Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Minnie Lansbury RIP

Today is the 86th anniversary of the death of one of my all-time heroes: Minnie Lansbury.

Yet another woman whom history has ignored in favour of her male comrades and family members - Minnie was George Lansbury's daughter-in-law - she deserves to be much better-known amongst socialists, feminists and those with any interest in labour movement history.

Born in 1889 to Jewish parents in Stepney, Minnie Glassman became a school teacher before marrying Edgar Lansbury in 1914. She was a committee member of Sylvia Pankhurst's East London Federation of Suffragettes, which mobilised and involved working-class women (and men) whom 'Votes For Ladies' campaigns elsewhere held in contempt. In 1916, she became Assistant Secretary, and when ELFS became the Workers’ Socialist Federation in 1918, Minnie was elected Assistant Secretary.

Minnie served on Poplar's War Pensions Committee from 1914-18. She joined the Communist Party as soon as it was formed in 1920.

When Labour swept to power on Poplar Borough Council in 1919, it appointed Minnie Lansbury as one of its Aldermen. In this role, she played an important part in the Rates Dispute of 1921 (about which I am writing a book, due to be published later this year). Minnie and 29 of her fellow Councillors were imprisoned after they refused to collect precepts for cross-London bodies, preferring to raise money only to support the population of the desperately poor, recession-ravaged, dockside borough of Poplar. The Poplar Councillors' militancy, stubbornness and mass working-class support brought them victory, forcing the government to adjust the local government funding system massively in favour of the pooorer boroughs.

But it cost Minnie Lansbury her life. On January 1st 1922, she died of pneumonia, almost certainly made worse by the effects of six weeks imprisonment in the previous September and October.

I have some fantastic photos (not yet ready for reproduction) of Minnie going off to Holloway prison, cheered on by thousands of local men and women, the crowds stretching back as far as you can see. As she went, she gave a quote to the Daily Herald: ‘I wish the Government joy in its effort to get this money from the people of Poplar. Poplar will pay its share of London’s rates when Westminster, Kensington, and the City do the same!’

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