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The Lives Of George Lansbury & Will Crooks

December 13, 2021
by John Walker

In this second feature from his recently-published book, Out of Sight, Out of Mind – Abuse, Neglect and Fire in a London Children’s Workhouse, John Walker considers how Will Crooks and George Lansbury continued the nineteenth century welfare reforms which Henrietta Barnett began.

This Wednesday 15th December at 7:30pm, John Walker will be giving an online lecture about the work of Henrietta Barnett to improve conditions for children in the Whitechapel workhouse.

Click here to book a ticket

‘He lived and died a servant of the People’

I wrote recently of the significant role played by Henrietta Barnett in ending the workhouse system in which children were taken away from their parents as young as two years old and became prey to abuse. After a twenty-year campaign to humanise conditions, she obtained government agreement to close down the barrack schools in 1896 – just as her quarter of a century as governor of the Forest Gate District School came to an end.

When she left, two men who were to complete her mission arrived, setting the standard for children in care in the twentieth century. Future Labour members of parliament Will Crooks and George Lansbury were both guardians of the Poplar Union, one of the other unions controlling the Forest Gate School. Each cut his public service teeth as governors there, closing the school and replacing it with better, more suitable accommodation.

Will Crooks was a former workhouse boy, born into poverty in Poplar in 1852. His father was disabled by an industrial accident and he was put into the workhouse at eight years old. The guardians sent him and his brother to the South Metropolitan District School in Sutton, Surrey, which made a lasting impression on him and shaped his stewardship of the Forest Gate institution. 

According to Crooks’ biographer, George Haw, he was separated from his younger brother on entering the school and ‘in the great hall of the school he would strain his eyes hoping to get a glimpse of the lone little fellow among the other lads, but never set his eyes upon him until the day they went home together.’

Crooks told Haw ‘Every day I spent in that school is burned on my soul.’ From that day, he was determined to change the system for Poor Law children.

Crooks first came to public prominence during the great London Dock Strike of 1889 and, three years later, was elected to the recently established London County Council under the Progressive banner. One of his early achievements was to change the eligibility criteria for elections to local boards of guardians – which were responsible for running workhouses – to enable working-class people to stand for election.

Taking advantage of the change he had engineered, he was elected to the Poplar Board in 1893 and, within four years, had himself appointed as a governor of the Forest Gate School. He was reminded of his own childhood as soon as he entered, observing that the youngsters ‘got no schooling and no training, save for the training that fitted them for pauperism.’

He became Chairman of the Poplar Board in 1899 and was elected Chair of the Forest Gate School governors, setting himself the task of removing the stigma of the Poor Law. According to biographer Haws his mission was to make the children ‘feel like ordinary working-class children … to grow up like them, becoming ordinary working-men and working-women themselves, so the Poor Law knew them no longer.’

Crooks furthered this ambition through public speaking, petitioning government, forcing school managers to improve conditions and encouraging children to grow in confident in the world outside the school. He took particular pride in entering Forest Gate’s pupils in sporting competitions and encouraging young musicians to perform in public, increasing the children’s social confidence.

By 1906, Poor Law schools’ inspector, Dugard, declared ‘There is very little, if anything of the institutional mark about the children … They compare very favourably with the best elementary schools.’ 

George Lansbury was born in Suffolk, the son of a railway worker, in 1859. He came to London as a young man, married, and after a brief spell in Australia, moved to Bow where he became involved with politics, working as agent for the local Liberal MP. Frustrated by the party’s lack of radicalism, he joined the Social Democratic Federation. Within a year, Lansbury was one of its Poor Law guardian candidates for the Poplar Union and his manifesto included a commitment to improving the Forest Gate School, writing ‘All children left to the care of the Board shall not be made to feel their dependence is criminal or disgraceful, and shall not be marked out by dress or treatment from their fellows.’

He wanted the children to be educated in local schools alongside non-workhouse pupils. In his election address the following year, he called for the abolition of workhouse school uniforms and that ‘the food given shall be sufficient of good quality and properly prepared.’

In 1895, after serving on Poplar’s Board of Guardians for two years, he was appointed a governor of the Forest Gate School, along with Crooks. They spent the next ten years improving conditions for the children while trying to replace the school with much more suitable accommodation, deeper in the Essex countryside. They identified Charles Duncan, the school’s superintendent, as the major obstacle and pensioned him off, along with other unsympathetic staff. They introduced camping holidays for boys in Essex and London excursions for girls. 

But their reforms did not go unopposed. Poplar ratepayers complained at the cost and there were arguments in parliament decrying the fact the children were now being cared for rather than simply disciplined. The national press condemned the ‘extravagancies’ in treating the children humanely. Yet when a parliamentary committee was established to examine this apparent scandal, Lansbury & Crooks were exonerated.

From 1898, they were planning to move the children to purpose-built accommodation in Brentwood at a cost of £100,000, spending a great deal of time raising the money and looking for a buyer for the Forest Gate site while seeking loans to bridge the difference.

The scheme they devised was Hutton Poplars, opening in 1908. It was a series of houses, each catering for around thirty children under the care of a house-mother rather than an ex-army sergeant. Swimming baths, a gymnasium and recreation rooms were provided, and children attended local schools, without having to wear pauper uniforms.

Outrage at Lansbury & Crooks’ reforms were ultimately silenced when Hutton Poplars received a national seal of approval, ordained by a royal visit.

George Lansbury & Will Crooks’ lives afterwards

Both became Labour MPs – Will Crooks for Woolwich and George Lansbury for Bromley & Bow – although they had very different political careers.

Will Crooks was an MP between 1902 and 1921. A century later, we condemn his record and the causes he championed as reprehensible. He was anti-immigrant, particularly during the First World War when he became a flag-waver in favour of conflict. He was also a eugenicist with shameful views towards those with disabilities.

George Lansbury’s activity as a Labour MP was of a different timbre. He was a champion of women’s suffrage and an ally of Sylvia Pankhurst, resigning his seat to fight a by-election on the issue of suffrage which he lost. He was the founding editor of the Daily Herald during his period out of office. On his return to Westminster he became one of the minority of pacifist MPs, opposed to the First World War. As leader of Poplar Council, he led a successful,  campaign of civil disobedience that saw him and his fellow councillors imprisoned to get the funding of local government reformed so it no longer disadvantaged poor communities. 

He became leader of the Labour MPs in the thirties after Ramsey Macdonald deserted the party, taking most of it with him to lead a ‘national’ government. Lansbury’s pacifism cost him the leadership in 1935 and he spent the last five years of his life valiantly persuading leaders around Europe to disarm and avoid a Second World War.

He failed, dying within months of the outbreak of war, but in 1950 A.J.P Taylor described George Lansbury as ‘the most lovable figure in modern British politics.’

George Lansbury’s memorial in Bow Rd – ‘A great servant of the people’

George Lansbury

George Lansbury’s 1893 election handbill to become a member of the Poplar Boards of Guardians

Will Crooks

Forest Gate District School

Pupils at Forest Gate School photographed by Henrietta Barnett in he eighteen-eighties

Pupils at Forest Gate School photographed by Henrietta Barnett in the eighteen-eighties

Hutton Poplars which replaced Forest Gate School

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Henrietta Barnett & The Workhouse Children

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Cherub permalink
    December 13, 2021

    Before writing Crooks off it’s important to read the full quote from the speech he made on The Feeble Minded Persons (Control) Bill, as it appears to have been taken out of context. Like a lot of things said by politicians it was condensed into sound bites, so I don’t think it it’s fair for him to be written off as a eugenicist (or a racist for that matter). It has to be remembered these were very different times, you cannot rewrite history but you can learn from it and use it to improve the society we live in today.

    He did go on to help raise the age of those suffering from developmental disability issues from 16 to 21 so they could be given teaching and training whilst in care. This article appears to praise him for his work with poor children who otherwise had very little future ahead of them, whilst then writing him off within the space of a short paragraph and that is unfortunate.

  2. December 13, 2021

    Oh dear Cherub, I sense you have misread and are guilty of what you urge others not to do!

    He quite clearly had a beneficial effect for impoverished children, resulting in the home opening in 1908, his later behaviour is today reprehensible, as the author made clear:

    “Will Crooks was an MP between 1902 and 1921. A century later, we condemn his record and the causes he championed as reprehensible. He was anti-immigrant, particularly during the First World War when he became a flag-waver in favour of conflict. He was also a eugenicist with shameful views towards those with disabilities.”

  3. paul loften permalink
    December 13, 2021

    Yet we still live in times where the slick tongue of the lawyer has priority over the working man. Parliament is full of the photo opportunists who seek publicity and political ambition. Serving the people has no meaning for them.
    Its so easy to condemn people like Will Crooks with hindsight. Yet they had to live amidst and witness terrible poverty and injustice, and experienced it first hand . Jack London was also a reputed eugenicist . It was a viewpoint that was part of their times . I wonder how future generations will view todays politics and politicians and if they will discard them from history.

  4. Anthony Finerty permalink
    December 13, 2021

    I consider George Lansbury to be one of the great politicians of the 20th century for what he did and achieved for the people of East London both as a local councillor and an M P. Very few politians nowadays measure up to him!

  5. December 14, 2021

    There seems to be an extraordinary streak of cruelty running through British history. Just the fact that poverty was deemed to be a crime is in itself appalling. Even in the 1960s, the treatment of children in hospital was designed to suppress and control, leaving a legacy of broken hearts and mistrust. And in the 1970s there were still huge numbers of institutions where families could hide away their mentally disabled members, including those with Downs’ Syndrome. My grandmother, who was born in the 1880s, would have identified with Crooks’ attitude, I am afraid to say. These days, so much has been done to improve attitudes and treatment of those coping with poverty and physical or mental disabilities, but I do wonder how other countries cared for their poor and orphaned children? I can’t imagine that in Italy, for example, children were ripped from their family homes and placed in brutal institutions.

  6. Cherub permalink
    December 15, 2021

    Venetia, I can assure you this type of treatment went on in other countries, not just Britain, but unfortunately in these modern times Britain seems to get most of the bad publicity and the flak, as if we have a monopoly on cruelty. We certainly were not the only society to send children down mines or up chimneys.

    I’ve lived in Switzerland for some time and it was customary for boys who were either from very poor families or orphaned to be sent to rural areas to be used as farm labour from a young age. Some of those boys are old men now and are telling their stories as they became very emotionally damaged by the experience and had difficult adult lives.

    In Spain poor or disabled children would have suffered during the Civil War and under the Franco regime, in Germany under the Nazis, in Russia under the Soviet system etc.

    This was an era when people in Britain were still ruled by the teachings of the church. My grandmother was Victorian and many from that time believed things like disability and mental infirmity were either a mark of the devil, or the will of God. Sadly there are some cultures which still believe in this today.

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