- John Davis
Poplar councillors (act. 1919–1922)
Poplar councillors (act. 1919–1922), were the thirty Labour members of the borough council of Poplar, in east London, imprisoned in September 1921 for their protest against the inequitable distribution of local taxation across the capital. Their actions coined the term ‘Poplarism’, denoting the use of local government power to relieve poverty in a deprived area, defying, if necessary, parliament and central government.
The solidly working-class area of Poplar had long generated idiosyncratic forms of local socialism. It displayed a fragmented industrial structure, making it difficult to address the problem of local poverty through trade union action. Casual labour was endemic in the principal local industry, the docks, while female labour—hard to unionize—was prevalent across the borough. The area suffered from a long-term unemployment problem which would become chronic as local industries contracted in the post-war recession. Working-class politics consequently focused less on conventional wage bargaining than on questions of poverty and social exclusion; by extension Poplar's socialism was less ‘masculine’ than labour politics elsewhere, concerned with the family economy and the shortcomings of a local environment characterized by slum housing and inadequate open space and public facilities. Activists looked to municipal institutions—the borough council and the poor law guardians' board—to tackle social disadvantage.
The possibility of pursuing local socialism through municipal agencies was enhanced by the enfranchisement of almost all adult men and many women in 1918, which trebled the local electorate in Poplar. The borough council in November 1919 contained thirty-nine Labour members out of forty-two, including the twenty-five men and five women who would later be jailed. These thirty were drawn almost entirely from working-class backgrounds, the only unambiguously middle-class member being (Arabella) Susan Lawrence (1871–1947), daughter of a solicitor. By 1919 the group's de facto leader, the socialist, Christian, pacifist agitator George Lansbury (1859–1940), made his living as a journalist, while his son Edgar Lansbury 1887–1935 [see below] ran the family timber business. Some others born into the manual working class had recently escaped it: James Horatio Jones (1861–1946), the son of a Portsmouth shipwright, had founded his own boat-building business, while Alfred Partridge (1864–1940), the son of a blacksmith, was himself a blacksmith at Old Ford. Thomas Edwin Kelly (1872–1941), whose mother was a Hastings barmaid, worked as a grocer in Poplar. Henry William Sloman (1874–1956) was a clerk and John Scurr (1876–1932) a freelance journalist, while Joseph Thomas O'Callaghan (1878/9–1926), formerly a stevedore, became an assistant relieving officer in the poor law administration when dock employment contracted in 1921.
But most of the male Poplar councillors still worked in manual trades: the railwayman Albert Baker (1879–1956) spoke thirty years later of the strain of a working day which began at 6.00 a.m. and ended on the completion of a council meeting at midnight (East London Advertiser, 12 Sept 1952). The core of the Labour group worked in blue-collar jobs, including the dockers David Morgan Adams 1875–1942 [see below] and Walter Henry Green (1870–1957); the railwaymen Joseph Henry Banks (1871–1938) and Josiah Russell (1882–1943), and the carman Samuel March 1861–1935 [see below]; the postman Thomas John Goodway (1870–1947) and the post office overseer Albert Victor Farr (1872–1941); the hospital porter Benjamin Fleming (1879–1965); the paintworker George Joseph Cressall (1880–1951); the shoemaker James Joseph Heales (1873–1955); the engineer's fitter Robert John Hopwood (1877–1964) and the engineer's toolmaker John Edward Oakes (1876–1961); the dock foreman Charles Petherick (1883–1965) and the lead works foreman James John Rugless (1872–1926); the boilerman Charles Edwin Sumner (1867–1925); and the municipal labourer Christopher Edward Williams (1885–1966). The 1919 local elections meant that 'for the first time ever, Poplar's council now looked like its electorate' (Booth, 7).
Several of the councillors had been involved in early Independent Labour politics in the East End. George Cressall and his wife, Nellie Cressall 1882–1973 [see below], helped form the Limehouse Independent Labour Party, while Banks and Williams were active in the Poplar Labour Representation Committee. Goodway, Kelly, George Lansbury, and John Scurr were Independent Labour Party activists, while Jennie Mackay, (née Salmoni 1872–1955), belonged to the Social Democratic Federation. This direct political engagement was, though, only one aspect of a widespread involvement in voluntary social and trade union activity, deploying this diverse collectivism against the area's deprivation. Of the twenty-five male councillors at least fifteen were union members, ten of them officials. Hopwood would serve as branch secretary in the engineers' union for forty-two years. Sumner was also a national organizer for the municipal workers' union and had 'filled every office, from vestryman to mayor, from Poor Law guardian to County Councillor' (Daily Herald, 9 Dec 1925).
This kind of local community activism provided an outlet for women, particularly when the local economy was shackled by the enforced inactivity of many male workers—during the 1911 and 1912 dock strikes, for example, or during the First World War. Julia Scurr 1871–1927 [see below] and Nellie Cressall were involved in child welfare work during the strikes, and pensions and food control during the war. Such activity reinforced resentment of the exclusion of women—and particularly working-class women—from much conventional political activity: all four of the working-class women imprisoned in 1921 were active in Sylvia Pankhurst's socialist-leaning East London Federation of Suffragettes, including Minnie Lansbury 1889–1922 [see below], a schoolteacher, and Jennie Mackay, another suffrage activist, who had been drawn to socialism by George Lansbury's 'wonderful speeches', participating in a women's march against unemployment led by Lansbury in 1905 (Daily Worker, 2 Oct 1953).
The Poplar councillors saw municipal action as an extension of the fight against deprivation that many of them had pursued through voluntary activism, more potent because of the council's tax-raising and statutory powers. In May 1920 Poplar introduced a £4 weekly minimum wage for its employees, doubling the pay of many of them. It similarly sought to improve the area's limited facilities. In January 1920 a council housing scheme was started in Millwall, followed by cottage estates on the Isle of Dogs. The councillors also knew that such interventionism threatened to push the local tax system to breaking point, given the limited taxable capacity of London's poorest areas: Poplar was forced to levy a rate of £1.14 in the pound to raise £950,000, while Westminster could raise almost £4 million from a rate of 56 pence in the pound. In March 1921 the Poplar councillors protested against a system which failed to equalize this burden, by resolving not to raise its share of the costs of London's central bodies—the London county council, the Metropolitan Police, the London Fire Brigade and the Metropolitan Asylums Board. The rate supporting these bodies' services was equalized, and nobody considered the services dispensable; the councillors argued simply that withholding them offered the only feasible form of protest.
Concerned for their own income, the metropolitan authorities obtained a mandamus writ against Poplar in June 1921. The writ was upheld on appeal in early August, the councillors being given until the end of August to submit to the order of the court. The council's refusal to comply constituted contempt of court, and all understood that by their defiance they risked imprisonment. The rounding-up of the councillors from 1 September 1921 turned into political theatre. The arrest of the five women was advertised in advance in the local press, attracting a crowd of 10,000, while George Lansbury telephoned the sheriff to arrange his own arrest. Sumner attended the Trades Union Congress before becoming the last to be arrested on 8 September. The men were imprisoned in Brixton, the women in Holloway.
Legislation of 1914 stipulated that contempt of court prisoners should be treated in the same way as those imprisoned for debt, allowing them to wear their own clothes, and write more letters and receive more frequent visits than regular prisoners. It was nevertheless a chastening experience for those unfamiliar with it. O'Callaghan and John Scurr were transferred to the prison hospital soon after arrival at Brixton, and the health of Kelly, Sloman, Sumner, and Williams also caused concern. George Lansbury later claimed that the deaths of Minnie Lansbury, Rugless, O'Callaghan, Julia Scurr, and Sumner were hastened by prison conditions (Branson, 102): all died within six years of release, in their fifties or younger. The Holloway authorities noted, though, that leaving aside the pregnant Nellie Cressall the women councillors gained weight in prison, Lawrence putting on fifteen pounds in a fortnight (J. Hopwood, Medical Officer, Holloway, to the governor, 24 Sept 1921, TNA: PRO, HO 45/11233). For all their misgivings about prison food they stuck to their pre-arrest decision not to go on hunger strike, as the authorities acknowledged with relief.
The threat of prison having failed to deter the protest, few in power were so committed to the existing local taxation system as to contemplate the councillors' indefinite detention, let alone the possibility of deaths in prison: the official solicitor moved speedily to apply for the pregnant Nellie Cressall's early release when her health deteriorated after a fortnight in jail. Prolonging the stalemate increased the risk of other authorities emulating Poplar, and with other poor boroughs threatening similar action, Alfred Mond, the minister of health, recommended a compromise by which the councillors apologized for their contempt of court and were enabled to spread payment of the unpaid London-wide precepts over two years, with legislation being prepared to increase equalization of both council and poor rates, and to provide a statutory machinery to deal with defaulting councils in future. An affidavit from the councillors, stressing that 'they were anxious to disavow any intention of contumacy', was duly presented to the King's Bench Division. They were released on 12 October 1921.
Following their release a new settlement for the distribution of the cost of maintaining those receiving outdoor poor relief—essentially those of the unemployed with no entitlement to unemployment benefit—provided spectacular lasting gains for Poplar. In the three years down to 1921 annual payments to the Poplar guardians under the common poor fund had averaged £48,000 p.a.; in the three years from 1922 they averaged just over £500,000. This windfall was the basis for the councillors' claims of victory and, by extension, for their belief that direct action had brought results that constitutionalism could never have achieved.
The Poplar guardians, again Labour-controlled and including Adams, Baker, Banks, Fleming, Edgar and George Lansbury, Partridge, Julia Scurr, and Sumner of the imprisoned councillors, next turned to liberalizing the poor relief system. Their uninhibited intention was to undermine the deterrence built into the system. The 1921 legislation transferring the cost of outdoor relief to the equalized common poor fund had empowered the minister to set maximum relief levels, in order to limit the extent to which high unemployment areas could mulct the wealthy boroughs. The Poplar guardians nonetheless knowingly set a relief scale exceeding the levels prescribed by Mond in January 1922.
Baker saw this coup as the real achievement of Poplarism: 'in the end the Poplar Councillors killed the old Poor Law spirit and no one would want it back' (East London Advertiser, 12 Sept 1952). Mass unemployment would turn the old deterrent poor law into a welfare safety net in the 1920s, destroying the safeguards designed to limit expenditure; the measures taken by Poplar and some other Labour guardian boards accelerated that process. Central government responded by setting about constructing new means of curbing by law such discretionary social expenditure. Legislation passed by the Conservative government in 1926 and 1927 allowed central government to replace a defaulting guardian board by Whitehall nominees and to disqualify members of any local authority acting beyond its powers from holding public office for five years. The Poplar triumph was therefore double-edged. The achievement of a substantial redistribution of wealth within London had been realized at the cost of tightening Whitehall's control over similar local initiatives across Britain. The new powers would be used against those seeking to emulate Poplar in the early 1930s, before the relief system was effectively nationalized in 1934.
The Poplar protest added ‘Poplarism’ to the dictionary and the councillors to Labour's pantheon. Some, such as Farr, Green, and Heales, served only one term on the council and retreated into relative obscurity thereafter. Fleming, who left the council in 1931, was to be found living in a 'tastily furnished “pre-fab” home' in 1952. Others, though, became East End luminaries.
Among these were two notable East End political partnerships. Minnie Lansbury [née Glassman] (1889–1922) was born at 32 Grey Eagle Street, Spitalfields, London, on 9 February 1889, the daughter of Isaac Glassman, boot finisher and later a coal merchant, and his wife, Annie, née Goodkindt. Her parents were Jewish migrants from Poland. She became a schoolteacher, employed by London county council, and married, at Poplar register office on 9 April 1914, Edgar Isaac Lansbury. She worked for Sylvia Pankhurst's East London Federation of Suffragettes, of which her husband became treasurer, and served with Julia Scurr on the Poplar war pensions committee, who helped widows and those wounded in the war to make claims, and also oversaw the welfare of children in the borough orphaned by the war. She was an alderman of Poplar from 1919 until her death. Minnie and Edgar Lansbury joined the Communist Party after its formation in 1920. She died from pneumonia following influenza, at her home, 6 Wellington Road, Bow, London, on 1 January 1922 and was buried in the Jewish cemetery, East Ham.
Minnie Lansbury was survived by her husband, Edgar Isaac Lansbury (1887–1935), who was born at 105 St Stephen's Road, Bow, on 24 February 1887, the son of George Lansbury (1859–1940), politician, and his wife, Elisabeth Jane, née Brine (d. 1933). The birth control campaigner Dorothy Thurtle was his younger sister. In 1906 he was appointed to a clerkship in the civil service, after open competition, but in 1910 joined the family timber business. In 1912 he was elected to the Poplar council—joining his father—and remained a member until 1925. From 1922 to 1925 he was also chairman on the Poplar board of guardians during the disputes with the Ministry of Health over the scale of poor relief. He was mayor of Poplar in 1924–5 as a member of the Communist Party. He married, second, on 11 September 1924, the actress Moyna Macgill (1895–1975), who was born Charlotte Lilian McIldowie, the daughter of William McIldowie, a Belfast solicitor; she was the divorced wife of the actor Reginald Denham. They had a daughter, the actress Dame Angela Lansbury (b. 1925), and twin sons, both later producers in theatre and television, Edgar George Lansbury (b. 1930) and (William) Bruce Lansbury (b. 1930). Edgar Lansbury died at his home, 7 Weymouth Avenue, Mill Hill, Middlesex, on 28 May 1935, predeceasing his father, who was by then leader of the Labour Party, and whose biography, George Lansbury, My Father, he had published in 1934.
The other significant partnership was that of John Scurr, MP for Stepney Mile End from 1923, and his wife, Julia Scurr [née Sullivan] (1871–1927), who was born on 17 February 1871 in Limehouse, the daughter of John Sullivan, a warehouseman originally from co. Cork, and Martha Elizabeth Rapp of Bethnal Green. She was brought up in the East End. On 4 August 1900 at the church of Our Lady and St Frederick, Limehouse, she married John Scurr, with whom she had a daughter and two sons. She campaigned to improve conditions for working women in the East End of London, and served on the Poplar board of guardians from 1907. She was an organizer of the demonstration of working women, protesting against unemployment, of whom representatives met the prime minister, Balfour, in November 1905. She was a member of the deputation of Sylvia Pankhurst's East End Federation of Suffragettes who met Asquith, the prime minister, in June 1914. She joined the United Suffragists, founded in 1914, becoming a vice-president. A pacifist during the First World War, she served on the wartime food control committee. From 1919 to 1925 she was a Poplar councillor, and was mayor of Poplar in 1923–4. From 1925 to 1926 she was a member of London county council. She died at her home, 15 Woodstock Road, Poplar, London, on 10 April 1927.
In addition to George Lansbury, Susan Lawrence, and John Scurr, two more of the councillors became Labour MPs. Samuel March (1861–1935) was born in Dagenham, Essex, on 20 February 1861, the son of James March, farm labourer, and his wife, Kezia, née Perry. He attended Ford's free school in Dagenham, then became a baker. Aged nineteen he moved to Poplar, where he became a carman, his occupation at time of his marriage, at the parish church, Poplar, on 25 December 1882, to Sarah Jane (1860/61–1906), daughter of William Weston, wharfinger. Following her death, he married, second, in Portsmouth on 28 December 1907, Jane Ann Hart (1866/7–1952), a widow, daughter of John Barrington Davis, master tailor. He had been an official of the Shepherd Friendly Society since 1882 and a member of the London Co-operative Society from 1906. He joined the London Carmen's Union in 1889, became his branch chairman, and in 1896 was general secretary of the union, which in 1912 became the National Union of Vehicle Workers. He was first elected to Poplar council in 1903 and remained a councillor in 1927, and served as mayor in 1920–21. He was a member of London county council, representing South Poplar from 1919 to 1925, and was the first Labour JP in the East End. In 1922 he was elected Labour MP for Poplar South, holding the seat until his retirement in 1931. He died at his home, 177 Caulfield Street, East Ham, Essex, on 10 August 1935.
March was succeeded in the Poplar South parliamentary seat by David Morgan Adams (1875–1942), who was born David William Morgan Adams at 142 St Leonard's Road, Bromley, Poplar, London, on 23 February 1875, the son of David Morgan Adams, ship steward, and his wife, Elizabeth Ann, née Dent. He was employed as a seaman at the time of his marriage, at St Martin's, Poplar, on 23 September 1900, to Ada (1868/9–1941), daughter of William John Dougall, lighterman; the couple had at least four sons and one daughter. He became a dock labourer, employed by the Port of London Authority, and was elected to the Poplar board of guardians in 1912 and Poplar borough council in 1918. From 1920 he was an official of the Transport and General Workers' Union. He was councillor for Poplar South on London county council from 1930 to 1937. In 1931 he was elected MP for Poplar South, on the retirement of Samuel March, and held the seat until his death. He was mayor of Poplar in 1934–5. Following the death of his first wife he married, second, in 1941 Winifred Maggie Gafga (1902–1998). He died at his home, 47 Courtland Avenue, Ilford, Essex, on 18 May 1942.
The longest-lived of the councillors, and the last survivor of them, Nellie Frances Cressall [née Wilson] (1882–1973), was born at 14 Park Road, Willesden, Middlesex, on 23 November 1882, the elder daughter in the family of two daughters and two sons of John George Wilson, carpenter, and his wife, Julia, née Jennings. Aged eighteen she was employed with her widowed mother in ironing and laundry. On 17 January 1904, at Stepney parish church, she married George Joseph Cressall (1880–1951), a general labourer, son of Thomas Cressall, cooper, with whom she had eight children. She joined the Independent Labour Party in 1907 and became a suffragette, being arrested six times for suffrage activity (East London Advertiser, 17 April 1959). She helped to organize the feeding of local children during the 1912 dock strike, and during the First World War served on the local food control committee. A Poplar councillor from 1919 to 1965, she was mayor in 1943. She enjoyed an Indian summer of activism in the 1950s, when her 'wonderful gift of flaming passionate speech' endeared her to Labour Party conferences. Herbert Morrison, who had anathematized the councillors for their militancy in 1921, addressed her affectionately as 'my old Dutch' (News Chronicle, 3 Oct 1951). Attending meetings of the international moral rearmament movement in Switzerland even in her late seventies, she formed a link between George Lansbury's Christian pacifism and the later anti-nuclear activism of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament: she characterized herself in 1969 as 'a lifelong Christian Socialist' (East London Advertiser, 22 Jan 1969). Her forty-six years on Poplar council coincided exactly with the period of unbroken Labour control from 1919 to the council's abolition. She retired from public life as Poplar borough council passed into history. She died in St Andrew's Hospital, Bromley, Poplar, on 31 October 1973.
The east London area still boasts memorials to individual councillors—the clock erected in Bow Road in memory of Minnie Lansbury, the children's home Dave Adams House in Bow, the Lansbury Lawrence Primary School in Poplar. John Scurr was commemorated by a primary school in Stepney Green and a community centre and a council estate in Limehouse. By the 1970s the housing stock of the London borough of Tower Hamlets, into which Poplar was absorbed in 1965, also included Cressall House, Jones House, Rugless House, Sam March House, and Susan Lawrence House (Tower Hamlets Borough Council, Yearbook, 1972–3, 74–90). A commemorative mural was painted in Hale Street, Poplar, at the height of the poll tax protests of 1990.
- N. Branson, Poplarism, 1919–25: George Lansbury and the councillors' revolt (1979)
- J. Booth, Guilty and proud of it! Poplar's rebel councillors and guardians, 1919–1925 (2009)
- J. Shepherd, George Lansbury: at the heart of old Labour (2002)
- R. Taylor, In letters of gold: the story of Sylvia Pankhurst and the East London Federation of the Suffragettes in Bow (1993)
- H. Finch, The Tower Hamlets connection: a biographical guide (1996)
- G. Rose, ‘Locality-studies and waged labour: an historical critique’, Transactions of the Royal Institute of British Geographers, new ser., 14/3 (1989), 317–28
- G. Rose, ‘Imagining Poplar in the 1920s: contested concepts of community’, Journal of Historical Geography, 16/4 (1990), 425–37
- London Statistics [London county council], 26–32 (1915–27)
- Statement showing … the amount of local rates, [Ministry of Health], Cmd 1155 (1921), 585–7
- J. Scurr, The rate protest of Poplar (1922)
- J. Scurr, Labour and the rates: a policy for Labour councillors (1923)
- C. W. Key, Red Poplar: six years of socialist rule (1925)
- release of Poplar borough councillors, 7 Oct 1921, TNA: PRO, CAB 24/128
- report on revolutionary organisations in the United Kingdom, 1 Sept–7 Oct 1921, TNA: PRO, CAB 24/127–128; nos. 121–6
- disturbances: imprisonment of Poplar borough councillors for contempt of court, TNA: PRO, HO 45/11233
- Poplar councillors, TNA: PRO, PCOM 7/486
- George Lansbury papers, BLPES
- WWW [Adams; March]
- WWBMP [Adams; March]
- The Times (20 May 1942) [Adams]
- census returns, 1911 [Adams]
- b. cert. [Adams]
- m. cert. [Adams; 1900]
- East London Advertiser (9 Nov 1973) [Cressall]
- b. cert. [Cressall]
- m. cert. [Cressall]
- d. cert. [Cressall]
- The Times (29 May 1935) [E. Lansbury]
- b. cert. [E. Lansbury]
- m. certs. [E. Lansbury]
- The Times (2 Jan 1922) [M. Lansbury]
- census returns, 1891, 1901, 1911 [M. Lansbury]
- b. cert. [M. Lansbury]
- m. cert. [M. Lansbury]
- The Times (13 Aug 1935) [March]
- b. cert. [March]
- m. certs. [March; 1882, 1907]
- census returns, 1881, 1911 [Scurr]
- The Times (11 April 1927) [Scurr]
- m. cert. [Scurr]
- photograph, 1921, Bishopsgate Institute, London [see illus.]
- photographs, repro. in Branson, Poplarism
Wealth at Death
£278 12s. 9d.—David Morgan Adams: administration, 9 June 1942, CGPLA Eng. & Wales
£7956 5s. 0d.—Edgar Lansbury: probate, 10 Sept 1935, CGPLA Eng. & Wales
£750—Minnie Lansbury: administration, 30 Jan 1922, CGPLA Eng. & Wales
£3230 16s. 4d.—Samuel March: probate, 19 Oct 1935, CGPLA Eng. & Wales
- Lawrence, (Arabella) Susan (1871–1947), politician
- Lansbury, George (1859–1940), leader of the Labour Party
- Lansbury, Edgar Isaac (1887–1935)
- Scurr, John (1876–1932), politician
- Adams, David Morgan (1875–1942)
- March, Samuel (1861–1935)
- Cressall, Nellie Frances (1882–1973)
- Scurr, Julia (1871–1927)
- Lansbury, Minnie (1889–1922)
- Thurtle [née Lansbury], Dorothy (1890–1973), campaigner for contraceptive and abortion rights