Guide to East London

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Poplar Rate Strike, 1921

Poplar, after the first world war was dominated by the docks and the railways. It also had many small factories, workshops and sweatshops where workers were often poorly-paid, un-unionised and unskilled. Living conditions were squalid with inadequate sanitation and chronic overcrowding causing a particularly high death rate amongst children.

Poplar Council was one of 28 Metropolitan Borough Councils representing a particularly poor part of London's East End. In the 1919 local government elections the Labour Party took control of the Council for the first time.

George Lansbury, a Christian, a Pacifist, former Liberal and as a socialist was elected Council leader and Mayor. Lansbury was the editor of the Daily Herald and had served a brief spell before the War as Labour MP for Bow and Bromley before resigning in November 1912 to fight the by-election under the banner of support for women's suffrage, an election he lost.

Poplar's Labour Councillors were predominantly industrial workers, the men being listed by occupation, but women councillors were recorded by marital status - 'married woman' or 'spinster'.

The newly-elected Labour Council set about a public works programme intended to provide employment, alleviate poverty and improve services. New homes and wash-houses were to be built; a tuberculosis officer and dispensary established; street lighting and cleansing improved; electricity to be brought to the area; free milk to be distributed and the provision of libraries and parks expanded. The council instituted a minimum wage of £4 per week for its own employees, with equal pay for men and women.

After a brief post-war boom, unemployment started to rise. The economic recession which began in 1920 had a huge impact on Poplar, dependant as it was on the dock jobs provided by foreign trade.

The unemployed had three sources of financial support. Former servicemen and their dependants received allowances from the Ministry of Pensions. Officers received twice the money paid to other ranks, who were not raised above destitution. National Insurance schemes paid out very low levels of support, and were not intended to deal with long-term joblessness. Finally, there was the notorious Poor Law, designed to humiliate, degrade and punish, to deter workers from 'idleness'.

Council Grants from the Coalition Government had a big string attached, that is, ex-service personnel had to be given priority. Poplar had a large number of rail and dock workers whose labour was essential during the war; prevented from joining the armed forces. Their vital work gone, Poplar Council decided to prioritise those workers with the largest number of dependants.

All Borough Councils were charged precepts to pay for cross-capital authorities - the London County Council; Metropolitan Police Authority; Metropolitan Asylum Board and the Water Board. Precepts were not based on the Borough's ability to pay; in effect Poplar was paying towards the costs of rich boroughs for certain common services, but not receiving similar pooling to help poor relief.

Poplar in 1921 had a rateable value of £4m and 86,500 unemployed to support. By contrast West London could call on a rateable value of £15m to support only 4,800 jobless. As the recession bit ever harder, Poplar's burden grew weightier. Its weekly 'outdoor relief' (dole) bill rose from £4,500 in June 1921 to £7,630 three months later.

George Lansbury proposed that the Council stop collecting the rates for outside, cross-London bodies. This was agreed, and on 31 March 1921, Poplar Council set a rate of 4s4d instead of 6s10d. In response the Government on 7 July 1921 obtained an instruction by the Court to the Council to carry out its legal duties and collect the money. The Council refused to comply and reaffirmed its action by setting the next quarter's rate at 5s3d. The London County Council and the Metropolitan Asylum Board applied to the Court for the Councillors to be declared in contempt of the mandamus. Writs were served on 31 councillors by the LCC, and on 29 by the MAB.

On 29 July, the Councillors were summoned to Court. They met outside Poplar Town Hall and marched to the Court with 2000 of their supporters. In court impassioned pleadings were made explaining why it was impossible to pay the precepts. The Court granted an absolute rule of attachment meaning that the Poplar Councillors had to pay the rates or go to prison.

On 2 August, Sir Alfred Mond, Minister of Health, announced a change to the Metropolitan Poor Fund in favour of poorer boroughs. It was widely accepted that Poplar's action had won this concession and Mond hoped that the Council would now back down. Two days later, Poplar Council reaffirmed its strategy, and set a rate (in advance) for the next quarter of 4s3d.

On Sunday 28 August, a demonstration in Tower Hill brought 4,000 people from Poplar together with contingents from neighbouring areas Stepney, Bethnal Green and Shoreditch. The banner at the front of the march declared that ‘Poplar Borough Councillors are still determined to go to prison to secure equalisation of rates for the poor Boroughs'. George Lansbury appealed to protesters to step up the action with a rent strike should the Councillors go to jail.

31 August saw the last Council meeting before prison. 6,000 people attended a mass meeting outside Poplar Town Hall. Arrests began the next day. Five women Councillors were sent to Holloway prison; twenty five men to Brixton.

On 11 September the Councillors were given permission to meet in prison. They did so a total of 32 times, with, from 27 September, the women Councillors brought from Holloway to Brixton to join the meetings. They discussed prison conditions, Borough business and winning their release. Demonstrations were held outside the two prisons on most evenings. On 21 September, public pressure led the Government to release Nellie Cressall, who was six months pregnant.

Whilst the Councillors were in prison, the Trades Union Congress passed a resolution saluting their action. The National Union of General Workers also agreed a resolution of support which was delivered by their representative J.R. Clynes to the Councillors in jail, together with a £25 donation to the hardship fund for the Councillors' families.

Rather than acting as a deterrent to other like minded councils, several Metroplitan Borough Councils announced their intention to follow Poplars example.

Faced with Poplar's intransigence and big public support, the Government and the London County Council were desperate to find a way to back down and arrange the Councillors' release. They found a way. They called a conference to discuss the issue, and allowed the court to release the prisoners to attend it. On 12 October, the Councillors were set free.

The Councillors' release was celebrated enthusiastically in Poplar. A women's meeting at the Town Hall on 12 October, originally called to campaign for the prisoners' release, went ahead with the (unexpected) attendance of some of the freed Councillors.

The government had abjectly failed to defeat Poplar Council, to break their resolve or force them to collect the central precepts. Further, Poplar won real advances. For years, there had been calls for a Royal Commission to inquire into local government in Greater London. This call had been ignored until Poplar took action; then it was granted. It was similar with the Metropolitan Common Poor Fund, which was punitive to the poor Boroughs. Lobbying had been fruitless: Poplar refused to pay, and the Ministry of Health backed down and adjusted the Fund.

The London Authorities (Financial Provision) Act 1921 was hurriedly enacted by the Government, sharing outdoor relief and some indoor relief expenses through a common fund levied on all Boroughs. Whilst not representing the full equalisation of rates, this Act reduced Poplar's rate by 6s6d in the pound, whilst adding 1s to the rate in Westminster and the City of London.

What was to become known as 'Poplarism' was a challenge to the whole fabric of the Poor Law. The Council would be labelled in a Department of Health memorandum as 'the would-be wreckers of the poor law system', and could claim some credit for the eventual demise of the Poor Law.

The 1921 Poplar Rate Strike was a major triumph for the rebels and a landmark in East End labour history. George Lansbury was re-elected to Parliament in 1922 where he continued efforts to allieviate the conditions of the poor. His extreme pacifist views forced his resignation in 1935. Two years later he visit both Hitler and Mussolini hoping that his influence would prevent war. He died on 7 May 1940, three days before Hitler launched his Blitzkrieg war in the West.

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