In memory of battles past
02 March, 2017 — By John Gulliver
Arthur Rowe after his eviction from his home on Silverdale estate
One of the biggest civil disturbances in the history of the capital took place in the streets of Kentish Town and Camden Town 56 years ago, yet it has been bypassed by mainstream historians and ignored by the borough’s elite.
It is remembered only by a small circle of campaigners and the dwindling number of those who took part in it as well as their friends and relatives.
But memories came tumbling out at a film screening on Thursday which brought back my own memories as a reporter who covered the event on September 22, 1960, for a Fleet Street news agency.
It was a full house in the small hall of the Marx Memorial Library in Clerkenwell as the audience waited expectantly for the film which had evolved, almost accidently, as Camden Town historians John Cowley and Danny Nissim began to put together another project.
The seismic event that pitted hundreds of police and bailiffs against thousands of council tenants in a one-day battle had erupted from a rent strike following a Conservative government-imposed rent increase followed by a stringent – often harrowing – means-tested scheme.
At the time most of Camden Town, Kentish Town and Somers Town was governed by a Conservative-controlled St Pancras council prepared to face down a strike by their tenants.
But they had underestimated the military-style operation of their opponents, led – in the main – by war veterans who created a disciplined network of tenants spearheaded by two men, one of whom had been a tough commando, Don Cook. The “magnificent” two barricaded themselves in their flats – and dared the police to evict them from their flats in Kennistoun House, Kentish Town, and Silverdale – ironically soon to be demolished by HS2.
When I arrived at Kennistoun House at 6.30am it had been cordoned off by scores of police while bailiffs were clambering over the roof of the block and trying to break into Don Cook’s flat.
Violent fights broke out in Leighton Road as more than 1,000 tenants tried to break up the police cordon. A couple of miles away, bailiffs and police used similar tactics against the second tenant, Arthur Rowe.
Edie and Don Cook pictured in 1962 in their new flat in Grafton Road, St Pancras
All day running fights broke out in Hampstead Road and Leighton Road between police and men, women and children. Hundreds of building workers from the Southbank site had marched through the West End to support the tenants. It took hours before Don Cook and Arthur Rowe were winkled out of their homes – and later that evening more than 10,000 tenants and other Londoners marched along Euston Road and fought pitched battles with the police outside the Town Hall.
All editions of the London evening papers covered it as well as the national press the next day – MPs debated it, Pathé News gave it an afterlife later on.
The political trigger had been pulled when 12 Labour councillors were expelled from the Labour Party for refusing to comply with the rent increases.
Behind me at the screening sat the son of one them – Jack Edwards, whose father John, another war veteran, was one of the leading figures in the long cast of rebels. He and his family paid for their defiance by losing their flat in Godwin Court, Camden Town, though they were “rescued” by the Greater London Council and rented another home in Maitland Park.
A veteran councillor of the 1970s and 1980s and former Labour council leader, Phil Turner, defended comrades who had supported the tenants in a speech resembling a kind of “stream of consciousness” – and with “affection” he remembered a leading figure, the late Ellen Luby who, perhaps in revenge, had tormented councillors for decades at the Town Hall with her sharp tongue and acerbic wit.
The wave of generations in Camden that came after the 1960s, as I said, hardly know about the events, unaware of the battles that once raged in the area – not all that long ago, historically speaking.
- A screening of a film of the strike will be shown at the Irish Centre, 50-52 Camden Square, NW1, at 7.30pm on March 15. Call 020 7916 2222.
- Further info at camdenhistorywiki.org.uk