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At 195 Mare Street

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195_Mare_StSquatters have moved in next door. 195 Mare Street, a Grade II* listed Georgian villa built in 1699, is the second oldest surviving house in Hackney. It’s been derelict for years: windows boarded up, front garden overgrown. Until, that is, one evening last week, when I saw people passing bags and boxes over the gate. The next morning, some sheets of A4 paper had been posted to the railings.

One of them was a standard legal notice that can be downloaded from the website of the Advisory Service for Squatters. The recent law making the squatting of residential properties a criminal offence doesn’t apply to commercial buildings; 195 Mare Street hasn’t been a family home since 1845. Another of the sheets was a document showing that the squatters have set up an electricity account in their names. A third notice explains why they are there: to take care of a historic building; to protest against the new anti-squatting legislation; because they have nowhere else to go.

A few days later another sign was posted, an invitation to a general meeting. I went along. The grass had been cut and bags of debris were sitting on the porch. Inside, the building is a huge, beautiful mess. The Georgian foyer, with its sculpted doorways, gives on to a cavernous theatre annexe, built in the 1930s, the walls covered in bright murals.

The current squatters aren’t the first. For its first 150 years the house was a grand family home, one of many on Mare Street. From 1860 to 1913 it housed the Elizabeth Fry Institute for Reformation of Women Prisoners – there’s a commemorative plaque on the gatepost. It then became a working men’s club, the Lansdowne Liberal and Radical Club (later the New Lansdowne Social Club), which closed down in 2003. Since then the deeds have passed through various developers’ hands. Permission was granted in 2006 for the building to be partly demolished and converted into a restaurant and luxury flats, but nothing came of it. In 2009, squatters moved in and fixed the place up. They gave free workshops on bicycle repair, clowning and welding; staged benefits, cabarets and gigs; hosted political meetings and the London Freeschool. A year later they were evicted when a bank repossessed the building. Recently it has been bought yet again – there is a large sign in the garden, ‘Currell Commercial Property: Sold’– but the buyers are unknown, and so are their plans.

There were forty or so people at the meeting, plus a few dogs. We sat in a circle on the floor, drinking tea. The nine new residents introduced themselves, and explained that they intended to open up the ground floor, where we were sitting, as a community centre once the cleaning and wiring were done. What would we like to see there, they wanted to know, what does the community need? Among the suggestions were spaces for music, dance and film projects; a community garden; workshops on financial literacy; a citizens’ advice service to handle the overflow from the council; meetings to organise around the human costs of anti-squatting legislation; a free vegetarian kitchen. Someone asked what their plans are if they’re served with a court order. Why be so ambitious when there’s no guarantee they’ll still be here in two weeks’ time? ‘We’re optimistic,’ the woman running the meeting answered. ‘We’re open.’

The optimism is cheering, but the pessimism is understandable. It’s estimated that nearly 25,000 properties in London have been empty for longer than six months; homelessness is on the rise and there’s a shortage of affordable housing. Squatters with the energy and knowhow to deal with the red tape and police harassment are doing their bit to narrow the gap between housing supply and demand – and, in some cases, to save historic buildings from neglect. But since the criminalisation of residential squatting in September 2012, properties like 195 Mare Street are their only legal option. And it may not last: in the last session of Parliament, 24 MPs put their names to an early day motion to criminalise commercial squatting.

Comments on “At 195 Mare Street”

  1. James Alexander says:

    On the plus side, an EDM that harvests just 24 signatories is a pretty damp squib.

  2. Amateur Emigrant says:

    May I be the first pedant to query the description of a 1699 house as Georgian rather than ‘late Stuart’ or whatever the correct term is for William of Orange’s architectural style?

  3. J_McHUGH says:

    And which “community” would this be? I’m not aware of the venn diagram which links advice about crisis loans for single parents and psychedelic trance raves for hippies.

    • rainbowkitkat says:

      ‘Community’ is whatever you want it to be – we create the communities that we want. It’s quite simply about being a more open human being allowing others into your life without judging them — that is community.

  4. Francisx says:

    Good article and what a great group of people !

    It fills me with optimist to see that there are people who still believes in community and rejects the sole purpose of life as a money making business venture !
    To take a whole building and bring it back to life, not only for yourselves but for the community as well deserves all my respect !
    Buildings that are left empty by their owners degrade quicker and eventually become a danger so they have to be knocked down, which is provably what they want in this case for property speculation. A listed building is a nightmare of limitations for the aggressive businessman in search of a quick buck and a group of people in need of housing and a better community. Prepared to care for an old historic building. Uninterested in money making but rather offering free services to a community in need of uniting, provably goes against all the values of that business speculating mind.
    Nevertheless and despite all odds, this group of free thinking individuals is is making happen something that government after government praise and never do. They are creating community, preserving history and offering possibilities for participating together as community and creating services that there are in need and no council would bother to offer !

    I for one believe it is a great opportunity to do good for a good cause and a way to socialise in a positive and productive environment !

    I’m in ! When is the next meeting ???

    Francisx

  5. Iforjones says:

    195 Mare St is the only building I have ever broken and entered into. It was June 2011, about 3am, and the building looked dreadfully remote and curious, set back as it is from the pavement, peering out of a bubble of gloom into the orange haze of Mare Street. It’s an extraordinary space; absolutely vast, creaking and wooden. It felt like being in a ship. We stalked around the theatre/bar area on the ground floor, I used a toilet without thinking that the flush would obviously not be working (sorry), and then we wandered up the imposing wooden staircase into the pitchblack upper floors, peering into a couple of bare rooms. We heard a noise downstairs and left pretty swiftly after that, worrying firstly for our own safety (horror films have a lot to answer for regarding attitudes to darkness, empty houses and old things) and secondly that we’d disturbed people who were just trying to live somewhere. I hope we didn’t do that.

    Either way, well done and good luck to the current occupants. Doing that place up and making it even remotely liveable is a huge task rendered more arduous by its age and size. Opening it up and trying to make it a public as opposed to private space is more ambitious still. It’s a magnificent building that deserves so much more than Currell Residential could ever possibly give it.

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