The Poplar Rate Strike – September 1921

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A group of the Poplar councillors following their release from Brixton Prison.

This month marks the 95th anniversary of the imprisonment of the councillors during the Poplar Rate Strike. In March 1921 the borough of Poplar in the East End (now part of Tower Hamlets) was told to implement a large increase in its rates by the London County Council. The rates were an early form of what is now known as Council Tax. The rates were calculated on the rental value of properties and as Poplar was one of the poorest areas of London it generated a low value of rates in comparison to wealthier boroughs. Each borough also had to pay a precept to pay for city-wide services, such as the Metropolitan Police. The Poplar councillors argued that the system for calculating the contribution of each borough was unfair and that such a large increase would disproportionately hit the poor of the borough. They refused to make the increased payments to the London County Council and were imprisoned for contempt of court in September 1921.

The leader of Poplar council was George Lansbury, who would later become leader of the Labour Party. The imprisonment of the councillors created a scandal and a huge outpouring of public support. Some local councils, such as Stepney (whose council leader was future Labour Party leader, Clement Attlee), threatened similar action. After six weeks of campaigning the LCC and the Government relented and the councillors were released from prison (see picture above, with their lawyer W.H. Thompson who founded Thompsons Solicitors). The Local Authorities (Financial Provisions) Act was rushed through Parliament, which essentially equalised the tax burden between the rich and poor boroughs.

At the 1922 General Election Lansbury won a landslide victory as Labour MP for Bow. “Poplarism” has sinced passed into the political lexicon to describe an act of defiance by local government, particularly in defence of the poor.

To find out more about what the TUC Library holds on the subject of the Poplar Rate Strike, or any other subject, get in touch.

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