'Fifty dilapidated flats, which had been condemned by London County Council a year before, constituted the Nigel Buildings tenements, situated behind the White Horse pub in Rye Lane. They were privately owned. The tenants' homes were being overrun with sewer rats and other vermin. The working-class residents were at the end of their tether, having to suffer daily living in these appalling conditions.
Time to declare my interest - the man they approached to raise the problem was my father, Alf Maunders, who they'd seen speaking at a Communist United Front meeting in Rye Lane. Together with the Camberwell branch of the Communist Party, Peace Union and the National Unemployed Workers Movement, Maunders organised a meeting of all the tenants that same evening. They formed a tenants' defence league and unanimously backed a call for a rent strike.
A glance at the Daily Workers from the time, now available online, gives you ample evidence that this was not an overreaction. The paper for October 22 that year carries an item: 'Rats at her throat - Peckham girl's terrifying experience'. Other families were going through the same horrifying experiences. "One tenant had her food eaten by sewer rats as it stood on the table." Another woman "killed no less than six rats" in her kitchen in one week. There was a worker "who used to go out and get boozed from sheer dread of the rats who were his sleeping partner ... the rats drove people out of their beds and made racecourses of their rooms." Other reports detail "39 children covered in sores" and the nasty skin conditions babies developed due to living in such filthy homes.
The landlord was a Mr Himmelschein, who had not been paying the rates to the council, even though they were included in the rents he charged tenants, which varied from 13s6d to £1 a week. (That's from £40 to £61 in today's money). Four tenants had been summonsed by Camberwell borough council for non-payment of rates they had already paid to Himmelschein. When 30 women from Nigel Buildings marched on the court to demand a meeting with whoever had brought the action, the council withdrew the summons, though only for a month. So there were plenty of grounds for a rent strike. On the first day of the strike the rent collector was met by an angry crowd of women who refused him entry and chased him away.
Himmelschein went to the flats "to try to reason with the tenants" - and came in for a nasty shock when the residents "transformed his visit into a public trial," held in the courtyard of the building. After hearing the case against him, the assembled tenants "found Himmelschein guilty and told him no more rents would be paid for the rat and bug-infested premises."In the face of this workers' democracy Himmselchein had no choice but to leave. The tenants organised barricades at the entrances and took over control of the estate. That was the start of an eight-week saga that reminds us even today of the value of people power.
On one occasion the landlord tried to placate the tenants with some repairs and fumigation. The Daily Worker reports that he sent two men, neither of whom was in a trade union. He was paying them one shilling and threepence (£3.76 nowadays) an hour, below the union rate.The tenants would have none of it, telling him that because of the state of the flats the job needed 12 men to make them anywhere near habitable - and insisting they all be trade union members. Himmelschein refused and threatened court action. Meanwhile the tenants had approached Camberwell borough council, which sent along some men to fumigate the flats.But they only sent a five-gallon drum of insecticide, costing a shilling a pint, which was only enough to cover five flats. The council's rat-catchers estimated that it would cost £21 to rid the buildings of rats and more to block up the rat holes.
The action enjoyed the support and solidarity of the local community, the Communist Party and unemployed workers. The tenements remained barricaded for the whole eight weeks, with the residents united behind the action. They had to face enemies other than the landlord - Oswald Mosley's blackshirts tried to exploit the situation because Himmelschein happened to be Jewish. They attempted to march on the flats but were stopped and driven off by the tenants, who wanted nothing to do with anti-semitism. "They knew they were fighting landlordism, not Jews," the Worker reported. Such was the residents' tenacity that in the end an exasperated Himmelschein withdrew his court action to evict the tenants and gave up on collecting £200 of unpaid rent. In the face of all the adverse publicity London County Council agreed to rehouse all the tenants in new council estates at East Dulwich and Brockley. It was a complete victory over the landlord and the council. My father told me the Nigel Buildings rent strike was the first successful one in the capital, if not the country'.
There's more on this at Hayes People's History. It mentions there that 'In 1931 a Workers Defense Movement (a left wing grouping) was established in Camberwell it was active in preventing evictions, most notably during the 1932 Rent Strike at Wakefield House, Goldsmith Estate, Peckham. The Camberwell WDM was also active in support of Hunger Marchers and unemployed'. An article about Peckham-born Alf Maunders (1908-1991) at Communist Biogs (written by his son Dick) says that he'was also part of the Communist anti-fascist organisation at the battle of Cable Street. He also helped to organise anti-fascist actions in Camberwell and Peckham against Mosley’s Blackshirts and William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw). He always enjoyed telling the story of how Joyce, when climbing on a lorry to speak at the Heaton Arms in Peckham, was swiftly felled by a flying bottle and carried off unconscious never to return'.
There's a bit of confusion over the date - the Morning Star article says the Peckham rent strike was in 1935, the Hayes People's History site has it down as 1931. I think 1935 is probably correct as the author had plainly been consulting Daily Worker archives, so must have known the dates (plus Mosley's British Union of Fascists wasn't formed until 1932). The 1931/32 rent strikes were in council housing elsewhere in Peckham, including on Goldsmith Road.
(photos sourced from Hayes People's History, some great 1930s Peckham faces)