Book Review: Guilty and Proud of It! Poplar’s Rebel Councillors and Guardians of 1919-25

Guilty and Proud of it Front Cover

Guilty and Proud of It! by Janine Booth.

Janine Booth. Guilty and Proud of It! Poplar’s Rebel Councillors and Guardians of 1919-25. Pontypool: Merlin Press, 2009. RRP £12.00 paperback. 

In 1921, 30 Labour councillors for Poplar in East London were imprisoned for 6 weeks because of their refusal to participate in a local government system that was unfair. They knew that they were breaking the law, but willingly sacrificed their freedom in order to challenge a law that they firmly believed was unjust. Despite strong opposition, including from within the Labour Party itself, their stand was successful, forcing the national government into an embarrassing climbdown. In Guilty and Proud of It!, Janine Booth tells the story of what has become known as the Poplar Rates Rebellion, as well as the longer conflict between the national government and the socialist Labour councillors that lasted from their election in 1919 until 1925.

Poplar council chose not to concede but to fight. And by fighting, it won. Poplar’s story – of defiance, of protests, of mass participation, of prison – has to be told. It deserves its place in the list of historical struggles that each generation of socialists and labour movement activists learn about, alongside the Chartists, the Suffragettes, the General Strike, Grunwick, the Miner’s Strike, the Poll Tax.

Booth, 2009; p. ix-x.

In the 1920s, Poplar (now part of Tower Hamlets) was one of the poorest boroughs in Britain. At the time, local governments had to pay unemployment and poverty relief benefits out of the local rates (like council tax today). The more poor and unemployed people in a borough, the more money had to be raised from the local residents. It was an unfair system which meant that the richest boroughs, where people could most afford higher taxes, actually had the lowest rates. In Poplar, Labour won 39 out of 42 council seats in November 1919. They set about using this impressive majority to make genuine improvements to the lives of working-class Poplar residents, which upset local elites, including employers and landlords.

For the next 6 years, the council would struggle with these local elites and central government, taking a defiant stance that became known as Poplarism (not to be confused with Popularism!) In 1921 the councillors demonstrated just how far they were willing to go, refusing to back down over their demands for a fairer rates system even when they were sentenced to prison indefinitely. The government backed down and the councillors were released after 6 weeks, winning significant concessions over rates.

Guilty and Proud of It! is a lucid account of a fascinating episode in London’s rebellious history. Janine Booth is a trade unionist and socialist herself, and her admiration for the rebel councillors and the stand that they took is evident. The book is less neutral than an academic book would be able to get away with, but Booth does not allow her politics to cloud her judgement. The concluding chapter of the book contains a thorough and balanced analysis, making convincing arguments about why the Poplar councillors were successful, why other councils were so reluctant to join them in their stand, and how Poplarism is relevant today. A lot of history books aimed at a popular audience do not contain this sort of critical analysis, so it was a pleasant surprise. This chapter also helps the reader link the book to wider contexts. Some may describe a book on such a short period of local history as niche, but Booth demonstrates Poplarism’s relevance to ongoing conflicts between local and national governments.

Guilty and Proud of It! is an accessible, engaging book that will appeal to anyone with an interest in London’s history, protest history, or local government.

Turbulent Londoners: Anna Wheeler, ~1785-1848

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who played a part in the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. Next up is Anna Wheeler, a feminist philosopher and author. Her great grand daughter was Lady Constance Lytton (1869-1923).


Anna Wheeler

Anna Wheeler in 1825 by Maxim Gauci, printed by Charles Joseph Hullmandel, after J. Porter (Source: National Portrait Gallery)

Anna Wheeler has been described as “the most advanced but neglected feminist and socialist activist and thinker of the period after Mary Wollstonecraft” (Hardy, 2009). Intelligent and persuasive, Anna was a significant figure in early British feminism. She was also an important node in the network of European radicalism in the early nineteenth century, bringing the ideas of French socialists and feminists to a British audience.

Anna Doyle was born in about 1785 in County Tipperary in Ireland. The daughter of a clergyman, she did not receive a formal education but learnt a lot from the people around her (e.g. family acquaintances and foreign dignitaries who visited her relatives). She was well known in the area for her intelligence, as well as her beauty. In 1800, when she was around 15, she married wealthy local landowner Francis Massy Wheeler. Francis himself was only 19 at the time, and Anna’s mother disapproved of the match. Unfortunately the marriage was not a happy one, and in 1812 Anna took her two daughters, Hanrietta and Rosina, to live with her uncle in Guernsey where he was governor. Anna travelled a lot during the rest of her life, living in London, Dublin, Caen and Paris.

Over the next few years, Anna gained a reputation in France for her intelligence and patronage of young intellectuals. In London, she became close friends with liberal philosophers such as the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham and Robert Owen, the Leader of the Co-operative movement. Her most significant friendship was with William Thompson, an Irish political economist, feminist and critic of capitalism. Francis died in 1820, leaving Anna without an income. She began translating the work of French Owenite philosophers into English.

Anna was living in Paris in 1823, whew she met French Utopian socialist Charles Fourier, She decided that London Owenites could benefit from his ideas, so she translated his dense writing on human harmony into English, at the same time making it more accessible. In 1826 she returned to London after her daughter Henrietta died suddenly.

In 1825 Anna’s collaborative work with Thompson led to the publication of Appeal of One Half of the Human Race, Women, against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, to Retain them in Political, and Hence in Civil and Domestic, Slavery (succinct titles were not a priority in the nineteenth century!) The book combined elements of liberal and socialist feminism, and fiercely criticised marriage as a form of domestic slavery. It argued that women needed education, the right to vote (almost 100 years before it actually happened), and alternatives to domesticity. Thompson and Wheeler challenged utilitarians, who argued for human happiness but excluded women. They also criticised James Mill’s argument that women didn’t need the vote because their interests were shared with men. Both Wheeler and Thompson were also supportive of contraception, which was an incredibly controversial issue at the time.

Anna was a well known public speaker in her own right, giving talks and lectures on women’s rights. She also published essays in the radical press using the pseudonym Vlasta. In her writing she argued that both men and women had been subjected to social conditioning by corrupt institutions. She wanted harmony and cooperation between men and women, not conflict. Anna believed that women were under the power of a learned ideology of romantic love, which concentrated their thoughts on pleasing men (perhaps she would think that this hasn’t changed). She was suspicious of arguments which gave women an inherent capacity for nurture and affection. Anna argued that women needed to act on their principles and reason to liberate themselves from customs and social conditioning.

Anna’s French friends tried to get her to Paris in the run up to the 1848 revolution, but she was too ill. She died in Camden on the 7th of May. Throughout her life she had been an important conduit for ideas between British radicals and their counterparts on the continent, as well as an influential feminist philosopher in her own right. Perhaps spurred on by her own disastrous marriage, Anna focused her considerable intellect on improving the lot of future generations of women, and for that we owe her thanks.

Sources and Further Reading

Dooley, Dolores. “Wheeler [nee Doyle], Anna.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 8th October 2009, accessed 23rd July 2019. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/46577 [subscription required to access].

Hardy, Patsy. “Wheeler, Anna Doyle.” in Iain McCalman et. a (eds) An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

McFadden, Margaret. “Anna Doyle Wheeler (1785-1848): Philosopher, Socialist, Feminist.” Hypatia 4, no. 1 (1989): 91-101.

Wikipedia. “Anna Wheeler (author).” Last modified 22nd May 2019, accessed 23rd July 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_Wheeler_(author).

Protest Stickers: Hull

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Hull has a wonderful street art scene, some of which has a political message (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Since January I have been living and working in Hull, an overlooked city in East Yorkshire on the Humber Estuary. I am quite easily pleased when it comes to the places I live–I have yet to live anywhere that I don’t like. That being said, Hull is a vibrant city with friendly and welcoming people, lots to do, and a thriving cultural scene (I have especially become a fan of the Bankside Gallery, where you can see fantastic street art at several locations around the city). Hull gets an average number of protest stickers for a city of its size; I have already written one post about them for the University of Hull’s Department of Geography, Geology and the Environment blog, here. But the stickers keep appearing, and so will the blog posts!

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Brexit-related protest stickers have been a feature on city streets across Britain (and further afield–I have seen them in Berlin, for example) since before the Referendum in 2016. The Liberal Democrats are the only major political party that are explicitly anti-Brexit (Photo: Hannah Awcock). 

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Bollocks to Brexit is a common anti-Brexit slogan that appears quite often on protest stickers. Here it has been altered to convey a pro-Brexit message. Sometimes people interact with stickers to change or obscure their message by writing on them or scratching parts of them off (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Extinction Rebellion is a social movement that started in Britain in late 2018, and campaigns for swift action on climate change and environmental destruction. Hull has quite an active branch (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Biofuelwatch campaigns around industrial-scale bioenergy. Currently the UK government gives £1 billion of renewable energy subsidies per year to power stations which burn wood to produce electricity. This is method of electricity production is dirty, it releases carbon into the atmosphere and it encourages deforestation. Biofuelwatch wants this money to be given to methods of producing electricity that are actually renewable (Photo: Hannah Awcock). 

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Nuclear fuel is another alternative method of producing electricity that is controversial. Stop New Nuclear is a group which campaigns against the construction of new nuclear power stations. This sticker is promoting an anti-nuclear protest called Surround Springfields in April 2019. Springfields is a site in Lancashire which produces fuel for nuclear power plants, and processes waste produced by them (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Veganism is another issue that is becoming increasingly popular in protest stickers, linked to both animal rights and climate change. This sticker is playing with the logo for Back to the Future, a popular 1985 sci-fi film. Challenge 22 is a project run by Israeli animal-rights group Animals Now. It encourages people to commit to trying veganism for 22 days, and provides support and advice (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker is also promoting veganism by focusing specifically on the cruelties of the dairy industry. It is promoting The Vegan Activist, who posts educational videos about veganism on his Youtube channel (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Fur is another key element of animal rights campaign. The Coalition to Abolish the Fur Trade is a grassroots, anti-fur campaign group (Photo: Hannah Awcock). 

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Jeff Luers is an American environmental activist who was sentenced to 22 years in prison in 2000 for his involvement in an arson attack on a Chevrolet dealership in Oregon. It was a very harsh sentence, especially considering that no one was hurt, and he only caused about $40,000 dollars worth of damage. His sentence was reduced and he was released in 2009, but he has taken on martyr-like status for some sections of the environmental movement. This sticker looks quite old, but I would be surprised if it has been around since Luers was imprisoned more than a decade ago. The web address on the sticker no longer exists (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This sticker is very faded, so I would expect is has been around for a few years. It is promoting an anti-war and violence message, playing on the double meaning of ‘arms’. The peace logo in the bottom left is very well known. The capital E in a circle in the bottom right, is less common, and represents Equality (Photo: Hannah Awcock). 

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Unfortunately, not all of the protest stickers I have found in Hull are progressive. This sticker is produced by the British Movement, a neo-Nazi group founded in 1968. It has been through periods of dormancy and the leadership has changed several times since then. It seems to have a small membership at the moment, but it is still disconcerting to see its logo in Hull (Photo: Hannah Awcock). 

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This sticker is advertising the National Front, another far-right fascist group, founded in 1967. Like the British Movement, it has also had periods of rise and decline over the decades, and it has quite a small membership currently. Someone (or perhaps multiple people) have obviously taken offence at this sticker at some point and tried to remove it (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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I wanted to end the post on a positive note, and I love this sticker that I found on the Hessle Road. LGBTQI+ rights groups are struggling with conflict over transgender rights at the moment, but local Pride events in Britain are going from strength to strength at the moment, and Hull is no exception–the 2019 event on the 19th of July was a huge success (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Book Review: Old Baggage by Lissa Evans

Old Baggage Front Cover

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans.

Lissa Evans. Old Baggage. London: Transworld, 2018. RRP £8.99 paperback

I love reading fiction, but I have an unfortunate tendency of reading books in one sitting, so I try to avoid it during the week because otherwise I end up a sleep-deprived mess. A few weeks ago, I dedicated my Friday evening to Old Baggage by Lissa Evans, a novel about Mattie Simkin, a former Suffragette who is struggling to deal with her past and come to terms with her present. I must admit to picking this book up because of my interest in protest history, but Old Baggage is a wonderful book that will charm and engross you whether or not you are a history nerd like me.

Old Baggage is set in 1928, ten years after the right to vote was won for women over the age of 30 who owned property. Mattie Simkins is living in on Hampstead Heath with her devoted friend and former comrade Flea. Although her militant suffragette days are behind her, Mattie is still a vibrant character, quick to anger at injustice, slow to compromise, and fiercely loyal to her ideals. When Mattie realises that young women have little interest in, or knowledge of, politics, she sets out to change that by starting a group that combines physical fitness, intellectual debate, and female empowerment. The group is a resounding success, but Mattie’s single-mindedness causes conflict with the people she cares about the most, and she has to swallow her pride in order to put things right.

Some of you may know Mattie from Lissa’s first novel, Crooked Heart (2015), set during the London Blitz. I had no idea that Mattie wasn’t a new character when I read Old Baggage, and as it is a prequel you don’t need to read the older novel in order to understand this one (although I have heard that it is very good!). Old Baggage strikes a delicate balance between poignancy and humour (there were some sections that made me laugh out loud), and the fictional characters fit well into the historical events and context. It is not often that you come across a book where the two main characters are middle-aged women, and Mattie and Flea’s fierce, if a little dysfunctional, friendship is the wonderful heart of the book.

We don’t often think about what happens to activists after the cause has been won, or after they decide to stop fighting. Many of the women involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage put their energies into other causes; for example, Dora Montefiore was elected to the provisional council of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920 at the age of 69. Some, such as Adela Pankhurst and Flora Drummond, became active in right wing politics. Others settled down to ‘normal’ lives; Jessie Kenney, younger sister of the more famous Annie, became a steward on cruise liners, and Rosa May Billinghurst retired from activism. Most of these outcomes are represented in the characters of Old Baggage (including the suffragette-turned-fascist), so as well as being an enjoyable read, it is also a thoughtful reflection on what happens next. When you have dedicated your life to a cause that was dangerous and all-consuming but also thrilling and empowering, what do you do when it ends? Old Baggage asks questions about moving on and making sense of a different life that don’t have easy answers. But it’s the books that make you think that tend to be the ones you remember.

Turbulent Londoners: Winifred Horrabin, 1887-1971

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. This week I am writing about Winifred Horrabin, a socialist and writer who’s papers are held in the Hull History Centre. 


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Winifred Horrabin in 1936 (Photo: U DWH/1/36, used with permission of the Hull History Centre).

Some of the women I write about in the Turbulent Londoners series were comfortable taking direct forms of action that many people would consider extreme. Winifred Horrabin was not one of those women, preferring instead to campaign for change through her writing. Despite being deeply unhappy in her later years, Winifred made significant contributions to the socialist cause in Britain.

Winifred Batho was born in Sheffield on the 9th of August 1887. She was the fourth of six children, three of whom died in infancy. Her parents were working class and non-conformist, her father was a postal telegraph clerk and independent minister. He developed tuberculosis in his 30s, and moved to South Africa in an attempt to get better. His family joined him, but he died soon after in 1891. The family returned to Sheffield, but Winifred would develop a lasting fascination with the country. As a young woman she started writing a biography of South African novelist and social commentator Olive Schreiner that she would continue to work on for most of her adult life. Winifred shared Schreiner’s political and feminist opinions.

Winifred was an intelligent child; she could read by the age of 4. Between around 1902 and 1906 she attended the Sheffield Central School, and in 1907 she went to Sheffield Art College. It was here that she fell in love with Frank Horrabin, a staff artist and art editor for local papers. Frank shared Winifred’s socialist beliefs. Winifred joined the WSPU, and for a while worked with Adela Pankhurst (the youngest and least-well known of the Pankhurst family). In 1909 Winifred was selected by the WSPU to disrupt a speech given by Winston Churchill at a Liberal Party meeting. Activism did not come naturally to her, and she was amazed that she was actually able to go through with it.

Winifred married Frank on the 9th of August 1911, and the coupled moved to London for Frank’s work. In London they became heavily involved in the Labour College movement, joining a group called the Plebs League. The Plebs League wanted education for the workers, controlled by the working classes. The League had established the Central Labour College in 1909. George Sims was the first secretary of the League and edited Plebs, the Labour College movement’s monthly publication.

Winifred designed and embroidered the Labour College’s banner, which showed the torch of knowledge surrounded by 3 words: Educate, Agitate, and Organise. She was strongly influenced by Sims; she left the WSPU and adopted the Plebs’ argument that male and female workers should work together against the ‘producers.’ Sims argued that campaigning for the vote was collaborating with capitalism. The Plebs League claimed to want equal education for men and women, but they didn’t practice what they preached, and the Central Labour College only admitted male students.

Winifred was also influenced by HG Wells. He encouraged her to give a talk to the Fabian Society in 1912, where she argued that the abolition of private property was the only way in which women would be freed from economic slavery and gender hierarchy. Like other feminists at the time, she was pressured to put her socialism ahead of her feminism, and she struggled with this conflict. Winifred formed the Women’s League to promote the education of women workers. She wanted women admitted to trade unions and other working class organisations.

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The November 1929 issue of Plebs. At this point, Winifred was a contributor (Photo: Ragged University).

In 1914, the Horrabins became joint editors of Plebs. Support for the Plebs League declined during the First World War, and Winifred edited Plebs alone for a year after Frank joined the military. The couple also co-organised fundraising events and theatrical performances for the Pleb’s League, and wrote educational texts.

After the war, Winifred combined her international socialism with pacifism. The Horrabins were members of the Communist Party of Great Britain from 1921 to 1924, and co-wrote Working Class Education in 1924. Around this time, Frank started an extra-marital affair with Ellen Wilkinson. It’s uncomfortable to think about any of the Turbulent Londoners having flaws, but it is important to acknowledge that they were real women, and therefore not perfect. Winifred and Frank would remain married until 1947, but he had other affairs and Winifred was devastated when it became clear he no longer wanted to be with her.

During the 1930s and 40s Winifred had a successful career in journalism, writing for the New Clarion, the Miner, Time and Tide, and the Manchester Evening News. She dreamed of becoming a novelist, but this was another area of her life which would cause her bitter disappointment. Winifred moved to Backheath in the 1950s, and throughout the 1960s continued to work on her biography of Olive Schreiner, a novel, and a play about the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle. She moved to Dorking in Surrey shortly before her death on the 24th of June 1971.

Social movements need activists who are willing to risk imprisonment, injury, and even death. These are the people who get noticed, and they tend to be the ones who get remembered. But social movements also need people who are willing to dedicate themselves to the less romantic, exciting stuff like writing and fundraising. It doesn’t get as much attention, but it is just as important for ensuring that the social movement survives, if not more so. Winifred Horrabin was one of those people, and she deserves to be remembered for her contributions to British feminism and socialism.

Sources and Further Reading

Capern, Amanda. “HORRABIN, Winifred (1887-1971).” in Keith Gildart, David Howell and Neville Clark (eds.) Dictionary of Labour Biography, Volume 11. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003; 140-145.

Capern, Amanda. “Horrabin [nee Batho], Winifred [pseud. Freda Wynne].” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 23rd September 2004, accessed 14th June 2019. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/42087 (requires a subscription to access).

Simkin, John. “Winifred Batho.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 14th June 2019. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/Jbatho.htm