John Hamilton: People, profit and action in Lewisham

Bringing the house down! John Hamilton Pic: John Hamilton

Bringing the house down! John Hamilton
Pic: John Hamilton


On Friday morning, John Hamilton built a house.

On Friday afternoon, Lewisham council knocked it down.

Hamilton and his comrades were trying to shame the council over not building houses for Lewisham’s 400 families in temporary accommodation onseven-year-old derelict land.So they did it themselves – by building one prefabricated, plywood house, where 400 oncestood. The house, on Telegraph Hill’s Besson Street, was fitted with electrics and lighting, and there was room to extend it for a further two bedrooms.

“We aimed to build the house in a day. If you build a house in a day and get smoke coming up the chimney, according to medieval law, you have the right to stay there if it’s on common land, and council land is defined as common,” says Hamilton.

The police, not biding by medieval law, called it aggravated trespass. Hamilton was certainly nonplussed: “We certainly don’t shy away from breaking silly laws; it’s not a criminal offence to trespass.”

The group of amateur builders returned to finish the house four days later, only for the council to demolish it that very afternoon. Hamilton is diplomatic. “I don’t blame them; I would have done the same. It would have been political provocation and an example to people of what you can do, if they hadn’t.”

We meet at the under-5s playgroup at Telegraph Hill Park, instead of the house as planned. Hamilton volunteers here four days a week and used to bring his own children here. He is buzzing around the tiny kitchen, brewing tea for the mothers, addressing each one by name, his puff of white hair bobbing eagerly. Tots are scrambling and he crouches and indulges every nonsensical statement uttered.

“You been on holiday, John?” a mother asks.

He chuckles. “No, I don’t know if I mentioned it before, but we were building a house,” he steams into the story, but his voice drops as he neglects mentioning the demolition. “Yes,” he perks up, “There were some sunny days and I think I got a bit of a tan.”

The mum smiles and nods vacantly. “Can I get a kiddies spoon please?”

The 58-year-old heating engineer, whose family moved to the borough when he was three, will be running for Mayor of Lewisham this May for the anti-privatisation party, People Before Profit.

When you think of a mayoral candidate, you would expect an authoritarian, with a certain amount of toughness and sobriety – and probably a suit.With children tugging on his jeans and a tea towel in his hand, Hamilton diverts from the stereotype completely.

“We need people like John to be mayor,” Hamilton’s friend and fellow party member, Ray Woolford tells me, “because he is community-driven, inspirational and fearless.

“He doesn’t see himself as right or left, he just sees the issues.”

Hamilton has been fighting against issues in Lewisham since he was a teenager. The son of liberal parents who championed direct action (Hamilton’s father is currently the leader of People Before Profit), they supported their 13-year-old to take part in an occupation of the ITN newsrooms with other members of the Free Schools Campaign.

When he became a student at Exeter University in 1974, he continued his political activism. It’s often a student’s prerogative to join in protests against cuts and fees, but Hamilton went further to lead an occupation at the university. So engrossed in student union politics, he failed his maths degree the first time.

Staying on in Exeter to become ambassador for the Devon Area Student Association, Hamilton again found issues to fight and protest over. “We occupied a county council building once. They knew we might, but we still got in!”Hamilton bounces, his voice an excited squeal.

His fervour for direct action is almost childlike. Hamilton’s excitement is not induced by his surroundings, as he tells me his radical nature actually came naturally: “I edge on the side of anarchy.”

Since Exeter, Hamilton has hopped from place to place, driven by political curiosity.

Wanting to learn German and experience life in a socialist country, Hamilton lived in East Berlin from 1982 to 1985. For some, life in East Berlin drove them to cross the formidable Berlin Wall, often risking their lives in the process. But like any tourist, Hamilton paints an idyllic picture of the experience. With a job as a presenter at Radio Berlin International, he remembers the city’s relaxed attitude, a democratic society akin to England, and a good standard of living.

Hamilton relocated to Birmingham because he wanted a larger political area to explore. He also wanted to use his newlanguage skills to set up a language school on a canal boat. Aboard the 70ft barge, Hamilton met his partner Katie, who taught there one summer.

The couple moved back to Lewisham in 1995, where they still live with their children Rosa, 17, and William, 13.

“Can I get a cup of tea, John?”a mother pops her head through the hatch into the kitchen. Hamilton starts flying around, asking her about sugar and milk.

He offers me a cup of tea. “How strong would you like it? I think I’ll share a bag with you,” he says, as he drops the wet tea bag into his own cup.

Aside from his involvement in politics, Hamilton it a heating engineer, a skill he learnt using a leaflet from Wickes. A flexible job, it frees him to put down his tools and occupy at the drop of a contentious council plan.

One such instance saw him sleeping on a school roof for 13 weeks. The stunt was to discourage the council from demolishing Lewisham Bridge Primary to rebuild it with a secondary school attached. Hamilton and over 200 activists from the New School Campaign were concerned about the disruption and impact it would have on the education of the primary school children.

The campaign led him to run for Mayor of Lewisham in 2006. He says he didn’t expect to win, but believes his campaign was responsible for more Greens, socialists and Lib Dems being voted into council, all of whom were involved in the campaign. Consequently, Labour and the executive Mayor didn’t have the majority power in 2006.

Hamilton may have lost that race, but he discovered like-minded people keen to fight for a better community. Together, they founded People Before Profit in 2008.

The party is not defined as Left or Right, rather “diverse”, made up of greens, socialists and those affiliated with no party. At the heart is an ethos condemning privatisation and cuts.

“When John attacks Labour or the government, he always has a solution to the problem, which makes him more powerful because he has thought it through,” says Woolford.

But in the 2010 race for mayor, Hamilton and his party came a distant fifth, still failing to unseat the incumbent Bullock.

Official House of Commons documents will tell you that Hamilton ran with UKIP in 2010, and one would expect an enraged reaction to the mix up when confronted. But Hamilton’s temperament is cool and calm as he comes up with a practical explanation: “I think it’s because we ran with purple.”

Hamilton only mirrors UKIP ideology, he says, in,“our distrust of the three main political parties”.

“We’re the alternative protest vote to UKIP.”

But he is also against the EU because “privatisation of public services is entrenched in EU treaty structure –most of the policies we advocate would be illegal under EU law.”

So when Hamilton realised that the council were selling off public housing in 2010, he and party members occupied five.

On one occasion, he and People Before Profit members entered one of the houses on viewing day and hid in the cellar. They were locked in (which they knew would happen), but they were equipped with tools to break out.

There were squatters in the house for 17 months, until their demands – that the houses were renovated by local trades people and put back on housing stock – were met.

“But hasn’t Steve Bullock committed to build 250 news houses in the next five years?” I ask.

“Yes and he’s started on six. It’s pathetic,” shoots back Hamilton.

His disdain for mainstream party politics doesn’t end with Labour. He is critical over “Tory gimmicks”, such as Lewisham’s free schools. “They syphon money away from local authority schools. They are part of Gove’s ideology.”

When I ask Hamilton has anyone in politics ever got it right, unsurprisingly he gives an offbeat answer: William Morris. “He didn’t seek political office, probably because he didn’t trust the ones who did. But I like his ideas in his book News From Nowhere. It is a wonderful inspiration of how life could be.”

Fuelled by idealism, Hamilton is forever striving for a political utopia for the community in Lewisham. Woolford tells me,“John wants to be mayor to abolish the position, to make sure the council goes back to being accountable for their communities.”

A frantic volunteer-mother runs into the kitchen, “John it’s one minute past one!”

“Oh is it?” Unaware it’s clearing up time at the playgroup, Hamilton immediately delves into a pile of plastic, neon crockery and cutlery, promising he’ll do the mopping up afterwards.

It has been four years since Hamilton ran for Mayor, and one of his aims this time is to involve the community more. For a start, he won’t be offering food at ward assemblies as he thinks it’s “potty” that food is available there.

“I think it’s just a bribe to get people to come. We’ll drop that if we get in charge. People will come because they actually have the chance to influence. Not because of some sandwiches.”

But despite stating People Before Profit is the only party contesting with action and the only party with the community at its heart, Hamilton does acknowledges the power of the Labour party.

“I don’t expect to win, but of course I would love to. Lib Dems usually come second but I think we will this year.“

How Hamilton will fare in the local elections is unknown, but he will keep fighting for his beliefs in the only way he knows how.

“I’ve always been an advocate of direct action. And I’ve never been arrested! Lots of people can’t believe it!”


For a full list of candidates running in Lewisham please visit East London Lines’ ‘Who Wants Your Vote?‘ summary.

Leave a Reply