The Fire Last Time

The history of the Grenfell Tower disaster stretches back into mid-century housing policy.

A missing poster for victims lost in the Grenfell Tower fire, London, England. Stephen Joel Mott

On a Sunday morning in February 1959, a four-year-old named Adeola Ornitiri fell against the oil stove her family used to heat their Paddington flat. The appliance toppled over, spilling burning oil across the floor where she and her three siblings were playing.

Her mother bundled them out of the room and into the hallway. She ran upstairs to get a bucket of water, but the flames spread too fast, and the blazing staircase cut her off as she came back down. Her husband managed to get through the fire, and together they made it to an adjoining third-floor rooftop. Mrs Ornitiri gripped her husband’s arms as he lowered her over the edge.

He let go, and she dropped twenty-five feet to neighbors who were waiting to catch her. Then Mr Ornitiri jumped, shattering his heel upon landing.

Another neighbor, Fred Reardon, grabbed Adeola and the other children and carried them to safety. Fred’s daughter-in-law, Rose Reardon, comforted the children in her home nearby.

The fire trapped another couple in their second-floor flat. Gerald Lionel climbed out of the window and hung from the sill. Once he steadied himself on the frame below, his pregnant wife Martina used his body as a ladder to climb down.

Gerald’s brother was on the top floor. Firefighters managed to rescue him, but he suffered severe burns. Sixty-year-old Anne Ferris was also saved, but not without serious injuries. The firefighters, however, couldn’t reach a young woman named Josephine Albert. She died, most likely from smoke inhalation.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s you could read stories like this every week. Mary Williams was eighty when she died from burns sustained while struggling to warm her home. Burns from an electric heater killed Louisa Cann at ninety-three. The Kirke family lost their two baby girls when a mattress caught fire in their single room in Notting Hill. These fires have a long history, and last week’s horrors at Grenfell Tower revived it.

Today’s North Kensington residents insist that the fire that consumed their building was no accident, and they are absolutely right. Piki Seku explained it to BBC News:

There’s two options. They could either regenerate the blocks, or they could knock them down. And after that, I’m not so sure that was totally an accident . . . The whole situation that’s going on in this area, the way that they don’t want us here, and they put those rich man’s blocks over there . . . the lifts in this block, and all the blocks around, they only cost 60 grand to fix and they still never replaced them throughout the time I’ve lived here.

The Grenfell Action Group cataloged the neglect that directly led to this tragedy: defunct fire extinguishers, no whole-building alarm system, no sprinkler system, faulty wiring, broken elevators, and, of course, the aluminum and plastic cladding that, by all accounts, went up like a book of matches. Producing this documentation itself counts as a political act, one reflected in the anger we are seeing on the streets right now.

An accident happens unexpectedly, but none of the above suggests a lack of foresight. Nor does the decades-old history of violence toward black and working-class families in Britain — a history in which house fires are an insidious feature. We can’t call these accidents when continual gross negligence keeps producing the same results. At that point, an accident becomes an instrument of systemic violence.

The London of the 1950s and early 1960s echoes the London of today; the affluent London that apparently triumphed over wartime austerity mirrors the London that came back from the 2008 crash. In both stories, a predatory property boom benefited the few while leaving the many behind.

Uneven Risk

In 1961, the London County Council (LCC, the forerunner of today’s Greater London Authority) noted an alarming rise in the number of house fires across the city. The LCC compared several so-called high-risk neighborhoods, including Brixton, Norwood, and Islington. North Kensington topped the list with almost double the average number of fires per resident each year.

Kensington also had the largest discrepancy between different areas in a single borough: almost five times as many fires occurred in the north as in the south. Nearby Paddington had the highest overall risk index, with relatively frequent house fires throughout the borough.

The paths that fires cut through cities are not indiscriminate. London’s mythology tells us that, during its most famous traumatic moments — from the Great Fire to the Blitz — residents united against a universal threat. But house fires follow a specific pattern. The following history draws on research in the London Metropolitan Archives in an attempt to trace that pattern.

Oil stoves caused many of the fires that the LCC documented, like the one that killed Josephine Albert in 1959. Many low-income homes relied on these heaters, and their risks stood in sharp contrast to the comforts of central heating, which many households were enjoying for the first time in modern public housing.

Meanwhile, private companies, as well as the nationalized gas and electricity boards, were developing new technologies for home heating. Nevertheless, oil stoves remained the preferred heating method for households locked in poverty thanks to the dynamics of the real-estate industry and institutional racism.

Oil stoves often malfunctioned or fell over, but the paraffin they used didn’t cost much. Families could purchase second-hand heaters cheaply. No doubt they formed part of the survival kit that people assembled in order to make a life for themselves. Back then, people had to choose between staying warm and burning alive. Today, many choose between heating and eating a decent meal.

Despite technological advancements, manufacturers were still producing new oil heaters with defective parts. It took an Act of Parliament — the Oil Burners Standards Act of 1960, later incorporated into the Consumer Protection Act of 1962 — to tighten up safety regulations for these products, which companies deliberately marketed to poorer households.

This phenomenon might remind us of the four million faulty tumble dryers that Whirlpool had to withdraw after one of them caused a blaze at another block of flats last year. It might also remind of us of the Sun’s double-page spread implying that the owner of a faulty refrigerator started the fire at Grenfell. In all cases, the media associated a dangerous product with an irresponsible consumer — and not the negligent manufacturer.

This rather elaborate example of victim-blaming also has racial undertones. (The Daily Mail described the fridge owner as an Ethiopian taxi driver.) Similar racist ideas informed the authorities’ understanding of oil heaters in the 1950s.

Then, commentators and politicians saw oil heaters as not only a consumer problem, but also a migrant problem. They explained how people who had recently come to London from the Caribbean were still adjusting to the English climate as well as to English manners, implying that lack of familiarity with the cold weather made immigrants indulge in dangerous forms of heating while their gregarious and carefree nature made them reckless and untidy.

However, the major cause of this epidemic of fires was not faulty appliances but poor-quality housing. Blazes tended to occur in multiple-occupancy, privately rented buildings — often the grand Victorian and Edwardian houses that were repeatedly subdivided, made over in the new style of death-trap postmodernism. The fires tore through the homes of people without access to council estates’ new central heating systems and those who couldn’t afford high-quality goods.

Over the course of its fire-safety inspection program, the LCC discovered widespread compromises to tenants’ safety. Building owners blocked fire escapes to adjoining roofs when they turned hallways into bedrooms. Stairwells became chimneys when upper-level fire doors were removed. Ladders disappeared. Broken light fixtures left corridors dark for weeks on end. The limited number of electrical outlets couldn’t cope with the extra load, and landlords often had the wiring installed cheaply anyway. Overcrowding meant that fire spread quickly through cluttered rooms, and the number of people inside added to the chaos during an emergency.

These midcentury disasters have clear parallels with Grenfell Tower. Aside from the cladding that spread flames up the sides of the tower, a range of internal failures meant that the principle of containment simply didn’t work.

As in the past, it seems that overcrowding quite likely exacerbated problem. Up to six hundred people are thought to have lived in the building’s one hundred and twenty flats, meaning that many of the apartments were probably legally overcrowded.

If nothing else, this should make London mayor Sadiq Khan think twice about suggesting, in an otherwise strong article, that “it may well be the defining outcome of this tragedy that the worst mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s are systematically torn down.” While high-rise buildings do pose challenges in terms of fire safety, there is nothing inherently less dangerous about a typical Victorian house — typical in the sense that these buildings historically contained the converted dwellings of millions of working-class people. With the rise of “Generation Rent,” they are once again filling that function.

How we occupy and adapt existing buildings matters as much as, if not more than, their architectural style. Any building — tower block or terrace, mansion, or cottage — becomes dangerous when it’s overcrowded.

Before the fire, Grenfell Tower, originally built in 1974 as council housing, contained a mixture of owner-occupied and privately rented flats alongside the remaining social housing units. The North Kensington Law Centre stated that, due to unofficial sublets, we may never identify some of the residents. Those unnamed victims will have been disappeared by a property system that says, “If your name isn’t on the contract, you don’t exist.”

This invisibility is the true cost of overcrowding. In the United Kingdom today, over half a million people live in overcrowded housing, roughly the same number as in 1951 (though how we define overcrowding has indeed changed). The 1950s and 1960s inherited some of these issues from the early twentieth century, and wartime shortages and bomb damage made the housing crisis even more urgent. No such excuse exists today.

Back then, seven million homes were described as either “unfit for human habitation” or lacking basic amenities like hot water and an indoor toilet. Today’s Tory government includes seventy-two landlord MPs who happily voted down a Labour amendment that would require building owners to make their properties safe and healthy environments for residents. Modern housing standards may have improved, but politicians’ behavior has, if anything, regressed.

In both the midcentury and today, similar forces act within the real-estate industry and government housing policy. These forces are most intense in certain parts of London, where they have brought the crisis to a head, turning poor housing into deadly housing.

In the 1950s and 1960s, North Kensington was one of these places — ground zero for property speculators and among the riskiest neighborhoods in terms of fire safety.

Speculator’s Paradise

The northwestern corner of Kensington, where postwar housing estates and old Victorian bye-law streets twist into a complex pattern between the flyovers and railway tracks, can seem a world apart from the townhouses located just a five-minute walk away. Walk southeast for another mile, toward the embassies and mansions of Palace Green, and you may feel you’ve crossed into another dimension.

As many know, North Kensington was home base for the infamous slum landlord Peter Rachman. It’s worth remembering Rachman because his career displayed many of the traits of a property system whose reckless drive for profit we recognize today. We can trace much of the real-estate industry’s ugly side back, through Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal revolution and the decimation of council housing, to his practices.

Rachman started buying up properties in North Kensington and surrounding areas in the mid-1950s. He acquired cheap tail-end leases. At the time, the ninety-nine-year contracts issued by the big old estates — such as the Charecrofts Estate (owned by the Campden Trust), the Duke of Westminster’s St George’s Estate, or the Church Commissioners’ Paddington Estate — were expiring, and existing leaseholders wanted to dispose of properties they thought of as liabilities rather than assets.

Rachman, who has come to symbolize the very worst of the landlord class, participated in a larger dynamic in which capital was pulled out of low-quality residential property and reinvested elsewhere — mostly in commercial property in central London. This dynamic fueled the 1950s office-block boom, which has arguably blighted the urban fabric of British cities more than slum clearance or high-rise construction.

The radical geographer Neil Smith has described how this disinvestment-reinvestment dynamic drives gentrification. Taking money out of neighborhoods runs down properties, lowering their value; a “rent gap” opens up between their actual value and the potential value speculators expect to get. Property traders look for areas they think they can “flip” over in this way, turning undesirable neighorhoods into desirable ones.

David Harvey has described something similar in his theory of class monopoly rent. Cities, like ecosystems, contain huge amounts of untapped value, locked up in their slowly accumulating social and physical infrastructure. At first, no one person or company may own much of this value. Instead, it belongs to the commons: it is the value of community, the value of public amenities, and the value of centuries of adjustments to the built environment. To capture this value, speculators need to carve out a zone that has unique and exclusive attributes, where they can exercise a monopoly.

They accomplish this by disinvesting and reinvesting — running down some areas, building up others; forcing some people out, pulling others in. They aim to create comparative value between neighborhoods. An exclusive part of town becomes exclusive when it compares favorably to the run-down area nearby.

Capital moving between these areas generates the windfall profits that speculators hunt for. It’s not just that investing in working-class housing is less profitable than investing in luxury housing. Rather, disinvesting from working-class housing is an essential part of a profitable investment strategy.

What did Rachman do with the properties he bought in North Kensington? He subdivided them into shoddy flats and bedsits, secured new mortgages on each one through a range of subsidiary companies, brought in the most vulnerable tenants he could find, charged them extortionate rents, and used those rents to pay off the new mortgages, which in turn provided him with the capital for his next venture.

During his short career, Rachman made a fortune, and, by the end, he had moved from dealing in the cheapest North Kensington properties to plans of embarking on a huge development scheme in the United States. His was a classic, if twisted, case of strategic disinvestment-reinvestment. And North Kensington was his laboratory.

Rachman, of course, was participating in a much larger phenomenon, which the Tory government of his day aided and abetted. For example, the 1957 Rent Act partially removed rent controls, making it easier for landlords to force out tenants. In the early 1950s, the Tories had in fact greatly accelerated social housing output, but, by mid-decade, they were slowing down public construction while edging society away from the delicate postwar consensus. They championed homeownership as the dream of all right-minded people and heavily subsidized mortgage lending.

The parallels with today’s situation — where the government “Help to Buy” program has actually increased inequality — are striking. In the twenty years after World War II, the deteriorating private rental sector was being sucked into the maelstrom of property speculation. Today, the deteriorating stock of public housing is experiencing a similar fate.

Against a welfare state founded partly on the idea of redistributing social and physical risks — the risks of unemployment, of injury, of poor health — we have a property system that actively produces risk for specific sets of people. This system manufactures, sustains, and transfers risk onto working-class people. Then it burns down their homes, willing to sacrifice lives in the pursuit of profit.

Shock Resistance

North Kensington’s community has thrived despite the property system’s violence. Its residents have fought back against constant harassment. It is deeply ironic that the current push to redevelop the area comes after sixty years of community building by activists and radical cultural organizers who created the legendary basement clubs, opened up the squares and gardens, and established the Notting Hill Carnival. They made the area desirable, and now, not for the first time, speculators are coming for their share.

What happens next remains to be seen. Will Grenfell Tower become another Hurricane Katrina — a disaster that ultimately creates more opportunities for privatization, profiteering, and community destruction? Will it become another case study for the shock doctrine?

Or will we turn the tables on the property system, help communities heal and rebuild, and turn around the whole rotten Tory housing agenda?