Tower Hamlets, London: Nellie Cressall and the Poplar Rent Strike




Tower Hamlets, London

Nellie Cressall was a radical all her life. Starting out as a laundry worker in Whitechapel, she became a member of the East London Federation of Suffragettes. She was a long serving councillor in Poplar as well as being mayor.

Nellie met Sylvia Pankhurst and other suffrage movement leaders in 1912, and after talking with them felt that there was something she could do to ‘put things right’.

… here is something I can dedicate myself to help in some way to put things right.

Nellie Cressall, quoted in Sylvia Pankhurst – A life in Radical Politics by Mary Davis

Poplar was one of the poorest boroughs in London and in 1921 Nellie and 30 other Labour councillors were imprisoned for contempt of court. They had refused to collect taxes that were charged as part of a London rates system that they believed penalised the poorest.

Six months pregnant, Nellie and the others were imprisoned. They were not short of supporters though, with over 15,000 people gathering outside Holloway prison to cheer the group after their first night of incarceration.

Think of it, you mothers, young girls taken from a life of freedom and locked up in cells with doors as thick as a pawnbroker’s safe.

Nellie Cressall

In light of her pregnancy, Nellie was put in a cell in the hospital wing of the prison. However, she was left alone, apparently forgotten, for 24 hours, remaining locked up when other inmates exercised.

The imprisonment of a pregnant councillor was a mistake by the government and support for Nellie grew until her incarceration became an embarrassment. She was granted release after two weeks but despite the poor conditions – and worse food – provided in prison, Nellie refused to leave before her colleagues and had to be evicted by the Governor. She served a total of three weeks.

All other councillors were released in early October, with their strike a success. The government and the London County Council backed down from their rates requirements.

Despite Nellie and her colleagues’ victory, to this day, housing poverty remains a serious issue in Tower Hamlets. 

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