Pennine Productions -- details of
"Squatters' Paradise"
[first picture, if available]
Network:  Radio 4
Wednesday, August 02, 2006
Mark Whitaker
Mark Whitaker
Repeat date: 
Repeat time: 
Demonstration outside Westminster Town Hall in September 1946 in support of the squatting movement. Picture courtesy of the Working Class Movement Library  



"The lack of housing is causing more misery and unhappiness than anything else", Nye Bevin said in 1946. He was right. No houses had been built for six years, and building materials were rationed until 1951. Servicemen returning from the war - keen to marry and start families - found themselves having to live with their parents or at the mercy of private landlords. It was a situation they weren't prepared to accept for long. This programme tells the story of the largest mass-sqaut in British history, and the dilemma it posed for Atlee's Labour government.

The movement started in May 1946 with the take-over of an anti-aircraft camp near Scunthorpe. By the end of June twenty local authorities reported similar action and by the end of the summer it was a national movement, from Scotland to Kent. It was stated in Parliament that there were 45,000 people squatting more than 1,000 sites. These weren't 1960s-style squatters : they were ordinary working-class families. In camps often isolated in the countryside they created their own communities, sometimes in the fact of local authorities who refused to provide basic amenities. Shopping, cooking, transport, healthcare were organised on a collective basis ; women took on leadership roles as the men were out at work. Large numbers of babies were born. Many look back on their squatter-camp days as the best of their lives.

But there was fierce opposition and prejudice as well. At a camp near Sheffield city officials attempted mass eviction : Bristol's Council voted to denounce squatting as 'mob law' . In Oxfordshire hostility broke out between squatters and villagers. The government didn't know what to do. Public opinion was largely on the squatters' side, yet the War Office had to publicly condemn what it defined as 'trespass'.

Then, at the beginning of September 1946, everything changed when the squatters arrived in town. On the 9th a headline in the Times reported that '1500 Squatters Occupy Luxury Flats - Audacious Operation in West End.' A seven-story apartment building in Campden Hill had been taken over. Within days other Kensington properties and the 630-room Ivanhoe Hotel in Bloomsbury had also been squatted. The movement had become political, with central co-ordination now by the Communist Party. The right-wing press tried to stir up anti-squatter feeling, the Mail claiming that homeowners throughout the country were afraid to go out in case their houses were taken over. Five CP members were arrested for conspiring to trespass : the government was granted an injunction against the West End squatters : there was a mass pro-squatter demonstration in Leicester Square.

The harsh winter of 46/47 drove many squatters out of their unheated Nissan huts. But many of the communities created during the summer of 1946 survived for ten years or more.

As far as possible this forgotten story - the first real social crisis of post-war Britain - will be told by people who were involved in the squatters' movement. In tracing them we will be helped by several local oral history projects that have collected their memories.

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