“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.

Stamford Hill Estate squat evictions, March 1988

By March 1988, with over 120 flats squatted on the Stamford Hill Estate alone, the council brought in riot cops to attempt a mass eviction. After a three day stand off, with burning barricades, hundreds of masked squatters and local supporters, the estate was finally lost.

– From Hackney Anarchy Week’s “Hackney’s Anarchic 90s” text.

Squatters Set Fire To Cars To Block Eviction – Glasgow Herald, March 8th 1988

Screenshot 2015-03-21 15.19.48

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(this image courtesy of http://flickrhivemind.net/Tags/stamfordhill/Interesting via Throbbings of Noontide)

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(Counter Information text via Libcom. Counter Information was a free one-sheeter distributed widely across the UK from the mid 80s until 2003)

With thanks to History Is Made At Night for passing on three of the images above from Facebook.

The green poster above is currently on display at the Hackney Museum as part of their Hackney@50 – the People’s Choice exhibition: “50 objects, 50 stories, 50 years of Hackney.”

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(Image nicked from twitter, with thanks and apologies to whoever the handsome man shown is).

See also Chris Dorley Brown – squatters evicted, stamford hill 1988 on Flickr (another burned out car image with some good comments below).

If you have any recollections of the evictions or of squatting in Stamford Hill, leave a comment below or get in touch.

Hackney Gutter Press issue 4, Summer 1972

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(the yellow and red contrast on the cover didn’t scan at all well, so here is a photo)

Who Killed Aseta Simms?

Readers of the Gutter Press No. 2 will have seen the article on Stephen McCarthy who died at the hands of the Upper Street Police in Islington. They may not be aware that there are also a number of murderers in blue uniforms wandering freely round the streets of Hackney.

On 13th May 1971 a black woman, Mrs Aseta Simms of 47 Brighton Road, Stoke Newington was taken to Stoke Newington police station. She never came out alive.

This is what her cousin Faye remembers of the incident:

“I was with Aseta most of the day and till the time she left me she was perfectly healthy and normal. Mrs Simms was the landlady of Brighton Road and I went with her to a rent tribunal in Archway in the afternoon. She had been taken to the tribunal by Mrs Archer, the tenant upstairs – they never had very good relations.

“After that we went to my home. We didn’t have anything to drink but when Aseta left about 9:00pm she took with her a bottle of whiskey three quarters full which she’d bought the previous day. She went home to look after her kids..

“The next thing I heard about my cousin was about 2 o’clock in the morning when two policemen knocked on my door. They asked me a lot of questions about Aseta – how many kids? Who was looking after them? Where was her husband? But they wouldn’t tell me why they were asking. They said I had to come to the police station. They told me she was dead. The sergeant said they’d found her lying on the pavement near Stamford Hill. P.C King said she couldn’t sit up or stand up on her own and she had to lie down in the police station. He also said she was struggling and fighting and screaming. How could she do that if she was nearly unconscious? I have never seen Aseta drunk.”

Inquest Whitewash

AT THE INQUEST
Mrs Archer, the tenant who had taken Mrs Simms to the rent tribunal and had been given a week to get out said she had seen Mrs Simms very drunk earlier in the evening. Mrs Archer who admitted “Mrs Simms and I never did get on”, was taken to and from the coroners court in a police car.

PIG SWILL

G. 196 P.C. King testifies:
“I saw a coloured woman lying on a forecourt in Manor Road N16. I went to pick her up; she became terribly violent, grabbed my belt and began twisting it. After a struggle we got her into the van. We lifted her into the van and laid her out onto the floor. I then held her, both her wrists and P.C. 277 held her ankles.

AT THE STATION
“She was not capable of standing, her knees were badly bruised. I didn’t see any bruising over her eyes; come to think of it, I did see bruising over her head. We then put her on the floor in the cell. She was calm and snoring quite loudly. While in there the snoring began to diminish, I thought she was asleep.”
Where did all the bruises come from?

Pig G. 277
“She was lying between cars and swearing, she appeared to be drunk even from a distance… Two hours later I went back to where we had picked her up and found a whiskey bottle leaning against a wall with some whiskey in it.”The pig says there was some whiskey left in the bottle therefore Mrs Simms drank less than three quarters of a bottle.

Sergeants 6.81 and 6.78 duly testified that they saw her struggling and shouting when taken into the van and into the police station, where she suddenly became semi-conscious presumably as a result of usual police pacifying tactics. As 6.78 says when they got her into the cell “Mrs Simms was incapable of doing anything – I returned later and saw G196 sitting outside on the stairs with head in hands and he told me that Mrs Simms had stopped breathing.”

Police Doctor

“There was swelling above the right eye and bruising below. There was deep bruising over her head but no fracture, but the brain was swollen. There was alcohol in the blood stream. It is arguable that some people might die with this level of alcohol in the blood stream but we have had people with much higher levels who are still alive today. The bruising was consistent with someone falling about or with someone who had been beaten. I cannot truthfully say what was the cause of her death.”
If she didn’t die from alcohol presumably it was from a beating.

The coroner, Douglas Chambers said “The Home Office says that the coroner has a choice to sit or not sit with the jury in special circumstances. There are special circumstances in this hearing, therefore under the Home Office rules for coroner’s courts, I shall sit with the jury.”

What the special circumstances were he didn’t say but they were presumably that the police might have been accused of murder. The verdict of the judge and the jury was Death by Misadventure. What WAS the coroner doing by going with the jury?

As far as we know the pigs involved with the death of Aseta Simms, G.196.G, G227, G.81 and G.78, are still wandering round Stoke Newington. They’ve probably been promoted.

Why no Inquiry?

Mrs Simms family and friends and the Black Unity and Freedom Party have been trying to get a public inquiry into the affair for over a year without success. It seems that the verdict of Death by Misadventure was true in a way. The pigs probably didn’t intend to kill Mrs Simms. It seems like the usual form of police harassment of black people and any others they don’t like. Black people, young people, longhaired people, are regularly stopped by the pigs at night, questioned, abused, pushed around, and if there is any reaction dragged into a van to be charged with assaulting the police or some such crap. On the way the pigs pass the time bashing them around. With Mrs Simms they made a mistake. She died. Remember Oluwale in Leeds?

[the Black Unity and Freedom Party published a pamphlet entitled “Who Killed Aseta Simms” which is available elsewhere on this site]

Also in this issue:

Dockers Still Picketing Hackney Depot – more on the picket of Midland Cold Storage co, Waterden Lane.

Islington Squatters, the story so far (cartoon)

Hackney Squatters Union Demands Free Housing For All“…Houses are money. With house prices rising 40% a year, the bosses are investing their ill-gained loot in property. Whether there are tenants or not is not really important. Either way they make money.

We are occupying an increasingly large number of empty homes in Hackney and are rebuilding them in the way we want. Our only chance of winning is when there are so many of us that it is physically impossible to remove us. If you are sick of paying high rents for poky little rooms. If they won’t even give you a poky little room. THEN COME AND JOIN US.

We are going to stand by each other and help each other in more ways than one. We plan to have play groups for our kids, food co-ops, transport available to us all and to share skills like knowledge of electrics, plumbing etc.

We are not a social service and we don’t plan to solve Hackney Borough Council’s housing policy for them. We are taking back what is rightfully ours. We are a union and we will help each other…”

[includes five contact addresses at the end – four in E8 and one in N1]

Hackney Gay Liberation Front:

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[click the image to enlarge]

Campaigning against the Rents Bill:

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Mad McElligott Gives In – more on Hackney Claimants Union members occupying Lower Clapton dole office as part of a campaign to get an old man a payment for slippers and a dressing gown so he could go into hospital. Two female HCU members were charged with threatening behaviour (knocking on the dole office door after they were removed) and assault. They both defended themselves in court in front of Magistrate McElligott. Laughter in the gallery and blustering from the police lawyers. One case dismissed, one adjourned.

The Best Form of Defence is Attack – on representing yourself in court, what to do when arrested, etc.

And: poems, classified ads, letters, brief news item about social security snoopers spying on women to see if they have boyfriends (so that their dole can be cut off!)

Stamford Hill: squatting and police corruption

A cheery greeting on the side of Stamford Hill MFI. Sourced from Throbbingsofnoontide

A cheery greeting on the side of Stamford Hill MFI. Sourced from Throbbingsofnoontide

Blogger and former Hackney resident Throbbingsofnoontide has written a great personal account of the squatting scene on Stamford Hill Estate in the late 1980s.

And also some unpleasant memories of being fitted up by the notoriously corrupt Stoke Newington police:

http://throbbingsofnoontide.wordpress.com/2012/08/26/its-a-fair-cop-oh-wait/

For more info on the police corruption of the era, see Fighting The Lawmen, published by Hackney Community Defence Association.

Hackney Squatting – two views

Image nicked from Dulthud on Flickr

Text reads:

“With its residents plagued by severe damp, Oxted Court was emptied by Hackney Council in the early 1980s and left to rot. In January 1987 (in the middle of a harsh winter) all of its 16 flats were squatted by over 20 young homeless people.

With great effort we set about making this our home. The flats had been looted, trashed, used as drug dens and were full of rubbish as were the gardens. Skips were hired, glass bought for windows, hot water tanks fitted, wiring repaired, damp treated and endured, decorating done, broken toilets replaced, drains unblocked and gardens tidied.

Imagine in what state this block would be in now (over 4 years on) had we not been living here. How much more would it have cost to repair? If we had been in rented housing, for all of us on welfare benefits or low income, the government or the council would have been obliged to pay our rent.

We have saved the taxpayer at least £100,000. The quality of life of the other residents has been improved by not having to live next to a rot infested tip. Is it really too much to ask that we are left in our homes?

Some of us now have families, others have jobs or better qualifications. This was possible because of the stability our actions have given us. This is but one example of the money saved, standard of life increased through communities built by squatters. It is happening all over Hackney.

Squatting is not the problem. It is not just a symptom but a creative response by homeless people to the incompetence and inefficiency of central and local governments.”

More info on the eviction of the Holmleigh Road Estate (where Oxted Court is) in Hackney’s Anarchic Nineties.

Hackney’s Anarchic Nineties

Text accompaning the Timeline in the Hackney Anarchy Week Programme.

Rough and Ready

The last ten years and beyond

In the past twenty or so years Hackney has acquired what’s possibly the largest concentration of Anarcho types in the UK.

The London Borough Hackney’s Labour council is largely to be thanked for this. Their inefficient and poorly managed housing department and lack of resources have ensured that several thousand homes are always left empty. The corruption and complacency of Hackney’s Labour Party is a clear manifestation of the failure of the country’s “democratic” system.

The only viable opposition is coming from radical action outside of the establishment. The infamous and murderous activities of the Stoke Newington Police are an obvious demonstration that the state is not  interested in maintaining a harmonious community but in criminalising and oppressing those at the margins of mainstream society.

A decade ago Anarchists from Hackney were involved in the anti-apartheid campaign and anti-racist issues, the riots at Wapping (which turned a lot of people off non-violence) and squatting actions.

Animal rights issues have been of consistent interest, with actions against fur shops, the anti McDonalds campaign, hunt sabbing, the live exports protests and other more underground activities receiving considerable support.

In the second half of 1987 what became labeled as “Hackney’s Squatters Army” disrupted every monthly council meeting demanding an end to evictions while 3-4,000 council homes remained empty. Links were developed with unions, while direct actions were carried out, such as against workers attempting to steel plate empty fiats. A squat centre was opened on Northwold Road. N16, a minibus purchased and a fairly well organised network established.

By March 1988, with over 120 flats squatted on the Stamford Hill Estate alone, the council brought in riot cops to attempt a mass eviction. After a three day stand off, with burning barricades, hundreds of masked squatters and local supporters, the estate was finally lost.

The Town Hall was again invaded and the former Salvation Army Hostel opposite occupied as emergency accommodation. Brynley Heaven, the Chair of Housing, was hounded out of Hackney and squatting continued to increase.

At the end of 1988 there were weekend gigs and parties at the squatted Club Mankind, Hackney Central and Lee House in Rectory Road N16 was occupied as a cafe/ bookshop/ meeting space and an unforgettable 7 feet half pipe skateboard ramp!

Support continued for outside issues with Hackney Anarchos making lively contributions all the main demos, the Troops Out campaign, the development of the Hackney Community Defence Association and the annual “We Remember” marches in respect of all the people killed by Hackney police. The Hackney Solidarity Group was formed and the controversial “Hackney Heckler” published and distributed free throughout the borough.

In 1990 when the poll tax was introduced there had been disturbances all over the C0untry and trouble was expected the night Hackney set its poll tax. Several thousand people gathered outside the Town Hall, the police lost control and were chased up Mare Street, cop cars were overturned and rioting and looting ensued. (A lot of local people were involved in looting Radio Rentals etc.) “Outside agitators” waving black flags were blamed for the trouble…

A few weeks later there was not surprisingly a massive contingent of Hackney rent-a-mob at Trafalgar Square taking the cops on and smashing up the West End. Police raids followed and a number of Hackney Anarchos ended up in jail. Andy Murphy, a Class War member who had appeared on television, was suspended from his council job (but later reinstated). The following year the council launched a new campaign against squatting using PIOs (Protected Intended Occupier forms). Holmleigh Road estate, N16, which had for years been a hotbed of Anarchist activism including the Rock against the Rich tour, Hackney Solidarity Group etc was evicted.

Hackney has always had a number of combative anti-fascists. Activists from Hackney have been involved in confronting the fascists: in the Kings Cross area and at the annual Remembrance Day commemorations, thwarting the Hitler’s birthday celebrations at Hyde Park in 1989, closing down Nazi shops in the West End, the Battle of Waterloo Station in 1992, and at Hoxton Market, Brick Lane, in the fighting at Welling (formerly home of the BNP headquarters) in 1993 and challenging the BNP on the Isle of Dogs.

There have been numerous squatted party spaces, in warehouses, factories etc. as well as more serious centres such as at 149 Amhurst Road and the Neville Arms. Support has been given to industrial disputes, occupations and actions against cuts in services. In 1988, several libraries were occupied and kept open until they were finally evicted. In 1993, the same happened with various wards of the University College Hospital.


Hackney has a thriving cultural scene (see over!) with lots of bands, sound systems and party organisers. An estimated 30,000 people attended the last Hackney Homeless Festival in Clissold Park in 1994 despite obstructions by the council. Naturally, Hackney produced a lot of opposition to the Criminal Injustice Act with active participation in the different actions and demos culminating in the Hyde Park riot in 1994.

In 1993, the council started a vicious anti-squatting campaign in Hackney, leading to the destruction of many communities. The heavily squatted Pembury Estate, where a feeling of togetherness between tenants and squatters prevailed, became one of the first causalties.

In 1994, the council managed to evict Glading Terrace, Church Crescent and the Spikey Thing with Curves (the old Salvation Army building empty again) in Mare Street. Large numbers of former squatters also began taking up offers of council tenancies on “hard-to-let” estates (for good or for bad).

Hackney Anarcho types had been involved in direct action concerning environmental issues for years and have notably been present at the road protests, in particular the long running M11 campaign and the 1995 Reclaim the Streets actions. New centres have been squatted, the New Pigasus, 75A Mildinay Park, which lasted over a year and provided a vegan cafe, creche, video and poetry nights, circus nad meeting space etc. and the current squat cafe in Stoke Newington.

At the beginning of 1996, the former North London Magistrates Court was squatted to provide accommodation for refugees. As well as combating the government’s racist immigration measures (by means of the autonomous refugee centre ARCH), another issue that is being taken up is the proposed introduction of the Job Seekers Allowance.