How a radical Kings Cross bookshop was HQ to McLibel and spawned Pride marches

Bookshop workers outside Housmans, 1982

Bookshop workers outside Housmans, 1982 - Credit: Alexander Donaldson

An exhibition celebrating 5 Cally Road’s role in radical politics goes on show this month, sharing people's memories of marching against nuclear bombs, fighting for gay liberation and being spied on by undercover police.

Housmans Bookshop and Peace News has been a centre for social change activism since it was opened in the heart of King’s Cross in 1959 by Vera Brittain.

Early nuclear disarmament placard in Housmans, 2020. © Anoushka Chakrapani

Early nuclear disarmament placard in Housmans, 2020 - Credit: © Anoushka Chakrapani

The building in Caledonian Road has played a significant role in Islington's history, and has been used by many of the UK’s leading social justice movements.

Housmans bookshop workers Rosie Ilett and Max McLellan, early 1980s

Housmans bookshop workers Rosie Ilett and Max McLellan, early 1980s - Credit: Courtesy of Rosie Ilett

5 Caledonian Road, early 1980s

5 Caledonian Road, early 1980s - Credit: Courtesy of Rosie Ilett

In the 1960s, it was part of the burgeoning nuclear disarmament movement that saw the Committee of 100 and other groups use civil disobedience to demand an end to nuclear weapons.

In the 1970s, 5 Cally Road hosted the office of the Gay Liberation Front, which organised the UK’s first Pride marches.


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The helpline London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard – now Switchboard – was based there for nearly 20 years.

Renovation work in the basement of 5 Caledonian Road uncovered grafitti dating from when it housed the Gay Liberation Front.

In 2020 renovation work in the basement of 5 Caledonian Road uncovered grafitti dating from when the room housed the Gay Liberation Front's office. Before the room was repainted Bishopsgate Institute and On the Record photographed the writing and drawing on the walls - Credit: Daniel Gayne

Then when members of the environmentalist group London Greenpeace were sued by McDonalds for libel in 1990, the ‘McLibel' defence campaign was based in the building.

The campaign supported Helen Steel and David Morris, the two defendants, as they took on McDonalds in what would become the UK’s longest ever running libel case.

Renovation work in the basement of 5 Caledonian Road uncovered grafitti from when the room housed the Gay Liberation Front

In 2020 renovation work in the basement of 5 Caledonian Road uncovered grafitti dating from when the room housed the Gay Liberation Front's office. Before the room was repainted Bishopsgate Institute and On the Record photographed the writing and drawing on the walls - Credit: Daniel Gayne

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On the Record - an organisation which uses oral history to inspire social change - has been working remotely with a group of 25 young volunteers aged 18-25 on the project, ‘5 Cally Road: 60 years of books and activism’ since last summer.

They have been researching documents, conducting oral history interviews, and trawling through photographic archives to record the building’s 60 plus year history.

Volunteers have used the material to inspire short creative responses, including soundscapes, verbatim radio plays, queer monologues, poetry and music videos, which they have produced with the help of professional sound artists, musicians, animators and theatre-makers.

An interactive website, 5callyroad.org, launches this month to share their creative work and an extensive digital archive of more than 200 documents, photographs and sound recordings, all connected to the building’s history.

Then on July 26 an exhibition opens, reverberating oral history interviews will through the shop's bookshelves through an immersive sound installation.

Visitors will be able to rummage through the works created, led by curiosity and chance, evoking the experience of browsing in a bookshop.

Anecdotes include the explosion of an IRA bomb in the letterbox outside the building in 1974.

Luckily no one was injured but the first newsletter of Campaign Against Arms Trade, made in the building, was destroyed.

In the same year campaigner Pat Arrowsmith was arrested in the Peace News office after escaping from an open prison, where she was serving an 18 month sentence for incitement to disaffection.

She had been jailed for giving soldiers leaflets telling them how they could avoid serving in Northern Ireland, as part of the British Withdrawal from Northern Ireland Campaign.

In the 80s the building’s trustees refused to sell the building to developers when there plans were floated to demolish their stretch of Caledonian Road - a decision that was instrumental in preserving the small business and residential character of the area.

Ramsey Kanaan, anarchist publisher, recalls: “Housmans just looks like any other bookstore. What made it vibrant was being part of something bigger.

“Housmans remains a gateway to a whole world of radical ideas, radical histories, radical potentialities.”

Volunteer Reece Evans had just finished university for the summer last year, when he got involved in the project which is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

He said: "I was stuck in my student accommodation, furloughed, isolated from social contact, a rebel without a cause.

Gif made by Reece Evans, project volunteer from On The Record

Gif made by Reece Evans, project volunteer from On The Record - Credit: Photograph © Bishopsgate Institute

"The project gave those days in lockdown a sense of purpose. We learnt about the significance of oral history, stretched our legs in the realm of archival research, and were introduced to theatre production. From the get-go, it was exciting and mind-opening."

Outside Kings Cross in the 80s 

Outside Kings Cross in the 80s - Credit: Courtesy of Clifford Williams

The exhibition runs from July 26 to October 1 from 11am-6.30pm, Monday - Saturday.

Tours can be organised for community groups and colleges on request.

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