Peckham Rent Strike 1931
Born in Peckham in 1908, Alf joined the Communist Party in its founding years.
He was a local organiser of the National Unemployed Workers Movement and a comrade of Wally Hannington.
Amongst many struggles, he was involved in the occupation of the Cafe Royal by the unemployed and a number of fierce battles with the police in Hyde Park in the 1930s.
The first decisive tenants’ battles had been in 1915, when a mass rent strike on the Clyde sparked a major movement across Britain, which was especially led by women. In the run up to the end of the First World War major actions followed in Leeds and Bradford followed suit. Within a year rent strikes were being called across Britain.
When strikes were called in Woolwich and parts of south London, in Handsworth and Lozells in Birmingham, munitions industry bosses were so worried that they forced Lloyd George to order local rents to be reduced. Some 1,000 tenants struck in Edmonton, and protests in Barrow against evictions led to copycat actions in Workington and Coventry. This movement won the first legal controls on landlords raising rents. The next decade saw a major growth in the social housing sector, which for a time diminished the need for such major tenants’ actions.
The Communist Party had been at the heart of this struggle fifteen to twenty years before Alf joined the Party. But, as a youth, he surely would have been more than conscious of the experience of the generation before him. As the recession bit hard in Britain, from 1931, private tenants saw racked rents and insufficient investment made slum conditions worse. The London Communist Party in particular once again thrust itself into tenants’ struggles and scores of epic struggles ensued.
This new phase began with the struggle to improve the lot of the tenants of the privately owned Nigel Buildings. These were a notorious run down series of tenement blocks that were infested with vermin in Peckham, south-east London, now in the borough of Southwark.
The landlord increased the rent by a penny a week and so Alf organised the tenants to withhold their rent. Barricades against the bailiffs were erected around the buildings and local people organised to bring in food and supplies. After several months (one source speaks of the longest of such strikes being of 21 weeks during, and this may well be the Nigel Buildings affair), unsuccessful attempts by bailiffs and police (including mounted police) seeking to storm the barricaded tenements, the landlords gave in and reduced the rent. Alf was arrested and imprisoned for assaulting a bailiff at some point in the struggle
Copycat actions now spread across the capital, especially in London’s East End (Stepney). Women once again were at the heart of the tenants' fightback, during the course of which the Communist Party helped local tenants fight against slum conditions and extortionate rents. Future Communist MP, Phil Piratin, wrote, “Tens of thousands of working class men and women had organised themselves for common struggle ... committees were formed, and hundreds of people who had never been on a committee and had no experience of organisation or politics learned those things, and learned them well.”
Following Nigel Buildings, it became the norm in tenants’ struggles in London to barricade the housing blocks to keep out rent collectors, bailiffs and the police. Sentries were posted day and night. Tenants defended themselves with saucepans, rolling pins, sticks and shovels. The rent strikes were epics and gained national publicity, resulting in a wave of emulation around the country. A government feeling vulnerable on the eve of war once again had to give in to tenants' demands. Rents were cut and evictions halted
A few years later, militant rent struggles were emulated by the Communist Party in Birmingham amongst thousands of council house tenants in 1939, and reprised in London and throughout the provinces in the squatters’ movement immediately after the end of the war in 1945.
Aside from his role in the tenants’ movement, Alf was also part of the Communist anti-fascist organisation at the battle of Cable Street. He also helped to organise anti-fascist actions in Camberwell and Peckham against Mosley’s Blackshirts and William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw). He always enjoyed telling the story of how Joyce, when climbing on a lorry to speak at the Heaton Arms in Peckham, was swiftly felled by a flying bottle and carried off unconscious never to return. I suspect it was he that threw the bottle at Joyce but he would never admit it!
Around 1935, after accepting a challenge from the local Tory MP to go to the Soviet Union he was offered a one way ticket! Alf travelled overland to Moscow and attended a reception within the Kremlin. He met Kalinin and Dimitrov, a fact of which he was very proud, and often recounted the story of how Stalin entered the room and walked by smiling. Alf joined a British trade union delegation in Red Square to watch a Red Army parade. He also met a young Mao Tse Tung on the platform. On returning to Britain, he had to travel secretly across Nazi Germany with the help of German CP members. Whilst in Hamburg, he was nearly captured by the Gestapo and was smuggled across the North Sea on a tug.
After serving in the RAF during the war, as a skilled carpenter/joiner in the post-war period he took part in many industrial disputes as a shop steward for the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers, and was blacklisted on several building sites. Alf supported the Soviet Union over the 1956 Hungary and 1968 Czechoslovakia events, believing that an enemy of the Soviet Union was an enemy of the working class.
A firm Marxist-Leninist, he was not a great lover of the “British Road”, arguing that the capitalist class would never give up power by peaceful means. A lifelong reader and supporter of the Daily Worker and Morning Star, Alf passed away aged 84 in 1991.
In 1931 a Workers Defense Movement (a left wing grouping) was established in Camberwell it was active in preventing evictions, most notably during the 1932 Rent Strike at Wakefield House, Goldsmith Estate, Peckham. The Camberwell WDM was also active in support of Hunger Marchers and unemployed.
The leader of the Stepney 1938-1939 strikers was Communist Councillor Maurice "Tuby" Rosen. the Stepney Tenants Defence League (STDL) had been established in 1936. with sporadic strikes from 1935
others included the Communist Party's Housing expert Michael Shapiro, Phil Piratin (later MP) Sarah Wesker, Bertha Sokoloff, Wolfy Millee. The STDL even had two full time CP organisers Harry Conn and Ella Donovan. by 1940 it had 11,000 members.
Tubby Rosen was also involved in the Communist inspired squatters movement after the War, notably at Duchess of Bedford House, Kensington High Street on September 8th 1946. This resulted in a famous Old Bailey court case against the leaders, Tubby Rosen along with Bill Carritt, Joyce Alergant, Stan Henderson and Ted Bramley October 30th to 31st 1946.
Simon Blumerfield's play "Enough of all this" is based on the strikes