Poplar was once blessed with outstanding local government politicians – politicians who demonstrably improved the lot of the residents of what is now E14, and who were even prepared to go to prison in support of their beliefs (see Poplarism aka The Poplar Rates Rebellion). One of those politicians was Nellie Frances Cressall, after whom Cressall House in Tiller Road is named.
Growing up on the other side of the Island, I only (sometimes nervously) crossed the Glass Bridge to go swimming in Island Baths, so I never ventured far down Tiller Road and was not familiar with Cressall House. It was only recently that I learned that the block of flats was named after someone whose heart was very much in the right place as far as I’m concerned, someone who became Mayor of Poplar and spent her later years living in Macquarie Way on the Chapel House Estate.
Frequently – and incorrectly – stated as being born in Stepney, Nellie Francis Wilson was actually born in Kilburn on 23rd November 1882 to carpenter George Wilson and his wife Julia (born Jennings). In 1904 she married George Joseph Cressall in St. Dunstan’s Church, Stepney, and by the end of the year the newly-weds were living at 15 Barnes Street, Limehouse (at the corner with Wakeley Street; a house which, amazingly enough, is still there).
A couple of years later both Nellie and George became politically active and joined the Independent Labour Party. In 1912 she met Sylvia Pankhurst, an encounter that influenced her to join the suffragist cause:
I had been thinking for some time of the unequal rights of men and women. I could not agree that men should be the sole parent, that a mother could not even say whether her child should be vaccinated or not – or that women should receive half pay and many other things as well. I thought that here is something I can dedicate myself to help in some way to put things right.
She joined Sylvia Pankhurst, Keir Hardie, Julia Scurr, Millie Lansbury and George Lansbury, in establishing the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELF) – an organisation that combined socialism with a demand for women’s suffrage. The group also began production of a weekly paper for working-class women called The Women’s Dreadnought.
It was around this time that Nellie could frequently be heard speaking at meetings at the East India Dock gates next to the entrance to Blackwall Tunnel. In November 1919 Nellie and George were elected to Poplar Council (the Labour Party had won 39 of the 42 council seats), and both were involved in the Poplar Rates Rebellion in 1921.
On Monday 5th September, Nellie was arrested – along with Susan Lawrence, Julia Scurr, Minnie Lansbury and Jennie Mackay.
Among those who had to make special arrangements were George and Nellie Cressall, both of whom had been committed to prison. The Cressalls had five sons between the ages of seven and seventeen, and Nellie, who was thirty-eight, was expecting her sixth. They arranged that the youngest should be cared for by their grandmother, while two of the boys joined the group of children taken to Kent.
Nellie Cressall … had a particularly gruelling experience. In view of her condition she was immediately put into a cell in the hospital wing. But she was then, apparently, forgotten about for twenty-four hours. When others were let out for exercise, she was ignored and remained locked up. She heard the persistent sound of screaming, and while she was there a woman in a nearby cell committed suicide.
– ‘Poplarism’ by Noreen Branson (Lawrence and Wishart, 1979)
She later said:
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.
Imprisoning a heavily-pregnant councillor was a serious mistake on the behalf of the government; public support for Nellie grew and her incarceration became an embarrassment. Just over two weeks after her imprisonment, she was released on health grounds. Nellie, however, refused to go unless her fellow councillors were also released – she was also very suspicious of a document that the authorities asked her to sign, in case it in some way caused her colleagues further problems. In the end, it was LCC Labour group leader, Harry Gosling, who convinced her to leave, on 21st September, close to three weeks after she had been locked up. The Poplar Rates Rebellion was successful with the government and the London County Council backing down. The rest of the imprisoned councillors were released on 12 October.
Nellie became the first female Mayor of Poplar in 1943 (husband George was Mayor for a couple of years in the 30s).
At the 1951 Labour National Conference – in the year she became a widow – she made a passionate speech about the progress that had been made since the First World War:
Years ago after the First World War many, many people in my constituency sat in the dark because they had not got a penny to put in the gas. Today what do I find? People come to me creating about the heavy electricity bills they have to pay!… I have young people coming worrying me for houses…. We have got some houses where six families lived once upon a time…. Whereas in the old days people would get married, as I did, and be contented in two nice little rooms, today our young people want a home of their own.
A decade later and Nellie was living with sons Edgar and George at 15 Macquarie Way on the Island.
Nellie appeared briefly in the slightly-controversial 1962 documentary, “Postscript to Empire” (slightly-controversial among Islanders who, correctly in my view, found it patronising) providing a feisty counterpart to the conservative (small ‘c’) Mr. Hart, grocer of 114 Manchester Rd.
Nellie died in 1973.