We are a group individuals from North London, most of whom are either on welfare benefits or low waged. To solve our joint housing problems, and to take control of this part of our own lives we have set up a housing co-operative and are presently looking for suitable properties and finances. We have so far been successful in buying two small properties which we have converted into four flats, as well as converting the loft space of one building into a small office space to be rented out to local groups. Our ultimate intention is to buy a disused factory or other large space which we would convert into housing, with a larger communal building and office space. This option would involve us taking part in re-building the property ourselves along with help from qualified trades people, most of whom are friends and/or political allies. We know this is harder than purchasing houses, but we also want to design our own living space, as we want to include a number of environmentally friendly options such as solar panels and efficient heating. Meanwhile, we have been busy securing smaller properties and housing current members as and when we can.
We are all involved in Haringey Solidarity Group which is a non-aligned local campaigning group. With the MAJ loft conversion complete, HSG was one of the first local groups to take advantage of this space with the added security of not being at the mercy of an unsympathetic landlord should its activities conflict with the local council. Our ultimate aim for the MAJ office is that it could be used more widely by campaigning groups in the area and become a general resource for the local community.
So why the name Mary Ann Johnson for our housing co-operative? Mary Ann Johnson was involved in the “swing” movement of the 1830’s. 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 handout increased, so the amounts of food (normally little more than a few loafs of bread each week) 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 who 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 I830. Burning of landlords hay stacks; (swing) letters demanding better conditions and employment; wages meetings; attacks on (and evicting from villages of) overseer (head of a parish) and justices, 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 day light, would arrive at an estate and smash the landlords 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 landlords 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