The detested Poor Law Act of 1834 was not just a feature of the Victorian era. It was still in use well into the 20th century...
The aim of the Poor Law was always to punish the poor with the threat of the workhouse, or “indoor relief”, but by the start of the 20th century that policy was beginning to erode. The Boards of Guardians who administered the Poor Law increasingly used “outdoor relief” to keep the poor out of workhouses. It was cheaper to give out a sack of coal or a voucher for boots than to put a whole family into the workhouse. But it took working class resistance to finish them off.
Mural in Hale Street, Poplar, depicting the rates rebellion. Painted by local resident Mark Francis in 1990, it was recently restored.
After World War 1 the British economy was shattered and unemployment rose. Ex-servicemen had priority for jobs, often replacing women who in wartime had done those jobs to keep their families. In the East End of London many men had worked on the Docks throughout the war, but in the post-war period markets collapsed and dock work slumped. During 1921 and 1922 fewer than half of registered dockers had work on any one day and other local firms were laying off workers too.
Unemployed ex-servicemen were entitled to a small stipend, but dockers got nothing. Poverty affected many London boroughs, but was particularly acute in dock areas like Poplar. Men tramped the streets looking for work; their families went without food.
In 1919 a hitherto unknown kind of council was elected in Poplar, east London. For the first time it reflected the local electorate. The Municipal Alliance (Liberals, Tories and Coalitionists) was soundly defeated; 39 of 42 seats went to Labour. Industrial workers and trade unionists made up most of the council and Board of Guardians.
This council’s actions on local poverty became known as Poplarism. Two policies in particular put them on a collision course with the London County Council (LCC) and central government: the level of outdoor relief set to keep the destitute out of the workhouse and the rates to pay for that. In the words of Poplar mayor George Lansbury their aim was to “use the poor law machinery to the utmost extent to maintain in decency and comfort the sick and the aged, the orphaned children and the able-bodied unemployed – in fact, all who for one reason or another were unable to maintain themselves”.
The council also refused to pay starvation wages to workers they directly employed. London local authorities had agreed to recommend a minimum wage of £3 10s 6d (£3.52p) weekly in 1920. Poplar decided on £4 as a minimum, applicable equally to men and women. In practice this meant a 25 per cent rise for men, and nearly 70 per cent for women. A scheme of public works on roads and sewerage was planned to provide local jobs.
The Poplar Board of Guardians introduced a more generous system of outdoor relief, including extra allowances for unemployed families with children. It rejected the household means test that used the income of wider family members to determine relief. There were some government grants and subsidies, but most of these costs had to be borne by the rates.
This caused a huge problem in Poplar. The amount collected for each penny on the rates was much lower than most other London boroughs. That was due to widespread poverty, higher unemployment and poor quality housing with low rateable values. A further disparity was that all London boroughs had to pay the same central precept for water, Poor Law hospitals and the police. The council would have had to put rents up by 3s a week to collect enough rates to relieve the poor and pay the precept. They knew people could not afford that.
Poplar councillors protested to the LCC that this was grossly out of date and unfair: “the poor had to keep the poor”. As their protests fell on deaf ears, Poplar council voted to take action. It would refuse to pay the precept – an illegal action that councillors knew could lead to prison. It did.
The government was reluctant to imprison the councillors, but the Labour-dominated LCC refused to back down in their legal claim for the full precept. In the face of massive local support, the councillors marched to court on 29 July 1921 holding banners which said “Poplar Borough Council marching to the High Court and possibly to prison”.
Conditions were harsh for the 31 imprisoned councillors, but they did not back down despite the health of some councillors suffering badly. This became a huge embarrassment to the government. The rates protest was gathering massive public support and spreading to other boroughs. The ruling class feared increasing working class action only a few years after the Bolshevik revolution.
Attempts to get the prisoners to agree to face-saving compromises met a united refusal to leave prison. Eventually the government found a way around the law. It freed the Poplar councillors after three months’ imprisonment and their convictions were quashed. A conference called to discuss a more equitable way of paying for services agreed a rebate mechanism for cross-London services.
The councillors had won. They marched out of prison triumphantly to the cheering of huge crowds. The Labour party was irritated by George Lansbury and by like-minded councils and trade unions who made decisions without waiting for the word from above.
Much later many of Poplar’s policies became the norm. The Beveridge Report of 1942 accepted the principle of full maintenance for the unemployed. The Family Allowances Act of 1946 recognised that families with children needed extra allowances whether working or not. The hated household means test ended in 1941. The Equal Pay Act 1970 prohibited paying women less than men for the same job, although this law, like the others, has only been as good as the strength of workers fighting to enforce it. ■