(This is part of the personal story of how I got into communal living – and what happened when I did. Part1 here )
At the short-life licensed squat on Camden Park Road we somehow seemed to collect people; theatre friends, Billy & Alan who came through Jan’s work at Chiswick Women’s Aid¹ … We clearly needed a bigger house. We talked about doing some ‘Real Squatting’. It was Corinna, who ran the Stirabout prison theatre company, who first discovered “Wacousta” the big house set in acres of gardens in Bishops Avenue – known as Millionaires Row because of the number of mansions and embassy houses on it. As far as we could find out the house had been empty since the1920’s something to do with an American heiress who had died and left the house in legal-limbo-land.²
Undercover of night we moved in, changed the locks and pasted the squatters occupation notice on the door. Half an hour later a blue flashing light approached along the driveway – it sped right past us and further along the drive to a cottage where a caretaker, who had been kept on by the estate, had fallen down the stairs and broken his leg coming to investigate the strange lights in the big house. Next morning the local police inspector turned up, accompanied by the caretaker with his leg in plaster, we exchanged legal pleasantries and they went away. Later in the day the inspector returned on his own. Turned out his daughter was squatting in Streatham and he was remarkably sympathetic – for a police officer – he told us that the estate would get us out one-way or another, probably by declaring the house unfit, or a fire hazard.
However he had just raided three houses further up the road and busted members of the Children of God sect for a rental TV scam they had been running. As far as he knew the houses were empty and we would be alright there. “Should he catch us breaking and entering of course he would have no option …” So after a month of mansion camping; with no electric, gas or heating, cooking on a camping stove and all sleeping on the floor on mattresses in the main living room in front of a log fire listening to Bob Dylan’s Desire album on my battery operated record player – all very romantic, but bloody cold – we decided to take the Police Inspectors advice and moved to the smallest of the three properties on the corner of Bishops Ave & Hampstead Lane, opposite Kenwood House, on the edge of Hampstead Heath. The house had been owned by a property developer supporter of the Children of God who had gone bust.
The Hampstead Lane, Kingsdene’, squat turned out to be the most stable address some of us had in London, it lasted over 18 months. Because the houses were owned by a bankrupt developer they were in the hands of the ‘official receiver’ with whom we came to an arrangement – if we paid the rates and didn’t trash the place he wouldn’t hassle us until the whole bankruptcy thing was sorted out and he had a new buyer for the houses.
When we first moved in the well-to-do neighbours had assumed that we must be rock stars and were subsequently shocked to discover a bunch of squatters had moved into one of London’s most exclusive addresses – a story broken to the whole country (Including my Mum & Dad and thier neighbours.) by the ITV national news. Who doorstepped us early one morning with a full camera crew and reporter. Needless to say we didn’t look our best at 8am on a monday morning. Having been outed by the press we decided to go on a bit of a charm offensive. We tried to get some more positive press coverage in Time Out and by being interviewed on Radio London – the interview ended with us being asked jokingly “having tasted living in one of the most exclusive parts of London where might we move on to squat next, Buckingham Palace maybe?” and us replying “MMmm Buckingham Palace?”
We gave ourselves a name – ‘The Golden Spiral Community’ and invited the wealthy locals round to talk to us. To our surprise a few actually came and we tried to get across to them that we were useful members of society who just couldn’t afford London property prices; adventure playground workers, women’s refuge staff, running a theatre company that toured prisons (we had Home Office security clearance!). Not dirty hippy squatters at all.
I’m not sure many of the neighbours were convinced – and the effect of all the publicity was to attract a motley crew of North London would-be squatters and streetlife to our door. Most of whom moved in to one of the other two properties on the site – we had chosen the smallest house (only four bathrooms) partly because we thought it the most ‘defendable’. The house next door was so big that people could move in to one end without ‘residents’ in other parts of the house finding out for a couple of weeks. We paid the rates, a considerable sum at the time, by renting our living room out as a rehearsal space for theatre groups & for meetings and the triple garage to a couple of mechanics.
Living on the corner of Hampstead Heath back in the summer of ’76 now seems somewhat idyllic – we turned over formal flowerbeds to growing organic veg, (not very successfully as there was a drought that summer.) had picnics on the lawns of Kenwood House, held parties full of hippies and escaping battered wives, hosted various meetings, therapy weekends, a Peace News Potlach….. a stream of people came and went, but we managed to keep the core of a communal household together; Jan, Mick, me, Sheila and the kids, Lorna and her puppets.³ We were a pretty well organised, but essentially anarchic communal squat. We had fairly regular communal meals, shared childcare, shared our beds, all went on a 10 day macrobiotic brown rice diet to save enough money to pay the telephone bill, had communal readings of The Hobbit, listened to the Sex Pistols burst forth on the radio, flicked through the collection of Jesus-loves-you propaganda pamphlets the Children of God had left behind in the basement, taught ourselves basic DIY skills to stop the roof leaking and unblock the drains. I recall we had an agreement that anyone could call for a house meeting at anytime with no notice – once resulting in a 2am meeting requiring people to be got out of bed to attend.
The gardens – which included an ornamental pond and tennis courts – were taken over at one point by folk from Tipi Valley in Wales, who had heard that the BIT crashpad in central London had closed and so they had come with a plan to ‘rescue’ London’s homeless hippies and take them back to Wales with them along with a horse saved from the knackers yard. In the meantime they set up their tribal encampment in ‘our backyard’ and proceeded to demolish the fencing for firewood – progressing later to the staircase in the squat next door!.
I broke my arm badly while we were living here – an opening car door hit me on the arm while I was cycling round Kings Cross on the way back from a juggling class. This resulted in me being in plaster for the best part of six months and not really being able to do much, either around the squat or doing any sort of work paid or voluntary. I guess I ended up being depressed and starting to wonder what I was doing in London – I started to realise that I maybe didn’t want to be an actor after all. Too many of the people I had met working in and around the fringe and even in the more commercial theatre in the West End, were what is euphemysically called ‘resting’, but infact were working most of the time as taxidrivers, or washing up in restuarants. In the end Jan got fed up with me moping around the squat and got me to volunteer humping video cameras for a community video project based at the Oval House Theatre. This was the very early days of portable video; big cameras and a reel to reel video recorder. You needed two people to carry the kit – so portable in the way that you might say a small fridge is portable. But it did get me out of myself and looking back now the project did some amazing recording: it filmed the first UK concert by Bob Marley and the Wailers (Whatever happend to that tape?), we got to go to Knebworth with the Friends Roadshow when the Rolling Stones announced that if you turned up at the gates dressed as a clown you could get in free. But more importantly we did community activist video journalism. Recording community campaigns about poor housing conditions, or racism on the streets of Brixton and using the fact that no-one was really used to seeing themselves or thier local community on TV to give people some hope and to pressure local councils for change. We also dreamed of running an anarchist TV channel – a sort of Anarco-Youtube.
I don’t remember who brought home a copy of John Seymour’s Practical Self-sufficiency to the Hampstead squat, but the now classic armchair-smallholders book inspired us to a number of back-to-the-land fantasy plans – I even spent New Year hitching around the Welsh borders checking out estate agents seeing if they had any old farms going for a song or to rent, whilst sleeping rough at night in barns. In the end our dreams of rural adventure came to nothing. (Though years later Lorna did buy half a farm in Devon!) Slowly the insecurity of not knowing when we were going to be evicted unsettled us and when we found ourselves acting as surrogate estate agents showing potential buyers around we decide the time had come to go. We said good-bye with one final party and went our separate ways.
Much of this story appears in a previous blog post about dereliction on Bishops Ave and parts of my personal journey through communal living were first published in Communes Britannica :A History of Communal Living in Britain 1939-2000
1. My years in London were my political education. Nothing more so than the contact that I had with the Womens refuge in Chiswick where Jan worked as a volunteer. The refuge run by Erin Pizzey was an inspiration for DIY social work and Erin herself was an inspiring, if somewhat intimidating character for an 18-year-old fresh out of school to cope with meeting. She would come to our squat on Hampstead Lane for some respite from the intensity and chaos of the refuge. We would get drunk with her over a few bottles of wine she would bring with her and talk housing politics, feminism and the state of the world late into the night.
2. In the past couple of years I have been contacted by journalists writing about the derelict & squatted houses on Bishops Ave. This has led to some discussion about which mansion it was that we first occupied on the Avenue – quite a number of the them were squatted. One story says that we squatted the Towers at 53 Bishops Ave, a house that had once been the home of Gracie Field’s, But having looked at pictures of the Towers it definitely wasn’t the one we stayed in – ours was on the other side of the Ave. After much trawling of collective memories I am still not able to work out which house was the one known as “Wacousta” on Bishop Ave.
3. The friends I made in the short time we were together in London were a huge influence on my life: Jan Dungey,an amazing street theatre performer with the feminist performance troupe Cunning Stunts, Mick at the time an adventure playground worker & later a Gestalt therapist and Sheila, an escaping battered wife when we met her, who would go on the be CEO of a northern housing association.
Chris Coates January 2020