Colin Jones: The Black House photos

One of the most controversial exhibitions of the 1970s documented life at the London hostel known as The Black House. Vilified at the time for making heroes out of delinquents, the photographs are now being republished for the first time in 30 years

Saturday 16 December 2006 01:00 GMT

The photographs were taken from 1973 to 1976, and record an extraordinary time. Colin Jones - described by one critic as "The George Orwell of British Photography" - had been commissioned in 1973 to produce illustrations for a newspaper article about the Harambee project in Islington, north London. The article was published under the title, On the Edge of the Ghetto. Later on, in 1977, The Photographers' Gallery put on a larger show of photographs which Jones had taken in the same location, under the title The Black House.

Why "Black House"? During the early 1970s that name was branded on the public mind as the lair of the infamous conman and murderer Michael de Freitas (aka "Michael X"), whose brutal activities had previously been the subject of a high-profile trial. But Jones's photographs have nothing to do with the site where De Freitas lived. By the time Jones took these pictures, De Freitas's "Black House" was history, and De Freitas himself had decamped to the Caribbean, where he was finally hanged.

The house where Jones actually crafted these images opened at the outset of the 1970s, and closed within a few years. It was the central part of a community project run by a charismatic Caribbean migrant, Herman Edwards, whom everyone called Brother Herman. And as it happened, Brother Herman's hostel was less than a mile away from where the original Black House was located. As a result, media stereotyping and ignorance about black communities at the time has perpetuated a historical confusion about who these people were.

Various people at the time described the hostel as "the Black House", which was handy for editors in search of a headline. Harambee, however, was a local community project, and it would have been unwise for its management to use the name, given its ugly connotations.

Unlike Michael de Freitas, Herman Edwards, the founder of the project, was neither a criminal nor a con-artist. He had come from the Caribbean in the mid-1960s. These were testing times for the various groups of immigrants from the new Commonwealth. The political right fostered a public demand for increasingly draconian anti-immigrant legislation, and the political atmosphere was paralleled by discrimination against black migrants. Throughout the late 1960s, Government legislation compromised by tightening border controls and, at the same time, offering aid to alleviate the social conditions with which the migrants were struggling. The 1966 Local Government Act allowed voluntary organisations to apply for funds to run a wide range of community-based projects. The result of this new funding stream was to galvanise various elements in the Afro-Caribbean migrant community.

The migrants of the early 1960s had faced discrimination in housing and employment, but by the end of the decade, a new problem had emerged. The original Afro-Caribbean migrants had come to occupy various niches in a labour force which had been hugely depleted by the Second World War. Ten years later the vacancies they came to fill were no longer available.

At the same time, the police forces used a series of archaic regulations to stop and search young black men - and when they did get into trouble the courts were merciless in applying the available sanctions. It seemed that the family life of Afro-Caribbean migrants was disintegrating. Large numbers of adolescent boys had been abandoned, thrown out or simply left their parents' insecure accommodation. Some had left school with no qualifications and few prospects, and had passed in and out of the criminal justice system, thus acquiring a double disadvantage.

From the viewpoint of older migrants it seemed as if an entire generation was spinning out of control. In response, the Afro-Caribbean community began organising projects whose aim was the rehabilitation and support of the younger generation, aided by the new government funding. Herman's house was one of the earliest and most notable of these projects. Its purpose was to provide a halfway house for vulnerable young people, helping them find employment and protecting them during a difficult phase in their lives.

The Harambee project came into being because Herman was offering a solution to problems for which the local authorities had no answers. Hostels in London were overcrowded. Foster care for troubled black adolescents was non-existent. The local council grasped the nettle of funding a black community organisation with a mixture of relief and apprehension.

Herman believed that its occupants would discover their own worth. But the house was always in hot water, with the neighbours reporting overcrowding, or too much noise. It did not help that some of the youths in Jones's photographs relished the media attention and embraced the role of iconic delinquents. Far from "empowering" them, however, this reinforced their status as outcasts.

In spite of its difficulties, Harambee continued to be funded by the local council in the early 1970s. But its closure was only a matter of time. At its inception the house had been a magnet for black community activists who hoped that it would solve the problems caused by Afro-Caribbean migration. But the growing band of black community workers lost patience with Herman's inability to impose a disciplined regime. The ebbing of support through the early 1970s paralleled the decline of the project. The official social welfare network began to tackle the issues for which Herman had campaigned. Herman's health declined, the stream of volunteers dried up; by the mid-1970s, the project had had its day.

Colin Jones's photographs are a powerful record of time and place; beyond the images is a remarkable rhetoric about London identity, expressed in the subjects' style and glimpses of the setting. It's a unique reminder of an environment which only existed for a few years, but which exemplified an important experience in the life of urban Britain and its black communities.

'The Black House', with photographs by Colin Jones and an introduction by Mike Phillips, is published on Monday by Prestel, £30. To order the book at a special price, including free p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897

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