Published: 7 October, 2010
by DAN CARRIER
THEIR furniture lay in a smashed heap in a courtyard, having been tipped off balconies by bailiffs and police. It had taken house-proud Edie Cook and her husband Don years of hard work to make their home beautiful: and all their possessions were ruined in a matter of moments. The image of the contents of her sitting room being thrown down five storeys is one that will live with Edie Cook forever.
It is 50 years since the violent end to the St Pancras rent strike – an event which made headlines throughout the nation and brought thousands of working people onto the streets where they faced pitched battles with the police.
Tenants throughout the old St Pancras borough had dug their heels in and said enough was enough after a Tory council imposed large rent increases upon them. They refused en masse to pay those increases.
Tenants were of that generation which had made enormous sacrifices, risked their lives and lost brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers in the war against Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan. They had hoped they were fighting for a better, fairer world – a world where legislation would ensure opportunities were not just for the rich.
These hopes were encapsulated by the Education Act of 1944 and the foundation of the NHS, which had gone some way to meeting their expectation that Clement Attlee’s new Britain would never see a return to the 1930s, with its mass unemployment, slum housing and appalling public health.
Edie, now 87 and living in Parliament Hill Fields, recalls the momentous events that saw Kentish Town become global news – and of the behaviour of the police who came to evict her husband from their top floor flat in Kennistoun House, Leighton Road.
“We had just started getting a decent home together, a nice little respectable home,” she recalls. “Seeing all of our possessions being thrown over the top of the balconies and smashing down on the ground below... well, I was heartbroken. I lost so much personal stuff – photographs, things you couldn’t replace.”
The pair had fallen in love during the war, meeting in a gun sight factory off Prince of Wales Road, where they both worked. They married when Edie was 18 and Don was 20 – but they were separated by the war, as Don enlisted. He saw action in Egypt with a tank regiment and later would serve as a paratrooper, fighting in Arnhem. He would be away while their first daughter was born. In 1949, they were given a flat in Kennistoun House – and it was from here Don’s name would go down in history.
Edie remembers the happy days they spent in the top flat before the strike.
“It was wonderful,” she recalls. “We had a bath and a toilet. That was real luxury.”
She would get up before dawn and do a few hours’ cleaning work in the West End before heading back to get her four children ready for school, while Don was a factory inspector. He was well respected in Kentish Town, and as well as being politically active, ran football sessions for teenagers.
“Kennistoun was a very homely sort of block,” Edie says. “You could borrow a couple of spoons of tea from your neighbour and not worry about asking. It was proper friendship – there were nice people there.
“We were all in the same boat, there was no toffee noses – and that was one of the reasons when Don started the protest I got so much support.”
But this young family’s idyll would be wrecked in 1959 after the newly elected Tory council decided to introduce huge rent rises. Don organised with others to resist the rises and a mass movement was formed in the borough.
“One day he just said: ‘We’re not paying our rent this week’, and that was how it started,” Edie says. “Don never discussed with me what he was going to do. I supported him because I knew by the reaction of people around us that he was doing the right thing. He had real guts.”
By the summer of 1960, the ultimatum of pay your rent or face eviction had run out, and hundreds of people gathered outside the Cook’s home and outside the home of fellow strike leader Arthur Rowe, who lived in the Regent’s Park estate. The siege began.
By September 5, the flats were securely barricaded, using a piano and furniture. Don and his friends had served in the army and their military training was to prove invaluable as the stand-off began. They put barbed wire on the roof, and food supplies were sent along washing lines.
On September 22 at 6.45am, police and bailiffs drew up cordons round Kennistoun House and tried to storm the flat. Edie was in activist Ellen Luby’s flat when the eviction started.
“We had a ship’s bell on Ellen’s balcony that we’d ring if we saw the bailiffs,” she recalls. “People came streaming out of their flats as Ellen rang the bell. The support was unbelievable – there were thousands of people there. Leighton Road was chock-a-block.”
In Silverdale, where Arthur Rowe lived, police quickly smashed their way through a wall to grab him: in Kennistoun, it took longer.
Defended by police, bailiffs found the only way they could get to Don and his fellow striker Jimmy Peters was through the ceiling. Bailiffs had been coated in engine oil and one was injured when he was struck by a flying fish tank. Even when they got into the flat, it took another 90 minutes to wrestle Don and Jimmy out of the kitchen, their last refuge.
Later that day, Don issued a statement: “The Tory council of St Pancras now stands condemned as the instigators of the most violent attack on ordinary people for many years. Arthur Rowe and I are out of our flats but there are many more who will follow us. The barricades of St Pancras have only just begun. We will continue to fight and justice must prevail.”
Meanwhile, news of the evictions spread. Building workers from the Shell Centre site on the South Bank downed tools and marched up to offer their support. Two hundred workers at the Camden Goods Yard also went on strike. That evening, thousands assembled outside St Pancras Town Hall in Euston Road.
There was fighting in the streets: the national newspapers raised the spectre of the Red menace, while tenants said the police waded into their ranks with flying truncheons.
The next day the Home Secretary banned all demonstrations.
Two years later, Labour were back in power at St Pancras Town Hall with a mandate to scrap the Conservative rent scheme.
Don Cook and his wife Edie were rehoused, as was Arthur Rowe. But a promised new Labour rent scheme was ruled out of order by the district auditor on the grounds that it would cost ratepayers too much.
However, the event set the agenda for the politics of St Pancras and subsequently the new borough of Camden for years to come.
Thereafter, the objections of the tenants’ organisations in the borough could not be casually dismissed by any party or its politicians.