Acme Studios — #35 1990s Leytonstone Road Protests and the “Free State of Wanstonia”

Supporting Artists since 1972

#35 1990s Leytonstone Road Protests and the “Free State of Wanstonia”

50 stories from The Acme Archive

In the late 1980s it became clear that the M11 link road, first proposed in the 1960s, would be going ahead, and therefore would mean that our houses and the artist tenants would be in the demolition path of the new road scheduled for work commencing in 1990. The agreement between Acme and the Department of Transport was for Acme to lease houses on a short-term basis, Acme artist tenants were in a sense security, the rent was used to repair and maintain them preventing disrepair.

In order to keep a positive relationship with, honour the agreement to returns the houses to the Department of Transport when requested, Acme applied for Possession Orders for all buildings leased. These orders would only be issued when the Department was ready to take back possession. This gave the tenants plenty of notice and meant they would be used as long as possible, avoiding a mass of empty houses. Yet as the empty houses were boarded up and returned to the Department of Transport, they would be quickly occupied with squatters and road protestors.

Although all Acme tenants did agree to return their houses when the time came, the streets full of artists tenants, and other members of the local Leytonstone community were largely opposed to the construction of a road that as well as the loss of homes, would also mean increases in noise, traffic pollution, damage to and loss of green spaces in East London. Opposition to the road gathered momentum and the campaigning by the community of artists tenants, local residents and squatters gathered wide attention and the M11 scheme was severely delayed.

The planned demolition of a 250-year-old chestnut tree in George Green in Wanstead caused public outcry and many actions by protesters and conservation groups to save it took place. In 1993 a local Lollypop Lady Jean Gosling rallied her local school children to stage interventions to raise awareness of the tree’s impending destruction.

However, in 1994 all legal appeals by conservation groups to protect the link road sites ultimately were rejected in a High Court judgement. Undeterred the protestors set up micronations or “autonomous republics” squatting in the roads and houses marked for demolition. In 1994 Claremont Road, a whole row of Victorian terraced houses was occupied by protestors and became “the free state of Wanstonia", including one remaining lifelong resident, 92-year-old Dolly Watson who became very fond of the artist protestors.

During conflicts with police attempts at evictions, a scaffolding tower called “Dolly’s Tower” was built above the terraced roofs. The road became a living art installation with paintings on houses and sculptures made. The last remaining squatted protest house was “Munstonia” (named for its spooky appearance after the TV show The Munsters) on Fillebrook Road. After it’s eviction in 1995, this last obstacle was removed, and construction could commence on the M11 road.

The protests garnered national attention and are thought of as precursors to the more famous Newbury anti-road campaigns in the 1990s. Consequences of the protests were the huge expense incurred by construction delays, the cost of police intervention and forced evictions, and court case, which combined with the negative press attention and public attitudes meant that further planned roads such as the M12 were scrapped, and the New Labour government of 1997 cancelled many plans for new roads unless strictly necessary.

These short-life houses acted as springboards for many artists, providing cheap accommodation and studio space to live and work in, enabling many the time and freedom to work on their terms. Grayson Perry lived in one of these houses “In the time I have occupied my Acme studio I have travelled from Leytonstone dole office to the Saatchi Gallery, and it feels a bloody long way!”.