1970-89

BOTH SIDES OF BRIXTON

Brixton

The Brixton of 1970 was a challenging place to grow up, especially if you were a member of the West Indian community.

With opportunities thin on the ground crime was becoming an increasingly tempting option, and the authorities came down hard.

In the midst of the muggings and racism stood one man, Ashton Gibson, and his organisation The Melting Pot, set up to provide essential housing, counselling and support to the many young black people who had been caught up in crime, and often rendered homeless as a result.

Ashton visited many London churches in a fruitless quest for help and understanding. That was until the Reverend Teddy Saunders – unable to offer his own church’s support – remembered CHIPS work in Cyprus.

The Melting Pot found its first sympathetic white audience, and CHIPS began to look for opportunities to help in Brixton.

We provided a salary for Ashton, and loans and donations secured by CHIPS were used to set up many initiatives: a dressmaking workshop in Tulse Hill, a youth club, a nursery and hostels for young West Indians.

Progress was difficult. The nursery’s church landlord served notice on the flourishing project helping 40 children. A similar fate met the youth club – twice. Both projects suffered through churches struggling to support the black community.

The Tulse Hill dressmakers were hard-working and creative, and soon securing orders, but they found it impossible to buy fabric without trade references. Suppliers even refused the project’s offer of up-front cash.

The Melting Pot hostels were more successful. The string of properties acquired, or squatted in– often condemned local authority houses – were full to overflowing. They housed disorientated youngsters who were on probation, coming out of custody, or homeless. Many struggled against the social stigma of prison, and families who had turned their backs.

Often they were referred to The Melting Pot by the courts who would send young people under supervision orders or on remand. Several magistrates were so impressed with the hostels that they supported The Melting Pot with donations, and the team was often called on to help by the police, social services and probation officers.

To the outside world these houses may have seemed chaotic, but young people were offered counselling, as well as training in literacy and skills such as motor mechanics and building repair. The houses were informally run, with love and forbearance – an approach that united the leaders and the led.

Eventually the project had ten hostels – some in Hackney – helping hundreds of young people reconcile with family and wider society. Inevitably the muggings that had so blighted the area decreased sharply.

The Melting Pot caught the eye of the Greater London Council and the Home Office: suddenly major funding was on the cards. It was time for CHIPS to move on, and a new chapter for both us and The Melting Pot to start.

Our early work in Brixton proved that a message of acceptance can provide a steadying influence in the most testing of circumstances. By urging acceptance and forgiveness on both sides in the face of crime and racial harassment, The Melting Pot was one place where black and white, rich and poor could meet together and find not only acceptance, but greater understanding through genuine learning about the other. Lasting friendships were built which even withstood the riots of the 80s, which Brixton later suffered.  

It’s an approach we follow to this day in our work with gangs on Brixton’s Angell Town estate.