Argyle Street was saved from demolition when the whole area was being redeveloped by Norwich City Council in the 1960s. But many of the houses were left with problems of damp and subsidence. Hopes that the University of East Anglia (UEA) might buy and renovate the terraced houses were dashed in December 1979 when talks between the university, Norwich City Council and the Department for the Environment ended with the refusal of government cash.
Many council tenants had remained in the hope of renovation but Pat Hollis, chair of the city housing committee, said "It is unreasonable to ask tenants to remain in some of these houses another winter." She gave immediate instructions to the housing department to give priority transfers to those who wanted to move. Councillors were left with the choice of paying for the whole street to be renovated, getting a housing association interested or pulling them down.
Ward councillor Len Stevenson said people could not be left in the houses in bad conditions. "We have kept them waiting for the university, but clearly we can't keep them waiting any longer, because the situation isn't clear enough. A co-operative housing association is an idea we might try - but it’s only an idea. We might be forced to knock the houses down."
There is talk of individual houses on Argyle Street being squatted as early as 1978 but the main occupation was building up steam as a mix of UEA students and locals were meeting in the Freewheel Bookshop on St Benedict's. Sometime around the first week in December 1979 it was decided to move in and about 40 people squatted 14 of the empty houses. About half of the nearly 60 houses were empty and the remaining 15 empties were quickly taken over. Word got around that if you were interested in taking over a house you had to go to the Ferryboat or Jolly Maltsters pubs and talk with the squatters who knew which houses were empty and which council tenants were moving out. As the council moved people out nearly every house was squatted. Remaining council tenants had priority transfer to other housing if they wanted it but some tenants decided to stay, The last council tenants Mrs Ivy Mallett (who had lived on the street for 42 years) and Mr Ernest Thompson (20 years) were still happily living on the street in February 1983. Others had only just been rehoused then.
Not everything went smoothly though as a row broke out with the gas board and the squatters barricaded the street to stop their supply being cut off. When police removed the barrier squatters stood in front of the gasmen's lorry. One man was arrested for obstructing the highway and dragged away from his sit-down protest.
The squatters were told that they could have gas if they paid a cash deposit of £60 for each house. The gas board said that this was the normal deposit as security on gas bills for people who were not householders.
The supply had been cut off from most of the empty houses by removing the meters but squatters had threatened to reconnect the supply themselves and so the gas board tried to go one step further by severing the supply in the street.
Norman King, one of the squatters said that most of the squatters were single people and that 75% of them had jobs. He said "We are not trying to jump any housing lists or anything - no one else can live in these houses."
In a letter to the council the squatters said: "The housing shortage in Norwich has meant that most of us have either been in temporary accommodation or in substandard or overcrowded houses." They also said that they had formed at the Argyle Street Co-operative and were prepared to pay rates and rents and want to restore the houses and make the street a "vibrant and viable community."
The council said that there had been no complaints about the squatters from residents. One tenant, Mark Billman, said "I haven't met so many decent people since I have lived here. They have helped old people cleaning their backyards. All they are trying to do is find somewhere to live."
Not everyone was best pleased at the events as Mr D Bush wrote to the Eastern Evening News from Argyle Street blaming the local paper for the arrival of the squatters a few days later:
"Your reports seem to have sparked off an invasion of squatters which I have been told the council and police don't want to know about.
They may be decent people, but they wish to get into houses which are damp, falling down and should be condemned. The point is this. They have parked themselves next to the elderly and invalids, worrying them to a great degree. We see them running about, peering into empty houses and making a general nuisance of themselves, putting banners and notices in windows and on doors to express their opinions.
I think this is a great Christmas gift from the council with great help from your reports. Thank God the old people who used to live here are gone now or they would have chased them off with their brooms. After all, these people are just trying to jump the housing list or get lodgings for nothing. The street was bad enough before they came."
Belfast Gerry McDonnell, on behalf of the Argyle Street Co-op wrote also: "We are writing to clarify our position as regards the report in tonight's EEN (Dec. 14th). When we applied for gas, no formal notice that a deposit would be required was given. Our first indication of the gas board's intentions was when their van arrived this morning to permanently disconnect the supply in the street.
Without this street we would be homeless, and like everyone else we need gas and electricity. We never had any intention of meddling with any gas board appliances or installations.
With regard to the incident this morning, we, as a co-op, were trying to defend our own interests, and the interest of those of us who were at work. We'd like to apologise to our neighbours in the street for any inconvenience they may have been caused, and thank them for their support and generosity.