In the first week of September 1921, in a row about unfair taxation, thirty Poplar borough councillors were arrested and sent to prison. They spent six weeks locked away before pressure from other underfunded London councils threatened to boil over, and the story ended with the government unexpectedly changing the law in their favour. This movement came to be known as Poplarism and is often held up by the left as a successful example of positive action delivering political change. This month (in what's now Tower Hamlets) the mural commemorating the Poplar Rates Rebellion has been given a repaint to celebrate the centenary, and very dazzling it looks too.
100 years ago local councils were responsible for raising their own rates and supporting their own poor. This was doubly bad news for Poplar where demand for poor relief was high but rateable values were low, whereas richer boroughs like Kensington raked in more money with fewer impoverished citizens to spend it on. Poplar had unexpectedly returned a Labour council in 1919, headed by suffrage activist George Lansbury, and they took issue at the unfairness of the situation. In March 1921 they voted to stop paying the additional precepts for cross-London bodies like the Metropolitan Police and Metropolitan Water Board so that the money could be used closer to home, thereby putting themselves in direct conflict with the law.
In July the London County Council took the matter to the High Court. On the day of the final hearing a crowd two thousand strong marched from Poplar to the Strand with a brass band and the borough's official mace-bearer at the front of the procession. Flat caps were very much in evidence. But the sight of banners proclaiming ‘Poplar Borough Council marching to the High Court and possibly to prison' failed to move the judges. They duly ruled that Poplar pay up within a month, and Poplar duly refused, and so on 1st September the councillors gathered at the town hall in expectation of arrest.
Alderman Minnie Lansbury – I wish the Government joy in its effort to get this money from the people of Poplar. Poplar will pay its share of London’s rates when Westminster, Kensington, and the City do the same! Councillor J.T. O’Callaghan – It is criminal to expect a casual labour borough to pay heavy rates. All are willing to remain in prison till our aim is achieved. Alderman Susan Lawrence – We go cheerfully determined to see this thing through. I hope our example will not be lost on all local authorities throughout the country. Councillor Edgar Lansbury – Personal liberty is an important thing. So is justice. We will sacrifice liberty till justice is done. Councillor R.J. Hopwood – It’s a goal through gaol we want!
The men were taken first and locked away in Brixton, with the five women rounded up over subsequent days and incarcerated in Holloway. Nellie Cresswell was six months pregnant at the time. Poplar's 30 councillors proved politely obstinate prisoners, being well aware of their rights, and fought successfully for better rations, regular recreation and their continued right to work. On several occasions the women were driven over to Brixton so that council meetings could be convened. Trade unions and the wider public soon proved supportive, collecting funds for the councillors' families and sending letters to the Secretary of State. But it was the threat by four other London councils to withdraw from paying precepts that finally brought the dispute to a head, and the prisoners were finally released on 13th October without having paid a penny.
The government responded by rushing a bill through Parliament, the Local Authorities (Financial Provisions) Act 1921. This went a significant distance towards equalising tax discrepancies between wealthier and poorer boroughs, and also added a clause to ensure that no non-paying council could ever pull Poplar's stunt again. A Victory Ball was held at Bow Baths Hall on Roman Road, and a one-third cut in the rates made life in the borough a little fairer. The people of Poplar rewarded Mayor George Lansbury by returning him as their MP the following year, and he eventually rose to the heady position of Leader of the Opposition. His daughter-in-law Minnie Lansbury was alas less fortunate and died soon afterwards of pneumonia, probably caught in prison, at the age of only 32.
The obvious place for a Poplar Rates Rebellion memorial would be outside Poplar Town Hall where the councillors gathered for their last meeting pre-arrest, but this no longer stands. It was replaced by larger premises in Bow in 1938, then burned to the ground after being hit by incendiary bombs on the first night of the Blitz, and the site in Newby Place is now covered by an especially ordinary block of flats. Instead the event has been commemorated by a mural in Hale Street, first painted in 1990 when similar arguments about the poll tax were at the top of the political agenda. It depicts George Lansbury in a bowler hat, a placard saying Can't Pay Won't Pay and lists the names of Poplar's 30 incarcerated councillors.
Last Saturday a centenary picnic was held a few steps away inside Poplar Recreation Ground with music provided by the Grand Union Orchestra. The current Mayor of Tower Hamlets turned up, as did London Assembly Member Unmesh Desai and representatives of The George Lansbury Trust. The council have also installed a new information board here, as yet unsullied by graffiti or droppings, which has plenty of backstory to read.
The tale of the Poplar Rates Rebellion is well told by the National Archives and Parliamentary Archives, as well as here, here and here. It's a story which brings hope that collective principle can sometimes win out over entrenched disparity and therefore still resonates 100 years later... in your dreams comrade.