The 1960 St Pancras rent strike

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If class conflict has any relevance to the making of history then the St Pancras Rent Strike of 1960 is an outstanding example. It was an extraordinary episode in post-war Britain. It brought people on to the streets of St Pancras in a display of demonstrations, marches and rallies, in a show of energy and enthusiasm, an expression of spirit, dazzling, that ranks with May 1968 and other such historic moments. It was more localised, confined to a relatively compact inner London borough, but for those who participated it was an unforgettable moment. “What a day!” says Flo Burgess, “What a day!” nearly fifty years later, but never to be forgotten. The events, over a number of days, brought people together, in association, on the streets, sharing an exhilarating moment, a sense of festival. For those involved the days are equivalent to years. They refused to live as was expected of them. It is a story worth telling.

The early stages of Britain’s post-war recovery were presided over by a Labour Government steeped in notions of social justice forged in the early part of the century. By 1951 the Tories had returned to office. Towards the end of the 1950s, with the Cold War fractured by the events of 1956 – 20th Congress of CPSU, the Soviet intervention in Hungary and the British/French humiliation in Suez – a radical Labour council was elected in the inner London borough of St Pancras. It raised the flag of municipal socialism, flying the red flag on the town hall roof, giving staff a holiday on May Day, not increasing the rents of council tenants, refusing to pay the civil defence levy, and generally pursuing a programme intended to benefit working class people.

It was too radical for the Labour Party led by Hugh Gaitskell, so some of the most militant councillors were expelled from the Labour Party. Simultaneously the Conservative government surcharged councillors for refusing to raise rents. A divided council was swept out of power and a Conservative council elected. A new means-tested rent scheme was introduced. This met with furious opposition from a roused working class. The local Trades Council, union branches, tenants associations, local party branches of the Labour and Communist parties all became involved. A rent strike was organised with widespread local support.

The crucial issue was the Conservative government’s 1957 Rent Act. This act removed many of the limits placed on the rent levels of private tenancies. It helped usher in a new era of property speculation in the private rented sector, opening the way for the notorious developer and landlord Peter Rachman in Notting Hill. Henceforth rents were to be related to rateable value. St Pancras Council undertook to pay the increase for tenants living in derequisitioned properties. This broke the rules governing local authority finances. As a consequence the District Auditor surcharged 23 Councillors. They were held legally responsible for the ‘misspent’ public monies. The Labour Party nationally disowned the rebel councillors and in the summer of 1958 John Lawrence, Charles Taylor and twelve other councillors were expelled from the Labour Party. Their views were considered to be “indistinguishable from those of known Communists.” They formed an Independent Labour Group of Councillors. (Camden Tenant Number 94 Winter 1985)

The local Labour Party was split down the middle by the expulsions and the Conservatives gained control of the council in the local elections in May 1959. The new Tory council introduced a means-tested rent scheme for all of its own tenants. ‘Rents-according-to-income’ met with widespread resistance. Tenants formed themselves into the St Pancras United Tenants Association. Meetings and marches were held demanding withdrawal of the increases. A petition signed by 16,000 people was rejected by the Council. In January 1960 the rent increases were introduced. The United Tenants Association, consisting of 35 affiliated associations, organised, throughout the borough, that tenants should withhold the rent increase. Some 8,000 tenants were involved in the rent strike. “At the height of the struggle the UTA took out every night as many as 60 women, banging on the councillors’ doors. If a councillor did not get two visits a week he was lucky; as one UTA leader put it: ‘We sent their wives up the wall.’ It was a tactic and it paid off. The police were less likely to arrest the women and women themselves were keen. It wasn’t difficult for the average housewife to realise she was in trouble with the rent rises. Most of the women didn’t go to work then…. They formed the backbone of the movement, keeping everything going in the day and giving each other mutual support.” (Dave Burn Rent Strike: St Pancras 1960 p 8) A number of tenants living on the St Pancras Way estate and in Camelot House to the north of Camden Square were active in withholding the rent increase. The women regularly attended meetings of the UTA and joined in the nightly campaigning.

The council threatened to evict those tenants withholding rent. In June the Bloomsbury County Court served eviction notices on three tenants, recognised leaders of the campaign. One of these was Don Cook who lived nearby in Kennistoun House in Leighton Road, Kentish Town. Don’s father and brother ran the J C Motor Supplies in Murray Street close to Camden Square and so the family were well known and respected in the neighbourhood. The Council issued a further 240 notices to quit. Protest meetings and demonstrations were held throughout the borough. The local branch of the National Union of Railwaymen held a two hour strike. Building workers formed a flying picket in readiness to resist eviction. Don Cook and Arthur Rowe, two leaders of the resistance, barricaded themselves in their respective flats. At the September council meeting a number of protesting tenants were arrested and taken into custody. The next day, “September 22nd at 5 am bailiffs with 800 police in support smashed their way into Silverdale, Regents Park Estate, and Kennistoun House evicting Arthur Rowe and Don Cook and his family.” At both sites there were pitched battles between tenants and police. (Camden Tenant Number 94, Winter 1985).

Flo Burgess who lived on the St Pancras Way Estate since the first flats were completed in 1948, remembered vividly the events of that day. When ever asked about the day of the evictions Flo was want to proclaim: “What a day!” Woken up shortly after 5 am by a young boy running the length of the balcony swinging a football rattle above his head, Flo and her husband joined with their neighbours and walked quickly to the scene of the eviction. Many on the estate were withholding their rent. Some were members of the Labour Party and considered themselves Labour families. They went together to Don Cook’s and participated in the demonstration. That day Flo went late to the tailors where she worked part-time. Hundreds of men and women converged on Leighton Road. The courtyard of Kennistoun House filled with demonstrating tenants, including Don Cook and his wife, Edie. Hundreds of police were present. A thunderous cheer went up when building workers from the Shell Mex site by the Thames arrived, having marched up Kentish Town Road. Skirmishes broke out between demonstrators and police. Men and women sat down in the road. Similar scenes were being enacted on the Regent Park Estate following the eviction of Arthur Rowe.

The extraordinary events of September 22nd were quite against the grain of conventional politics at that time. It was a moment of class war: an act of insubordination. There were street battles with tenants and supporting building and railway workers, culminating that evening, the day of the evictions, with thousands of protestors marching down the Euston Road to the town hall. Over 1,000 police confronted the demonstrators, and as they tried to disperse the crowd bus and car windows were broken, dozens were injured, including police and there were numerous arrests.

The St Pancras Chronicle reported next day: ‘Police with batons drawn charged again and again into hordes of screaming, fighting rent rebels at St Pancras last night. Scores of injured demonstrators and police were carried off by a shuttle service of ambulances as the astonishing battle raged. Cars were stoned, trolly-bus windows smashed. The rioting crowd matched police batons with sticks, milk bottles, rocks, even eggs. Men, women and children were trampled under the rush of determined constables. Policemen knocked off their feet were kicked and beaten. Men punched, wrestled, clawed and clutched. They rolled and roared, women screamed and scratched, in a mob fury unmatched by anything anyone could remember. The Battle of St Pancras flared when 2,000 rent rebels marched on St Pancras Town Hall after a three-hour meeting outside Kennistoun House, in Leighton Road, Kentish Town, where council tenant Don Cook had been forcibly evicted from his council flat. (St Pancras Chronicle 23 September 1985)

It was an unforgettable moment for all those involved. After the strike was over many of the participants retained an overwhelming sense of achievement. Jim Duggan, recently arrived from Waterford in Ireland with his family, was one of those who marched that day. Three lines of policemen stood across Euston Road to stop the marchers from reaching the Town Hall. Injured by the police, Jim was carried to safety by fellow demonstrators and despite the shock and pain to his injured leg he found the whole experience exhilarating. Together they had stood up to the authorities on a matter of principle. Arthur Rowe and Don Cook, the evicted leaders of the strike, were local heroes. “The rent struggle”, said Charles Taylor, the former rebel Councillor, “was a first exercise in community affairs.” (Camden Tenant Number 94 Winter 1985). It was an example of communities maintaining solidarity and localised support for a particular cause: the sense of belonging to a particular locality, a place, was all the stronger. Although for Edie Cook it was a day of misery; the loss of the family’s home darkened her life for some considerable time. Well over forty years after the event she still remembered the deep hurt of that day.