Sisterhood, Sawdust and Squatting: radical lesbian lives in 1970s Hackney – Christine Wall

 

 

This talk is about an on-going oral history project aiming to document the history of a lesbian community in Hackney that originated in the squatting movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. Oral recordings enable individual recollections of a political period when there were passionately held, often differing, and frequently discussed, political positions within the women’s liberation movement.  Despite this there was also a common sense of political purpose, and this combined with the collective energy of young lesbian feminists underpinned the many women-only households and squatting communities, which appeared in Inner London at the time.  This talk will focus on a few streets in Hackney and is based on some of the first interviews made during 2015/6.

 

First we have to think about London in the late 1960s and 1970s as a very different city to the one it is now – there were far fewer people in it for a start.  The London County Council, later the GLC, followed a policy in the post-war years of relocating industry and population away from Inner London and into New Towns beyond the green belt, coupled with slum clearance and a new housing program aimed at building new estates with a high proportion of high-rise flats.  These policies resulted in the population of Greater London losing around 70,000 people a year throughout the 1960s.  For those who remained in London there was an acute shortage of decent housing.  A major part of the problem was the state of the housing stock – a very large part of it being nineteenth century terraced housing without what was termed the three essential household amenities. These were that households should have exclusive use of their own water supply and also have hot water, a bath, and an indoor toilet. In Hackney, in 1969, only 36% of households had all three.

 

Hackney’s housing crisis was mirrored throughout Inner London. Like the rest of the Inner City boroughs it contained large swathes of semi-derelict, terraced houses emptied of their council tenants and left in a limbo while there were prolonged planning and financial disputes between Inner London Borough Councils and the GLC over slum clearance and regeneration schemes.  Not surprisingly, by the mid-1970s it was estimated that Inner London was home to between 30 and 40,000 squatters.

So there was a unique historical mix of housing need, empty properties, a hiatus in the finance for regeneration and slum clearance, together with a political climate which had materialized out of the radical political movements of the 1960s, gay liberation and women’s liberation, and which had opened the way to communal and other non-traditional and anti-establishment ways of living. These conditions offered unprecedented opportunities for lesbian women to live together not just in individual households but also in communities.

 

Arriving

Many houses in the streets in the area around Broadway Market and London Fields, owned by the Greater London Council (GLC) had been earmarked for demolition and were standing empty.  By the early 1970s there were a large number of squatted households and a well organized community who met regularly as the Broadway Market Squatters Association. I don’t know who the very first lesbian squatters to move into the area around London Fields and Broadway Market were but I have spoken to a number of women who arrived in the early 1970s to join women who were already living in the streets around London Fields.  So how did women become squatters and hear about women-only housing: again there were fewer people so word of mouth and personal connections and political groups and meetings and newspapers were very effective means of communication. What were the factors that pushed women into taking the decision to squat?

Lynne recounted the difficulties of finding somewhere to live in London in the private sector:

I remember, when I first arrived in London, I had to share a room with three others, near Shepherd’s Bush. And then, after I had my daughter, it was bedsitters, but most of the private rented places didn’t want children…  And I can remember I was also working for the Social Security Office, and they gave me the sack for being pregnant. It wasn’t illegal to do this –  there was no Sex Discrimination Act.then, although the Equal Pay Act was passed in l971. Again it was living in one room, with a tiny kitchenette and a separate toilet, and bath, and then moving  further into London, I think it was off Fulham Road, sharing a tiny bedroom, in a house with couple who were sort of hippies, …but obviously well-off, because  it was their own house, and there was a tiny room for my daughter to sleep in, …so that’s why we did it. That’s why we squatted because it was just like now.  But then, in 1971, In terms of council housing, you had to be married, and only the men could apply.  Only the male householder could apply for council housing.

 

So, as a young mother and while still with her male partner she started squatting in the Ladbroke Grove area in 1972 because it was impossible to find anywhere affordable and decent in the private sector. She was working in the Claimants Union and there met other feminists and lesbians. From there she moved into a lesbian collective household in Hackney who were squatting in an empty Housing Association property. She said:

 

we were a collective and about three of us had children and all the childcare was shared and everything, which was wonderful, and …even our clothes were shared, so if you didn’t get there early enough, you got the worst clothes

 

But this household was evicted after 6 months and Lynne was re-housed with her daughter in a tiny flat – but by this time women had started squatting near Broadway Market and she moved in to a squatted house in Pownell Road with her then lover. While in the housing association flat she had been to an evening class on electrical wiring, taught by a man but based on a book called Electricity for Women published by the Women’s Electrical Association in the years just after the Second World War. Using this knowledge she was able to re-wire and put sockets in the upstairs half of the squat.

Lee, who was homeless and staying with friends at the time but had even earlier lived in a squat in King’s Cross, heard about the Broadway Market squats in 1975 from a friend already living in a women’s house, who invited her to join them in Marlborough Avenue. She said:

 

The situation was that there were lots of empty houses in Hackney, they were GLC-owned, they were ILEA -owned, and some were Hackney-owned, and we knew that the GLC didn’t evict squatters. There were hundreds of empty houses and neither the GLC nor ILEA, nor Hackney, knew where their empty houses were.  So, we squatted…

 

Frankie had been involved in the squatting movement for some time before she moved to Broadway Market.

She moved to London in 1967 and quickly became involved in both GLF and WLM and remembered it was the lesbians in GLF who started setting up women-only households in squats which they opened up themselves – this was a political act seeing housing as way to gain control over the material basis of their lives and providing the means to live collectively and share resources. There was, she said, a considerable overlap between GLF and WLM in terms of membership of both groups. By the late 1960s there was a row of about six squats near Kings Cross on the Caledonian Road. Frankie lived in a women only squat, no. 118, which they turned into a women’s centre by putting a sign outside saying it was a centre and offering free pregnancy tests. There was, she remembered, quite close contact with local women who were living in crowded conditions, often with small children, and had been on the Council waiting list for years – some of these women starting squatting. These were short-lived households and there were frequent evictions. She also remembered that in Vauxhall there were two entire streets of women squats.

 

Opening up a squat: the women I’ve spoken with remember that the physical condition of houses was variable with some more sound than others. Anny recalled moving in to a newly opened house in Marlborough Ave, opposite Lee, because she thought it was politically important to squat and live with other women but she said:

 

‘What I hadn’t realised was that there was no water, no electricity, no plumbing, no nothing [laughing]!  And, so I felt…slightly worried…  Also, there was no bannister on the stairs and the roof was leaking,’

 

But then Anny’s lover came and joined her and Anny recounted:

 

What happened then was that, she, who I hadn’t known was that practical, said, “I can’t live without electricity or water [laughing]!”  There were other women who already lived around the corner and one of them was an electrician, so we got a cable, and we laid a cable from her house around the corner, through various gardens of houses that hadn’t been squatted but were empty, and to our house, and it worked!  It was just amazing, that.  And then,  a few months later, when she was fed up going to the public washing places, she took a course in plumbing, and she plumbed in a bath, which was…I thought fantastic.  And so, we gradually got everything together to have a household, you know, because we cooked for each other and stuff like that.

 

Other houses were in quite good repair but most needed water and electricity re-connected and by the mid 1970s there were women electricians, like Lee, and plumbers who were skilled enough and capable of doing these jobs. Some women later went on to government training courses on the TOPS schemes and practical experience gained from squatting gave them a clear advantage in the frequently, hostile all-male environment of the training centres.

 

Opening up a new squat was usually a communal event with women helping each other to establish new households – Anny remembers changing the lock as having especially symbolic significance. I was also told, by more than one woman, that, quite frequently it was local residents who told lesbians when a house was going to become empty so that women could move in before it was tinned up. This was because existing residents did not want an empty property next door which might become overrun with rats or worse and lesbians, by then, were a very recognizable group of new neighbours who repaired houses and, in many cases put up blinds and curtains so that the houses just blended in with the rest of the street.

 

One of the first jobs that had to be done when the tin was prized off a house was to re-hang the sash windows. This was actually a very satisfying job – sometimes glazing had to be replaced and often the sash cord needed renewing and the lead weights replaced.  The other great thing about these properties was the gardens, often large and well-stocked with mature trees and where some women grew vegetables, and in one case even kept chickens. They also became important social spaces.

Mice were a constant problem but most households had cats – very beloved cats in most cases – who kept the mice at bay.

Most of the houses had very damp basements and the best rooms were on the upper floors – that is as long as the roof didn’t leak. But women quickly became adept at repairing and replacing slates on the roofs.  Basements were utilized for workshops, meeting rooms or newly installed bathrooms. Building materials were salvaged from houses, which were too derelict to repair, or which had been partly destroyed by Hackney council to prevent squatting – the classic way to do this was to pour concrete down the toilet and deliberately smash holes in the roof.  This salvaging was called ‘totting’ and there were regular sorties by women into empty houses to save what they could, including everything from joists and floorboards to baths and door knockers.

At one point in the early 1970s there was a communal store room in Ivydene Road where squatters could come and find what they needed from a collection of totted building materials.

Lesbian women created private domestic spaces in shared houses, but also operated very much as a community. There were group sports activities and for a while there was a regular Sunday hockey match on London Fields, which began when someone came in to possession of a load of hockey sticks. Lee remembers running round, as a very fit young woman, knocking on doors telling women the hockey was about to start.

 

There were also a number of small children living in the community and child-care was shared with some women taking significant roles in the children’s lives.  The entire community was shocked and deeply affected when one mother lost custody of her daughter to her male ex-partner who, in court, used the fact that she lived in a communal lesbian squat as evidence of her being an unfit mother.

Squats were also an essential part of the newly emerging women’s music scene, allowing communal living and shared instruments for band members and providing spaces for rehearsals and song writing sessions – practice rooms being far too expensive to hire.  They were celebrated in song.  The Stepney Sisters wrote and performed Don’t let Houses Rot – Squat from the point of view of the house (see WLM music archive, https://womensliberationmusicarchive.co.uk ).

 

More creative activity centred on a nearby community run print shop, Lenthall Road workshop, which opened in 1975 and  was again based in short-life premises. It became an important hub for community and political activity.  The premises and the women who ran it can be seen in the film ‘Somewhere in Hackney’ made in 1980 and available on the BFI website. The workshop produced a constant stream of political posters and hosted workshops on photography and printing taught by women for women.

 

So having a large number of politically motivated women living in a small area meant that political actions could be carried out quickly – the most obvious manifestation of this was in the painting over of fascist graffiti. At the time the National Front had a stronghold in nearby Hoxton and racist slogans had been spray painted on many of the corrugated iron hoardings in front of demolished houses. Lee remembers when:

 

We used to go out in the night often and spray them all out, and at least once, the Police tried to arrest us, and they did this thing where, they drove past us and we saw them and thought they’d gone, and they’d clearly dropped somebody in plain clothes round the corner, who then walked back towards us, so we didn’t know he had just got out the Police car, and he stopped us and said, you know, “What do you think you’re doing?” and we said, “We’ve just been painting our houses – we’re just going home.” … and they looked at the colour of our paint, and they went round looking for graffiti, to see if they could find anything …and they couldn’t because they weren’t looking for the right things.

 

Lynne also had memories of spray painting:

 

I can remember in Broadway Market often going out and spray-painting …  And on Christmas Day, we used to go out and do things because we didn’t believe in Christmas [laughing].  So, we used to go out spray-painting because there was nobody about, and you could just do what you liked.

 

Another support group was quickly assembled when a woman was arrested for criminal damage after opening up a squat on behalf of someone else in Dericote Street. The case went to court but the jury dismissed the police claims and afterwards came out and congratulated her on standing up to what was seen as police fabrication of evidence and a complete waste of time. Other women did not have such a positive experience in the courts and Lynne H. gained a criminal record in a similar set of circumstances when she was arrested a few minutes after breaking in to a house to help a couple of women set up a squat.

 

A number of women regularly went from Hackney to the Grunwicks picket lines and there was a range of political positions within the community including separatism, anarcho-feminism, revolutionary feminism and various strands of socialism. Squatting was debated in the wider London Women’s liberation movement and an interviewee showed me her notes of a meeting at WLM Workshop in Earlham St. where it had been discussed. (10.2.75). The debate started with the question of whether squatting was in itself a political act. All agreed that squatting was an easily available solution to housing problems but after this the participants seemed to split into two groups. One arguing that the reasons for squatting determined its political potential and validity and if it was done for personal convenience or just jumping on the bandwagon then women were unlikely to stick it out. The other group argued that doing something was what counted especially as far as the public was concerned. There followed an intense discussion on lifestyle and politics, which on reading it over 40 years later revealed how women were deeply committed to the ‘movement’. They were giving up jobs, relationships and families in order to devote themselves to feminism but at the same time struggling with a pervasive sense of guilt about every personal choice they made. Their comments were heartfelt and I think underpinned a whole series of questions about how to live as a lesbian and as a feminist.

Within the Hackney squatting community these arguments were also apparent. There were women who went off to work as teachers, social workers, nurses, gardeners, carpenters and electricians or who were on industrial training courses. There were others who worked in community and political campaigns and there were some who signed on and were active in political movements or feminist groups.

 

Alternative Economy

By the late 1970s early 1980s there was a thriving alternative economy and it was possible to make a living entirely within the women’s community and the wider alternative community in London. This was before the arrival of the ‘Pink Pound’ and a new generation of capitalist, gay entrepeneurs. Lesbian feminist enterprises were non-profit making and usually set up as co-operatives with collective working the norm. Sisterwrite, OnlyWomen Press, women’s building co-ops and printing and photography collectives all operated on this basis.  Squatting not only provided the premises for many feminist organisations, including the very first women’s refuges, it also allowed women to work on very low wages as rents were low or non-existent. Squatting provided extensive and low-cost housing, which in turn allowed women to set up a vast number of political and creative groups which flourished throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s.

 

However this period of large-scale, organised squatting ended in 1977, when the Conservatives gained control of the GLC, with Horace Cutler as Leader, and a right-wing agenda to sell off council housing partly by trying to transfer thousands of GLC owned properties to the Inner London Boroughs and also through ending the practice of handing out licenses to squat. Squatters were given an amnesty and the opportunity to be re-housed in council flats, for single women these were usually on hard-to-let estates, or to retain control over their housing by forming housing co-ops. In 1977 London fields Housing Co-op was set up and given funding from the GLC to purchase and rehabilitate 17 houses. But that’s another story: the women interviewed here recount memories of their experience of squatting self-organisation before the necessary bureaucracy of setting up and running a co-op.

Despite these changes to the political landscape local regeneration schemes were held up for another decade and lesbian squatting continued in the streets around Broadway Market throughout the 1980s.  Ivydene Road became a street where many travelling women found short-term places to live. These women, who came from Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the U.S. and many other countries, were part of large numbers of women who travelled and lived in different women’s communities around the globe in the 1970s and 80s.  Some of these lesbian women set up a short-life housing co-operative of around ten households and which lasted until the mid-1990s.

 

Reflecting on squatting and lesbian community:

It was pointed out to me more than once that we should remember that our lives as lesbians were precarious.  We were punished for being lesbians and some of us knew woman who had been incarcerated in mental hospitals and been forcibly treated with ECT. We had few legal rights and could lose our children and our jobs, be thrown out of the parental home and ostracised by our families.

One woman said quite simply, ‘Coming to live in Broadway Market saved my life.’

 

Having access to, and control over, housing was an immensely important aspect of lesbian life, enabling us to define ourselves and create new identities and ways of living.  It was a politically charged and heightened time for many of the women I spoke to and they remembered detailed and intense discussions on relationships – non-monogamy and jealousy as well analytical discussions on class, racism, and patriarchy.  Many women were reading and writing about political issues and part of small discussion groups both formal and informal.  The community grew organically and a large number of women, from very different social backgrounds, ended up living close together in a small number of streets.

 

According to Lynne:

I think, in Broadway Market, there were loads of women, if they weren’t lesbians already, became lesbians. I think most of the women who moved to Broadway Market moved there because it was a lesbian community…We were social separatists – we weren’t total separatists, but we were certainly social separatists and, you know, did lots of things women-only.

 

‘in many ways it was a much freer time for women to be able to live and act in this way even though in terms of housing it was also precarious. Now women who are feminists and radical feminists are so constrained by the state and by the shift in social values. ‘

 

 

Already the history of the Broadway Market squats, excluding any lesbian presence, has been commodified as part of the gentrification and re-branding of Broadway Market, and the wider London Fields area, into a smart, edgy, hipster haunt. Even the original community 1970s graffito ‘Broadway Market is not a sinking ship – it’s a submarine’ has been photographed and printed onto tablecloths and coasters for sale in the Saturday market

 

The history of London’s squatted communities has been written mainly by men, Brixton Faeries are well on the way to becoming a national treasure and part of London’s heritage, but the many hundreds of lesbians who stepped out of line, pulled off the tin, and set up house are still invisible. Squatting is mentioned in a number of feminist writing on the 1970s see for example Penny Holland’s account in ’68,’78’,’88, From Women’s Liberation to Feminism, edited by Amanda Sebestyen, Pat Moan contributed a chapter on women squatters to Nick Wates edited book Squatting: the real story and it is also mentioned in some of the oral histories recorded for the Sisterhood and After oral history project archived at the British Library and available online. Further accounts that recognise squatting as an integral part of the women’s liberation movement are beginning to appear in blogs set up by feminists who were active in the 1970s and 80s, see for example Liz Heron’s blog on the Hackney Flashers photography collective. However there is little that integrates the large number of lesbian squats prevalent throughout the 1970s into wider lesbian history.

 

London is now the scene of the yet another acute housing crisis, but this time supported by central government which has stripped local authorities of much of their power to solve local housing need and new legislation making squatting domestic properties illegal. There are still young activists squatting, many of them lesbians, but it is unlikely that the large, urban, lesbian communities of the 1970s will re-appear.  This is an important part of our history and this project a start in archiving and remembering our collective presence in the city.

 

 

With many thanks to the women who gave permission for their words to be quoted in this talk: Lynne Harne, Anny Brackx, Lee Nurse, and Frankie Green. If you would like to contribute your memories of squatting please get in touch.

 

(c) copyright 2017 LHG / Christine Wall

 

References

 

Report on Housing and Demolition Survey, 1975, GLC Policy Studies Unit.

 

Forshaw, J.H. and Abercrombie, P., 1943. The County of London Plan.

 

Greater London Development Plan. Report of Studies, 1969, Greater London Council.

 

Bailey, Ron, 1973, The squatters, London

 

Wates, N. ed., 1980. Squatting: the real story. Bay Leaf Books

 

Reeve K, Coward S. Life on the Margins: the experiences of homeless people living in squats. Crisis; 2004.

 

Chapter 7, ‘Gay Times’: The Brixton Squatters in Cook, M., 2014. Queer Domesticities: Homosexuality and Home Life in Twentieth-Century London. Springer.

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