“Enthusiasm combined with critical thinking – what more could we ask of ourselves?” Rosa Luxemburg
One: Some memories of 70s and 80s Islington – lesbians, squatting and political activism.
This was written for the Islington Archives LGBT history project, 2017
In 1971 I became involved in the Gay Liberation Front and the Women’s Liberation Movement, in London. Islington played quite a role in the lives of many of us. GLF’s office was in the basement at 5 Caledonian Road, in the Peace News and Housman’s bookshop building; I went there sometimes to answer phone calls (it was prior to L & G Switchboard being set up to offer support and info.) Most of the Women’s Group of GLF split away in January 1972 – we set up separately and at first called our group Gay Women’s Liberation, to indicate the overlap of the two important movements. We held our first meeting in a large back room in a pub called the Three Wheatsheaves, near the Green – I think it’s now called the Steam Passage. We also held meetings upstairs in the Crown and Woolpack pub, in St John’s Street near the Angel, just down the road from the Old Red Lion Theatre pub. The Crown and Woolpack was the site of one of the very first lesbian/women’s discos, held on Friday nights in a small upstairs room. Our discos and dances then were DIY events, a far cry from the commercial scene clubs that developed subsequently, and an alternative to well-known lesbian club the Gateways.
Lots of women, feminists, socialists, of a variety of sexual and political orientations, were living in squatted and communal houses in Islington, with varying degrees of connection with the large general mixed squatting and left wing community. On the corner of Balls Pond and Essex Roads, the Squatters Advisory Service gave information and support; the Islington Gutter Press was published locally; Essex Rd Women’s Centre was set up; communal or shared childcare and playgroups, food co-ops, etc proliferated. I first moved to the borough to squat in 118 Caledonian Road, one of a row of houses taken over by women, amongst a mixed cluster of squats at the lower end of Cally Rd and in Northdown Street and Killick Street. We made ours a Women’s Centre, by putting a notice board in the front advertising free pregnancy testing, held meetings and discussions and study groups, and a jumble sale, helped other women to squat who were stuck in substandard council housing or homeless. When we were evicted we would challenge it in courts, eventually moving on to squat new houses – council property which had been boarded up and left empty: an exciting process involving crowbarring corrugated iron sheets from front doors, changing the locks, sticking a notice on the door declaring occupation, moving in and doing our own plumbing, wiring, decorating to assist etc. When we were arrested we’d defend ourselves using McKenzie lawyers in court.
In asserting our rights in this way, we took part in a form of direct action whereby we were denying or bypassing the powers that be, issuing our own demands and defying the idea we should be well-behaved women (‘ladies’ or ’girls’) and wait in line or accept gradual reforms – ‘Go Slow’, as Nina Simone put it in the context of Civil Rights. We were upholding the human right to shelter, to housing – e.g., as set out in the Universal Declaration of human Rights [‘Article 25. (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself (sic) and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood’] with an added feminist dimension.
At this time squatting was a legal, age-old practice, and evictions were supposed to be done by due process. We undertook it for political and personal reasons – to provide homes and working spaces for ourselves, insist on women’s right to reject the nuclear family, to live differently and collectively, to challenge compulsory heterosexuality, to be independent, to make spaces in which to organise campaigns and to analyse the ways the oppression of lesbians and women generally intersected with other oppressions – class, ‘race’, imperialism. Some women had left heterosexual marriages and come out as lesbian.
It needs to be remembered that this was a time when women could be deemed unfit mothers and lose custody of their children simply for being lesbian; in response to this Lesbian Mothers’ groups campaigned for legal and social change. [The great archive of alternative theatre, Unfinished Histories, has information on the play ‘Care and Control’ that explored this issue:
http://www.unfinishedhistories.com/history/companies/gay-sweatshop/care-and-control/ ] While for some younger lesbian women now it might be hard to imagine that time when we were subjected to stigmatisation, incarceration in psychiatric institutions where we could be tortured with ECT and generally regarded as deviant monsters, that’s still the situation in many places, which is why I feel international solidarity is hugely important, and working to establish material conditions which uphold women’s right to self-determination, including sexual and reproductive self-determination. While we were not criminalised in the same way that gay men were, we were not deemed legitimate. We experienced violence, unemployability, loss of homes. Lesbians were challenging heterosexism, the ideology that posits heterosexuality as the only valid relationship, which is based on the cornerstone notion of masculine and feminine roles as natural and complementary – by our very existence, by prioritising relationships amongst women rather with men, we threatened patriarchal control over women and children. [1970’s ‘Woman-Identified Woman’ by Radicalesbians is an interesting manifesto from the time http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/wlmpc_wlmms01011/ ]
The women I knew and organised with then were mostly lesbian – more widely we were a mixture of lesbian, bisexual and heterosexual and these weren’t static categories at all. Four of us lived in one house in Mitchison Road, Amanda, Eleanor, Josee and myself, a few doors down from Sarah (who was a member of the core group at the Poster Workshop http://www.posterworkshop.co.uk) Liz, Gill, Hazel, (a founder of WLM in the Peckham group) and her two daughters, Mandy and Sam. Essex Road womens’s centre was nearby. We went to discos at the Crown and Woolpack pub at the Angel.
Some of us played in the London Women’s Liberation Rock Band and others donated funds for musical equipment or drove us to rehearsals. I’ve written more about the music-making and the politics of this time, for anyone interested, in the WLM Music Archive [scroll down the L page at https://womensliberationmusicarchive.co.uk/l/]
NB – I am writing on my own behalf here; it would be great if other women added their memories.
There’s some really great research and writing about women’s squatting in the 70s and 80s, done by Christine Wall, who was active herself in the squatting and feminist activism of that time, who was my neighbour in a later, Hackney women’s squatting community around London Fields. Her article in the History Workshop Journal, Sisterhood and Squatting in the 1970s: Feminism, Housing and Urban Change in Hackney, is available online and free to download: https://doi.org/10.1093/hwj/dbx024
I have thought recently about squatting’s importance, linking it to issues I perhaps wasn’t so aware of when I was involved in it. We knew that any political movement needs physical places, resources, a material base from which to organise – as any struggle against occupation and colonialism demonstrates – a territory, on which to assert its rights. No wonder our community centres, women’s centres, law centres, etc are starved of funds, closed down, taken over by corporations; no wonder squatting has now been made illegal. Back then, the housing situation was bad enough, but few of us could have foreseen the enormity and magnitude of the crisis in this country now which is so inhuman and creates so much misery, despair and oppression, as laid bare in heart-rending clarity by the Grenfell fire. The obscene juxtaposition of global super-rich elites using property as investment to park their vast palatial wealth next to people living in squalor and slums, used as cash cows by profiteering landlords, or without a roof over their head, or being dispersed in social ‘cleansing’ – a continuation of the treatment of working class and Black people over centuries. I see these, and the concomitant privatisation of public spaces, gentrification, loss of public housing, as continuations of the Enclosures, themselves a consolidation of unjust land ownership systems and the assumption of entitlement that characterises those who appropriate power for themselves.
In the early 80s I worked at Sisterbite, the cafe above Sisterwrite Bookshop, 190 Upper Street, and there are many memories of the events down the road at Islington Town hall – huge women-only dances, with live music provided by women’s bands such as the Emma Peel Fan Club, fancy dress, ballroom dancing, tap dancing. There was also a weekly lesbian disco at The Carved Red Lion basement bar, down by Islington Green, and Rackets at the Pied Bull at the Angel. At that time I also volunteered for London Lesbian Line, which set up by women who had been in Gay Switchboard, in two small office rooms in large building in Pentonville Road. Along the road was The Bell, a pub where LL held socials and we also went to discos with the lesbian DJs, the Sleaze Sisters. In the mid-80s I remember going to the Fallen Angel pub in Graham Street, and the GLC funded London Lesbian and Gay Centre in Cowcross St, and planning protests against Thatcher’s draconian Clause 28.
In the accompanying photos, which I’m glad to donate to the Islington Pride Archive, you see a reunion of some of the women who lived in Mitchison Road, forty-five years on. I was still in touch with my friend, the redoubtable radical feminist Amanda, who made contact with Sarah, but I’d lost touch with the others. I was thrilled when Hazel’s daughter Mandy contacted me, through the WLMA, having found her mother’s name there. I hadn’t seen her since she was about seven – she’s now 52 – so it was very emotional to meet her again. Hazel had died a few years previously. We decided to go down Memory Lane while Mandy was visiting London in June this year, and mark the occasion with a pop-up Feminist Heritage plaque. The wording reads: ‘This plaque commemorates the occupation of houses by women from the Women’s Liberation Movement and their children who lived in squats at 22 and 61 Mitchison Road, London N.1 in 1972/3,’ followed by our names.
It would be nice if the idea caught on and similar actions were done in other locations -so much of our activism and achievements are not known about or recorded. We have to ensure our revolutionary movements aren’t erased from history, co-opted or defanged by liberalism – for future generations who, like us, will I hope want and need to know what came before them. The histories of radical movements are not simply forgotten, lost naturally in the mists of time as it were, but can be suppressed and hidden, to suit the vested interests of those who benefit from oppressive systems – systems of male and white supremacy and capitalist control. They no more want us to know what happened in the past than what is actually going on now. Why would they want us to know of our predecessors’ struggles, campaigns, progress – to allow us to see ourselves as links in an ongoing chain of activism, to have hope of a better world? They will always favour historical amnesia; it makes their power appear natural or inevitable. Archives and records are vital to keep alive our stories, our ideals, our work. Hence the inclusion on our plaque of the time-honoured slogan: ‘la lucha continua!’ The struggle continues.
© Frankie Green, 2017
TWO: Christine Wall’s great article in the History Workshop Journal, as referenced above, is available online: https://doi.org/10.1093/hwj/dbx024. Her interview with myself and Paddy Tanton as part of the research for the article is reproduced below with their kind permission.
Interviewer – Italics; interviewee – Normal; [?/word] – denotes audio inaudible/unclear
Well, I just wanted to introduce this session, which is Chris Wall in Whitstable interviewing Paddy and Frankie. So, I was going to start with you, Frankie. When and where were you born, to start with?
F: I was born in London, 1949, but I went quite early in my life to New Zealand because my parents decided to emigrate. It was the ‘50s – it was the £10 pom sort of thing. So, I was educated in New Zealand and escaped as soon as I could and came back to London.
How old were you then when you got back?
F: When I finally got back, I was about 20, 21.
Right. So how did your journey sort of develop to take you to squatting and the Women’s Liberation Movement as well because the sort of…?
F: Yes. It was very much part of the Women’s Liberation Movement, and the first women I squatted houses with were women that I met through going to women’s liberation movement meetings and Gay Liberation Front meetings – there was an overlap. It was purely incidental that I started off going to Gay Liberation Front meetings in 1971 and then met women there who were involved in Women’s Liberation and went off to a Women’s Liberation conference in Skegness with two busloads of dykes from GLF and never looked back!
I’m just curious about how, in the early ‘70s, how did you find out about GLF meetings?
F: Well, I was working [laughing]…I was working as a waitress in a Wimpy bar – cue for a song…!
Opening bars, yeah!
F: I’d just got back to London and I was just working in anything I could find, any kind of job I could find, and it was one of those wonderful things where a whole bunch of…it was actually guys, a bunch of gay men, all came waltzing in when I was working the night-shift and were handing out their newsletters and I saw there was a meeting, and hadn’t even really actually sort of come out to myself at that stage. I just was doing things and was just going with the flow, you know, following impulses really, but I had known when I was living and growing up in New Zealand that I wanted to leave there and I – it was so restrictive and so narrow and conservative and insular … Although I couldn’t have articulated at the time, at that age, growing up in a colony, a part of the British Empire, was a horrible experience … So, I was just up for anything really and I was just really excited to get back to London and it was just so amazing because it was the cusp of that time where gay politics were blossoming and the Women’s Liberation Movement had started. I’d missed the first national march through London, but I was on the next ones.
So, where were you living at that time? How did you find somewhere to live when you got to London from New Zealand?
F: Yes, I just sofa-surfed, as they called it now, with people that I vaguely knew, and then, at that time, there was a kind of mixture of living situations, as I remember. So, there were reasonable rents, so I lived in bedsitters around the Earl’s Court area, and then moved into social housing, which was what they called short-life, a short-life housing place that a woman was renting at that stage in Notting Hill Gate, and then, from there, my life was basically about, in terms of living, was living in squats, squatted houses, and sometimes in rented flats.
So they were both – I mean, was most of this through word-of-mouth? Is that how you moved from place to place?
F: Mostly, it was word-of-mouth in those political communities. So, one of the lucky things that happened to me was just meeting all these women in GLF and with the Women’s Liberation Movement, who were very much into putting politics into practice, so doing practical things, and that included taking control of our lives totally, including housing, as the material basis of our lives, so putting politics into action in all sorts of ways and not doing what women were expected to do at that point, so, you know, trying to find new ways of living, living collectively, sharing resources, that sort of thing.
Was this women-only then, the housing, or was it still mixed?
F: Eh…it went from being mixed… I was living in a mixed house for a while, with some gay men and women, and then…sorry, I’m being slow…memory is sort of a bit inaccurate chronologically…
No, no, it’s fine.
F: And then it became women-only, yes. It was very much about women breaking into houses and taking them over as women and as lesbians.
Which part of London was that then?
F: Well, I lived in a couple of different squatting areas before I was in Hackney…consults notebook [laughing]… I mean, the first squat I lived was in an area around King’s Cross, and there was a whole batch of houses in a long row going up the Caledonian Road. I remember I lived in 118 Cally Road. It must have been at least half a dozen houses in that block that were taken over by squats, and around the corner, there were some mixed squats, and we all sort of knew one another and mixed and went to the same pub and had meetings together and organised things like…we turned our house, our women’s house, into a women’s centre, put a noticeboard out the front, offered pregnancy testing for women and that sort of thing.
Wow. And this is inside a squat?
F: Yes, they were very large houses. There was quite a bunch of us living there, about six women living there – lots of people also drifting in and out and crashing and staying for a while and then moving on. It was all quite a fluid situation.
And did you cook and eat together?
F: I can’t remember anything about cooking and eating [laughing]. All I can remember is intense meetings and trying to play my drum kit. I had a room on the top floor and just had a brass bed and a drum kit in it. And I can remember all the different bedrooms and things, but I don’t remember very much about the kitchen or anything like that, but I expect we ate and cooked collectively quite a lot.
And the other thing we did very much at that point was…well, it sounds like offering a service, but it wasn’t really. It was just that loads of local women used to come in and we’d meet and talk, and then we’d…some of us would go and open up other houses to squat them for the women, who were usually single mothers, who had been on the council waiting list for years and just had been utterly sort of neglected and were living in very overcrowded conditions. So, we would kind of go and crack open houses for them, and flats and things, at the Cally Road and round the back of King’s Cross.
And then, when I left there, all these…all these different living situations were not particularly lengthy, for various reasons [laughing], some political, some personal …
Were you ever evicted or just you sort of move on?
F: Yes, we were constantly dealing with evictions and often bailiffs and police would be involved, even though squatting was then still legal as a right.
So these houses perhaps belonged to Camden Council if they were in King’s Cross…or Islington…?
F: I’m not sure actually what the borough boundary was there, yeah.
But the Council didn’t welcome you. You were being evicted.
F: No, they didn’t! Council houses were smashed up to render them uninhabitable, boarded or tinned up, then in many cases left empty for long periods. Squatting was a form of protesting this, of Direct Action that made clear we were not waiting passively to be given our rights by the state (local or national government) but were actively claiming them, taking control of housing as a public resource. We were constantly evicted, but they had to go through a legal process, so we would go through a court case. We would usually defend ourselves. We’d sometimes get delays, so that we would have more time, you know, to move on, to prepare a court case material and stuff. And then sometimes we would get arrested breaking into houses. I remember particularly – well, I moved from King’s Cross to Islington, just off the Essex Road, a street called Mitchison Road, where there were two lots of women, two women’s houses, and I can remember… There was a kind of network, North and East London network – I don’t know how we did it in the age before mobile phones. Somebody would have a landline phone, I suppose, or somebody would come round – maybe somebody would come round and say there’s something happening at a squat and we… I remember getting to a place in Amhurst Road and the police had an enormous kind of…it must have been a telegraph pole they were using as a battering-ram, and there were women, loads of women and kids inside, screaming and… It was really absolutely terrible, and I remember accosting one of the police. Amanda was with me – we lived in the same house at that time on Mitchison Road [laughing], and I remember accosting the police and them saying “You’re nicked!” and then we were all, you know, chucked in police vans and went off to…it must have been Stoke Newington Police Station, I suppose. Anyway, so things like that happened fairly regularly. There was a sort of network where we were committed to taking over houses and ensuring that they were used and making a point of always saying when we went to court these are empty houses and people are in housing need and you’ve got these housing waiting lists, acting as sort of gatekeepers, but you’re not really being responsive to the human need for shelter and housing, especially for women and kids. We were very concerned about that. So, I lived there for a little while, in Mitchison Road.
Yes, and also this is your diary as well, your A-Z book of your life…
F: My A-Z [laughing]. Yeah, I just did this as a little creative project because I feel like London is the kind of map of my life really, or, you know, all our lives are mapped onto places, and spaces are so important and I wanted to keep a chronicle of it really, but collage it, you know.
Yeah. It works really well!
F: Yeah, I’ve really enjoyed doing it actually, and it’s a good memento, you know, aide memoire of the different jobs I’ve had and the different places I’ve lived and all the women that I’ve met and stuff.
Yeah. I didn’t realise that it was so extensive in North London before the sort of Broadway Market bit, you know, those early ‘70s…
F: Yes, that’s interesting. It was. It was, and it wasn’t only lesbians or women-only kind of situations. There were a lot of women who were living in mixed housing, communally, sharing childcare, and there was a big ideological commitment to households sharing things and not everybody living in an isolated unit, each with their own consumer goods, you know, white goods, very much challenging that whole notion, and so there was, fairly near us several houses that I think someone…probably owned or shared or bought collectively, and I remember going to them and that we were sort of part of a loose network really, with friendship groups and relationships within those sort of structures.
Were you ever in one of those houses that are notorious for sharing clothes?
F: I was, but that wasn’t actually a squat.
Ah, right, okay.
F: It was a shared house, a lesbian commune that came out of the GLF women’s group, a terraced house, in West London [laughing], and I seemed to be the only short, plump person there, and all the other women were quite tall and thin, and looked…everybody was looking like kind of…you know, a David Bowie sort of look at the time, so I ended up with not much to choose from, and most of my clothes disappeared [laughing]. Yeah…
So you haven’t got as far as Broadway Market yet. I mean, I wonder…shall I ask Paddy about her entry into squatting and then…or you want to carry on or…?
F; No, that’s fine, because then that will kind of combine – those two stories merge, yeah.
Do they merge in Hackney?
Okay. So, Paddy, where were you born and when were you born?
P: I was born in 1946 in Hull.
Ah. So what brought you to London then?
P: Well, I think, after I left home, I was at college for a while, but I…I think I was late coming to my kind of sexuality, although I always felt different, but [I felt], once I discovered it, coming from Hull [laughing], it was a bit tricky coming to terms with it. So I think what I did was I ran off to the far reaches of the countryside really, thinking that that would be a safe place to be, and so I ended up on the Scottish Border, in a kind of croft, and I happened to be with this woman who was very ill, and she was…yes, we were snowed in for winter, but she was…she was…she’d stopped eating at some point, and so I had to get her out, and I had no-one – I knew nobody. So, when the snow melted, I looked through her address book and I found an address in Brougham Road. I didn’t know where it was and I didn’t know who was there. I didn’t know the people, but I rang them up and said, “Look, you’re a friend of this woman, and, you know, she’s in a very bad way – can I bring her?” and they said, yes, bring her, and they turned out to be the [S?], who lived in Brougham Road. They were two lovely women who took us in, both of us, and I mean, the story of the woman is something else, but having got there, I suddenly realised that there were a lot of lesbians here [laughing] and that it was extraordinary. I thought I was probably the only one in the world, like you do at some point in your life, and I’d already met Frankie, very briefly, at a visit she made to the croft, and we’d got on terribly well, before this time.
You went to her croft?
P: She went to my croft, but quite coincidentally, with someone who knew the woman I was living with at the time.
F: Yeah, it was one of those great coincidences really.
P: So, we got on terribly well, and I remembered that she lived in Hackney too and so I turned up on her doorstep, banging on the door, and there she was, and I never looked back really.
And what year was this, Paddy, that you came…?
P: Gosh, I can’t remember…
F: ’76, because it’s the 40thanniversary of our friendship, so it was ’76.
P: So it was…it was amazing for me because, suddenly, I was pitched into this place that I had no idea… I mean, it was (a) urban, and (b) was full of lesbians and was extraordinary and vibrant and exciting and I was high as a kite on it really, and it was wonderful, although I was then torn very much between…because I still live in the countryside and I can’t live in cities, so I became a kind of itinerant really, at some point. I got myself a big van and moved from one place to another – yes, that was me [laughing]!
P: The van…
Okay, that’s…I remember the van, yeah.
P: Yeah. And I parked that in Brougham Road and we slung a sort of electric cable across into the squat and I just lived in there, having people round for tea.
F: And then all the new-age travellers came and parked up…
P: And then all the new-age travellers parked up-
In Brougham Road…
P: …ahead and behind me, because they saw me there so they decided, oh, this is a good place, let’s join in. I woke up one morning and there was about six vans parked along there [laughing], and then more came, and then they all moved off into the bus garage.
That’s right – I remember…
P: Mm, they all decided to decant because there was too many of them, so they all went off and…
Lived inside, yes, the old bus garage…
P: They went into the bus station.
Before it was pulled down…
Ah, yes. Gosh, there were so many overlapping communities.
It’s interesting, isn’t it?
Yes. It wasn’t – I don’t remember any particular antagonism either, but maybe that was just me but…
P: No, it seemed perfectly…
But this, now…so, if Paddy arrived in ’76, and the last place that you were talking about was Mitchison Road…?
F: Yes, that’s right, in Islington, yes.
So what happened after that?
F: So, after that, I lived for a while in rented rooms in Holloway, and then I rented a flat in Peckham. And talking about all these disparate kind of communities and overlapping communities is interesting because I’m remembering there was also a women’s squatting community, lesbians, who were involved in the London Women’s Liberation Workshop, which was also squatted actually. It was a squatted building in Covent Garden which is probably now worth hundreds of millions of pounds but at the time we took over-
F: Earlham Street, yes.
Oh, I remember Earlham Street.
F: Yes. And then there were women who lived in West London, and then in South London, in the Vauxhall area, there were about two-and-a-half entire terraced streets where women squatted, all lesbians as far as I know, and I used to hang out there a lot, but I didn’t live there actually. I lived in a rented flat in Peckham. And then, after that, that was when I moved to Hackney, and went to Lansdowne Drive – I think it was 182 or 184, we’re not quite sure.
But why did you move up to Hackney from South London, can you remember?
F: [Pause] I think I just wanted to get back into the squatting scene and the women’s community scene. I’d lived on my own for a little – I needed that – but as far as I can remember, because I knew women who were starting to now move into houses in Hackney, and I… It probably just happened that someone said “Do you want to join us?” you know, “We’re going to break in next Tuesday night,” and I said, “Oh, I’ve got the crowbar!”
And the experience!
F: And I know how to tape up a window and then hit it with a hammer so that no one can hear the glass breaking. And someone brought a ladder and off we went! So, things like that happened quite spontaneously actually. It wasn’t like you were settling down somewhere. It was like you were just constantly going from one place to the other [laughing]. So, with a group of friends, I moved into Lansdowne Drive, and I lived there I think for two years, 1977 to ’79, and…
What state was the house in?
F: Oh [sighing]… It was in a better state than the previous house I’d lived in, which had had no plumbing or electricity. The plumbing wasn’t fixable and some people got quite ill actually. It was terrible [half-laughing] – it was crazy. But, the state of Lansdowne Drive was not too bad. Women wired it up, put in some plumbing… [Time confusion: it was a later house* where 2 women put in a bath, which was in the hallway, which was a challenge [laughing]. So, it needed quite a bit of decorating and it needed some repairs – for example, window frames and things like that needed to be sorted out, and…doors possibly… I’m just thinking… We’d lived, yes, in that house, we each had separate rooms but a collective kitchen situation and a collective living room, and then Paddy and I went to live in Wales together, and I think we were there for 18 months to two years, and when I came back, then I moved into *176 Lansdowne Drive, with an old friend), and at that stage, we started more compartmentalisation of the actual structures. So, each woman might have her own kitchen, or two women might have their own kitchen.
Ah, so it was almost like…like sort of informal flats within the house?
F: It was. It kind of morphed into these, yeah, informal divisions.
Rather than communal spaces…?
F: Not quite so communal, but it still was very communal.
F: I mean, the Women’s Electrical Collective was based there, so their kind of office/HQ thing was downstairs in the front room, which would have normally been a living room, and then there were individual bedrooms, and there wasn’t a bathroom. There was a bath in the hall. There was a kitchen on the ground floor and then another one… I think Penny (Collier) put one in on the top floor, and I had one on the first floor. Yes, so it kind of ended up individually dividing into flats or living units, as you know.
Yeah, that’s interesting. That’s a precursor to the Housing Coop…
F: That’s before, well before the Housing Coop, yeah.
But the housing coop, I think, was set up in 1977…
But then of course there were these years and years of inactivity, so it was…didn’t actually seem to make much difference because we just carried on paying a minimal sort of rent and things.
F: Yes, that’s right. That’s right.
And that room that you mentioned in the basement, I think that was where Housing Coop meetings were, wasn’t it? That Women’s Electrical office I think, we used to…
F: I think sometimes there were meetings there, yes. I think meetings moved between different houses.
F: But one thing I have been thinking about is how, in terms of us taking over our own housing, and that was a way of asserting our right to do so, to live differently as women and women together, but also just the human right to a home basically, shelter and a home, and enough space to live in, you know, not to be squashed up in some ridiculous tiny dwelling. It was also very interesting I think that we didn’t just want living space, we wanted all those other uses that we saw were kind of important and were part of our lives. So, yes, an office, they would be used as studios, meetings, workshops, sometimes art exhibitions, like in Vauxhall. One of the squats in Radnor Terrace was the South London Women’s Art Centre – that was fantastic. Also, childcare, that was a very important principle, that often there would be a room set aside for children or that children would be moved between different houses and be looked after, so a lot of different women would be involved in caring for the children, so… And also, as I’ve said, we used the first house I squatted as a women’s centre, and band rehearsals, and parties…
F: Great parties, and social events. So, they were very much…they weren’t just houses that were our personal living spaces. They were very much for collective actions of all different kinds.
Yes. They were integral to the community. I mean, the community wouldn’t have worked without the housing, because of those spaces…
F: Mm, yes.
I remember living next-door to the tap-dance troupe…!
F: Oh yes!
P: The Hot Taps!
F: Hot Taps!
Hot Taps, who used to practise…next-door [laughing]! It was astounding, yes!
F: Probably better than living next-door to my drum-kit which I had in the basement [laughing]!
Never heard the drum-kit actually.
F: Oh, that’s lucky.
So did the whole band (Jam Today) used to ever practise in Lansdowne Drive or…?
You’d have…go somewhere else for…?
F: You’d go other places, other women’s centres and things like that, yeah.
Yeah. You must have been part of all this as well then, Paddy?
P: Certainly, I was. I roadied for the band for a while with my van, which did its big-end in actually, but anyway, we won’t go there [laughing]. I did a few trips with the band, and eh, I just…it was just so exciting, and the childcare thing also, that you mentioned, I did get quite involved in that, because I moved into the house with these [?] women, they were bringing up a child, and I got very involved with that child’s life and became a kind of third mum to her, and then, through that, got involved with other women who had children, and I remember often kind of wheeling children round the streets and having days looking after kids. It was part of that Wild-child thing.
F: There was. You know about the Wild children, yes? (A number of children were given the surname Wild, rather than parental/biological family/patriarchal names.)
F: We overlapped with them, didn’t we?
P: Yes, it did rather. So I got quite involved in that. But it was just…to me, it was just exciting. I was also making jewellery and I made all the women symbols for Sisterwrite Bookshop and their labyrises and everything. I did it in the attic, didn’t I, in your squat? I had my little studio up there.
I still have one. I didn’t know or I would have brought it. I’ve still got my earring with that women’s symbol.
P: Oh, have you? Lovely.
P: So, I used to do all that.
So, yes, that’s another use of, I mean, being able to do that … Because there were, you know, people did make a living actually because you had space to make a living from…
F: Well, that’s it, yes.
P: Exactly. So, yes, it provided me with a huge amount of… I mean, I was on the periphery of the Housing Coop. I used to notice that it wasn’t going well, quite often [laughing], you know, and I was always very glad that I wasn’t kind of part of that, but I also felt very privileged that I was allowed to come in and just be…have a space, you know, that I’d be taken in like that was amazing to me and I really…
And there were trees of course, the gardens were quite well-established…
P: There were trees. They were lovely, yeah, yes, exactly.
F: The garden is a very important aspect of it actually, as well as having the space over the road in London Fields, and at one stage, a lot of women took up jogging, and there was a lido, you know – that was very important. But the back gardens were very, very important, and then there was a whole thing about a lot of the fences between them had become just broken down and stuff, and then there was a kind of…just a kind of issue for some people about privacy – was it your own garden or could everybody just wander up and down the back of the houses [laughing] and interrupt you when you’re having your quiet breakfast and talk about things? That was difficult for some people, but some people really liked it, and some people were very into gardening. One of the women in the house I lived in when I came back from Wales was a brilliant gardener, and she made an absolutely beautiful garden in the back. And then we had…an event where we organised a jumble sale. I have some photos from that, of us wearing various silly clothing that was on sale. Because we realised there needed to be a fence built – I think that was when the Coop was becoming slightly kind of more formalised, , although the houses hadn’t been rehabbed or anything, it was quite early on, and we wanted to put a fence up between the space at the back, there was a row of trees that wasn’t part of our gardens.
Oh, the Woodland Trust trees, yes.
F: Well, yes, eventually, the Trust people came along and…what are they called, the Town Trees’ Trust, and they took over that space and looked after it, and they built a fence, so the jumble sale had been fun but not necessary.
Like a lot of events really – fun but not essential [laughing]! Gosh, I mean, I was just thinking about though the range of jobs that people did. I mean, I think…I mean, a lot of women signed on but then did voluntary work, and then others were fully self-employed, and then others were, you know, social workers, nurses, teachers, whatever.
I mean, can you remember, did women split into sort of groups, informal groups, around the type of work they did…or was it…? I can’t remember really. I wondered if you’d noticed anything like that happening.
F: Not really, no. Sometimes, if women set up a specific Women in Manual Trades group, for example, like the aforementioned electricians, then they were, you know, doing that together, but then lots of women just seemed to do different kinds of jobs, and how we survived financially was very varied actually. I was trying to list it…manual trades, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, builders, mechanics, jewellery-makers and printers. Some of us were also – and it was very fluid, again. Sometimes, you’d do a job and then you’d sign on… Because I worked at Sisterwrite, in the café upstairs for two years and, in between those patches of work, might be on the dole, and at that stage, the dole was more liveable on. It wasn’t quite so… difficult. You weren’t absolutely impoverished trying to survive on benefits. It seemed more possible, which was also partly why sometimes we lived in rented accommodation, because rents were more reasonable. There was rent control and it wasn’t the nightmare that it is today.
F: And then, I was also thinking – oh, and some of us were students, so we had grants at that stage. I got a grant to be a mature student in 1986, after working at Sisterbite Café and then working as a driver for disabled people for three years. Then I went to university for four years, with a grant, and I think that was so important actually.
P: I think the other thing, just to say something just from an outside observer, I never knew what anybody did, and I think it was part of that thing about going against that idea that you were what your work was, your identity came through your work…
P: And it became completely irrelevant. I had no idea. Some of them could have been going out to full-time work – I would never have known. It wasn’t that important. This was about something else, something more fundamental.
F: That’s true, we weren’t defined that way, you’re right, that’s interesting… And also … I personally felt very much that an important part of those politics was rejecting the work ethic in the sense of it meaning that any job, however destructive to the environment or soul-destroying, was given inherent value, and actually rejecting that and saying we want to do what we believe is worthwhile in the world, whether it is trying to change the world politically or earn a living doing something artistic or something physical or musical, we want to create our own lives. We don’t want to be bound by this notion that you’ve got to have a job and you’ve got no value if you haven’t got a job, you know…
But also, there was a bit of a scavenging economy involved because we used to – I can remember going with an old pram up to the furniture factory, along the canal, for firewood, you know, because there were fireplaces in most of these houses and we made them function, and stuff like that was really important, and also sharing things in terms of…we’d have food coops or we’d buy in bulk. I do remember that. We’d go to wholefood places … So, not every individual or even individual households would be going to buy separate things. We would be pooling resources in that way.
It was, I agree, it was very important, I mean, not just in terms of self-expression but also community expression. I mean, it was…I mean, I think it was quite unique really. But I was going to ask you a bit, Paddy, about your…the whole relationship that women had with the land because, even though this was an urban community, there were quite a number of us who really felt for the land and grew vegetables. I mean, we used to grow a lot of our own food in…when I lived there.
P: In the garden or…?
Yeah. And it was just also another big overlap. I mean, I just think that there was – and also the travelling women’s house. There were women’s communities setting up, weren’t there?
So, just…I mean, this is not to do with squatting, but I did think that there were women who would come to Hackney, to Broadway Market, who had lived in Wales for various…and we were able to provide, as you say, a sort of passing-through space. So I just wondered, did you find that lots of women that you met who would prefer to be on the land also had short sort of times in cities?
P: Yes. Well, I did know some of those travelling women because I lived near Cefn Foelalt, which was women’s land in Wales, and a lot of – I mean, I can’t say it was an altogether wonderful experience, but it was an interesting experience [laughing] and…you know, I met and got to know a number of women there, and I think we even had some squatting in our caravan for a while, didn’t we, a couple of women from [there]?
F: That’s right.
P: And they ended up in Hackney. So I thought it was a very valuable place, that a place had been set aside for women to actually come through in that way, because I think a lot of those women were, I don’t know…they probably were stuck, like I was, in between the two, rural/urban split, and I think they, you know, they really didn’t know where to be, and I didn’t know where to be either. I was very torn in that way. But I think it was, another problem of how to…because being self-sufficient would have been brilliant within the context of what we were doing, part of that, would have been…but it wasn’t possible to be that within that urban environment. But it was an ideal I’m sure a lot of people had or would have had had they had the opportunity…
I mean, I suppose it was played out a little bit in the way that you said, you know – there was totting, scavenging…
P: Yes, exactly.
Ridley Road, cheap food…
P: A sort of urban version of it, yes.
It was almost an urban version of back to the land, but, you know, in a way…
But it was also to do with non-ownership because I think we none of us expected or thought to become home-owners.
F: No, that’s right, and it was very much against the whole notion of private property. I mean, it wasn’t so much against individual people who may have, through one route or another, acquired a house or a home in some way that they technically owned, but it was about the whole ideology of privatisation of housing, because we were about establishing the right to the commons and that housing should be a right and everybody has a right to decent shelter.
Mm. Do you remember much about the other residents in Hackney around Broadway Market? Do you remember interacting with any of the people around there?
F: Mm, yeah, not to a huge extent. I don’t remember building up any friendships, but I experienced the friendly atmosphere in the market with the stall-owners and everything and a lot of chit-chat and being, you know, more tolerated than you might have expected to be by a lot of people, and then there was some very negative interaction because there was a pub on the corner, the Cat & Mutton, which was frequented by the National Front, and there was…a couple of incidents there that were very unpleasant. So, there was tension and there was…there was some harassment, wasn’t there?
P: There was.
F: You had bricks chucked at you.
P: I had bricks chucked at me. Kids sometimes I found could be quite aggressive [laughing]. If you got round the wrong street and there was nobody else there, they would chuck a brick. And I was also very conscious that the…some people who I suppose were National Front or, you know, the blokes walking their very aggressive dogs in London Fields, and I think there was some air-rifle firing, wasn’t there?
F: There was. There was an attack on one of the houses. Somebody fired an air-rifle through a window and it hit Fiona, and the police, when the police came round, and we didn’t often contact the police obviously [laughing], they usually contacted us, but for some reason, the police were called because a gun had been fired and they said something like, “What do you expect with a poster like that in the window?” and the poster was “Save Whitechapel Hospital” [laughing].
F: Yes. So, there was a mixed thing. I mean, there were some people that you did get to know and were quite friendly with, and others not really.
How did you get around in London – did you use the buses, did you cycle, did you walk? Did you feel safe, you know, around Broadway Market or…?
F: Mm, yeah, I felt safe most of the time. I had a little van, an old Post Office van, that I used to go to work at Sisterwrite. Otherwise, walked a lot…
P: Walked a lot.
F: Yeah. People shared cars also – that was quite important, sharing cars.
P: I didn’t feel very safe because I had this very silly idea in my head that [laughing] it was unsafe in an urban environment and safe in a country environment. In fact, when I think about it, I had much more hassle out in the wild of the countryside, from very frightening people, than I did in London. So I did spend a lot of time being very nervous, and I think I had things up my sleeve in order to kind of defend myself, until I got used to the idea, this is ridiculous, you know, just relax [laughing]. So, it was…it’s that idea, I think I had, you know, ideas that aren’t correct because I did have much more hassle out in the country than I did in the city. So…!
F: You were a bit more obvious perhaps…
P: Well, exactly.
F: You know, you think you’re anonymous…
P: You think you’re hiding and you’re not [laughing]!
F: Hiding in plain sight.
Yes. But then, you know, we were pretty obvious in Hackney – I mean, we all…
P: But there were a lot of us. There were a lot of women and I think that’s different. It helps to be…mob-handed, as it were…
Yeah. I don’t know, we’ve just covered lots and lots. I mean, one of the things is, I suppose, is to look back on it in some sort of personal way and how you reflect back on that time because, you know, how long were you there? I mean, it must have been…you were there squatting for quite a long time, and I include the Housing Coop years in that really.
F: Yeah. Yes, I think it was about five years for me altogether, yeah, the two different times, living in Hackney that is.
F: Yeah. I would have…I suppose, most of a 10-year period, I was squatting, in one part of London or another.
Yeah. So that’s quite a large part of your adult life really…
F: It was a large part and…we were quite young in some ways, early-twenties to early or mid-thirties, so it was a very important time. It was very formative. It had quite a big influence on my life, I think, although it seems a long time ago. Starting to thinking about it now, in retrospect, it’s been very interesting. I mean, one of the things that I think about quite a lot is how did we manage the differences between us, how well or how badly did we manage things, because, for example, in Lansdowne Drive – this is my memory – it was a very disparate group of women. It kind of grew organically. It wasn’t a planned thing, so nobody got together and said, oh, let us go and all squat eight houses in a row and we’ve all got shared ideals and principles and ways of trying to, you know, do conflict resolution and all that stuff. We didn’t think like that and we didn’t organise it like that. So what happened was all these different women and people ended up living in a very small area, really, geographically, with huge differences politically, different backgrounds, class backgrounds, and…
P: But at quite a politically volatile time as well…
F: Yes, absolutely. So much going on that was really hard to deal with, and yet a time of great hope and optimism as well, wasn’t it, very positive as well… I think we united quite well around things like when the National Front… There was an attack on a woman, one of the few Black women around Lansdowne Drive, and that was horrendous, and we went to court as witnesses, and there was a fantastic feminist barrister and great solicitor involved as well, and…things like that… I mean, they were very active, the fascists. They put up posters, and if you tried to tear them down, they had planted razor-blades behind them. I mean… There were a lot of demonstrations and marches, you know, and a lot of beatings-up and so forth. I’m wandering, sorry…
No, you’re not, no, I agree. I remember Hoxton was a very frightening area and you didn’t go there, actually.
F: Yes. No.
As a lesbian, you wouldn’t wander into Hoxton because, you know, it was…you were bound to get sort of attacked.
So there was this sort of territory, wasn’t there, around…?
So, we had our streets, we had the Fields…
And then there were various other bits of East London that you, you know, you would not venture into.
P: Just going back to the local community thing, I do remember there was that incident at the…was it the nursery school in Brougham Road, where a woman was…I don’t know whether she was sacked…? I mean, you know who I’m talking about [laughing]. She was either pushed out or sacked or something because of being a lesbian. I don’t know if you remember that? And there was some kind of campaign around that.
Yeah, there was a very big campaign, I do remember. An old friend of mine who is actually a straight woman, who worked there and campaigned to support a young lesbian worker who had been asked to leave, yeah…
P: That’s right. So, there were those sort of tensions in the community, I suppose, that every now and then would erupt, because that was just round, you know, that was like four doors down from where I was living at the time [laughing], so there were those difficulties that every now and then you would…you would see what local opinion might be.
Lenthall Road was quite important as well, as a place for…
…well, where you could, you know, make your political posters.
F: That’s right, made posters and calendars and leaflets and things…
And I think there was a darkroom. I think some women learnt to print photographs as well there …
F: There was a lot of skills-sharing, wasn’t there? We helped each other to learn things.
Yeah. And also a huge amount of creativity, I suppose, creative energy, so that was a very, very positive aspect, I think.
F: Yes, it was. But do you think also…I mean, I was also trying to remember the difficulties of just…the interpersonal relationships of…feeling under pressure at all to…be concerned about whether you were doing the right thing and whether other women would judge you, and having set up something as an alternative, rejecting the domestic use of space and the sort of…what would now be called heteronormativity and heterosexism, that I always felt, you know, I look back and I think, actually, I was often very nervous about how I was being seen or judged by other women and whether…I was doing the right thing, and I felt very self-conscious. But because it was such a heightened time, things seemed very charged, so your individual actions and statements were kind of often challenged or scrutinised or something. Maybe I was just being paranoid. But I remember Amanda saying once (previously, in a Kings Cross squat), “I’m really fed up living like this [laughing]!” She said, “It’s like living on a stage!”
P: It’s like we were making it up as we went along anyway, to some extent. I mean, we were the ones who were making, I suppose, those sort of…whatever the rules or ideas were.
P: But I always felt, as an incomer, that there were all these amazing women who knew what those rules or ideas were, and I didn’t, and I think that’s…and I think probably everybody felt that, a bit.
P: But it was almost like I’d come into it a bit late to learn. But I mean, I did, you know, and I saw that…that anxiety a lot really.
I think we were very hard on ourselves.
P: Yeah, very.
F: I think we were hard on ourselves and on one another.
We were very hard on each other, but partly – we were also hard on ourselves, I think, and that…
F: It was very challenging, in many ways.
Although you could see it as a good way of sort of learning to survive in a very harsh world, you know [laughing].
F: Yes [laughing]! Or working out what you actually feel eventually about how is the best way for us to be partners and friends or colleagues and what sort of standards do we use and what do we want to…to be and live up to…
Well, there was the whole, you know, how to have lesbian relationships – should they…? You know, was – you know, everybody was against monogamy…
So, non-monogamy, and non-monogamy is a very, very difficult thing to…sort of..survive.
F: Oh yes. Yes.
But of course it was…we were supposed to…there was this… I mean, I agree with you both, there were all these “should”s – “We should be trying this” and “We should be doing this” [laughing] and it felt…some of us, for some women, it felt very uneasy, you know…
F: Yeah, and … As you said, we didn’t have any rulebook. We were making it up as we go along, and so trying to work out things, where you stood in relation to the issue of monogamy or non-monogamy, was it possible to have more than one lover at a time and how did you work those things out in a fair way, and how did you deal with issues of jealousy, and all those sort of interpersonal things came along a lot. These things may seem a bit passé now, but it needs to be remembered that women were making sincere attempts to live according to ethical principles, opposing rigid gender roles and authoritarian patriarchal relationships with their issues of the ownership of women and children. But also, it was all in the context of very detailed, complex sort of discussions and analyses about politics generally, class, and racism, as well as, you know, dealing with patriarchy [sighing]. So, we were reading a lot, and discussing a lot, and writing a lot too, and that was very exciting. So, we weren’t just sort of wandering around getting off with one another [laughing], not all the time, we were actually constantly have discussion groups about e.g. something that Adrienne Rich had written, or how did feminism and Marxism articulate together, and all this was…
P: Yes. I felt faced with a whole variety of possibilities – I could be an anarcho-feminist, I could be a radical feminist, I could be a revolutionary feminist, or I…you know, there were many…and Marxist feminist. I had no idea which [laughing]…you know, kind of…
F: I suppose, like most of us, you just ended up with a mish-mash of these things.
P: Yeah, a mish-mash of things, but it felt like you had to kind of, you know, make up your mind and that there was a sort of, you know…
F: There was a bit of a polarisation. And one of the things I said to you earlier, didn’t I – I was thinking about the issue that developed when the Housing Coop had to decide which houses were going to be designated women-only and which were going to have mixed space, a whole conflict arose, which you’ll no doubt address in the archives, that I now see as a vast polarisation developing out of the lack of resources, the lack of space, the lack of housing.
F: And we shouldn’t have been fighting one another about these things because they were not mutually exclusive, whether a large heterosexual family with sons was entitled to housing or should have that particular house and whether women had a right to autonomous space because it was about political autonomy as much as it was about… It wasn’t just a lifestyle issue. And both of those things are totally valid and important, but there was this kind of split developed where you had to take sides, or people felt they ought to take sides, or you know, believed that both were important so felt terribly torn and pressured, and it was just completely problematic, and I don’t think was dealt with in a very good way.
It’s really great that you said that because I’m only…it’s only through going through these sort of housing archives, quite recently, that I’ve looked at how many empty houses there were and the fact that there really was no need to sort of squash us up, you know.
And I think you’re absolutely right – it was the resources… We should have had more houses, basically, for the numbers of people we wanted to house…
…in not unreasonable conditions and there was this sort of… And also, you know, the shift from squatting, where you actually had huge freedom in terms of space, how you used that space, to being restricted, you know, into, you know, your little flat or your little household.
And the other thing is that there was no scope for experimentation. I mean, we managed it on Albion Drive when we moved into these flats by knocking down walls.
We knocked down a wall, and we also had a shared stairwell, which we opened up the doors between the flats on this stairwell so that we could move in and out of each other’s flats and share childcare and eat together. But that was just two adjoining houses, and it was for a very brief period of time as well. But the designs didn’t allow that sort of flexibility, in a way. I mean, it was quite rigid. I mean, they were just sort of chi-ch-chi-chi and that was it.
F: Yeah, the final designs.
F: I mean, when the Housing Coop…those houses were refurbished
Yeah, and I mean, and that was the way the funding went and it was all to do with allocation of space. So suddenly, this almost bureaucracy gets imposed on all of us who’d been squatting for years!
F: Yeah. And something that had been really fluid and organic then became dominated by a different form of architecture, which was absolutely crucial to how we live.
P: And all the values that we were trying to live [against].
F: The little rectangles, exactly!
Yeah, yeah, so it was little boxes again… And we’d all been fighting to get out of little boxes in the ‘50s when we were growing up [laughing] and then suddenly it goes…
P: Yeah. Interesting…
And it is to do with the sort of bureaucracy and funding and financial… It was very difficult. And of course…yeah, so there were a lot of women who actually fled there… And actually, I mean, they found freedom in the sort of private ownership sector, by going to Hebden Bridge, where property was cheap, you know.
F: Oh, that’s interesting, yes, that’s true, yeah.
Well, that’s the way I think…I think it happened like that. I might be wrong but…
F: You’re probably right. I’m sure that’s true for some people. But until I was sort of looking back on this, I realised that I hadn’t before identified or problematized the whole issue of how the built environment structures our lives. Although at the time we were very conscious of it – we will not live in little either bedsits or nuclear families with men, as we’re supposed to, but we will actually break out and shape our own living environments…and now, I mean, never in that day and age [laughing] could I have imagined or envisaged the nightmare that housing has become now, post-Thatcher’s destructive right-to-buy policy – now buy-to-let or buy-to-leave-empty – as just a means of investment and the parking of capital by the super-rich and the taking over of London and social, quote, “cleansing”, and it’s just heart-breaking, the way that the whole marketization or privatisation of property is just… the complete reverse of what we were hoping for and aiming for.
F: …and I think at the time we felt we were part of a snowballing change. We were optimistic that we would play a role in that change, you know.
P: I wonder if we were part of the beginning of the end, in that sense [laughing]. I don’t know. I mean, it’s nothing to do with squatting, but I’m thinking of how the housing has gone exactly the way you said but also, from my experience, it’s about how all the kind of housing regulations are now trying to get us to live very conventionally. I mean, I get the Land magazine and there’s lots of people all over the country who are trying to live in woods in benders, in self-built wooden sheds, which I’d love to do [laughing]. There’s all sorts of different ideas … And that’s systematically being evicted and stopped and the rules are getting tighter and tighter, and I think it probably all began then, this tightening up of rules and regulations, stopping people living outside the system, outside…off-grid, outside of the conventional.
F: Yes, a backlash
P: And we’re all being pushed back into these boxes, into these conventional ways of living, very much so…
F: Yes! And…or out onto the streets…
P: Or out onto the streets, absolutely.
F: Because homelessness has increased horrendously!
F: They’re now going to be…you know, you’re going to be criminalised for even being on the streets in a sleeping bag. It’s absolutely horrific! It’s fascistic.
F: And I think that…I don’t know, the… I mean, the criminalisation of squatting, for example, an age-old right in this country to squat, you know, going back how many hundreds of years, just gone – it’s disgusting.
Mm. So I guess it was a completely fortuitous thing that in…there was…you said we were on a stage, in a way, in terms of the way we behaved, but also, it was like that urban fabric was a stage because we were rebelling against our backgrounds, we were coming out as lesbians, we were living, you know, as radically as possible, and there was this, you know, huge streets of sort of semi-derelict houses that we could perform in, in a way. I mean, it wasn’t really a performance…
We lived it, it was just our lives.
F: No, no, it was our lives, yeah.
But, you know, it was just…in some ways, incredibly lucky that that was there for us to take over…
F: Yes, and you can see how the system has wanted to crush that now…
F: …because it was also a space for organising politically.
F: So, we would have planning meetings there, planning demonstrations, street theatre, all kinds of things, and…
P: Yeah, that’s what I mean.
F: Exactly, yeah.
P: That’s what they’ve successfully done now is they’ve got it all sewn up and it feels like they’ve put a net over that, you know, that will stop that happening. They’re taking away all those alternative, creative spaces from people, really, I think.
F: But can I introduce an optimistic note?
P: Yes, please do!
F: Because, recently, some things have happened that have really kind of been heartening and really made me feel more optimistic and positive, and one of them was Paddy and I and another colleague who helps to run the Women’s Liberation Music Archive were asked to go and give a talk at a university in East London for International Women’s Day, in 2015, and one of the other speakers was a young woman from the Focus E15 group and she was fantastic and she told us what they’ve been doing and it was really interesting. Because I knew she was going to be there, I was able to talk about squatting in the presentation I gave, and she came up later and said “This is fantastic, you know…the struggle continues!” sort of thing, and it’s much harder now, in some ways, but they are doing brilliantly, and they are saying “We won’t be moved! We won’t be treated like shit, and we will take control of our lives and our housing. And these are empty houses which need people, and these are people which need houses, and therefore we’re going to put the two together.” And they’ve done fantastic stuff, resisting the Council basically treating them like shit. So, I felt very encouraged by that. I know it’s really hard for them but…
Yeah, they’re a great bunch.
F: It’s brilliant.
And in fact, the potential communities, radical communities now are the post-War working class estates, council estates, because that’s where you can all live together [laughing] because nobody…
You know, before they become sold-off, because that’s what their battle is about.
F: I thought they were being sold-off, to a huge extent, and demolished and…
Yeah, to a huge extent, but there are still…
F: Still some fighting communities, yeah.
P: That’s where the battle on the frontline is, yeah.
Yeah. Yeah, but those young women are great actually.
F: They’re brilliant really and what I was interested in was that she said they were all single mothers, they didn’t really know one another much and they didn’t actually mix that much. They had separate little rooms. And they paid quite a lot of rent, but because of the struggle, it brought them together – they all became a solid, network of collective action, which is the only answer to any social/political oppression, is collective action, as we know. So I just thought that was brilliant.
Yeah, that’s a very optimistic note.
F: I also thought… it shouldn’t be forgotten that a lot of the women who did come into squatting at that time were working class, were single parents, had moved out from abusive relationships with men or marriages in which they had realised they were lesbians in fact, so…or wanted to become lesbians, and so that space opened up for them, so that was very important. A lot of women didn’t have any choice about it. That was what they had to do, they had to squat to get somewhere to live, for their children and them to be safe, and that also overlapped with the development of Women’s Aid of course because a lot of women stayed in squats in the beginning, before Women’s Aid became more formalised and resourced.
Yeah, that was so… But I mean, on a personal level, when you look back, you, Paddy, you talked about going to Broadway Market as a, I don’t know, exciting, liberating…
P: Mm, yeah, absolutely.
Is that how you think about it now?
P: Absolutely, I do. I mean, I see the problems, it’s not – I don’t have this sort of glowing, you know, unreal vision of it. I mean, I saw the struggles and the difficulties, and some of the kind of mental health problems that also women came to those situations with, from their own history, so it was difficult, the tensions and the political differences. But overall, it was exciting and it changed my life. It changed my life completely, yeah, utterly… And in a way, it’s almost like the ghetto in my head became the ghetto for real, and the downside for me was slightly that it took me quite a long time [laughing] to move out of the ghetto into the real world again, but, it was so important to me. But it was, it saved my life really, in many ways…yeah…
Paddy has just sort of summed up her sort of memories of that time as it being a place that saved her life.
F: Oh. Wow.
P: Well, it did. You know I…wasn’t very jolly before then, [was I] [laughing]?!
F: And “Heaven knows I’m miserable now…”!
P: Yeah, exactly!
I don’t know, it’s been really wonderful listening to what you’ve both had to say and just really…sort of wonderful. Do you want to finish up or say anything else?
F: It’s been great! I’m sure that more things will come to mind.
You can write more of course, Frankie…
F: In a way, I think I would endorse what Paddy said. I mean, I was terribly up and down…I’ve suffered a lot from depression, not so much lately but throughout my life, and at that stage, when I was a young woman and a young lesbian, you know, it didn’t feel like there was anywhere to be. So, for all its problems and wrangles and hassles and whatever, the squatting situation and the lesbian communities in London were so important to me …I can’t have imagined what I would have done otherwise…
P: No, exactly.
Because our families were not always supportive, to say the least, so I was wondering, you’d come…you’d left your family in New Zealand…
Did they ever come and see you or did you cut off from them?
F: No, I didn’t cut off but I did have a very problematic relationship with them, particularly with my father. I look back now and I see that a lot of the pressures that I felt from him in particular to try and get me to get a good education and, you know, whereas I’d dropped out of high school as soon as I turned 16, because I just wanted to get away. But a lot of that came from his own struggles as a working class man just trying to make it in the post-War era, trying to get some security, and seeing that that lay in housing, in fact, in trying to acquire property, rather than living on an estate where my grandparents had lived… and so… I did have a difficult relationship with my parents, but I look back on it now and I do appreciate that they had good intentions. I was very close to my Mum. They moved back to England eventually. But I don’t think they ever understood how much I hated the fact that…the privilege of migrating…no matter what class you came from, if you had a white skin, you could go off to Australia or New Zealand and you could have this amazing lifestyle and you could own land and housing, you know, never mind the indigenous people that you’d displaced. They weren’t even taken into account. And that’s where a lot of my politics was formed really, in terms of that whole kind of anti-colonialism and anti-racism stuff.
F: So that was very important.
Mm. I don’t remember many family members visiting Broadway Market. There were some.
F: My Mum came to stay.
Your Mum came to stay? Did she like it?
F: Oh, she loved everybody, yeah. She thought it was great.
P: Yeah, yeah, she was great, Frankie’s Mum.
What, she came to Lansdowne Drive?
F: Yeah, she did. She stayed in the kitchen with my cat.
Yes, I forgot to mention the cats. Cats were very important of course because of the mice.
F: They were very important. [Cat shit] everywhere, and if you had an allergy, like Paddy, it wasn’t good.
Oh. Okay. Yeah.
F: I did love my cat [laughing].
I’ve got lots of photos with cats. Well, I mean, I’m happy to stop the recording now, unless you want to…carry on or…?
F: I don’t know. Shall we have another cup of tea and then… We could consult…
And I could show you some photos actually that might help you remember people.
[End of Recording 1]
So you wanted to talk a bit about [lesbian custody]…
F: Well, another thing that happened when Paddy and I went to the university to talk on International Women’s Day is I talked about the squatting time and I mentioned the issues how women who were lesbians, or deemed to be lesbian, could have their children taken away from them automatically, would be regarded as unfit mothers. When I had finished and we were having a Q&A, a couple of young women came up to me and said “What was that about? What do you mean, women had their children taken away?” and I realised that now some lesbian women can choose to have children without any knowledge necessarily of that history, that we weren’t allowed to have and keep children, and we were viewed very suspiciously if we chose to have them as lesbians or if we had children that had come from heterosexual marriages or partnerships. We were very, very vulnerable and we’d automatically have them taken away. I’m not speaking from personal experience as a mother, but many of my friends experienced this. One of my friends/lovers had her child taken away from her and it was a court case brought by her ex-partner who was supposed to be on the left, in a socialist organisation, and was able to take the child away from her, and I just remember her being so distraught and it was heart-breaking.
P: There were many, many women [lost their] children…
F: There were many women in that situation, and when women started to more publicly be lesbian mothers, there was a huge backlash and media furore. Remember we occupied the Evening Standard offices against a terrible coverage of a situation where women were being helped to conceive through IVF…? (This was documented by Spare Rib; the report will be in their online archive. The only other reference to this I found was here: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=mPvIBgAAQBAJ&pg=PA32&lpg=PA32&dq=Dr+Strangelove+lesbian+mothers&source=bl&ots=KiCYUD8gjW&sig=845UvnaLKfdS9N4ny5MCVQ6_1IE&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi-vaysnaLNAhXKCMAKHYTUAzgQ6AEIPzAF#v=onepage&q=Dr%20Strangelove%20lesbian%20mothers&f=false
Women from the theatre group Gay Sweatshop created a play on the issue I remember, Care and Control, as documented in the alternative theatre archive Unfinished Histories: http://www.unfinishedhistories.com/history/companies/gay-sweatshop/care-and-control/
F: Dr Strangelove, I think was the headline! So, I know that friends of mine, are very keen that that always be talked about because we should remember that, you know, just as some young gay men now apparently didn’t know, don’t know that it was illegal to be male homosexual…
I agree with you, I think it’s really important. I remember her daughter…going, and it was absolutely heart-breaking for everybody in that terrace really, everybody who had ever looked after her. And you’re right, there was a lot of collective childcare, and what a lovely child she was…
I think you’re right that now younger lesbian mothers don’t even consider it. They think it’s their right to have as much support from, you know, doctors and social workers and whatever.
Social workers, in particular, were just…don’t go there, you know [laughing]!
P: Yeah, mm.
F: But it’s interesting we’re talking about this because that makes me think, in the wider context of course, it’s a similar situation which obtains in many places, not just geographically distant but, you know, throughout the world, that, really, to be a lesbian is thought automatically to be mentally-ill and we were seen as monsters really. I mean, it wasn’t a situation where you were happily living and then you thought, oh God, squatting. It was like you were coming out of a situation in which your life was defined as invalid, your relationships were impossible and very fraught, and for example women I knew had been in fact incarcerated in mental institutions and given ECT and other sorts of terrible”treatment”. So, we were coming from a situation where we were regarded as monsters and sub-human, had no rights – could lose our children, our homes, our houses, our jobs, or be thrown out of a parental home, you know. So, an incredibly precarious situation, and a lot of that stuff becomes internalised – any system of oppression has to be internalised to work properly. So, we were dealing with a lot of issues, externally and internally.
In that context, we did extremely well to hold the community together for so long!
P: Yeah, and that’s why it was so important though. Most of the women there would have [had that history]…
Well, all of us did, yeah.
P: All of them. Very few were privileged enough to have missed any of that [laughing]…
F: No, exactly. When you see the way all that intersected with racism and classism…and ableism of course, it was a whole sort of multi-layered situation that we were dealing with.
Mm, yeah. So, you’re right, we did struggle on I think … But the other thing is that I think a lot of those things were articulated, we did talk about them…
And, I mean, if you’ve got nothing to lose, and we didn’t have anything to lose, then you’re actually quite…reckless or brave, so a lot of really difficult things, I think, were talked about. I don’t think people shied away …There were really intense, confrontational discussions actually.
F: Yes, that’s true.
And yes, they were sort of harrowing, but I think it was almost expected that you enter in, you know, to these… And so, I look back at that time and I think it was extremely formative for me as a person, and I’m not sure I would have become who I am if I hadn’t had those years.
And some of it was just…some of it was just learning strategies to sort of get along with people you don’t get along with, you know, how to [laughing], you know, how to be neighbours with somebody you’d fallen out with, I mean, and there were massive fallings-out in this one little terrace, weren’t there, really, when I look back…?
P: Yes, for sure, yes.
But you know…maybe some of them, I never got over, but… we lived, as you said Paddy, life at great intensity I suppose.
And that’s partly to do with being in your twenties – I mean, everybody, everything is heightened in your twenties, but…
P: Mm, but it was also the political times, wasn’t it?
P: The sort of beginnings of those amazing movements which were so extraordinary, you know, the gay movement and the women’s movement, so amazing, and it was being forged by our generation, by us actually, by us.
Although I don’t think we knew we were doing it….
P: Perhaps not, no.
…at one level, maybe… You know, there was this sort of…
P: I really regret that in a way. I really regret not thinking at the time, God, I must remember all of those because it’s so important [laughing].
F: …living through an historical time [laughing].
P: Just was a really…seminal moment, I wasn’t thinking [laughing]…
F: I think, because I thought it was going to snowball and take on throughout the entire world…
P: Exactly, I know.
F: …I didn’t think it was necessary to document anything because everybody would be living like that eventually, because capitalism was going to be overthrown and in the dustbin of history, and patriarchy was, you know, falling…
F: I was very naïve back then.
[End of Recording 2]
I was going to say that one of the things I noticed on the Women’s Liberation Music Archive was that you mentioned that squatting was important to the birth of the women’s music scene…
F: Ah yes.
Do you want to talk a bit about that?
F: Well, the same women that I knew, as I said, that I met in the women’s movement and in GLF were the women I was squatting with, were the women who said let’s do music, we want to do music – this is another expression of our politics. We don’t only want to theorise intellectually and analyse things, we want it to be politics that we’re expressing physically in the material world. So, it was all part of the same situation. We were living together, or just down the road. We shared instruments. We shared money, if we had any, to buy instruments. Some very generous women donated some money so we could buy a sound system, and the first band I was in was the London Women’s Liberation Rock Band, a very catchy title! And shortly after that, there was the Northern Women’s Liberation Rock Band, and then the Stepney Sisters, and then I was in a band called Jam Today, and squatting was very important to all of those situations because, again, it gave you the space to talk about what you were doing, to write music together, make music together, and to rehearse, and if you didn’t have much money, you couldn’t, you know, rent a rehearsal space. I remember going to a few pub rooms where we played sometimes, and a woman who had a van very kindly drove us down there, to the Angel Islington, stuff like that, you know. Everybody was just doing things together and sharing resources, as I said. And then the music was actually about our lives, so we were writing songs about our lives, and our lives were about the music, so it was all…very whole.
And I was thinking about the songs that actually dealt with housing. The first one I remember is a song that the London Women’s Band played, and it was written by one of us and it was called “Body Squat”. It was a reggae beat and said “I’m squatting in my body now” and so it was making that parallel, that metaphor, taking over the house but also occupying your body and fully inhabiting it and claiming it, as a woman, and not being judged by all the usual standards of how it should look and also owning it for yourself – it wasn’t there for anybody else to use or abuse. So, that was a great song, and unfortunately, I don’t have a recording of it or the lyrics written down and that’s all I remember about it, but basically about a woman’s right to her own body, self-determination yet again.
And then the Stepney Sisters wrote a brilliant song called “Don’t Let Houses Rot – Squat!”, and that was written from the point of view of a house which had been lonely and empty and then all these wonderful women came along and took it over and it felt loved again, so that’s a really nice song and there is a recording of that. I think the Stepney Sisters have that, and I also have the “Sisters in Song” songbook (produced by Women’s Liberation Music Projects, printed by Onlywomen Press, 1977), which I’m happy to donate to the archive that you’re putting together. You can see the lyrics and the music for that in there.
Yeah, “Don’t Let Houses Rot”, written in 1976 about a house telling its own story of its fate under the Greater London Council, getting saved from untimely decay by squatters. Of course, it was long before Ken Livingstone’s GLC and more progressive housing and policies.
Yeah. How wonderful…
And the third one is a song by a band called No Rules Okay, and it’s called “The Squatters’ Song” and it’s on this CD which is a compilation of 20 tracks from the Women’s Liberation Music Archive (https://womensliberationmusicarchive.co.uk)
So, that’s three…three examples of music being created by feminist women, written and played, composed, etc. by them, and very much a part of that community. So you would have that, for example, that music played at a women’s bop, a gig, a conference, social, that sort of thing, and women would relate to it, so a big feedback loop.
Fantastic – thank you very much.
[End of Recording] © Christine Wall