Consider how it must have been after the Second World War for millions of families who were all desperate for somewhere to live – somewhere ‘fit for purpose’, many having lost everything during the wartime London Blitz and similar devastation across the country. House building on a grand scale was promised by the post-war Labour government, but it was taking too long and in many ways falling short of what was needed.
It should be no surprise then that some people chose to take the situation into their own hands. Shortly after the war ended – in the summer of 1945 – a group of people in Brighton decided to solve the housing crisis by ‘commandeering any house that is empty and installing in it a family in need of accommodation.’ These squatters called themselves the ‘Vigilantes’.
A year on, what had started as small-scale developed into something much more significant. Newspaper headlines in 1946 reported that ’43 families out of 100 are wanting a new home’ – clearly the situation was dire. And so people started to look to disused military camps. In some parts of the country ex-soldiers led the way, but the concept spread across the country, with some 40,000 people occupying over a thousand camps.
And then it was the turn of empty hotels and mansions – particularly in London.
This growing squatters’ movement added to the pressure already felt by the new Labour government who must have been loath to attempt eviction of ‘war heroes’. And so some local authorities and even central government provided financial assistance to help make the military camps more habitable, enabling them to remain as homes on into the 1950s.
At the same time though public and political opinion was mixed, leading to the Home Office drafting a new law that made squatting a criminal offence, with guards placed in empty buildings across London to prevent unlawful access.
Nevertheless, squatting would continue across the country and across the decades, but it’s interesting to note the thoughts of one social historian regarding the late 1940s movement…
‘…after the war, the acts of the squatters were as close as Britain came to revolution […] it is clear that they were a movement only in the sense that they were inspired by the example of others… as class warriors; as victims of the Labour government, fighting for their rights; as respectable people doing what any young families would in their situation…’Webber, H. (2012) ‘A Domestic Rebellion: The Squatters’ Movement of 1946’ Ex Historia