Nellie Cressall was one of the brave women who went to prison in support of the Poplar Rates Rebellion in 1921, just one episode in a long life of activism, which began after she joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1907. Nellie and her husband, George, were both active members of the party, but the arrival of Sylvia Pankhurst in the East End in 1912 signalled Nellie’s commitment to a new cause; women’s suffrage. Sylvia set up the East London Suffragettes (ELFS) in 1913 after parting company with the mainstream Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), with Nellie becoming a founder member.
When World War One broke out, its effects on the lives of East Enders were immediate. In particular, they were hit with food shortages and unemployment. Babies and children went without milk. Women were left to bring up families on a meagre separation allowance as their husbands went off to fight. ELFS moved quickly to set up milk distribution centres, mother and baby clinics, nurseries, cost-price restaurants and a toy factory to provide women with the chance to earn a fair wage in safe conditions. As the war progressed, Nellie played her part in organising ELFS’ war-time welfare programme, increased her involvement in local politics and began to develop skills as a public speaker. She was elected to Poplar Council in 1919.
In 1921 Poplar’s ILP councillors decided to withhold monies usually paid to central London-wide authorities and distribute them to the borough’s poorest people. They defied a High Court order to pay up and, as a result, Nellie and five other women councillors were sent to Holloway Prison in North London.
Nellie had five children at the time and was far advanced in another pregnancy with her son, Sam, when she went to jail. The prison authorities put her in the hospital wing and forgot about her for twenty-four hours. She was left in a cell to listen to the cries of other distressed women on the wing, one of whom committed suicide. People were appalled when they learned of her treatment and this incident added momentum to growing support for the rates rebel by the public and the trade unions, who began to collect funds for the prisoners’ families. It was decided, then, to release Nellie on health grounds, but she refused to go as a gesture of solidarity with her fellow councillors who were to remain in prison. She spent another week in gaol and only agreed to be let out when LCC Labour group leader, Harry Gosling, persuaded her to leave. She spent a total of three weeks in Gaol.
As support for the rates rebels grew and other impoverished boroughs threatened to take action, central government grew uneasy and Parliament passed an act to reset rates of local taxation in line with levels of deprivation in each borough. The rebellion ended in triumph for Nellie and her fellow councillors.
As a Poplar councillor, Nellie dedicated well over forty years of her life to improving the lives of East Enders in her ward. In 1943 she became Mayor, and in 1959 a freeman of the borough. In 1945 she was appointed a member of the British Lord Chancellor’s Divorce Committee to investigate the dramatic rise in the divorce rate at the End of World War Two. In 1950 she was invited to make a speech at the National Labour Party Conference in Scarborough and was rated as the best speaker at the event by the founding father of the National Health Service, Aneurin Bevan.
The theme of Nellie’s speech was the profound changes in ordinary people’s lives since the First World War, which she had played her part in achieving for them through her work as a councillor. As one of the ordinary people, she too shared in the benefits.
In common with many other East Enders, Nelly and George moved from one type of rented accommodation to another as their family expanded. In 1923 They moved to Macquarie Way on the Chapel House Estate on the Isle of Dogs. The estate was built along garden city lines, and provided the family with the sort of environment they could have only dreamed of at the start of married life. Their house, 15 Macquarie Way was two-storeys high, with separate bedrooms, a bathroom upstairs, a front room and backroom with a scullery attached on the ground floor.
For Nellie the move must have been life-changing. Her eight children depended on her to keep them free from the disease and infections which ended the lives of so many prematurely in the slum conditions of the East End. A house with running water and the means of heating it for cleaning, washing clothes and bathing, boosted Nellie’s chances of raising her children into adulthood. Even with these improvements, Nellie’s domestic burden remained immense, so it is all the more impressive that she combined all this labour with life as an activist.
Nellie’s political career carried on into the sixties. Her later years were filled with local community events on the Isle of Dogs such as pageants and street parties, many of which are recorded in the archives of the Island History Trust. George died in 1951 but she lived on till 1973 in Macquarie Way where she was under the care of two of her many grand-children, Bessie and Ed, during her final days.
Nellie Cressall was an outstanding individual in her own right: a woman dedicated to the rights of women and the welfare of the people of Poplar, who combined a life of activism with bringing up her large family in very challenging circumstances. She was also typical of the activists who emerged from the labouring classes to form the core of the Labour Party in the early twentieth century. Nellie looked at the people around her, saw injustice and decided to do something about it.
Jane McChrystal is an independent researcher and writer, based on the Isle of Dogs, East London. She writes on a wide variety of cultural and historical topics see and has a special interest in the history of the people of East London. She has recently published a book about a much less well-known member of ELFS.
References and Further Reading
Jane McChrystal, The Splendid Mrs. McCheyne and the East London Federation of Suffragettes (The Choir Press, 2020).
 Planet News, 3rd October 1953.