Squatters had been taking over derelict properties in central London for years, but when a group of hippies took over 144 Piccadilly – an empty five-storey Georgian mansion at Hyde Park Corner in Mayfair – in September 1969, the ensuing stand-off between mainstream society and 1960s counter-culture made headlines around the world.
A group of organised squatters known as the London Street Commune (LSC) – led by 22-year-old Cambridge dropout “Dr John” (real name Phil Cohen, now an emeritus professor at East London University, pictured at left) – broke into 144 Piccadilly in September 1969.
They barricaded the doors and installed a makeshift drawbridge through a ground-floor window over the dry moat that surrounded the building. Word spread and hundreds of young people including runaways, ex-borstal kids, rent boys and drug dealers, moved in.
At 11:30 am on Sunday 21 September – after the squatters had ignored an eviction order and remained inside the 100-room mansion for three weeks – Chief Inspector Michael Rowling convinced the hippies inside the squat at 144 Piccadilly to lower their improvised wooden drawbridge so the police could help a seriously ill person inside.
The drawbridge came down and Chief Inspector Rowling flung himself bravely across the barricaded opening to establish a bridgehead. It was an old trick and as a police whistle sounded, a hundred policemen charged over the drawbridge seemingly from everywhere, drawing their truncheons as they got in through the door.
The raiding policemen had to brave slates, water-filled plastic carpet boules and bricks raining down upon them but it was only four minutes after the police charged in that a policeman was seen at the top of the mansion raising his truncheon in triumph. Not long after, the Hells Angel’s flag was lowered from the flagpole to cheers from more than a thousand onlookers on the street below.
A nice round number of exactly one hundred people were taken into custody with 27 adults and three juveniles arrested for offences ranging from assault to drug possession.
There were no real casualties – although many of the occupants complained of being beaten by the police.
144 Piccadilly stayed empty for three years until it was knocked down, despite being listed, in favour of a huge modern luxury hotel called Hotel Intercontinental Park Lane which still stands on the corner of Park Lane and Piccadilly today.