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Stories of ‘70s in SE1

A group of activists in Blackfriars and Waterloo who worked together in the ‘70s – and even published their own local newspaper – have reunited to create an exhibition of rare photographs capturing the trailblazing era.

The group banded together to form SE1 Stories in 2019 after the discovery of thousands of photographs in the archives of Southwark and Lambeth councils. The pictorial treasure trove documents the story of the communities of North Southwark and Waterloo fighting for their rights during the 1970s and 1980s.

“Most of us were from the Blackfriars Settlement Community Action Scheme. We were volunteers who wanted to work in the community in a sort of political way, on a local level, to enable people to have more power,” Anthony Robertson-Jonas, from SE1 Stories, told the Biscuit.

The Blackfriars Settlement dates back to the 19th century; when Jim Radford was appointed as director, in the early ‘70s, he had the radical idea of not just trying to do good but also helping locals have more control over their lives. “Community action was a big thing at the time,” Anthony recalls. “SE1 has a lot of council housing and Housing Associations, particularly Peabody, so we focused on Peabody estates and helping them to start Tenants’ Associations.”

Early on, the group recognised the importance of keeping locals well informed, particularly around new developments in the area and the need for more social housing. “The docks had closed, there was lots of empty warehouses and vacant land so developers saw this as a prime opportunity to build office buildings, which is where the money was at the time,” Anthony says. “Southwark and Lambeth councils were very in favour of this and saw it as an opportunity to generate income. The population in central London was declining and with it went the services: schools and shops were all closing but people were still living in the area.”

With this, Anthony and his fellow volunteers decided to launch their own local press: SE1 Newspaper. “We decided it would be a really good way of telling people what was going on but none of us had done anything like that before. Morley College put on a course teaching us how to do it!” Anthony says.

From 1975-1991, the volunteers wrote all the articles, took photographs, did layout and design, found a printing press and distributed the newspaper themselves. They even used an old shop front on Meymott Street that they’d been squatting in as their office. “Those buildings were owned by Sainsbury’s -they had their HQ round the corner- so we did a deal with them to use the building,” Anthony says. “It was all volunteers and we’d spend a full weekend once a month working on it. We got newsagents in the area to sell it as well and they didn’t take a cut.”

“We were unapologetically campaigning but we featured local community events as well.”
During the ‘90s, everyone went their separate ways; Anthony moved to Camberwell and worked in housing. The group reunited when they heard about the discovery of the photo archives and began meeting at Southwark Archives in November 2019. After the pandemic closed the centre, they switched to zoom meetings, continuing their cataloguing with the help of Chris Scales at Southwark Archives. After securing funding from Blackfriars Stories, they planned to put on an exhibition.

The first showing, featuring over 50 photographs, was at Blackfriars Settlement in October 2021. It then moved to Morley College, gallery@oxo and Coin Street neighbourhood centre. It’s currently available to view online and the group are looking for more venues to exhibit at in future.
“We wanted to make an exhibition that was not just a record of the past but a pointer of what’s happening now,” Anthony says. “There’s still a lot of development in the area. The more you look back, the more you realise history repeats itself.”

The full archive of SE1 Newspaper is online and also available at Southwark Archives on Borough High Street.

View the full exhibition online at:
https://se1stories.uk

 

This article is brought to you by our sister publication The Bermondsey Biscuit and Rotherhithe Docker

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