I’ve recently dug out and scanned these photos I took of the ‘Battle for the Pullens Estate’ 32 years ago.
Now a thriving mix of residential and working spaces the Pullens estate came very close to being completely obliterated.
On June 10th 1986 squatters attempted to repel police and bailiffs intent on evicting them prior to the demolition of the estate. The events of that day changed the tide of housing policy in Southwark.
Built in the 1890s by James Pullen & Son this estate of ‘model dwellings’ was an experiment in building tenement style dwellings (rather than houses) for the working classes. These were built by a variety of philanthropic and commercial landlords in London from the 1850s through to the 1890s, when the London County Council was formed and the first public housing estate built.
When completed the Pullens estate was made of 684 almost identical one-bedroom dwellings with 106 workshops and shops accessed from the mews behind. The Pullens Estate is exceptional in having workshop provision and a cobbled yard to the rear of each block. This combination of workers’ housing, industrial units and shops contrasts with better known schemes by the Peabody Trust which concentrated almost exclusively on providing housing alone. Every incomer had to make a deposit of 24 shillings, which, in effect, barred poor tenants.
Charles Booth wrote about the Pullens in his poverty diaries, “In Iliffe Street some are still building and old Mr Pullen in a top hat and fustian suit was on a scaffolding superintending; walls flush with the pavement but protected with iron railings from the street”. Booth also noted that the Pullens was so popular that people were moving in “before the wallpaper was dry”. By 1901, at the time of the death of James, the Pullens estate housed 1000 families, many of whom were extended and multi-generational families, occupying multiple flats across the estate. The estate continued to be family run until 1977 when it was sold to Southwark Council.
In 1977, Southwark Council bought the Pullens Estate by compulsory purchase order with the intention of demolishing it. Tenants and a Dulwich Conservative councillor (but local resident), Toby Eckersley, took the Council to the High Court and won a reprieve for half of the estate. Families were moved out, some new single tenants moved on to the estate and many of the vacant properties were squatted.
In 1986, however, Southwark Council served eviction notices and at 6.15am on 10th June, police and bailiffs arrived. Pullens residents were organised and prepared, they had barricaded their flats against forcible entry. 26 evictions were carried through, but by the next day council tenants had moved into seven flats and 19 were re-squatted. Negotiations followed and squatters were awarded caretakers’ rights, followed by official tenancies. Plans to demolish the rest of the estate were abandoned and residents set about securing the use of the Tenants Association Hall, the installation of Pullens Gardens on the site of a demolished block of the Pullens and in working to secure and repair the structures and the installation of bathrooms.
Diana would like to thank her sources: Roger Batchelor and PEN