There is legislation going through Parliament at the moment which will make squatting in unoccupied properties an imprisonable offence.
Squatting – as a form of non-violent protest and an act of desperation by the homeless – has been around a long time. In The World Turned Upside Down, Christopher Hill describes how 17th century cottagers (people who made a subsistence living on common land), squatted on land after it had been enclosed. In the 1650s, there was a concerted campaign against squatters by magistrates and cottages were destroyed in Hertfordshire, Middlesex and Warwickshire. One commentator wrote: “The poor increase like flies and lice, and these vermin will eat us up unless we enclose.”
The enclosure of common land certainly played a large part in the creation of a dispossessed class who were then forced to seek food and shelter in this way, but some of these squatters would have been people displaced by the recent civil wars, including ex-soldiers. The history of public unrest in Britain can often be linked with periods following war, when large numbers of soldiers and sailors would return home, many without shelter or work.
We have never treated our ex-servicemen well. The Napoleonic Wars “ended amidst riots… Thousands of disbanded soldiers and sailors returned to find unemployment in their villages.” (E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class). Following the First World War, having been promised “homes fit for heroes,” but given unemployment, economic depression and poverty, ex-servicemen were attracted in large numbers to the political extremes on the left and the right. Many of Mosley’s Blackshirts were people who had fought in the trenches.
The impression is often given that things were different following the Second World War, but towards the end of the war and in its immediate aftermath, there was a great deal of social unrest. There were strikes by members of the armed forces and in 1946, homeless ex-servicemen and their families took to squatting in disused military camps.
On 17th August 1946, the Times reported: “More huts formerly used by the services in various parts of the country were occupied by homeless families yesterday. After commandeering huts at the rocket battery site at Cowley Marsh, Oxford, “squatters” extended their activities to the ex-Admiralty huts on Balliol College ground at Jowett’s Walk.”
Other squatters were reported at Crayford in Kent, Cricklewood in North West London, plus at various locations in Worcestershire, Staffordshire, Somerset, Wiltshire, Essex and Shropshire. In Gravesend, a sports club was occupied by a homeless family who refused to allow club members in to attend a meeting.
There are hints in contemporary newspaper reports of an unsavoury side to the squatting movement caused by the resentment of “Poles” (presumably those Polish servicemen who had fought for the British during the war) and Prisoners of War who were yet to return to their native countries. Most of the squatters were simply desperate, however:
“A demobilized soldier, accompanied by his wife and son, has taken possession of Wellingborough Grange, near Lincoln, a seven-bedroomed house which has been empty for nearly two years, and eight families have occupied Litley Court, a large house taken over by Herefordshire Agricultural Committee for use as offices.” (Times, 23rd August 1946.)
The Prime Minister and several other members of the Cabinet decided that matters should not prevent them from taking a short holiday, but by September the squatting movement had taken off. Private houses, not just military properties, were being occupied and the squatters were moving closer to the home of the government itself:
“The organized invasion of private property in Kensington and elsewhere in London… has confronted the Government with a situation which they regard far more seriously than the recent seizure of military camps.” (Times, 10th September 1946). The final straw appears to have been the occupation of the Duchess of Bedford House, a block of luxury flats in Campden Hill Road, Kensington. The Minister of Works took legal advice. The Times began to sound panicky, describing it as “… [an] invasion to a point where no private house would be safe.”
The tone of the Times’ coverage, initially sympathetic, changed. It began to point out that there were thousands on the council’s waiting list for housing and the squatters, in its opinion, were trying to “jump the queue” and it quoted “some Kensington women:” “There are no Kensington people here. … It is just for Communists.” Although its editorials were critical of the squatters, however, it acknowledged that there were 250,000 families on local authority waiting lists and that there was, indeed, a desperate need for more housing to be made available.
The Labour government, represented by Aneurin Bevan, refused to support the squatters, despite having recently passed laws that would have enabled the use of military camps for emergency housing. Newport (Montgomeryshire) Housing Committee used those laws to convert a military camp, putting in water and other facilities, and housing people from their own waiting list, but most authorities did nothing.
University of London students took over the Ivanhoe Hotel in Bloomsbury in mid-September. They hung a large placard from a window: “600 rooms vacant; why be homeless?” The local authority took no action to evict them – they were waiting for a decision on another case in the High Court – but massive numbers of policemen were posted around other empty buildings in the area.
The government’s response continued to be hostile to the squatters and they resorted to classic tactics: picking out the politically active (Communist Party members) and prosecuting them and “divide and rule” – by continually describing the squatters as “jumping the housing queue” they hoped to encourage resentment towards them by other people in need of homes. The withdrawal of basic facilities like water and sanitation was also sanctioned. On 17th September, the Times reported that a deputation of squatters had visited 10 Downing Street with a 2,000 signature petition but Mr. Attlee declined to receive them.
Soon afterwards, the High Court granted the Minister of Works an injunction “restraining the defendants [named members of the squatters’ committee] … from entering, remaining or otherwise trespassing on the premises” at Duchess of Bedford House.
What may have initially appeared to be a defeat for the squatting campaign, however, resulted in an immediate change of heart from the Labour government. The disused military camps, plus other former hostels and hotels that had been requisitioned during the war, were released as temporary accommodation (with full facilities) for homeless families and as soon as 23rd September 1946 a massive programme of building 100,000 temporary and 100,000 permanent dwellings was announced, to be completed by the end of the year. The next few years saw a huge increase in house building resulting in many of the council estates that provided good homes for the less well off until the Thatcher government sold them off under the “right to buy” in the 1980s.
More recently, soldiers returning from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan have had problems obtaining the accommodation and health care they need:
The issues surrounding how we treat our veterans may have changed since the Napoleonic wars but our society still doesn’t appear to show them very much gratitude for what they have done in our name.