When the National Trust originally classified Victoria Street, Kings Cross they described it as the 'Montmartre of Sydney'. The epithet is appropriate for those who see the street as Victorian architecture with a residential Who's Who that has included most of Australia's leading writers and artists.
The residents have seen it differently. To them the atmosphere of the street is more important than its fabric. While the 'community' concept is gaining currency with the resident action movement, an actual community has existed in Victoria Street for over fifty years.
One resident who lived there for ten years described the Victoria Street of the late fifties as full of pensioners, single parent families, Kings Cross identities and young people in transit. While the rest of the Cross fell victim to R and R and toy koala bears, Victoria Street remained unchanged. 'It was the same until ten months ago. I started off as an illegal tenant in No. 67 and stayed. I learned who the permanent tenants were. We knew when a tenant moved in and wondered who it was. We saw kids doing midnight flits with a suitcase in one hand and a cat in the other.'
Unlike most other inner city suburbs Victoria Street was neither 'restored' nor demolished. It remained as a low-rent residential area.
By the end of 1972, Frank Theeman, a would-be developer, had bought all the houses in the northern end of the street. This was the section where even the bathroom windows gave a picture post-card view of the city and harbour.
In April 1973 all but twelve of the four hundred tenants were evicted in one week. Some of them had lived there for over forty years, but most were unfamiliar with their legal rights. When Theeman's agents told them the buildings were condemned and shortly to be demolished, they moved, either to the outer western suburbs or to smaller and dearer rooms in the inner city.
The NSW Builders Labourers' Federation imposed a Green Ran, preventing either demolition or construction. In the following weeks, however, vandalism and a series of fires made many of the houses uninhabitable.
In June the National Trust approved a revised plan presented by Theeman which incorporated the facades of the more 'historic’ buildings in a 'low high-rise' development.
Since the Victoria Street Action Group was also concerned with preserving low-rent housing, the Trust's decision was unacceptable. However, this decision meant the loss of 'respectable' support for the group and confusion to the BLF whose own respectability was largely dependent on their assertion that bans 'gave teeth' to the National Trust. The Action Group decided squatting would draw public attention to the need for low-income housing in the inner city, and also prevent further damage to the buildings.
The squatting commenced on June 10, 1973. By the end of 1973, after six months of squatting, there were a hundred residents in the street, including some former tenants.
In July, Theeman took legal action against one squatter, John Cox; charging him with trespass. He was convicted and appealed. As long as the Cox case was sub judice the squatters enjoyed some security. As Cox said: 'A summons is as good as a 5A lease.'
In December, with unprecedented speed, Cox's final appeal was quashed. The squatters prepared for police action.
With the first rumours of eviction, barricading began, using materials which sympathetic rank and file builders' labourers had scrounged from city building sites. Depression resulting from uncertainty set in. The barricading continued for three weeks, and as time discredited particular rumours, many became convinced that nothing would happen.
Still, some people moved out. Most squatters shifted those possessions they wanted to keep.
Squatters organised a phone tree designed to get as many people as possible onto the street as soon as there was any action. Flags were made in green (for bans), red and black. A siren was installed, and residents patrolled the street to activate both siren and phone tree when necessary.
One of Theeman's associates, Joe Meisner, self-styled world karate champion, was recruiting men to evict the squatters. On Sunday, December 29, one of those approached informed a member of the action group that Meisner had organised several men for the job, and that the police would close off the street while they broke into the houses. The barricading continued with more urgency.
On Wednesday, January 2, a policeman informed his brother, a BL, that hundreds of police were being sent to Victoria Street the following morning. That night another thirty people stayed with the fifty remaining squatters.
At 6.20 am on Thursday morning, a nearby resident informed them that there were over two hundred police and several paddy wagons massing outside Darlmghurst police station. The last of the scaffolding was put into place, and the core numbers on the phone tree were alerted.
Police arrived at both ends of the street with Meisner's recruits, described in Theeman's press handout as 'controllers'. The ‘controllers' appearance was large and very beery. They sported sledge hammers, axes, and crow-bars. They shook hands with the police and both groups moved towards the houses.
At No. 57 they took five minutes to open an unlocked gate with a crow-bar. As they broke into the house one resident climbed through the roof into the more securely barricaded No. 59. The controllers took thirty minutes to axe their way into this house. The eleven residents had retired to a back room where they drank beer and discarded all defence plans.
Once inside the building, the controllers ignored the squatters and commenced tearing open doors off their hinges, smashing fittings, plumbing and wiring. When theresidents refused to leave they were arrested by police.
Squatters were barricaded in thirteen buildings, but the controllers broke into six additional buildings which Theeman had barricaded six months earlier to keep out squatters.
In No. 115 the squatters headed for the roof of the three-storey building, and two climbed to the top of the chimneys.
The controllers broke into another house through the roof, and there cut a hole through to the flat below. The couple living there turned a hose on them, and the controllers retaliated with caustic soda.
By 8.30 am, forty squatters were in jail and hundreds of people were demonstrating in the street. Two squatters, Keith Mullins and Con Papadatos, were still on the chimneys of No. 115.
The controllers attempted to demolish the chimneys from underneath Keith and had to be stopped by police. The police rescue squad attempted to remove the two but they were still there when the squatters were released from jail at 4.30 pm.
An elderly man not previously involved approached some of the squatters and gave them five dollars to 'buy everyone a drink when its over.'
By 5.30 pm the crowd of sympathizers concentrated on the footpath opposite No. 115. Facing them on the other footpath were over 100 police and thirty controllers.
At nightfall the police trained a spotlight on the demonstrators. This effectively prevented them from watching Keith and Con, but it provided the two men with an excellent view of their supporters, who then staged an impromptu concert. The crowd sang appropriate numbers such as "Chim Chiminee" and improvised new verses for old songs.
Some people played guitars while others banged saucepans collected from the belongings piled in the street. When people were too hoarse to sing they went on to the road and danced.
Shortly after, BLF secretary, Joe Owens, was arrested for obstruction, bringing the total arrests outside the houses to fourteen.
At 1.00 pm, after seventeen hours on the chimneys, Keith and Con announced that they were coming down.
A meeting of builders' labourers and squatters had earlier planned a mass rally at Kings Cross on Monday January 7, to discuss the rights of low-income earners to live in the inner city. After Keith and Con were arrested, the action group decided to picket the street, at least until the time of the rally, as two members of the group, both legal tenants, remained in the houses.
At dawn on Friday, January 4, Elvis Kipman, a former squatter, climbed onto a chimney on No. 113. The controllers attempted to shift him by lighting a fire below. Elvis shoved his pillows and blankets down the chimney and smoked the men out of the building. The police climbed onto the roof, handcuffed him and proceeded to demolish the chimney around him.
Later that day a fifty-year old woman in a neatly lettered smock joined the picketers. It read: 'Sydney law/ One for the Rich. One for the Poor.'
© Ian Milliss