Kerrie McGiveron (Liverpool) on Big Flame, women and the Tower Hill Base Group

With generous financial backing from SSLH, in the summer of 2017 I was able to travel to various sites to undertake research for my MA dissertation entitled ‘Notes on a Community Struggle:’ Big Flame, Women, and The Kirkby Resistance.

Figure 1 Big Flame Banner in Liverpool.
Big Flame Banner in Liverpool. Reproduced with permission from M. Fararr

Big Flame were a radical New Left organisation, whose unique commitment to both socialism and feminism renders them vital to the narrative of 1970s activism in Great Britain. With transnational links to Italian Marxist group Lotta Continua, they worked nationally involving themselves in various campaigns such as industrial protests and pickets, the National Abortion Campaign and grass-roots community initiatives. It was the task of my study to focus upon the Women’s Commission within the group and specifically the Big Flame Tower Hill Base Group, which was formed in Kirkby, a new working class estate created to house slum clearance tenants from Liverpool in the 1950s. Sub- standard housing, environmental issues and high unemployment exacerbated by Edward Heath’s Housing Finance Act in 1971, which essentially raised rents for council tenants, led to a 14 month long rent strike organised in part by Big Flame. After the strike ended, Big Flame militants remained in Kirkby to organise and intervene in working class struggle, specifically acknowledging the identity of the working-class housewife and the centrality of her role to radical politics. ‘Notes on a Community Struggle’ tracks activist trajectories and analyses the role that Big Flame women played in Kirkby, assessing the impact their activism had not only on the community, but on the lived experience of activists themselves.

We Won’t Pay – Big Flame Leaflet 1975
We Won’t Pay – Big Flame Leaflet 1975. Reproduced here

Throughout my research, I visited several archives. Liverpool Records Office was particularly useful as it contained almost every copy of the Big Flame newspaper which ran from 1970 – 1984. This provided with me with an insight into the way the group communicated their radical politics and included interviews with working-class housewives from Kirkby who had been influenced by Big Flame politics. I also visited the Working Class Movement Library in Salford to view Big Flame internal documents. The archive contained internal bulletins, committee reports and minutes as well as personal letters and correspondence. These documents provided me with a unique insight into the internal workings of Big Flame and were a vital part of my thesis. The documents revealed how Big Flame militants operated on the Tower Hill estate of Kirkby, by living the working-class experience on the estate and engaging with working-class housewives. This theme was central to my analysis, and the evidence I uncovered here was vital to my overall thesis.

I also visited Kirkby Archive Centre for Research, which contained town planning reports and documents relating to Kirkby Unemployed Resource Centre which was a major legacy created by members of Big Flame. The archive contains minutes of planning meetings, and letters of appreciation from members of the community revealing an insight into the impact of grass roots organising on the local community and the lasting legacy of New Left activism.

Oral history interviews were also a key part of my thesis, adding a rich and authentic voice to my study. Three former activists kindly agreed to speak to me about their experience in Big Flame, one of whom was the main instigator of activity in Kirkby and campaigned over a number of years for improved housing, sanitation, opportunities and amenities for the community of Kirkby. I travelled to Sheffield to meet a former member of East London Big Flame who was active in many disputes, including the disruption of the Miss World contest in 1970, for which she was arrested and briefly imprisoned. She joined Big Flame shortly after and visited Kirkby several times and provided me with detailed testimony of the rent strike and other initiatives.

I would like to thank SSLH for their generous support for this study, which was enlightening for me both professionally and personally.

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Rent Strike March on Tower Hill 1971.
Rent Strike March on Tower Hill 1971. Reproduced at https://bigflameuk.files.wordpress.com/2009/05/tower-march.jpg