Saturday, December 06, 2008

Brighton Vigilantes in New Cross, 1945

Life magazine has recently released its excellent archive of photographs on to the internet via Google. There are some astounding images, but searching the collection under 'New Cross' throws up just one hit - this photograph of 'Harry Cowley (C), Harold Steer (L) and Ernest Bradley (3R), leaders of the Brighton Vigilantes, arriving at the New Cross Gate railway station' in August 1945.

The Brighton Vigilantes were a group set up at the end of the Second World War to take direct action for the homeless - expropriating empty buildings to rehouse the families of ex-servicemen. In effect they pioneered the post-war squatting movement. As a result of their initiative, the Government gave local councils the power to requistion unused residences. Harry Cowley, who founded the group, was also involved in fighting fascists in the streets of Brighton.

All of which begs the question - what were they doing in New Cross in 1945? The obvious answer would be that at that time you could get a train direct from Brighton to New Cross, so they may have just been passing through on a visit to London. There were housing seizures in London on similar lines to the Brighton Vigilante movement, but I don't know whether this spread to South East London - anybody know more?


Anonymous said...

that's a fantastic photo

squatters today could learn a lot from these chaps, both in terms of appearance & social purpose

Transpontine said...

yeah, guy on the left looks particularly sharp.

Monkeyboy said...

From a review of Andrew Marr's "A History of Modern Britain"

...People made homeless by the war were taking over empty houses in London. He was intrigued. In newspaper archives, he found similar stories appearing like a rash throughout that summer. "In Chalfont St Giles and obscure towns in Wales and very much in places like Scunthorpe - I tracked them all." Marr lapses into a newsman's historic present. Police are sent to sort out squatters in West End mansion blocks. Nonplussed, they make them urns of tea and bread and butter instead. All very English. Nervous Labour Government cracks down. Police are ordered to put up barricades and starve them out.

"And what do Londoners do?" Marr asks hotly, on the edge of his seat. "They start to arrive in huge crowds and throw rations over. They throw tea and bread and chocolate. I suddenly realised I had seen all this in Passport to Pimlico." Exit Marr to check archive film - and there it all was, 18 months before the Ealing comedy was made. "That was the moment of eureka. The rebelliousness of the British!"

... A good book for numpties like me who never bothered with history before and are trying to catch up. He's a bit overly fond of Thatcher but still worth a read.

Anonymous said...

How did the Brighton Vigilantes relate to gangsterism? The use of squads specialising in physical force, 'called in' for the occasion, led to the heavies' takeover of workers' organisation in the US. [1] Bye-bye workers' combination, hello mafia. Organised boxing played a role.

People can praise Autonomist punishment of especially vicious managers in Italy in the early 1970s, but it's very unlikely that there wasn't crap involved at that time which fed into the subsequent disaster. Of course this shouldn't detract from its positive and healthy side.

Interesting to read that the Brighton Vigilantes fought for 'traders' rights'. What was that all about? Nowadays much of the private rented sector in Brighton is controlled by Hoogstraten and his organisation. You gotta wonder whether the ex-servicemen who were helped by the vigilantes were expected to provide payback in some way. By working? In helping criminal business in one way or another? By paying rent, eventually? Dependency on physical-force specialists isn't a nice position to be in.

The key question is what happened to the properties in the few years beginning when they were squatted. Certainly Brighton has loads of empty houses after WW2, and it is impossible that big gangster-biz interests didn't look for business opportunities. What happened?

Perhaps public bodies bought all the properties from the existing owners? Or what? Were they later grouped into the portfolio of some Mr Big? Maybe some speculators were anti-Cowley and others weren't? I once heard Hoogstraten say that if the authorities didn't like how he managed his properties, they were welcome to buy them all of him.

Might the praise of the Vigilantes by Time Warner which owns 'Time' magazine not be a contradiction?

I don't know a lot about the vigilantes, but I'm sceptical. I saw that Colin Ward enthused about them and the local Stalinists didn't. Maybe the local Stalinists were right?

The Vigilantes also 'helped' people by providing furniture. Might debt have been involved somewhere along the line?

The Vigilantes' opposition to the Mosleyite fascists sheds no light on how they related to gangsterism.[2]

Anyway maybe I'll read the book "Who was Harry Cowley?"

What would be really interesting to read would be an account by someone who wasn't "one of Harry's men", but who was helped by them.

One of the buses in Brighton nowadays is named after Cowley. Presumably this is done with the OK of some guys at the council - an organisation which is well in with Hoogstraten.

Andrew Marr? Like yeah, right.


(1) In the Blackhill area of Glasgow, near where I used to live, the Thompson crime family, which controlled the area, was also known to 'help' some people with housing problems.

Aside: it was speculated at the time that Michael Martin, then MP for Springburn, was involved with them in some way. As a local Labour bigwig in an area with a local Labour council signing off some big contracts (and eagerly promoting the night-club economy), he probably was. Leftie Labour types suspected it but weren't in a position to go ahead with saying very much.

Meanwhile the anarchists knew Militant were a bunch of heavies (more locally-based than the Thompsons). The stories that later surfaced about Sheridan were true. Most anarchos were pro Militant, though, or not interested in rocking the anarchist boat, given that the anarcho leaders wouldn't touch the issue and many anarcho leaders were friends with the Militant heavies in the first place. The minority who were anti this stuff weren't in a strong enough position to face up to it - which is understandable. Interesting nonetheless that the Belfast anarchists, surviving in even heavier conditions (and under the shadow of repuglican heavies whom they weren't in a position to oppose, were much more sussed about the role of Militant and 'Tommy the Tout' (as they called him) in Glasgow.

(2) Once upon a time there were some public schoolboy anarcho situ types in London who did a pamphlet praising Harry Roberts as a "working class hero". I hope I've still got a copy somewhere, because it was one of the most ridiculous anarcho/ultra-leftie pamphlets I've ever had.

Anonymous said...

Hmm - just found out about the well-funded LARC clone in Brighton called the 'Cowley Club'.

I'd rather drink from the arse of a goat than give those people anything but a wide berth!

Anonymous said...

Apologies for the multiple posting. Two quick things.

As someone who has been homeless myself for periods adding up to about 3 years, I would think very hard before accepting 'help' from a guy called "The Guv'nor" who was known city-wide for being in charge of a group of strong-armed "his men".

Also, it wouldnt surprise me if the rich-boy "Cowley Club" in Brighton started to go on about how Harry Cowley supported "traders" against "shop-owners" who charged higher prices. It is a fact that he did do exactly that; it is also a fact that Brighton barrow-boys were highly organised, and what one is really talking about is a protection racket. No trader charges lower prices out of the kindness of his heart. It's business.

I'm sure the LARC/Cowley Club types don't like today's supermarkets for various reasons, which have nothing to do with working class people's food bills but everything to do with the anti-industrial, even anti-most-banks, green, Triodos-Bank-linked aims of a very rich section of the bourgeoisie...

Transpont is a funny name. My family are from dirt-poor Lambeth (Duke of Edinburgh terraces) and I've always seen south of the river as THIS side, not the OTHER side. :-)

Transpontine said...

Ban, you seem to making some quite wide political points and allegations on the basis of very little. Must admit I would be sceptical about any organisation calling itself the Vigilantes (and generally agree with you about 'Gangsterism'), but it seems to be there's a lot of difference between landlords like Hoogstraten and people taking over empty property for the homeless. Do you have any evidence at all that Cowley & Co. were in league with landlords or debt collectors?

Anonymous said...

No - just speculation. Mixed with some realistic interpretation. E.g. "Cowley's men" among the barrow boys setting up stalls outside greengrocers' shops to undercut the shopowners smells very much like a protection racket or turf war to my nostrils.

My grandfather for a time co-ran a cafe in outer south London and practically every small business was paying protection money. That was in the 1950s. I just cannot believe the organised barrow boy thing was principally about helping impoverished customers.

Absolutely agree with what you say about Hoogstraten. Hoogstraten is the sort of gangster Mr Big who has never helped anyone. I am sure Cowley's organisation (even if we're not supposed to call it a gang) helped many people; and that contradictions were involved which have never been a factor with Hoogstraten, who even on the worst possible interpretation of Cowley is much bigger.

Interestingly the Cowley Centre people refer to Cowley as a "gangster scam artist". I guess that's meant to show some sort of grasp of contradictions, even if punters are supposed to leave it at that and just get into the image.

Brighton pre-WW2 and post-WW2 was heavily ridden with gangsterism. On its release in 1947 the film Brighton Rock had a board at the beginning explaining that its depiction of gang crime (based on Graham Greene's 1939 novel) was all in the past, now that the city had been completely cleaned up. A total lie.

It's also known that large numbers of houses were empty in Brighton after the war, and that this was not the case 5 years later. The squatting movement disappeared. What happened? Did loads of properties change hands? Maybe there was a contestation of how landlords and their enforcers maintained their power? Must be an interesting story, both in terms of tenants' conditions and on the other side of the class divide.

I mentioned Hoogstraten because he has owned a big proportion of privately rented properties in the town for a long time - maybe 30 years? If the post-WW2 squatting movement in Brighton is interesting, it can only be in the context of the overall history...

Another angle - might there be a connection between the Vigilantes and the 43 Group? I ask completely speculatively. Most of the 43 Group were ex-servicemen; so were most of the Brighton Vigilantes. Brighton was also one of the places where the 43 Group were involved in punch-ups with post-WW2 fascists . Third, Brighton has a large Jewish population, and I wonder whether those market traders who acted so threateningly towards the greengrocers may perhaps have been mainly Jewish? Of course it may also have been that most of the greengrocers were also Jewish, for all I know! As Albert Meltzer has pointed out, one of the reasons the fascists were defeated in the East End of London was that Jewish and non-Jewish slum tenants came together against Jewish and non-Jewish slumlords, despite the wishes and propaganda of the fascists.

According to this source, both the 43 Group and their punch-up opponents the Mosleyite fascists of the post-WW2 Union Movement were assisted by gangsters. One of the gangsters funding the 43ers was Jack Spot. Spot was one of the biggest bosses in the London underworld up until the early 1950s (up there with Billy Hill), and had been involved in fighting Mosleyites since the 1930s.

Too often, labour history, popular history, call it what you like, misses out massive factors that were well-known to everyone at the time...

Fred Vest's suggestion that squatters should dress like wiseguys is funny, though, given that most of them are seriously into dressing down, even if his choice of nickname causes me a sense of humour failure.

I bet you those guys didn't turn up in New Cross just to go to a picture at the Kinema!!!


Anonymous said...

Here's a photo of Harry Cowley addressing a large crowd at Speakers' Corner in London (including uniformed sailors) under the "Brighton Vigilantes" banner. The guy to the left holding a Union Jack may be part of the crowd, part of the act, or just some other speaker entirely. The guy to his left and down a bit, though, looks to be part of Cowley's audience.

Looking at some of the other photos...where did the Vigilantes get all that furniture from?? You would have thought most impoverished working class people at that time, just moving out of homelessness, wouldn't have been hugely bothered about doing without carpets etc. at least for a while; and would have been at least a little bit concerned about accepting favours from guys who could lay their hands on some and were ready to 'give' them away.

I wish I knew some old boys or old girls from Brighton to ask about this stuff!

Transpontine said...

I think it is highly likely that there were links between the 43 Group and the Vigilantes - they were both in the business of physically confronting fascists. It may be true that the 43 Group had some support from Jack Spot (it may not be true), but that doesn't make them equivalent to the fascists. Has there ever been a social movement without contradictions? You are right though that social historians do sometimes miss some of this stuff - for instance lots has already been written about dance music in the 1980s and 90s without acknowledging that many of the clubs were run by gangsters.

Anonymous said...

Agreed, but physically confronting fascists doesn't mean an organisation has anything good about it or was any better than the fascists.

Not that the fascists should be the main thing that other stuff is compared and contrasted with.

In the East End of London, the fascists were strongly 'involved in housing issues' (it was their main thing in that area), and although they failed (most East Enders didn't back them), I wouldn't be at all surprised if they 'punished' a few landlords.

Best in all circumstances to realise that dealing with contradictions doesn't involve doling out labels saying everything is 'equivalent'. But the market - and the protection of markets - always does involve activities and actions grounded on the 'general equivalent'. This is where e.g. Tony Wilson was coming from, and it couldn't have been otherwise.

And the people who prance about dealing in ideologies always have positions which depend on other people's passivity.

If the trust-fund 'anti-capitalists' in Brighton (a pox on them and their ilk) can name their centre after Harry Cowley, maybe their counterparts in Whitechapel at LARC could consider naming theirs after Jack Spot, 'working class hero of the battle of Cable Street'? :-)

It is an absolute truism, but working class struggle needs no heroes. Or in other words, the 'working class heroes' are people whose names do not go down in the 'history' books, whether 'labour' or 'popular' or otherwise.

(Though a personal favourite of mine among people I never met is Regina Fischer, who among other stuff was the only person to stop the scab bus at Grunwicks - when she was in her 60s. I doubt whether Triodos would give me some no-strings money to write her biography though!)


Anonymous said...

"lots has already been written about dance music in the 1980s and 90s without acknowledging that many of the clubs were run by gangsters."

Can you say some more about this? The world ecstasy trade is known to be owned by mobsters from Israel.

Detourning Vaneigem: 'everything is said about club culture except what it fundamentally is'.

Any stuff you've experienced relating to gangsters in the clubs would be very interesting.

They must have made a huge pile of money from ecstasy over the past 20 years, what with their countrywide network of outlets (sold as dance clubs) and highly effective marketing to portray consumption of their product as "normal". The name too was a very successful choice. Practically no problems from law enforcement whatsoever. A massively successful business operation...


Beam said...

Some interesting points. Harry Cowley is largely considered a philanthropist. Where did his money or influence come from? He was`a chimney sweep and an orator. Very interested to see Life photo and would also like to speak to someone with first hand experience of the Brighton Vigilantes and the Battle of the Level. Where Moseleys organised march was ended prematurely by BV and 43 Group. This ended fascist meetings in Brighton for some 10 plus years.

Dawn Bradley said...

I am Ernie Bradleys daughter I see a lot of negative comments about the vigilantes. There is no mention of my dad and Harry fighting for the Widows Pension which many widows now have and dont know how they got it.

Transpontine said...

Good to hear from you Dawn, you have every right to be proud of what your father achieved.

Dawn Bradley said...

This is Dawn Bradley again have yet to find the cafe is it still there and do they have plenty of photos there.
I remember when I was a young girl they broke into a house that had been empty for many years in Blaker Street Brighton, and installed a lady and her children in there the neighbours praised the vigilantes for doing it. None of them had money but believed in what they were doing helping dead soldiers wives in any way they could no money involved but I remember lots of talks with the council. Who did nothing. The Vigilantes worked to help the people with no monetry benefits Bless the lot of them they made a lot of families very happy.

Unknown said...

Super interesting, didn't know much of this, would like to learn more. Would like to hear from Dawn Bradley especially.