This history of the events has been put together by a family member of one of the Councillors. It tells the story from the perspective of Albert Baker, Railwayman, jailed Poplar Councillor and later in 1933, Mayor of Poplar.
In 1919 Albert was elected to Poplar Council. He was a Labour Councillor and at that time, council work was completely unpaid. Albert’s day began at 6.00 am at the railway goods yard and ended in the late evening following either a council or a board of guardians meeting. Of his 38 colleagues on the Poplar Council in 1919, 26 were manual workers and 4 were housewives. This was an entirely different complexion from previous Councils in Poplar.
Albert’s home lay within the Cubitt Town ward of the Borough of Poplar as shown on the 1916 Ward Map. Before WWI, most Poplar councillors were drawn from Poplar’s small middle class, and were Conservative or
Independent, or were even openly sponsored by large local firms.
It was not unusual for councillors to have a registered business address in Poplar but live somewhere else in London. These tended to be patriarchal and well-to-do administrators rather than representatives of local people. Even though Poplar was one of the poorest boroughs in the country, the Labour party and other reformers were not trusted to be able to properly manage the Council, or were frequently seen as troublemakers threatening the established order.
So, when Poplar Labour Party – led by George Lansbury – won control of Poplar Borough Council in 1919, they were just as surprised as everyone else. When George Lansbury was elected as the Mayor of Poplar during the Council’s first meeting, he said: I thought I should
always be in opposition and fighting a forlorn hope. But something like a miracle has happened, and here I am!
So Albert finding himself a Labour Councillor in 1919 after the war in Poplar was probably also a bit of a surprise. But there was more to come. George Lansbury was an important figure in British politics beyond Poplar. He became the Leader of the Labour Party from 1932 to 1935.
George Lansbury visiting a Poplar Slum
The new Council set to work. They undertook a comprehensive programme of social reform and poor relief, including equal pay for women and a minimum wage for council workers, far in excess of the market rate. This programme was expensive and had to be funded from the rates. Because Poplar was a poor borough, property rents were low. With liability for local taxation assessed on the basis of a 'rateable value' deriving from rents, Poplar Borough Council had to set a much higher rate in order to produce the same income as produced by low rates in a wealthy borough.
In addition to the precept for Poplar Poor Law Union, Poplar ratepayers were also charged precepts to pay for the cross-London authorities; the London County Council, the Metropolitan Police, the Metropolitan Asylums Board and the Metropolitan Water Board.There was a small fund which attempted to correct for the differences between boroughs, but Poplar called for complete equalisation of the rates so that the same rate brought in the same income both to Poplar and to a wealthier West London borough.
Poplar Council decided to hold the rates down by not collecting the precepts which it should have passed on to the four cross-London authorities. The London County Council and Metropolitan Asylums Board responded by taking the matter to the High Court. The Council's response was to organise a procession of 2,000 supporters from Bow, led by the borough's official mace-bearer, to the accompaniment of a band and a banner proclaiming, ‘Poplar Borough Council marching to the High Court and possibly to prison’.
No doubt Albert’s in there somewhere! In this somewhat febrile atmosphere, the press were keen to collect quotes from the 30 councillors involved. For Albert Baker his quote reads; As I started, so I will continue to fight for the rights of the poor of Poplar.
Thirty councillors were sent to prison indefinitely for contempt of court for refusing a court order to remit the monies. The men were put up in Brixton Prison, and the women Councillors in Holloway. The revolt received widespread public support.
Lansbury addressed crowds that regularly gathered outside, through the prison bars. Neighbouring councils threatened to take similar action. Trade unions passed resolutions of support and collected funds for the Councillors' families. Eventually, after six weeks imprisonment, the court responded to public opinion and ordered the Councillors released, which 'occasioned great celebrations in Poplar’.
Meanwhile, a bill, the Local Authorities (Financial Provisions) Act 1921, was rushed through Parliament between November 8th and November 10th 1921. It more or less equalised tax burdens between rich and poor boroughs.
The term ‘Poplarism, always identified closely with Lansbury, became a political term associated with large-scale municipal relief for the poor and needy, and also came to be applied generally to campaigns where local governments stood firm against central government on behalf of the poor and least privileged of society. Albert was a part of this.