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1970s: Victoria St Squats, Sydney

Posted by on January 16, 2012

During the early 1970s Victoria Street in Kings Cross became the focus of a long running anti-development struggle that brought together long term residents, unionists and squatters in a campaign which reignited squatting across the city. The following article, written by Shane, originally appeared in Crowbar My Heart #3, 2009:

This unaccountably long article is about the struggle over Victoria Street in the 1970s. The street was squatted midway through that struggle, so you have to get through a fair bit of background here if that’s all you’re interested in. I guess you can skip ahead to the occupation, but you would miss some really great stuff about a 1970s karate champion, and, oh, some political stuff too, I guess. Your call. – Ed.

For too long, we, the people of the inner city, have stood passively by while developers were wrecking once viable communities and replacing them with a soulless wilderness of motels, office blocks, car parks and apartments for the rich.

- Victoria Street Rag, 1974.

Frank, you’re missing it, baby, don’t you understand what it’s about? This struggle hasn’t been for you, Frank Theeman, to sit down with me, Mick Fowler, and offer me the fucking world. You know. There’s been 339 other people come into this. There’s been men out of work and people arrested and beaten and handcuffed and Christ knows what. There’s been death. There’s been kidnapping. Don’t you understand? I don’t want any money.

- Mick Fowler, 1974

In the early 70s, King’s Cross’s grip on its working class heritage was increasingly tenuous. Long-time resident Jim Stevens said the development that would transform the area “seemed to begin with the Chevron Hotel. It mushroomed. It was what they prefer to call ‘progress’, but it was progress backwards.” But some areas were holding out against the changes. Victoria Street, “one of the most elegant and attractive areas” of the Cross, was still full of wharfies, low-income city workers (cleaners, etc), labourers, artists and pensioners. As Ian and Teresa, who would go on to squat on the street, put it, “While the rest of the Cross fell victim to R and R and toy koalas, Victoria Street remained unchanged.” But this was not to last.

A protracted building industry boom, nurtured by corrupt, pro-business state and local governments had saturated the CBD with skyscrapers. Now Victoria Street and similar inner-city areas (in the Rocks, Waterloo, etc) sang out to developers looking for the next move. The Civic Reform Association, a Liberal front running Sydney city council, was setting up incentives for developers to buy larger areas, generally by amalgamating small plots. The bigger the block of land you controlled, the higher you would be allowed to build, and thus the more value you could squeeze out of the land. (I guess this is a great deal if you are looking to build, like, a pyramid. Unfortunately, no developers were.) Meanwhile, the Askin state liberal government – corrupt on a truly epic scale – had recently abolished the protections of the Landlords and Tenants Act in 1969. Tenants had few rights and developers had strong incentives to acquire large tracts of homes. On the one hand, and in many cases, this was disastrous for residents. On the other, it created a unique possibility for struggle, as whole neighbourhoods could now unite against single owners trying to evict them.

In March, 1970 Frank Theeman’s Victoria Point Pty Ltd started buying up the properties between 55 and 115 Victoria St with a view to knocking them down and throwing up some highrises. Theeman had a good look for the small-scale James Bond villain he was about to become; a short, round, hunched little man with glasses and thin hair that wasn’t quite a combover yet. He had come to Australia from Vienna 30 years earlier, and somehow on the boat over convinced another of the passengers to back him in setting up a lingerie business. By the 60s, he was one of Australia’s richest textile magnates, and easily recognised the tax benefits being doled out to property speculators.

His initial plan was to replace the terraces with three 45-storey towers and a carpark. Sydney City Council under the CRA rubberstamped the plan, but the State Planning Authority – not then an especially critical body – rejected it as “one of the worst cases of visual pollution” it had ever seen. A second, slightly more moderate plan – “a 20-storey tower set on a 3-storey podium with stepped development and a 6-storey carpark” – passed council in April 73.

At this point, Theeman hired a real-estate “troubleshooter”, Fred Fletcher, “to get everybody out, within the week if possible”. Between visits by agents and letters of termination, somewhere between 300 and 400 tenants were asked to leave within that week. Around half did so, some receiving token compensation (ranging from $20 to $200) or offers of re-housing. Resident Diane Cleymans recalled, “A lot of the old people were given only about two days’ notice. They found a lot of them rooms to move away into from here – dark, dingy old rooms. It was awful watching the old people move out.”

Those who stayed faced a mixture of lies, intimidation and vandalism. Some were told the buildings were condemned, that the utilities were being disconnected, or were simply removed by force – as in the case of one 84-year-old tenant who’d lived there 40 years. The agents refused to accept rent from tenants who remained. At night, Theeman’s men removed locks, kicked doors in, removed stained glass and wrought iron, and threw bricks through windows.

The residents, however, were far from helpless – some had been expecting trouble before the first evictions began. On April 8, Arthur King called a meeting outside his flat at 97a, Victoria Street. Anne Coombs later described him as “a short, nuggety man who looks like he would have made a good lightweight boxer. He is clearly someone who gives as good as he gets.” As well as local residents, King invited some old friends from the famous Sydney Libertarian group, the Push. He called in on Darcy Waters and Wendy Bacon, who lived nearby, and asked if they’d be interested in coming to the residents’ meeting. Waters, along with Roelof Smilde, was the de facto leader of the group, and Bacon was its newest celebrity. She’d gained notoriety as an anti-censorship campaigner and editor of the student newspaper Tharunka and its non-uni-based offshoot, Thor . The first of many times she was charged with obscenity, for publishing a bawdy bush ballad, she turned up to court wearing a nun’s habit with the words, “I have been fucked by God’s steel prick” written on it – a reference, she explained, to the ecstatic visions of St Theresa. Holy shit, can you imagine having the guts to do that? I think I am a little bit in love with her for that.

Although the Push were more or less on the left, they’d never been in a hurry to involve themselves in political struggles. One of their main philosophical influences from the beginning had been the eccentric Sydney Uni philosophy lecturer, John Anderson, and in a lot of ways they’d never broken away from his liberalism. As Anne Coombs says in her history of the group, “The active years of the Push coincided almost exactly with the long period of conservative government that began with the election of Robert Menzies in December 1949. The Push rejected everything that Menzies stood for – respect for authority and family values, hard work and sobriety.” But this rejection wasn’t so much political as a matter of lifestyle and personal taste. They disdained political organisation in favour of what they called ‘open-ended’ protest. They drank and gambled, fucked and argued.

About 40 people attended the meeting outside Arthur’s flat and formed the Victoria Street Residents’ Action Group. They planned a bigger meeting with more residents in three days’ time, and decided to approach the Builders Labourers’ Federation for assistance. The BLF by this time had involved themselves in a number of struggles to protect working class neighbourhoods by imposing ‘green bans’ – that is, refusing to work on what they and local residents considered environmentally destructive projects.

For a long time, the union had been run by right-wing gangsters, but a Rank and File committee supported by the Communist Party swept the 61 elections. Although they spent a good few years rebuilding the union’s crippled finances (the outgoing officials left them with £9 in the bank and £15,000 in debt), their militancy and organisational skill won a major strike for wages and conditions in 1970. This strike formed a turning point for the union and its members, who found not only their industrial strength, but pride in what they were doing. As one of them, Tommy Hogan, would later say, echoing widespread sentiments, “If I was asked prior to the 1970 strike what I did for a living, I’d probably mumble, “Oh, I’m a builder’s labourer.” After that, if somebody asked me what I did for a living, I was a bloody BL!”

Influenced by ideas of workers’ control from the traditional labour movement, as well as the social movements of the contemporary New Left, the BLF rapidly became one of the most progressive unions in the world. The officials encouraged workers to organise themselves, refused wages beyond the industry standard, and limited their own terms in office to three years. The union was active on a wide range of progressive issues – opposing the Vietnam War, supporting campaigns for Aboriginal and prisoners’ rights, and encouraging women to enter the traditionally male industry, for example. They were happy to use their significant industrial strength to support workers and activists in less powerful positions. In 1973, for example, in “a form of solidarity not greatly appreciated at Trades Hall”, they supported the striking strippers of King’s Cross, refusing reconstruction work on the Staccato Club until the dancers’ demands were met. (Please God, somebody find me an article or thesis or something about the 1973 King’s Cross strippers’ strike.)

It wasn’t just a matter of a supportive or progressive union machinery – the most senior officials enthusiastically involved themselves in grassroots campaigning. NSW BLF president Bob Pringle famously tried to saw down the goal posts at the SCG the night before South Africa’s racially selected Springbok rugby team were due to play there, but only got through a few inches before being charged with “maliciously injuring one aluminum goal post”. These were some dudes you wanted on your side if you were trying to stop your neighbourhood getting demolished. King went to see them, reporting that the residents’ group was requesting a green ban, and the union quickly banned all demolition and construction work on the affected properties.

Meanwhile, the atmosphere on the street was increasingly heavy, as Theeman had hired one Joe Meissner as his head of security for the street. Meissner liked to “inquire when you intended moving out, while standing in the doorway with a crowbar or wrench in his hand.” He was a karate champion, and really, isn’t this like the most evocative description in Australian history – thuggish 1970s karate champ? You hear that and you know exactly what he looked like. He had no front teeth, which he said was the result of a confrontation with a BL on Victoria Street, but which squatters would insist came about through his teenage party trick of biting steel bars. His karate champion status was similarly questionable. He claimed to have won the Australian Karate title from 68 to, 71, but had spent at least two of those years in jail for stealing submachine guns from an army base. In 71, he actually did win a World Karate title in a Japanese tournament, but would later boast that he did so by kicking three of his four opponents in the nuts. Afterwards, unsurprisingly, the audience pelted him with garbage. If the whole thing is not Cobra Kai enough for you, check out this choice Meissner quote: “I saturate my ego with sadism. I become bent on swift and callous destruction of the opposition, with total disregard for accepted ethics and loyalty.” I kind of love this dude even more than Wendy Bacon.

Theeman had contacts beyond the world of shady karate bouncers, though. On the morning of April 11, with the Action Group’s second meeting scheduled for that night, two uniformed police arrived at King’s house. They asked his name and told him he would have to come to Darlinghurst Police Station because they had a warrant for unpaid maintenance. This struck him as strange, because he’d never been married. At the station, the police left him in the car and went inside. When they came back, they told him that the warrants had actually been issued in the 50s, when he was about 15, and so they drove him home. This was the first sign that Theeman had cops in his pocket, but far from the last.

On April 11, the Victoria Street Action Group held its second meeting at the Wayside Chapel, around the corner from Victoria Street. Over a hundred people turned up – mostly residents, but also a few members of the Push and some BLF representatives. Buoyed by the union’s support, the meeting decided to start overnight street patrols to prevent vandalism and intimidation by Meissner and his thugs. As John Birmingham describes Meissner’s ‘agents’, “These were 70s goons, of course, so they tended to turn out in hipster flares, Addidas sneakers, nylon Gloweave shirts and long, greasy hair. But what they lacked in sartorial impact they made up for by toting pick handles everywhere.” It must have taken remarkable courage for the residents to patrol those streets after dark. Certainly, those involved found it terrifying and draining – Susan Varga would note in an interview decades later that she still didn’t like to go to Victoria Street.

The next night, the cops came again for Arthur King. This time the officers, from the Consorting Squad, claimed to have been tipped off that there were drugs in his house. They didn’t conduct a search, and left. King went to see Fred Fletcher, Theeman’s “troubleshooter”, to tell him to cut it out with the police harassment. Fletcher asked if he had life insurance. King laughed a you-don’t-scare-me laugh, and Fletcher walked away.

That Friday, the 13′h (uh oh), King had a few friends over for drinks. They left at 11 to join the street patrol, and he went to bed. Around 4:30 the next morning Ile was woken up when a man in his bedroom turned on the light. King jumped out of bed and chased the guy out of the room, only to be jumped by two more guys waiting in the hall. He was told to dress, blindfolded, and dragged into the street with a rope tied around his neck. When he started yelling for help, one of the men put a knife to his neck and told him, “This is a knife. If you make a wrong move you’ll drown in your own blood.” One of his neighbours, Gregory Bible, later reported hearing a man screaming and seeing him forced into a car. Thanks for your help, Mr Bible!

King was expecting visitors that morning, and when he didn’t answer the door they eventually forced their way in. They knew something was up; his car was outside, he didn’t seem to have packed any clothes and all his shoes were still there. They started ringing round friends and people he might have visited, and at midday Wendy Bacon and Susan Varga, a friend of King’s, went to Darlinghurst Police Station, suspecting further harassment. The cops told them he wasn’t there, but to check at other stations. That evening, they went back to report him missing. The next morning, news reports led with the disappearance. Jack Mundey noted that this was “the sort of thing that’s going to happen if we keep confronting capital.” He added, with unfortunate prescience, “I wouldn’t be surprised to see actual death in the struggle to see which way the inner city goes.” Thugs drove up and down the street, yelling, “We’re going to get you and you’ll be gone.”

Following his abduction, King was shoved into the boot of a car and driven to a hotel room that he believed was on the south coast. On Monday, one of his kidnappers told him they were going to release him, and he wouldn’t be harmed as long as he never told anyone what happened – he should make up a story about a migraine. They loaded him back in the boot and drove him round some more. At one point, he noticed through a hole in the boot that they were parked outside the Venus Room, a club run by the famous gangster Abe Saffron. They dropped him off outside St Vincent’s Hospital, and when he went inside, he saw a man watching him who he later identified as Jim Anderson, a lackey of Saffron’s.

When he got back to his place on Victoria Street, King did exactly what I would have done – packed his shit and left. He told his best friend, Andre Frankovitz, another Push figure, what had happened, but swore him to secrecy, not knowing who he could trust and fearing the Action Group may have been infiltrated. He told the cops he’d hitchhiked away on a spontaneous fishing trip. Frankovits recalled, “He came back and he was freaked out. I was there and I helped him get away from the rest of them. He was absolutely terrified, and quite rightly.” Later, King would sum up the campaign with the brutal realism of a man kidnapped for what he believed in – “To bring back low-cost housing to one of the best streets in Sydney? Shit, it had no chance of success.”

The events permanently destroyed Frankovits’s friendship with the rest of the Push. Nobody was sure what had happened, and some suspected King had faked his own kidnapping to discredit the campaign. Frankovitz was annoyed at being in the middle, and his overriding concern was his friend’s safety. “The people concerned put the worst possible construction on that… Because I was around and he wasn’t, I was interrogated. I was harassed in the most accusatory way.” Bacon, for her part, recalls that, “Andre was incredibly hostile. I’ve never felt right about Andre since. He’d been a really close friend of mine but since then I’ve found him detached, cynical, supercilious, thinking that we thought things that I don’t think that we ever did think.”

After King disappeared, most of the remaining residents moved out, but Mick Fowler moved back in. A seamen with an awesome moustache and a gregarious, laidback manner, Fowler came back from sea to find he’d been evicted. On his own account (which probably takes some liberties with the facts), lie came home to find his mother sitting on the front step, surrounded by their belongings, holding a $50 note she’d been given to relocate. Really, she was probably gone when he came back, but he was certainly unimpressed to find he’d been evicted. With a few friends, Fowler confronted Meissner and some cops out front of his flat. “Look, I’m Mick Fowler,” he told them. “I’m the legal tenant, I live here. My gear’s been put out, the joint’s been broken into, I’m very upset. I’ve come 2,000 fucking miles to find this and you’re pushing me aside.” An unimpressed Meissner replied, “I represent the owner and I want him arrested.” The cops happily complied.

That was April 30. On May 3 he made a second attempt to enter his home, this time accompanied by about 50 BLs and members of the Seamen’s Union. The group easily gained access to the building and turfed out three security guards, including Meissner, promising to stop them if they tried to get back in. Fowler, a likeable guy who was plainly not going to be intimidated by karate-school thugs or anyone else, seems to have had a galvanising effect on the remaining residents and their allies. For over a month, the dozen-odd residents persisted despite the presence of Meissner’s thugs and a wave of suspicious fires and other vandalism.

Meanwhile, on May 2, the National Trust had officially classified the street for reasons including its beauty and historical associations with major writers and artists – Trust Director RN Walker had said, “It could be described as the Montmartre of Sydney.” Theeman was outraged at the idea the Trust would classify an entire street, something it had never done before. The classification strengthened the BLF’s, and hence the residents’, position. The union had evolved a symbiotic relationship with the Trust, which at that point had no actual power of its own, but came to wield significant influence with green bans at the ready to back its decisions.

A desperate Theeman, who was losing thousands of dollars a day, hired Ken Woolley, an architect with the Trust’s Historic Buildings Commission, to come up with a new plan that would meet with Trust approval. Theeman attended a meeting with residents and BLF representatives, where he said he would be willing to consider turning the area into low-cost homes, and promised to end all evictions and harassment until Woolley’s plan was ready. He broke the latter promise even quicker than the former, but on the 4″‘ of June, the Trust endorsed Woolley’s plan. Low-rise buildings would be built on sites without heritage value; historic housing facades would be retained. Theeman reiterated his facile pledge to “provide as much low-cost accommodation as is humanly possible with my new scheme.” Meanwhile, ‘accidents’ remained common in the empty houses of Victoria St; overnight, houses flooded, and mattresses were set alight.

As Bob Pringle put it, the Trust’s decision, “Left the union in an invidious position where up to that stage, we’d always supported the National Trust. But on this occasion we had the situation where the buildings were being preserved, but for who? The otheroutstanding issue was the rights of low-income earners ‑traditionally all of these areas had housed low-income earners – and they were being thrown out to be replaced by trendies and so on.”

Without Trust support, prospects for saving the street were shrinking, especially as the thugs rendered more houses uninhabitable night by night. On June 10, a small group of squatters moved into two of the empty houses. On Theeman’s account, they called him the following morning: “Frank Theeman? We have now occupied number 57 and 59.” I said, “What? What do you mean?” “The building was empty, we have occupied it to prevent it deteriorating any further. We have taken possession of it.” I said, “Look, you’re trespassing, get out of there. Don’t be foolish.” Anyway, they didn’t.

Many of the early squatters were associated with the Push, but as the struggle continued, they attracted a wider range of supporters and occupants. Elvis Kipman was an ABC employee with a long-time aversion to political activity who jogged by every day until he was curious enough to ask what was going on, and soon moved in. He would later say that, “I’ve felt alienated all my adult life and for the first time here I began to feel closer to people.” A woman named Ruth moved in somewhat reluctantly with her partner and their son. At first, she said, “1 found myself becoming quite aggressive and intolerant and very confused.” But as she got to know those around her, “a communal spirit was well and truly established and nothing, not even the harassment from the agents and police, was going to destroy it.” By the end of the year there were over a hundred squatters on the street, including some former tenants. All paid rent – a quarter of their income up to a maximum of $10 a week – into a Theeman company account. Theeman didn’t think this at all funny.

Although Theeman was the owner of the squatted homes, it was unclear what the legal status of the occupants was. Theeman had one squatter, John Cox (Ruth’s partner), charged with trespass as a test case. He was eventually convicted, but appealed. The case provided an ironic kind of tenure for the squatters, who felt safe from eviction pending the outcome of the trial – as Cox put it, “A summons is as good as a 5a lease.” Nevertheless, the squatters faced continuing abuse from Meissner’s karate goons. A group of men arrived at Cox’s house one evening, demanding to speak to some people none of the residents had ever heard of. When the squatters told them they weren’t there, the visitors became abusive and threatened to smash the door down and beat up everybody inside. The residents responded by throwing a bag of lime over their heads from an upstairs window, and Cox, wielding a chair leg, chased them off. Police harassment also continued – at one stage, for example, the vice squad broke down the door to Bacon’s squat in the middle of the night.

The earliest squatters probably didn’t expect to last long – hell, you have to be impressed that they’d even consider squatting a street patrolled by gangs of thugs, especially after a leading campaigner was kidnapped and terrorised. One described the atmosphere, “We’d say, `Ah, look, will we do this, will we do that?’ We’d think, `011, we mightn’t be here next week.’ And if we took that attitude, nothing ever happened. We started to develop the idea that we’d be here forever, so we’d plant trees, reconstruct the place. Pulling down the fences was one of the most important physical things we ever did in that community. The impact was really dramatic. You’ve got to experience it, really, it was really marvelous.”

Another agreed: “There was a lot of feeling there. For me, it was euphoric. We actually got to the point of really believing it was ours, that we’d been here forever and that we would be here forever, and that they wouldn’t evict us.”

Bacon described the squatting as, “really exciting for everyone who was there. There’d always be something happening, like the plumbing would get cut off, or one of the thugs would come and smash up the wiring, or we would have broken into another house.”

A squatter named Chris wrote that, “every Wednesday night we got together in the Stables [the squatters' de facto headquarters] to discuss new ideas, problems, criticisms and general feelings. We called it a weekly meeting. Other nights we’d do much the same thing and call it a party.”

I’m not sure if this reflects a festive attitude to organisation or a depressingly bureaucratic approach to partying, but I think he meant the former. The Push members’ ideas about consensus certainly influenced the meeting style; at their Insistence, there was no chair and no voting. While some squatters undoubtedly round this liberating, others must have struggled to make themselves heard. As Mundey said, “What consensus meant was that the ones who could talk the loudest and the longest and the best held sway, and that’s what the Libertarians did.”  But he was also impressed with the Push’s direct-action spirit, and the individuals involved. “It was Wendy [Bacon] and Liz [Fell's] way of fighting that won the respect of the union,” he said.

For some, according to Push historian Anne Coombs, “the cooperation between the BLF and a section of the Push over Victoria Street was a sign of a long-awaited rapprochement between libertarianism and communism”. For others, such a rapprochement was neither long-awaited nor welcome. Frank Moorhouse, derisive of the whole struggle, dismissed it as “a romantic alliance engineered by the women who were seeking fresh sexual field to explore.” Bacon’s reply was simple and angry: “There wasn’t much fucking going on; there wasn’t much time!” Nevertheless, relationships between members of the BLF and the women of the Push soon emerged around the squats – Bacon and Mundey, Fell and Owens, and others. I mean, I hate to gossip, but all this is kind of awesome to me. These people who in a lot of ways seem so legendary were so much like us – the same half-annoying, half-awesome meetings, the same feelings of collective achievement, the same blurring of the social and the political, the same complexly incestuous sex lives. It’s just how things are meant to be.

The squats also attracted a significant number of parents. Theeman’s thugs were especially vicious in trying to intimidate the single mothers, threatening to call Child Welfare and have the kids taken away. At one point, the squatters did contact Child Welfare to see if this threat had any teeth, and were told that as far as the department was concerned, they were ordinary family groups. While the precarious circumstances and intimidation frightened away many families, enough I stayed for the squatters to organise their own daycare service. Parents contributed $2 a week towards equipment and outings, and various squatters – not only parents- volunteered a day or two a week to look after the kids. The back of 115 Victoria St became the squatters’ creche, including a downstairs flat, three old garages and grass and concrete back yards. They built swings, a cubby house, and a sandpit, and amassed “books, jigsaws, dolls, cars, paints and brushes, blackboards and chalk, construction toys, building materials, paste, plasticene, and old clothes for dressing up.”

One mother spoke in glowing terms of the way the squatters took collective responsibility for the children on the street: “Children looked after children knowing there was loving support from the nearest adult, any adult, who would give him or herself to the child and not just “find Mummy” and pass the buck back to the woman… Just about everyone was together enough to take on the kids en masse or otherwise, and what was even nicer was that the men were in it too.

In September, the first real tragedy of Victoria St occurred. At 5:30am on Thursday the 6′, firemen arrived to find number 103 in flames. They met an Aboriginal man who’d jumped out a window to escape the blaze, and he told them that his sister was still inside. She was later found, dead. The previous evening the siblings had met a white guy who they’d invited to come stay, and who had since disappeared – presumably the arsonist. If you’re wondering exactly how racist Australia is, note that while an inquest and extended sections of several books have discussed the later Victoria St-related murder of anglo heiress Juanita Nielsen, I can’t even find the name of the woman who died in this fire. Most books that discuss the struggle for the street mention it in passing, like, “and a young Indigenous woman died in a fire”. My research skills are nothing to boast about, but I couldn’t even find a mention of the fire in contemporary Sydney newspapers. The incident was not considered by the Nielsen inquest (which delved into other examples of Victoria Street violence, such as the Arthur King kidnapping). I assume, pretty confidently, that no-one was ever charged with the arson. I don’t know, it seems so impossible that a woman could burn to death, and nobody involved in the campaign would ever make mention of it again, this big controversial struggle and it’s not even a news story? I kind of wonder if the story is apocryphal, or was Theeman connected enough to cover it up? I don’t know. Rest in peace, whoever you were.

In October, the BLF held its triennial election. By this point, the bosses and state government understood their best chance against the green bans was the ticket led by Federal Secretary Norm Gallagher. Gallagher, a Maoist, was hostile to the BLF’s leadership – partly because they were associated with the Communist Party (neither Maoist nor Stalinist), partly because their anti-bureaucratic, anti-hierarchical policies challenged the union status quo, and partly – according to several sources – because he was shitted off that Jack Mundey was more famous and popular than he was. Gallagher had promised to ‘review’ all green bans if the Maoists won, and ran full page “To all building workers: A message of concern” ads in major newspapers, criticising the state leadership. Gallagher was a pig, the worst kind of class traitor. His team was soundly defeated in the elections, but this merely signalled a change in strategy for the bosses and the union’s federal leadership.

On the 16th, scab labour moved in to commence demolition in a green banned area of the Rocks. Union official Tom Hogan recalls, “I picked up a megaphone and said… ‘We’ll show you. We’ll stop the city.’ But I was too late, it had stopped of its own accord. There wasn’t one job left working when I walked through it to Town Hall.” 4,000 workers had walked off the job to occupy the site in the Rock; refusing to leave until work was halted. The following Monday, a group of BLs and resident activists occupied the site in protest, including about 20 Victoria St squatters. One of them, Elvis Kipman, climbed a tree and sat on a 15-metre-high branch for 14 hours. I guess the dude liked climbing things, because it wouldn’t be the last time.

The MBA launched an extended lockout of all BLs, which ended up lasting three weeks and failing to force the union to back down – Owens described it as the Master Builders’ Association’s “most unsuccessful expensive experiment”. But the lockout had strained the union membership, and furthered their political isolation, The Manufacturers’ Monthly reported, “The Jack Mundey led builders labourers in NSW are slowly being encircled, with the noose getting tighter. With the MBA prepared to shut down ‘indefinitely’, other unions have moved against the BLF with at least tacit support from the ACTU.”

At the start of December, John Cox’s appeal against his conviction for trespassing was dismissed. Squatting on Victoria St was officially illegal; barricading began immediately. Some of the residents moved out, with those who remained taking their valuables elsewhere. They set up a phone tree and warning sirens, and reorganised street patrols to activate them. But as the weeks wore on, and rumours that eviction was imminent came and went, people started to relax again, some believing they would be allowed to stay.

On December 29, one of Meissner’s thugs approached an Action Group member, telling them that Meissner had recruited additional staff for the evictions, and that police would block either end of the street while the thugs broke in and evicted the residents. Presumably intended to intimidate the squatters, the warning instead inspired a fresh bout of barricading. But three days later a cop told his brother, a BL, that hundreds of police were being sent to Victoria St first thing in the morning. As word reached the Action Group, 30 supporters rushed to join the 50 squatters still living on the street.

At 6:20am on January 3, nearby residents come to warn the squatters that hundreds of cops and some paddy wagons were lined up outside Darlinghurst Police Station. The squatters rushed through some last-minute barricading and fired up the phone tree. Soon, the police arrived at either end of the street, accompanied by Meissner’s thugs – now described as ‘controllers’ in a Theeman press release. As Ian and Teresa described them, “The controllers’ appearance was large and very beery. They sported sledgehammers, axes and crow-bars. They shook hands with the police and both groups moved towards the houses.”

The controllers made their first moves against number 57, but the description of the men as “very beery” seems to have been apt, as they spent five minutes trying to crowbar open an unlocked gate. As the controllers forced their way into the house, one squatter climbed over into the more securely barricaded number 59. Inside, controllers ignored the squatters and set about rendering the house uninhabitable – smashing fittings, destroying plumbing and wiring, ripping doors off their hinges. Police followed to arrest those squatters who refused to leave.

Squatter Val Hodgson said that as the siege began, she felt secure and comfortable among friends, “but it was just the banging and the thumping and knowing of the imminent destruction and seeing the ceiling fall down and the lightbulbs flicker… and they tipped caustic soda on Eric… it was really quite terrifying. They were menacing, through the holes they made in the window, snarling and snapping and saying, ‘We’re going to get you.’ It was so frightening I was pleased when the police rushed in to prevent them doing us any damage.”

Asked later about these aggressive methods, Theeman would sneer, “I didn’t think to call in the Salvation Army to get these people out would be the right thing.”

Squatters had barricaded themselves into just 13 of the houses on the street (Jesus Christ guys, way to pick a lucky number!), but the controllers managed to draw out the eviction process by forcing their way into six empty buildings Theeman had barricaded against squatters. Nevertheless, by 8:30 almost all squatters had been removed and 26 of them were in jail, along with 13 supporters, mostly charged with obstruction. Only two squatters remained, Keith Mullins and Con Papadatos, both perched on the chimney at number 115. The police prevented the controllers smashing the chimney out from under them, and both men were still there when the arrestees returned to the street at 5:30 in the afternoon. By then, hundreds of supporters lined the street, facing 100 cops and 30 controllers. Theeman had chosen early January as a time when BLs traditionally took their holidays, but many had still arrived on the street to lend support, and some, including BLF Secretary Joe Owens, were among those arrested.

“At nightfall,” as Ian and Teresa recall, “the police trained a spotlight on the demonstrators. This effectively prevented them from watching Keith and Con, but it provided the two men with an excellent view of their supporters, who then staged an impromptu concert. The crowd sang appropriate numbers such as `Chim Chiminee’ and improvised new verses for old songs.”

The two men came down early the next morning, but Kipman climbed up onto the neigbouring chimney at 114 at dawn. Those noted rocket scientists, the controllers, lit a fire below to force him down. Kipman simply wedged his pillows and blankets into the chimney and smoked them out of the house. Police eventually climbed onto the roof, handcuffed Kipman, and demolished the chimney around him. He was the last squatter to be removed from Victoria St, and the occupation, after six months, had come to an end.

Both the Action Group and the green ban on Victoria St continued despite the evictions. Many of the squatters remained involved in the Action Group, along with the two remaining, legal Victoria Street tenants (one being Mick Fowler, the other I’m not sure of). Their focus shifted towards defending the BLF, which faced continued attacks from the Master Builders’ Association and its own Federal branch.

The Action Group published a number of newspapers, including The City Squatter and The Victoria Street Rag. The latter featured weather reports: “Forecast: There might be trouble but there will be no demolition,” and, “Forecast: Victoria Street will be saved. Low-cost cooperative housing will triumph.” Squatters visiting the street and their old neighbours found themselves scuffling with the controllers, and at least one, Kipman, was badly beaten. Bill Donnely, Theeman’s PR manager, boasted that the controllers would use “whatever force possible” to prevent squatters re-entering their homes.

Protests continued, with a number of rallies both specifically defending Victoria St and for residents’ rights and green bans in general. At one point, the Action Group managed to infiltrate a party at Theeman’s luxurious Bellevue Hill home. Among others, the notoriously corrupt and pro-developer premier Robert Askin was in attendance. A group of activists dressed as high-society types distributed business cards to guests, with messages such as, “Under concrete and glass Sydney’s disappearing fast,” and, “The person next to you may be a demonstrator.” Theeman eventually agreed “he will not demolish, he will withdraw the thugs from the Street, and no development will take place until it has been endorsed by the residents”.

But in June 1974, the Master Builders’ Assocation finally succeeded in its long campaign to have the NSW BLF deregistered. Gallagher swooped, launching a largely illegal intervention, safe in the knowledge that the NSW BLF would be unwilling to take legal action against fellow unionists. Gallagher reached a deal with the MBA where bosses would give preference to federal, rather than state, BLF members. He brought in workers from interstate to take jobs from sacked NSW workers. In March 1975, the NSW BLF’s office was broken into; and its membership files stolen. The only possible motive lay with Gallagher and his allies, but the police brought no charges. Despite persistent rank-and-file support, the NSW BLF had no choice but to advise members to change from state to federal tickets. At the end of their final stopwork meeting, at which the leadership stood down, Mundey, Owens and Pringle received a tearful, 10-minute standing ovation from 2,000 loyal BLs. As Owens would later note, they’d had no chance against the Federal intervention: “It’s a tribute to our rank-and-file that it took them six months.”

A few weeks later, the first green ban was lifted – the one on Victoria St, which Gallagher dismissed as “little more than a brothel”. The same day, Theeman drove him down the street, and Gallagher – who would publicly boast of his environmental credentials – simply noted that he should have torn the fucking lot down.

Mick Fowler, the last legal tenant, was evicted on the 5th of May. A section of that year’s May Day march diverted to Victoria Street for a wake, where they buried a coffin containing “the rights of the low income earners” in Fowler’s front yard. When Fowler died four years later, in Perth, hundreds turned out for a traditional street funeral in Victoria St. A plaque to Fowler remains at the top of the sandstone steps down to Woolloomooloo.

The last significant event, and great tragedy, of the campaign came on the 4th of July, when Juanita Nielsen disappeared, never to be seen again. She was the bohemian daughter of department store millionaire Mark Foys, and at the time the squats emerged, she was living on Victoria St (in a house outside the area Theeman wanted to acquire), publishing a local paper called NOW, which consisted mostly of ads for local businesses. She came to the earliest residents’ meetings and committed to covering the struggle in her paper, but was openly critical of the movement’s direction – she disapproved of communists and other radicals, and feared the effects of squatting and green bans on local property values. But the campaign radicalised her, and her writing became more militant. “Laws are based around property, not people,” she editorialised. “Green bans made people more important.” Following the end of the squats, the green ban, and Mick Fowler’s tenancy, she was the most prominent critic of the Victoria St development.

Mundey described her as having “a striking appearance. She wore broad-brimmed, nineteen-twentyish hats, dark, expensive dresses and high-gloss, high-heeled shoes.” According to her business partner, David Farrell, she had many pairs of false eyelashes, and “them was a lot of work in putting these on each morning, and getting the glue above was a trauma each day.” Her hair, he said, was her trademark. “When she had the time, the hair would be pinned up and she would wear one of several wigs over the top of her hair. She would not, if she had time, go out without a wig on. The wig was curled up in a fairly high hairstyle, and her hair would be under that. It’s been described as a beehive style.”

She was a well-known, easily recognisable figure around the Cross.

In June, Nielsen received threats serious enough that she began keeping Farrell informed of her day-to-day movements. She also mentioned the threats to her partner, John Glebe, the General Secretary of the Water and Sewerage Employees’ Union – one of the last unions still upholding bans on Victoria St work. For some time, Glebe said, she had been carrying cassette tapes in her bag that she described as containing “highly volatile information” that could “blow the top off” what she was working on. Lloyd Marshall, who would eventually be charged with conspiracy to kidnap Nielsen, also reported that he believed she had something in her possession, something they wanted. “I gained the impression it was a document that she always carried and that it could be used against people whom Eddie [Trigg] and Shayne [Martin­Simmonds] and I were involved with… The impression I got was that the document linked Abe Saffron with Victoria Street.”

Saffron was a well-known gangster who ran a number of shady businesses in the Cross. He was, in fact, involved with Victoria Street, via a serious of fronts and shell companies. The Parkes Development Company lodged a DA on 203-211 an 204-220 Victoria St; some of these properties had been purchased by a Matana ‘ Ltd, which gave its address as 119 Kippax St, but later changed this to “c/o Abe Saffron”. 119-139 Victoria Street also belonged jointly to Spatial Holdings and Bafsim Number 17 Pty Ltd, with Spatial Holdings having the same Kippax St address once used by Matana. Saffron, via his deputy, Jim Anderson was almost certainly Theeman’s point man in arranging police and other harassment of Victoria St residents, including the kidnapping of Arthur King.

In 1977, three men – Edward Trigg, Lloyd Marshall, and Shayne Martin­Simmonds – were charged with conspiracy to kidnap Juanita Nielsen. At their first trial, the judge directed the jury to acquit Marshall for lack of evidence, and the jury were unable to reach a verdict on the other two men. While Martin-Simmonds was sentenced to two years at a second trial, Trigg absconded on bail. He was arrested by San Francisco police in 1982. He complained to the SF cops that, without a body, there was no proof of a murder, “They are making all this noise over a woman who was nothing but an out-and-out communist, no loss to society at all… If I go back there I am going to have to name names. I have got people back there in power who will take care of me.”

Trigg was returned to Long Bay Jail to await trial. He unsuccessfully attempted to serve subpoenas on Saffron, Anderson and Theeman for his trial, but presumably these were meant as a warning that he was willing to talk if they failed to take care of him. In the Metropolitan Remand Centre, Trigg met a 25-year-old law student who would later claim Trigg had told him that someone, probably Saffron, had placed $70,000 in a trust for him. Trigg pled guilty and was sentenced to three years, of which he expected to serve about 18 months. According to the student, Trigg felt he’d outsmarted Saffron, who would never have paid so much if he’d realised the sentence would be so short.

In 1978, journalist Tony Reeves conducted his own research into the case, and concluded that disgraced former police officer Fred Krahe had accepted the contract to kill Nielsen and either committed or arranged her murder. Krahe, described by one detective as “a big, brooding bastard with an aura of power and evil about him,” was a known associate of both Saffron and Theeman. Krahe had been implicated in a wide range of extortion rackets, as well as organising bank robberies, and having arranged the murder of fellow corrupt cop, Superintendent Don Fergusson. Reeves also claimed that the police had suppressed information about Nielsen’s movements on the day of her disappearance, and released a misleading photo and description.

At the end of a 1983 inquest into her disappearance, the jury took just 55 minutes to conclude that Nielsen was dead, but that they were unable to determine how, or when. They added, somewhat diplomatically, “There is evidence to show that the police inquiries were inhibited by an atmosphere of corruption, real or imagined, that existed at the time.”

I don’t think there’s any doubt that Nielsen was murdered by men acting for Jim Anderson, at the behest of Abe Saffron, and with at least the tacit approval of Frank Theeman. Beyond that, it’s impossible to say for sure what happened. Did she possess documents that somehow incriminated one or all of them? Or was it simply that, as publisher of NOW and girlfriend of a senior official in the last union still obstructing development, she was the only remaining obstacle to Theeman and Saffron’s plans for Victoria St? These questions are now unlikely to be answered.

When I started working on this article, I thought it would be some kind of cool local equivalent to On The Waterfront or Scarface; an exciting, glamorous clash between gangsters and communists, the most action-packed episode in Australian’ activism. In the end, it was in many ways a painfully depressing account of a terrible loss for popular forces – a neighbourhood crushed, friendships destroyed, and two women murdered. Moreover, as the Burgmanns put it, “Because the ban was broken at a crucial stage, the ultimate beneficiaries of the attractive streetscape saved by the ban were the ‘yuppies and the middle-class gentrifiers of the city.” All that for this.

Still, I think there is reason for optimism in the history of this struggle – above all, in the heroic bravery shown by all those who took part. I remember the emergency meeting outside the squatted balloon shop in King St after the owner had threatened to return with some thugs, and I was vocal in insisting we should leave for everybody’s safety. (We did, but eventually negotiated a sort-of settlement that gave us time for a couple more events and to move out.) I still think this was the right call, and would never suggest that anyone should risk injury over something as ultimately trivial as a squatted house. But it’s good to know that you can, and people have – right here, in living memory. Men and woman who would not be intimidated by the overt presence of violent goons could move into empties belonging to outright gangsters, and with the support of organised labour and local residents, transform those houses for the better. For six months, under the most trying circumstances, they lived communally, tore down fences and put in vegie patches, organised campaigns and parties, resisted what Bacon called “legal and illegal violence” and looked after each other’s kids.

And certainly, the squatters knew their history. They looked back fondly, perhaps nostalgically, on Depression-era anti-eviction activity, and drew parallels between Meissner’s thugs and the fascist New Guard. They took inspiration from squats like Maranmah, occupied and organised communally by returned servicemen and their families after WWII. I like to think that by remembering their struggle, we follow their example in a small way.

Sources

If you’re interested in more of this story, there are three books I’d recommend -Meredith and Verity Burgmann’s excellent history of the BLF, Green Bans, Red Union, and Anne Coombs’s Push history, Sex and Anarchy, both of which discuss Victoria St at some length, and David Hickie’s The Prince and the Premier, about corruption and organised crime in NSW in the 70s, including a lengthy account of the Juanita Nielsen inquest. I also looked at John Birmingham’s Leviathan and Jack Mundey’s autobiography. lain McIntyre very helpfully sent me a copy of the squatters’ own newspaper, The City Squatter. The other main sources were the documentaries Rocking the Foundations, about the BLF, and Woolloomoloo: Redevelopment 1969-1971.

2 Responses to 1970s: Victoria St Squats, Sydney

  1. Kendall Lovett

    It’s a wonderful piece of history of a period through which I lived, also as a resident activist, but in Woolloomooloo. We had a head start on Victoria Street and I am able add a little bit extra to your story because I well remember The Stables not just for meetings but for weekend parties to gain support for Victoria Street from other inner city resident action groups of the 70s. However, before the situation at Potts Point hit the headlines, we were publicising the same situation being experienced in Woolloomooloo but on a slightly larger scale than in Victoria Street, with a stall at the annual Argyle Festival Day in The Rocks. We were approached by a young man who introduced himself as Arthur King who lived in Victoria Street. He told us what was happening up there and wanted to know how we got started to fight the developers moving in on us and how he should go about starting a group. Mrs Honora Wilkinson sat him down and told him exactly how it was done. Call a street meeting by door-knocking to explain what has happened. Get hold of someone, preferably a local who knows the situation, who is prepared to conduct the street meeting and invite the residents to have their say on what they think should be done and take it from there. We had two groups in The ‘Loo, one on the east side and ours on the west side. Our group, The ROW (Residents of Woolloomooloo), supported Victoria Street during its fight then and in later times as did WRAG, the other resident action group.
    There’s another book that must still be found in Sydney Council libraries worth reading: GREEN BANS, The story of an Australian phenomenon –by Marion Hardman & Peter Manning (An Australian Conservation Foundation Publication 1975). KL.

  2. Chris

    Joe Meissner was at the carousel club on the 4th July 1975 Friday night if I recall he spoke tony or Shane outside they had bbeetle river on joes motor bike later that night jimmy Anderson showed up another man and they went into a room on the third floor a secret room and there was something suspicious in the corner a body I think I served the drinks and left an ex cope was there also with I think rr from memory

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