Colin Jones and the Black House
In the 1970s, a dilapidated terrace on Holloway Road became a hostel for young black men on the wrong side of the law. Photojournalist Colin Jones recalls his three years spent documenting life in what the press derisively came to call ’The Black House‘.
In 1973, Colin Jones (dubbed ‘the George Orwell of British photography’) was commissioned to produce illustrations for a newspaper article about a community project for young black men in Islington. Published by the Sunday Times under the headline ‘On the Edge of the Ghetto’, the story proved explosive and by 1977, when more of Jones’ pictures were exhibited at the Photographers’ Gallery, the media had nick-named the hostel ‘The Black House’.
Though the project was officially called Harambee, the media took advantage of the fact that it was less than a mile away from the so-named lair of black power activist and infamous murderer Michael de Freitas (Michael X), the subject of a high-profile trial in 1972. Jones’ pictures had nothing to do with the site where de Freitas lived, but when news of the hostel broke, the papers resurrected the name.
Funded by Islington Council and run by a dynamic Caribbean immigrant called Herman Edwards, Harambee provided a halfway house for vulnerable young people. Despite the attention it attracted, support for the project slowly ebbed away and it closed down in the mid-’70s. As his soulful pictures go on show once more, Jones tells Time Out of his experiences at the hostel, and what became of his subjects.
‘The paper said “Go and find out who is doing all the muggings.” It took me about four weeks to build up enough trust with Herman [Edwards, the manager of the Harambee project], but I was finally allowed to go in. It was a shock. Tables and chairs were broken, and there were boards on the windows. A lot of the destruction was from the kids. They acted out of frustration because they were constantly under scrutiny from the police who picked them up under the sus [stop and search] laws. One of the boys got six months for nicking a pint of milk, for God’s sake!
‘You have to remember the background to this. The black community had been displaced twice: once when they were taken as slaves from Africa to the Caribbean, and then when they come over to work for us in the 1950s. There was a lot of discrimination in housing and employment, and many young people left school with no qualifications and ended up as criminals. It seemed as if black family life was disintegrating. Herman’s project seemed to offer an alternative to that. He was an amazing man.
‘It took a long time to build up trust. Very few other white people went inside the house and at the beginning I was regarded with suspicion, as the enemy. I often felt frightened. They didn’t physically threaten me – they didn’t need to – but you could feel the vibes. These were kids who had just come out of borstal. They’d stare at you and be very moody. There were a lot of mental health probems and some of them would get very depressed.
‘I’d go in and they’d all be reading the Sun for the racing news. That’s all they read. They weren’t interested in politics – it was the black middle class who tried to get them involved in black power – they were too busy trying to survive from day to day.
‘They all smoked ganja, which they funded from stolen goods. When I stayed there I went to bed with my shoes and clothes on and my camera wrapped around me. I didn’t sleep a wink. There was one young kid who was an amazing cat burglar and he showed me a solid gold Rolex, a retirement present he’d stolen. That went to the Greek “fencers” in Camden Town in return for money for ganja. Sometimes they’d go to Soho or Hoxton to sell ganja or speed.
‘They went out clubbing all night, got back at 5am and slept until 1.30pm. They would eat when they were hungry and have sex when they wanted to – their girlfriends were often there along with the children. I never asked which child belonged to whom.
‘The women were brilliant shoplifters. Once we were planning a party and one of the women got a kid’s pram and covered it over with a blanket. She went to the supermarket and when she came back, she threw back the cover and there were stacks of tins and drink. We had a great knees-up afterwards.
‘Style came naturally to them. They would look good in anything. The women loved clothes and all borrowed each other’s dresses, although they were too proud to accept hand-me-downs – especially from white people. They liked being photographed as it gave them a feeling of importance and broke up the monotony of the day.
‘The photos didn’t go down well with some sectors at the time, like fucking Ken Livingstone, and Lee Jasper [now Livingstone’s advisor on race issues] who was ignorant about what was happening in his own community.
‘It’s much worse today. Guns and knives have taken over. And, whereas in the ’70s people looked to Africa and Rastafarianism for inspiration, now they look to Islam.
‘I have kept in touch with some of the boys. In particular, a guy called Warren who is now in prison for murder. He wrote to me recently, saying what an important part of his life The Black House was. Nearly all the people I photographed ended up in prison. A lot of them suffered mental problems from the weed. I had a phone call recently from one of the boys. He’s pushing 50 and he said half the people I photographed have ended up in mental institutions.’
‘Colin Jones – The Black House’ exhibition is showing at the Hoppen Gallery (3 Jubilee Place, SW3; 020 7352 364/www.michaelhoppengallery.com) June 1-30.
- Add your comment to this feature