Stan Portus is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in C Magazine, Ossian Magazine, Photomonitor, Emotional Art Magazine, Design Exchange Magazine, Review 31 and others.

“When Did You Last Buy a Joint of Beef?”: East London Big Flame and the People’s Food Co-op



Just before Christmas in 1973 a small group of people living on the Lincoln Estate in Bow, East London, set up a food co-op. Their reason for doing so was simple: rising inflation and stagnating wages. Since the beginning of a Conservative rule in 1970, rent, food, and other consumables had been going up in price, whilst wages remained the same. In short, people had to spend an increasingly high proportion of the money they earned just to get by. They named their venture the People’s Food Co-op. It aimed to provide for everyone in need on the Estate and was run by the residents themselves.

Built in 1964, Lincoln Estate housed 2000 residents, and by the early 70s was in a dire state. The tower blocks were neglected and dirty, and there were virtually no facilities for those who lived there, such as a playground for children or a decent chemist. Often hot water and heating was faulty, and alongside the residents being dismayed that the estate was neglected by the off-site caretakers, there were also complaints that the estate’s architecture led to people feeling isolated.

When the co-op first started it was modelled like a market, setting itself up on the Estate’s green, where tables were set out and piled with food that was sold cheaply at wholesale price. Set against the dismal conditions of the estate, the sight of tables set out with food, and members of the co-op inviting those who walked by to join, was an odd thing to see. But such a sight enticed people to join up. As well as camping out by the estate, the People’s Food Co-op made flyers, pamphlets, and leaflets to garner interest. These were often pointed documents, asking their readers why they had to put up with the conditions they were in. They also relayed information about the co-op’s activities, and printed stories from the co-op’s members.

The people who set up the People’s Food Co-op, were part of East London Big Flame. This was a collective of fifteen or so people in East London — made up of men, women, migrants, the employed, the unemployed, and squatters — that had come together a year prior. They had been inspired by a larger collective based in Liverpool called Big Flame, who described themselves as a revolutionary socialist feminist group, orientated towards the working class. Big Flame had developed from a magazine into a political organization with smaller branches cropping up across the country. Campaigning for workers’ and women’s rights, they wanted to change the face of Leftist politics, which they consider to be outdated and unaccommodating of new forms of political and social action such as squatting.

East London Big Flame were influenced by feminist politics as well as the worker and student movements that had recently flourished in Germany and Italy, which were grounded in Autonomist Marxism. This approach espoused organizing around your own needs and political demands, rather than aligning with political parties or even unions. In an essay written anonymously by one of East London Big Flame’s members, reflecting back on the group’s activities, they explain how at the time they saw unions as being ‘blinkered by a hierarchy of white, male, middle-class’ elitism. By working together collectively, they intended to break down and to be critical of the austere social and economic structures that came to determine how one considered and conducted their life. East London Big Flame considered the house workers and the stay-at-home mums as equal to factory workers, and recognized that class struggle was inseparable from women’s struggle for equality. The members of East London Big Flame were adamant that social change or revolution could start from the houses and estates in which people lived, not just from those working in factories or along the docks.

With ‘SOARING FOOD PRICES: CAN WOMEN FIGHT BACK??’ emblazoned across the co-op’s first flyer, its members laid out how food prices had increased ‘25p in the Pound’ since 1970. They proposed that even if inflation could not be solved, they could cut out the increasing margins imposed by shopkeepers by working together and buying their food wholesale and then selling it at cost price. In this way, people would spend a little less, and in turn, keep a little more in their pockets each week. The flyer also asked its reader, rather rhetorically, ‘People get together at work to fight for a decent living — why can’t we do it where we live too?’

Although the flyer was only a one-sided piece of A4 paper and sparse in text, it had taken a whole evening to make. A member of East London Big Flame explained this in another leaflet produced sometime later, stating simply, ‘we hadn’t much experience of doing it’. However, despite the difficulty and their unfamiliarity with producing flyers, it was a prime way to procure support. The sheets of paper were diligently distributed by children on Lincoln Estate, who pushed them under people’s doors and into their homes. The flyers became a physical and symbolic reminder of rising food prices, inflation, stagnating wages, and, not least, of the widening disparity between rich and poor — not to forget the mission and activity of the food co-op itself.

One of the People’s Food Co-op’s pamphlets, bluntly titled ‘WE PAY while THEY PROFIT’, brazenly made this disparity evident. In one column the pamphlet outlined rising food prices, and in another it detailed how inflation was benefiting the banks as well as those who ran and worked for the businesses supplying food. How could it be that the price of eggs had doubled in a year, that a loaf of bread now cost 12p, and that the price of fish, frozen food, fresh fruit, meat, and biscuits — not to mention shoes, telephone bills, stamps, clothes, and beer — had all risen too? How come the four major banks had doubled their profits that year? And how come John Stratton, the chairman of the aptly titled Fatstock Marketing Corporation — supplier of fresh meat, bacon, poultry, and sausages — had received a £16,000 pay rise.

The pamphlet provoked its reader by asking, ‘How often these days can you afford pork chops?’ and ‘When did you last buy a joint of beef?’. The rhetoric was aimed to make the people of Lincoln Estate seriously consider the plight of their material living conditions. Despite the fact that the flyer was rather prosaic in parts, these questions, paired with straight forward examples of rising food prices,  clearly pointed out that what could be afforded —– as well as what cuts people were being forced to make —– was a direct consequence of the decisions and actions made by large companies and the government. Not being able to provide a roast dinner or the household staples wasn’t just a personal or family problem, it was a political one too. The pamphlet showed how one person’s problems were likely to be another’s, and by elucidating this shared reality, the co-op’s members were able to step towards changing it. Solidarity around issues in the home could lead to action, much like how strikes and unionization in the factories had led to change before. A cartoon in the pamphlet depicts fat, suit-wearing bosses, conspiring about how to maintain their soaring profits. They decide that raising rent, whilst cutting school and hospital costs, will be the perfect means to extract more and more surplus value from the already squeezed workers, who, pushed so far, ‘wouldn’t know what to do about it’. The cartoon’s final frame, however, shows (against the backdrop of a school, a hospital, and a shop) a giant, collective speech bubble riling ‘OH YEAH?’, the force of which topples the bosses. Collectivity, and the united voice, is shown as the means to combat such oppression; the People’s Food Co-op is the what to do about it.

When it was first set up, the People’s Food Co-op took some time to gain momentum, but it quickly became apparent to the resident’s on Lincoln Estate how the co-op could save them money. But the early success of the co-op meant its model had to change. Local shop keepers began to complain about the co-op’s presence on the green and the fact it was taking their customers away. It was not long before they started getting the police to shift the co-op’s stalls, as well as threatening to report the co-op to the Greater London Council for being on their property.

The fact that the co-op had managed to rile those who they had set out to defy was ample proof of their success, but to avoid further aggravation, the co-op moved indoors. Every fortnight on a Wednesday the co-op would meet at one of the member’s apartment, where they would compile a mass shopping list of what everyone wanted. Then, on Thursdays and Fridays, a few of the members would travel to Wapping market, a Cash & Carry, and other wholesalers. Fresh produce like apples, eggs, and potatoes were bought directly from farmers. The cut-price purchases would then be divided up between the different families on the estate at the weekend.

The People’s Food Co-op continued to operate as a way of distributing food and tackling rising prices, but the fortnightly meetings also began to act as an open forum where other issues, such as the problems felt by the women on Lincoln Estate, could be raised. As a result, it began to break down some of the isolation felt by many of the female residents, some of whom had expressed that they often spent days without speaking to any other adults apart from their husbands, who left for work in the morning and came back in the evening.

A sixteen-page pamphlet with the title ‘People’s Food Co-op’ playfully wrought in bubble writing at the top, was priced at 10p. It was illustrated with various photographs documenting the co-op’s work, and brought together testimonials from various members of the co-op, expressing the strong sense of community gained from joining the group. One person described how, in ‘meeting the same people every two weeks you get to know what their problems are and how they manage to cope’. But aside from the meetings acting as a space to find solace, they also functioned as a place in which to organize action and remedy shared concerns. The co-op presented a means of organizing all aspects of life differently, from living conditions, unemployment, child care, health, family, to sexuality and personal relationships. ‘When I was first in the women’s movement we used to talk about “revolutionizing our lives” and “smashing the family” but we didn’t really understand how you moved towards it in practice’, one person explained. They go on to suggest how the pragmatism and wherewithal to tackle other issues, ‘starts happening from doing something together like a food co-op’.

By showing a pragmatic way to take on social and political issues, the People’s Food Co-op did indeed lead to other community projects and initiatives. These included providing a model for other food co-ops in London, such as in Deptford and Holborn, whilst also helping to establish other community initiatives, such as a play-group in a squatted house which was free of charge and helped alleviate child-care pressures, and also a kid’s club. One resident remarked that without the co-op it was unlikely that the kids club would have started: ‘we wouldn’t have spoken to one another otherwise’. The co-op also led to the setting up of a women’s therapy group, which ran alongside another therapy group set up by other members of East London Big Flame called Red Therapy. The women’s therapy group allowed participants to talk through problems and to talk openly about certain feelings and emotions that many women in the co-op had suppressed, largely as a result of how they felt society expected them to behave. Stemming from the co-op and East London Big Flame’s interest in Autonomist theory, some members of the therapy group were explicit in their belief that therapy was a means for fighting capitalist ideology. These meetings became a way of understanding and breaking free of oppressive political and social structures that had come to affect and define the personal.

The impetus for the co-op’s members to take on other aspects of life and work may have largely germinated from these regular meetings, but the process of making pamphlets also contributed towards this. The ‘People’s Food Co-op’ pamphlet explains how the testimonials included were collected by members of the co-op interviewing each other and taping the conversations. The pamphlet details how, ‘a lot of unexpected and interesting things come out in this way’. One such example in the pamphlet is a page specifically dedicated to problems concerning Lincoln Estate, such as the bad sewage system and an infestation of insects. The page doesn’t describe what has been done to solve these problems, but rather, it put a spotlight on these issues, stressing what needed to be addressed. This keen reflexivity reveals how the pamphlet making process opened up not just a space to think about the co-op’s activity and impact, but also extended to questioning what else could be done to improve the livelihood of those involved.

In a sense this was the lasting impact of the co-op. In 1975, East London Big Flame disbanded and the People’s Food Co-op broke up with it. East London Big Flame’s desire to not have a single-issue focus, and instead wanting to understand and address how exploitation invaded all aspects of life, led the co-op’s members to influence and carry out a wide range of activities, which, adversely, also spread them too thin. East London Big Flame burnt out. The realities that the founding members were faced with, such as families and individuals moving away, led to the group’s disbandment. Yet what East London Big Flame and the People’s Food Co-op put into action found new forms after their end. The self-help therapy group set up by members of the People’s Food Co-op continued for several years, as did Red Therapy, and former members of East London Big Flame remained active in the area, supporting women workers’ rights. The brevity of East London Big Flame and the People’s Food Co-op shouldn’t be seen as a shortcoming. Instead, their activity should be seen as having set forward alternatives to take on politics and the political. Indeed, they showed how the act of asking of a simple question can come to reframe an entire situation.

This essay first appeared in Meet Me in the Present: Documents and their Afterlives