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Tuesday, 21 May 2013 00:00

The Nigel buildings rent strike

by Richard Maunders

As Britain faces a new housing crisis we can learn from an occasion when tenants banded together to beat their landlord - and won new council housing

The Tories' savage bedroom tax, which is already seeing families across Britain falling behind with the rent and has led to at least one suicide, is one of the most dangerous attacks on the welfare state yet launched.

Opposition to it is swelling across the country but to defeat the policy will take co-ordinated mass action by tenants.

In that light we might want to look back at tenant actions against rent increases and unacceptable living conditions in the past. Such action occurred regularly in Britain before the second world war.

During the Depression of the 1930s tenants' protests - in which women often took the leading role - often resulted in rent strikes and the occupation of barricaded tenements.

One notable strike took place in Peckham in 1935 and resulted in victory for the tenants.

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.

It was a real example of "people's democracy," and of what can be achieved when people get organised and decide to run their own communities.

With the return of exploitative landlordism in our cities, spiralling rents, the housing crisis and the often terrible condition of flats rented out to immigrants and minority communities, tenants can learn from this example of resistance.

Organised, we can stop exploitation by private landlords and demand the building of more affordable council homes.

The Tories rely on us believing that resistance is futile. Let's prove them wrong.

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