Title ID 4310Collection ID406
TitleWho Was Harry Cowley?
CollectionSouth East Arts
Genre/TypeProfessionalFilm/Video companyNon-fictionFictionActuality/FactualDocu-Drama
ThemeUrban Life Working Life
KeywordsCommunities Local History Political Demonstrations Political Movements Social Class Social Movements Social Welfare Street Trading Trades Urban Areas Workers
RegionalBrighton and Hove East Sussex
NationalEngland United Kingdom
ProductionA Lighthouse Production
ProducerJulian Bowker; Peter Milner; Frank Murphy; Simon Rodway; Stewart Ullyott
Funding bodySouth East Arts
EditorJulian Bowker; Simon Rodway
WriterJulian Bowker; Simon Rodway
NarratorJane Talbot
MusicBrian Ablett; Ruth Condon; John Fielder; Mike Mussell; John Samuels; Richard Spong; Sean Goddard
CastPeter Badger (Reporter); Virginia Coppins (Helen Steer); Bruce Green (Harold Steer); Val Griffiths (Harriet Cowley); Bob Vahey (Harry Cowley); Tony Wilds (Conservative Councillor)
ParticipantsOther cast members: James Hart (Counsel); Rosamunde Hartley (Chair); Mike Kingsley (Judge); ; Nelson Ward (Denis Hobden). Participants: Richard Betts; Andrew Bowden; Abe Cowley; Harry Cowley; Guy de Lacy; Andy Durr; Dudley Edwards; Stan Fitch; Sherry Hewston; Dennis Hobden; Mrs Humphries; Valerie Kippax; Olive Larker; Ruby Lucas; Les MacLenahan; Mr J. Marshall; Mrs J. Marshall; Rose Marshall; Joe Mitchell; Mrs Mitchell; Molly Morley; Ernie Scrase; Helen Steer; Mr Teague; Mrs Teague; Leonard Ward; George Watts; Marie Weaver; Ruby Weston; A. Wheatley; Mrs Winter
Other creditsJane Bellamy (Researcher); Julian Bowker (Researcher); Kate Cornwall-Jones (Researcher); Toni Donne (Researcher); Nicolette Fox (Researcher); Pete Gurney (Researcher); Ursie Howard (Researcher); George Meszaros (Researcher); Simon Rodway (Researcher); Rose Sweeney (Researcher); Alistair Thomson (Researcher); Eileen Yeo (Researcher); Stephen Yeo (Researcher); Stewart Ullyot (Researcher); Marion Devoy (Researcher); Carolyn Jacobs (Researcher); Shelagh Schaffer (Researcher); Joyce Smart (Researcher); Ron Bailey (Technical Advice & Studio Assistance); Jeannette Grabham (Technical Advice & Studio Assistance); Tim Johnson (Technical Advice & Studio Assistance); Mike Horton (Technical Advice & Studio Assistance); Jim Roberts (Technical Advice & Studio Assistance); Dave Stonestreet (Technical Advice & Studio Assistance); John Warr (Technical Advice & Studio Assistance); D.S.Grover (8mm footage)
FormatColour Sound
Duration62 min. 15 sec.
Copyright & AccessCopyright restrictions apply, contact Screen Archive South East for details


This professionally-made film uses archive images, reconstructions and interviews to narrate the life and work of Harry Cowley, one of Brighton's foremost working-class heroes.


B&W photographs of Harry Cowley and related newspaper cuttings are accompanied by an audio reading of one of Harry's speeches about pensioners' rents. Aerial shots of Brighton seafront and The Level are followed by vox pops with elderly locals about their memories of Harry Cowley. The film proceeds to narrate Harry's lifestory using archive photographs and interviews with his peers. The stories, which include his work with Brighton's unemployed and the anti-fascist movement, are also told with reference to a biographical interview given by Harry to The Brighton Evening Argus in 1957 - in Who Was Harry Cowley? (1984) actors re-enact the meeting which took place between Harry and the newspaper reporter. Harry's work as a chimney sweep is also recounted by fellow worker John Marshall who then demonstrates the traditional method of sweeping a chimney. Harry's involvement with the establishment of an officially-recognized open market in Upper Gardner Street is detailed through interviews and archive photographs, and with colour amateur footage of the busy market in the early 1960s (this footage includes moving images of Harry). Harry is remembered for his leadership of the Brighton 'Vigilantes' - a group of 400 local war veterans who operated outside the law to house the unemployed and returning servicemen and their families, in essence inventing 'squatting'. The film ends with interviews with members of Harry's family, including his daughter Rose, and with an assessment of his community-driven work.


A Still from Who Was Harry Cowley

Contextual information

Who Was Harry Cowley? (1984) was produced by QueenSpark Books, an organization committed to publishing stories about Brighton and Hove residents through a range of media. The film, which was funded by a South East Arts grant, was made in conjunction with a book of the same name - together they were produced to raise awareness of Harry Cowley and his contribution to the city and the people of Brighton.

Harry Cowley was born in Brighton in 1891 - he would die there 80 years later, as a celebrated community worker who campaigned relentlessly for the rights of the poor, the unemployed, the aged and the dispossessed. Although his was a life marked by a lack of official recognition (perhaps as a result of his preference for 'direct action' and his commitment to the working-classes) he was championed by the people. Harry Cowley's legacy lives on due to the work of community groups such as QueenSpark Books and The Cowley Club.

Screen Archive South East houses a number of films which reflect upon the social upheaval of the 1930s. For example the compilation [Sussex, 1938. Advert for Daily Worker. Sussex 1939] (1938 & 1939) shows protest marches and meetings organized by the Sussex County Communist Party. The film The Great Depression (1929, 1930s & 1976) looks at the global impact of the Wall Street Crash, including strikes, unemployment and the growth of fascism.

Related titles

Related resources


Who Was Harry Cowley?* Brighton: QueenSpark Books, 1984

Copies of this book, which was produced in association with the film Who Was Harry Cowley? (1984), are available at various East and West Sussex libraries.


Archives of the Communist Party of Great Britain

"Our aim is to reproduce primary sources in such a way as you would find them in an actual archival repository; not piecemeal, but in their entirety."

Brighton History Centre records at The Keep

“Brighton History Centre holds an extensive range of material for the study of Brighton's history and culture, both past and present.” The collection includes newspapers and periodicals for Brighton and the region; books and pamphlets on Brighton; an extensive collection of photographs, postcards and slides, maps; Brighton and Sussex ephemera, including theatre, cinema and sporting programmes, scrapbooks and posters; oral histories of local people. A catalogue listing further references and resources accompanies a selection of films about Brighton and Hove (from Screen Archive South East’s collection) is available online from The Keep.

Journal Articles

"Vigilantes." Time Magazine (23 July 1945)

This article looks at the work of Harry Cowley and his 'vigilantes' in regards to Brighton's housing problem. The article can be searched via the Time Magazine online archive.,10987,803581,00.html

Viney, Michael. "The Trouble with Harry." Brighton Evening Argus (14, 15, 16 , 18 & 19 February 1957)

This five-part article records Harry Cowley's life story - it features an interview with Harry Cowley that was recreated in Who Was Harry Cowley? (1984).

Other Resources

The Cowley Club

The Brighton-based Cowley Club, named after Harry Cowley was opened in 2003 - it is a members-run co-operative, café and bookshop which is devoted to grass-roots, non-affiliated, anti-caplitalism activism.

QueenSpark Books

"QueenSpark Books is a non-profit community publishing and writing organisation in Sussex, UK. We publish books about local people's lives, run creative writing groups and courses and facilitate oral history projects."


BBC - WW2 People's War

This archived BBC website encompasses, "a growing archive of wartime memories" and includes some of Harry Cowley's memories.

Brighton in Pictures

The Brighton History Centre image and photography collections are now held at The Keep. A selection of photographs from the collection is searchable on The Keep website and by request from, Brighton and Hove Museums.

Brighton and Hove Museums Collection

My Brighton and Hove

Described as “a living history of Brighton and Hove”, this web resource gathers memories, photographs, knowledge and opinions about the city.