Tonight, Radio 4 will broadcast a show on squatting, called ‘From Frestonia To Belgravia‘.
Squatting as a 20th-century phenomena originated in the wake of the acute housing shortage after the Second World War. Homeless families began to occupy empty mansion blocks and hotels, including Duchess of Bedford House in Kensington.
Some of the squatters of the 1960s took this as their inspiration. Among the most political were the London Street Commune, a group of self-declared space cadets from the streets who were turned into a minor political weapon by a Spart called Phil Cohen, aka Dr John, who had previously been involved with the British Situationist International group, King Mob. The LSC became loosely involved in the counterculture scene and even at one point managed to occupy the offices of the underground newspaper, International Times, believing it was ‘bourgeois’ and needed to be ‘liberated’. They gave up after a few days when they realised they didn’t really understand how to put a newspaper together.
The London Street Commune’s most conspicuous act came when they squatted a vast Park Lane mansion, 144 Piccadilly, at Hyde Park Corner in September 1969. This gained them massive media attention, and the building quickly came to be dubbed ‘Hippy-Dilly’ and attracted vast crowds of largely hostile onlookers. The LSC responded by barricading the front door and creating a ‘drawbridge’ out of wood from one of the ground-floor windows, and asking the Hell’s Angels to protect them.
Around 100 people were said to be living in the building, among them the odd journalist who infiltrated the squat so they could produce salacious copy about the drug-taking ne’er-do-wells. After surviving an attempt by skinheads to ‘take’ the mansion – the LSC threw carpet bowls and balloons filled with ink at the approaching skins – the police decided to take action.
The police moved in on September 21, leading to in the words of the Daily Mirror, ‘The Fall of the Hippy Castle‘. This took place the day after a free festival at Hyde Park, which many of the LSC had attended. The squat was now filled with numerous disparate groups, including Hell’s Angels and French veterans of May 1968, alongside the original Dilly drop-outs, but they were quickly moved out by police, who arrested around 70 of the squatters.
While John Lennon went on TV to offer the displaced squatters a home in the shape of an island off Scotland, the high-profile eviction was greeted with delight by the media. The Times demanded the squatting be made illegal and that hippies be arrested under the vagrancy act. This remarkable Pathe newsreel – with talk of ‘scroungers and drop-outs… snubbing the conventions of decent society… doing the real homeless a disservice’ – demonstrates the prevailing attitude. It is difficult to conceive of broadcast media speaking in such terms today.
In 1972, American film director Sam Fuller wrote a pulp novel about 144 Piccadilly, but the building itself was not to last much longer. It was knocked down in the 1970s and replaced by the ghastly Intercontinental Hotel.