Hippy-dilly: squatting and the London Street Commune at 144 Piccadilly

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.

Squatters move into Duchess of Bedford House

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.


6 responses to “Hippy-dilly: squatting and the London Street Commune at 144 Piccadilly

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  4. re the PATHE NEWSREEL film web linked – I viewed it – was interesting. At one point it shows an evening newspaper billboard re a court decision – I was sympathetic and around during those times and took a lot of interest and still have numerous of the news media Billboard posters re 144 PICCADILLY including the the same as was briefly shown in the Pathe footage.

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  6. Andrew Kenrick

    I moved into 144 from St Ives in August 1969, where that had been a mass eviction early that summer…climbed in with Dr John and originally had the whole top floor to myself, gradually, over September, more and more people moved in. I recall Caroline Koon of “Release” arriving and she was a real celebrity. It grew more dirty and chaotic throughout September as the police sometimes stood by and allowed groups of skinheads to throw rocks at the building. The more aggressive of us inside responded with plastic “Boules,” there were thousands of sets stored in the basement. It felt like a turning point in the history of the world; but then I was 16 and it was 1969 so most things did! The British press were apalling in their attitude, we were not funny or strange, but simply dangerous and needed locking up, in their version of events. Every time I pass the Intercontinental Hotel on the site I have a wry smile…perhaps we did change the world (just a little).

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