This information panel (picture), written by Janine, has been posted by Tower Hamlets Council to accompany the newly-renovated Hale Street mural, which pays tribute to the Poplar councillors. The text is below.
After the ‘Great War’, London’s East Enders lived in extreme poverty.
Most working-class people had just gained the right to vote. In 1919, they elected a Labour council in Poplar borough, which included local railway, dock and postal workers, teachers and engineers.
IMPROVING POPLAR’S LOT
The council improved libraries, public baths and parks, and electrified lighting. It took over the small, charity-run tuberculosis dispensary and expanded it, and gave free milk to mothers and babies. It built new houses and compelled landlords to improve existing homes.
The council increased its workers’ wages and paid women the same as men.
In 1920, Britain’s economy crashed, and Poplar’s dockside economy lost thousands of jobs.
Maintenance payments (welfare benefits) were administered by Poor Law guardians and funded by local councils, which got their money from local taxation (rates). Poplar had huge numbers of poor and needy people to provide for, but could only fund this by charging the same people, who could not afford it.
Poplar hit financial crisis when the government reneged on its promise to fund road-building jobs for local men.
BREAKING THE LAW
In early 1921, Poplar’s labour movement decided its response. The council agreed to avoid cutting services or increasing rates by refusing to collect and pay the ‘precepts’ that it was required to give to the London County Council and other cross-London bodies.
The councillors knew this was illegal, but believed that defying an unfair funding system was better than cutting much-needed services or increasing rates to unaffordable levels.
On 29 July, five thousand people marched from Poplar to support their rebel councillors at the High Court on the Strand. The judge told the councillors that they must pay the precepts or go to prison indefinitely for contempt of court.
The councillors refused to collect the precepts, and at the start of September 1921, the sheriff arrested thirty of them, taking five women councillors to Holloway prison and twenty-five men to Brixton. The councillors continued their campaign, and even held official council meetings in prison.
Supporters held daily demonstrations, and Stepney and Bethnal Green councils voted to refuse to pay the precepts too. In mid-October, the government conceded, arranged for the councillors’ release, and quickly passed a law reforming London’s local government funding, making rich boroughs contribute more, and sharing the cost of maintaining the poor.
Poplar borough gained £250,000 per year and other poor boroughs benefited too. Poplar’s defiant council had won.
REMEMBERING THE COUNCILLORS
The mural on Hale Street was painted in 1990 and restored in 2007. It names all thirty imprisoned councillors: David Adams, Albert Baker, Joe Banks, George Cressall, Nellie Cressall, Albert Farr, Benjamin Fleming, Thomas Goodway, Walter Green, James Heales, Robert Hopwood, James Jones, Thomas Kelly, Edgar Lansbury, Minnie Lansbury, George Lansbury, Susan Lawrence, Jennie Mackay, Sam March. John Oakes, Joe O'Callaghan, Alfred Partridge, Charles Petherick, James Rugless, Josiah Russell, John Scurr, Julia Scurr, Henry Sloman, Charlie Sumner, Chris Williams