London: Quinn Square Rent Strike 1938

Quinn Square Rent Strike 1938

London’s East End battle against high rents and slum conditions

Jack Palmer

The women’s poster demonstration was the first the locals in Bethnal Green in London’s East End knew about their rent strike. Quinn Square was a slum.

The posters were nailed to broom sticks and the demos were impromptu. The tenants of Quinn Square had stopped paying their rents and they were going to let everyone know about it. They were demanding lower rents and better repairs.

Their struggle sparked a new movement against escalating rents. The Conservative Party-led National Government had relaxed rent controls and wanted to abolish all forms of rent restrictions.

Rent controls

Rent controls were introduced in 1915 after a magnificent rent strike by workers on Clydeside in Glasgow.

As the war munitions factories sprung up, so did the need for accommodation, so the landlords felt ‘obliged’ to push up the rents.

Over 20,000 families participated in the Clydeside strike and with the threat to munition production, the government reinstated rents at pre-war levels.

This Rent Act protected all working class tenants. Following the end of the war, Tory governments began to remove all restraints on the landlords’ exploitation of their tenants.

This meant there were both controlled and uncontrolled rents for the same type of accommodation – even in the same building.

The Quinn Square landlords were prepared to exploit this confusion. There was a minuscule amount of protection for those in controlled accommodation but for those in the decontrolled sector the rents were exorbitant.

Families were paying to live in slums. The flats had no running water or toilets; they shared one tap between four households and one lavatory for every two families.

Because of overcrowding it could mean 30 people could be sharing these meagre amenities.

Inside the flats, there were no cupboards for food or clothes. Repairs, if done at all, were poor. The blocks were considered model dwellings when they were built in 1882-84 – six storeys high and with a large square in the middle in which the children could play. The drive for more revenue meant another block was built in the children’s play area.

Within months of its formation, the tenants’ association won rent reductions and defended tenants in court against eviction notices.

When the caretaker, bailiffs and five police officers turned up to evict a tenant, a human wall of tenants was swiftly erected.

The solidarity action forced the bailiffs and the police to retreat without enforcing the eviction.

The first tenants’ meeting saw Mosley’s fascists appear – they were sent packing. Mosley was a big property owner.

The women were often harassed by the fascists as they marched but they were not intimidated.

The committee carried out a survey of the controlled tenants and discovered out of 90 that 70 were paying too much.

The tenants agreed to fight for fair rents for both those in controlled and decontrolled flats and a rent strike was planned.

Another issue aroused the tenants’ anger, and was effectively used in their propaganda. London county council housing estate flats had running water, toilets, electricity and baths but the rents were only half what the Quinn Square tenants paid.

The strike got attention from the national and local newspapers. Thousands of tenants in the same situation were watching the battle and its outcome. It was this type of publicity that the tenants wanted.

“Ill-advised strike” was the headline in the Hackney Gazette. The tenants bombarded the editor with 200 post cards.

This prompted the paper to defend their position and under the headline “Gazette attitude justified”. The tenants sent a delegation to see the editor.

After a few days of the strike, the landlord’s agent listened to their protest and committed himself to a meeting at the weekend.

Instead of meeting the committee, he rushed round offering discounts to the uncontrolled tenants. Clearly, the landlords hoped to undermine the tenants’ solidarity.

Clear demands

The tenants’ answer was clear. As the second payment day arrived, the tenants placed pickets on the agent’s office door. This time not one of the tenants from 247 flats paid their rent.

Pickets were deployed every day. The role of picketing was left to the women. They wore paper hats with the word ‘picket’ pencilled on the front.

Other groups of women would be standing around the square waiting. The agent, accompanied by police officers, was followed around the estate by the women and their children.

The landlords’ next move was to attempt to use their courts to evict tenants. They issued summons against ten tenants for non-payment.

The tenants’ association replied with court summons for payment of over-charged rents.

By the end of the second week, the strike was still solid. The landlords sat down with the tenants and this time they listened. The result was the landlord’s humiliating defeat.

The tenants of Quinn Square won:

1. Recognition by the landlord of their Association

2. The understanding that necessary repairs will be carried out

3. That no legal or other action will be taken by the landlord against any tenant without first consulting the Tenants’ Association

4. The following scale of maximum rents for decontrolled tenants above which the landlord cannot charge:

Within weeks of victory, other strikes by tenants took place, in Welwyn Garden City, Motherwell, West Wickham and New Maldon.

There has always been a housing crisis for poor Londoners. The struggle was against slum conditions and high rents.

Today, poor Londoners face the difficulty of finding affordable accommodation. Both rents and the cost of buying a flat or house are spiralling out of control. What is needed is rent control and a council house building programme.

Cap rents not benefits

The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) says: Stop rip off landlords! A cap on rents in the private sector is needed to bring private rents in line with social housing rents.

Councils should have a compulsory register of private landlords – they should refuse to issue a license to landlords letting overcrowded, poor quality housing at rip-off rents. They could also set up a council-run, not-for-profit letting agency.

TUSC was set up to enable trade unionists, anti-cuts campaigners and socialists to stand candidates against all the main parties.

The TUSC campaign has started. On 22 May 2014, TUSC aims to contest 625 seats in the local elections.

Join with us
Apply to stand
Or help us campaign: