Friends who formed a housing group in the 1970s are celebrating their community-run ideal

Monday, 23rd June 2014

Published: 23 June, 2014

IT was a semi-derelict parade of Victorian homes in Gospel Oak – until one day a group of friends looking for shelter spotted their potential.

Forty years on, the terrace is a warm and vibrant community, run on co-operative principles – and is still home to many of the people who originally squatted them.

The Fleet Road homes are run by the Abeona Housing Co-Operative, and this year they are celebrating their story with a series of events culminating in an exhibition at the gallery in Swiss Cottage Library. 

Called Another Utopia, the event considers the squatting and short life housing movement of the 1970s and 1980s in Camden – a period when homeless people turned empty properties into homes.  

The Fleet Road terrace (pictured below) was originally council housing, but had fallen into disrepair. The houses had been managed by the Greater London Council and owned by the Inner London Education Authority, who saw the land as a potential new site for a nursery school for Fleet Primary.

But nothing happened and many of the houses lay empty.

Annie Theirl, Robert Hale, Tim Buckfield and Lance Petzoldt are original members who still live in the terrace. 

They helped found Abeona in 1975 as a co-op to provide housing for young, single people. There were already housing co-ops specialising in collective living – for gay men and women, for feminist groups – but while Abeona included people from these communities, they offered an umbrella which included people from all sorts of back­grounds.  Pictured below: Protest at the Town Hall in 1980

By 1983 they were registered as a social landlord and obtained grants to do up the Victorian terrace. 

Their work has included a complete redesign of the houses. Lance Petzoldt says: “Some had working loos but others were much worse – leaking roofs and ill-fitting windows that meant they were not water-tight.”

Annie Thierl recalls moving into the homes in the mid-1970s. “Squatting was much easier then than now,” she says. “There were many empty properties across north London. We would choose local authority homes as they would give you at least six months and we maintained the properties.”

This mutually beneficial situation included the fact that if council officers asked squatters to move as the homes were ready for renovation to house a family on the waiting list, they would pack up and leave – usually to another empty property nearby. 

“When they said they wanted the building, you simply said thanks and left,” says Mr Petzoldt. “It was about a sense of social responsibility.”

The Abeona co-op were unwittingly helped by the Thatcher government, who were penalising councils if they had not spent their housing budgets each year. Camden councillors said they had funds available and they would help buy the properties.

“The houses were very cheap,” says Tim Buckfield. “Councillors knocked on our door and asked if they could provide funds.”

The co-op now has 44 units and around 65 people live there. They have a management committee as well as sub-committees dealing with things like repairs, finances, and membership.

They take people nominated from bodies including the council, women’s refuges, other co-ops, the Refugee Council, London Lighthouse and the Terrence Higgins Trust. 

“With housing in London at crisis levels, the co-op movement has a lot to offer young people,” says Mr Buckfield.

“We all gain something by living together – it is about tolerance and finding consensus,” he adds.

• Another Utopia opening event is on July 26 at the Swiss Cottage Gallery, Swiss Cottage Library, Avenue Road, Hampstead, 11am-4pm. Abeona would like people to share their memories of co-operative hous­ing in Camden with people involved in the squatting movement today.

Related Articles