Kenneth Leech writes in his 1973 book, Keep The Faith Baby, about the ‘hippy stronghold’, Hells Angels, and skinheads.
My first involvement with 144 was on 3 September 1969, when three members of the Commune, Bernard, Bennett and Pete, called to see me at St Anne’s House, and said they had occupied 144 Piccadilly in the name of the ‘London Arts Commune’. They asked me if I would visit the house and write a letter verifying that they were in possession. This I did on the same date. A few days later the occupation hit the national press. About fifty people had moved in initially on a Sunday evening, getting in through the basement, and they rigged up a kind of moat, a gap between the house and the street. A security group kept out invaders. One of the Commune described what happened next.
Next morning we put out banners saying we were squatting and the next thing we knew we were in the papers. Then a crowd started gathering and a load of anarchists and the usual power freaks came down hoping to start the revolution of something, you know. So we thought we’d better decide what to do, but there were so many people that nobody could agree on anything. One thing that was decided, however, was that a defence force should be formed. Somebody had invited a load of Hell’s Angels down from the South Coast and Windsor Chapter, and they acted as the defence force against the police and the skinheads who had turned up for the agro. As the week went by more and more straight people were gathering outside, along with the reporters and so on. We had to vet people as they came in, to check they weren’t plain-clothes policemen or the Press. Everything was in a bit of a turmoil, what with people trying to become leaders and trying to organize food and so on. Then things like batches of cigarettes started appearing from somewhere and Apple Records gave us some Beatles’ records and a record player appeared and there was quite a lot of money there. By this time there were abot 5-600 people there.
After a few days, large numbers of skinheads appeared, as well as police. Plastic balls filled with water were used to throw at both skinheads and police. I still have two of these balls which were brought to me after the events. Eventually, however, the police managed to get into the house, and Phil Cohen (‘Dr John’) was taken to West End Central Police Station. While the 144 events were happening, the school in Endell Street was still occupied, but soon afterweards the police invaded these premises also and took away about sixty people. Most of them were given conditional discharges or suspended sentences.
The reaction of the straight press to the occupations was fairly uniformly hostile. The Church Times was horrified, and exclaimed, in its issue of 26 September:
Sympathy with these young anarchists is misplaced … Most of them seem to be simply idlers who expect to live at the expense of other people, who batten on the very society which they condemn and attack, and who are only too eager to follow the lead of a handful of ruthless men with the avowed aim of destroying the whole fabric of society.
With these sentiments the beats of Piccadilly agreed. As the writer quoted above said:
Looking back on it, I think a lot of people got the wrong idea about the Street Commune. It wasn’t for squatting homeless families – in fact the whole thing was supposed to be against the family. The commune was for kids on the Dilly, on the road, coming into London. Some people did have political reasons for doing it, but most of the so-called politicos who came in to 144 and afterwards were too straight, they didn’t understand the scene, they couldn’t relate to the kids and people resented them. I think as far as most of the kids were concerned, the main reason for squatting was to get a place to stay and get a real scene together.