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.

The East End’s Radical Murals

Cities are too often bleak places to live in and a mural is one way of making them more attractive and human.

The East End can boast a large number and variety—in sharp contrast to the lack of art galleries in the area.

(East End News, 1986)

I have recently been doing some research on the Cable Street Mural in the Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archive (which is, by the way, a lovely place to work- the staff are very helpful). The Mural is located on the west wall of St. George’s Town Hall in Cable Street, and was completed in 1983. It is over 3,500 square feet, and it commemorates the Battle of Cable Street, which took place in the area on the 4th October 1936. Demonstrators clashed with police as they tried to clear a route through the East End for the British Union of Fascists to march. The march was called off, and ‘They Shall Not Pass!’ the demonstrators’ slogan, has become a catchphrase of anti-fascist movements of all kinds.

The Cable Street Mural on the side of St. George's Town Hall.

The Cable Street Mural on the side of St. George’s Town Hall.

Detail of a policeman fighting with protesters in the Cable Street Mural.

Detail of a policeman fighting with protesters in the Cable Street Mural.

When doing archival research, it is not uncommon to get distracted by not strictly relevant, but still very interesting, material. I discovered that the East End does indeed seem to have a strong tradition of street murals, and the Cable Street Mural is not the only one with radical subject matter. London is perhaps not the first city that springs to mind when you think of politically motivated murals- Belfast or Dublin might seem more obvious. London does not like to be outdone however, and political murals do exist here if you are willing to look for them.

Sadly, there are not as many protest-themed murals in East London as there used to be. The Peasants Revolt mural, previously located in Bow Common Lane, was unveiled in 1981 to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the Peasant’s Revolt. The peasants had camped in Mile End on their way to London to demand reduced taxation, an end to serfdom and the removal of the King’s senior officials and law courts. Richard II did not meet their demands, but it remains a well-known period in English history. The mural was designed by Ray Walker, who was one of the three artists who took over from David Binnington when he resigned from the Cable Street Mural project in 1982. I have not been able to find out exactly when or why this mural was removed, and why it wasn’t afforded the same protection and investment that the Cable Street Mural has. The Cable Street Mural has been repaired every time it has been vandalised, and was restored in 2011 to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle.

The Peasant's Revolt Mural (Source: Unite the Union).

The Peasant’s Revolt Mural in Bow Common Lane. Unfortunately it no longer exists (Source: Unite the Union).

(Source: Unite the Union).

(Source: Unite the Union).

One radical East End mural which can still be seen today is that commemorating the Poplar Rates Rebellion. Located in Hale Road in Poplar, the mural was completed by Mark Francis in 1990, and restored in 2007 by David Bratby and Maureen Delenian with help from local children. In 1921 30 local councillors were sent to prison after refusing to collect the rates from residents because they were unfair. The mural tells the story of the Rebellion in 4 panels, mainly using words. It does include an image of the well-known political radical George Lansbury, and local residents holding placards that declare ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay.”

The Poplar Rates Rebellion mural

The Poplar Rates Rebellion mural in Hale Road (Source: London Mural Preservation Society).

Poplar Rates Mural Detail

A close up of George Lansbury and Poplar residents (Source: London Mural Preservation Society).

The East End has a strong tradition of radicalism and protest, but a lot of it is not well known. Murals and other forms of public art are a good way of ensuring that historical protests are not forgotten. The Cable Street Mural in particular still draws visitors, and its striking colours and imagery are well worth going to see for yourself. If you have a few spare hours, why not go and check out these memorials to the East End’s turbulent history?

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. “Mural by George.” East London Advertiser. 31st August 1990.

Anon. “Murals in the East End.” East End News. May 1986.

Anon. “Poplar Rates Rebellion Mural.” London Mural Preservation Society. No date, accessed 9th September 2015. Available at http://www.londonmuralpreservationsociety.com/murals/poplar-rates-rebellion-mural/

Anon. “Trade Union and Labour Movement Heroes Commemorated.” Unite. No date, accessed 9th September 2015. Available at http://www.unitetheunion.org/growing-our-union/education/rebelroad/murals/

Rolston, Bill. “Politics, Painting and Popular Culture: The Political Wall Murals of Northern Ireland.” Media, Culture, and Society. 9, no.1 (1987): 5–28.