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Lax, William Henry (1868–1937), Methodist minister, was born at 12 Lee Street, Chorlton upon Medlock, Lancashire, on 5 January 1868, the elder child and only son of Samuel Henry Lax (1842–1919), iron moulder, and his wife, Jane, née Tatley (1838–1877). The family moved to Hindley, near Wigan, where Lax's sister, Mary Ellen (Pollie), was born in 1872 and where Jane Lax died. Samuel Lax married a family friend, Mary Ann Lowe, in 1878, and she became a second mother to his children: Lax insisted that ‘I could never think of her by that hateful term, stepmother. She was a mother indeed for more than thirty years’ (Lax, Lax His Book, 23). By the early 1880s Samuel Lax was working as a life assurance agent. The family was poor but respectable, closely involved with Frederick Street Wesleyan Chapel and the Wigan Wesleyan Methodist circuit.

Lax was educated at Hindley Wesleyan day school, began working part-time as an errand boy for a printer at the age of eleven, and was apprenticed to the same employer at fourteen. An avid reader, he was supplied with books by the local minister, and attended evening classes. Cured of a debilitating stutter at a Salvation Army holiness meeting in his mid-teens, Lax followed his father and maternal uncle as a Wesleyan local (lay) preacher and made an immediate impact as a public speaker. In 1890 he became a salaried lay agent in the Beccles Wesleyan circuit and offered unsuccessfully as a candidate for the ministry. He took another lay appointment in 1891 in Castletown, Isle of Man, was accepted for the ministry, and entered Didsbury College, Manchester, in September 1892 for a three-year training course. He recalled Didsbury in the early 1890s as ‘the home of fervent, aggressive evangelism’ (Lax, Lax His Book, 131).

After a year at the Leeds Central Mission, Lax was appointed as the district missioner for the Halifax and Bradford district from September 1896, a role that emphasized evangelism in areas where traditional methods were failing. In April 1897 Lax shared a platform at St George's Hall, Bradford, with Hugh Price Hughes, and Hughes invited Lax to join his staff at the West London Mission. Lax moved to London in September 1897 and worked with Hughes for five years, taking particular responsibility for the Soho branch of the mission, based at Craven Hall. Lax described Hughes as ‘my ideal and my idol’ (Lax, Adventure in Poplar, 91) and saw this period as ‘the great creative years of [my] life’ (Lax, Lax of Poplar, 48). Hughes exemplified confidence in the mission of Methodism to the metropolis, offering a model of ministry that combined powerful evangelistic preaching with a commitment to social justice.

On 2 August 1899 Hughes and another West London Mission colleague, C. Ensor Walters, officiated at the wedding of Lax and Mary Ann (Minnie) Browell (1877–1943) at Old Ford Wesleyan Chapel, Bow. She was the daughter of Robert Browell, Lax's first superintendent minister. They had no children, but they formed a partnership in ministry that endured for thirty-eight years.

In 1902 Hughes persuaded Lax to accept an appointment to the Poplar and Bow Mission, in east London's inner belt. Poplar was one of the most deprived parts of London, with exceptionally high levels of unskilled labour, dependent on casual employment in the docks and other transport industries. Lax found a once thriving church in decline, due to the migration of the middle and artisan classes to the suburbs. He inherited a Gothic chapel with a small congregation and office-holders resistant to change. Over the next thirty-five years Lax made the Poplar Mission famous worldwide. He established contact with a seemingly indifferent population through regular open-air preaching outside the East India docks and through assiduous house-to-house visiting. In dedicated pastoral ministry he set a tone for the church as ‘one big family’, offering warmth and comradeship. As the congregation grew, gradually new structures were created, including a sisterhood with more than 1000 members, a Sunday school of 800, and a network of clubs, activities, and uniformed organizations. The conversion of a redundant chapel into King George's Hall and Institute, opened by the duke of York in November 1920, and the construction of a new church gave the mission premises fit for its work. The vital contribution to this renewal made by the diminutive superintendent—Lax was only 5 feet 3 inches tall—was indicated by the Wesleyan conference's leaving him in the same post for an almost unprecedented term. It was also reflected in the near universal naming of the Poplar Mission locally as ‘Lax's’ or ‘St Lax's’, while Lax himself was widely known as ‘Lax of Poplar’.

Although principally a pastor and an evangelist, Lax took an active part in local government. Politically a staunch Liberal, he was co-opted onto Poplar borough council as an alderman in 1906 and served until 1923. He was chairman of the food control committee during the First World War and was mayor of Poplar in 1918–19. He claimed to have invented the street party as a way of involving Poplar's children in the celebration of the ‘peace year’. As the borough moved decisively to the left politically in 1919 and as ‘Poplarism’ became a synonym for ‘extremism’, Lax presented an alternative picture of Poplar and its people in a series of best-selling books, beginning with Lax of Poplar (1927) and concluding with Lax His Book (1937), published within days of his death. Autobiographical and anecdotal, these volumes offered a flavour of the engaging pulpit and platform style that made Lax famous, and which brought him a starring role (as himself) in the Religious Film Society's The Mastership of Christ (1934).

Lax's health began to fail in the autumn of 1936 and he died, of an intracranial tumour, at his home, 60 Beaconsfield Road, Greenwich, on 6 February 1937. George Lansbury broadcast a tribute to his old friend; thousands filed past the coffin as it lay in state at the mission, and crowds lined the streets for the funeral on 11 February of ‘one of the most cheerful of East London's ministers’ (East London Advertiser, 13 Feb 1937). Minnie Lax survived him and continued to play a leading part in the Poplar Mission after her husband's death.

Martin Wellings

Sources  

W. H. Lax, Lax, his book: the autobiography of Lax of Poplar (1937) · W. H. Lax, Lax of Poplar: the story of a wonderful quarter of a century (1927) · East London Advertiser (9 Feb 1937); (13 Feb 1937); (20 Feb 1937) · Methodist Recorder (11 Feb 1937); (18 Feb 1937) · British Weekly (11 Feb 1937); (18 Feb 1937) · The Times (8 Feb 1937); (16 Feb 1937) · W. E. Clapham, The good fight at Bow (1938) · J. A. Vickers, ed., Dictionary of Methodism in Britain and Ireland (2000) · W. H. Lax, Let's go to Poplar! (1929) · W. H. Lax, Adventure in Poplar (1933) · W. H. Lax, Mrs Benger carries on (1935) · J. Hector, Poplar memories (2002) · R. G. Burnett, The cinema for Christ (1934) · Times Literary Supplement (20 Feb 1937) · N. Branson, Poplarism, 1919–25: George Lansbury and the councillors' revolt (1979)

Archives  

LMA, archive of Bow circuit and Poplar and Bow Mission


Likenesses  

photograph, repro. in Lax, Lax, his book (1937)