IMAGINE you have risked life and limb for your country – but then returned home to find you do not have one.

Dozens of ex-soldiers found themselves in this situation when they came back to Brighton in the final months of the Second World War.

Much to their anger, dozens of homes across the town lay empty, owned by landlords who could make more money renting to wealthy summer tourists than any worker.

This is where the Brighton Vigilantes came in.

When homeless veterans asked for help, its members would break into empty homes and give them a place to stay.

The group was a collective, the names of most of its members never written down. But no newspaper could resist naming its “leader” as Harry Cowley, a veteran 60-year-old activist who had confronted fascists in the Thirties.

Mr Cowley had perfected his formula for squatting after the First World War.

In 1921, he moved a homeless family into 14 Cheltenham Place. When the angry landlord turned up, the Brighton Vigilantes offered to pay an agreed rent or fight him.

The Argus: Harry Cowley was a veteran activist by 1945Harry Cowley was a veteran activist by 1945

Beginning in June 1945, the group tried this tactic on a larger scale. The first recorded occupation took place in Round Hill Street on June 29.

As far as we know, no disputes ended in fisticuffs.

“The landlords didn’t seem to get involved in disputes themselves, they would go through the courts,” said John Lasdun, host of the Working Class History podcast.

At the time, squatting was not a criminal offence.

But to move families into a property, the vigilantes would have to break in – and break the law. Luckily for them, they could only be arrested if they were caught in the act.

So the police tried to learn about their planned occupations ahead of time.

“On one occasion, police got word squatters planned to go to an address in Essex Street,” said Mr Lasdun.

“When Cowley and the vigilantes arrived the police were waiting for them. They ended up occupying another house within the next hour.”

The Argus: Ex-artilleryman Mr Betts outside his new occupied home. Photo: East Sussex Record Office/The KeepEx-artilleryman Mr Betts outside his new occupied home. Photo: East Sussex Record Office/The Keep

Widespread anger over housing meant the vigilantes often had popular support. Time magazine estimated there were 400 “self-styled vigilantes” at the movement’s height, claiming to occupy 60 properties.

Mr Cowley even claimed a police officer helped move a table into one squat.

But the group was roundly denounced by left-wing groups.

Labour MP Aneurin Bevan said squatters were jumping their place in the housing queue.

The pro-Labour Daily Herald published a spectacular attack on the vigilantes, comparing them to Chicago gangsters.

“There are too many ill-disposed persons in this country who would only too readily attach themselves to such a cause in order to use it for their own ends,” it wrote.

“It’s important to remember these organisations’ strategies are to act on behalf of the working class,” historian Mr Lasdun said.

The Argus: Mr Cowley addressing the Vigilantes outside Brighton Town HallMr Cowley addressing the Vigilantes outside Brighton Town Hall

“They don’t want workers taking direct action on their own.”

The movement grew rapidly in July. Vigilante groups popped up in Hastings, Essex, and even Australia.

Eventually the Brighton Vigilantes moved to London after the group’s meeting place in a cellar was discovered by police. They even set up a stall in Hyde Park's Speaker's Corner.

For all the denouncement, the movement was remarkably successful.

After a receiving a letter from the group, a petrified Brighton Council hurriedly wrote to Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill asking for powers to requisition empty homes and prevent “unconstitutional methods” from the vigilantes. Sir Winston, of course, had also received a letter.

Originally he had tried to censor reporting of the vigilantes, a move blocked by his Cabinet.

Facing a growing movement, on July 20 his government granted councils the power to requisition empty homes.

The Argus: Sir Winston Churchill's Government quickly cavedSir Winston Churchill's Government quickly caved

The vigilantes’ main aim had been achieved in a matter of weeks.

But this also took the wind out of its sails.

In just two weeks, Brighton Council served 60 requisition notices.

Yet this was no long-term solution. In 1946, thousands squatted across the country, prompting the new Labour Government to begin a mass council house-building programme.

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