Squatting in an Age of Austerity
The great thing about local history is just when you think you have a good grasp of it, something startling comes along. Like the forgotten (and possibly suppressed) tale of mass-squatting in the postwar era. I want to do some more work on this, and get some eyewitness accounts, but here’s the outline story for starters …
In the summer of 1946, the War had been over for a year, and huge numers of servicemen and women were being demobilised to rejoin their families. The problem was that the country, materially and financially exhausted by six years of total war, had nowhere near enough housing. Countless homes had been destroyed by German bombing, and a huge rebuilding programme was dogged by shortages of materials. What materials there were were often stolen and sold on the black market.
Bristol had been badly bombed during the war. Over the course of six major raids and dozens of smaller ones, thousands of houses right across the city had been damaged or destroyed.
Some of the gap was now being plugged by pre-fabricated houses. The BAC aircraft works at Filton had successfully turned much of its production line over to making its famous ‘Airoh’ pre-fabs for use all over the country. (Here’s one I made earlier! If you’d like a pre-fab of your own, OR some Bristol aircraft top trumps just go here!)
Bristol, however, still suffered from a chronic housing shortfall.
Meanwhile, with continuing demobilization, the armed forces no longer needed many of the camps and military installations which had sprung up across the country since 1939. As the forces abandoned them, they became the responsibility of the Ministry of Works. By August 1946, the army, navy and air force had vacated 850 sites around the country, ranging from small installations such as searchlight or anti-aircraft batteries, through to full-blown camps with accommodation for thousands.
Most buildings were unfit to live in, but some were not, and many were easy enough to make habitable again. People cast envious eyes over many of them; even a draughty, leaking Nissen Hut seemed preferable to only having a room or two for your whole family – especially if you were living in substandard housing in the first place.
In a spontaneous movement which rapidly spread across the country, families started moving into the abandoned camps and taking over the buildings.
Bristol was in the forefront of the movement. The first squatters moved in on August 12. Their target was a camp at White City, between Ashton Gate and the Cumberland Basin.
White City got its name from the international trade fair and exhibition held there in 1914. As soon as the event ended, the Army moved in as WW1 had broken out, and it became a training camp for the 12th Battalion of the Glosters, whose numbers were made up mostly from Bristolians. In WW2 it became one of the many camps occupied by American servicemen in and around Bristol. The area is now roads and the site of an allotment.
On August 12 1946, something between 50 and 70 men, women and children gathered in pouring rain at the gate and asked the guard to let them in. He refused and telephoned the police. A police inspector and four constables turned up in a patrol car and told them they were trespassing. At this point, the squatters decided to ignore the police and forced their way in.
Within two days, nine more camps were being occupied in and around Bristol. Before a week had passed, 20 camps were under occupation. Locations included Shirehampton, Bedminster Down, Brislington, Speedwell, Hanham, Westbury-on-Trym, Purdown, Whitchurch and Mangotsfield.
The movement across the country was a genteel revolution, with squatters offering money for rent and rates. It was felt that military camps – government property – were fair game because it was the government’s responsibility to provide housing, or because it belonged to the people anyway. In any event, squatting was a civil rather than criminal offence, and so it wasn’t possible just to send the police in to eject them.
It left the politicians confused. Bristol City Council’s Housing Committee issued a statement warning the squatters they were trespassing, and emphasizing that it would not take responsibility for their comfort or convenience.
At the same time, though, a Labour member of the Committee, Alderman W.H. Hennessey addressed the White City squatters, saying: “Sit tight. Carry on. Take no notice of rumours. The police cannot touch you. They cannot drive you out of your huts unless they are given sanction by the Ministry of Works in London, and I am satisfied the Minister will not give the police the power to enter this estate and turn people out.”
The Bristol Labour group executive rapidly issued a statement distancing themselves from Alderman Hennessey. It said they “viewed with grave concern the action of a small section of the people who have adopted methods which are akin to mob law in taking over accommodation quite unsuitable for housing purposes. If those actions are to be accepted it means a diversion of time, labour, material and energy from the provision of proper homes.”
The movement fizzled out towards the end of the summer, particularly when the Communist Party started to organise squats of private property in the West End of London. Politicians and people alike started to think that while there was nothing wrong in making use of government property, private property was crossing a line.
Nonetheless, in October the government estimated that almost 40,000 people were squatting sites around the country. Meanwhile, politicians passed the buck around. As there were lots of worries about cleanliness, sanitation, heating and water supplies at disused camps, it became a health issue. Health Minister Aneurin Bevan told councils to cut off supplies of gas and electricity to squatted properties and claimed squatters were “jumping their place in the housing queue”. Few councils seem to have done so; squatting was seen by many as a temporary solution to an urgent problem.
As the housing situation improved, people gladly moved out of the camps, although one in Oxfordshire was still occupied by 100 families ten years later. There were some happy endings locally, too. In 1946 people squatted the former American military hospital in the grounds of the Tyntesfield stately home at Wraxall. This prompted Long Ashton council to convert the brick-built hospital buildings into 152 homes. Direct action here, at least, had a wholly constructive outcome.
If anyone reading this knows anyone who squatted a camp in the Bristol area, please get in touch!
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