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Derrick Jarman - St Pancras Rent Strike

The 1959/60 St Pancras council tenant rent strike is relatively well known. It came about through tenants’ opposition to the St Pancras Conservative Council’s decision to implement a rent scheme that set maximum and minimum rents based on the rateable value of their properties. The impact of the scheme was massivel rent increases and council rents being brought up to levels set for private tenants in the 1957 Rent Act.

St Pancras was a large borough stretching from Highgate southwards down to Kings Cross and Regents Park. It was one of three Metropolitan boroughs that later, in 1965, joined to become the London Borough of Camden; the other two being - Holborn and Hampstead. Most of the population of St Pancras was working class. It had over 8000 council homes. Parts of it were also quite wealthy.

I was still at school at the time of the strikes – but I remember seeing a sign up in Islip Street saying 10/- extra a week is too much (that was the increase tenants there were being asked to pay). I remember marches with thousands of people and watched barricades and barbed wire going up at Kannestoun House where they tried to stop the bailiffs getting in to evict one of the key tenant leaders. Even in the early stages of the campaign there was a march of 4000 tenants from Kentish Town down to the St Pancras Town Hall in Euston Road.

Tenants associations were rapidly being set up and together they formed the St Pancras Borough Council United Tenants Association (UTA) through which they organised their campaign. UTA was a forerunner for the Camden Federation of Tenants and Residents Associations of which I’m currently the vice chair. UTA set up committees in each of the block and produced leaflets and posters to make sure everyone knew what was going on.

Two of tenants were eventually evicted – Don Cook and Arthur Rowe. Don Cook had put together an early resolution demanding the withdrawal of the rent scheme. He argued that tenants should stand together, should not to fill in means test forms and should support any household threatened with eviction. Tenants called on the borough's ratepayers and trade unions to support tenants on this issue.

The tenant campaign was well organised, with women going out during the evenings to knock on councillors doors and a petition was signed by 16,000. Still though the council would not negotiate and so in January 1960 tenants started to withhold the rent increases. At first – around 80% were not paying the increases, but of course that gradually reduced.

The council eventually started eviction proceedings. UTA though thought it would be easier to defend the homes of just a few people who were threatened with eviction and so, in the end, most of the arrears were paid off and only three cases, and later two, (Cook and Rowe) remained.

Barricades went up at the homes of these two, but there were plans for people to act as barricades too – of tenants and some sympathetic trade unionists offered help. Banners with ‘No Evictions’ and Force the Council to Negotiate’ were hung up across the balconies.

i remember when the bailiffs did eventually turn up, they came with the fire brigade and the police; hundreds of them. It stopped supporters being able to get anywhere near to the homes to help. After their evictions, over 14,000 people went to demonstrate outside the St Pancras Town Hall on the Euston Road. They had to face a cordon of around a thousand police – many on horses or in Black Marias, who eventually ploughed their way into the crowd. There were a lot of arrests and obviously people were injured.

Don Cook was later re-housed, but despite the promises made by the next Labour Party administration (who gained power in 1962) to get rid of the rent increases, that just didn’t happen.

Some links to more on the rent strikes:

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