Elsy Borders was a national heroine in the 1930s, says BOB OGLEY.

IN MARCH 1934, Elsy and Jim Borders bought a house on the Coney Hall Estate in West Wickham and moved in together with their daughter Pamela, who was three.

It was then in the Kentish countryside and had been built by Messrs E Morrell.

They gave a down payment of £37 to the Bradford Third Equitable Building Society and signed a mortgage for the remaining £693.

Jim, a London cabby with a keen sense of humour, called his house “Insanity”, so the couple’s address became Borders of Insanity – a name totally in tune with the extraordinary events which were to follow.

Soon after they moved in cracks began to appear in the ceiling, lumps of plaster fell, dampness oozed through the walls and the roof leaked.

Wallpaper fell off the walls, the electric wiring was unsafe, the chimneys defective and the bath had dropped from its original place. The house was in an appalling condition.

Elsy and Jim withheld their mortage payments and then discovered many neighbours had homes in the same condition.

Elsy encouraged 500 new home owners in her area to default with their payments to building societies.

She formed a local and then a national Federation of Tenants and Residents’ Association (FTRA) and signed up more than 1,200 members.

In time, she changed the the course of legal and political history in the field of owner-occupied housing mortgages.

I am indebted to Stella Etheridge of 188 Queensway, Coney Hall, and to Dr Kim Reynolds of Reading University who was born in Coney Hall for telling me more about the Great Mortgage Strike which began in this small community near West Wickham nearly 80 years ago, and continued until the onset of the blitz in 1940.

It was in 1934 that the Bradford Society brought a claim against Jim and Elsy (for non-payment) and sought repossession of the house.

The Borders hit back with a massive compensation claim of £500 to cover the accumulated costs of repairs.

They said the society had “wilfully and fraudulently” misled the couple into believing the house was built of good materials and in an efficient manner.

Elsy won national fame for bringing to the country’s attention the low standards of construction from speculative builders.

Unable to afford a lawyer she read law at the London School of Economics and, when a legal battle was fought in the Chancery Court, she handled the case herself.

For 18 days at the beginning of 1938, crowds came to the court to see Elsy in action.

On one occasion she spoke for eight hours.

Sadly, she won only part of her case, but the judge gave them clear title to their house, without having to pay any more instalments. They rejected other claims.

By now, she was a national heroine and a member of the Communist Party.

Mortgage strikes spread throughout the country, eventually involving 70,000 families all claiming against “jerry” building societies. By the outbreak of war, her FTRA had enrolled 320,000 members.

In late 1940, Elsy was evacuated with daughter Pamela to Exeter, where she died in 1971.

Her marriage to Jim ultimately failed, and neither ever owned a house again.

Jim trained as a barrister, but died almost penniless in 1966.

Dr Reynolds, who has written a comprehensive history of the mortgage strike tells me the defects in the houses in Coney Hall were subsequently remedied and continue to be occupied.