Robyn Travis, former member of the Holly Street Boys postcode gang. Photo by Agenda at www.visualmarvelry.com.
The term “postcode wars” sounds like a lot of hype, but it’s a way of summing up a kind of inter-estate rivalry that started in Hackney in the early 2000s. The culture wasn’t entirely new. Inter-borough conflicts – Hackney-Tottenham, for example, or Brixton-Peckham – had existed since the early 1990s. The postcode wars saw these scaled down to a single postcode or estate. The idea was simple: if you strayed outside your area, and you were a part of that culture (or perhaps you were just unlucky), then you might be chased, mugged and/or beaten.
That "rep your ends" mindset spread across London, fomenting new conflicts, tracing invisible frontiers across London, forcing schoolkids into hugely inconvenient public transport detours and terrifying the media. It’s thought to have started with one rivalry between a pair of gangs from Hackney, E8, from two estates less than half a mile apart: the Holly Street Boys and the London Fields Boys. Many of the teenagers involved had gone to school together, played football together and grown up together. Fighting was just something they did, like it was and still is for a lot of teenage boys.
Robyn Travis, 27, lived most of his childhood in Tottenham before moving to the (now demolished) Holly Street Estate in Hackney in the mid-90s. He spent over a decade in gangs, during which time he was shot at, stabbed in the head, legs, back and stomach and spent six months in a prison in Jamaica for attempted drug trafficking.
Now, he’s committed to helping end gang violence, but his new memoir – titled Freedom From The Womb, Prisoner To The Streets – is all about his time in the postcode wars, and his presence at their genesis back in 1999, when the Holly Street Boys began their rivalry with the London Fields Boys.
I met him a few times to talk about those days.
VICE: Can you tell me about the first fight that led to the postcode wars?
Robyn Travis: I think it was the summer of ‘99. Holly Street had a big reputation for us youngers to live up to before we even hit puberty. When we did get to year seven, year eight at school, we were doing all sorts: raving, jacking phones, joyriding, robbing takeaway deliveries, stealing cars – you name it, we done it. I was in and out of courts. There was a war between Hackney and Tottenham brewing, but I still had friends in Tottenham. I’d still go and hang with my bredrins in Tottenham.
So how did the two of your estates end up fighting?
There were two different estates in E8 – Holly Street and London Fields. I was with the Holly Street Boys, although I knew a lot of the London Fields Boys because I went to primary school with them. I used to be good friends with the Fields boys growing up. Until this first one-on-one kicked off.
What do you remember about that first clash?
There was a showdown one evening at 10PM. There were about 30 of them London Fields Boys from 14-16 years old, plus two elders aged 19. There were only ten from Holly Street, because they knocked the old Holly Street flats down, so we didn’t have the manpower of the once-infamous Holly Street E8. Most of us were aged 14-15 plus two who were 18. I was 14. We went there expecting to have a few one-on-one fights, but instead it turned into the first postcode riot.
We got it cracking. Then it stopped ‘cause my mobile rang and they let me answer it. It was a funny, crazy moment. My mum rang me on what was called a Nokia change face back then. That phone call saved me from an extended beating.
Wait, you stopped because your mum called?
Yeah. She was just calling to see where I was to send me to the shop or something.
And the fight stopped just like that?
Yeah, we just stopped. Everyone backed off. I guess the hate we had for each other wasn’t genuine. It’s like we were forcing the hate to protect our pride, and where we came from. ‘Cause where you come from is a representation of who you are. It was so surreal though, I can’t even lie. It was the beginning of something. It was like a big dream to me. Everyone knew each other from school, and it felt kinda surreal being one of the main figures in it. I didn’t want it to end up the way it did. I got home and it was still confusing. ‘Did that shit really just happen?’ was what I thought after.
That’s not what I was expecting.
I was expecting a good, fair punch-up between all of us, and then everyone would have known who was who in E8. My thought was we live too close for it to get serious, I just assumed everyone thought the same as me.
But no one was calling it a postcode war back then, were they?
We wasn’t calling it postcode war. We just called it beef. But when in beef, we made it known we stood mainly for E8. And outside of that we repped Hackney. The media promote these names to put a film-y feeling to it. Like they were quick to promote Hackney E5 as the "Murder Mile". The name "postcode war", came from people who don’t really know how it started. A few guys got tattoos of the postcode where they live. But most man around me didn’t care for that, some of us saw it as hype. But E8 was in my heart.
Postcode wars was the name that was given to us after many deaths. But if you look at what it is now, everyone’s carrying on our wars, and they’re just calling themselves "E8 bang bang" or "this area bang bang". It's the same wars, they're just calling it postcodes to do it.
But how was that different to before?
If you look at Hackney it's got the most gangs now in any borough. And most of these gangs I believe came about, from this Holly Street vs London Fields war, ‘cause it wasn't happening before. Before this, I only knew of Hackney vs Tottenham. Brixton vs Peckham. And North West had their wars, too. Those were borough wars, if I’m correct. Most other areas weren’t beefing in-house in the early 90s. But somehow E8 Hackney became an in-house beef. This was more than on your doorstep.
How do you know you were the first?
I don’t. I can only go of what I know until the next man or woman comes out and tells me something different. I’m saying from what I know, this is the genesis and no one hasn’t told me any different along my journeys. I had girls from Brixton come to our area in Holly Street before. We used to have an abandoned flat here. Where we used to go and cotch. Girls from all over heard about Holly Street boys and our little abandoned flats where we’d cotch.
I remember bringing some Brixton girls I was friends with here and the girls would say to me, “How can you lot have war with London Fields Boys? You lot are just down the road from each other.” All I could say was, “Yeah, it’s crazy; it is what it is, I guess. They can’t come down here without a problem, and certain of us can’t go down there. It’s crazy sis, ‘cause it started over nothing.”
Did drugs play a part?
From what I’ve seen, been a part of and heard on the streets, no, it wasn’t about drugs. No one ain’t been killed over drugs in my time. Its not called a drug-war – it's called a postcode war.
But people were making money from drugs?
I don’t know. I don’t want to focus on drugs. My focus isn’t drugs and my book's not about drugs; my focus is some of my bad experiences and some of the sad things that have come as a result of these postcode wars. And the fact of repping that lifestyle made me forget who I was. And I can see the same thing happening to our youngers on the road, caught in that life. And the worst thing about it is that we're all suffering as a consequence of reppin' the endz.
We're all losing loved ones to the graveyard, prison, and mental hospitals. All of these guys on road are just diamonds in the dirt with the capability to shine as bright as a star. That’s why we need to squash the beef so we can focus on living life, rather than taking our frustrations and pain out on each other.
Did you care about money?
Yes, of course I did. By the first year of secondary school money became a desire. Before that I only cared about footie. I only really became bothered when I saw almost all the rest of my crew of school friends wearing certain trainers, that I couldn’t afford. There’s lots of things that I wasn't too bothered about at first. I was more laid back in the beginning. As long as I had my Walkman, I was easy.
Why do you think people join gangs?
Every individual in a gang would have to answer you that question themselves. But I personally think there's many different explanations. I ain't got all the answers. I know people who gave the impression that they wanted this bad bwoy lifestyle. Even when I was living it I didn’t like the hype and attention at times. Until it got way too out of control.
I don’t know how others saw it but this is how I secretly felt about the streets growing up. The streets is like the girl I ended up with but never really wanted. I used to tell myself the street life was for me. But I can’t pretend any more; this life really ain’t that cool. Too many youngers and olders are dying and getting lifed off in prison. We need to realise we're all losing. No matter what ends you rep we all got a dead friend, family member or someone we care for doing time. I’m no one different from my brothers on road and in jail, we're all the same. After this book, my part is done. I have a family to raise, and the others can decide for themselves if this reppin' endz beef is really worth it.
Alright. Cheers, Robyn.
Robyn's memoir, Freedom From The Womb, Prisoner To The Streets is available now.
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