Community Action

'Powis Square Ornamental Gardens. Privately owned garden square free from all rights of entry, possibly the only one in central London. Half an acre at present derelict. Unique opportunity for sports club. No building allowed beyond changing rooms.' Estate agent's advertisement early 1960s. 

'Whereas the violent action of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign compelled the Council to capitulate and buy the square, forcing a rapid shift in the situation, the task of generating adequate financing of the square by the Council has been a much more protracted up-hill struggle. Throughout the long struggle for Powis Square, the square itself has provided a public forum for all kinds of community events – for carnivals, for bonfire parties, for housing rallies, puppet shows and concerts, and so has always been seen and used as much more than a play area.' Jan O'Malley, 'The Politics of Community Action'.

The increase in landlord strong-arm tactics accompanying the Rachman sell-off was countered by the emergence of the first tenants' housing associations in Colville and St Stephen's Gardens. The Colville residents association formed out of the post-58 wave of social workers, including the New Left activists Stuart Hall and Rachel Powell, George Clark and the Law Centre founder Peter Kandler. The New Left group set out to discover the root causes of the race riots and local support for the fascist Oswald Mosley on the 1959 election campaign trail (when he stood as the Union Movement candidate for North Kensingston). Through Donald Chesworth and Richard Hauser, they met Michael de Freitas, who introduced them to Vernon Hunte when he was still acting as Rachman's agent for Colville.

The Powis and Colville Residents Association was founded at a public meeting in December 1959, with the aims of opening the private garden squares for the local community, closing down blues clubs, improving street lighting and rubbish collections. The chairman was Bill Richardson, a former communist union activist who went on to found the Notting Hill People's Association, the treasurer was Michael de Freitas (in Jan O'Malley's version) and the secretary was Vernon Hunte's son Lloyd. In spite of their anti-blues stance, the association was determinedly multi-racial', to the extent of having a steel band at their first meeting (not to mention at least one blues club owner). However, few black Rachman tenants attended, probably because they were intimidated to stay away. Then Lloyd Hunte reported that everyone was going to be evicted in a flat conversion scheme, to avoid giving them furnished tenancy security, resulting in a mass application to the rent tribunal.

At the beginning of the 60s the Rachman associate Peter Davis approached the Powis and Colville Residents Association with an offer to convert the Powis Square gardens into a playground if the rent tribunal applications were withdrawn. Rachman’s Powis Square playground scheme didn't happen but most of the tenants withdrew their applications anyway, probably under intimidation. The residents association first called for the opening of the gardens to the public in 1961. The owner offered its use for £500 a year, but then raised it to £2,000, out of reach of the residents. 

Kensington Council carried out a housing survey of the Colville and Golborne wards, following a medical officer's report that 2,000 houses in the area were beyond renovation, and around a thousand households in Notting Hill consisted of over three people living in one room. In 1963, at the time of the Rachman slum housing revelations of the Profumo affair, Notting Hill Housing Trust was founded by Bruce Kenrick at 115 Blenheim Crescent, to provide decent housing in the Colville and Golborne wards. The following year the local Young Communists organised a petition calling for the Council to acquire the Powis Square gardens for use as a public space. In 1965 the Notting Hill Community Workshop was set up by the CND activist George Clark, and the London Free School community action group formed.

'Burn it all down' Powis Square 1968. As Pink Floyd released their debut album 'The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ in 1967, the Notting Hill People’s Association made an attempt to open the gates of the Powis Square gardens. To the hippies, opening the garden squares of the former Rachman slum area became a symbolic mission to convert 'unturned on people’ and start 'a tidal wave which is about to wash away the square world' (as Neil Oram put it). In 1968 Notting Hill became the radical hippy Interzone A, plotted out in the map issue of International Times. As students took to the barricades in Paris, the Powis Square gates were stormed by hippies disguised as pantomime animals.

After several children were run over in the area, a campaign was organised by the People’s Association to get the Council to buy the Powis Square gardens. The local protest was hijacked by members of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, who promoted 'a free party in Powis Square’ on May 25. At the height of the 68 student revolution in France, the bells of All Saints church tolled to mark a vigil march of mothers and children around the Colville squares. During the demo the Vietnam protesters, including Dave Wise of the Situationist King Mob group dressed as a gorilla and the beat poet Michael Horovitz as part of a pantomime donkey, clashed with the police.

The following week, the mothers and children marched to Kensington Town Hall, chanting “Open the Squares.” Then on June 15 the Vietnam protesters returned to Powis Square to lead local people into the gardens and pull down the fencing, without police interference. (Powis Square had previously been suggested as a play area by a police chief superintendent.) The Council gave in and acquired the gardens from the private owners for £6,000, to eventually convert the area into a playground. The original Council plan for a tarmac square enclosed with 12 foot fencing had to be abandoned after further protest from the People's Association square committee.

The opening party banner proclaimed: 'At last the square belongs to the people. The Council have learned a simple lesson from the local people and children. The Council is the servant of the Community.' The first issue of the Hustler black underground paper contains pictures of 'The People's Centre All Saints Church Hall – Let kids play on the squares' graffiti, the Powis Square 'Trespassers will be prosecuted' sign, and children playing in the road. In the next issues there’s a picture captioned 'The Way to Powis' of people going through a hole in the fence, and a report that 'another fence will soon be enclosing Powis Square.' Although the Powis 68 uprising was overshadowed by the events in Paris, one square at least was opened permanently for the people in London. 

'The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’ Powis Square west side King Mob William Blake graffiti 1971. Apart from the playgrounds, the most enduring legacy of the 1968 student revolution in Notting Hill was the graffiti. The writing on the walls, largely attributed to the King Mob group and Heathcote Williams, included Romantic poetry by William Blake, Coleridge and Shelley: Blake's 'The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’ in Powis Square was reputedly changed to Willesden. There was 'All you need is dynamite’ on the corner of Portobello and Tavistock Road, 'Burn it all down’, 'Dynamite is freedom’, 'Belsen lives’ on the corner of Talbot Road and Colville Gardens, 'Religion = Opium’ on All Saints church, 'Kars kill’, 'Viet Grove', 'The only race is the rat race’, 'Revolution Now’, and 'Rachman was right’ on Colville Terrace.

At the beginning of the 70s, the Notting Hill 'People’s Carnival’ consisted of a procession around the area led by Ginger Johnson’s African-Cuban drummers and a festival in the Powis Square gardens, featuring the American band Socca/Sacatash, Mataya, Stackhouse, James Metzner 'and various local musicians.’ The 1970 bonfire night party in the square was raided by police, resulting in the trial of the Powis Square 8, one of several Notting Hill counter-culture court cases at the time.

Powis Square 1979 Carnival. Powis Square, during the 71 Carnival, was the unlikely venue of the debut with Hawkwind of Lemmy, later of Motörhead. The Pink Fairies street hippy group were pictured in the underground paper Frendz amongst the kids in the square gardens, 'at a quieter moment during the Notting Hill Free Carnival.’ Julie Driscoll appeared with 'some very far out modern jazz trios', and Merle Major led a procession chanting “Power to the People” to Powis Square, where the People’s Association opened a squat for her and an effigy of her landlord was burnt. (The following year Merle Major led the first Caribbean Notting Hill Carnival procession.) 

In a report on Powis Square property speculators Frendz proclaimed: 'The battle in Notting Hill Gate is not just a battle in a small and highly populated area of London, it is representative in a definitive sense of the battle of a whole new society’ – with 'blacks, freaks, heads, youths, communes, single people’ versus 'dolly girls, accountants, computer programmers and cocoa-drinking androids of the consumer society.’

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