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The legacy of Cardboard City, and Britain’s grim renaissance of homeless encampments

Under Thatcher, thousands of rough sleepers camped in Waterloo walkways – what do memories of this community tell us about the return of tent cities today?

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The name “Cardboard City” evokes a lost civilisation. You can still see the ruins in the fabric of London in the places, rituals, and short-lived communities of newly-homeless people.

With rough sleeping in the capital at a record high, more than doubling since 2010/11, these communities are visible in the old shopping centre across the road from Stratford’s Westfield in east London, round the back of central London’s Warren Street tube station, and in the underground passages leading to Charing Cross station just around the corner from policymakers in Whitehall.

These encampments remind us that the most vulnerable are victims of government policy – in this case, the shedding of social security and social housing.

Separating fact from experience from myth is never an easy task. With Cardboard City, it is complicated by the different meanings it had for the people who lived there.

For some, it was the most stable and supportive environment they had lived in: an indirect social commentary on what they left behind. For others, it was the worst period of their life: an experience they survived.

The media coverage and accounts of the time tell their own story, the “down-and-outs” living just over the bridge from the Houses of Parliament in Westminster and the Thatcherite government that had brought mass unemployment.

Most former residents are quite sceptical about how they were portrayed in the media at the time – aside from the work of a few journalists and photographers like Moyra Peralta and Liza Hamlyn.

As a result, trying to put together a narrative from new reports seems wrong. Even the physical space of the site has changed. As part of building the Imax cinema, the open-pillared space you can see in photos from the time were enclosed, giving the place a darker and more claustrophobic feel.

There never was a single Cardboard City, and those who lived there referred to it as the specific location where it ended up – the Bullring, a network of concrete tunnels and walkways by Waterloo Station (now home of the BFI Imax).

In the months and years before, it had moved around from Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Southbank, Waterloo railway arches and the Embankment, being moved on by the authorities each time until it settled into the Bullring.

Richard first remembers becoming homeless at six. His family had been due to move to Australia, sold what they had, and moved out of their home only for their relocation to fall through at the last minute. They ended up in lodging houses and what are still euphemistically known as “bed and breakfasts”. Richard remembers watching the 1966 Ken Loach drama about homelessness, Cathy Come Home. “We were living it,” he observes.

Richard lived in the Bullring for years, constructing 15-20 “bashes” for shelter. One other former resident described these as “luxurious” digs, built on top of wooden pallets to prevent frequent flooding from rain.

There’s a picture of one of the residents in his cardboard bash next to a makeshift street sign reading “Bash Street” – Richard tells me this man, called Alex, was known for having built a bash on stilts.

One of the striking similarities between then and now was just how young many of the homeless people were. The latest figures show 103,000 young people asked for help from their local council in 2017/18 because they were homeless or at risk of homelessness, according to youth homelessness charity Centrepoint.

Back then, in the Bullring, there was a semi-official policy among residents that underaged people could crash a night or so but could not stay permanently – they attracted the attention of both the police and social services.

Saz was perhaps an exception to this rule – she went down the Bullring when she was just 16. “I was lost and depressed,” she says, “and partly traumatised.” Yet she retains a positive outlook on the years she spent in Cardboard City. “I met the most wonderful incredible people.”

She describes herself as a “typical person with Asperger’s”, saying she was “non-verbal throughout childhood and teens. I had a massive chip on my shoulder”

Without a diagnosis or awareness of why she was like this, however, Saz became depressed, frequently ran away from home, and following some time in squats in Hackney and King’s Cross, ended up in the Bullring with her then boyfriend.

“The bottle of Buckfast and acid helped. I very quickly became a drug addict and alcoholic.” Soon after, her boyfriend was kicked out of the Bullring for robbing someone’s giro.

Yet Saz managed to stay on. “People had met me, and I had been there for days and they knew what I was like:  quite timid, frightened by my own shadow. I had nothing I could hold onto except my books, my drugs and my alcohol.”

Saz estimated that around 5,000 people stayed in the Bullring at some point between the late Eighties and 1998 when the final residents were cleared out. Around 200 of those 5,000 were part of the “hard core”, and around 150 of them have since died. Saz left the Bullring and went to Ireland with a new partner, who she later left because of abuse, and returned before being housed when it was closed down in 1998.

“I have got some very strong religious beliefs that come from my time down there,” she tells me. “I want to go down there, curl up in a ball and go to sleep touching those walls.”

Another familiar parallel with the situation today was the response from community groups, charities and volunteers. Organisations like the Simon Community did soup runs, driving into the Bullring from a side road you can still see from the walkways.

Stephen Gardner was a volunteer back then: “My experience with the Bullring was basically Sunday mornings, going there to drop off food, sandwiches and hot drinks and what not.”

When asked about his impression and memory of the Bullring, Simon comments: “Well just the scale of it more than anything else, I mean that’s what really took me back. I mean it was established. It had been there for a long time. It was quite an intimidating place.”

According to accounts from both sides (though differing on details), the Simon Community van was besieged when a volunteer allegedly kicked one of the dogs hanging around the area.

Dogs were important to the people who lived there – beyond companionship, they provided security against drunks and thugs who would come down to harass them or start fights. Former residents can still name the dogs they collectively owned.

The dogs also kept the rat population down. In one of the more disturbing incidents, a resident died during the night (probably from choking on vomit) and was partially eaten by the rats. According to former residents, the police came down in force to investigate what was initially a suspicious death – and a local social worker came down to ensure the wellbeing of the residents at the hands of the police.

The theatre company and charity Cardboard Citizens ran some of its first sessions with people from the Bullring. Founder, Adrian Jackson, recalls the first performance in the arches by Waterloo station.

“It was a very special night indeed, and we did our funny old forum theatre thing, which involves audience participation,” he says. “And at a certain point, Zy [another Bullring resident], got on stage… took the place of the protagonist, and said, ‘at this point they took out their flutes and they danced their way to happiness’, and he took out a flute and he started dancing.

One of the residents involved, Jed, would later leave Cardboard City with Saz – the couple were married for a number of years, before divorcing. Jed died at the end of 2018, and at his funeral was laid to rest as The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” played out. At the time, the flat he had been living in was being squatted – something he no doubt would have approved of.

Among the wider cultural impact of the Bullring, there were songs by Madness (their 1984 song “Victoria Gardens” refers to walking through Cardboard City), and The Levellers (1990’s “Cardboard Box City”). Adrian Mole creator Sue Townsend’s book Rebuilding Coventry tells the story of a woman called Coventry fleeing to London and living in Cardboard City. Upon reading the chapter that describes the Bullring, one former resident comments that it reads like Townsend had visited it. Even Princess Diana paid a visit – there is still footage on YouTube of her walking around and speaking to residents in 1994.

Beyond this are the physical markers that a community of people lived there. A local soup kitchen apparently started during the Bullring years still visits the area every week.

At St John’s Church nearby, where the North Lambeth Day Centre was hosted, there is a mosaic bench in the churchyard created by a local arts project with the help of former residents of the Bullring. On it are the names of those who lived there and have since passed away. Some were just known by their street name:

Andy Morgan, Jimmy Black, Lancelot Burn, Teddy Bear, Digby, London Sue, Jakie, Richard Harris, TC, Sally, Casey, Paul Fraser, William Molly, Spider, Barnie, Sharon, John Murphy, London Dave, Fun Rob Jucy Lucy, Hot Dog Willie, Michael Knight, Ken, Johnny Rid, Belfast Billy, Janet Nolan, Maz, Margaret Irish, Pitbull, Henry William-Spurgeon, Sundance, Whiskey John, Dave Guppy, Johnny Campbell, Duke, Ronnie Clarck, Mary Lea, Ian Ferguson, Susie Creamcheese, Petal, Scotch Willie, Peter Sacko, John Jennine, Richard (Ricky) Groenki, Digger, Young Paul, Peter Macmillan, Ginger Alan, Pitbull.

To those who lived outside and observed it, the name Cardboard City makes sense – seeing the shelter built from cardboard. For them, the people who lived inside were distant. People unlike themselves. Victims of government. Victims of their circumstances. Something easy to invoke and easy to forget.

But the Bullring was a real place with real residents and their stories should be valued and recorded. In years to come, will we remember the communities of survival that have since emerged in London, Milton Keynes, Northampton, Glasgow? Will we tell their stories?

Samir Jeraj is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman