The 19th century Isle of Dogs was not only notable for its innovating and world-class industries and docks, it was also a grey and miserable place to live for most people. There were no leisure facilities (if you discount the pubs), no public green spaces, no markets, no theatres or bookshops, poor health care and little in the way of local authority investment in infrastructure or public hygiene.
Towards the end of the 19th century, however, there was a rising call for political representation of the working classes, and trades unions began to take form. It was during this period that British labour groups began to make headway in local government. In 1889, a “Progressive” party composed of Fabians and British Liberals took control of London County Council at the first elections held there. This was the first council to have substantial socialist influence, and carried out a programme of municipalisation, while constructing some of the first social housing in England and increasing public spending on services such as the Fire Brigade. In addition, the number of parks and public baths were increased, London’s sewerage system was improved, roads were widened and paved, and the Blackwall, Rotherhithe and Greenwich Foot Tunnels were realized.
One of these groups was the Isle of Dogs Progressive Club, established as a friendly society in 1894, and often stated as instrumental in the establishment of the Labour Party in Poplar, in part due to its support for Will Crook and other politicians.
In case you don’t know who Will Crooks was, he:
….became the first Labour Mayor of Poplar in 1900. Born in Shirbutt Street in 1852, he was the third son of a ship’s stoker, George Crooks, who lost his arm in an accident when Crooks was three years old. His mother, Caroline Elizabeth (née Coates), then supported the family by working as a seamstress, but money was scarce and five of the children [including Will] were temporarily forced to enter Poplar workhouse in 1861. This experience had a profound influence on Crooks’ views on poverty.
And a friendly society (sometimes called a mutual society, benevolent society, or fraternal organization):
…is a mutual association for the purposes of insurance, pensions, savings or cooperative banking. It is a mutual organization or benefit society composed of a body of people who join together for a common financial or social purpose. Before modern insurance, and the welfare state, friendly societies provided financial and social services to individuals, often according to their religious, political, or trade affiliations.
There is surprisingly little information to be found about the Isle of Dogs Progressive Club, but I did manage to find some of their paperwork in the National Archives: their rules, and various lists and notes.
Two pages later, the names of the founding applicants are listed.
The original address on the application is that of Charles Henry Oaks: 6 Ferry Street, a couple of doors from the corner of Ferry Street and Westferry Road. However, this was changed to 72 Stebondale Street, which was to be the location of many progressive lectures, including that by a Dr. H. Rundlett on Sunday 22nd November 1895:
The rules of the club were very typical of other friendly societies, for example:
A few years later the society moved into a purpose-built building at the rear of 17 Pier Street.
This wonderful photo, courtesy of Jan Hill, shows the laying of the foundation stone for the new club in 1897. Jan’s grandfather, John Lawrence Price, is to the left of the photo wearing a whitish coloured cap.
Will Crooks’ biography refers to a visit to the new club:
He hurried away from his college by the dock gates one Sunday morning to keep an appointment to address the Isle of Dogs Progressive Club. He found less than a dozen men in the lecture hall, while the bar and billiard room were crowded. He walked out without a word and sat down in the club garden.
“This is all right, I’m enjoying myself perfectly here,” he told the bewildered secretary. “If they prefer to play at billiards and to drink beer, let them. I am quite content to enjoy this garden.”
In ten minutes not a man remained in the bar of billiard room. The lecture hall was filled.
“We deserve your reproach, Will,” shouted someone from the audience when at last he stepped on to the platform.
In 1901, an offshoot of the Isle of Dogs Progressive Club, the Millwall Working Men’s Club and Institute, was opened in Cuba Street by Sydney Buxton, the MP for Poplar.
Although the fact was kept quiet at the time, the whole cost of about £6,000 [for the construction of the Cuba Street club] had been met by Stansfeld & Company Ltd of the Swan Brewery, Fulham, who let the building to the club on a succession of short leases. Stansfelds owned pubs throughout London, but none in Poplar. Brewers’ involvement in working men’s clubs was then a controversial issue. The Working Men’s Club and Institute Union had long abandoned its early opposition to alcohol in clubs, but was opposed to any form of tie with brewers. The Isle of Dogs Progressive Club was briefly expelled from the Union in 1901 because of its links with Stansfelds.
– Survey of London
This was the first sign that not all members were as kosher as they ought to be. While the club continued as a radical and educational institution (along with a good billiards hall and a cheap bar, much to the dismay of temperance societies), the club secretary, Alfred Finden, was accused in 1908 of fraud and conspiracy in his role as a one of the Guardians of the Poplar Board of Works. A witness for the prosecution stated in the trial:
After a time Poole took the license or became the manager of a public-house; he had a bacon shop at East Ham. I have been there with Peacock in my trap and bought a lot of things, about a sovereign’s worth, it may have been more. It was to give Charlie a turn. The first public-house Charlie had, I think, is called the “Millwall Dock Tavern”; he was managing the house for the owner, Mr. Wetton. I have been there with Jack and Albert and Mr. Finden. A lot of other contractors have been down there. J. R. Smith has never been down there with me. We used to have refreshments there. I have been there once a week, two or three times, or it might be four times.
I got to know Poole well before he went into the “Dock House.” I have been in other parts of his house than the bar. I have seen none of the defendants in the private part of the house. I went up to the private bar and Charlie would just give me a nod and I would go upstairs to the billiard-room. When I used to meet some of the defendants there I spent a tidy bit, all according to what time I stopped. I daresay I have spent some half a sovereign upwards to about £3; perhaps £210s. or £3; it was all according to who was there. Sometimes Charlie would have a lot of his customers there, and Charlie would say, “Make a fuss with the boys, Jim”—of course I would. I used to meet a lot of contractors there as well. I have treated them as well.
I think the next one I got to know after Poole was. Finden; he was secretary, I think, of the Isle of Dogs Liberal, Radical, and Progressive Club. He had an office at the club and had a small house round the corner. I was introduced to him by Peacock similar to the same way as he introduced me to all of them. Peacock was not a member of the club, nor was I, but Finden being secretary could take us in and treat us, but we could not pay—not then. I gave Finden the money in the office so that he could pay. That was not when I first knew him, not till I got to know him well. Peacock suggested that I should be made a member of the club. I said, “I cannot be a member of a Liberal club, I am a Conservative; I belong to a club in Mile End.” He said, “It does not matter, you have got to be a Liberal down there.” I became a member and I had a book or acard or something—the rules. I used to go down there very frequently with the exception of Sundays. I spent a lot of money there on the club members at Mr. Finden’s suggestion—they drank very heavy indeed.
Afterwards I met Charlie in the “Dock House,” and me and him went into the lavatory and there I gave him £20 in gold. This was a few days after the first conversation. I met him by appointment there and I met Albert. I asked him if he was satisfied with the £20 and he said, “Yes, that will do me very nicely, I wish I had known you years ago. I also gave money to Mr. Finden out of this account; it may have been some time after—a week or two later. I saw him about that at his house. I had already been introduced to Finden by Peacock, and he knew I was willing to pay money. Finden asked me for money. I have given him £5, £10, or £15 at a time. He had £5 the first time; he has had £10, he has had £30. He has had a lot more than £30 in all.
After I joined the Liberal Progressive Club Finden spoke to me about doing it up, painting or papering or something. Mr. Finden gave me an order for it. I charged £10 and another 25s. for the billiard room. I sent in the bill receipted, and made it a present to the members of the club through Finden because Finden said it would do him a bit of good he being the secretary of the club, and the club members would think a lot of it. Then the members of the club arranged to get up a collection to present me with a silver cigar case. My wife went with me on the night of the presentation. There was a good deal of conviviality. I called for drinks. I think the first order was 40 pots of bitter. Then I think there were three bottles of whisky and two boxes of 50 cigars; I think they were twopenny ones. I remember Finden borrowing sums of money from me. He came up to my place in Grafton Street and said he had got dismissed from this club.
All the accused were found guilty. In addition to their sentences, they were banned from public office for seven years.
For a full report of the trial, see: https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?path=sessionsPapers%2F19081110.xml
Possibly as a consequence of this scandal, the club was wound up a couple of years later.
The final list of members is interesting, especially as there are so many familiar Island family names: Bowles, Smith, Elderley, Anderson, Coppin, Bowen, Woodard, Budden, Sprackling, Wright, Earwaker, Hicks, King, Soper and more.
When I first came across mention of the Isle of Dogs Progressive Club, I wanted to write an article about its characters and its influence on local politics. I’ve not managed to do that – I just haven’t been able to find any information, unfortunately. Maybe another time.