Learning to crochet, brushing up on your French and discussing the politics of the menstrual cycle were just some of the activities on offer at the fifth London Free School last weekend.
Dozens of people dropped in to the squatted social centre in Mare Street to take part in workshops on arts, crafts and activism run by volunteers at the annual event.
They were also able to enjoy free vegan food and taking the chance to have a cup of tea and a chat.
Lillith Fessahaye, 26, of Streatham, said: “I love coming to things like this. The people are always really friendly, and you can pick up new skills too. I’ve been doing the underwear-making workshop.
“I think it’s important that you have these kinds of spaces where people get together outside of the usual restrictions, so that people remember that they can organise among themselves,” he said.
Mare Street squat
The large, 18th-century townhouse, in which the event took place, had been derelict for nine years until squatters moved in last summer.
It was once a refuge for female ex-convicts, having been purchased in 1849 in memory of penal-reformer Elizabeth Fry, whose lifetime of efforts to help are celebrated by her appearance on the back of the £5 note.
The crumbling building was last used as a working men’s club, but has been shut since 2000.
Now the inside is brightly decorated with graffiti and other art. The working men’s club bar was converted in to a free cafe for the duration of the event.
In keeping with the building’s historic relationship with women’s issues, many workshops had a strong feminist focus and were open to “self-defining women only”. These included “feminist self-defence” and “experiences and politics of the menstrual cycle”.
Other workshops included costume- and underwear-making, gender and mental health, welding and puppet-making, and the intriguingly named “workshop of nothing”.
The Post attended a workshop on “basic crochet and knitting for social warcraft,” in which two young women taught the basic principles of crochet.
Unusually for a squatted social centre, the whole building was designated a smoke and alcohol-free zone by organisers.
One resident, who preferred not to be named, said: “We wanted the atmosphere as inclusive as possible.”
The flamboyantly dressed Emilliano, one of the organisers of the event, told the Post: “Free School is great, and every time it gets better and better.
“People are enthusiastic. People are happy, enjoying and learning and sharing in a space free from jerks, free from gender.”
The occupants offer free use of the building to any groups that need space for their projects.
One of the leaflets they have circulated around the local area reads: “We are not from this area but we know how much community spaces are needed in a city like London.
“We welcome any local and/or autonomous initiatives, as long as they respect the spirit of the project; trying as much as possible to be non-hierarchical, non-discriminatory and free.”