Introduced to millions of TV viewers as the East London home of TV favourite Call the Midwife, Poplar was once also the scene of a rare victory against a heartless government.
The determination of a working class area to overcome hardships in the 1950s and 60s is what makes the BBC drama so compelling.
But life was far worse in Poplar in 1921, before the modern welfare state and National Health Service.
It was an era when squalor and sickness destroyed families. Well-paid jobs were few and far between.
The Poplar Rates Rebellion in that year was an insurrection by the exploited masses.
Brave Labour councillors declared that enough was enough and 30 elected representatives were jailed for daring to challenge Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s reactionary Conservative-Liberal coalition.
What do you make of this story? Let us know in the comment section
The councillors were locked up for refusing to increase the financial burden on the poor for being poor.
The Poplar revolt became a landmark moment alongside the 1926 General Strike and 1936 Jarrow March.
Unlike the defeated strikers and ignored marchers, the people this time scored a significant victory.
Yet the Poplar Rates Rebellion of 1921 is often overlooked, failing to stamp its name on history.
One of the few physical commemorations of the momentous action is a peeling mural in Hale Street, on the wall of a parks department depot.
Poplar is now part of Tower Hamlets and the mural, painted in 1990, lists the names of the 30 councillors imprisoned for six weeks for contempt of court before they were hastily released and the Government climbed down.
Chris Sumner is a grandson of Charlie Sumner, a jailed Poplar Labour councillor and trade union activist who worked as a stoker in a chemical works and died aged 58, his lungs destroyed by noxious gases.
Mr Sumner, part of a group commemorating the confrontation a century ago, said: “They made their stand and they won their case – and their fight is as relevant today as it was 100 years ago.
“Services, particularly social services, which had previously been financed from central government, are more and more being privatised or pushed on to local councils which are also pretty pushed for cash and told to put up council tax.
“The question is, are we returning to the inequality that existed 100 years ago with the poor punished for being poor and councillors doing incredible jobs to protect them?
“We look back and find lessons for today in history, if we search.”
The Labour councillors were led by railwayman’s son George Lansbury, who went on to become an MP and Labour leader in the first half of the 1930s.
However, as Hitler put Germany under the Nazi jackboot, Lansbury’s pacifism got him replaced by Major Clement Attlee, who became the party’s greatest-ever leader.
The 30 imprisoned, including six women, were mainly working class, dockers, labourers, horse drivers, railwaymen, posties and a boot-maker.
Poplar was one of the poorest parts of a poor East London. Nearly one in 10 babies never reached adulthood and a quarter of the population was on the breadline, living hand-to-mouth.
Left-wing councillors after the First World War took control of the borough and set about trying to end the misery. Their expensive programme, funded from the rates, included social reforms and poor relief, a minimum wage for council workers and equal pay for women above the market rate pittance.
Property values were low and the council would have needed to set a much higher rate to match the incomes in wealthier sections of the capital.
The council was required by law to levy struggling households for what are known as “precepts” to pay for the London County Council, Metropolitan Police, Metropolitan Asylums Board and Metropolitan Water Board. With the council, Lansbury (grandfather of Hollywood star Angela Lansbury and Bagpuss co-creator Oliver Postgate) decided to ease the burden on the poor.
They chose to fund projects by not passing on precepts to the four London-wide bodies until a fairer system was introduced to share wealth across the city.
Cllr Minnie Lansbury, George’s daughter-in-law, who was to be locked up with the leader and his wife Bessy, declared: “Poplar will pay its share of London’s rates when Westminster, Kensington and the City do the same.”
In a David-and-Goliath fight, plucky Poplar was dragged to the High Court by London County Council and the Metropolitan Asylums Board.
They wanted the money the councillors were spending on the poor.
Unrepentant, the rate rebels joined a march of 2,000 supporters on July 29, 1921, to the steps of the court.
At the front strode the borough’s official mace-bearer, a band and a banner proclaiming: “Poplar Borough Council marching to the High Court and possibly to prison.” When the ruling went against them, the councillors refused to back down and began more protests, including one in August in which railwayman councillor Albert Baker was seen defiantly cradling his daughters, surrounded by supporters.
However in September the rebels were all jailed for contempt of court.
But they remained unbowed and the judicial move sparked a huge public backlash. The authorities were shaken.
Council meetings were soon permitted in Brixton Jail’s boardroom in South London. Women members such as Nellie Cressall were brought under guard from Holloway Prison in North London.
The revolt’s leaders were temporarily released to attend a London conference on reframing local authority funding.
Get all the latest news straight to your inbox. Sign up to one of the Mirror’s newsletters
Councils in neighbouring Stepney and Bethnal Green threatened to follow Poplar’s lead. The three councils are now neatly combined into the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.
Lansbury spoke through the prison bars to the crowds that regularly gathered outside. Trade unions passed solidarity resolutions and collected funds.
With pressure building, after six weeks’ imprisonment it was the court – and, by extension, the Government – that finally capitulated.
The councillors were released, triggering great celebrations in Poplar.
Parliament rushed through the Local Authorities (Financial Provisions) Act 1921 in November to share a little better the tax burden between rich and poor boroughs. This was a significant, if not total, victory.
Years later the Government returned to surcharge Poplar councillors for what it considered unlawful spending to improve the area.
The banner “Guilty and Proud of It” was a clarion call for social justice, placards reading “Can’t Pay Won’t Pay” preceding by seven decades the 1989-90 poll tax revolts that contributed to Margaret Thatcher’s downfall.
“Poplarism” became a political term to describe campaigns for social justice, particularly in municipal government.
Historian and activist Janine Booth identified in a lecture 10 key reasons for Poplar’s win, which she believes contain lessons for political activists today.
One was that the councillors were local working-class folk representing the diversity of their community. They included people who were Jewish, Irish and English. Three of the six female councillors were daughters of migrants.
Another was turning the revolt into a popular mass movement with public meetings, marches, door-knocking and leaflets handed out on street corners.
A third was that the council and its supporters worked to spread the action to other councils but didn’t wait for them to join before starting the revolt.
“Labour had built a strong movement in the East End,” noted Ms Booth.
Chris Smith, an honorary senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham, wrote for the Political Studies Association: “The revolt received wide public and trade union support, neighbouring councils threatened similar action, and Poplarism entered the political lexicon as a short-hand for both large-scale municipal poverty relief and local defiance of national government.
“After six weeks’ imprisonment, the court had the councillors released, while Parliament rushed through legislation roughly equalising tax burdens between rich and poor boroughs.
“True, it took until 1929 for Poor Law Unions to be wholly abolished and the poor relief burden lifted from local councils. But try finding anyone, particularly this summer, who sees the
Poplar Rates Rebellion as anything but a stonking local government victory.”
- More details of centenary events celebrating the 1921 Poplar Rates Rebellion are at poplar100.com