Remembering radical community action in North Kensington

Tucked away under the Westway motorway near Portobello Market is an engaging photographic exhibition that highlights several pioneering projects of the 1960s and 1970s.

The main focus is a set of photographs by Adam Ritchie documenting a Summer Play Programme. As the exhibition programme says:

“This exhibition focuses on Adam’s photography documenting pioneering Summer Play Programmes that took place in North Kensington from 1967-69. Documenting intangible culture in this unique patch of London, it presents joyous, poetic and exuberant images of kids, freed to have fun, captured at sites of a Summer Play Programme that local people set up and ran on 12 sites with the help of 200 invited students, who were housed and fed in a disused school.

“In experiencing these images, there is a bittersweet irony. This was the very era in which the cultural melting pot of North Kensington saw marginalised and minority groups support each other in resisting racism and many other forms of open prejudice and neglect. It was also simultaneously a hub for extreme creativity offering new social models”.

Some of those social models feature on Adam’s website.

Adam had worked in New York from 1962-66, and came back to London to discover that the Greater London Council (GLC) had just demolished 700 houses across North Kensington to build the longest elevated motorway in Europe.

“Some friends from the London Free School had got permission to open an adventure playground by Acklam Road (out of the rubble from the demolished houses). The kids had built some amazing structures there, so I bought a saw, hammer, and a kilo of big nails and left them hidden under the rubble. I went again a few days later and the structures the kids had built were gone and other bigger, even more imaginative structures were there”.

From those actions, and other local campaigns, developed an adventure playground, the summer play programme, a survey exposing shocking housing conditions, and plans to develop the land under the motorway for community uses. Adam tells the story on his site – see Playspace and Westway tabs – and in this video.

As Adam explains, he and community worker John O’Malley led a four-year campaign for more than 20 acres of land under the motorway to be developed for community use, rather than – for example – parking and a bus garage.

That eventually led to the formation of the North Kensington Amenity Trust as a charity with a board made up of local residents and councillors. That organisation became the Westway Trust, which is hosting Adam’s exhibition.

Adam kindly agreed to pose next to a photo of the motorway under development. Below are the original Motorway Development Trust plans.

The story has a dual interest for me. I moved to London in 1969 to become planning correspondent for the Evening Standard, and wrote about Westway and the formation of the trust. Adam’s site features some of my stories.

In 1977 I was asked to become chair of the Trust, and over the next few years had a very interesting time helping steer schemes which aimed to balance social benefit with commercial projects to earn income. That produced tensions, which re-surfaced more recently, and are documented here by Westway23.

Looking back to the 1970s, I don’t think some Board members were sufficiently aware of the voluntary investment made by local people in the adventure playground and other projects. Despite the efforts of community representatives there wasn’t a shared institutional memory.

That’s a longer story … and there’s now an opportunity to tell that and other stories of social action in North Kensington more fully.

I was alerted to Adam’s exhibition by a local group who are developing an archive of the radical projects in the 60s and 70s, and wanted some technical help as well as input on the content.

I now live near Smithfield, and I’ve been mapping the 19th and 20th century radical history of neighbouring Clerkenwell. It will be an enormous pleasure take the Hammersmith and District line to Ladbroke Grove and contribute to an archive in North Kensington. That will push me to work my way through several boxes of yellowing cuttings, and online newspaper archives.

I should say that the launch event for the exhibition had fine food and drink, and a host of interesting people, some of whom I hadn’t seen for many years. I wish John O’Malley had been there, but sadly he died of COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic.

The exhibition is dedicated to John’s memory, and you will find details of opening times and location here, from Friday November 24.

I’ll report further on the North Kensington archive. Do get in touch if you are interested and I’ll pass that on – David Wilcox

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