Lime Legal

People power

Published 02 January 2024

In 1946 thousands of people took the law into their own hands, squatting military camps and then luxury flats and hotels. Mark Whitaker tells how ordinary citizens held the government to its housing promises

When people look back at the extraordinary achievements of Clement Attlee’s Labour government between 1945 and 1951 they focus on the creation of the National Health Service, the nationalisation of major industries and the extension of state education.

Understandably so, as these were the things that lasted. But they weren’t the immediate political priority. Nor were they the reason that Attlee had won such an unexpectedly convincing victory over the war hero Winston Churchill. That can be summed up in three mundane words: bricks and mortar.

There was real relief that the war was over, but there could be little elation in the Britain of 1945. There was too much hardship, exhaustion and grief. And the most potent symbol of how much had been lost and how much had to be remade was the lack of decent homes for the men and women who had fought and suffered for six years. It says much that Attlee gave the housing brief to Aneurin Bevan. He was one of the younger and least experienced members of the government, but he was lionised by Labour’s rank and file. If anyone could convince people that Labour would live up to its promises it was Bevan. In speech after speech during the autumn of 1945 he spelt out how radical and how socialist his housing policy was to be.

‘It is the policy of the government to let those with money in their pockets wait until those most in need have first of all been supplied I believe this housing problem can be solved, and I believe we are going to solve it.’

His strategy was to make local authorities the engine for an unprecedented expansion of public housing at affordable rents, and he confidently predicted that a million and a half new homes would be built by the end of the decade. Yet a year later, in October 1946, when Bevan found himself being questioned in the Commons about the housing situation, the one subject on MPs’ minds had nothing to do with Labour’s great plan. It was squatting.

Civil uprising

‘My name is James Fielding. I’m a married man with four children and came to Scunthorpe on a job of work, and spent many weeks searching for accommodation, which was fruitless We take the view that any right-minded man would agree with the action our desperation forced us to take.’

When Movietone News screened this interview at cinemas around the country in July 1946 it proved the trigger for what, over the next weeks, became Britain’s largest 20th century movement of civil disobedience. What James Fielding and his desperate family had done was to occupy a Nissen hut at a deserted army camp on the outskirts of Scunthorpe. Cinema audiences responded by clapping and cheering and then going out to find their own camps to squat. During the first week of August occupations were reported from County Durham, South Yorkshire, Birmingham, Bristol, Buckinghamshire and Hampshire. There was no central co-ordination, yet almost overnight squatting became a national movement.

Why had so many people decided to take the law into their own hands? Because they wanted a dry and warm place to live, but just as important was a desperate need for privacy.

‘It were a roof, it were walls. We were willing to rough it. You would have lived in a kennel to be with your husband after being parted all that time,’ explained one wife and mother.

‘My mother, my dad, my grandfather lived in same house as me, my husband and two kiddies you’d have a row in a fierce whisper. That was no good at all,’ said another.

And report after report emphasised how well organised and cheerful the camps were. Huts were divided to give families their own space, camp committees organised rotas for cleaning, gardening and child-minding. Rent was collected, and many local authorities supplied the squatters with water and power.

‘These people are, strictly speaking, trespassers,’ blustered the War Office. But the government was faced not just with a mass movement that by the end of August saw over 40,000 squatters, but by overwhelming public support for it. Bristol was a major squatting centre, and a local vicar wrote to one of the city’s papers: ‘Their action is unusual, unconstitutional, but let no one think they are ruffians. They are ordinary people, they eat at table, they go off and earn their own living.’

Even the austere weekly The Economist expressed its admiration: ‘In a country so law-abiding as Great Britain it is always refreshing when people take the law into their own hands on an issue on which the spirit of the law, if not the letter, is so eminently on their side.’ More to the point, the Labour government found itself hemmed in by political support for the squatters that came from both left and right. Predictably enough the Communist Daily Worker saw the movement as a wake up call for Labour to get a move on with building its promised houses. But the Tory Daily Mail was just as enthusiastic about the squatters, portraying them as everyday heroes battling socialist bureaucracy. It lauded what it saw as ‘the robust common sense of ordinary men and women’.

While a few disgruntled Conservatives wrote to the press along the lines of ‘Churchill would never had let this happen’, the leader of the opposition’s wife made it clear she was solidly on the squatters’ side. During a speech at Woodford, where she was opening a new estate of council houses, she complained that: ‘Every day we read in the papers how unhappy and desperate people have invaded former army huts and installed themselves there. These people are referred to by the very ungraceful term “squatters”, and I wish the press would not use this word about respectable citizens, whose only desire is to have a home and to keep their families together.’

Clamp down

Such was public fascination with the phenomenon that families who had taken over a former US Army camp near Liskeard in Cornwall started charging sightseers a shilling to look round their quarters. But September brought not just a sudden change in the weather – there were gales and floods throughout the country – but also a profound change to the political climate surrounding the squatting movement. The Communist Party in London decided to take advantage of the popular mood to embarrass Labour into doing more for the homeless. More specifically it wanted to shame a number of Tory-controlled councils in the capital who were allowing large blocks of flats – requisitioned during the war – to revert to the expensive end of the private housing market. The party’s London committee orchestrated the occupation of luxury flats in Holland Park and St John’s Wood, and the takeover of an upmarket hotel in Bloomsbury. Attlee’s cabinet responded immediately to the political challenge. Police cordons were put in place around the occupied buildings, squad cars toured the streets looking for groups of possible squatters, and a statement was released stating that ‘unless steps are taken to check lawless measures of this sort, anarchy may result.’ On September 14 five leading members of the London Communist Party were arrested and charged with ‘conspiring to incite and direct trespass’. But no one was sent to prison – the five were bound over to keep the peace for two years. It wasn’t in the interests of the Labour government to create Communist martyrs, and it wasn’t in the Communist Party’s to risk alienating public opinion. So, having been assured no further action would be taken against them, the London squatters ceremonially marched out of their buildings on September 20, led by pipes and drums.

The squatters of 1946 ensured that Attlee’s government could never forget its electoral promise on affordable public housing, though Aneurin Bevan wouldn’t budge on his conviction that quality mattered as much as quantity. He refused to go down the route of quick, cheap, pre-fabricated homes, and perhaps his party eventually paid a political price for that.

But the houses he did build are monuments to what the state can provide for those in need. As for the tens of thousands of squatters, perhaps their monument is the fact that a summer of mass civil disobedience produced not a single reported incident of violence.

Mark Whitaker is a freelance broadcaster and a partner in the radio independent, Pennine Productions