Poplar Rates Rebellion Mural
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Mural in Hale Street, Poplar, London E14, commemorating the 1921 protest whereby local councillors refused to set a rate.
In 1921 there was no government support to alleviate unemployment, poverty or hunger; the burden fell upon individual boroughs under the Poor Law. Poor boroughs such as Poplar were doubly disadvantaged, as there was high demand for relief; yet as rateable values were low, a high rate had to be set to raise the same amount that a low rate would raise in a wealthy borough. At the same time, all ratepayers in London boroughs were charged a precept to pay for the London County Council, Metropolitan Police, Metropolitan Asylums Board and the Metropolitan Water Board. Again this fell disproportionately on ratepayers in poor boroughs, and Poplar called for this burden to be shared equally between the boroughs.
Nevertheless, in 1919 Poplar’s Labour administration voted through a comprehensive programme of social reform and poor relief, which included equal pay for women (a highly radical idea at the time) and a minimum wage for council employees. This was expensive; and faced with further large rate rises in 1921, the Council decided not to collect the precepts for the four cross-London authorities.
The London County Council and Metropolitan Asylum Board took the matter to the High Court, where they were met by a 2,000-strong protest, led by the Council’s Mace-Bearer. The Court ordered that thirty councillors, including six women, one of whom was pregnant, be detained indefinitely.
The Rebellion attracted wide public support. Crowds gathered outside Brixton Prison where George Lansbury, the Council Leader, would address them through the prison gates. Neighbouring Councils threatened similar action, Trade Unions passed motions of support, and funds were raised to support the families of the jailed Councillors. After six weeks the High Court caved in to public opinion and ordered that the Councillors be released. A new law, Local Authorities (Financial Provisions) Act 1921, was rushed through Parliament to equalise the tax burden between richer and poorer boroughs.
The original commemorative mural (it has subsequently been restored) was painted in Hale Street by Mark Frances in 1990. At the time the new Poll Tax had just replaced local rates, a move which also led to vociferous public protests – the fall-out from which effectively ended Margaret Thatcher’s Premiership.
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