Squatting in Britain 1945-1955 by Don Watson
Publisher: The Merlin Press
After World War II, many people squatted empty properties, often government-owned ex-Army camps, since a housing crisis had been created as a result of the hugely damaged housing stock, slow state action to build new homes and a huge influx of returning servicemen as well as displaced peoples from other countries.
Don Watson’s “Squatting in Britain 1945-1955” is an excellent read about the squatting movement which sprang up following the chaos of wartime. Utilising many local archives and libraries, reading deeply into newspaper reports and evaluating both the academic work on squatting in this time period and socialist history archives, Watson gives us both a good overview of why people were forced to take action to house themselves and zooms in frequently on individual stories.
The camps were occupied from the middle of 1946 onwards. Watson gives figures of 62 camps on August 15th across the UK, rising to 235 on August 20th. By the end of August there were 520 camps in England and Wales alone and by the end of September there were 921, with an estimated 33,000 people, combined with 152 camps in Scotland, with an estimated 7,534 people. By the end of October 1946, there were an estimated 40,000 squatters in England and Wales, 7,000 in Scotland and 1,000 in Northern Ireland.
I have never seen such figures so clearly laid out before and this really serves to show what an explosion of self-organised activity the squatting movement was. Watson notes that “whether the squatters were alone, part of a group or part of a mass occupation an impromptu system seems to have been followed across the country” with huts being allocated on a “first come first served” basis and people marking their claimed spot with chalk (64). Further, “almost immediately – and the reports of this are ubiquitous and suggest spontaneity – the hut occupiers organised themselves into committees and took responsibility for pooling a weekly sum of money from each family” (65).
Whilst it is clear that the idea to occupy spread like wildfire since squatters were desperate to find accommodation for themselves and their families, there has been some debate in the academic literature about whether this suddenly formed movement had any particular political leanings. The conclusions reached on this point tend to reflect the ideological bias of the author, with anarchists finding evidence in the self-organised, autonomous nature of many actions and socialists looking towards projects with which the Communist Party was associated.
Watson himself appears to be coming from a socialist history perspective and thus tends to focus upon Communist Party activists. Nevertheless, he acknowledges the anarchist perspective of writers such as Friend and Ward, and indeed also examines the occasional contemporaneous criticism of communist tactics. He certainly does not fall into the mistake made by some other commentators of claiming that the entire movement was led by communists.
Indeed Watson is adding much to the current pool of knowledge, making the observation based on his careful archival work that “it is not always easy to ascertain what the relationship actually was between the camp squatters and the political activists who were supporting them” (95). He also notes that in some cases the activists were squatters themselves, identifying specific people from Chelmsford, Daws Hill, Dumbarton, Middlesborough and Oxford, whilst also acknowledging that overall “the squatters’ advocates had not been produced by the movement itself but had adopted it as a function of their established political activism” (97).
In a paragraph which wraps up this particular debate agreeably, Watson states that some camps came about as “undoubtedly the result of action by the homeless themselves without any leadership, encouragement or prompting by the politically active,” whilst there were “many examples where Communist Party activists led, encouraged or provided practical support to the squatters” and in addition there were individual Labour and Independent Labour activists who also helped with the camps, occasionally also being squatters themselves (182).
Watson’s evidence based analysis is welcome yet his reliance on archives made me wonder if he could also have interviewed surviving camp dwellers. Some of the children born in the camps must still be alive. So when Watson writes that “later authors who state that the Communists came late to the squatting movement have not examined the evidence available in local newspapers” I respect his conclusions based on what he was able to uncover after many hours spent in the archives, but I also wonder what those still alive who actually lived in the camps could tell us firsthand about this point (182).
Perhaps the influence of people working on anarchist principles of mutual aid and self-government gets passed over in media reports, since they were not prepared to thrust themselves forward as spokespeople and therefore become the centre of attention. Certainly, if camp dwellers were interviewed we might hear more about their fascinating stories, including those of children of displaced Poles who ended up settling in the UK. The book authored by Zosia and Jirus Biegus, Polish Resettlement Camps in England and Wales gives us some more information about this topic (although most Poles were legally housed in camps rather than being squatters).
One quibble I had with the book was the rather confusing referencing system, in which references were stacked up under one single footnote after one or two paragraphs. For example, footnote 29 on page 70 supplies references to seven newspapers and two sets of minutes and it can be an unnecessarily frustrating task lining up each individual quotation with its source.
One aspect in which Watson’s research really pays off is the analysis of how long the camps lasted. Local councils were sometimes quick to take action, either to legalise or to evict, yet amazingly some of the camps were still inhabited in the 1950s and even into the 1960s, despite being seen as temporary housing.
Overall this is a fantastic book, which should be recommended reading for anyone interested in the British postwar squatters movement. Whilst there is certainly more to be said about this under-studied topic, Watson has set down a solid reference for future research.