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Category: East End philosophers and thinkers

Lansbury v Morrison, the battle over Poplarism

AS WE saw last week, the huge upsurge in industrial unrest in the East End was contained but not quelled by the outbreak of the First World War. In the first years of the 20th century the Labour movement and the unions had gained power and started to exert it, with increasing representation on local councils and the beginnings of a parliamentary presence.

A newspaper cartoon mocking Lansbury's famed goodness

A newspaper cartoon mocking Lansbury's famed goodness

Though most Labour MPs elected in the 1910 General Election were for constituencies in Scotland, Wales and the industrial heartlands of northern England, there were dots of red in London too: Woolwich and West Ham and, amid the sea of East End Liberals, there was George Lansbury in Bow and Bromley, replacing the longstanding Tory incumbent.


Alongside was the Great Unrest of the pre-War years, with a series of organised and wildcat strikes all over Britain, and with a concentration in the East End. The dockers at the East and West India Docks knew they wielded power far beyond their numbers, able to choke off a huge part of Britain’s imports and exports simply by walking out. Strikes continued in smaller number during the war, and women – now working in industry for the first time – downed tools as they sought to solidify job security and pay.

But the Christmas election of 1918 (the votes were cast on 14 December but, in those far-off and more relaxed days, the count didn’t begin until the 28th) saw a step change for Labour, being the first held since the Representation of the People Act. The law did more than the three preceding Reform Acts put together and swelled the electorate from 7.5m to over 20m, though women between 21 and 30 wouldn’t qualify until 1929. And you no longer needed to own property to vote: this was the first election in which ‘paupers’ had the ballot. With Poplarism’s coming battle over ‘poor relief’ the move would seem hugely significant.

George Lansbury would lead that movement, though he had lost his Bow and Bromley seat in the 1912 election (many voters turned away by his support for the Suffragettes) and he would be beaten by the Conservatives again in 1918. But Labour MPs rose from 42 to 57 and 1918 and, more important maybe, Labour was starting to control London councils. Herbert Morrison had built the London Labour Party into an efficient electoral machine (his grandson Peter Mandelson would appear as a similarly shrewd operator for the party 80 years later). Labour now controlled half the 28 borough councils in London and, crucially, they held the town halls and thus had a hand on the rates. Lansbury was no longer an MP but he was Mayor of Poplar – a far more powerful role as it transpired.

Herbert Morrison, implacable enemy of Lansbury

Herbert Morrison, implacable enemy of Lansbury

Lansbury and Morrison had much in common. Lansbury had been a pacifist during the First World War, while Morrison had been a member of the No Conscription Fellowship. It was a hugely unpopular stance, as most working people swallowed their doubts and got behind the flag. Morrison even declared himself a conscientious objector, despite the fact that his partial blindness would have excused him military service in any event; he did his bit by working as a farm labourer. The pair were deeply moral men and willing to suffer for their beliefs … as would become obvious as the twenties wore on. But there were deep divisions between them.

While Morrison was desperate to move Labour from the party of coal-begrimed northern men in order to court the middle class vote, Lansbury saw 1918 as Labour’s first chance to help its core supporters, saying: “Labour councillors must be different from those we have displaced, or why displace them?”

And how different they were. Poplar began to enact a welfare state in microcosm – some on the Right saw it as a mini-revolution. The councillors spent money: cutting infant mortality, building council houses, restoring libraries, fixing the roads and the housing stock, and thus putting (mainly) men back to work after the War. A 4s (20p) bonus was paid to all council workers who joined a union, and by 1920 the Council was paying a minimum wage of £4 a week to every employee, up from £1 and 10shillings (£1.50). Equal pay for women, extraordinary at the time, saw them get a wage rise of 70 per cent.

The biggest fight was on unemployment though, and here modernity came up against legislation that seemed out of the Middle Ages. The Poor Law saw unemployed people sent to the workhouses, which were paid for by a common pool raised from all London boroughs (they wouldn’t eventually be scrapped until the 1930s), but Labour councillors preferred to pay the unwaged ‘outdoor relief’ (effectively, the dole). This money came direct from the individual borough and was raised through the property rates.

The rates system was bizarre, with rates based on rent values. It meant that a poor borough like Poplar, with low rents, had to charge a much higher rate to produce the same amount raised by low rates in rich boroughs such as Chelsea. Having been stung once, the council then had to put the money into a central pot for all the London boroughs, from which were paid the London County Council, the Metropolitan Police, the Water Board and others. Effectively, the poorest were contributing the most.

View Lansbury and Morrison in a larger map

Poplar’s ambitious schemes had to be paid for, and the councillors decided to withhold the part of the rate that had gone to pay for the Met and the rest: the plan was to force a change by the Government to a fairer system. Morrison was furious, seeing the left of the party derailing his attempts to woo the middle class vote. And the Tory government was intransigent, summoning 30 Poplar councillors to the High Court in July 1921. They marched there at the head of 2000 supporters from the East End. The banners they carried bore the legend ‘Poplar Borough Council, marching to the High Court and possibly to prison, to secure the equalisation of rates for poor boroughs’. Nobody could argue with the clarity of its message, even if what wasn’t the snappiest. The banners were an accurate prediction of what would happen within weeks.

Labour and Morrison refused to back the rebels and the Councillors were sent jail. Poplar council meetings now had to be held in Brixton prison, with female councillors being driven down from Holloway. The government feared that revolution was in the air and bent – within six weeks the councillors were out. 2000 people crowded into Bow Baths to welcome them home, with another 2000 outside in the Roman Road. That weekend a huge demonstration was held in Victoria Park. The biggest victory though was that Lansbury et al had changed the future of welfare. Outdoor relief would now be controlled by the Ministry of Health, and Poplar’s external funding went from £50,000 to £300,000. Poplar and Clement Attlee’s Stepney borough now paid relief at twice the level of the dole. Many thousands had been lifted, if not from poverty, from desperation.

With thanks to A People’s History of London by Lindsey German & John Rees



George Lansbury speaks

A Child of the Jago – Arthur Morrison and the Old Nichol

ARTHUR Morrison became famous as a chronicler of the East End. It wasn’t always a picture that went down well with his fellow historians.

Many criticised his seminal Children of the Jago, first published in 1896, for sensationalising and dramatising the violence and criminal activities of the Old Nichol, that chunk of Shoreditch that Morrison fictionalised as ‘the Jago’. Morrison himself argued that, horrific though the scenes were – in one chapter a woman thrusts a broken bottle into a rival’s face – he had in fact underplayed the violence of an East End he knew very well.

For Morrison was, unlike the majority of his critics, an East Ender himself – though he frequently muddied the waters about his own background. His birth certificate shows he was born at 14 John Street, Poplar on 1 November 1863, the son of an engine fitter. Nothing further is known until 1886 when, at the age of 23, his signature appears on a cash receipt in respect of a month’s salary. At that point he was Clerk to the Beaumont Trustees, the charity that ran the People’s Palace in Mile End.

Morrison became sub editor of the house paper, the Palace Journal, where he penned weekly studies called Cockney Corners. But as the idealistic dream that was the People’s Palace began to collapse in a welter of financial disarray and infighting, Morrison launched into writing for magazines.

By the early 1890s he was a full-time journalist and on the way to being a successful writer of fiction – a talent he also applied to his own life. By now he was saying that he was born in Kent, the son of a ‘professional man’, and the product of a private school. His time at the People’s Palace he now more grandly described as his being ‘the secretary of an old Charity Trust’ or as a ‘civil servant’.

Ironically, his journalism and fiction drew heavily on those East End roots he was trying to bury. It led to an interesting juggling act when critics doubted the realism of his East End books, as he stressed his first-hand knowledge of the area, playing up the People’s Palace connection while covering up his humble roots.

In October 1891 his article A Street appeared in Macmillan’s Magazine. Morrison captured the essence of the East End life he remembered. Rather than the violence and melodrama usually served up in East End fiction of the day, he focused on ‘the deadly monotony and respectability of the mean streets’. The style was melancholy, despairing and terse: ‘a shocking place … an evil growth of slums which hide human creeping things, where foul men and women live on penn’orths of gin … our street is not a place like this’.

A series of short stories grew out of the article. Published in National Observer throughout 1893, they were collected together as Tales of Mean Streets. He then began work on his next London novel To London Town, but events made him put it aside to begin a more pressing work.

Invited to visit the Old Nichol by the local vicar, Morrison was shocked to find an East End that lay just a mile or so from his childhood home, but which was far worse than anything he had seen. The violence and squalor that had previously been absent from his work filled A Child of the Jago*.

Morrison decided to ‘tell the story of a boy who, but for his environment, would have become a good citizen’. Even today, it’s a superbly readable book – violent, grim but compelling reading. Its language may be dated but the pace doesn’t flag until the predictably bleak ending.

The prolific Morrison was meanwhile churning out journalism and hugely successful detective stories. One series featured Martin Hewitt, a deliberately low-key, realistic, working-class, and frankly dull answer to Sherlock Holmes. His other ‘hero’ was Horace Dorrington – a strikingly amoral detective, who employed theft, blackmail, fraud and murder in his work.

But by the early 1900s Morrison was becoming more interested in his great hobby – collecting the Japanese prints he found in shops during his tours of Wapping and Poplar. And at 50 he retired to Essex, devoting his time to the collection of art.

By the time he died in 1945 he was wealthy but obscure. The books which had entertained and shocked were 50 years old and out of print. On his death, his wife Elizabeth obeyed his wished and dispersed his art collection, sold his library and burnt his personal notebooks and papers. Only the original manuscript of A Child of the Jago, presented to Bethnal Green Library in 1936, escaped the flames.

*For the story of the demolition of the Old Nichol, see East End Life 26 November 2001.
A Child of the Jago is currently in print, published by Academy Chicago Publications, ISBN 0897333926, £10.99. It’s also available as an audiocassette on Assembled Stories, ISBN 1860154417, £14.99.

Charles Bradlaugh & free thought

The blue plaque on the wall of 29 Turner Street, E1 states simply that ‘Charles Bradlaugh (1833-1891), advocate of free thought, lived here 1870-1877.’

It seems a curious epitaph today, when most of us expect the right to think as we want, and argue our case. Bradlaugh thought the world would be a better place if the London poor were provided with methods of birth control. He believed in extending the vote and thought there should be a redistribution of land and wealth. He was also an atheist and a Republican and bitterly attacked the generous pensions paid to members of the Royal Family.
Bradlaugh in Tower of London

Fair enough you might think, but these radical views led to imprisonment in the Tower of London and one of the great stand-offs of parliamentary history.

In 1876, Bradlaugh and Annie Besant published Charles Knowlton’s The Fruits of Philosophy. Feminist social reformer Besant was to play a pivotal role in the match girls’ strike at Bryant and May’s Fairfield Works in Bow a dozen years later.
Bradlaugh and Annie Besant

The booklet argued that disease, poverty and overcrowding in poor areas were exacerbated by women having no birth control, and the publishers had no trouble relating that to the awful conditions of families in London’s East End. But Bradlaugh and Besant were rewarded for their forward thinking with six months in jail. They were released on appeal.

It wasn’t Bradlaugh’s first conflict with authority. The son of a solicitor’s clerk, he had been born in Hoxton in 1833, and at 12 went to work in his father’s office. He was already absorbing radical political ideas, particularly those of the atheist and Republican Richard Carlile, who had been jailed for blasphemy and seditious libel in 1819.
Bradlaugh in the Dragoon Guards

By 16, Bradlaugh’s arguments with his father about religion had become so bitter that he had to leave home. He enlisted in the Seventh Dragoon Guards but found it impossible to subject himself to army authority. Leaving the service in 1853 he went to work in a law firm.

But journalism and the dissemination of new ideas started to interest him more. In 1860, Bradlaugh hooked up with a Sheffield Chartist named Joseph Barker to set up The National Reformer, a radical journal. Secularism, women’s rights, republicanism … all were grist to the Reformer’s mill. Annie Besant was employed as a journalist and penned pieces on women’s rights, and the inequable Victorian laws on marriage.
Bradlaugh and National Secular Society

In 1866 Bradlaugh helped set up the National Secular Society, an organisation opposed to the rule and role of the Church in British society. And in 1877 came The Fruits of Philosophy and the first of his incarcerations. In between, the publishers and their staff had to contend with continual harassment, libel actions and seizing of literature by an establishment determined to shut them up.

The Royal Mail was used as an agent of state censorship, as pamphlets on religion were seized and destroyed by the Post Office. Bradlaugh found public buildings mysteriously unavailable when he tried to book them for meetings. And in 1882 the staff of The Freethinker would be prosecuted, en masse, for blasphemy. Two were sent to prison.
Bradlaugh as MP for Northampton

By then, Bradlaugh had taken another route to the public ear. For years he had tried and failed to get elected as MP for Northampton. But in 1880 he succeeded (which indicates what the people, if not the authorities, were starting to believe).

Bradlaugh went to take his seat but there was just one problem. Every MP had to swear a religious oath of allegiance. Atheist Bradlaugh refused, and was turned out of the Commons. The humiliation was compounded with the Republican being thrown into the Tower of London … where for centuries the Monarchy had imprisoned challengers.
Bradlaugh and Disraeli

The Conservative leader, Benjamin Disraeli was no friend to the Radical. But he was canny enough to realise such medieval treatment would only create a martyr, and successfully argued for the MP’s release.

Now began a farcical process which was to go on for six years. The Northampton MP would enter the chamber and try to take his seat. There would be abuse and catcalls from his fellow MPs and the Sergeant-at-Arms would eject Bradlaugh.
Bradlaugh and Gladstone

It was a ridiculous situation. Bradlaugh offered to affirm rather than swear his oath, and prime minister William Gladstone supported him. But Bradlaugh’s views on women, the Crown, land reform and God had united a formidable battery of enemies against him. When it came to the vote MPs always upheld the Speaker’s decision. The Archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster, leaders of the Anglican and Catholic Churches argued against the very idea of atheists serving as MPs.

It was a remarkable denial of democracy. On 7 February 1882, Bradlaugh presented Parliament with a petition of 241,970 signatures, demanding he be allowed to take his seat. He was refused access.
Bradlaugh and Home Rule for Ireland

Finally, in 1886, a new Speaker was appointed. Sir Arthur Wellesley Peel declared that an MP’s oath was his own business and Bradlaugh was allowed to merely affirm his allegiance to the House.

Bradlaugh took his seat and became an active member, enthusiastically supported causes both unpopular and unlikely to make him friends of win him votes. But he held his seat while propounding Home Rule for Ireland and the redistribution of land. He battled for Republicanism and against the casual disbursement of funds to members of the Royal family. He criticised Britain’s foreign policy and imperial adventures in South Africa, Sudan, Afghanistan and Egypt.

When he died on 30 January, 1891, Bradlaugh’s funeral (on unconsecrated ground of course) was attended by 3000 people. He had gone out on several limbs yet won enormous popular support. Most of all his free thinking and willingness to say the unsayable paved the way for the democratic reforms of the following century.