ON the Sunday morning of 21 September 1969, a slightly-built Metropolitan Police Chief Inspector convinced some squatters at a large five storey mansion at 144 Piccadilly to lower an improvised wooden drawbridge so doctors could help a seriously ill person inside. The drawbridge came down and Chief Inspector Michael Rowling flung himself bravely across the barricaded opening to establish a bridgehead. Within seconds a police sergeant blew his whistle and shouted: “Come on lads – let’s go in!” A hundred policemen, seemingly from nowhere, charged over the bridge and straight through the front door.
The raiding policemen, with truncheons raised, braved slates, water filled bowls, bricks and one petrol bomb raining down upon them, but just four minutes later a policeman was seen at the top of the mansion raising his truncheon in triumph. Not long after, and to cheers for the thousands of onlookers on the street below, many of whom had been standing there overnight, a Hells Angel’s flag was lowered from the flagpole. As he was being led outside by the police, Dr John screamed at the press and the crowds in the street:
“They conned us! They tricked us!”
The nice round number of exactly one hundred people were taken into custody. There were no serious casualties from either side although many of the occupants complained of being beaten up and badly treated by the Police. The occupation of ‘Hippiedilly’ was over, just three weeks after it had begun.
The anti-hippy scare-mongering of the British press had reached its height in the autumn of 1969 and the papers fell upon the siege at 144 Piccadilly with glee. The Daily Telegraph noted that on the eviction of the squat a hospital governor had vomited, a police-woman became ill, and a policeman refused to allow his dog into the squat, all ‘because of the filth’. Most of the tabloids had sent in undercover reporters into number 144 and the News of the World described the squat as:
Lit only by the dim light of their drugged cigarettes.
While the People had declared under the headline – HIPPIES – DRUGS – THE SORDID TRUTH!
Drug taking, couples making love while others look on, a heavy mob armed with iron bars, filth and stench, foul language, that is the scene inside the hippies’ fortress in London’s Piccadilly. These are not rumours but facts, sordid facts which will shock ordinary decent living people. Drug taking and squalor, sex – and they’ll get no state aid…
144 Piccadilly was once a large five storey Victorian mansion at Hyde Park Corner and it had originally been squatted by an organised group of young people who called themselves The London Street Commune or sometimes the London Arts Commune. They were led by two people – a ‘Dr’ John Moffat who according to the Observer dealt with the “Bread, the Fuzz, the Press and the High Court” and Sid Rawle, who handled the facilities, organising plumbers and electricians and food, but wanted, “144 to become a permanent urban guerrilla base for underground activities”.
After the police raid had been completed all the entrances were guarded or safely boarded up. Soon after the infamous developer Ronnie Lyons (the inventor of the modern industrial estate) who owned two large residential blocks on Park Lane made sure it was reported that he had been to the West End Central Police Station to donate £1000 to the Police Benevolent Fund. Lyons said:
I was so thrilled when I heard the news. I feel that these hippies, had no legal or moral right to be in that building. One is very ready to criticise the police when parking and speeding, but when there is a real problem you run to the British bobby and he is pretty good at his job.
Altogether, 73 people, including 11 juveniles, were charged with offences the next day at Bow Street Magistrates Court. They ranged from assaulting and obstructing the police to possessing cannabis. Most of the arrested, however, were relatively leniently dealt with and received conditional discharges, suspended sentences or fines of just £10.
A few days after he had been forcibly removed from the Piccadilly mansion. Sid Rawle was summoned to the Apple offices by John and Yoko and were offered an island off Western Ireland to be used “for the public good.” Despite the publicity only 30 people arrived at Westport in Ireland to be taken by boatmen to the island. A few months later Sid, along with everyone else, decided to leave their new commune as the weather wasn’t exactly conducive to living in canvas tents pitched next to the North Atlantic.
144 Piccadilly stayed empty for three more years until it was demolished, despite parts of it being listed, in favour of a massive Intercontinental hotel. It was designed by Sir Frederick Gibberd, co-author of the influential pre-war book The Modern Flat and architect of the first ever tower block in Britain – The Lawns at Harlow.
If you feel like re-living the siege of 144 Piccadilly, although it’s doubtful you’ll find any hippies, you can stay at the Intercontinental London Park Lane hotel. It had a 63 million pound refit a few years ago, so it’s particularly good value at £389 for the cheapest room.