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‘Paradise made from rubble’: Memories of squatting life in Hackney

PUBLISHED: 17:38 19 October 2016 | UPDATED: 17:47 19 October 2016

The Ghetto, Ellingfort Road. Tom Hunter

The Ghetto, Ellingfort Road. Tom Hunter

Archant

As protesters occupy the old Camelot HQ in Hoxton, Emma Bartholomew explores Hackney’s squatting history – and finds some surprises.

Tom's friends in the squatting community Tom's friends in the squatting community

Turn back the clock two or three decades and many of today’s “des res” Georgian houses in Hackney were inhabited by squatters. Indeed, some are only standing to this day because squatters saved them from demolition.

Artist Tom Hunter played a part in saving the London Fields squatting community where he lived, which is depicted in his huge photographic model – now on display in the Museum of London.

Hackney Council had compulsory purchased the homes in Ellingfort Road and London Lane to make way for a frozen chicken factory.

Tom Hunter with his sculpure, The Ghetto, modelled on the squatted streets in London Fields Tom Hunter with his sculpure, The Ghetto, modelled on the squatted streets in London Fields

But squatters had moved into the empty homes and created a thriving community, where chickens and goats were kept in the gardens, and cinema nights and parties were held in an old warehouse.

Bands including the Asian Dub Foundation would turn up to play. Mr Nice author Howard Marks came to give a talk on drug smuggling and protest parties were held at the then-derelict London Fields Lido to push for it to reopen.

It was a far cry from the “crime-ridden, derelict ghetto” and “blot on the landscape” a developer dubbed it in a Gazette article (top-right) in 1994 – which inspired Tom to create his artwork to destroy the “negative stereotypical view” of squatting.

"Our backs were against the wall and we had nowhere to live, and we made this little paradise"

Tom Hunter

Tom had lived in the squat since the late ’80s when he was working as a tree surgeon. After replying to an ad at the London College of Furniture, he and his girlfriend were given the top level of a four-storey house by an “honest guy who just wanted someone to share with”. “You wanted to have at least three people and you always wanted one person to be in the house at any time,” he remembered. “It sounds very glamorous now but it was also scary. There was no security.”

He soon realised the house next door was also squatted, and the house next door to that, then the three opposite – before he realised there was a “whole community of Hackney squatters”.

Fast Show comedians Paul Whitehouse and Harry Enfield lived in Well Street. And Baader-Meinhof member Astrid Proll lived around the corner in Lamb Lane, going under the alias Anna.

She would fix squatters’ cars and vans, teach mechanics and play pool at The Dolphin in Mare Street for four years while there was a European-wide warrant out for her arrest. Meanwhile German terrorist and Stasi informer Michael Baumann was arrested in a squat in Upper Clapton.

Tom fondly remembers a “strong community of people”, “all looking out for each other”. Inhabitants ranged from labourers to teachers, artists and even lawyers.

“Because of the adversity of them trying to evict us, everyone came together,” he said. “Our backs were against the wall and we had nowhere to live, and we made this little paradise. The houses were derelict but out of the rubble we built something to be proud of.

The Hackney Gazette news story which inspired Tom Hunter's sculpture, The Ghetto The Hackney Gazette news story which inspired Tom Hunter's sculpture, The Ghetto

“None of us had any money at that time and it felt like you didn’t need anything to live on. It felt like you could live off your energy and enthusiasm.” But, he added: “There were muggings and it was quite a tumultuous place to live. It was rough, violent and dangerous. I think that’s why we came together and looked after each other.”

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