Our story is set just after the first world war in Poplar, an east London borough with a population of 160,000 people crammed into the docklands in the bend of the River Thames (Poplar) and the area just north of it (Bow).
It was an impoverished and exclusively working-class area, which had suffered greatly during the ‘Great War’. Working-class women juggled low-waged work with domestic chores, contending with overcrowded housing, unsanitary conditions, fatherless children and war-wounded husbands and sons.
They had fought against profiteering companies, government stinginess and for the vote, which many – but not all – of them now had. Their experience in campaigning, particularly in the East London suffragettes, stood them in good stead for the battles they faced under the post-war Tory-Liberal coalition government.
In 1919, newly-enfranchised women and men elected Labour candidates to local councils, including many in London. In November, Labour won thirty-nine of the forty-two seats on Poplar Borough Council. Four of the successful candidates were women:
• Jane March, a former health visitor
• Nellie Cressall, who had been a laundrette worker and suffrage activist
• Jennie Mackay, the first woman member of what would become the National Union of General Municipal Workers (forerunner of today’s GMB)
• Julia Scurr, who had led the suffragette deputation to the government protesting against women’s sweated labour.
All were listed in their nominations as ‘married women’, and all except Jennie were married to male Poplar Labour candidates. But they were all socialist women in their own right, with records and politics to prove it.
Although four women candidates may seem a small number, it was significantly better than in other east London boroughs, where the Labour parties mustered only five women candidates between them.
The newly-elected Labour council appointed four ‘aldermen’ (a now-defunct local government post ranking between councillor and Mayor), including two women:
• Susan Lawrence, a former Tory who had defected to Labour in protest at the Conservative-led London County Council’s treatment of its school workers
• Minnie Lansbury, a former schoolteacher and assistant secretary of the East London suffragettes.
It also elected George Lansbury as Mayor, a socialist and supporter of women’s suffrage of national renown, but who nonetheless continued his political activity at the expense of his wife Bessie, herself a committed socialist who had to step back from activism to care for their large family.
Like many dockside communities, Poplar had significant immigrant populations, and these were represented among its council’s new women members. Julia Scurr was Irish, Minnie Lansbury the daughter of Jewish immigrants, and Jennie MacKay the daughter of an Italian father.
Having turfed out the previous ‘Municipal Reform’ (Tory and Liberal) administration of Poplar Council, Poplar Labour set about improving living conditions for their working-class residents. They built the first new public housing for years, and appointed housing inspectors who went to private rented housing and ordered landlords to improve them. They took the small, charity-run tuberculosis (TB) dispensary into municipal ownership and expanded it. The council improved maternity and child welfare services, baths and wash-houses. These policies brought about significant improvements to working-class women’s lives.
Poplar’s Labour council applied its principles in its role as an employer. It put casual workers on permanent contracts, set a minimum wage at £4 per week, and introduced equal pay for women and men. Labour Party policy supported equal pay, but unlike Poplar, many Labour councils saw ‘policy’ as meaning aspirations for the future rather than principles to implement in the present.
Recession and defiance
After a brief post-war boom, recession struck, and as a dockside borough, Poplar was hit particularly hard. Facing the choice of backing down or defying the unfair local government funding system, Poplar’s labour movement chose the latter. In March 1921, the council voted to refuse to collect and pay that portion of the rates (called precepts) that it was supposed to give to cross-London bodies, including the London County Council (LCC).
They did not simply take this stand as a budgeting decision – they mobilised people in support. Poplar’s Labour activists knocked on doors, talked with people at work and on street corners. Poplar Labour women organised monthly events attended by hundreds. And they held lots of demonstrations.
The biggest was on the day of the main court hearing, as the LCC applied to a judge to instruct Poplar to pay up. On 29 July 1921, five thousand people marched the five miles from Poplar to the High Court on the Strand to demand that the authorities do battle with poverty and unemployment rather than with their defiant local council. Adorned with banners and placards, photographs show the march looking very impressive. But it also looked very male. Although women were active in community and political struggles, it seems that they were not expected to go on marches; they were supposed to be looking after the home. There were lots of strong, inspiring women involved in this struggle, but there was still sexism, and women were still prevented from participating on an equal level.
Several of the councillors, including some of the women, gave evidence to the court, describing Poplar’s poverty and happily admitting to breaking the law. The judge told them to pay up or go to prison. He gave them the month of August to consider their position, so they spent the month reaffirming their refusal to pay the precepts and building their movement.
At the start of September, thirty Poplar Labour councillors were arrested and taken to prison. Five of the six women councillors and aldermen were on the list of those to be arrested. Jane March and several of the male councillors were left off, for reasons that were not clear.
Huge crowds gathered outside the councillors’ houses, especially those of Julia Scurr and Minnie Lansbury, who were very popular local activists.
The five women made an appointment with the sheriff to be arrested together at the Town Hall in Newby Place. They gave speeches from the Town Hall balcony to the thousands of assembled supporters. At one point, a man shouted out that they should stop the women being taken away. But Susan Lawrence quickly replied that they had just as much right as the men to be arrested for their stance.
The sheriff drove them at walking pace as far as the borough boundary, as the crowds marched alongside them, cheering them on. Then he took the five women to HM Prison Holloway. Their twenty-five male colleagues were incarcerated in HMP Brixton.
Prison conditions were dreadful, and Nellie Cressall (who was eight months pregnant), Jennie MacKay and Minnie Lansbury were all admitted to the hospital wing within days. Supporters marched to the prisons and held meetings outside. A fund to support the councillors’ children attracted donations from far and wide.
The councillors kept up their fight behind bars, and within three weeks had persuaded the authorities to allow them to meet in prison! Initially, only the male councillors met, but soon after, the women councillors were taken by car from Holloway to Brixton to join the meetings. They discussed prison conditions, their campaign for their release and for equalisation of rates – and they discussed the practical business of working-class life in Poplar: they continued to serve the people who elected them.
Public outcry forced the government to order Nellie Cressall’s release. She made legal history, becoming the first person to be released from imprisonment for contempt of court without first having purged her contempt.
When two other councils – Stepney and Bethnal Green – voted to take the same action as Poplar, the government knew that it was beaten and began negotiating the councillors’ release. On 13 October, the remaining women were released, and were taken by car to Brixton to meet their male colleagues (and in some cases, husbands!).
The government rushed through a law to introduce cross-London pooling of outdoor relief (what we would now call welfare benefits). Poplar gained over a quarter of a million pounds per year – in 1921 money! It was a massive win.
Still relevant today
As working-class women deal with a new way of austerity, health crises, unemployment and attacks on public services, Labour councils again face the choice of how to respond. Sadly, most are choosing to implement cuts rather than resist them. But we can choose to resist. Poplar’s women organised as workers, as service users, as mothers, as community activists. We can do the same, and in doing so, make our representatives in local councils do the right thing.
• Janine Booth is author of Guilty and Proud of it: Poplar’s Rebel Councillors and Guardians 1919-25 (Merlin Press 2009, available here) and Minnie Lansbury: Suffragette, Socialist, Rebel Councillor (Five Leaves 2018, available here)