Housing campaigners mark centenary of Poplar rates strike

Sister Christine Frost leading deputation to City Hall for action on social rent

Sister Christine Frost leading deputation to City Hall for action on social rent - Credit: Mike Brooke

Housing campaigners are using this week’s centenary of the Poplar rates strike that led to taxation reforms 100 years ago to call for action on fair rents. 

They sent a deputation to City Hall armed with a dossier showing families in poverty who can’t afford “profiteering private rents”, to talk about how to tackle affordable social housing with London's deputy mayor Tom Copley.

Mural in Hale Street commemorating Poplar rates rebellion of 1921

Mural in Hale Street commemorating Poplar rates rebellion of 1921 - Credit: Google

The campaigners gathered on Wednesday, September 1 at the mural dedicated to George Lansbury and the 30 Poplar councillors who went to jail in 1921 rather than levy an unequal London county rate on the poor. 

The deputation was led by veteran campaigner Sister Christine Frost, who has been running the South Poplar and Limehouse Action for Secure Housing project for 32 years.

Sister Christine... speaking at rally in Mile End in 2006 against council housing sell-offs

Sister Christine... speaking at rally in Mile End in 2006 against council housing sell-offs - Credit: Joe Lord

“What property developers call ‘affordable’ is only for the rich, at 80 per cent of market rates,” she told the East London Advertiser. “That's not affordable to poor families in need of social housing.” 


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Sister Christine - who also runs the Neighbours in Poplar network with its volunteers distributing meals to needy families and pensioners - pays £400 a month for her one-bed Tower Hamlets Council flat on Poplar’s Will Crooks estate. 

But her dossier cites a family of five living in an identical one-bed privately-owned flat on the estate paying £1,300.    

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“They have three children and everything they do as a family is confined to the living room next to bunk beds,” she explained. 

Her deputation to City Hall set off from the Lansbury commemorative mural in Hale Street, off East India Dock Road.

She was meeting deputy mayor Copley to work with him as he oversees a £4.8billion affordable homes programme and scheme to improve the private rented sector. 

Sister Christine’s message to developers is “stop building for the rich – the poor need homes too”. 

George Lansbury after 'the people's victory' in Poplar against rates levy in 1921

George Lansbury after 'the people's victory' in Poplar against rates levy in 1921 - Credit: Tower Hamlets Archive

The deputation was timed ahead of the centenary on September 3, when George Lansbury and his Poplar councillors refused to pass on the London County Council’s levy for services.

Poplar was burdened at the time, paying out relief for the poor that wasn’t being shared fairly with richer boroughs elsewhere. 

George Lansbury in 1921 rallying against LCC levy on the poor

George Lansbury in 1921 rallying against LCC levy on the poor - Credit: Tower Hamlets Archive

So Lansbury, a seasoned campaigner who had earlier taken on the government in Parliament itself, took up the fight.

He had started his radical career a decade earlier as a socialist MP who quit Parliament in 1912 to fight for women’s votes. 

But he is more famously remembered as mayor and then leader of Poplar Council, starting the revolt against the rates levy, arguing that the East End’s unemployed couldn’t pay the same as the rich in Westminster or Kensington.  

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

Poplar councillors, including his daughter Minnie Lansbury, went to prison for refusing to levy the rate.

Other metropolitan boroughs like neighbouring Stepney threatened to join the rebellion.

Tower Hamlets councillor Marc Francis has paid tribute to George Lansbury's stand 100 years on.

“His name will forever be synonymous with the 1921 rates strike," he said.

"Poplar at that time was paying towards services in wealthy boroughs through the London County Council levy — while the cost of Poor Relief in the East End was not being pooled.  

“So the Poplar councillors decided to stop collecting the levy which led to a bitter court battle and their imprisonment. But it raised public awareness which forced the government of the day to back down."

1951... Poplar's mayor John Bond sets in motion clock tower at new Lansbury housing estate in memory of George Lansbury

1951... Poplar's mayor John Bond sets in motion clock tower at new Lansbury housing estate in memory of George Lansbury - Credit: Tower Hamlets Archive

The principle is just as relevant 100 years on, Cllr Francis believes.

"Poplar’s struggle helped establish that government funding should be based on need," he added. "George Lansbury’s bold action was a stimulus for radical change.”  

The law was eventually changed following the 1921 strike and an equalisation rates scheme was brought in, the forerunner of today’s local authority structure where government funds are distributed according to need. 

It was a boost for George Lansbury, which got him returned to Parliament in 1922, where he became Labour Party leader at Westminster during the 1930s’ Depression.

He died a pacifist in 1940, with Europe at war, his funeral stopping traffic along East India Dock Road with thousands of East Enders lining the street to bid farewell. 

George Lansbury's funeral in 1940

George Lansbury's funeral in 1940 - Credit: Tower Hamlets Archive


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