Olive Morris was fearless.
“Looking through her papers held at Lambeth Archives, I (Dr Angelina Osborne) came across a photograph taken of her in 1969, when she would have been around 17 or 18. Her face was swollen, her clothes torn and dirty. On the back of the photograph was written, ‘Leaving Kings College Hospital after police assault. 15th November 1969’.”
Morris had intervened when a Nigerian diplomat who had parked his Mercedes on Atlantic Road in Brixton, had been beaten and arrested by the police who assumed he had stolen the car. Because she had tried physically to stop the police from attacking the diplomat, the police turned on her, arrested and assaulted her, threatening her with rape and Olive Morris had to go to hospital.
Olive Morris leaving Kings College Hospital after police assault. 15th November 1969
Born in Jamaica in 1952, Morris and her family arrived in England when she was nine, as part of the Windrush Generation. The family lived in South London.
The British Black Panther Movement was active from 1968 to 1973. It had several branches but Brixton in South London was the centre. Its key members were Olive Morris Barbara Beese, Kenrick Goppy, Darcus Howe, Farukh Dhondy, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Altheia Jones-LeCointe, Danny Da Costa, Liz Obi, Leila Howe and Neil Kenlock. It had a HQ at 38 Shakespeare Road, off Railton Road, which was bought for them by art critic John Berger, author of Ways of Seeing.
Brixton Black Panthers – March through Brixton lead by young flag bearer with youth dressed in Tulse Hill Scool for Boys uniform in front
For those people who fell between the twin stools of home ownership and council housing (ie those who would traditionally have been housed in the private sector), opportunities were shrinking, rents rocketing and security diminishing. This increasing desperation of people at the bottom end of the housing market together with the growing number of empty houses, led to the growth of squatting both in scale and scope.
In response in 1972, Olive Morris and Liz Turnbull, both members of the Brixton Black Panthers, occupied a flat above a launderette in Railton Road and successfully fought off attempts at illegal eviction. In doing so, they set an example for hundreds of homeless young people in Brixton and the flat remained squatted for many years. 121 Railton Road, became famous throughout Europe. This was the first successful squatters of private property in Lambeth.
Olive Morris Scaling 121 Railton Road
Morris and the other squatters fought against eviction and had a sign up saying:
THIS PROPERTY HAS BEEN OCCUPIED BY SQUATTERS. WE INTEND TO STAY HERE. IF YOU TRY TO EVICT US, WE WILL PROSECUTE. YOU MUST DEAL WITH US THROUGH THE COURTS.
121 Railton Road became more than just a home, it was a meeting space, a social space, a place to stay for visiting activists.
It remained squatted until 1999. Squats were becoming more prevalent.
Morris was one of the founder members of the Brixton Black Women’s Group and Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD).
She became ill during a trip to Spain in 1978. When she returned to London, she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. She underwent treatment, which was unsuccessful. She died on 12 July 1979 at St Thomas’ Hospital, Lambeth, and was buried in Streatham Vale Cemetery. She was 27 years old
Olive Morris left a a legacy for people in Brixton and slowly that is being revived. She campaigned for access to education, decent living conditions for Black communities and fought against state and police repression. Despite dying at a young age, she empowered the people who lived and worked around her.
Lambeth Borough Photos
Past Tense on 121 Railton Road