Judith aka Judy Dainton from a still from a 1986 film. She is standing outside the Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Centre, 39 Tottenham Street.
Judith Dainton in 1986 standing outside the Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Centre, a community space she was instrumental in creating. Image: The Fitzrovia Trust.

Judith “Judy” Dainton, who died in January, was a person of many skills, a strong social conscience and a subtle sense of humour. She could have turned her hand to almost anything but devoted herself to working in local communities. Born into a clergy family in Sheffield in 1942 as Judith A Thomas, she graduated from New Hall, now called Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, in 1961. In 1969 she married Roger Dainton in St. Austell, an artist and electrical engineer best known for the kinetic neon structure placed on the Hayward Gallery in 1973. They separated soon after and by the early 1970s Judith was living in what was then a rather run-down neighbourhood bordered by the Tottenham Court Road.

Fitzrovia was very different in the 1970s when it was emerging from 30 years of post-war depression where housing conditions had worsened, overcrowding and shared facilities were common and landowners were increasingly resorting to eviction and gentrification. Pressures for large-scale redevelopment were also growing. Community action was one important response to these pressures in this part of London as in many others.

In the early 1970s Judith Dainton was living at 12 Tottenham Street and was herself subject to the vagaries of an unstable landlord who was later convicted for harassing his tenants. I had recently moved into the same street with a group of friends and quickly made contact with Judith. She was a regular visitor to our flat where she regaled us with stories of tenants living in dire housing conditions and being subjected to the whims of exploitative landlords and their agents. From this emerged the Tottenham Street Tenants Association (TSTA) drawing together us and others in the area wishing to pressurize the council into taking action to improve living conditions.

Judith played a leading role in the Fitzrovia community for the best part of a decade. A number of campaigns revolved around assisting tenants in unacceptable conditions and urging Camden Council to compulsorily purchase some of the worst housing. In this she proved very successful. After a long battle, the block Judith was living in was acquired by Camden on grounds of substandard housing and harassment.

Goodge Place had by this time been identified for redevelopment to make way for a new Middlesex Hospital and the east side was to be demolished by the Greater London Council using slum clearance powers. At the same time, an area at the south end of Tottenham Court Road was approved on appeal for a new HQ for EMI. Some of the existing flats on this site became available on a temporary basis before demolition. With the help of local councillors, Judith managed to persuade Camden to offer some of these flats to local people living in the worst housing conditions. As she wrote in the Tower community newspaper in December 1974 of one such family living in Goodge Place:

Mr M, his wife and ten year old daughter are living in a room just large enough for one bed. In this room they must cook, eat and sleep.

The little girl has to sleep on a fold-away bed which can only be opened out when the door is shut and her parents are in bed. Otherwise there is no room to stand. In addition, Mr M, who is half blind, works very long hours in the restaurant trade. His wife and daughter cannot sleep till he is home, because their room is so tiny that he cannot open the door without moving furniture.

Goodge Place was eventually reprieved and acquired by Camden with some properties transferred to a housing association while the EMI site was redeveloped for offices. In order to provide a strong evidence base for further action, local residents carried out a series of housing surveys in order to find out the extent of the problem. The first was carried out by the TSTA in 1974 and this was followed by a wider survey in 1977 and a study of East Marylebone in Westminster in 1981. Key statistics speak for themselves: 60% of the population shared facilities, only 39% lived in self-contained accommodation and 34% shared a bathroom and WC with others. Local authority and housing association accommodation was well below both borough averages. In response to local pressures, Camden eventually agreed to declare two Housing Action Areas in 1979.

No.39 Tottenham Street when leased from the Middlesex Hospital Special Trustees about 1973. Photo: Fitzrovia News archive.

Perhaps Judith’s major contribution was in helping to set up the Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Association (FNA). So where did the idea for the FNA come from? It was a product of its time and was one of several community advice centres being established across Camden and other inner London boroughs. The opportunity arose as a result of funding provided by the Home Office to address inner city problems particularly where immigration was an issue. This Urban Programme ran from 1968-75 and Camden was one of 34 local authorities which were eligible for funding. By chance, Judith came across a government circular inviting bids while she was working for the National Council for Social Service in Bedford Square. She consulted other local people and, with the help of two Camden community workers based in Fitzrovia an application was submitted by the Whitfield Study Group.

The proposal involved establishing a centre in Fitzrovia which would both provide expert advice on housing, welfare rights and immigration and provide a forum for the twenty or so tenants’ associations and community groups representing different parts of Fitzrovia on the Westminster and Camden sides of the borough boundary. It was this function as an umbrella group which was to prove the greatest challenge if Fitzrovia was to speak with one voice. Early in 1975 the steering group were notified that their proposal was successful and that it was awarded a grant of £54,000 per year over five years.

The FNA building before closure in 2019. Photo: Nick Bailey.

At the crucial meeting of the Whitfield Study Group on 11 April 1975 Judith jubilantly reported that the Middlesex Hospital Special Trustees had agreed to rent a former glass shop at 39 Tottenham Street, long since boarded up, for a very reasonable £300 per year. At the same meeting a steering group of 25 was elected to manage the new centre with Judith as the first Chair. As work began to convert no. 39 under the guidance of local architect, Roger Burrell, two other houses in Goodge Place were included in the deal to provide short-life housing.

Judith continued to be active in the area for some time but was increasingly committed to a new role in running the Westminster Community Health Council. This assisted local people find suitable doctors and dentists and dealt with complaints with the health service. She was eventually rehoused in a Camden Council flat in Fitzroy Street and later moved to Camden Town.

In 1986 she appeared in a film about Fitzrovia where spoke about housing conditions and community activism.

She spent the last years of her life in Calthorpe Street where she continued her community activism: in a residents’ association, at Calthorpe Community Garden, and finally as chair of the Mount Pleasant Forum – a position she held until her death.

Judith was highly motivated and socially concerned about the plight of others but was full of stories of mendacious landlords and devious council officials upon whom she enjoyed employing her considerable powers of persuasion. She almost always got her way and as a result countless residents benefitted from her active involvement in two local communities.

There will be remembrance drinks for Judy on Tuesday 8 March 2022 from 5pm at the Calthorpe Arms, Grays Inn Rd, London WC1X 8JR. There is a fundraiser to create a memorial for Judy at the Calthorpe Community Garden.