Nellie Frances Cressall

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.

A young Nellie

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.

London, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns

George Joseph Cressall

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.

Part of a 1911 census return, when the Cressalls were living at 3 Lee Street (just north of Limehouse Cut, near Stink House Bridge).

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.

Nellie in 1915.

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.

Cllr. Mrs Cressall Addressing Crowd. “At Rates Protest in Poplar 1921 This photograph shows a Labour member of Poplar Borough Council addressing a crowd of supporters during the Poplar Rates Rebellion.”

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)

Women councillors leaving for prison. Millie Lansbury (at window), Jeannie MacKay, Susan Lawrence and Nellie Cressall. (Source: http://spartacus-educational.com)

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.

30th January 1920

15 Macquarie Way (contemporary photo)

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).

The Mayor of Poplar

The Mayor of Poplar, c1944. Photo: Island History Trust

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?

1945

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’….

Planet News: 1953 UNITED KINGDOM – OCTOBER 03: SCARBOROUGH: Grandmother, Nellie Cressall, of Poplar, the widow of Labour pioneer George Lansbury’s election agent, who roused the audience to prolonged applause and cheering when she spoke at the annual Labour Party Conference here. She attacked the Conservatives and the Housewives League on the cost-of-living cries. Aneurin Bevan – a master of fiery platform speaking – said her speech was the finest heard at the conference.

1953 Coronation street party, Hesperus Crescent. Photo: Island History Trust

1959, and Nellie is made “Freeman” of the Borough of Poplar.Photo: Island History Trust

Nellie remained actively involved in local social, political and cultural events, as photos of the period show.

Members of Poplar Labour Party Women’s Section, dressed in purple green and white to commemorate the action of the Suffragettes of Edwardian times. Photo: Island History Trust

Poplar Town Hall – Poplar Labour Party Christmas Dinner late 1950s/1960s. Photo: Island History Trust

Poplar Labour Party’s Women Section, probably early 1960s.

1960s. Left. Nellie with Clement Attlee, MP for Limehouse from 1922, and Prime Minister from 1945-1951. Mrs Cressall was a personal friend of Mr Atlee, who she and her husband introduced to the Independent Labour Party at Limehouse, when he was a social worker at Toynbee Hall. Photo: Island History Trust

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.

“I’ll let you finish, but I’m not happy”.

“What a lot of bowlocks”.

Around this time, Nellie attended a garden party at Buckingham Palace:

She was accompanied by a group of Scouts from the Isle of Dogs.

Photo: George Warren (left in photo)

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.

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19 Responses to Nellie Frances Cressall

  1. jan hill says:

    Interesting article! One of Nellie’s grandchildren, Valerie Cressall, was a bridessmaid at my sister’s wedding in 1958.

  2. Hazel Anderson says:

    What an interesting brave woman I walked past Cressal house nearly every day when I lived in Hammond house and never knew it was named after Nellie Cressal not that I would have known who she was, exalent story Mlck thank you really enjoyed reading it .

  3. Carole says:

    Very interesting , my great aunt was mayor of poplar in 1937 -1938 her name was Mrs lambert . I’d love to hear if anyone has information on her

    Thanks

    Carole

  4. Loretta Walpole says:

    Interesting article. Many thanks. I am Valerie Cressall’s daughter as mentioned in Jan Hill’s comment.

  5. Erika Bourne says:

    Beautiful piece. I am her great granddaughter, my father was the son of her eldest boy.

  6. Kenny says:

    My name is Kenny, I’m one of nellies great grandchildren, Nellie was my mother’s Nan. Mum cared for her in her last few years.

  7. Mark Moore says:

    Hi . I am Nellies great grandson. When she went to prison it was my grandad Sam that she was pregnant with. In her later years she was looked after mainly by Aunt Bessie and uncle Ed

  8. Eileen Richards says:

    I am pleased that a new road in Bow is named Nellie Cressall Way. In the same development is Julia Scurr street, a fitting tribute to two local suffragettes

  9. Great piece on Nellie Cressall. I am currently putting together a biography on her & other Eastend Suffragettes for my women’s history website http://www.chrissyhamlin.blogspot.co.uk – if any of her descendants would be interested in contacting me to be interviewed for my podcast then you can contact me via the website or on my social media pages – links on blog.

  10. William Willson says:

    I remember Nelly very well and knew of her story. Glad to read she is not forgotten.

  11. Deborah Scott says:

    I’m really happy to see the revival of interest in these redoubtable women, and its great to see so many relatives responding! I’m currently researching the East End women that went on the deputation to Asquith in 1914 but I’ve drawn a blank with a couple of them…Any chance you or your readers have any connection to Mrs Bird of Poplar ( probably 90 Suffolk St) or Mrs Eva Watkins/ Watson/ Ford ( and other aliases!) of Bow?

    • This may not be adding to what you already know. From “George Lansbury – At the Heart of Old Labour”, John Shepherd, Oxford University Press, Page 155…

      “The deputation consisted of six working-class women from the East End: Julia Scurr …, Elsie Watkins, Mrs Parsons. Jessie Payne, Mrs Savoy, and Mrs Bird. George Lansbury was also at 10 Downing Street for this noteworthy meeting.”

      Apparently the event was extensively covered by the Daily Herald at the time.

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