Today I continue my scan through some of the material at The Sparrows’ Nest Library’s archive of Poll Tax resistance ephemera.
Refuse And Resist was a newsletter that covered the poll tax resistance from Scotland, where the government first rolled out the tax. It took a radical, grassroots editorial stance, frequently making jabs at the Militant partisan faction that had elbowed itself in to leadership positions in the organized movement.
Sparrows’ Nest has an incomplete archive of this newsletter. Here are some excerpts from issue #2:
On , The Sheriff Officer, H.M. Love & Co., Herriot Row, Edinburgh, was occupied by over 40 non-payers for more than an hour. The office staff were assured that our intentions were peaceful as we hung our banners from the office windows for the benefit of the assembled media.
However, 17 members of our group were charged with breach of the peace. The trial of the 17 will start at , at the Sheriff Court House, Lawnmarket, Edinburgh. Come along and show your support!
That issue also gave this advice to anyone who might receive a notice of a Warrant Sale (in which a auctioneers would try to come to the home of a tax resister, and seize and sell off some valuable piece of property on the spot):
All you have to do is contact the same day or as soon as possible when you get the four days written notice necessary, your local Anti Poll Tax Group and we will rally a huge task force to physically stop any Poinding taking place. Every threatened Poinding so far (Non-Registration) has been defeated by a human wall of defiant resistance.
The Debtors (Scotland) Act 1987 has so limited the nature of goods which can be poinded and sold, that anything which is saleable can easily be “farmed out” to a friend or neighbour until after the sheriff officers have called.
They also gave this advice to avoid bank account seizures:
There have been reports of people having their bank accounts frozen in the past two weeks. If you have an account at one of the major banks or building society and you are not paying the Poll Tax, you would be well advised to move it to a safer place. It is not always easy for Sheriff Officers to trace an account, and, with 252,000 warrants being issued in Strathclyde alone, it may take a long time to find yours, but better safe than sorry.
Alternatives to the major banks include…
If you do opt to move your account please put your reasons for doing so in writing for your bank manager. If the big institutions realise that they are losing customers they might be persuaded to be less co-operative with Sheriff Officers.
That issue gave this description of the process of organizing people to resist “poindings,” and getting the word out quickly in the pre-email/IM era:
It is vital, with threatened poindings against an impossibly large class of a quarter of a million citizens, that local anti-Poll Tax groups, or small groups of people refusing payment, organise local anti-warrant sale task forces as soon as possible.
This can be done, as we’re doing in Ibrox/Cessnock, by contacting people who’ve signed pledges to resist the Sheriff Officers being used to collect the tax. Then there has to be a “tree” of door-knocking or phone contact to alert people to get round a the time the poinding is threatened.
Issue #4 of the newsletter reprinted a newspaper article in which it was reported that “only eight out of 879 scheduled non-payment cases were heard” at the magistrates’ court in Goole, Humberside. At least one of those was an acquittal, of a non-payer whose tax was not in fact yet due. The article noted that “Northampton council has opted to take action against a list of known opponents of the tax, rather than swamp local courts with all 25,000 people who have failed to pay…”
That issue also reported on the process of resisting property seizures:
High Noon — for Sheriffs
The anti poll tax movement defeated 3 attempts by the Sheriff Officers to carry out “mass poindings” in Edinburgh in .
The Sheriffs men targetted 3 areas. Several non-payers in each neighbourhood received a letter fixing a date for a poinding and threatening that “If no-one is present on said date, the Warrant to enforce entry by breaking open, shut-lockfast places will, if necessary, be implemented.”
On anti poll tax campaigners lay in wait for the Sheriff Officers at homes in the High St. area. The highlight of the day’s resistance organised by Southside Against the Poll Tax — came when 200 people defended a non-payer’s home by completely filling Paisley Close. Needless to say the Sheriffs didn’t show.
The state thugs had put in an appearance earlier, at other homes, but the constant presence of protesters ensured that even when they gained access they were unable to poind a single item.
The following day saw Haymarket Tollcross Anti Poll Tax Campaign co-ordinating the defence of non-payers in the Grassmarket area. The Sheriff’s “dawn strike” was to no avail — even when the Sheriffs had police backup some non-payers kept their doors locked and bolted in defiance.
At lunchtime the Grassmarket was chock a block with 200 protesters who excitedly charged this way and that at the slightest hint of a suspected Sheriff Officer! It was another total victory for the Sheriffbusters — not one poinding all day.
The Stockbridge and Comely Bank neighbourhoods were the scene for the next showdown. Over 150 people were involved in defending 11 non-paying households. Being involved in Stockbridge New Town Anti Poll Tax Group, I [John Ball] can describe what happened in some detail.
The successful two days physical defence of those non-payers homes was only possible because of our previous activity in the community. When, earlier this year, the Sheriff Officers had hand-delivered threatening letters to local non-payers, our Group countered by flyposting “Stop the Sheriff” flyers, with our Hotline Phone №s. We visited virtually everyone who rang with leaflets, advice, etc.
The delivery of the “poinding” letters saw us repeat the flyposting and personal visits — together with an intensified advertising of our group meetings. Attendance leapt from 6–18 per fortnight to 25–30 weekly.
Around 15 non-payers from 11 households contacted us to say they had received “poinding date” letters. At our group meetings we had long thorough discussions about what we should do. Eventually it was unanimously agreed we would muster as many people as possible to stand guard at each non-payers home. 3,000 leaflets advertising the resistance were distributed to local homes and the call was put out to other groups in Lothian.
On we were in position at all 6 homes before (the earliest (normal) legal times for a poinding). All homes were in ’phone contact, with one acting as a base. There were leaflets for passers-by, plus an information sheet listing the homes being defended, Sheriffs car registration numbers, a lawyer’s telephone number, etc.…
The Sheriff Officers made their move around Several teams were involved. With one set seemingly acting as a decoy, 2 Sheriffs gained access to a flat in Cheyne St. But anti poll tax protestors piled in after them, and the Sheriffs were unable to poind anything.
By now protestors from the other flats — alerted by phone — were converging on Cheyne St. The Sheriff Officers ignored the other nearby flats due for poindings and made a rapid exit stage left! Frantic chases ensued as the Sheriffs fled with nonpayers in hot pursuit. The state bully boys soon left the area, some with their care aerials resembling a surreal modern sculpture! No more poindings were attempted.
That afternoon 100–150 people held an impromptu march round Stockbridge. This was a great success, drawing in passers-by and boosting morale sky-high. Our appetites whetted, we got stuck into the goodies at our “anti poll tax tea party” held outside some of the threatened homes.
we successfully defended 5 homes. Sheriffs were sighted several times but our constant presence — maintained right up to 8 p.m. — scared them off. Two days — not one poinding.
Poindings No More
Since then the Sheriff Officers have, as far as we know, issued no more such letters setting dates for poindings.
The successful organisation of these actions was carried out by the local ant poll tax groups — all 3 are “independent” non-party dominated groups — with significant solidarity from Lothian. Neither the Lothian Federation Executive nor any political tendency played any organising role. (Perhaps this is why the “Militant” Federation Secretary omitted all mention of these actions in his “report” of Lothian activity to the Scottish Federation Conference.)
3 lessons that could be drawn from these events:–
- Don’t be content to just defend 2 or 3 committed non-payers against poindings. Do extensive publicity to draw in all the others you don’t know about.
- Guard every non-payers home from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The Sheriffs usually strike early.
- Be ready to take action such as a local march round the threatened homes. This helps us go on the offensive. Everyone in the area should know what’s going on.
Issue #5 included this suggestion:
Any Scottish Anti-Poll Tax group who would like to twin with an English Anti-Poll Tax group to exchange experience, information, ideas, etc. Write to Twins…
That issue also reported on several more successful defenses against “poindings and Warrant Sales” and noted that “At least 2 new Anti Poll Tax groups have since been formed in the localities where the poindings were stopped.”
Another article noted:
Court battles are just beginning [in London]. In Camden a major success was scored by the non-payers who turned up to represent themselves. They had their cases adjourned till next year. A crowd approaching 300 has been turning up each Friday, and locally spreading the news — turn up and get your case adjourned. Liability Orders have been granted against all those who didn’t bother to turn up.
1000 people took over the magistrate’s court in Warrington on when the council tried to summon people for non-payment. Because of the mass demonstration none of the cases were dealt with.
That issue also reported on how property seizures were being thwarted:
The South West Federation held a dayschool on responses to the bailiffs and from there set up a bailiff monitoring group in Bristol.
It quickly became clear that a large number of South West councils were going to use the same bailiffs — a company called Roach and Co. based in Bristol. The Avon Federation moved into action. We watched their movements for a week and identified all their cars (they had a series of Nissan vans).
We looked them up in the Companies Register. We examined their premises and discovered that their compound was at the end of a cul de sac (ideal for pickets…) We put this information out to local groups who in themselves turned up a load of information about the bailiffs — some knew them personally, others had useful “dirt” for the press campaign.
The action began on . In the previous week Roaches had been both to Bishops Lydeard (a small village near Taunton) and Barry (in South Wales) to deliver a ‘walking possession’ notice. This meant (in two cases where they had been able to gain access to the houses) that they were in a position to take people’s possessions.
We called a blockade for . People turned up from APTUs across Bristol. No vehicles were able to leave the compound, and we got massive press coverage. In fact a number of vehicles left from the bailiffs private homes. They were spotted by our people crossing the Severn Bridge at They never arrived, but the van was discovered sometime later with its tyres let down.
Meanwhile in Barry and Bishops Lydeard, the whole community was mobilised. In Barry over fifty people were outside the houses of the threatened families; telephones on the window sill; another two hundred people ready to respond to a phone call; vehicles roaming the area watching for bailiffs; kids, prams, icecream vans creating a carnival atmosphere.
In Bishop Lydeard half the village decided to take the day off. All the roads in were sealed off by the community. All cars going through were required to identify themselves. The bailiffs never got near the village.
A newspaper article reproduced in that issue concerned an occupation and barricade of a borough council treasurer’s office (with the treasurer inside, though he was eventually set free). The occupation, which continued into the night, was prompted by threats to imprison a 74-year-old non-payer. The article also mentioned in passing that
Four months ago, a fire-bomb caused £180,000 damage to the premises of Madagans, the bailiffs employed by the council, an attack condemned by the local poll tax union.
Another brief article from that issue:
On Sheriff Officers were attacked in Belshill outside Glasgow when they attempted to carry out poindings in the homes of Poll Tax non payers. 50 people surrounded their car, rocking it. The car was damaged with “Scum” smeared on the body-work with chips. They didn’t bother coming back 4 days later when 200 protesters turned up to physically stop poindings planned at 12 homes in the town.
After the first day, 50 Poll Tax protesters occupied the offices of the sheriff officers responsible. The police forced their way in and arrested them, causing thousands of pounds worth of damage.
Fortunately, Strathclyde Police Force has had to be cut because of non payment of the Poll Tax. Another bloody good reason not to pay.
From issue #6:
saw the first call to the Sciennes Marchmont Anti Poll Tax Group from several worried members. Sheriff Officers (or some of their clerks) were visiting non-payers in the area, asking questions and delivering payment advice letters which contained a paragraph threatening poinding action.
Several group members met . A full group meeting was arranged and posters were prepared telling people not to let the sheriff officers in, and carrying the group contact tel. nos.
At the full group meeting we decided to hold a public meeting the following week and to have our street stall every day. 100 posters were put up around the area. The phone tree was activated and all group members were warned about the sheriff officers and reassured about what to do.
The public meeting was attended by about 30 people and included a lawyer who gave legal advice and a talk on the latest anti poll tax activity. Many calls were received and the group visited, leafleted, or advised worried callers. So far we are not aware of anyone being pursued any further by the sheriff officers.
Excerpts from another article in that issue, on the London scene:
The council are still taking people to court but virtually everyone who turns up to challenge the summons are having their cases adjourned to some unspecified date in the future… So clogging the courts is having some impact but the problem is that the resources of the state are quite considerable. To back up their liability orders, the council (glorious “socialists” of course!) has started to use the bailiffs (but only giving out invoices at the moment). To date, there has been at least one documented attack on the bailiffs, with a brick through the windowscreen and dented bodywork, and a bailiff has also been booted in the balls!…
One funny story is that the council was using three offices for people to pay their poll tax in until recently. The Hoxton office has been closed down after a succession of bricked windows, graffiti, abuse, and the final straw were two armed robberies, the last one netting a mere £129 (shows how much local people are paying!) … One lesson that we learnt from the anti-bailiff operations down here is that basically it is like looking for a needle in a haystack and so the tactic of developing hardened “bailiff-buster” squads will not work — the emphasis has to be on local activity, solidarity, and confidence as only they will be able to react to the bailiffs in time.
That issue also reprinted some notes from Organize!:
Obviously, where bailiff resistance looks set to be strong, there is room for “hit squads” to go further on their own. In the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, a gang of anonymous “outlaws” called at the home of the leader of the local council (run by the Moderate Labour Party) in to warn him that there would be “tit-for-tat raids” on the homes of councillors if bailiffs visited any non-payers in the forest. Shaken council leader Mr Cooper told The Independent “I don’t know who they are, but they are obviously prepared to use violence and threaten property.”
South Yorkshire police stunned local councillors in when they announced that they are planning to refuse to arrest poll tax defaulters, even when instructed to do so by the courts. Local police chiefs say they fear that the task “may become physically impossible for the police because of the large numbers of defaulters.”