Progressive, not rebellious: the student occupation of Croydon College of Art

By - Thursday 14th June, 2018

The strikes and protests in France in May 1968 sent reverberations around the world, and Croydon was no exception

Student barricades in Paris.
Photo public domain.

A protest outside the French embassy on Sunday 26th May led to twenty-three people being charged for ‘threatening behaviour, obstruction, and assaulting the police’. Among them was twenty-one-year-old accounts clerk Matthew Feddis, who lived on Clyde Road in Addiscombe. According to the prosecutor, “he was pushing and jostling at the police cordon”, but they agreed that he wasn’t trying to hurt anyone, and he got away with a £10 fine.

Other Croydon residents were caught up by the French disturbances more directly. Twenty-five eleven-year-olds from the Good Shepherd Roman Catholic School in New Addington were unable to return home via Dieppe and had to make their own way to Boulogne to board a British-operated vessel. Ashburton Junior, which originally planned to join them with forty-five students, had already cancelled their trip. Sixty-two Catholics from Croydon and Coulsdon completed their annual pilgrimage aboard the only aircraft to land and take off from Lourdes all week. The group’s leader, Father John Lennon from Waddon, described it as “like going to a ghost country”.

One Croydon student was closer to the action. Mary Hynes, a twenty-year-old alumna of Coloma Convent studying sociology at City University, had got to Paris on Thursday 23rdAs she recounted to the Advertiser, “We had scarcely arrived at the Sorbonne, where we expected to get beds, when the peaceful scene was shattered” by riot police wielding shields, with guns across their shoulders. She interviewed the Faculty of Science’s strike committee and found it “fantastic to see the students running the whole show and the professors taking orders from them”. She reportedly took many pictures but feared that the police would smash her camera if she tried to photograph the fighting; Hynes claimed that there was a “visible tear-gas haze over the city” and spoke about how her eyes swelled painfully. It’s not surprising that her parents were relieved when she returned home on the following Sunday.

There was a spate of occupations of British art colleges

But student occupations also took place closer to home. If the London School of Economics was first occupied as early as 1966, the French example gave the British struggles a new lease of life. As well as universities, there was a spate of occupations at art colleges. On Wednesday 5th June the Hornsey students received a vote of support from the college’s staff. The same day, a representative from the occupation – Roger Haydon – headed south to address students at the Croydon College of Art. Seventy students at the college went into occupation on that first night, accompanied by one member of staff.

On the Thursday 350 students (out of a total of 1,600) gathered at the South Norwood annex to hammer out a manifesto. They were worried that not receiving the Diploma in Art and Design meant that they would find it harder to get jobs. They wanted admission to be based on artistic merit, not qualifications. But they also called for a more equal relationship with staff, closer interactions with other schools and amongst annexes, and “the encouragement of liaison between art colleges and the public”. One occupier, Richard Clark, declared they were tired of being “ugly ducklings”.

Things were tense from the beginning. There were only 368 full-time students at the college, and the occupation was opposed by part-time photography students keen to use the annex. But it was also forward-thinking and assertive. Robin Scott, later the singer-founder of new wave band M, was appointed as ‘press officer’ – he secured an appearance on the BBC’s Town and Around, and an interview with The Times. The occupation captured the town’s attention, with Advertiser journalists excited by the “minor revolution”.

At Croydon, the occupation received very little support from staff

At other art schools, reprisals had been vicious – at Surrey, forty-five members of staff were dismissed. In Croydon, the occupation received relatively little support from staff, but it did receive the cautious, begrudged respect of many in the Conservative-dominated council and wider community. The chairman of the Croydon Education Committee, Councillor Paul Saunders, heaped praise on the students once the occupation had ended, highlighting their maintenance of the building, scrupulous hygiene and meticulous conduct. Although the Advertiser received one letter condemning the students’ ill-discipline, the newspaper published an editorial in sympathy with the occupation.

To some extent, the occupation’s demands matched those of the council, frustrated earlier in the year by cuts which delayed a £500,000 art-college project. Where Hornsey students lamented the introduction of the Diploma in Art and Design, Croydon students were asking to be allowed to take it. As the Advertiser noted, “Theirs was no demonstration in support of ‘student power’. They displayed no desire to rule the world (or even Croydon Corporation). Their demands were limited to some reform of their own situation, and there was none of the violence that has marked similar demonstrations in other places”. The Croydon occupiers made a conscious effort to demarcate themselves from students elsewhere, and thereby retain the sympathy of the authorities.

But the council’s friendliness should not be exaggerated – it was partly an effort to co-opt and undermine the occupation, and to carve a line between the moderates and more radical occupiers. Letters were sent to every student on Monday 10thinforming them the staff had agreed to discussions. On Tuesday, the Education Department ordered that the annex’s telephones be cut off. Invited to send delegates to talks at College Road, 300 students left the annex effectively unguarded; that evening, the caretaker locked the premises and the occupation was abandoned. Robin Scott tried to put an optimistic spin on things, but by Thursday he had resigned his post and ‘disappeared’. The focus shifted to reconciliation, with a conference planned for 3rd July and a joint staff-student exhibition aimed at ratepayers from 2nd July to 13th July. The episode was finally ended on Friday 5th July with a 130-29 vote in favour of compromise, and defeat for the militant Students’ Association.

Malcolm McLaren spent the year at Croydon College of Art

If it did not achieve all its goals, the occupation was still a formative experience for those involved. Malcolm McLaren, a ‘professional student’, spent the year at Croydon College of Art before moving to Goldsmiths at the end of 1968. Unable to visit his friend Fred Vermorel at the Sorbonne, he poured energy into the Croydon occupation, and later brought situationist influences into his management of the New York Dolls and the Sex Pistols. His friend and fellow-occupier, Croydon-born Jamie Reid, designed the Pistols’ album covers and posters, but not before he founded the early 1970s zine Suburban Press, based in West Croydon. Robin Scott got to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 with 1979′s ‘Pop Muzik’: the ‘Paris, London, Rome, Berlin’ of 1968 was supplanted by ‘New York, London, Paris, Munich’.

Other consequences were closer to home. One of the occupiers, Malcolm St. Julian-Brown – with the help of a friend in a poster firm, Harry Turner – started a weekly music group playing jazz, blues and pop at the Gun Tavern on Church Street. Their first night got an audience of 200, though one ‘rocker’ “decided that we were playing devil music, and hit one of the musicians – they were just pleased to get a reaction!”. They hoped to build on the group’s success with an arts centre, applying to the council for premises.

The pair was trying to direct the occupation’s energy into transforming the town centre, then recently constructed but already a “cold, dead place”. That’s an energy which Croydon could do with finding once again.

Daniel Frost

Daniel Frost

Dan spent his younger years in Croydon before moving away, only to return to Addiscombe in 2014. He is a Labour Party and Momentum activist, and a member of the club committee at Ruskin House. Dan is currently studying towards a PhD in History at the University of Reading, and receives funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council via the South, West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership. His research focuses upon left-wing activism in Croydon from the 1950s until the 1990s, and he is always keen to hear another story or two from those who were there.

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