- Contributed by
- Marine117570 Arthur Hill
- People in story:
- Arthur Hill
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 17 November 2003
And there I was, three piece grey chalk stripe suit, brown trilby in hand, trying to be a civilian again.
With a wife and baby, living in one room in my gran's house, where my mum and dad also lived, life was difficult. It didn't help at all to have Lil, the next door neighbour, a friend (?) of the family, winding things up all the time.
Constantly quoting how people were ‘getting housed by the Council’, and ‘all you have to do is keep reminding them’, so that you won't be overlooked.
I must admit, it didn't take a lot to wind me up. Having been barred from the Housing Department for causing trouble, I went in through the back door, through the Borough Surveyor's Office. I knew my way round the council house better that most, as it had been used as the control centre of the A.R.P. where I was a messenger in 1939. Still protesting and asking where was the 'Land fit for Hero's' that we’d been promised, and what was our new Labour Goverment going to do about it?, I got escorted out once again, with instructions not to return until sent for.
That was when I decided to pitch my tent on the Council House front lawn.
This time the police were called, and the ban enforced.
Ginger Cooley (ex-Marine oppo), often talked about our housing problems. We went to his wedding, and of course, had met his and his wife’s families, and there were a lot of them! After they had wed, he was living with his family, sharing a bedroom with his brothers, while she stayed with her parents, sharing with her sisters.
We thought they were daft to have married under the circumstances, at least we had a room, but as Ginger said, it did put them on a housing list.
Several times, when the subject was raised, he said that a Nissan hut could be made quite comfortable, and he knew places where we could go squatting. My reply was always the same, that I'd seen enough of Nissan huts to last a lifetime. If I went squatting it would have to be something better than that.
So, this was why, when early one Sunday morning Ginger phoned to say that a large group were preparing to squat in a block of luxury flats in Kensington, that I dropped everything and went.
This was it, the BIG ONE! The first ever mass squatting. We hit the headlines! Not that we ever had time to read them, but Monday 9th September 1946 The Times ran a headline:
‘1500 SQUATTERS OCCUPY LUXURY FLATS
— AUDACIOUS OPERATION IN WEST END’
The Duchess of Bedford House in Campden Hill was invaded, there must have been at least 200 of us, and we went straight in. Somebody had opened everything for us, and it was just like staking a claim, - and we did!
It was a block of luxury flats, halfway between Kensington (where we got married), and Notting Hill (where Carrie, my darling, came from). Ginger and I, together with our wives, took over a flat on the 2nd. floor. It was enormous, more space than the average house, and divided in two as night and day accommodation. Just the job.
Within the next week or two, other mass squattings had taken place, the other main big one being Fountain Court, Pimlico, and from what we heard they never had anything easy at all.
Because we were the first, we were regarded as a test case, and everything had to go through the Courts. The owners had file a complaint and prefer charges, but who were the owners?
Apparently the Ministry of Works had requisitioned the buildings, to house Maltese building workers, who were repairing bomb damage. They had all been moved on, and the place had been standing empty, but somebody had neglected to return it to the original owners, who the newspapers said was the Prudential Assurance Company. Because of the adverse publicity, they were denying ever to have owned it.
All this confusion was to our advantage, we were left alone for weeks, except for a few attempts to turn off our mains supplies, but we were taking turns on picket duty round the clock, and were able to thwart these manoeuvres. The support we had was marvellous, from the media, and the public in general, and especially the papers.
Carrie and I had moved in all our furniture, -we must have been daft, but we were fully committed. On her 21st.birthday, and baby Maureen’s first., we had a party, one never to forget. Family and friends, and some representatives from the unions turned up with reporters in tow. Pictures were taken, but there was no feedback, so we've never seen them. I suppose that they are in the archives of the papers somewhere and could probably be found, at least we do know the date!
Soon after this, writs started to be served, and we realised that intruders had been getting names from our notice board. Our committee had been in negotiation for other accommodation, and decided that if we were going to be picked off piecemeal, it would be better to go voluntarily in style.
The Communist Party had been very active on our behalf, and with the ‘Daily Worker’ as a mouthpiece, they organised a band to march us down the road, to a fleet of coaches, and then on to our destination - the Old Workhouse at Bromley by Bow.
So that is how we ended up in the Workhouse.
Leaving the 'Duchess of Bedford' was closing a chapter of our lives, arrangements were made to store our furniture, and the same removal men, (friends of my Dad), took to the storage, the same pieces that they had so recently delivered.
Outside, the band played, creating a festive atmosphere, and in the mood of the moment, we all piled into the coaches, looking forward to the next stage.
Alas! Someone was out to stir trouble. As we approched our destination, every side road and turning was occupied by Police vans, Black Marias and Police cars, what a welcome! Was it Political? the Communists were'nt in favour at this time, or was it big business having a whisper in high places?
The scenario was, the old 'Workhouse' at Bromley by Bow, was being used as a dormitory for Itinerant workers. Mainly Irish and from the North, all working on bomb sites and housing repairs. Apparently they were told, at the last possible moment, "Go to work as usual, and when you finish for the day, you will not be coming back here, but to other accommodation, your personal effects will be moved for you" At the same time, we squatters were told, "all the accommodation has been prepared for you" Human nature being what it is, all the building workers refused to go to work, but instead of a riot, they stayed to welcome us. They did the best they could for us, in what can only be described as primitive conditions, a mattress on the floor, in what could only be called a tunnel, no windows, it was underground, arched roof of black dirty bricks. The last time I had stayed in such a place, was in the catacoombs, when in transit with the Marines.
Who-so-ever engineered this scheme, came unstuck.
Because then the builders representives and our committee got together, and a joint deputation was sent to The Houses of Parliment, to the Ministry of Works and the G.L.C. at City Hall. The reporters followed every move, they had, in all probabilty, been primed for other reasons, but the publicity did us a power of good. From what we heard, this was front page news, and the support for our cause nationwide. (Must look up the Newspaper archives some day). Quite suddenly, what a coincidence, there was on offer, a fresh start, at a home that had formerly housed G.I.Brides, prior to shipping out.
Now that the pressure was on, our side of the negotiation thought it was time to press for a few concessions. They won us the right to have our own committee to represent us in the home, and to have the use of the main hall, for meetings and for social funcions. The building workers were restored to their original status, and so we all moved on.
At Chalk Farm, dormitory quarters, screened off into cubicles, in charge of a Master, (just like the Workhouse). A bit of shuffling around, and we sorted ourselves into some sort of order, people with families, tended to clump together, as did young couples with no other ties. The building was about 5 stories high, I say about, because it was'nt evenly disposed, sitting as it was on a steep hill, the lower floor was hall and offices, the rear half of the hall being underground. The first floor housed the original residents, mainly old ladies, the next two were ours, plus a little overlap, and above, all the staff. We barely had time to settle when a meeting was called, everbody to the hall.
As soon as we were seated, we were addressed thus,
"I am the Master of this House, and these are the rules"
With a shout, "Objection" our committee leader was on his feet, "Has'nt anybody told you 'Sunshine', that no longer applies, without our consent" At this, all the little old ladies started cheering, one shouted, "It's time that miserable sod got his come-uppance"
And so began our new period of Mk.2 Workhouse.
Home was a bit of polished floor in a large room, high ceiling, plenty of light, and echo's, nothing private. Our bit was about 9ft.x 7ft. boxed in by hanging curtains, just room for a bed and a chair. All our personal possessions were stowed under the bed, in two kitbags, (large, sea-going), it was a high bed. That also was a plus, because Carrie was begining to show that she was pregnant, and did'nt have any trouble getting in. Not that she did very often, because she spent more and more time in Barnes. Meanwhile, I was biking daily, on a tandem, to work in Park Royal, then to Barnes, have dinner, and then back to Chalk Farm to sleep. All the social life of the residents took place in the hall, a canteen suppling most needs. The Communist Party were active here, and were trying to organise entertainment, guided by Frank Byers of the committee. He was trying to make a poster, to advertise a dance, and I poked my nose in, and ended up with the job, and on the committee. They were trying to recruit me to the Party, and I ended up being their Rep. at the Camden Town Young Communist's headquarters. Talk about a fish out of water, everybody knew everything, about everything, except me, of course, and I was expected to volunteer for other people. No way!
The Party had already been a great help in shaping the way forward, and had arranged Legal Representives to defend us in court, but by this time I felt I was getting in too deep. Byers was talking about the firm he worked for, the boss was a Party man, and part of their wages were donated, was I interested in plastics, and they could use someone like me in design. I think not! Around about this time, Ginger was also getting involved, but with the Royal Marines Association, of which I was still a member. They were oganising a dance, and wanted me to do posters to advertise it. They asked for a portfolio of styles to choose from, so I did a book of coloured drawings, and of course, they picked the most elaborate one,(I was rather proud of it), and so I had a commission. Not knowing where they were to be displayed, Ginger was my only contact, I had to make them light-fast and waterproof. A lot of work went into producing what they wanted, and I'd set up a perspective machine, on the wall of my Mum's front room. To put the Marines badge on each would have taken far too much time, so I did lino-cut of it, and printed it on. Having spent so much of my time, which I could ill afford just then, I put in my bill, I wanted to be paid something, as an acknowlegement. Ginger thought a free ticket would be more like it, and our relationship deteriorated quite rapidly after that. We did, however, have a get together one evening, when a meeting in the hall had been called by the committee. The idea was to meet visiting M.Ps. They chaired the meeting from the stage, told us about the housing situation, the progress being made, and how, as a group, we had stirred the conscience of the nation, and well done you lot. Then they came down to mingle and answer any queries. One of them happened to be Ginger's local M.P. so he came and sat with us for a discussion. Unfortunatly for Ginger and his wife, he could'nt hold any good news for the immediate future. For us, he said with one child, and another coming, the best option was to transfer to another area where the list was short, and some housing put to one side for the most deserving cases from other areas. My reply was,"Easy for you to say, but us poor punters have no way of knowing any of these things, when we ask we get turned away". He repied,"I'm not allowed to show any favouritism, and therefore cannot tell you that Mottingham is a good place indeed"
The next morning I was in the L.C.C. Housing Dept. requesting a change of area application, which was done immediately. Ginger and his wife went back to stay with their families to await developments.
Meanwhile, while I was still doing the daily round trip on the tandom, our baby Maureen was being very poorly with the Measles. Carrie took her to Doctor Hill, who said that she also had an ear infection, possibly with perforation, and that could be dangerous to both mother and child, seeing that she was pregnant, and recomended that the baby should be in isolation. He made all the arrangements, and she was soon in the Barnes Isolation Hospital, in South Worple Way. This proved to be a very traumatic experience, for both, as they advised that it would be best if, when visiting, the baby did'nt see her mother, so avoiding unsettling her.
In retrospect, not such a bright idea, and after three weeks apart, they both had a little bother re-establishing ground lost. Meanwhile, our absence during the day had been noticed, I pulled out a kit bag from under the bed, to find that it only contained only screwed up newspaper, we had been robbed. Everything that we had at the center had gone, except the kitbags. Apart from reporting it, there was nothing that could be done, we didn't have doors, and there was no way to hold anyone responsible, so, write it off, get on with it. Around about this time, we received a letter from the housing Dept. telling us that we were on Mottingham's short list, but it was addressed to us at Archway St. someone else had missed the fact that I'd been back to the center every night, to sleep. So, although I was still doing the three legged journey every day on the tandom (getting fit too), I had to spend more time at the Center, and to make sure that I was noticed, must'nt prejudice the Housing Dept. The weather wasn't being kind to me, fortelling a hard winter, but the tandom proved to be a godsend, riding solo, on a long wheelbase, just about the most stable two wheeler,on ice, that you could imagine. I was so busy, living three separate lives at the same time, that I cannot for the life of me, remember that Christmas, other than it was cold. My folks were caring for Carrie and the baby, and with another due, that was something for which we would be eternally grateful. When her labour pains started, the worst winter ever had taken hold, deep snow covered the country, and freezing continously made any traveling a hazard. Such were the conditions, when it was time to call the ambulance, but when they arrived, in the dark, it was not good news. Quite apart from the natural difficulties, the local hospital, (where she had been booked in), was closed, there had been an outbreak of Gastric-enteritis, and the ambalancemen said that, at that moment, they had no idea where to go next. So the best they could advise, off the cuff, was take my Mum with them, (as more useful than me), and they would call at the station to find which of three possible destinations could be used, none of them local. Then, someone at the station will ring us,(Dad and I) to tell us where they were heading. That is how our Brian came to be born in Carshalton.
The long arm of coincidence made it's mark, the name Hill, was everwhere, the Midwife, the anaesthetist, and our Dr.Hill.
Perhaps someone was looking down on us, because the name Hill also came up on the housing list, and we were offered a Pre-Fab in Plumstead. Plumstead? never heard of it, but that soon altered.
We were out of the workhouse, But, into what?
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