From “The Guardian” of 15 November 1977

Nikki Knewstub reported:

“Jean Parnell, 21 and with two babies, lives 21 floors up on the top of a block of flats in London. The firemen’s strike holds no terrors for her – but being trapped in the lift does.

It is the firemen who are the first to the rescue when the lifts grind to a halt, which they do with distressing frequency. Each lift in the Greater London Council’s 380 high-rise blocks has a special override switch at the top of the building, and which is operated by the fire brigade.

About 90 per cent of the country’s lift maintenance engineers are on an official strike, which started last week after five weeks of working to rule.

For the 24,000 people living in the GLC’s high rise flats there is the added misery of piles of inflammable rubbish at their collective back doors – and overflowing rubbish around the chutes on each floor. This piled up during a strike by caretakers but is now being slowly cleared. The caretakers went back to work on Saturday; the dustmen started working their way around the piles yesterday.

Mrs Parnell’s husband, James, is a medical social worker at Mile End Hospital. The lift stops on floor 20 of Wilmer House, on the Ranwell Estate in Bow, East London, and there she parks her pram. The screaming wind blows so hard that it takes both hands to pull open the door to the landing outside the penthouse flat.

One of the lifts was working yesterday, for which relief the tenants gave much thanks. Mrs Parnell said that she would keep using it. “But I use it very gingerly. When the firemen are working, at least you know that they will come along and fish you out. My husband was trapped once, and he said it was very frightening.

“When the lifts are out I just have to stay here. You can’t take a child of 17 months and a three-months-old baby up and down 21 flights of stairs. My husband only gets half an hour for lunch, and he has to rush out and shop for us in it.

“The council hasn’t told us anything about fire precautions; but these blocks are pretty safe, mainly built of concrete and steel. There are a lot of old people in this block and they worry about firemen not being there if the lifts break down.”

Down on floor 20 Miss Florence Spatt, a pensioner of 70, said: “Some people have moved out with relatives but that is because of the lifts, not the fear of fire. I haven’t been trapped, but I had to walk down 20 flights one day. Luckily, the lifts were only out for a couple of days.

The neighbours are really good around here. The children from the floor below come and see if they can do any shopping, and the woman knocks and makes sure I’m all right. The only problem is the wind. If you listened to that you would be awake all night, but I put something over my ears.”

Miss Spratt has stacked her rubbish neatly on her balcony, with magnificent views of St Paul’s, rather than add to the filth around the mouth of the rubbish chute.

A GLC spokesman said: “These tower blocks are not the towering infernos everyone imagines they are. The caretakers, who were striking over manning levels and overtime, have gone back, so the rubbish should be cleared quite soon. That is the biggest danger at the moment.”

The GLC defines highrise blocks as those over eight storeys, which is as high as the fire brigade’s longest ladder will reach. At lunchtime yesterday 79 lifts were broken down in highrise flats, and in 27 blocks all the lifts were out.”

Altogether, 591 lifts were not working out of a total of 2,900 but, as the council pointed out optimistically, quite a few of those were in blocks only a few storeys high. All lifts, of course, would be cut off by firemen or the army if there were a fire. Escape is by the concrete stairs, where the only wood in sight is on the fire doors.

It is the army which will have to turn its hand to rescuing people who are trapped.”

Nikki Knewstub, at

“I am a printmaker who sometimes paints. I did a mature fine arts degree at Falmouth after spending my adult life as a national newspaper journalist. I etch using sugarlift and aquatint, as well as drypoint using a dremel on plastic, collograph and monoprint.

(+44) (0)7976383676”

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