Features Walthamstow

Walthamstow poker pro turned protestor on his time in prison

Tim Speers spent two months in prison after protesting with Insulate Britain on the M25
By Victoria Munro

Tim Speers, a 36-year-old from Walthamstow and part of Insulate Britain (credit: Penny Dampier)
Tim Speers, a 36-year-old from Walthamstow and part of Insulate Britain (credit: Penny Dampier)

Tim Speers’ first cellmate at Wandsworth Prison found his presence there hilarious. “I could hear him joking to people on the phone, saying you won’t believe who I’m sharing a cell with,” he said, “It’s one of the guys who sellotaped himself to the M25.”

The 36-year-old from Walthamstow was one of nine Insulate Britain protestors jailed last November for disobeying a court order banning them from protesting on the motorway. After refusing to apologise in court, Tim was sentenced to four months, of which he served two, and sent to a different prison than his fellow protestors due to having spent six days in jail previously, also for protesting.

Stuck on a transport bus alone, he said he worried about possible violence but that his fellow prisoners turned out to be “genuinely full of admiration” for what he had done. “Many prisoners are in a system that’s failing them and they respect anyone who tries to challenge any part of that,” he said. He even seemed to have convinced his cell-mate to try a vegan diet when the other man was taken to solitary for his own act of peaceful protest, climbing onto anti-suicide netting between two storeys of cells, and they didn’t cross paths again.

It was through embracing veganism that Tim first got involved in environmental campaigning, leaving behind a surprising career as an online poker player, through which he earned enough to move to London from his home in Cornwall. In 2018, he came across the documentary Cowspiracy and was horrified to realise “how much destruction there was behind one burger”, abandoning meat completely after seeing slaughterhouse footage for the first time.

“Before that I wasn’t politically involved at all, I was really naive actually,” he remembers, adding that he lost a few friends in his earlier, more militant days. “I think I was happier when I was playing poker and more ignorant to the reality and horrors of the world but, the more I know, the more I feel it’s part of my duty of care to leave the world in the same state I found it, if not better.”

Insulate Britain demands the government “fully fund and take responsibility for” insulating all social homes by 2025 and all other homes by 2030. It’s a goal that would significantly cut household emissions, as well as potentially save some of the 8,500 people a year who die because they can’t afford heating. As Tim told the judge in court, “a few hours of traffic is justified in the fight against extinction” and, though he “takes no joy whatsoever in disrupting the lives of the general public, especially working class people”, he is proud how far the group spread their message, making headlines “every single day for two months as a protest group no one had ever heard of before”.

This story is published by Waltham Forest Echo, Waltham Forest's free monthly newspaper and free news website. We are a not-for-profit publication, published by a small social enterprise. We have no rich backers and rely on the support of our readers. Donate or become a supporter.

Read more: One fifth of borough households in fuel poverty

While Tim is clear he would risk jail again, it’s not a decision he would want other campaigners to make lightly and, though not traumatising, his stay in Wandsworth was far from easy. Having already suffered from insomnia in his normal life, the background noise of jail saw him go without sleep for five straight days at one point, which was clearly an issue other prisoners shared. Tim explains there was a steady black market trade of sleeping tablets, which some prisoners paid for with vape cartridges they could purchase from touchscreen kiosks dotted around the wing.

Confinement in a post-Covid prison was also far more stifling than usual, with group activities cut down to the bare minimum. Tim said they were let out once a day for their hot meal, which they selected from a menu of five options on the same touchscreens, and again for 30-45 minutes of social time and showering, although sometimes this second outing wouldn’t happen. On Mondays and Wednesdays, they were allowed into a concrete yard for fresh air, which had an empty flower bed in each corner and was filled with rubbish thrown down by prisoners from the cells above. It was in this yard that Tim saw his first and only prison fight, in which three prisoners ganged up on another man to the outrage of the watching crowd, who chanted “one on one”.

Tim spent most of his time watching snooker on the TV in his cell and reading books and, though he missed his close knit shared house near Lloyd Park, says he has found socialising “more draining” than normal after his time away. “I missed music a lot so it was really great to get to put my headphones on and go for a walk by myself,” he said, “But lately I don’t feel like I have the energy for anything. It’s probably a mix of the prison experience and then just thinking about what’s going on in the world. The fact it feels these sorts of protests are necessary to force change feels depressing.”

Still, there’s signs that the rest of the world may be coming around to Tim’s view, however slowly. In November – a few weeks before he went to jail but two months after the first Insulate Britain protest – Waltham Forest Council unveiled an “eco-home” it created by retrofitting a Victorian-era property. While the showhome was intended to encourage property owners to pay for their own renovations, the council also announced it had secured £1.7million to retrofit 200 council flats, a small step towards its aim of achieving net-zero emissions by 2030.

Find out more about Insulate Britain on their website insulatebritain.com

For more of Penny Dampier’s photography visit her website pennydampier.com

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