“People were increasingly insistent by the 1970s about defining and claiming their individual rights, identities and perspectives. Many expressed desires for greater personal autonomy and self-determination, even if these desires were not always realized… ‘Popular individualism’… was not always a selfish and greedy phenomenon: it was not necessarily about having more than one’s neighbour, but about having more autonomy and control than the non-political ‘ordinary people’ were felt to have had in the past. This popular individualism had… multiple political and cultural valences—from the self-expression of anarchist punks, to social aspiration in the suburbs.”-Emily Robinson, Camilla Schofield, Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, Natalie Thomlinson, “Telling Stories about Post-war Britain: Popular Individualism and the ‘Crisis’ of the 1970s”, Twentieth Century British History, 28:2 (2017) pp. 268–304
Birth of a People’s Centre
Nearly fifty years after it happened nobody remembers the exact date, but one morning (it was possibly a Monday) around about Easter 1975, a group of between ten and twenty people arrived bearing cleaning equipment, tool kits and basic furnishings outside a disused butcher’s shop at 768 Bristol Road in Selly Oak south Birmingham.
Most of the party were students or recent graduates of the nearby University of Birmingham. They were members of a section of Birmingham Guild of Students called Student Community Action, ComAc for short. ComAc worked with communities across Birmingham on finding solutions to everyday problems like poor housing, a lack of play opportunities for children and isolation amongst the elderly and some disabled people.
Through their contacts in the Selly Oak community, some of whom were in the party that spring morning, the group had received news that the butcher’s shop had been recently broken into and left unsecured. This gave the ComAc group, their allies and associates, the idea of squatting the building and turning it into a base for their work in the Selly Oak community. After all their reasoning went 768 had not been used as a shop for years, and with the Council’s plans for widening the Bristol Road and “urban renewal” in the area, was likely to be knocked down shortly anyway, so if nobody else was using the space why shouldn’t they?
This wasn’t the group’s first time establishing a squatted base of operations in Selly Oak, though it did prove the longest lasting, and most impactful. A row of condemned houses on Lottie Road, less than five minutes walk from 768 Bristol Road, was home to at least one earlier squat, created in 1973 or 1974. Barry, a lifelong Selly Oak community organiser, recalls being involved with an ad-hoc organisation called the Selly Oak Community Workshop, which used a former shop in the middle of the terrace as a centre for running community campaigns, holding meetings and a wholesale food co-op specialising in fresh fruit and vegetables. The area’s benefits Claimant’s Union also provided advice sessions from the address, as shown in this TV news clip. Ian, a leading ComAc activist in the mid-1970s, also recalls visiting a squat at 44 Lottie Road in 1974, which might, or might not, have been the Community Workshop space.
He remembers alongside other activists from ComAc and the local community:
“R[unning] a disco there for local youths and children on a Friday night… I’d get my record player and some records and lug it there… Then we’d play records for the children and dance… There was no health and safety or risk assessments or anything like that!”-Interview with Ian, conducted by Josh Allen (spring 2020)
Members of the party which occupied the shop to establish the squat recall that “they just went in and cleared it all out in one day”. Inside the space there was an accumulation of rubbish, and it was incredibly dark because the windows had been heavily fly postered whilst the building had been out of use. The occupying party quickly cleared this waste out, peeled back the accumulated layers of posters to let the light into the downstairs rooms, and performed rudimentary DIY tasks such as painting and fixing up furnishings to make the space usable and welcoming.
Sometime shortly after the space was opened up, a curatorial staff member at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BM&AG) was left delighted, bemused, or possibly both, when members of ComAc arrived at their office bearing some antique butchery equipment that they’d found in the shop’s basement, which they reasoned should belong in the civic collection. “I guess it’s still there” a longstanding Selly Oak community activist involved in squatting the premises said recently “it’s probably quietly rusting out at BM&AG’s store in Duddeston”.
Once the space was usable the activists from ComAc utilised facilities available at the Guild of Students to create leaflets and posters of their own. The posters were surreptitiously pasted up around the area and leaflets were posted through the letterboxes of the rows of terraced houses in Bournbrook and the streets behind where the old shop stood. Off the back of this activity a steady stream of local residents began arriving at the space, which was open from the morning until the evening everyday, seeking advice and support from the students.
Ian, who was a leading ComAc activist at the time recently told me that “there wasn’t much by way of advice for people around there at the time”, something which led local residents to seek out the student group running the space. People turned up seeking helping with their social security benefit claims, advice on dealing with their private landlord or the council regarding their housing problems, and assistance accessing medical services including abortions, which due to the restrictive hold of a clique of conservative doctors upon the provision of women’s healthcare in Birmingham in the 1970s, were hard to access through normal NHS channels.
As the space got up and running over the course of 1975 and 1976 as a centre for community advice and support, non-student groups and organisations increasingly began to make use of the space. Selly Oak had had a Claimant’s Union which helped local people gain fair treatment and more money from the Department of Health and Social Security benefits office, since the late 1960s. Activists from this group met at the Dog & Partridge pub which stood less than 50 metres further down the Bristol Road from the shop at 768. This group had close connections, and lots of crossover, with the students and former students associated with ComAc. As Ian explained to me “there was a definite sense of solidarity with benefit claimants… Because as students [we received government grants during term time] and during the holidays could claim Supplementary Benefit… We even used to share ways of avoiding [jobcentres] giving us jobs!”. These close connections enabled the Claimants’ Union to use the space at 768 Bristol Road to hold meetings, run advice sessions, and organise campaigning activity for those they worked with and represented.
A lot of the students involved with ComAc were studying law. Leading them to set up designated legal advice clinics in the space, which expanded over the course of the life of the squat, into involving established law firms in pro-bono work. In Ian’s recollection staff from at least five Birmingham law firms were involved, including from Ian Gould’s Solicitors, a Moseley based practice.
Which isn’t to say that everything to do with the life of the space was incredibly serious. A large part of the reason why students got involved with ComAc campaigns in Selly Oak and elsewhere Ian tells me is “because it was fun… We were a tight knit group and enjoyed each other’s company”. An offshoot of this was that ComAc and local residents set-up a Selly Oak Carnival, the first one of which ran in the summer of 1975, and which continued every year for the rest of the decade. Surviving publicity from the Carnivals indicates that a typical programme included a fun day for children, alongside performances by community theatre groups with radical politics such as Red Ladder and Banner Theatre, and showcases of local bands, which were aimed at a more adult audience. By 1978’s edition of the Carnival it grew so large that it included the involvement of a dedicated community arts organisation called Selly Oak Arts which received grant funding from West Midlands Arts, the region’s autonomous arm of the Arts Council of Great Britain.
Shortly after 768 was first squatted in 1975 the activists who established the space sought to give it an eyecatching identity by commissioning a sign. One of the law students involved in ComAc was from Birmingham and had a friend who was a sign painter. This friend was willing to create a sign especially for the space and painted one which was fixed up above the front window in the space where the butcher’s shop sign had once sat.
“Selly Oak People’s Centre” it read – the People’s Centre was born.
Life of a People’s Centre
ITV News Reporter: “What chance do you think you have success [in securing council funding to open a youth club in Selly Oak]”
Independent Youth member squatting shop in Selly Oak: “Well at the moment it’s a 50:50 chance like, ‘cus the Council want us out of this place and I doubt that we’ll get another. But if we’re thrown out we’ll keep doing it [aquatting buildings] until we get a place”ATV Today: 14.07.1977: “Birmingham teenagers occupy empty shop”
A number of former ComAc members who had graduated from the University of Birmingham settled in Bournbrook to live together in “a commune” at 102 Tiverton Road. Most residents of the squat were members of Big Flame, a small libertarian Marxist organisation with a strong emphasis upon gender and racial equality, as well as finding ways to help everyday people organise themselves to fight and campaign for more power over their lives at work and in their communities. This approach and set of objectives made membership of the organisation attractive to people who had been involved with ComAc. Two of the residents of 102 Tiverton Road involved in Big Flame worked from 1974 to establish a bookshop at 632 Bristol Road. This space was legally let and operated from early 1975 until part way through 1977 when a lack of funds forced its closure. Alongside the People’s Centre the bookshop, in addition to being the publishing and distribution hub for Big Flame nationally, was a space for activism in the community alongside the People’s Centre. The groups of activists associated with both spaces-whether Big Flame activists or not-worked together closely and were largely interchangeable. Another of the communes’ residents was in a punk band called Red Alert formed in 1976 or 1977, that travelled around the UK by Ford Transit spreading the left libertarian gospel through the medium of music.
Someone who was a member of the commune for a time, summed up the ethos of 102 Tiverton recently, by saying that “two members… bought the house and five of us lived there, with everything in common… It was our [libertarian socialist] political outlook… [That people could] decide not to have a job [and] work in the community doing progressive things in the community, and it’s quite right that [they] should withdraw some compensation from the state [in the form of social security benefits] for that.”
Not every resident of 102 Tiverton Road, however, was a full time participant in the city’s alternative scene. Anne, a modern languages teacher who lived in the commune for a time after returning from a year working in Europe, commuted every day to work at a secondary school in Sandwell. She was an activist in the National Union of Teachers trade union as well as the International Socialists.
Shortly after arriving back in Birmingham in 1977 she was involved in setting up the Birmingham branch of the Anti-Nazi League, and with running its Selly Oak chapter. She recalls the atmosphere at one National Front meeting in West Bromwich which activists from Selly Oak and elsewhere disrupted:
“One of the big successful things we did was… we got in[to a National Front meeting, and] at the front where the National Front in their black shirts and bully boys at the sides, [but] the whole audience were anti-fascists. So within no time at all they started speaking and we started chanting y’know “fascists out! Fascists out!” the whole thing erupted and the next day… there was a picture of a vicar with a bandage across his head where he’d been hit over the head with a chair or something. There must have been some gathering going on [at] the Digbeth Civic Hall that evening, because I remember getting on the bus and coming back, and getting up on the stage and announcing that we’d been successful, that we’d broken up the meeting.”-Interview with Anne, conducted by an Activist Selly Oak Project volunteer (summer 2018)
Leaflets, posters and listings in the alternative press from the time, indicates the Selly Oak section of the Anti-Nazi League met at the People’s Centre as well in people’s homes. Whilst the area did have a problem with racism, it was not a focus of sustained organising by the National Front or other far-right political parties, so generally activists from Selly Oak planned their participation in marches and other actions from spaces like the People’s Centre before heading off to places like West Bromwich to take part in the campaign.
That by 1977 campaigners like Anne-who had never been a University of Birmingham student or involved in ComAc-were using the People Centre’s as a base for running their own campaigns, vividly illustrates how the Centre was becoming a base for autonomous campaigns led by a far wider section of the community.
This shift was aided by the fact that at some point in its first year of operation, the Council agreed to let the group running the People’s Centre have the use of 768 on licence. A status akin to that enjoyed by people in the 21st Century who become Property Guardians. In doing so, the Council conceded them the use of the building on a semi-permanent basis. Whilst not as secure as a proper tenancy, it did mean that those running and using the space had a right to be there, and no longer had to fear the potentially imminent arrival of bailiffs sent by the Council to get them out. According to Barry, who was heavily involved with the People’s Centre throughout its life, further respectability was conferred upon the space when Birmingham Trades Council granted it affiliate status. Something which gave the space and those using it, access to the considerable clout and resources of the trade union movement.
Students from the University and ComAc as an organisation, remained vital to the Centre and its operations. A ComAc listing in a June 1977 issue of the Redbrick student newspaper calls for volunteers to help decorate the space and assist with running it. Listings in Alternative magazines and newspapers such as Birmingham Broadside and Birmingham Women’s Paper indicate that between 1976 and 1978 numerous south Birmingham progressive campaigns and organisations used the People’s Centre as a correspondence address. Something which in the pre-internet age enabled people who could not visit in person to write to organisations without their own office space to request information about their activities. A vital service for projects and groups which otherwise would have struggled to raise awareness of their existence and what they had on offer. In a similar vein, adverts and notices for the People’s Centre list a phone number (021 472 3676), indicating that some kind of system where people could phone up to leave messages and request information was in operation. All of this suggests that many of those students, and others, who were volunteering at the Centre spent at least some of their time sorting post and waiting around to see whether anyone phoned the building. An experience far removed from the glamour and excitement usually associated with radical left-wing activism, especially during this time period! Yet which, in an age when information was hard to access, store, and circulate, one that was absolutely crucial for the functioning of the campaigns and organisations that used the People’s Centre space.
The maintenance and operation of printing presses and duplicator machines was another service that the People’s Centre offered the groups that made it home. Prior to the internet access to printing equipment was crucial so as to enable activists to communicate with each other and the wider community. For much of the period that the People’s Centre was in existence, 632 Books a little way down the Bristol Road was where much of the area’s activist printing was undertaken. Barry recalls producing posters and other artwork using silk screening equipment on the second floor of the building. However, after the Big Flame branch’s shaky finances meant that they had to give up the lease on 632 Bristol Road, a short lived silk screening and more heavy duty printing operation moved up the road to the People’s Centre. Based in the building’s loft the service called itself “Attic Printing” and their imprimatur can be seen on leaflets, posters and other publications that activists in the area produced at the time. Ian also remembers that throughout the life of the Centre there was some kind of duplicator machine that was used to produce short runs of leaflets and pamphlets that were used to communicate with the Selly Oak community about what was going on in the space.
A large number of volunteers were also necessary because of the sheer amount of time that the Centre was open. An advert in Birmingham Broadside’s September 1977 issue lists the following schedule, indicating that there were advice sessions every day Monday-Friday:
*Wednesday 18-20:00 (“legal night”)
This listing indicates the extent of demand for the People’s Centre’s services, and how many people doing all kinds of work were needed, given the Centre ran an advice clinic for ten hours a day on Thursdays alone. The administrative burden on volunteers possibly eased somewhat from the spring of 1977, as the April issue of Birmingham Broadside from that year, carries an advert for a “Development Worker” to “work with the community groups that form Selly Oak People’s Centre”. The position was full-time but unpaid, and intended for a social security recipient, but did offer “expenses” to the successful applicant.
In addition to the Centre’s ongoing advice work, and allowing it’s space to be used by orgaisations like the Anti-Nazi League and other groups such as a campaign to defend the rights of tenants living in Houses in Multiple Occupation, a number of other activities made the People’s Centre their base. A letter in the February and March 1977 issue of Birmingham Broadside says that campaigners concerned about nutrition and food quality, were looking to open a Wholefood Shop at the premises.
From 1976 onwards local groups that were part of the city’s burgeoning feminist movement began to use the space for their organising and campaigning activities, as well as providing advice and services to women living in the area that the Council and other public bodies like the NHS failed to adequately provide. The October 1976 edition of the Brum Women’s Paper carries an advert for a newly formed “Selly Oak Women’s Group… Meeting at the People’s centre from 8pm on Thursdays”. In March 1977 the Birmingham Women’s Paper indicated that the organisation had changed its name to “the Selly Oak Women’s Action Group” and was exploring the possibility of setting up “a pregnancy testing service” in the space.
Adverts in the city’s alternative press from later in the year show that the group was running a pregnancy testing service at the Centre. The creation by women’s groups of free voluntary social services for other women, who potentially lacked the money or knowledge to access services like pregnancy testing at this time, was a crucial way in which the women’s movement practically improved the situation of women in society. The creation of these services in the community by feminist groups enabled them to put pressure on social services, the NHS, and in some cases retailers, to pay more attention to the services and facilities that women needed, and the find ways of making those services accessible to women. This was especially important in Birmingham, where despite the decriminalisation of abortion in 1967, as late as 1977 campaigners discovered that only four NHS abortions had been carried out that year in the city (where the population was around 1,000,000). This was because Prof. Hugh McLaren the city’s lead gynecologist was deeply socially conservative and refused to sign-off on abortions apart from in the most extreme medical circumstances. Access to timely testing allowed women from all backgrounds who had unwanted pregnancies to arrange terminations that bypassed NHS doctors, through charitable organisations like the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, which existed to circumvent the control wielded by clinicians like McLaren.
As well as providing vital free and communally owned access to infrastructure to support campaigning and playing host to services like those offered by the Selly Oak Women’s Action Group. The People’s Centre served as the kind of organising hub and resource envisioned by Big Flame and the wider libertarian left in other ways. There are three campaigns in particular, which emerged organically from the Selly Oak community during the years between 1976 and 1977, that are especially interesting in this regard.
“Stop the Blood Tub Killing Again”
By the 1970s the Birmingham Battery foundry had stood by the Worcester and Birmingham Canal in Selly Oak for 100 years. Originally located in the city centre near Digbeth, the foundry had moved to Selly Oak in the 1870s becoming one of the first large factories in the area. It’s owners were attracted by the cheap land, good transport connections, and the fact that prior to area’s incorporation into Birmingham in 1911 there was no major civic government to impose burdensome regulations upon how much smoke they could emit, what they did with the toxic waste produced by their processes and the health and safety of the conditions within which their workers toiled.
A century later remarkably little had changed in many key regards. The May 1977 edition of Birmingham Broadside reports that a group of local trade unionists were planning a campaign around health and safety at the factory following a spate of deaths and serious injuries at the works. The launch of the campaign followed the death of a worker in an industrial accident, less than two years after the factory had been fined three hundred pounds for causing the death of Shah Alam in late 1974. Shah had been scalded to death by molten copper in the plant’s refinery section after rain water leaked through the roof into the vat of metal he was moving, causing the heated product to explode out of the vessel and cascade into him. At the time of Broadside going to press details of the latest death at the factory were still emerging, but the paper quotes a Birmingham Battery press officer’s statement saying that the incident “had technically been caused by an oil vapour ignition”, leading the journalist covering the incident to conclude that it had occurred in similar circumstances to the death of Shah Alam.
Big Flame’s locally produced Selly Oak Bulletin reported on the verdict of the inquest which had levied a fine on the Birmingham Battery Company for their culpability in Shah’s death. Their article informed readers that the site was known locally as “the blood tub” because of its high death and injury rate, coupled with how prevalent industrial diseases like “dermatitis and metal fume fever” were amongst its workers. The newsletter also noted that a large chunk of the factory’s workforce was so poorly paid that they were “receiving Family Income Supplement” a benefit paid to workers with children whose wages fell below the minimum amount of money deemed necessary for raising a family. The Broadside report harks back to a two month strike in 1972 when despite lacking official support from their trade union for the first four weeks, 350 of the factory’s approximately 400 workers walked out. The paper notes that despite how widely supported this strike was amongst the plant’s workforce, the Birmingham Battery’s owners made relatively few concessions to resolve the dispute, agreeing to raise men’s wages by three pounds a week, women’s wages by two pounds a week and give their workers an additional day’s holiday each year.
Both the Broadside article and the Selly Oak Bulletin’s piece, note that a large proportion of the workforce at the Birmingham Battery in the 1970s were south Asian migrants. The suggestion being that this made them especially liable to having few options other than seeking work in outdated and dangerous heavy industrial plants. In their report about the People’s Centre based campaign getting going, Broadside noted that the organisers were connected to and inspired by campaigns being organised elsewhere in the West Midlands, in places where there were lots of small metalworking plants, against poor health and safety and low pay.
Whether the People’s Centre based campaign had an impact upon conditions at the factory remains unknown, however; it is a clear example of the activists associated with the space moving away from being just an advice centre, towards being an organising hub for challenging the might of an employer in the area.
Harborne Lane Tenants’ Association
Some of Selly Oak’s most dilapidated housing ran down Harborne Lane from the Bristol Road along one side of the Selly Oak Triangle towards Gibbins Road, only a few minutes walk from the People’s Centre. All of it had been purchased by the Council for it’s proposed road widening scheme. Leaving the people living in these houses expecting in 1966 that their substandard houses would be demolished by 1971 and they would be rehoused in new Council built properties.
A decade later and their Harborne Lane houses were still standing, more outdated and run down than ever, yet apparently no closer to being demolished. Selly Oak’s left-wing Labour MP from 1974-79 Tom Litterick, took a keen interest in the Harborne Lane tenant’s plight. In his campaign literature from his ultimately unsuccessful bid for reelection in 1979 he wrote “residents were tired of paying rent for houses that were so dilapidated people were coming from other parts of the area to vandalise [them], thinking nobody could possibly be living there”.
Barry recalls what happened next as being akin “to a task and finish group”. With help from the activists at 632 Books and the People’s Centre, as well as Labour Party activists aligned with Tom Litterick’s left-wing faction, a Harborne Lane Tenants’ Association was formed. This group lobbied and campaigned for the demolition of their substandard homes and their replacement with new build council properties, exactly as had been promised a decade before.
When conventional lobbying tactics failed it was decided to take direct action. This direct action took the form of a protest demonstration blocking the Harborne Lane exit from the Bristol Road. According to Barry, around “one hundred members” of the “39 households” affected took part in this demonstration. Contemporary news footage of the event doesn’t quite back up this figure, however, it is clear that a substantial demonstration of 40-50 people, all clearly local residents, did succeed in causing a substantial traffic tailback and the disruption of a major road artery across Birmingham.
Prominent amongst the demonstrators in the clip is Tom Litterick, kitted out in his Labour left MP’s uniform of scraggly grey hair, red tie, and sports jacket. Stood amidst a number of much younger, casually dressed people, who are identifiable as being associated with the People’s Centre.
Ultimately taking direct action worked for the members of the Harborne Lane Tenants’ Association. The Council did demolish their poor housing and replace it with good new built homes, which continue to provide decent housing for Selly Oak residents to this day. At least one activist prominent in the campaign has described it as being amongst their “great achievements”. What the success of the Harborne Lane residents in securing new homes from the Council shows, is the potential potency of autonomous social centre community organising as practiced by the People’s Centre activists, combined with older, established forms of direct action and organising, honed by working class communities over generations.
On the 11th July 1977 a group of around thirty teenagers arrived at a disused carpet shop on the Bristol Road. Knowing it was unsecured they entered the building clutching the cleaning equipment, tool kits and basic furnishings they’d brought with them. Inside they began cleaning and repairing the space, peeling fly posters off the window to place their own protest signs prominently where they could be seen by passers by. “Independent Youth”, “We want a youth club please”, their hand painted signage read.
Eddie, a spokesperson for the group, told Birmingham Broadside that the group was a split from the 870 Club, based at 870 Bristol Road. He is reported in the magazine as saying:
“On the nights we can’t go to 870 there’s nothing to do, and for those that are unemployed there’s nothing to do during the day”-Birmingham Broadside (August 1977)
They were squatting the shop in protest at the lack of facilities for young people in Selly Oak, stating that they would not leave the premises until the council had promised to provide them with a better youth club that was open more often and catered better for older teenagers who were of working age. By 1977 youth unemployment had become a major social issue in areas like Selly Oak. In the Black Country immediately adjacent to Birmingham, the sociologist Paul Willis was researching the effect of the school leaving age rising from fifteen to sixteen. He was told by the careers teachers he spoke with that “we have a class leaving school, and half the previous year’s class are still unemployed”. This situation created a sense of desperation and fatalism amongst young people that could lead them into trouble with the law.
Eddie, and another member of the group called Tommy, convey this sense of desperation in an interview with ATV news reporter Brian MacLaurin openly stating that people involved with Independent Youth had “stolen cars” and conducted “smash and grabs” prior to getting involved in the campaign. Tommy illustrates their resolve to the reporter saying “the Council wants us out of this place and I doubt that we’ll get another. But if we’re thrown out we’ll keep doing it [squatting buildings] until we get a place.”
Activists involved with the People’s Centre recall they helped the disaffected teenagers in Independent Youth identify the shop they squatted, enter the space, make it usable, and gain publicity for their cause. The People’s Centre, which was no more than fifty metres away from the shop the young people occupied, which was also on the Bristol Road right by the Dog & Partridge Pub, supported the young people in their actions for two reasons. Firstly they felt that it made sense for the youths to channel their energies into productive campaigning work rather than being out on the streets committing minor offences so as to pass the time. Secondly the ethos and objectives of the Independent Youth campaign, the fact it was led by a marginalised section of the community coming together to try and achieve a common goal, coupled with the youth campaigner’s libertarian and DIY outlook, demanding what they felt they were owed by society as a right, very much chimed with the Centre activist’s core beliefs and ideas about how desirable social change would come about.
It is clear from the ATV interview and the Birmingham Broadside coverage that the adult activists at the People’s Centre were a model for the young people. Eddie and Tommy talk about an autonomous community space where young people can drop in and play “games like darts and pool”, and they also talk about taking on the role of youth workers, they stress that they want to provide advice and support to young people who need it, much as the People’s Centre activists provided space and advice to those in need to adult members of the Selly Oak community.
Ultimately it is hard to know whether Independent Youth was successful in their campaign for better youth services in Selly Oak. An article in the next issue of Broadside from September 1977 says that Independent Youth had “left the shop peacefully when they officially informed that it was let”. The report goes on to say that:
“Independent Youth have already been able to offer help to teenagers with all sorts of problems ranging from legal and social security hassles to suicide attempts. They have also become aware that there are a large number of youths sleeping rough in the area and a long term aim is to obtain separate premises for use as a hostel.”– Birmingham Broadside (September 1977)
The Broadside piece concludes “at present they are busy applying for grants and looking for buildings suitable for conversion into a club. They have already been offered the use of equipment until they can get their own” at the end of the article a correspondence address is listed “Independent Youth, c / o 768 Bristol Road”, indicating that they were using the Selly Oak People’s Centre exactly as intended, as a resource for their campaign to secure better services for young people in the area.
Death of a People’s Centre
In 1976 the Conservative Party took control of Birmingham City Council from Labour. A year later the Conservatives also took control of the West Midlands County Council meaning the party controlled every level of local government in Birmingham. Birmingham’s Conservative administration disliked grassroots community spaces and resource centres operating outside of formal council control considering them essentially subversive organisations. This was in contrast to the previous Labour controlled council, which had been criticised by grassroots left and radical community groups for being bureaucratic and cautious, but had been willing to work with, or at least tolerate, squatting and other forms of radical autonomous community action.
First Edwina Currie-who at the time was a Birmingham councillor and the Chair of the Social Services Committee-cut off all council funding for organisations using the People’s Centre and blocked it from applying for grants. Then at the end of 1977 the Council gave 21 days notice they wanted the space back, despite not having a tenant lined up for the shop, which was supposedly still going to be knocked down.
Birmingham Broadside, a staunch supporter of grassroots direct action and autonomous resource centres across the city, phoned up “Mr. Alexander” the Conservative Councillor for Selly Oak, to ask him about the threat to the People’s Centre. He told them:
“‘I think the Centre is just a cover for printing left-wing propaganda’. Asked if he could quote any such propaganda Mr. Alexander said: ‘no’. He also didn’t know of any advice work the Centre did. ‘I’ve never met anyone who was advised there’, he said, ‘and in my opinion if people want advice they should go to their local councillor’. He then hung up the phone”–Birmingham Broadside (December/January 1977/8)
The Centre’s groups were offered the use of Council offices on nearby Katie Road, for meetings and running advice clinics. But moving there, represented a substantial downgrade in terms of space, location and autonomy. A committee was formed to try and save the space, and their campaign received support from the local community, whilst sympathetic press from Birmingham Broadside and other alternative publications continued. Benefit gigs were put on to raise funds for the campaign and awareness of the threat to the Centre amongst the wider city.
However, in the end, some time between December 1977 and the spring of 1978 (Like the Centre’s opening date there’s no record of when exactly), despite the best efforts of picketers attempting to stop the Council’s bailiffs and officials taking the building, 768 Bristol Road was restored to the control of City of Birmingham Council. It’s whitewashed windows and padlocked door were rapidly coated with layers of fly posters once more.
The origins of this (incomplete) research project lie in the Activist Selly Oak project which ran in the University of Birmingham’s School of History & Cultures between the spring and summer of 2018. It was here that the brilliant story of the People’s Centre short existance and the constellations of groups and campaigns associated with and enabled by it first came to my attention. The Activist Selly Oak project was financially enabled by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. I have written previously about its motivations and findings here. Numerous volunteers, interns, professionals and creative practioners enabled the project to take place, but particular thanks and acknowledgement must go to Chloë, Chris and Patrick without whom-in various ways-it never would have happened. Copious thanks also to the participants who shared their stories and their personal and to the archive staff who store and enable access to publicly avaliable records. Let the names of Anne, Barry and Ian who are quoted here, and Helen who is an archivst, stand for all of them. Thanks for the impetous to write this particular draft of a chunk of south Birmingham’s radical history in the dying days of the post-war consensus must go to the folk at Multistory who Kindly encouraged me to spend a chunk of the Covid-19 lockdown in spring 2020, sifting through the research I had on file, conducting new interviews, and thinking about what the story of “A People’s Centre for Selly Oak” might be.