Q/ Your co-op sounds fantastic! And I need a place to live in London – can I join?

A/ At the moment we are unable to house all of our existing members, so unfortunately we are not in a position to take on any new members.

Q/ I am really interested in housing co-ops and communal living, and I will be travelling through London soon. Can I come and stay with you? I’ll do the washing up!

A/ We are a very small housing co-op; we own two small properties and are in the process of purchasing another. Each of our members lives in a very small self contained flat, so as well as there being space and privacy issues we have very little to offer a person who wants to experience true communal living. If this is what you are after, there are probably other co-ops that would offer you a better experience, not to mention better facilities!

Q/ Who was Mary Ann Johnson?

A/ During the Agricultural Swing Riots in 1830’s Britain, a ten year old girl was arrested for arson. No evidence could be found against her, and when she refused to give evidence against her fellow villagers she was deported. She was called Mary Ann Johnson. Her courageous act of defiant solidarity could have been forgotten, but we chose to commemorate her in the name of our co-op.

Mary Ann Johnson was involved in the “swing” movement of the 1830s. In the early part of the 19th Century, farm labourers were being kicked out of work and having wages slashed because of landlords’ desire for extra profits (as is still the case today) and the mechanisation of farming methods – most notably the invention of the “threshing machine”. Huge numbers found themselves unable to find work. These labourers either starved or managed on the little amounts of food distributed under the then “Poor Laws”. As the numbers relying on their parishes’ handouts increased, so the amounts of food (normally little more than a few loaves of bread each week) that each was allowed was reduced.

Seeing no other option, first pockets of labourers, then whole counties, resisted these attacks on their well-being. This movement of labourers that decided “enough was enough” started in Kent and spread to most of southern England and parts of the Midlands. Threshing machines, seen as one of the main courses of lack of work, were destroyed – the first being near Canterbury on the night of 28th August 1830. Burning of landlords’ hay stacks, (swing) letters demanding better conditions and employment; wages meetings, attacks on (and evicting from villages of) overseers (head of a parish) and justices, and assemblies of men and women demanding money or provisions from landlords or a reduction in rents, tithes and taxes were also used as tactics.

But these were not individual acts of violence. Groups of men and women would gather to discuss what they wanted and how they would achieve these aims. In some cases letters (in the name of Captain Swing – hence the “swing” movement) would be sent demanding the destruction of threshing machines, higher wages, or the lowering of rents/tithes/taxes. If the demands were not carried out, groups of labourers, either at night or more commonly in broad daylight, would arrive at an estate and smash the landlord’s threshing machine, or burn hay stacks and on some occasions buildings as well. In other areas, groups of labourers and supporters would march to an estate and either demand higher wages or provisions for the starving. At other times, groups of the poor would march to an estate and destroy any threshing machines they found. Between August 1830 to September 1832 nearly 400 machines were smashed in 22 counties.

We purposely wanted to associate our housing co-operative with a movement such as this because it is one of the earliest examples we can find of ordinary working people taking collective action themselves to defend their living conditions. In 1830 Mary Ann Johnson was 10 years of age. In October 1830 she was arrested for allegedly burning a landlord’s hay stacks The magistrate, and others, were sure that Mary Ann Johnson was one of the organisers around the Kent area of some of these actions. However, as they could not find enough evidence against her for either the burnings or as a leading light in the movement, they sentenced her instead to three months’ imprisonment for vagrancy.

The best two books on the “Swing” movement are The Village labourer, by JL & B Hammond and Captain Swing, by EJ Hobsbawm & G Rude