In this period, Poplar was one of the poorest areas of London, with high levels of unemployment, poverty and hunger. Under the Poor Law, initiatives to alleviate these issues by the Poplar Poor Law Union had to be funded by borough. In 1919, the Labour administration of the council introduced a program of social reform and poor relief, including equal pay for women and a minimum wage for council workers. This was expensive and had to be funded through the rates (a property tax system) but, as Poplar’s property rents were low, the council had to set much higher rates to produce the same income as wealthier boroughs, such as in West London.
The taxpayers of Poplar had to pay ‘precepts’ to fund not only the Poplar Poor Law Union, but also the London County Council, Metropolitan Police, Metropolitan Asylums Board and the Metropolitan Water Board. In 1921, Poplar was faced with further increases to the rates. At a Council meeting on March 22nd, 1921, Poplar Council decided to keep them down, and not collect precepts from its residents which would fund the 4 London-wide authorities. Instead, they wanted to use the revenue to fund local poor relief and campaign for a fairer rate system. The London County Council and Metropolitan Asylums took the issue to the High Court.
In this blog post we will look at the events which unfolded next, how authorities and Parliament reacted and the legacy of the Poplar Rates Rebellion through records held at the Parliamentary Archives.
This blog was written by Nicole Hartland, Archive Assistant (Graduate Trainee).
1 SEPTEMBER 1921: ‘RIOT BEGETS REVOLT AND POSSIBLY REVOLUTION’
On 29th July, 30 councillors (including 6 women) and 2,000 supporters marched from Bow, led by the official ‘mace-bearer’ of the Borough. The 2,000 were accompanied by a band and held a banner which read “Poplar Borough Council marching to the High Court and possibly to prison”.
In this letter held at the Parliamentary Archives, Lord Stamfordham writes to the Prime Minister Lloyd George about King George V’s anxieties about unemployment following the action of Poplar Borough Council, and the danger of possible revolution. It reads:
Dear Prime Minister,
The King is daily growing more anxious about the question of unemployment during the coming winter.
Apparently the action of the Poplar Borough Council is not unlikely to be followed by other Metropolitan Boroughs: and yet we are some months off mid-winter.
The people grow discontented and agitators seize their opportunities; marches are organised; the police interfere; resistance ensues; troops are called out and riot begets revolt and possibly revolution.
His Majesty knows that this matter is engaging the serious attention of his Government and feels sure that, even among the many absorbing questions which confront you, you are not losing sight of what seems to be not only a serious but almost insoluble problem.
Yours very truly, Stamfordham
King George V’s anxieties were not unfounded. The revolt received a huge level of support from the public and trade unions, and neighbouring councils threatened similar action. The 30 councillors were persistent in refusing to hand over the precepts and were found guilty of contempt of court and refusing a court order.
In September, they were sentenced to imprisonment – the men went to Brixton Prison and the women to Holloway Prison. Among the women was Susan Lawrence who apparently spent her time reading Tolstoy and preparing a pamphlet on taxation – we’ll come back to Susan Lawrence in part four. The revolt continued to garner widespread public support. George Lansbury, the previous Labour Mayor of Poplar who led the revolt, addressed crowds that regularly gathered outside the prison.
28 SEPTEMBER 1921: ‘THE COUNCIL WILL ADOPT A STIFF ATTITUDE’
The councillors were imprisoned for six weeks in total, after the Court finally responding to public opinion. This letter from the then Minister of Health, Alfred Mond, to the Prime Minister Lloyd George gives us an insight into the government’s response to the councillor’s imprisonment and the question of their release. Mond reports on the conference with the London Labour Mayors who say the Poplar Borough Councillors demand release from prison as preliminary to any conference on the merits of their dispute with the London County Council. Mond is trying to obtain their release, but this is a difficult situation because no pressure can be put on the Judges.
8 - 10 NOVEMBER 1921: PASSING THE LOCAL AUTHORITIES (FINANCIAL PROVISIONS) BILL
The Local Authorities (Financial Provisions) Bill was rushed through Parliament between the 8th and 10th of November 1921. There are many stages involved in making a bill become law, you can read about the process today here How does a bill become law? Below you can follow the progress of the Bill, as recorded in Hansard:
8th November: House of Lords, Second Reading of the Bill
9th November: House of Lords, Committee Stage
9th November: House of Commons, First Reading of the Bill
9th November: House of Commons, Committee Stage
10th November: House of Lords, Consideration of Amendments
The 1921 Local Authorities (Financial Provisions) Act essentially equalised tax burdens between rich and poor boroughs. The Act also introduced a power in the second clause which permitted the precepting authority to apply to the courts to appoint a Receiver who can take funds directly from the council that withheld them:
“for the ease of a Metropolitan Borough neglecting to raise a rate to meet a precept, such as was recently the case in Poplar. If such a case occurs the authority issuing the precept shall, with the consent of the Ministry of Health, be empowered to apply to the Court for the appointment of a Receiver.”
9 JANUARY 1924: ‘FETTERS AND ROSES’ DINNER AT THE HOUSE OF COMMONS
Just over two years after the events of the Poplar Rates Rebellion, the ‘Fetters and Roses’ Dinner took place in the House of Commons. A photograph of the dinner is held at the Parliamentary Archives, titled 'Ex-Prisoner Members of Parliament, Dinner at the House of Commons, 9th January 1924. J Scott Duckers, Esq., in the Chair'. Another copy came to us from the House of Commons Library, who have also conducted research on this photograph including a list of names of people identified.
Among them is early female Labour MP Susan Lawrence, mentioned earlier, who was imprisoned during the Poplar Rates Rebellion when she was a local counsellor in 1921. Also present were several men imprisoned as conscientious objectors during the First World War and several former suffragettes who were imprisoned during the suffrage campaign. These include Barbara Ayrton Gould, Dorothy Evans, Viscountess Rhondda, and Frederick and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence.
Susan Lawrence’s company at the ‘Fetters and Roses’ dinner tells us a lot about the immediate reception and legacy of the Poplar Rates Rebellion. It’s leader, George Lansbury, later went on to become leader of the Labour party between 1932 and 1935. The term ‘Poplarism’ stems from the event, used to describe instances of both large-scale poverty relief and defiance of national government.
The Hale Street Mural, painted by local artist Mark Francis in 1990, commemorates the Poplar Rates Rebellion including an image of Lansbury with this mayoral chain of office, placards and banners of the protesters, and a list of the imprisoned councillors. The last of the four panels draws parallels with the poll tax riots in 1990, indicative of the Poplar’s impact and legacy. The mural was restored in 2007 and you can find it on the wall of the Tower Hamlets Parks Department depot on Hale Street, E14.
Guilty and Proud of It! Poplar’s Rebel Councillors and Guardians of 1919-25 by Janine Booth
The rebel councillors: The 1921 Poplar Rates Rebellion, The National Archives blog
Poplar Rates Rebellion 1921, City of London Website
Poplar Rates Rebellion Mural, London Mural Preservation Society