In the years leading up to the Second World War, Britain witnessed the development of an unparalleled housing movement. It not only brought together different types of housing struggle in different parts of the country, but also linked these to socialist struggles for a more equal society. The most active place within this movement was also one of the places with the worst housing: the East End of London. Campaigns here were carefully orchestrated to challenge the antisemitism propagated by Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and to undermine support for fascism more generally. Like other struggles from the 1930s, these campaigns have growing relevance today. Four decades of neoliberalism has promoted a resurgence of private renting and produced fertile ground for the regrowth of right-wing populism.
In the 1930s, most people rented their homes from private landlords, and there were serious problems with poor standards of accommodation and maintenance, as well as unaffordable rents. During the First World War, in 1915, rent strikes had forced the government to bring in rent controls, but these were gradually lifted in the interwar years. As a result, in the same building, there might be tenants on controlled rents and other more recent tenancies where households paid much more.
The 1930s housing movement had a broad mass base – spanning Birmingham, Huddersfield, Liverpool, Aberdeen, Sunderland, and Oxford, as well as many different parts of London – and continued to grow until the outbreak of the Second World War. The organised left – especially the Communist Party – played a vital role. In response to Hitler’s rise to power, the Communists had turned towards a Popular Font policy of working with other ‘progressive’ bodies, and their organisation gave them an influence disproportionate to their numbers. They also widened their reach by moving beyond workplace struggles to organise the Unemployed Workers’ Movement, housing campaigns, and opposition to fascism. Dedicated grassroots organisation – to address immediate problems and build support – was combined with pressure for immediate reform and with arguments for more fundamental societal change. In the housing movement, the Communist Party and their fellow travellers provided practical organisation and co-ordination, as well as putting forward alternative policy proposals and supplying political analysis. Communist Party activists argued that without wholesale change in the social system, significant and lasting improvements to housing – or anything else – would not be possible. Through their meetings, pamphlets, and newspapers, they encouraged those who became involved in housing campaigns to make links with a wider criticism of capitalism.
Activists helped tenants ensure that their landlords adhered to existing laws, but they also campaigned for the retention and extension of rent control and for more investment in council housing. Successful responses to immediate crises gave the movement the support necessary to move onto the offensive. As in the housing struggles of 1915, the most potent weapon was the rent strike. Like with labour strikes, it was important that the majority of tenants took part. Most campaigns targeted private landlords, but there was a massive rent strike of council tenants in Birmingham and even a mortgage strike, to protest poor construction, by a growing group of lower middle-class homeowners. One of the organisers of the mortgage strike, Communist Party member, Elsy Borders, argued her case through the courts right up to the House of Lords.
The movement is best known through the account given by Phil Piratin, who played a leading role in the East End and was subsequently elected Communist MP for Mile End in 1945. Writing with the aim of educating and inspiring future activists, he compared the tenants’ organisation to a trade union and described the tenants’ committees as acting like shop stewards’ committees. Memories from others who were involved reveal that Piratin’s account is a bit too tidy and glosses over earlier disagreements about the role of housing activism, but they concur on the essence of what happened and its importance.
Both the housing movement and the Communist Party were exceptionally strong in the East End of London. With its endemic poverty and large Jewish community, this area also provided a fertile recruiting ground for the British Union of Fascists (BUF), who blamed ‘the Jews’ for every social ill. In opposition to fascism and antisemitism, the tenants’ movement sought to highlight and address the underlying socio-economic causes of poor housing. They aimed to persuade tenants that their problems were not due to their Jewish neighbours and instead argued that landlords systematically exploited them all. In the 1930s, the Communist Party also played a leading role in preventing British fascists from controlling the East End streets – including at the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ – and they supported the Republican resistance to General Franco in Spain.
In 1937, the threat of evictions at Paragon Mansions, a tenement block in Mile End, provided an opportunity to build and showcase working-class unity against landlords. Communist Party activists discovered that the two families facing eviction were both members of the BUF, which had done nothing to help them. (The BUF did not target landlords. They had no wish to disrupt exploitive class relations.) The activists organised the tenants of the building to come together in support of their neighbours and resist the evictions. Bailiffs and police were forbidden entry and doused in mouldy flour and water from the balcony over the entrance; and the landlord was persuaded to allow time for proper negotiations. The wider public was kept informed of what was happening through a soap-box meeting on the day and a subsequent pamphlet. Piratin comments: ‘The kind of people who would never come to our meetings, and had strange ideas about Communists and Jews, learnt the facts overnight…’
The following summer, at Bethnal Green’s Quinn Square, East End activists moved onto the offensive with a rent strike to demand a reduction in rents and proper maintenance. Although the initial spark was the discovery that tenants who were meant to be paying controlled rents were being overcharged, the strike called for fair rents for everyone, including those whose rents were not controlled. After two weeks of strike action, the landlords accepted the strikers’ demands. Importantly, this was an area where the fascists were strong, and there were even BUF members among the tenants. Although fascists tried to break up the first big tenants’ meeting, they found that they were not welcome.
Strikes soon spread across the East End, with every success demonstrating the importance of collective action and encouraging others to become involved. A 1939 Communist Party film of the strike in Flower and Dean Street Buildings documents how a rent strike was organised. Tenants first discussed their rent and conditions together, before putting their case to the Stepney Tenants’ Defence League to ask for support. The League helped them to organise a committee and send an ultimatum to the landlord threatening a strike if rents were not lowered and repairs done. Once the strike had started, picketers kept watch for rent collectors, and the latest developments were discussed in courtyard meetings. Public marches, including a parade outside the landlord’s comfortable home in North London, shamed the landlord and publicised the strike action. Eventually, the borough council got the landlord to meet with the tenants and he agreed to carry out repairs and lower the rents from eighteen shillings and six pence to thirteen and six.
While some landlords conceded quickly and others chose to give in without a fight, the owners of Langdale and Brady Mansions, in Stepney, held out for 21 weeks. The Langdale and Brady tenants’ committee was entirely made up of women. Women were often at home when men were out at work and had close community networks. As a result, they formed the backbone of the strikes, often running the committees as well as physically protecting their homes from bailiffs and police; although they were very much underrepresented in the movement’s leadership.
The landlords of both Flower and Dean Street Buildings and Langdale and Brady Mansions seem to have been Jewish. Jewish tenants and the Communist Party – which had many Jewish members – made it clear that the movement campaigned against landlords on a class basis, regardless of ethnicity or religion. Max Levitas, who lived in Brady Mansions and later became a Communist Party councillor, continued to fight against fascism until his death in 2018, aged 103. In an interview, he explained to me:
We were fighting the Jewish landlords the same way as we’d fight any landlord that increases rents, doesn’t care if he repairs flats, so forth and so on… this helped to develop a much more broader understanding and [to unite] the struggle against Mosley and the fascists.
To help spread their news and ideas, the Communist Party’s Unity Theatre group produced a play – Enough of All This! A Rent Strike Play – written by Simon Blumenfeld. The play included a speech by a Jewish Secretary of a Tenants’ League, addressed to Irish Catholic tenants, in which he drove home a message of inter-ethnic accord, stating that ‘we ordinary people are the real England’.
In looking for lessons for today, we have to acknowledge that, in most situations, mass rent strikes like those of the late ‘30s would not be possible. Often there is no common landlord and many tenants rely on Universal Credit, which allows landlords to apply for direct payments. However, there have been successful rent strikes in student halls of residence, especially in the context of Covid-19 lockdowns. And solidarity remains vital, for both collective action and supporting individual households against their landlord. Living Rent, in Scotland, and other housing groups under the Acorn umbrella, provide current examples of trade-union style tenants’ organisations. Living Rent has also taken a leading role in fighting for decent housing options for asylum seekers.
Just as in the 1930s, tenant resistance is weakened when people are persuaded that their problems are not the result of an overall lack of decent housing, but instead are due to ‘outsiders’. And today, racism is again being bolstered by an active far-right. The campaigns described in this article provide a model for addressing racism and fascism directly, enabling effective action for all tenants and defending those targeted by racists. Political understanding and united struggle remain as important now as they were then.