Ilex House: The story of community heroes Marie and Brian Heywood in Holly Park Estate
PUBLISHED: 08:52 29 January 2018 | UPDATED: 15:38 29 January 2018
Last weekend, Brian Heywood opened the Brickworks community centre next to Ilex House in the Holly Park Estate. He, and late wife Marie, are impeccable examples of people who give to their community. Brian chatted to the Gazette.
Brian Heywood deserved to be the centre of attention when the Brickworks community centre opened in Crouch Hill’s Holly Park Estate.
It was partly thanks to Brian, who cut the ribbon, that there was a community centre there at all.
In 2012, Islington Council, in its wisdom, wanted to knock down Ivy Hall community centre next to the 17-storey Ilex House. In its place, it wanted to build another six-storey residential block – without replacing the community hall.
This kind of thing was the reason Ilex House Tenants and Residents’ Association (TRA) formed in 1999. Sometimes you have to look after yourself.
Led by Brian, who chaired the group, and his beloved late wife Marie, these tenants forced Islington into a rethink. Council houses were indeed built - but so was a new community centre.
In the same way as Jeremy Corbyn is Islington North and Barrie O’Shea is Duncombe Primary School, Brian Heywood is Ilex House. So was Marie (pronounced “Marr-ree” as she would tell everyone who got it wrong). They were two of the first tenants to move in there in 1971.
She died on January 23 last year. Her efforts on Ilex House TRA are recognised in the Brickworks centre with the Marie Heywood Garden Room.
Shedding a tear in his seventh floor flat on Thursday, Brian recalls: “She used to sit outside on the bench and was quite happy talking to everyone here.
“She just knew everyone. She loved to talk to people and that’s why she was so popular. They called her ‘The Lady on the Bench’.”
It could have been so different. Brian, who moved to Ilex from Almington Street, laughs: “When the block was being built, she said: ‘I wouldn’t want to live there, it’s horrible.’ She ended up living here for 40-odd years!
“When I retired, I felt a bit lost. I said: ‘Let’s get stuck in with the TRA. It’s funny because, at first, Marie didn’t fancy it. She said it would be a lot of running around. I said: ‘What else have we got to do?’
“She started taking up the little duties: knocking on doors, talking to people, asking if they had any problems. Most in the block, regardless of their nationality, let her in.
“I asked if she fancied moving to the countryside, but she was a London girl. She didn’t want to move. She was happy being here because it was so central, with every service we needed on our doorstep.”
Brian is proud of the TRA’s work at the former Ivy Hall: “We made our own money to keep it going. The council was allowing us to have it free, but we never got funding. When it closed, we still had £3,000 in the bank, which is good going for a little gang of tenants. We used to charge £100 for using the hall for a day. That’s a joke, really, when you consider that sort of thing costs £400 now.
“I was looking forward to the opening, and seeing Jeremy Corbyn – who I used to meet regularly. They never told me I was meant to be cutting the ribbon! All of a sudden they were thrusting the scissors into my hand.
“A lot of people have been anti-Brickworks because they changed the name. The way I look at it is: ‘We’ve got the hall, let’s make use of it.’”
Sadly, the TRA fell apart last year. But Brian, positive as ever, reckons it won’t be long before it’s back.
“The committee has gone defunct from people moving away. Until we can get it up and going again, we have no strength.
“But there’s a few women in the block who are interested, so hopefully we can get it up and running again. It’s the only way you can get things done.”
‘Someone had the cheek to say I lived in a slum’
Ilex House was the subject of an acclaimed documentary in 2001.
“The Block” was shot and produced by Justine Gordon-Smith, who used to be secretary of the Ilex House TRA. It told tenants’ stories – good and bad – of living in the tower.
Brian and Marie were two of the people interviewed. “I had someone turn round with the cheek to tell me I lived in a slum,” Marie muses at one point. “You could live in a lot worse places,” she adds proudly.
It even features a cameo from Jeremy Corbyn, then a relatively unknown backbench MP. As part of his Islington North casework, he is filmed meeting a man called Henri, who was suffering leaks from the flat above.
With the TV blaring, the future Labour Party leader has to shout through the letterbox to be let in. When he finally gets in, Mr Corbyn asks an irate Henri if he can turn down the TV, before complimenting his sunglasses on an old photo. Henri was rehoused after the 12-minute film came out.
Justine won a BBC newcomers award for the documentary.