A BRIEF HISTORY OF ARGYLE STREET BY AL STOKES © 2005 By the author: I wrote this for my uni’ dissertation back in 2005 (I got a 1st for it, whatever that means) loosely based on my experiences as a film maker and journalist later to be published as an eBook. However all came to naught on that score when artistic differences between myself and the publisher stopped the project dead in it’s tracks. So now here it is in all it’s primary researched glory. Enjoy.
According to a former Argyle Street squatter, Russell Bartlett, there has been a tradition of squatting empty properties in Norwich since the Baedeker raids of the 1941 Blitz. However, according to a Norwich City Council source most of the bombed dwellings were completely destroyed with the people still in them so there were few homeless survivors and even fewer houses in which to squat. The vogue for the Norwich squatting scene seems to have derived from the lofty notions of middle class students, studying at the University of East Anglia, who knew of people in London who had a history of post war squatting. To the bombed-out survivors of the Blitz, squatting was a matter of survival whereas to the 1970s youth of London it was a means to escape parental constraints. Real homeless people were too proud to squat. Although, according to C. J. Stone,
People were finding empty properties that could be renovated, and moved in. Borrowed from oblivion. The movement was inventing itself on the ground. There’s a sense the whole thing was being created before our eyes. I mean, regardless of what the organisors thought they were getting out of it, the crowds just weren’t interested in being contained and controlled. (C. J. Stone, Last of the Hippies, Faber & Faber 1999, p.194)
In order to understand the local squatting scene in Norwich, we must travel back to 1864 when Colmans (mustard) of Norwich built seventy houses for their workers, just below Richmond Hill, adjacent to King Street and the City flour mill, bounded at the southern end of the cul-de-sac by Southgate Lane and leading into Rouen Road to the north.
The terraced houses were narrow, poorly built two up / two down brick affairs with a small yard in back for the outside privy and a garden beyond. By 1963 Norwich Corporation bought the seventy houses from Colmans and inherited one hundred tenants.
In May 1964 Harry Perry, chair of the Corporation Housing department, convened a residents meeting where it was decided that, at the cost of £1,250 for each property, the City would renovate their century-old homes. It was the cheap option as opposed to costing the Corporation £2,500 for each house to be demolished and rebuilt. The modernisation was due to be carried out in batches of eight houses, each house taking three months to complete with the entire project lasting no more than two years.
Tenants Herbert & Hilda Cockaday at no:21 had lived on the Street for fourteen years and were overjoyed to be back even though they had to wait fourteen months for the renovations to their house to be completed. Not all of the tenants were able to move back into the same houses they had before but the general consensus was that their homes were better for the renovations.The tenants’ jubilation was to be short lived when, a mere thirteen years later, Argyle Street’s housing problems once again made headlines. The tenants were outspoken about the conditions in which they were expected to live; Brian & Mary Park at no:52 complained that their house was cracked from top to bottom, Robert & Sylvia Sutton at no:139 had to stop using one of their bedrooms and had six children in one room because of the damp while Rossalyn Morter at no:143 had four children in one room because of mouldy walls.
The Surveyors’ report was scathing; although the fascias of the houses were in the good condition, the backs were in an unsafe state. Water ran down from Richmond Hill into the Argyle Street back gardens where it would pool against the porous brickwork
at the rear of the premises. Barbara Martin at no:141 complained that no repairs had been undertaken by the Council to rectify a cracked window, missing roof slates and a faulty sink and, with the on-set of winter, she worried about the Council’s delay in spending the promised Government grant. The City Surveyor was so concerned about the structural integrity of the houses, he told the Housing Committee that one dwelling would have to be demolished immediately. Bore holes in the Street revealed the substructure to be nothing more than muddy water, the same colour and consistency of yoghurt, with no proper soil or minerals to bind it together.
The altruistic Victorian employers who built the houses, in the spirit of cradle to the grave care for their workers, did not seem to have planned much beyond the end of the 19th Century. Even if they had, the original builders seemed unaware that they were constructing these dwellings on what amounted to a Swiss cheese of subterranean chalk workings, the fact of which did not come to light until the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act.
There was a grim rationale to the Housing Manager’s decision in that moving the tenants out would cause the properties to deteriorate further and the Council were concerned the UEA would pull out of a proposed deal, selling the houses from under their own tenants, if the Street became untenable. In a glorious piece of double speak Pat Hollis voiced the opinion that the Department of the Environment should make a decision as to whether the Street was going to remain in Council ownership so they could start on repairs. But for whose benefit?
According to Russell Bartlett, former Argyle Street Squatter, there were a large number of empty Council properties in Norwich during the 1970s which, the Council claimed, numbered no more than 100 dwellings at any one time. However, a Norwich squatter was passed a secret City housing document, compiled by Pat (now Baroness) Hollis, alleging that there were over 500 empty Council houses within the City. The discrepancy occurred because any empty property which was on the Council list for over one year was automatically struck off. What was not entirely common knowledge amongst the 1970s tenants was that the City planned to sell the troublesome Argyle Street to
the University of East Anglia (UEA) as student accommodation. £100,000 had been earmarked to renovate the houses but releasing this money was dependant on the sale going through; essentially, State money intended for the benefit of Council tenants was being held back for a quick private sale, the only beneficiaries of which would have been UEA students. Equally what was generally unknown at the time was the Chair of the City Council housing committee, Pat Hollis, was also a UEA lecturer.
By mid-October 1979 the Argyle Street council tenants were forced, once again, to take their grievances to the press. Some tenants had been moved out of Argyle Street but it was still not considered a priority for slum clearance; the tenants were in a state of limbo, a fact confirmed by housing manager Tony OíReilly who stated that despite being earmarked £100,000 from the budget, Argyle Street was not considered a priority even though the Council had kept back a further £25,000 from the Norwich housing budget to renovate the Street.
The question of who the intended beneficiaries of this fund were was never answered because events overtook the Council; on December 5th 1979, the UEA pulled out of the deal. Pat Hollis demanded that all Council tenants be rehoused whilst the properties were renovated at a cost of £5,000 each. But many on the Housing Committee had had enough; Ward Councillor Len Stevenson was not alone in thinking the houses should be demolished. Although he did make an interesting suggestion, that the Council should consider the idea of offering the Street to a Housing Co-Op, a notion which appeared to have come straight out of the ether.Norwich Labour Club was the hearth and home of the City’s socialist hardcore and the unofficial centre for inside information on forthcoming events; it was in this bar during the run up to the Christmas of 1979 that a City Councillor tipped off a known left wing activist squatter about the proposed fate of a housing hot spot; Argyle Street. Five days later, in a planned invasion, a vanguard of Squatters moved into the empty properties.
The long-term tenants were not happy with this turn of events as they had been paying rent to live in slum conditions for years and here were these ‘free loading middle class incomers’ who took over the houses as soon as their neighbours were rehoused. The
first indications that the tenancy situation had changed was via a local newspaper report concerning a near riot between Squatters and the police when gas engineers turned up to disconnect the recently vacated houses. On health and safety grounds the Gas Board were worried that the Squatters would try to reconnect the supply and blow themselves up in the process. The Squatters saw it differently; the Gas Board wanted a £40 per household reconnection fee which the unemployed Squatters could not afford. Considering no one in the Council officially knew the Squatters were in residence it comes as a surprise that they were surprised the Gas Board gave them no warning that the supply was about to be disconnected. Long-term tenants called the police when haggling between the Squatters and gas engineers turned ugly because the former blocked the Street with vehicles to stop the latter from leaving until they turned the gas back on. Squattersí leader, Norman King, denied they were trying to jump the housing queue but, he said,
75% of the Squatters have jobs and want to make Argyle Street a thriving community. (ECN, Norwich Squatters Clash With Police Over Gas, December 15th 1979) Finally the 75% bailed out the other 25% and lent them the money to have the gas supply reconnected. The first official indication that Squatters had moved into the Street was by dint of Council officers reading about it in their evening newspaper, but evidence suggests that members of the Housing Committee were regularly leaking information about Argyle Street to potential squatters who might be interested in forming a Housing Co-Op. This unofficial altruism had unforeseen consequences for the existing tenants. What the Housing Committee saw as a bit of a nuisance whilst they demolished and redeveloped the Street became a nightmare of anti-social behaviour for the people who had put up with bad housing conditions whilst the UEA dallied over its decision as to whether they would buy the Street or not.
Hitler couldn’t chase people out of this Street but the squatters have. I’m fed up and absolutely disgusted. (David Bush quoted in ECN, No To Long Stay, January 25th 1980)
Ernest French, a Street tenant of forty years, complained to the Council about noisy parties which kept him awake until 3am, graffiti on their walls and that their well tended gardens had been turned into a slum. The tenants were frightened of the Squatters who would hang around peoples’ doors while the tenants moved out then dive inside and take possession before the removal van had reached the top of the Street. What Housing Committee member David Fullman referred to as a clash of lifestyles became neighbours from Hell to the original tenants. Worse, there was an explosion in the rodent population when the Squatters used one of the empty houses as a communal food store.
David Fullman was voted Chair of Housing in May 1980 and became directly involved with negotiating a short-life tenancy deal with the Squatters but his problem was that he never knew which sub-set of Squatters he was speaking to or what influence they had over other people. He claimed,
Interfacing anarchy and the rest of the world is like trying to nail jelly to the wall. The major problem is that the Squatters saw themselves as individuals who should be treated as such. A group of anarchists; the great misnomer. There is no such thing as a group of anarchists with leaders. The Squatters saw themselves as people who rejected the need for a system of formal government in society, proposed its abolition and encouraged others to do the same.
By July 1980 the Housing Committee managed to agree a short-life tenancy for the Squatters, known as the Argyle Street Housing Co-Operative, but for single occupancy only. There had been a number of sticking points along the way; the Council were unhappy about allowing Squatters with families to move into the Street. The original tenants with children had complained about the damp conditions of the houses and, after they had been rehoused, the properties had been condemned as being unfit for
human habitation. The Council were also in the dilemma of having a statuary duty to house the homeless but they did not want to send out the wrong message that empty Council property was fair game to squatters who would jump the housing queue. The Council tried to stop families moving in because they did not want to be in the unenviable position of evicting them later and making them homeless. The short-life agreement meant the Squatters paid £3 per week in rent on condition they ëpolicedí who moved in and made sure newcomers became Co-Op members.
But two months later the Squatters were hitting the headlines again when it came to light, after a site visit by Pat Hollis, that they were still allowing families onto the Street. Hollis saw it as an unacceptable situation which put the Squattersí licence at risk:
We will be washing our hands of who goes into Argyle Street. As it is there are children running wild, with dog mess everywhere, they are a nuisance in the area with music at 2am. (Pat Hollis quoted in ECN, September 18th 1980)
Councillor Edward Gambling, who shared the University Ward with Pat Hollis, was a retired Trade Union official. He was horrified at the thought of children living in a slum which the Council wanted to demolish. However, in a heated Council debate, it was decided to set no rules for the Squatters to self-police their own environment but instead left tenant control to the Co-Op; the Council really had washed their hands of the whole affair. One reasons for the apparent washing of hands could have had its roots in Pat Hollis’ relationship to some of the squatters who were also UEA students. According to David Fullman:
Pat Hollis was a lecturer at UEA. A lot of the students she had come across in a working context and she had a very clear view of which students were worth spending a lot of time and effort on and which ones weren’t. I suspect her view was that a lot of people in Argyle Street, University students, weren’t particularly academically brilliant.
A quote which could explain why, less than a month later, the Council reversed its
earlier decision and banned children from moving into the Street. The Co-Op suggested a complaints procedure for the Council to look into the matter but an already prejudiced City Hall refused to negotiate. There was a swift reaction two days later when Co-Op member Annie Walker told an ECN reporter that,
People with children were adamant they were not going to leave the Street. The Squatters wanted to make their own decisions regarding housing policy, rather than have the Council do it for them, an arrogant attitude of who they would allow to became their neighbours and which no other Council tenant elsewhere in the City would be able to contemplate.
In a grand gesture the Squatters claimed they had tried to meet the Council’s terms for agreeing to the licence but thought the Councilís view of disallowing children in a slum unacceptable and bounced the ball back to City Hall. The Squatters’ Co-Op appeared to be engaged in social engineering although it is arguable, according to David Fullman,
... they were unaware they were doing it; they wanted what they believed to be the right social mix of people to stabilise the Street but they also wanted to allow everyone in the Co-Op to do their own thing which tended to bring them into conflict with the Council who, in turn, were trying desperately to help them. The squatters knew how power could be subverted. They wanted the Street organisation vested in the Co-Op rather than delegated it to an outside organisation. It was this form of conflict, an inability to deal with the reality of the world as it is, which would lead to their eventual demise.
Meanwhile the Street became a colourful place in which to live; lamp posts were transformed into animal sculptures, lurid mandalas were painted on the road, and bunting hung from houses. The Squatters were spending their first winter in slum clearance housing and had more immediate problems than Council wrangling with which to contend, that of being able to afford to feed themselves. One of the squatters had noticed a field of sheep on the edge of the City and, since there was a trained butcher amongst their number, they decided to take a foray into the countryside armed
only with a meat cleaver and several sharp knives. Their major difficulty was how to transport the carcass back to the Street as none of them owned a car, so the communal decision was made to cycle to the field and butcher the poor beast on site which proved more difficult than they imagined.
First catch your sheep; half a dozen Squatters, all them the worse for wear with only hurricane lamps to see by, spent the midnight hours chasing sheep. They brought the butchered bits back in plastic shopping bags dangling from their handle bars and ate well for several weeks and even the Constabulary’s community beat officer unwittingly enjoyed the Street barbecue which involved, unknown to him, roast lamb of dubious origin. The Squatter’s penchant for ale was solved by expeditions to the nearby Norwich Brewery where, in the deep of the inky night, barrels of beer vanished from the warehouse and mysteriously turned up in the ground floor sitting room of one of the Argyle Street houses which became the Squatters unofficial ‘local boozer.’ Free lamb chops and real ale led to their own problems of how to dispose of the barrels which piled up in the house. The answer was for the squatters to move to another empty property. Time was drawing near for their first anniversary party. The Squatters decided they should hold the party inside and, much to the relief of the surrounding residents, they booked the Norwich Labour Club hall for the event. Housing Committee Chair David Fullman was ‘volunteered’ to be on the door that night, since he was well known to the Squatters, to make sure the event went off peacefully. A number of City Councillors, led by Pat Hollis, were of the opinion that the reason the anarchist Squatters had hired the Labour Club for their party was so they could “get their own back” on the City burghers by trashing the venue. As it turned out the event went off without incident and everyone wobbled home replete and merry.
Life was not one great round of booze and partying for the Squatters; there were tragedies. A squatter lost a child to cot death which sent shock waves of grief resounding around the Street. They also gained a child when visiting Travellers left their son behind. The Squatters debated whether to keep 5-year-old Jack and bring him up Kibbutz style but common sense prevailed and, with a heavy heart, the child was
taken to Social Services who placed him into care.
1981 passed off largely incident free as the Squatters settled into their homes and made their peace with the City Council. Behind the scenes the Co-Op administrative group were negotiating to apply for a grant from central Government, through the Department of the Environment, to buy the Argyle Street houses from the Council and carry out extensive renovations. But a new fracas broke out in July when it became known that although the one hundred Squatters, renamed The Street Housing CoOperative, had been offered £1m by the Department of the Enviroment they were dithering over the terms of acceptance. Part of the deal meant they would have to join the Society for Co-Operative Dwellings which came with strict conditions attached, including members being voted into their Housing Co-Op and signing a register. For the anarchists amongst the Squatters this was precisely the life from which they had opted out. They felt it would destroy the fabric of their alternative lifestyle and they were afraid of becoming just another Council housing estate, living in a grey high-rise tower block like Normandie Tower at the end of the Street.
Angry letters from Council tenants, still awaiting repairs to their own homes, poured into the local press who were quick to voice their complaints in the Eastern Evening News Editorís Opinion column:
The fact should not be overlooked that the hands of the City Council were forced by a tactic which has become commonplace, that of squatting, when council tenants have been waiting for their homes to be modernised. Surely Whitehall should pay just as much attention to the needs of council tenants as it does to housing co-operatives. (ECN clip library, Opinion, July 21st 1981)
Caroline Clark, a Co-Op spokesperson and former teacher, tried to placate the anger of formal council tenants by reeling off a roll call of their members who included UEA students, teachers, university lecturers, builders, glue sniffing punks, an ex-Rampton mental patient, a chartered accountant, the son of an Anglia TV news reader and the
son of a deaconess. Unfortunately this fanned the flames of discontent by tenants who could not understand why highly paid middle class accountants and university lecturers felt the need to ‘steal’ council property from the lowly paid working classes. Negotiations for the Grant continued.
Street life was enlivened in 1981 when film producer Michael Medwin chose Argyle Street as a location for his film Memoirs of A Survivor, based on Doris Lessingís novel. The story tells of:
(Julie Christie) attempts to survive in a lawless city by discovering a world of Victorian splendour within herself drawn into the horrors of feral youth gangs who control the crumbling streets. (DVD label, Memoirs of a Survivor, EMI Films, 1981)
The film runs for 166-minutes and is a rambling sprawl of confused concepts in which, despite set in a post nuclear world, it is good to know there will be drinking water on tap, an almost magical supply of black bin liners, television broadcasts and, for reasons never made entirely clear, the streets are strewn with swirling newspapers blowing on the wind. The production boasts an early appearance of actor John Altman who later went on to play Nick Cotton, the murderous son of chain-smoking character Dot Cotton, in EastEnders.
City Housing Chair, David Fullman, was the contact point for the film company who agreed that Argyle Street was superb for their purposes and that they would use the real footage of the squatters who looked, as they thought, how people were going to live after an atomic holocaust. During the pre-production recce the production designer noticed that while the Street was visually ideal, certain vistas gave onto a view of the new flats in Music House Lane which would spoil their concept of a grubby postapocalyptic scenario. The film company negotiated with the Council for a hoarding to be put up, to hide the offending flats, which the production designer would cover in graffiti. David told him not to bother, to leave it blank overnight because the Squatters would
set to work on it with spray paint anyway. Next morning the designer congratulated David because he could not have made the graffiti more life-like. The only piece of squatter graffiti the designer had to censor was that of changing a word so it read suck the council. Compared to the low budget Hollywood post-nuclear picture A Boy and His Dog, in which Pheonix Arizona is portrayed as a desert, Memoirs comes across as a dull piece made by people who forgot to research what a nuclear holocaust might do to a British city.
Local actors were taken on as supporting artistes and Wymondham based artist Bruce Lacey provided sculpted metal windmills. The Argyle Street film shoot did not go off without incident. Although the Squatters were getting paid the same daily rate as the supporting artistes they discovered this was about half the Equity minimum rate. Being of a socialist frame of mind, the Squatters led a strike in which the regular supporting artistes joined. After a brief haggle with the production company the Squatters got the right rate for the job and became the heroes of the professional supporting artistes. Some film company props went walkabout, however; at least one wood burning stove and several copper pans ended up in various Street homes and Travellers’ buses.
Although Argyle Street is situated within the City walls, it is in a secluded nook far aware from the madding crowd of central bustle. To the average Norwich person it may have been on the Moon and its problem tenants along with it. But news of their freestyle form of social living was being talked about in the larger world, by word of mouth and Chinese whispers amongst alternative lifestyle seekers around the country. The Street lost its anonymity in 1981 when the New Society magazine ran an article by Ian Walker entitled, “The Alternative World of Argyle Street.” In the four page spread
of squatters who spoke volubly about their reason for living on the Street; an alternative life away from the constraints of suburbia, running their own school, co-
operative living where everyone shared what little they had, of living on the dole and working unpaid in the local Freewheel Book shop. However, not all was sweetness and light amongst the denizens of the Street; one of their number, Colette, complained of the Street being in complete isolation to its surrounding neighbourhood, “like living in an open prison.” Harry Wakeman could to see a change coming,
This place has had its time. Maybe its about to blossom into another stage but I doubt it. (Harry Wakeman, quoted in New Society, 12th November 1981)
Harry’s wish to see a change came in June 1982 when a contingent of New Age Travellers arrived from Glastonbury, intent on holding a fair at Harford on the City limits. The proposed festival site turned out to be the local refuse tip and, appalled at the filthy conditions in which they were expected by the Council to park their vehicles, they decamped to Eaton Common which was on the doorstep of right wing Councillor Richards. Many of the frequent visitors to the site were Argyle Street residents who not only offered their support for the proposed free festival, which never actually happened in the traditional sense, but also went there to obtain copious supplies of exotic substances for which the Travellers were notorious; purple microdot LSD.This activity also attracted the attentions of the Norwich Drugs Squad and the local media who both went at the new arrivals with a will. Local BBC news coverage of the Travellers became so intrusive that a news cameraman, and his equipment, took an early bath in the nearby River Yare. It was almost as if the battle lines had been drawn up and set the scene for future press coverage and police operations concerning both Travellers and squatters alike. The link between the two was set in stone when some Travellers decided to rest in the Street before moving on.
Because of the anti-press feeling engendered at Eaton Common during the Travellersí summer visit, many reporters became wary of venturing down the Street to cover the latest round of talks between the Co-op and the Council. Reporter Chris Young circumvented this by using a flat in Normandie Tower, which overlooked the Street. The unintended consequence of this was, upon looking up, the Squatters saw a camera
looking down at them and so arose the urban myth that Norwich police had them under constant surveillance. Like a self perpetuating lie, the Squatters began to react differently to the police who in turn saw that as evidence of them trying to cover up for supposed crimes.
In September 1982 the Squatters received a devastating blow when central Government refused to allow Norwich City council to lease or sell the Argyle Street houses to the Squatters, despite having offered them a £1m grant earlier in the year. The Eastern Evening News (EEN) quoted the secretary of the Street Housing Co-operative Ltd., Amanda Lobís reaction:
The news hit us like a bombshell. We were stunned, especially as we thought the grant was agreed. We phoned the association (of Co-operative Dwellings) who made it (the application) and they had not heard of the decision.
In the same article David Fullman, Chair of Housing, was quoted as saying,
The DoE told us that us that public money could not be spent twice on the same houses; it was ironical that the DoE was stopping the sale of the houses because a group had managed to find backing from the same department to buy and restore them. This decision puts the Argyle Street issue back in the melting pot.
What had occurred to the Department of the Environment, but had escaped the attention of both the local Council and the Squatters, was that back in 1964, when Harry Perry was Chair of the Housing Department, the City Corporation had obtained central Government funds to renovate Argyle Street from the same source to which the Association of Cooperative Dwellings (ACD) had applied on behalf of the Street Housing Cooperative Ltd. The hard-core Squatters who had been holding out against the ACD’s bellicose attitude on Squatter registration seemed to have made their point, although sadly at the expense of the Street optimists. The Squatters’ cause, that of being clean living idealists, was not helped when in 1983 the New Travellers returned in force.
Finding their access to Eaton Common blocked by ‘urgent road repairs’ the Travellers set up camp on a piece of UEA and adjacent to the River Yare. Duly warned of a mass invasion of drug dealing hippies, Norfolk Constabulary brought in officers set up a road-block near the entrance to the University where visitors to the illegal site where ‘clocked’ on and off. Of the 16 arrests for drug offences, many of those detained for possession of hard drugs were Argyle Street residents.Harry Wakeman’s ‘blossoming of a new stage’ occurred when the New Age Travellers took up residence on Argyle Street. The City Council were not amused. David Fullman remembers the new arrivals with regret,
They were hardened Travellers, not
to aggression, themselves attacked
alien to the more middle class squatters down there who simply couldn’t
you’re taking them in, they’re your responsibility, what are you going to do about it, that they are not a nuisance, how are you making sure things are hygienic?” I thought it was a terrible shame because
it (the co-op) had a chance of not only broadening the way housing is delivered but also it actually had a chance of putting housing back on the agenda in a positive way. As it was, it (the Travellers) worked against that, it put housing on the agenda in a very negative way.
Former police officer Matthew Lucas MBE recalls the Travellers moving into Argyle Street,
The Convoy to us in rural Norfolk, and the way we conduct ourselves, that was a complete alien group who were disrespectful and violent for no apparent reason. Weíve (Norfolk Police) never been known for being particularly officious but right from the beginning there was antagonism and I think that changed the whole feel for the Street. And I think that led to its eventual demise; while the ‘fluffies’ would have been tolerated and would eventually have been rehoused, this anarchist element was never going to do anything but antagonise people and result in the final decision which was taken.
Not all of those involved with the newcomers to the Street held negative views. Reporter Celia Sutton had just joined the staff of the EDP and remembers that by the time she got involved with covering Co-op stories, attitudes had changed and there was deemed to be not as much friendship between the Squatters and the Press. However, according to Celia;
Papers in those days were run by quite young people and journalists, certainly in that period, tended to be left of centre. They were Trades Union members, so it was a myth we were a right wing press that was out to get anyone. I only went down to Argyle Street twice, the EDP had heard there was going to be some trouble (with the Travellers) and I pottered down there and I found
them perfectly friendly and approachable.
Tim Bishop, former ECN reporter, was also a newcomer to Norwich in the closing stages of the Squatter saga. He claimed that, at one point, Argyle Street was all the news room talked about and that,
It had all the ingredients of being a much grander affair than it actually turned out to be. That’s because it had almost mythic symbolism in the mind (of Norwich). I don’t think the average policeman had particularly strong feelings, “bloody hippies” wasn’t said with any great force or anger, it wasn’t a place they loved but equally they weren’t hugely scared or fearful of it. I think it (Argyle Street) was a place which was a bit odd really in a very Norfolk sort of way, in a quite kind way.
One Sunday night the police were involved in a car chase around Norwich, involving drugs, and the car headed off down Argyle Street followed by three squad cars. What followed had an ethereal, Keystone Cops feel to it. The people being chased realised they had fled into the cul-de-sac, lined with New Age Traveller vehicles, and stood on their brakes. The officers, suddenly very aware of where they were, came to a slithering halt behind the drug dealers who were reversing towards them. The police officers were forced to reverse at full speed or be rammed. By this time many Squatters had come out onto the Street to see what all the fuss was about; to their delight they were witnesses to a scene where the, alleged, drug dealers fled on foot whilst the police played bumper cars all the way back up the Street. And thus, the Argyle Streetís ‘no-go area’ was born. Although some Squatters claim the ‘no-go area’ was a media myth; the cops were not afraid to go down the Street, they just stopped hassling them so much because the end of the Squat was nigh.
Many of the Travellers who lived in their vehicles on Argyle Street seemed to know little or nothing of the Squatters’ back history with the City Council or had missed the point of what the Co-Op had set out to achieve as an alternative lifestyle. A Traveller, living in a former National Express bus, claimed,
They’ve taken away our homes, for what? A car park or something? The Council wouldn’t take rent since they
they terminated this Co-op thing. If theyíd asked me to pay so much per week rent, I’d have paid it. (Smiler,
Experience, February 19th 1985.)
By January 1985 Norwich City Council applied for and got a High Court Order to evict the Squatters and repossess their houses, prior to the dwellings being demolished to make way for a sheltered housing scheme. Police intelligence was stepped up in the months leading to the eviction because it was believed the Squatters would not go quietly. John Powley, MP for Norwich South, warned that,
Argyle Street squatters could have armed themselves ready for a confrontation when their homes are demolished. I could never forgive myself if I ignored this information. I do not want to be alarmist, I do not want to create trouble but I do want to make sure when action is taken to remove what is left of the squatters, and carry out the demolition, the authorities are well aware of what could happen.
Although Powley refused to name his source, believed to be a community police officer, the police deemed it to be of such an imminent threat, a police operation was immediately put into effect. Within days of Powley’s outburst in the local press, sixty police officers armed with search warrants for all of the households raided Argyle Street. The specially invited members of the press were disappointed to find the police haul consisted of nothing more than two air rifles and a crossbow. According to Smiler these weapons were used for poaching and had no strategic use whatever. The socalled threat, it emerged later, came from a press report where one of the squatters
was quoted as saying,
They can pull it down, but they can’t take it away. (Andy Pratt, interviewed in the film Street of Experience, Pixie Productions 1985)
However, tensions were rising as the date for eviction drew near. Police were called to the Ferry Boat public house, in King Street, when the landlord Edward Audley refused to serve a group of banned squatters. In the ensuing melee windows were broken and the listed building was later splashed with paint.
By February 19th the few remaining Argyle Street squatters, thought to number only about a dozen people, decided to hold a last night party. On the bitterly cold night of February 19th a giant bonfire was lit in the front gardens of two houses about halfway down the Street and the festivities commenced; someone had a record player going full tilt all night as the Squatters proceeded to demolish their own homes.
We’ve dismantled the Street ourselves to quite an extent. There’s no point in leaving it here for the destroyers. We should make the most out of it ourselves; some people have been selling off roofing tiles, or taking parts for ourselves. I’ve got a bus Iíve converted down here so I’m recycling parts of the house into it. Some people have smashed up a few houses to work off their energy. (Andy Pratt, interviewed for the documentary film Street of Experience, Pixie Productions 1985)
Clive Moore, who worked on the Street of Experience documentary, recalls: We went down there about 4pm; the director wanted to arrive in daylight so all the Squatters could see who we were, we’d been invited to what amounted to a private party and we should behave accordingly. Apparently the local media were not invited because of all the bad press the Squatters were
getting. I personally saw two EDP reporters being bricked off the Street. At one point the director got threatened with a monkey wrench, then a house caught fire in the wee small hours and there was the incident with the gas canister.
There had been a corner shop on Argyle Street which the Squatters spent all night trying to demolish by sawing through the heavy duty wooden beam supports. It got towards the early hours of February 20th and the shop refused to collapse. Eventually someone doused the beams in petrol and set fire to it but it still declined to demolish itself. Finally Mick Sankey threw a bottle of Calor gas on the fire, hoping the ensuing explosion would blow the shop down.Clive again,
Everyone on the film crew could see this bottle of pressurised Calor gas on the fire and knew what would happen if it went off. It wouldn’t have just blown up the corner shop. It would have flattened the whole Street. Someone we
cameraman asked how far we
should move to because he wanted to get a shot of it when it exploded and our director said, jokingly, “how about Brazil, where the nuts come from?” That’s when this biker, Lawrence, threatened him with the monkey wrench. Fortunately for us Smiler went in and hauled the gas canister out of the fire. February demolition
moved onto an adjacent vacant site near the river, vans rolled up and disgorged a large number of heavy set police officers and the serried ranks of the mass media were preparing themselves for a morning on the anarchist frontline. Actually, it was more like hand bags at dawn, according to Celia Sutton, The
volunteers and I said I’d definitely go down there. I got there about half past five, 6 o’clock in the morning and pottered around and waited for something to happen. I
was such a nice man, he was so gentle and peaceful and calm. I think when the two guys started smashing up the car everyone
knew that was just a bit of fun to get their photographs taken.
As soon as the police and press came down the Street the spell of the no-go area was broken; the Squatters realised that they were going to become a spectator sport and most of them had very sensibly moved out before the Bailiffs arrived. It appeared to many at the time that the press hype of a violent stand off between armed Squatters manning the barricades and riot police wasn’t going to materialise. Some national reporters felt rather let down. Tim Bishop recalls that morning;
There was a certain nervousness amongst, certainly me, about what we should do, whether we should walk down there. No-one on the news desk at ECN had said to worry about this safety thing. One of my colleagues wandered off with her camera crew down the road and we all kind of wandered around. In the end it was all handbags at dawn, really. It was rather a sad, sad moment more than anything else, it wasn’t a hugely aggressive moment. I think the police were surprised,
atmosphere could have changed if
things had turned nasty. It didn’t and it was quite quiet. We talked to quite a few (squatters), some of whom were more communicative than others but I did wonder if some of them had a bit of a hangover, who’d had a last party the night before. A few of them made obligatory rude noises about the police but with no great force. I wondered what this place had been like at its height when there were families down there.
The only moment of marked defiance came when one of the squatters, who had acquired an ancient vinyl copy of the comedy song The Laughing Policeman, played the record at full volume as the police moved down the Street ahead of the Bailiffs. An abandoned house inexplicably caught fire and the police, fearing a gas explosion, tried to clear the Street of press. The Pixie Productions film crew adamantly refused to budge on the grounds they were there to cover the whole story, for good or ill. None of the Squatters would budge either as they saw it as a cynical ploy on the part of the authorities who wanted them out without a fight.
The first front door the Bailiffs sledgehammered open turned out to be a burntout, abandoned property and, if they had gone to the rear of the premises, they would have discovered most of the back wall was missing. The irony was not lost on the Squatters. The bulldozers came in straight behind the Bailiffs and the first thing they demolished, many of the environmentalist Squatters noticed, was a living tree. Soon the site became a cacophony of bulldozers, falling masonry, flying dust, firemen dousing the flames of the party bonfire and the press drifting away to file their stories.
One of the most infamous news photos of the eviction appeared on the front page of the EDP the following day; it showed Smiler and George O’Reilly battering an abandoned car with pickaxe handles in a moment of senseless violence. What the photo caption failed to reveal was the fact that the vehicle in question belonged to Smiler. Tim Bishop takes up the story,
I wondered how misrepresented the picture was, really. When I got back, the whole office was saying, “God! That looks a bit tough.” And I was saying, “sorry it wasn’t like that, you know.” I’d like to make out this was macho reporter territory but it was very low key stuff. The picture, while it was very powerful and dramatic, is my abiding image of it. that and the mist at dawn as we waited for it to clear before the police moved in. I suppose that’s the abiding image I have. Once people moved away the paper lost interest quite quickly.
One of the unreported incidents, post eviction, concerned Norwich City Council’s housing department who made re-housing arrangements
homeless by the eviction. This consisted of a disused warehouse in Culvert Street, Norwich. Tom Jacks, who lived in one of the Streets terraced houses, claimed that the sadness of the eviction turned to bitterness and despair when only a few weeks later they were evicted once again after an incident involving non-residents who had tried to squat on the ex-squatters.
The New Age Travellers from the Street clambered into their brightly painted buses and headed for Sea Palling on the Norfolk coast where they set up camp behind the sand dunes. They stayed on the site until May 1985 when they moved off in convoy to attend the 12th annual Stonehenge Peoples’ Free Festival.
What happened next was described by the anarchist group Class War as, ‘sub-cultural genocide’ in the Battle of The Beanfield.
Newspaper source: Eastern Evening News clip library
Acknowledgements: Dr Nick Mafia, Dr Kristov Fijalkowski and Mr. Paul Grace at Norwich University of Art for their encouragement during the writing of the original 2005 dissertation.And huge thanks to all the people who gave their time and shared their memories with this project.
Link to the film Street of Experience: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FdIwdAfcsRo&feature=youtu.be About the author: http://alstokesofficialwebsite.yolasite.com/
all photographs are the sole copyright of Al Stokes
A photo-article history of Argyle Street in Norwich, the workers' houses built by Colmans (mustard) which were sold on to Norwich Corporatio...