Squatting is the oldest mode of tenure in the world, and we are all descended from squatters… (We) are all the ultimate recipients of stolen land, for to regard our planet as a commodity offends every conceivable principle of natural rights”
Britain entered World War Two with a large housing deficit (bombing had destroyed 110,000 houses, with almost 850,000 more evacuated because of structural damage), and would have trouble keeping up with the demand for the next few years too, due to the lack of available manpower and the consequent reduction of the construction industry to a third of its pre-war size (with much of the remainder occupied with State contracts). The last two years of the war saw housing conditions decline still further, as thousands of soldiers returned to pick up with their ‘normal’ lives. In Brighton, in the spring of 1945, a group called the Vigilantes began taking empty houses on behalf of themselves, and others, who had found themselves homeless, without any assistance from government.
Local support for the cause was strong, as many homes were kept empty by landlords in order to be used as profitable summer holiday lets. By July the Vigilantes (or ‘Secret Committee of Ex-Servicemen’) were a thousand strong and helped squatting spread to cities like Birmingham, Liverpool and London. Leaders from the Brighton group began to travel to other towns to speak publicly, and this, combined with much press coverage, helped to increase the public interest. This disturbed Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who advised the police to consider “all means to putting an end to these pranks”, and requested that the Minister of Information induce the newspapers to minimise coverage of the squatters…
However, at this point the Vigilantes put forward a radical proposal; that empty private property be requisitioned in order to house the homeless. Pandering to public support for the Vigilantes (and with an eye on the imminent election), Churchill’s government subsequently gave local authorities the ability to requisition empty properties for civilian purposes. This new power, not to mention increasing police action and a change in government, led to the decline of the en masse squatting of private property until 1946.
Nevertheless, whilst the new requisitioning measures did provide councils with the necessary power to use empty homes, it did not make it compulsory to use that power. Thus, the measures were used to varying degrees around the country; extensive requisitioning took place in some Labour-controlled areas where there were long waiting lists for housing. Bristol implemented a policy of requisitioning every house up for sale (enraging the London Evening Standard, who saw this practice as a threat to the private sector). In other areas the powers appear to have been rarely used, partly as; “while requisitioning notices are being put up to allay public criticism, a go-slow policy is being followed in order to prevent good homes being taken over”.
With more and more soldiers now returning home, housing lists grew longer, and as a consequence, prosecutions for vagrancy increased. Furthermore, the government’s unrealistic housing plans fostered growing disillusionment amongst the general public, leading to a mass takeover of (the now empty) service camps in the spring of 1946. This action seems to have been initiated when a family took the officers’ mess of an unoccupied anti-aircraft camp near Scunthorpe. By the next day an increasing number of others had done the same, and by the end of the month 20 local authorities reported squatting in their areas – a number set to increase rapidly as at least 30 other camps across the country were seized by the squatters.
The News Chronicle reports that life in the Nissen huts;
was a case of first come first served when it began. But only a few days passed before the chaos began to sort itself out. A camp committee was elected and began to establish its authority and the camp began to crystallise into a community of 500 men and women determined to make the best of their new homes. Sub-committees were established for health, social activities, construction work and camp amenities. A communal kitchen is operating and there is a clinic where the services of a local health visitor are available. Plans are now being considered for a co-op shop… There is an almost palpable feeling of freedom, of having emerged into a wider life than had ever been thought possible. Help is freely given to those unable to do their own repairs. Builders, carpenters and decorators help their neighbours without any thought of payment.”
The News Chronicle (20 August, 1946)
The attitudes of the different local authorities towards the squatting families varied greatly; some disagreed with the government’s selfish stance (going as far as to mislay their directives and providing amenities and services as a matter of health and safety), whilst others were not so giving, threatening individuals with removal from the permanent housing list, as well as refusing the squatters access to basic services and milk rations. In many of these latter areas, the camps joined forces to create ‘Squatters Protection Societies’, with an ensuing wave of public solidarity for them becoming evident.
Parliament was told that 45,000 people were thought to be squatting at 1,000 sites throughout the U.K. The camp squats represented direct action and self-organisation of the homeless on a massive scale. As such they presented problems of management and public order to the state.”
Nick Wates and Christian Wolmar – ‘Squatting: The Real Story’ – en.squat.net/wp-content/uploads/en/2013/01/wates-wolmar-squatting-real-story.pdf
Anders Corr – ‘No Trespassing’ – www.squatter.org.uk/files/2012/11/Anders-Corr-No-Trespassing-several-chapters.pdf
Advisory Service for Squatters – www.squatter.org.uk