Richard Derecki: The women of the Poplar Rates Rebellion, 1921

Richard Derecki: The women of the Poplar Rates Rebellion, 1921

“Poplar will pay its share of London’s rates when Westminster, Kensington and the City do the same.” Minnie Lansbury.

One hundred years ago, on 22 March 1921, Poplar Borough Council took a decision whose impact still resonates today. Councillors voted overwhelmingly to refuse to collect from residents a levy – or precept – on top of the local rates they were required to pay to support four cross-London bodies, believing the burden would fall unfairly on poor east Londoners. This act of rebellion led to 32 Poplar councillors being jailed for contempt of court, but it eventually prompted change to how rates were levied across London to fund support for the poor.

The economic background is well known: after a short-lived post-war boom driven by pent-up demand, a deflationary fiscal policy, high interest rates and an overvalued currency sucked the life out of the British economy. Exports fell to below half their pre-war levels, which particularly hurt Poplar’s dock workers, who relied on what was essentially casual and often seasonal employment.

Living conditions in Poplar were desperate and thousands were unemployed and hungry. George Lansbury, Poplar’s Labour Mayor at the time, wrote: “Nobody lives in Poplar who can afford to live anywhere else. It goes without saying that owners of industrial and house property live somewhere else. Even the worker, as soon as his wages permit, lives somewhere else.”

As demand for help rose, the ability of the council to respond was limited. The still-applicable Poor Law of 1834 meant boroughs had to fund their own local poor relief. There was no national government financial support. As unemployment benefits had to be paid for out of the rates, any plans to increase relief meant raising them.

Council rates at the time were based on a “rateable value” derived from local rent levels. As property rents in Poplar were low, rate revenues were low too. This meant that to raise additional council revenue, rates had to increase sharply. Poplar was already being forced to charge higher rates than other boroughs in order to meet rising local need. As early as 1906, for example, the borough’s combined rates were 11 shillings and 8 pence in the pound, the highest proportion in London and twice as high as in wealthy Kensington.

The four cross-London authorities the precept helped fund were the London County Council, the Metropolitan Police, the Metropolitan Asylums Board and the Metropolitan Water Board. Demands from these bodies rose sharply in 1921 with, for example, the Metropolitan Water Board wanting over 50 per cent more from the precept than in the previous year.

The straw that broke the camel’s back, though, was the national government reneging on a commitment to support a £31,000 (roughly £1.3 million in today’s money) job-creating road-laying scheme. Janine Booth notes in her account of the rate rebellion that “the non-payment…would tip Poplar Borough Council’s precarious finances over the edge unless the Council took drastic action. So it did.”

Among the 32 (out of a total of 39) Labour politicians arrested in September 1921 after being found in contempt of court for refusing to pay the precept were five women: Councillor Jennie Mackay, Councillor Julia Scurr, Councillor Nellie Cressall, Alderman Minnie Lansbury and Alderman Susan Lawrence (a further female councillor, Jane March, was active on public health issues and not arrested).

Recent scholarship is starting to piece together the story of these remarkable women and their radical community activism. Writing their stories is challenging as they often left few records of their lives and the history of labour protest has tended to focus on male leaders. Sylvia Pankhurst, who was active behind the scenes trying to encourage other borough leaders to support Poplar’s, crucially provides some personal details about those with whom she had previously campaigned in the Suffragette movement, such as Minnie and Nellie.

Minnie Lansbury’s life is perhaps the most well-researched. The daughter of impoverished Polish Jews and daughter-in-law of Geroge, she was a primary school teacher, suffragette and tireless activist and campaigner for practical solutions to help women, children and the unemployed gain a modicum of relief from the grinding poverty of the East End.

Booth’s biography of Minnie Lansbury is a detailed, vivid record of her life and her efforts to affect change within a system where everything had to be fought for. As Minnie told the several thousand strong crowd outside Poplar Town Hall just before she was taken off to Holloway Prison, “We are going with a good heart. We will go on to finish whatever happens.”

Unfortunately, Minnie’s health broke down in jail and she was transferred to the sick ward, where she served her six weeks. She never had the chance to further what would surely have been a dynamic political career as she caught a wave of the Spanish Flu. Severely weakened by her time in prison, she died of pneumonia in December 1921 at just 32-years-old.

Nellie Cressall too served her time on the hospital wing. Aged 38, she was nearly eight months pregnant with her sixth child. Like her mother before her Nellie worked as an “ironer in laundry” before joining with Pankhurst to found the East London Federation of Suffragettes in 1913.

News of Nellie’s incarceration and treatment added to the momentum of popular support for the imprisoned councillors, and as adjacent boroughs threatened to take their own action, central government grew uneasy and Parliament rushed through an Act to reset rates of local taxation and pool the costs of poor relief across London. A formidable public speaker, Nellie pursued her political life through public service, becoming Poplar’s first female Mayor in 1943. She worked tirelessly in the local area until she died in 1973, aged 90.

As well as in Booth’s work, the story of the Poplar rebels is told in Noreen Branson’s George Lansbury and the Councillors’ Revolt as well as in numerous academic articles. The forthcoming Finborough and Poplar Union Theatre’s digital arts festival attests to its continuing relevance. And hopefully, over time, we will learn more about all the women who played such powerful roles in changing the way London provided support for its poor through the work of the ground-breaking East End Women’s museum.

The museum aims to research, share and celebrate stories of east London women, past and present. Since 2015, it has been working to uncover hidden histories through archival research, volunteer-led oral history interviews, exhibitions and events.

“We’ve uncovered a range of different stories, from teenage boxer Annie Newton and undercover journalist Olive Christian Malvery, to Poplar Rates Rebels Nellie Cressall and Julia Scurr”, says Rachel Crossley, the Museum Director. “We’re currently working towards opening our first permanent home, in Barking in 2022 – the only dedicated women’s museum in England.” What a welcome and timely additional to London’s cultural landscape that will be.

Richard Derecki is an economist and governance expert who has worked for the 10 Downing Street strategy unit and the Greater London Authority. Follow Richard on Twitter.

Photograph: Minnie Lansbury Memorial clock, Bow Road by Spudgun67.

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