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Category: London industrial disputes

Stepney by Samantha Bird

MAGNIS AD MAIORA runs the legend beneath the coat of arms of the London Borough of Stepney – ‘from great things to greater’ for those of us unlucky (or lucky) enough to not have studied Latin at school. But how far did the borough achieve such aspirations? Did life get better over the course of the first half of the 20th century? Looking at the lot of Stepney dwellers around the turn of the century it could scarcely have got much worse.

St Dunstans Church, Stepney

St Dunstans Church, Stepney

Those, and many others are the questions posed in Dr Samantha Bird’s excellent new book on the area*, “the first single volume history of Stepney in modern times”, in which she draws her historical line from the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 to the Festival of Britain in 1951. The tricky thing with the East End, though, is where do you draw your geographic boundaries? This isn’t the historical village of Stepney, rather the borough which emerged from the 1899 London Government Act, and bordered to the west by the City, to the north by Bethnal Green, to the east by Poplar and south by the Thames. This Stepney includes “the parishes of Mile End Old Town and St George’s in the East; the districts of Limehouse and the Whitechapel Boards of Works, with the Tower of London and the Liberties thereof”. This new Stepney, which tried to fashion administrable cohesion from an area which had sprawled noisomely over the Middlesex countryside in the previous century or so, was a triumph of Victorian political tidiness: with 20 wards, 60 councillors, and three parliamentary constituencies: Limehouse, Mile End and Whitechapel.

The one thing that hadn’t changed, since the time of Samuel Pepys, was the poverty of the people. According to tax records in Pepys’s day, “half of the residents of the East of London were classified as poor”. Since medieval times, the area east of the City wall had been seen as London’s backyard, and like many of our backyards, there was a lot dumped out there. So workshops, shipyards, bakeries, mills and distilleries poured forth their filth and stenches alongside the allotments and market gardens. As for the people, they were little regarded. In 1845, the railway speculators drove their new line out from Fenchurch Street to Tilbury. No consideration was shown to the East Enders who lived nearby (those whose homes weren’t demolished). The tracks ran so close that people had to keep their windows closed as the trains passed “lest their bedding catch fire from the sparks”.

But fast forward to the end of the Victorian era, past the Houndsditch Murders and Churchill’s grandstanding at the Sidney Street Siege – and how did this new borough cope with the 20th century? Certain themes emerge over and over again. The East End had coalesced as a series of slums as the old fields of Middlesex were covered with increasingly dense housing. And poor housing was to dominate the politics of Stepney throughout the first half of the century. There were those made homeless by the Zeppelin air raids of the Great War, and the paucity of homes for heroes in the years after. With Poplarism there was the emergence of a whole political movement centred on the inequities of housing policy. And in World War 2, huge numbers of Stepney dwellers were bombed out, killed or displaced by enemy action. Once war was over the decisions were huge, and partial rebuilding sat alongside relocation to the New Towns of Essex.

Along the way, Bird examines how a unique admixture of cultures created the political life of Stepney. In particular, between the wars, an alliance between Irish and Jewish dwellers, united in politics of the broad left and in a loathing of fascism, generated plenty of volunteers to fight fascists on the streets of Stepney and on the fields of Spain.

The tail end of our period is the Festival of Britain, and the bright new era of housing that promised. The Lansbury Estate was to be merely the first of the new, planned developments – and it of course bore the name of the hero of Poplarism – but it was criticised by many for its limited ambition and cautious architecture. The Government might have tried to sell 1951 as the dawn of a brave new world, but to many East Enders it must have seemed like the end of theirs, as Stepney’s decline in population and industrial base accelerated. The Abercrombie Plan for London seemed to be more a plan to move everybody out of London. But the findings that emerged from the Mass Observation programme of surveys during the latter days of the War yielded some simple but (to us now) obvious facts. Stepney dwellers wanted to live in houses not flats; they wanted to have gardens not communal spaces; and they wanted to stay where they were.

Dr Bird manages that trickiest of juggling acts – turning an academic work (Stepney began life as her PhD thesis) into a compelling read. The academic provenance is there on every page, in the many hundreds of footnotes, the reliance on primary sources and the inclusion of a proper index (which is rarer than you might expect!). But the pages are choc-a-bloc with characters and facts from Stepney’s history. So we discover that the famous slogan “They shall not pass”, which was to become ubiquitous during the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, was first given voice by Arthur Foley Winnington-Ingram, the Bishop of London, in his 1918 Easter sermon. That the Great War was still having ripples two decades later, with the death of 18 schoolchildren during the destruction of Upper North Street School during a zeppelin raid having huge bearing on the decision to evacuate children during the early days of World War 2. And we read of local priest, John Groser, taking direct action to feed local people during the Blitz: “Breaking into an official food store to feed the homeless”. Nothing had changed too much. For much of their history, the people of Stepney simply had to look after themselves.

* Stepney: profile of a London borough from the outbreak of the First World War to the Festival of Britain, 1914-1951, by Dr Samantha L Bird; ISBN 978-1-4438-3506-0; WWW.CSP.CO


Lansbury versus Morrison: the battle over Poplarism

Zeppelin strikes: the East End at war

Peter the Painter: the Sidney Street Siege

Strikes in East End of London in the 1920s

First World War London strike

Workers on strike in First World War London

The years before the First World War saw more strikes in the East End of London than ever before, and it was little wonder that unrest centred on this part of London. A centre for industry and imports, with a high proportion of poorly paid and casual workers, the East End suffered more than most from the driving down in wages and fall in living standards that beset Britain at the time. Great East End industrial conflicts of the late Victorian era, such as the 1887 match girls’ strike in Bow, and the dock strike of 1889, had been followed by ‘the Great Unrest’ – a series of crippling strikes in the years before 1914.


With the outbreak of war, East Enders buried many of their grievances beneath the patriotic fervour required to get through what would be the most terrible war yet for Europe. Regardless of the fact that most residents of Stepney or Shadwell had little idea and less interest in events in Sarajevo or Sinai, Londoners would pull together behind their boys … up to a point. In any case, strikes were officially banned: the TUC and the government had agreed on that. And with the Labour Party joining Lloyd George’s coalition government in 1916, there was no true opposition. But there were stresses. Wars are always meant to be over ‘by Christmas’ of course, but the conflict limped interminably on, and by 1917 Londoners were heartily sick of the endless casualties and the privations at home.

The shortage of manpower also had an inevitable effect on industry. Though women couldn’t do the heavy work on the East and West India Docks, they could replace men in the factories – munitions factories had mushroomed all over Bethnal Green, Stepney and Wapping – and it led to conflict on both sides. A series of unofficial strikes by men, protesting at the ‘dilution’ of the workforce by women), simply exaggerated the manpower shortage, and had the unexpected effect of forcing up piecework rates for the women. By the time the war ended in November 1918, London had even seen its first strike for equal pay by women working on the trams and buses – legislation wouldn’t arrive until the Equal Pay Act in 1970.

But perhaps the most alarming signal to any government is when the officers of national security start turning. There had been isolated mutinies within the British army, with enlisted men turning on their officers, but they tended to be summarily dealt with on the battlefield. More worrying was a demonstration called by the National Union of Police and Prison Officers on Tower Hill in August 1918. East End copper Tommy Thiel had been sacked for this union activities, and the vast majority of London bobbies downed truncheons in sympathy. A squad of 600 flying pickets ensured the strike stayed solid.

And there were other ways of protesting. With wages held down, a depressed wartime economy and strict rationing, East Enders were feeling severely pinched by 1918. Rent strikes became common (and would bleed into the Poplarism rate strikes of the 1920s): Londoners couldn’t avoid noticing that Russia’s role in the War had ended with a workers’ revolution, and many were sympathetic. For those female munitions workers, their reward at the close of hostilities in November 1918 was ‘thankyou and goodbye’. Many women saw their jobs disappear, while many others were given back to returning soldiers. And numerous soldiers returned to no job, no home and broken families. Their option was the Poor Law and the workhouse or begging on the streets of Whitechapel. The British Government scented revolt in the air, and became distinctly uneasy.

With the Armistice, the dam was broken, and four years of frustration came flooding through. Historian Walter Kendall argues that “the crisis British society faced between 1918 and 1920 was probably the most serious since the time of the Chartists”. The police union grew to 50,000 members, while mutinies in the army multiplied. Things came to a head in 1919, with Lloyd George’s misguided plans in for a British expeditionary force to the Russian port of Archangel. Not content with four years of exhausting conflict, Britain now planned to invade Russia and put down the Revolution. The scheme had to be abandoned when British soldiers declared solidarity with Russia and simply refused to embark. The Government backed down and demobilised the angry soldiers – more men would return to Civvy Street and no jobs.

Again in 1920 Lloyd George proposed military action against Russia (Poland and France had already invaded her western territories) and again the East End stepped in. In May that year, men at the East India Docks refused to load a ship called the Jolly George which was bound for Russia with a load of munitions for the Polish army. East End railwayman then stepped in, refusing to carry cargoes of weapons bound for the docks. And union members began to withhold their labour in pursuit of closed shops, forcing every employee to join the union.

There were some ironies though, and the enemy wasn’t always obvious. Black American writer Claude McKay was visiting London in these years, and spent time with Sylvia Pankhurst at the offices of her Women’s Dreadnought newspaper. There were some 60 sawmills in London, most of them out in the East End and most out on strike, and right opposite the Dreadnought’s 198 Bow Road office was one of London’s biggest. The union men told McKay indignantly that some of their fellows were still working. The part-owner of this home for scabs? None other than “George Lansbury, Labour member of parliament and managing editor of the Daily Herald…the strikers thought it would make an excellent story for the Dreadnought. So did I!”

Lansbury, of course, would do more than most to champion the cause of East End workers in the years to come. The 1920s would see East End dissent on an unprecedented scale.

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