Key Moments in the Political History of the East End of London

London’s East End has often found itself at the forefront of political activity.  From Sylvia Pankhurst and the suffragettes campaigning in Bow to the battle of Cable Street which did much to stem the tide of fascism, the East End has been the heart of revolution for a long while.

So for this post, the latest in our historical series, we look at some of the key events around the East End of London which have played a role in shaping the political history of the East End, London and which would have had influence on the UK as a whole.

Tower Hamlets Council Voter Fraud Scandal – 2015

Following the introduction of directly elected mayors, the first one to be removed from office was former Tower Hamlets Mayor Lutfur Rahman.  The removal followed an investigation into electoral malpractice with an electoral court ruling his election void with the judge stating “The evidence laid before this court…has disclosed an alarming state of affairs in Tower Hamlets”.

The removal of Rahman followed a period of major turbulence at the council which had already seen the Department of Communities and Local Government intervene in the running of the council in 2014 which itself had followed concerns about poor governance and financial mismanagement and which led to the accountancy firm PWC being sent in to investigate.  The resulting report led to the appointment of 3 commissioners which would oversee a number of areas of how the council operated.

The removal of Rahman by the electoral court in 2015 resulted in the further transfer of powers to the appointed commissioners and was the first time an elected mayor had been removed from office is such as way.  It had taken the efforts of four local residents however to achieve it. They had accused Rahman of electoral fraud at a not insignificant personal monetary risk and it was they that took the mayor to the electoral court.  The subsequent election was won by John Biggs, a long time political rival of Rahman’s.

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Three of the petitioners who took Rahman to the electoral court.  Picture taken from the BBC website

The Limehouse Declaration – 1981

The bridge covering the slip of water known as the Narrow in Limehouse, is often seen as been the location where the old Social Democratic Party (SDP) was formed.  A splinter group of the Labour party, a gang of four MP’s Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Bill Rodgers aimed to shake up British politics with the formation of a new party and it was near to this spot, actually in David Owens house, that the declaration to form the new party was signed.

In the event the SDP didn’t last long but the merger in 1987 with the Liberal party resulted in the formation of the Liberal Democrats who would go on to become junior partners in the 2010-2015 coalition government.  It was the first time in over 90 years that a party other than either Labour or the Conservatives have held the keys of government and changed the shape of the political party system.

Bill Rodgers, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins and David Owen on the Narrow in Limehouse

The Murder of Altab Ali – 1978

Altab Ali was a young Bengali factory worker who on the night of the local elections on 4 May 1978 was stabbed to death in a racially motivated attack.  It happened whilst Ali was walking home from work in the old churchyard of St Mary Matfelon a place also known once as the Whitechapel and which also gave the area its name.

At the time of the murder, the East End was full of tension and a number of Bengali immigrants had moved into the area with many working in the textile industry.  The National Front had become very active in the area as a result and in the elections on that day were standing in 43 of the council seats.

Two weeks later on 14 May 1978, 7000 Bengali’s along with people from other ethnic backgrounds demonstrated against the murder by marching from Adler Street in the East End through to Downing Street.  It was one of the largest mass mobilisations of the Bengali community in the UK and has been seen as one of the main catalysts in terms of the reaffirming of Bengali identity in the area and in 1998 the council renamed the park where Ali was murdered in order to commemorate the event.

Racist attacks and tensions continued in the area after the death of Altab Ali but the murder had mobilised locals and anti-racism groups to fight the far right.  The protests after the murder of Mr Ali showed a community no longer willing to suffer the violence of racists without fighting back.

altab ali demonstration
Demonstrators at the March on 14 May 1978.  Picture via the Altab Ali Foundation

Limehouse MP Clement Attlee becomes Prime Minister  – 1945

The member of parliament for Limehouse from 1922 to 1950, Clement Attlee became the leader of the Labour party in 1935, he served as the Deputy Prime Minister in Churchills wartime coalition and then become prime minister in 1945.  It was in the great hall of the People’s Palace in Stepney for his election count when he found out that not only had he retained his seat but the Labour party had swept to power in a landslide.  He would remain Prime Minister of the UK until 1951 when the party lost office.

Now forming part of Queens Mary’s University, there is a statue to Attlee in the grounds of the university near to the People’s Palace building.  Attlee had taken over the leadership of the Labour party from another East End MP and champion of the suffragette movement, George Lansbury who himself had represented Bow and Bromley from 1922 to 1940 and who was also leader of the party from 1932 to 1935.

Attlee’s government is now remembered best for the establishment of the NHS in 1948 ensuring that for the first time the UK had a publically funded healthcare system, free at the point of use and even now this is seen as one of the jewels in Britain’s crown.  His government also saw the introduction of the National Insurance Act of 1946 where people would become eligible for flat rate pensions, sickness benefit and unemployment benefit for the payment of a flat fee whilst in work.  This was the formation of the welfare state as we know it today.

Clement Attlee campaigning in Limehouse just before the 1945 General Election

The Battle of Cable Street – 1936

Not so much a battle but a large scale exercise in civil disobedience it has been credited with the stemming of the rise of facism in the East End when on 4 October 1936 an estimated 100,000 local people banded together to stop a well publicised march from Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists.

It’s worth remembering that this march was held in an era when fascism was on the rise in Europe with Adolf Hitler gaining ever more power in Germany and Franco on the rise in Spain.  At this time there was some sympathy to that cause and Mosley set up the British Union of Fascists after a meeting with Benito Mussolini in 1932 who would subsequently end up helping to fund the movement. By 1934 the ‘blackshirts’ as the BUF were called had 40000 members and the support of the Daily Mail.

On the day, a gathering of anti-fascists including Jews, communists and dockers gathered at Gardiners Corner in Aldgate in an attempt to block the route coming into conflict with the police who used brutal tactics to try and disperse the crowd so that the path for the march could be cleared.  With no success there the police helped to clear an alternative route towards Cable Street but barricades had been erected there too and the police met with fierce resistance to any attempt to further clear the path.

Eventually the blackshirts had to turn back and the locals claimed victory in what would become known as the Battle of Cable Street, the biggest anti-fascist demonstration that would be seen in this country.

To learn more about the events before, during and after the Battle of Cable Street have a look here.

The Poplar Rates Rebellion – 1921

In 1921 the labour controlled Poplar council led by George Lansbury rebelled against the central government imposed rates system which put an unfair burden on poorer councils who had to pay a greater proportion of their income than richer boroughs. Most people in Poplar struggled to pay the rates and so on 31st March 1921 the council set a lower rate of tax and in doing so came at odds with the government.

The council refused to budge and on 29 July 1921 30 defiant councillors led by Lansbury and followed by thousands of supporters marched from the Poplar council building in Bow to the High Court in the city.  In court they refused to reimburse the rates money the council owed and responded to the request by setting an even lower rate.  The result was that 30 councillors were eventually arrested and imprisoned despite generating a lot of public sympathy and the support of the trade unions.

After six weeks in prison the councillors (25 men and 5 women) were released and the action was seen as directly linked to the passing of the London Authorities (Financial Provisions) Act which placed a fairer system of rates across councils from around the London area.

Not everything worked out though, conditions in prison were poor and Minnie Lansbury, the suffragette and alderman imprisoned in Holloway caught pneumonia and died on 1 January 1922.  There is a memorial clock on the side of Electric House on the Bow Road which was erected in 1930’s and which can still be seen now

minnie lansbury congratulated on the way to poplar town hall
Minnie Lansbury being congratulated on the way to Poplar Town Hall prior to being sent to Holloway.  She would later die of pneumonia following release having caught it in prison

To read more about the Poplar Rates Rebellion have a look here.

The Women’s Dreadnought, Sylvia Pankhurst and the East London Federation of Suffragettes – 1914

The suffragettes led by Sylvia Pankhurst built up a huge presence in the East End and there are many locations, most of which have changed beyond all recognition, which saw key moments in the history of the suffragette movement.  Impossible to cover them all in a post like this but luckily we’ve already covered them all before in this post so go take a look.

Bow was at the heart of the movement and in particular the area around Roman Road was a bit of hotbed.  It was here that the Women’s Dreadnought newspaper was first published and sold.  Nearby were previous headquarters of the East London suffragettes as well as as some of the local businesses started by Pankhurst so that local women could support themselves at a time when war had just broken out and state support was none existent.

Of particular note, the Mothers Arms, just up the road near Victoria Park was possibly the first ever creche.  The Lord Morpeth pub a little bit further down once stood next door to the now demolished ‘Women’s Hall’ which doubled as a cut price restaurant and on Norman Grove, a toy factory was started to give women employment whilst the men were away fighting in the war.

Sylvia Pankhurst in Bow (near to Bow Church) speaking outside a building with the words ‘Votes for Women’ emblazoned on it

For more information on the East London Federation of Suffragettes and the work of Sylvia Pankhurst have a look here.

The Match Girls Strike – 1888

One of the forerunners for the modern trade union movement, the match girls strike of 1888 exposed some of the brutal working practices experienced by women in the the East End.  Where the well-heeled development of Bow Quarter is now on Fairfield Road, this was at one point known as the Bryant and May Matchstick factory where the match girls would work in terrible conditions and be exposed to cheap phosphorous which had the side effect of leading to some pretty terrible health problems.

It was one person, a radical journalist called Annie Beasant, who exposed the working conditions in a newspaper article which the management at the time didn’t take too kindly to.  The article which appeared in ‘The Link’ on 23 June 1888 using terms such as ‘prison house’, ‘white wage slaves’, ‘ undersized’, ‘helpless’ and ‘oppressed’.  It led to the management of the factory trying to bully the matchgirls into denying the claims from the within the factory, actions which resulted in a walkout on 5 July 1888.

The strike caught the public imagination and a fund was set up to support the poorly paid workers, who with no income or social support, would have surely died.  It saw 50 of the matchgirls visit parliament to talk to MP’s about their working conditions and it saw the establishment of a new union, the union of women matchmakers which lasted until 1903. Eventually it saw the management of the factory get round the table and agree to a deal which resulted in better pay and conditions.  It also saw William Booth, he of the Salvation Army, start to campaign for the use of the much less dangerous red phosphorus as an alternative to the white phosphorus currently used on the matches.  That quest ended in 1891 when he opened an alternative factory to Bryant & May’s in Lamprell Street, Old Ford, which paid double the wages and used the red phosphorus.

The strike of the match girls, often small, undernourished and taking huge risks is often seen as being a launch pad for the many other groups of unrepresented workers in terrible conditions across London and the country to get together and form trade unions which would give them a collaborative voice and so seek to seek better working environments.

The story of the matchgirls can be read on this BBC resource here.

Annie Besant and the Match Girls at Hanbury Hall

The Salvation Army is founded in Whitechapel – 1865

Still going strong to this day around the World, the Salvation Army was founded in Whitechapel by former methodist minister William Booth and his wife Catherine.  Today there are statues to the pair on Mile End Road on a patch of ground which would have once been known as the Mile End Waste, an area which often played host to political debates and open air meetings. It was here where William Booth’s first open air sermon would have been held and where the roots of the Salvation Army were formed.

Of course the Salvation Army was much needed in the East End of the time where poverty was rife.  The Booth’s worked to tackle social issues in the area in order to try and improve conditions for some of the poorest in society, establishing soup kitchens, finding shelter for the homeless and working with people to get them into work.  The work to tackle homelessness become a big campaign and in 1888 the army opened the first of a number of night shelters at 21 West India Dock Road in Limehouse

In 1884 it opened a women’s shelter at 212 Hanbury Street for women fleeing domestic violence and prostitution followed by another larger one in 1889 at 194 Hanbury Street housing up to 261 people.  This was a tough time to live in the East End and the shelters were both located in the heart of the area stalked by Jack the Ripper.  It’s not a leap to faith to think that many, if not all, of his victims might well have stayed at one of them.

For more information about the East End roots of the Salvation Army have a look at this article on Salvation Army Establishments and this one on the rescue homes.

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William Booth and Catherine Booth

For more historic articles featuring the History of London check out:

Sylvia Pankhurst and the East End Suffragettes, historic locations and where to find them

Digging up King Johns Court, Crossrail excavations in Stepney Green

Free walking tour of the East End of London

Oranges and Lemons and the bells of old London Town

The Queer City of Soho

Bethnal Green Tube Disaster


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