Stephen & Matilda Tenants’ Co-op 1975-2012

A memorial plaque to Britain‘s first council estate under tenants’ control was installed in a Wapping mini-park on Saturday 9 December 2023

Past and present Co-op members gather to commemorate the first UK council estate under tenants’ control.

The idea for the co-op started on a wet weekday afternoon at the top of Matilda’s H block in 1974/5. 

John Branagan, a reactionary old Labour councillor for Stepney & Poplar, had demonstrated his ignorance of this part of his constituency by claiming that no-one was living on the estate. The  Greater London Council  (GLC) had stalled the process of decanting residents, and there were anxieties that the site would be turned over to Taylor Woodrow who had an obligation to build GLC housing on the St. Katharine Dock.

I was a youth and community worker on the estate at the time, so I challenged Branagan and the then Chair of Greater London Council (GLC) housing Tony Judge to come and meet the 55 households who had been abandoned on an isolated and near derelict estate.

Many of those left on the estate were retired dockers, some of whom had lived there from the 1930s. In those days it was a prestigious site, being so close to two sets of dock gates – improving prospects for work. As the docks closed down, the economically active moved east following the work – some going as far as the new roll-on/roll-off docks at Tilbury. Initially they were being replaced with families from other parts of London, few of whom had connections with the East End.

After we spoke to a distraught old docker at the top of H block, Tony Judge turned to me and said. “I bet you could manage this estate better than we do.” I agreed. Then he said: “If you can come back to me with a firm proposal in a month’s time, I will back you.”

It may have been a spur of the moment challenge with no thought that it would come to anything, but for once a politician was as good as his word, much to Branagan’s chagrin.

I immediately alerted local squatters’ groups, tenants organisations and Tower Hamlets Trades Council and after a few hastily called meetings, between us we came up with a plan for a housing co-op.

I was squatting in Bow at the time with Mark & Barbara Phillips and Peter and Maureen Corbishley. Mark was working at Dame Colet House and could provide some legal advice. My old friend, the late Peter Corbishley, was a sociologist, who also had valuable ideas about developing the co-op.

We took our plans to the GLC, and senior housing officers were then assigned to negotiate a management agreement with us. Thus began the arduous task of hammering out our plans for tenants’ control with bureaucrats who found the very notion puzzling. 

Mind you we had no idea how complicated estate management could be. However, we did have one stipulation – in order both to ensure that GLC commitment was genuine, and to protect the flats from unwanted squatters, we insisted that a team of us be permitted to live on the estate as licensees while negotiations continued. 

John and Sue Easterbrook, Jake Jenkins, Digger Walsh and I became the first new inhabitants. It was living evidence of  the Co-op’s founding motto, which John came up with: WDFA – We Don’t Fuck About!

A committee of local tenants and trade unionists, including Freddie Baynham, Maureen Davies, Tommy Finn, Mickey Houlihan, and Josie Harriott, helped us devise our eligibility criteria – work. family or residential with Tower Hamlets – and to select the first Co-op members. To further qualify for a flat they had to contribute 8 hours a week on the estate for 3 months.

At first there were 168 flats on offer, but as we long suspected, the GLC had already done a deal with Taylor Woodrow to demolish Stephen House to make way for a road onto the new GLC estate, something were not made aware of until well into negotiations.

And our founding principals – that individuals could not buy what was public housing, and that any major work that need to be done would be carried out by trade union labour – were smashed by Margaret Thatcher. who made both illegal during her disastrous period as UK Prime Minister.

Riverside communities in five boroughs were locked out of their democratic rights when she created the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC), but Stephen and Matilda survived for many years as a beacon of what could be achieved under tenants’ control.

It was with some irony that the first people to take up the ‘right to buy’ were members of the Communist Party, whose local leader Kevin Halpin had refused to endorse the project on the grounds that “You cannot have an island of socialism in a sea of capitalism”.

We learned many lessons from our experience at Stephen & Matilda Co-op. Incidentally Stephen and Matilda were cousins and warring monarchs, during a period in the 12th century known as The Anarchy. Not many people know that.

Mike J

Journalist, trainer, editor; storyteller; amateur historian.


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