such as Claimants’ Unions, squatting, Womens Liberation, playhouses for children, food co-ops.
We have intense discontent with the Hackney Gazette. Not only do they always report in favour of the rich and those in authority, but even this reporting is inadequate, amateurish and often totally inaccurate.
HACKNEY GUTTER PRESS is non-profit making and its policy will be decided from issue to issue by open meetings.
The first meeting witll be at Centerprise, 34, Dalston Lane on Thursday May 4th at 8pm. This is open to all wishing to help produce the paper, writing, drawing cartoons, distributing, reporting, etc.
Introduction from Hackney Gutter Press issue 1
It looks like the debut issue was published in April 1972. (Judging by the dates referred to in the articles)
Contents of the first issue include:
Why Not Squat? On direction action to solve the homeless issue. The Council faces resistance when it tries to evict four families squatting Grayling Road in Stoke Newington.
The Stoke Newington 8 – update on the arrests of 6 people in Amhurst Road the previous year in relation to Angry Brigade bombings.
Mildmay Action House, 26 Mildmay Park N1.“We’d had enough, kids around the house all day, fed up with endless housework and nowhere else to go. So we took action – women and children from Grosvenor Avenue marched on the Council last summer and demanded a house and money – we got both, and started work straight away on repairing and painting the house, clearing the garden” – plans to run the house collectively as community/childcare centre and Claimant’s Union.
Militant protests outside two different Hackney Social Security Offices, both broken up by police.
Last train to Dalston Junction? North London line station (i.e. Dalston Kingsland now) threatened with closure.
In the Courts – defend yourself with McKenzie advisors – Three members of Highbury and Hackney Claimants’ Union were charged with criminal damage for painting slogans on the side of a Social Security Office. They defended themselves in court were initially fined £30 and then acquitted on appeal. “The defendants told the magistrates what a load of deathlike, corrupt, prejudiced, bastards they were, representing a law designed only to prevent people taking back what is their own.” The defendants also demanded a minute’s silence for the 13 people murdered in Derry recently! (NB – do not do any of this now, Radical History of Hackney will not be held legally liable if you happen to spray paint a benefits office and/or are convicted after defending yourself in court).
Rents Will Double – Then There’ll Be Trouble. Calls for rent strikes if council rents increase from £3.50 to £7.47. And quite right too. Suggestion that the tenants associations run by the Labour Party will not be aggressive enough in challenging the increase.
The design for issue 6 was more sombre. Perhaps reflecting the contents or possibly the budget. It seems to have been published in December 1972.
The cover story is on the conclusion of the trial of the Stoke Newington 8 “after 111 days and nearly £1,000,000 in costs”:
Hackney Gutter Press was concerned about the policing of the suspects, the safety of convictions and the wider implications of the use of conspiracy to imprison radicals. It called for James Greenfield, Anna Mendelssohn, John Barker and Hilary Creek (who were found guilty) to be regarded as political prisoners.
There are some reprints of the wildly lurid coverage of the trial from the tabloids:
Also in this issue:
Demonstration at the Town Hall against the implementation of the government’s Housing Finance Act.
Up The Squatters! 25 people squatting 4 houses in Dalston take on Second Actel Housing Association. Scenes of disorder in the courtroom. The case was thrown out, eviction staved off. Also a new squat at 98 Richmond Road E8.
Freedom of the Press? Or ideology of the State? on BBC and media bias.
Justice in Action – British Home Stores in Mare Street takes a 75 year old pensioner to court for allegedly nicking 16 pence worth of sweets.
Securicor – concern that private security firms will be used against protestors / poor people more generally.
Fight To Live – unemployment and the radical demand for an equal living income for all.
Hackney Dossers – survey of rough sleeping in the borough.
The back page has the usual contacts for radical and community organisations as well as a bold short piece slagging off a magistrate:
Also on the back page, a plea for assistance. with production and sale of the magazine. “The Gutter Press needs helpers if it is to keep going”. This looks like the last issue though. After this the paper merged with the more moderate Hackney Action to form the much longer running Hackney People’s Press.
Bob Darke is best known for the 1952 book The Communist Technique in Britain about his disaffection with the Hackney Branch of the Communist Party. That’s been previously covered here.
Darke criticised the CP for its subservience to Stalinist Russia at the expense of working class issues in Hackney. So it was hardly surprising that after he left the party he continued to work as a bus conductor and focus on trade union and tenants issues:
I live in Nisbet House, Homerton, a block of council flats in the Borough of Hackney, where washing is always hanging on the lines on the verandas, and there are bicycles and prams in the tiled hallways and sheds. Such a block of flats in the East End is a world of its own, closer-knit than the luxury flats in the West End where, I imagine, a man can lock his door on his neighbours. But if, in the East End, you can’t keep your own business from the neighbours that also means that your circle of friends is all the wider.
The Communist Technique in Britain, p7
In the clip above he makes the case for strong tenants organisations being bulwark against racism and the spread of organisations like the National Front.
Another instalment in a very occasional series which looks at a year in the life of radical community newspaper Hackney People’s Press. We last saw HPP in 1975, with a focus on health, Hackney Mental Patients Union and lots more.
The paper was itself in good health in 1976, managing to publish four issues after a brief hiatus caused by a lack of people getting involved:
The May issue is the skinniest at 8 pages, covering:
A demand by the Hackney Nursery Campaign for More Nurseries – “There are 4000 children under five years old in Hackney whose parents both work (or in the case of single parent families, whose one parent is at work). To cater for this immense need, there are 379 Council day nursery places at the moment…” the campaign emerged from discussions between Hackney Under Fives, Council nursery workers and the women’s subcommittee of the Trades Council.
As well as more nurseries, demands included:
Negotiated pay scales for nursery workers
Hackney Council to convert houses and large flats on estates to use as nurseries
Speed up long term plans for purpose built nurseries.
This was to be an ongoing issue and was part of the reason for the emergence of radical nurseries such as Dalston Children’s Centre in the early eighties.
Hackney Private Tenants Association – “Tenants of private landlords face some of the most difficult housing problems in Hackney. Housing conditions are terrible. 1 in 3 has no hot water. 1 in 2 has no access to a bath or shower. 1 in 3 share a toilet. Only 1 in 5 of the 30,000 plus households living in private rented accomodation have all these facilities. In return they pay enormous rents. Illegal evictions and unlawful harassment are widespread. Often tenants have to fight long drawn out niggling battles to get even minor repairs done.”
“In the words of a local newspaper reporter: ‘It’s a story when someone in Hackney is living in decent conditions’.”
Membership of the association was 5p a year and most of its work revolved around raising awareness about bad housing with councillors and MPs and taking up individual cases. But “we recognise that, in the long run, the housing crisis can only be solved when the economy is run for the people not for profiteers – and landlords become extinct.”
Unfortunately landlords are very much still with us 41 years later, so this sort of campaigning is still sorely needed. Luckily we have Hackney Renters to take up the gauntlet.
Homerton Project: new life in and old library – A centrespread on plans for a community centre being developed in the old library building on Brooksby’s Walk. The old library had been closed in 1974 when the new library opened (it’s still there on Homerton High Street). The Citizens Advice Bureau had been using the old library building but the article mentions an impressive array of plans for educational, social and cultural activities. Many of these did actually take place as the old library reopened as Chats Palace later in 1976.
Plus – The Marsh Mail launched (a magazine started by users of the Hackney Marsh adventure playground), Abortion – opposition to the James White Abortion Amendment Bill, listings of local groups, Hackney Marsh Fun festival announcement. Centerprise five year birthday celebrations,
Things hot up in July with an expanded 12 pages.
Cover feature / lead story on the National Front in Hackney:
The piece covers the work of Hackney Committee Against Racialism and also covers NF activity in the borough:
In the general election of 1974, NF candidates received 1044 votes in Hackney North and 2544 in Hackney South and Shoreditch (the latter being almost 10% of the vote). After this they announced that fascist grandee John Tyndall would stand for MP in Hackney at the next election (which he did in 1979, with reduced vote share of 7.6%).
Inevitably, fascists did not just stick to the ballot box. The article also highlights racist stickering, attempts by NF members to get involved with tenants associations, NF leaflets being delivered to Hoxton residents as well as a more general increase in day to day racist abuse on the streets. And worse: “On Colville Estate black tenants have parcels of faeces and burning paraffin soaked rags pushed through their letterboxes. Some black women recently took out a summons against Derek [sic] Day – the local NF boss who lives in Hoxton – for assault. […] In Hoxton market, the locals say that there are some stalls which only sell vegetables to white customers.”
Four hundred local trade unionists and anti-racists marched through Hoxton (taking in the market and Derrick Day’s house). There was a small NF counter protest which stuck to shouting racist slogans.
Pollution: The Socialist Answer – a report on the inaugural meeting of the Socialist Environment and Resources Association.
Bad Deal for Backward Kids – a slightly excruciatingly worded article by today’s standards, but obviously well meaning. Cuts to resources and bad planning at the new “Educationally Subnormal School” at Nile Street in Hoxton.
Broadway Market Is Not A Sinking Ship – It’s A Submarine – attempts by squatters and other locals to reclaim some waste ground opposite Brougham Road and Brook Road which was due for redevelopment by the GLC. The hope was that the space could be turned into an adventure playground.
Highway Robbery on the Buses – fares go up, even though there are less buses. A mixed bag of proposals including mention of the Italian “autoreduction” campaign in which unions issued passes to passengers at the old prices, which were endorsed by drivers. Less excitingly there is also talk of trade councils passing resolutions and sending letters of complaint to the London Transport Executive.
Law Centre open – (at 236 Mare Street, where it was for many years before becoming Hackney Community Law Centre and moving to Lower Clapton Road.)
And: Health cutbacks and closures, Claimants Union, appeal to rebuild a hospital in Ky Anh Vietnam to treat victims of the war, listings, Hackney Marsh Fun Festival.
Another 12 pager, with a cheeky insert inciting people to bunk the bus fare and arrange and ad hoc credit account with the London Transport Executive:
Themes from previous issues continue- cuts to health services, unemployment up, nursery provision down, benefits claimants get a poor deal.
Workers Sacked for Striking – The Psychiatric Rehabilitation Centre was a Hackney based organisation that helped “ex-mental patients find their feet in society”. Its staff had a number of grievances with the trustees, including no written contracts or pay scales, no grievance procedure, poor communication, etc. They unionised and were about to strike when they were dismissed. There is an account of a discussion with PRA Director John Wilder and some rebuttals to his account from workers. The PRA became the Centre for Better Health in 2010 and is now based on Darnley Road off Mare Street.
The End of the Line for Hackney? – redevelopment of Liverpool Street station including office blocks. Also some proposals for more stations and their impact on the local community.
Hackney Committee Against Racialism reports on canvassing local residents, removing NF graffiti and demanding that the Council ban fascists from using public property to pedal racialism including markets. Gay centres in Shoredtich and Finsbury Park were vandalised by fascists and a Labour Party anti-fascist canvasser was beaten up near Manor House.
There’s a bizarrely fish-themed parody of the Hackney Gazette on the back page:
Rounding the year off with another 12 pages:
Junior Doctors put out a statement pointing out that the situation is already pretty dire – “Conditions are so bad at F Block, the psychiatric block at Hackney Hospital that the Royal College of Nursing won’t allow student nurses to train there.”
Occupation of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital in central London.
Health Hierarchy – a more analytical piece about the power imbalance in the NHS and calls for more democratic control.
Hackney Abortion Campaign and the effect of the cuts on women.
GLC Tenants in Slum Housing: conditions on the Pembury Estate: “whole blocks of flats empty, boarded up, vandalised and left to decay. One block, Adisham House, has been empty for three years.” Also general disrepair for flats which are occupied – by residents which the article notes are primarily BME, squatters or former squatters.
Exposed! Who Are The Hackney Flashers? A great one page introduction to this feminist/socialist women’s photography group:
People Before Roads – opposition to a new road from Hackney Wick to Highbury.
Christmas Award – for the architect of the Trowbridge Estate for putting a “french window” door into a flat with a 14 floor drop on the other side…
Also – opposition to education cuts, campaign against Dublin anarchists Noel and Marie Murray being hanged for robbing a bank, Regents Canal – a new walk in Hackney, Friends of the Earth forms, Half Moon Theatre, Hackney Women’s Aid asking for furniture etc for new premises, Gingerbread (assistance for single parents) plea for donations.