Alternative radical histories and campaigns continuing today

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Alternative radical histories and campaigns continuing today.
Sam Burgum November 2018

Property ownership is not a given, but a social and legal construction, with a specific history.

Squatting & Trespass in Context

My land – a squatter fable
A man is out walking on a hillside when suddenly the owner appears. ‘Get off my land’, he yells. ‘Who says it’s your land?’ demands the intruder. ‘I do, and I’ve got the deeds to prove it.’ ‘Well, where did you get it from?’ ‘From my father.’ ‘And where did he get it from?’ ‘From his father. He was the seventeenth Earl. The estate originally belonged to the first Earl.’ ‘And how did he get it?’ ‘He fought for it in the War of the Roses.’ Right – then I’ll fight you for it!’

ASS Archives

Magna Carta (1215) established a legal precedent for protecting property owners from arbitrary possession by the state.
‘For a man’s home is his castle, and each man’s home
is his safest refuge’ - Edward Coke, 1604
Charter of the Forest (1217) asserted the rights of the ‘commons’ (i.e. propertyless) to access the 143 royal forests enclosed since 1066.
Enclosure Acts (1760-1870) enclosed 7million acres of commons through 4000 acts of parliament.
John Locke (1632-1704) argued that enclosure could only be justified if: • ‘As much and as good’
was left to others; • Unused property could be
forfeited for better use.
This logic was used to dispossess indigenous people of land, which appeared ‘unused’ to European settlers.


‘England is not a Free people till the poor that have no land… live as Comfortably as the landlords that live in their inclosures.’

The Diggers 1649

Many post-Civil war movements and sects saw the execution of King Charles as ending a centuries-long Norman oppression. They therefore called for the redistribution of crown land to ease the distress of the poor.
‘The power of inclosing land, and owning property, was
brought into the Creation by your Ancestors by the Sword; which first did murther their
fellow Creatures, Men, and after plunder or steal away their land, and left this land
successively to you.’ - Gerrard Winstanley, 1649
Three months after the execution of Charles, The Diggers (1649) squatted St George’s Hill, Surrey, arguing that the earth was a common treasury for all. Forcibly moved to Cobham in August, they were brutally evicted by the landowner, John Platt, in April 1650.
Digger colonies were also established in Barnet, Enfield, Dunstable, Wellingborough (Notts), Iver (Bucks), Gloucestershire, and Kent.

The Guardian

English Nursery Rhyme, c.1764
They hang the man and flog the woman, That steals the goose from off the common.
But let the greater felon loose, That steals the common from the goose.


For workers in the 19th/20thC, the countryside was a weekend salvation from the overcrowded and polluted industrial cities.

Accessing Land

Responding to mass unemployment, the Landgrabbers (1906) took over derelict land in Leeds, Manchester, Bradford, and London. Their aim was to get people ‘back to the land’.

Squatting: the Real Story

‘I don’t consider that I have acted illegally in taking
possession of disused land which rightfully belongs to the
people.’ - Ben ‘the Captain’ Cunningham, Plaistow, 1906.

In the inter-war period, the urban poor (largely from London) took advantage of new transport links and a lack of planning laws, self-building holiday huts, homes, and settlements in the country.

Despite many Plotlanders having purchased their land, they were labelled ‘squatters’ by the rich, who saw them as a blight on the landscape.

A poem on the Trespass Trail
As I trudge through the Peat at a pace so slow, There is time to remember the debt we owe.
To the Kinder Trespass and the rights they did seek, Allowing us freely to ramble the Dark Peak.

The Kinder Scout Mass Trespass (1932) is widely recognised as having paved the way for the National Parks Act (1949) and the ‘right to roam’, established in law by the Countryside Rights of Way Act (2000).


Life Magazine

Accessing Shelter

‘The ownership of a property is a secondary consideration to the fact that it is empty’
The London Underground was initially locked during the blitz and it was only after the Communist Party squatted a station to shelter local people from the bombs, that using the tube became official policy.
The blitz destroyed 218000 homes (with a further 250,000 uninhabitable) exasperating an already desperate pre-war housing crisis in UK cities, as did the demobilisation of 3.5m servicemen and a baby boom.
In July 1945, The Vigilantes moved their families to empty hotels in Brighton. This action forced the extension of wartime requisitioning powers into peacetime, allowing councils to take over empty private property for temporary housing.
By summer 1946, the housing situation had little improved, so 40,000+ Home Front Squatters all over the country took matters into their own hands, squatting 936 empty service camps.
In September 1000 people took over empty luxury flats as part of The Great Sunday Squat. Leaders were arrested, but the action sped-up housebuilding and forced greater use of requisitioning powers.

ASS Archives

Accessing Housing

Squatting: the Real Story

These Homes Need People / These People Need Homes
Inspired by hostel occupations in the mid-1960s, the London Squatters’ Campaign took over empty houses so that homeless families could live in them.
The Redbridge campaign (1969) saw housing secured for some homeless families, as well as establishing a precedent for so-called ‘squatters rights’ (using property law designed to protect owners to defend squatted homes from eviction).
London (2016/17) 8,108 Rough Sleepers 54,660 Temp Accommodation 20,000+ empty homes
England 115,550 Statutory Homeless 79,190 Temp Accommodation
205,000+ empty homes
UK Est. 400,000 hidden homeless
The occupation of Centrepoint (1976) demanded that the office block (empty since completion in 1963) should be requisitioned for emergency housing.
Today, empty commercial property in London alone could create 400,000 new homes.

ASS Archives

Use-Value vs. Speculation

ASS Archives

‘Something for Nothing’ or ‘Nothing for Something’?
Since the council sold Tolmers Square to a private developer, residents had experienced a decline in living standards. Threatened with an office block, the decision to squat in 1973 not only prevented construction, but forced Camden to buy the buildings back.
Purchased by Lambeth council in 1967 with the intention of building high-rises, squatters at Villa Road not only saved the 19thC townhouses, but took over ownership as a co-op.
In October 1975, when squatters at Elgin Avenue secured alternative accommodation for 200 people living there, they considered this a victory. Others, however, argued that their voluntary eviction was a surrender.
Frustrated by squatters, some councils have turned to ‘gutting’ empty houses, destroying roofs, stairwells, floors, smashing windows, and pouring concrete down drainpipes in the middle of a housing crisis. In response, squatters have turned to repair and renovation, putting houses back into use and learning new skills in the process.

ASS Archives

A Means to Other Ends

Squatting: the Real Story

In addition to housing campaigns, squatting can provide spaces in which
other groups can organise.
As well as joining a transAtlantic struggle against racism; the British Black Panthers also addressed local issues, such as education, health, employment, police harassment, and housing, whilst raising consciousness through black poetry, music, and film.
Olive Morris, together with Liz Obi, was the first to squat 121 Railton Road, Brixton, in 1972, establishing the Sabaar Bookshop as a meeting place and information centre for black activists and groups.
Other groups, such as the Bengali Housing Action Group, used squatting as a means to escape exploitative informal renting, whilst creating communities that could protect against racism in wider society (whether from the public, state, or groups like National Front).
The ‘hostile environment’ which underpins the Windrush scandal far predates Theresa May’s stint as Home Secretary. In contrast, squatting can be used to create hospitable environments for oppressed groups to fight back.

Oxford Uni Press

Alternative Living Arrangements

‘There wasn’t the constraints of careers, property to tie us down to social expectations.
We were charting new territory’
Urban space is not experienced the same by everybody, and is overladen with patriarchal, racist, ableist, and heterosexual norms, that can be oppressive. Squatting can provide communal support and refuge for these groups.
In the 1970s, the state did not recognise women fleeing domestic violence as ‘homeless’ and refused to house them. Women-only squats, such as Trederwen Road, Hackney, therefore provided refuge, at a time when women and lesbians alike had few legal rights. Such squats provided space to live communally outside the postwar ‘suburban dream’.
As well as the Black Panthers, Railton Road saw the South London Gay Community Centre established in 1974, in addition to rows of squatted houses. Today, 24% of homeless people identify as LGBT+ and 77% of this group believe coming out to their parents was the main factor.
In the early 1980s, 121 Railton Road became the 121 Centre, hosting many radical groups and events, until its eventual eviction in 1999.

ASS Archives

Squatting: the Real Story

Alternative Art & Culture

Much of the music and artistic culture we enjoy and count amongst our heritage today
was made possible by squatting.
From the mid-1970s onwards, an eclectic mix of freethinkers, hippies, anarchists, punks, creatives, artists, writers, actors, drop-outs, activists, homeless, and drug addicts began squatting derelict houses on Freston Road, Notting Hill.
Threatened by regeneration, they declared independence from the UK, as the Free Independent Republic of Frestonia, requesting peacekeeping troops from the UN to prevent invasion (eviction).
Frestonia became infamous for its alternative art & culture, founding the Car Breaker Art Gallery, the Apocalypse Hotel, and Mutoid Waste Company (members of which later created Arcadia). The Clash (who began in squats) recorded at Frestonia. Motorhead also rehearsed there.
By providing rehearsal, studio, and events space; squatting and trespass have been crucial for dub, punk, electro-pop, dance, and grime music. Artists who began in squats or raves include: Sex Pistols, Boomtown Rats, Eurythmics, Eric Clapton, Depeche Mode, the Levellers, Crass, Spiral Tribe and Orbital.


Sam Burgum (TAA 2018)

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Alternative radical histories and campaigns continuing today