Stephen Timms: The Poplar Rates Rebellion and its lasting mark on politics

George Lansbury's daughter Minnie Lansbury, one of 30 Poplar councillors led off to prison in defiance

George Lansbury's daughter Minnie Lansbury, one of 30 Poplar councillors led off to prison in defiance - Credit: Tower Hamlets Archive

This year marks the centenary of the Poplar Rates Rebellion.

Poplar was a very poor district. In 1921, led by future Labour leader George Lansbury, 30 Poplar Labour councillors were sent to prison.

Veteran Poplar housing campaigner Sister Christine Frost marked centenary of rates rebellion

Poplar's Mayor George Lansbury and Lady Mayoress Bessie Lansbury - Credit: Tower Hamlets Archive

They refused to impose on local residents the precepts owed to four cross-London authorities. The men went to Brixton, and six women to Holloway.

There was a public outcry against their sentences. After six weeks, they were released.

Last month, I hosted an online event to commemorate the imprisoned councillors.

We heard from some of their descendants: Chris Sumner, grandson of Cllr Charles Sumner, a trade union official; Keith Murphy, great-nephew of Cllr Albert Baker, a railwayman; and Nigel Whiskin, George Lansbury’s grandson.

One of those who went to prison was my predecessor Susan Lawrence, MP for East Ham North in 1923-4 and 1926-31, who lived from 1871 to 1947.

She was the only Poplar councillor who had attended university.

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The first woman MP for a London constituency, she strongly objected to the phrase “woman MP”.

“Why don’t you call Churchill a man MP?,” she asked.

East Ham MP, Stephen Timms

Labour MP for East Ham, Stephen Timms - Credit: Office of Stephen Timms

In 1930, she was the first woman to chair the Labour Party Conference. Morrie Foley, an active local trade unionist well into his 90s, told me he remembered parading through East Ham as a child, shouting out: “Vote, vote, vote for Susan Lawrence.”

Ahead of last month’s event, we heard from the great-granddaughter of Susan Lawrence’s sister.

She recalled her own mother’s admiration for Susan; that Susan was very clever, and stood up for women’s rights; that she was a heavy smoker and kept dalmatians.

She lived in a house where Millbank Tower now is. Tony Benn lived next door as a child, and often visited.

Susan Lawrence, alongside her fellow Poplar councillors, left a lasting mark on politics.

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