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; it was only recently that I learned who she was, and that her heart was very much in the right place as far as I’m concerned. She later became Mayor of Poplar and – the Island connection – she spent many 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).
Shortly after Nellie’s birth, the Wilsons moved to Leyton. The 1901 census return lists the 19 year old Nellie’s occupation as ‘ironer in laundry’, an occupation she shared with her mother at the time.
In 1904 she married George Joseph Cressall in St. Dunstan’s Church, Stepney.
A couple of years later both Nellie and George became politically active and joined the Independent Labour Party. Nellie was said to have ‘discovered’ the later MP for Limehouse and Prime Minister of Britain, Clement Attlee, when in 1907 he knocked at her door and asked to see her husband as he wanted to help the Labour movement.
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, 1921 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 part of the government; public support for Nellie grew and her incarceration became an embarrassment. Just over two weeks into 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.
Electoral registers, census returns and similar show that the Cressall’s moved house frequently after their marriage in 1904:
- 1904 – 15 Barnes Street
- 1904 – 157 White Horse Street
- 1906 – 27 Tomlins Terrace
- 1907 – 111 Rhodeswell Road
- 1911 – 3 Lee Street
- 1914 – 82 Hind Street
Finally, in 1923, the Cressalls settled at 15 Macquarie Way on the Isle of Dogs – a house and street which were part of the new Chapel House Estate development. Colleague George Lansbury had ceremonially cut the first turf for the estate in 1920.
In 1939, at the onset of the war, the government registered all residents of England and Wales with the purpose of producing National Identity Cards. The register describes George’s occupation as ‘Secretary & Parliamentary Labour Party Agent’. Nellie’s occupation… ‘Unpaid Domestic Duties’, a euphemism at the time for ‘Housewife’.
Four years later, in 1943, Nellie became the first female Mayor of Poplar in 1943 (husband George was Mayor for a couple of years in the 30s).
Despite her being the Mayor of Poplar, the newspapers still managed to describe her as a ‘housewife of Poplar’. Or, am I missing some attempt at humour here?
At the 1951 Labour National Conference – in the year she became a widow (and when Cressall House in (then) Glengall Grove was built and named after her husband George – 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.
Again, the press managed to describe her not as a woman in her own right, but as ‘ the widow of Labour pioneer George Lansbury’s election agent’….
Nellie remained actively involved in local social, political and cultural events, as photos of the period show.
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.
Around this time, Nellie attended a garden party at Buckingham Palace:
She was accompanied by a group of Scouts from the Isle of Dogs.
Nellie died in 1973 at the age of 90. Apart from the legacy of a lifetime’s work for the Labour Party, women’s rights and the lot of the poor in Poplar, she left six children (two others had died before her) and tens of grandchildren and great grandchildren.