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Unite and Resist: Campaigning and Politics in Tower Hamlets

Campaigning and politics are important aspects in the history of Tower Hamlets. The issues faced by communities have united the people of Tower Hamlets into action.

Explore evidence of action and resistance in archives, photographs, pamphlets, books and press-cuttings.

Our collections reflect political movements including

  • socialism and left-wing activism
  • the wider political spectrum

Local protest campaigns include

  • the Poplar Rates Rebellion of 1921: 30 Labour councillors including five women went to jail for refusing to collect precepts (writs or warrants) intended for four cross-London authorities. The councillors enjoyed widespread popular support
  • the Battle of Cable Street in 1936: residents of Cable Street and beyond gathered to prevent a march by the British Union of Fascists through a predominantly Jewish area
  • the Bengali community organising to oppose widespread racism in the 1970s and 1980s, intensified following the murder of Altab Ali in 1978
  • saving Spitalfields Market: the struggle to preserve the old Market building from development since the 1970s
  • the fight against homophobia: Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act prompted residents to oppose legislation which restricted teaching about LGBTQ+ people
  • opposition to the Poll Tax: many residents in Tower Hamlets played their part to defeat the tax
  • anti-nuclear action: the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1980s gained momentum in Tower Hamlets and elsewhere due to the deployment of Cruise missiles

Search our online catalogue using reference and classification numbers given in brackets in this guide.

Political parties, politicians and activists

Explore the archives of local Labour and Co-operative political parties (reference: S/LAB). These include

  • Bethnal Green Labour Party 1918–1979 (reference: S/LAB/B)
  • Poplar Labour Party 1937–1978 (reference: S/LAB/F)
  • Tower Hamlets Labour Party 1896–1985 (reference: S/LAB/K)

Also papers of local politicians and activists:

  • Papers of George Lansbury and his son Edgar Isaac Lansbury, 1897-1920s. Both were Mayors of Poplar. George Lansbury was a pioneering campaigner for peace, women’s rights, local democracy and improvements in labour conditions. He was central to the Poplar Rates Rebellion of 1921. The papers show his thoughts on poor law and peace (reference: P/LAN)
  • Paul Beasley, leader of the Labour Group on the Council in the 1970s and 1980s (reference: P/BSL. Staff are cataloguing this collection. Access is by appointment only)
  • Ansar Ahmed Ullah, community activist. Personal papers cover racial politics and groups. These include the Bangladesh Support Group and the Labour Party. 1977–2014 (reference: P/ULL)
  • Paul Barlow, Labour Party activist and community campaigner 1988–1995 (reference: P/PBA). Includes papers on the campaign against the Poll Tax 1989–1991 (reference: P/PBA/2/1/4/1)

Research also sheds light on the lives and works of local politicians. A highlight is

  • Will Crooks, local Labour politician (reference: P/TYC). This collection was compiled by historian Paul Tyler. It includes copies of Crooks’ correspondence, 1903–1921 (reference: P/TYC/1/1/4)

Explore the Library for biographies and autobiographies of East End political and campaigning figures:

  • Earl Attlee, 'As it Happened' (100 ATT)
  • Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds, 'Attlee: A Life in Politics' (100 ATT)
  • Catherine Bramwell-Booth, 'Catherine Booth' (100 BRA)
  • Barbara Castle, 'Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst' (100 CAS)
  • Shirley Harrison, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: A Crusading Life, 1882–1960' (100 HAR)
  • George Haw, 'From Workhouse to Westminster: The life story of Will Crooks, MP' (100 HAW)
  • George Lansbury, 'My Life' (100 LAN)
  • Edgar Isaac Lansbury, 'George Lansbury, My Father' (100 LAN)
  • William Lax, 'Lax His Book' (100 LAX)
  • Philip Piratin, 'Our Flag Stays Red' (320.4 PIR)
  • Robert Skidelsky, 'Oswald Mosley' (100 SKI)
  • Bertha Sokoloff, 'Edith and Stepney: The Life of Edith Ramsay' (100 SOK)
  • Paul Tyler, 'Labour's Lost Leader: The Life and Politics of Will Crooks' (100 TYL)

These figures and further individuals are represented in photographs, books and press-cuttings.

Trace other major political parties through other collections, such as

  • 1887 diary of Arthur W. Hart (reference: P/MIS/250): Hart was a local man involved with civic affairs and with a deep interest in Conservative Party politics.
  • Stanley Bean Atkinson (reference: P/ATK): local Liberal councillor for Stepney.
  • William Henry Lax (reference: W/PMC/5/1): prominent Methodist Minister and Liberal member of Poplar Metropolitan Council.
  • Poplar Borough Municipal Alliance, records 1905–1962 (reference: S/PBM): an organisation dedicated to combating socialism in the Borough.

Explore our local authority records research guide for relating to conservative and liberal politics. Records include election successes and failures.

Read books, pamphlets and press-cuttings about political parties in our onsite Library. Class numbers are in brackets:

  • British National Party (320.5)
  • Communist Party (320.4)
  • Conservative Party (320.2)
  • Liberal Party (320.3)
  • National Front (320.5)
  • Social Democrats (320.7)


Research the many campaigns fought in Tower Hamlets. Some have been defensive while others have sought change. Available are the personal papers of individuals relating to dedicated causes as well as archives of campaigning organisations.

Highlights in the archives include the following.

  • Figures in brackets refer to our Library class numbers.
  • Class numbers cover books and pamphlets as well as photographs and press-cuttings which can be used to support research.

Anti-racism (300.1)

The Bengali East End oral history collection provides rich personal testimony from people involved with the anti-racist campaigns of the 1970s. Examples are

  • Nooruddin Ahmed (reference: O/BEE/1): describes the racism of the early 1970s and how the Altab Ali murder in 1978 was a turning point for the Bengali community, strengthening people’s sense of solidarity and self-organisation
  • Hussain Ahmed Tarek (reference: O/BEE/2): includes vivid recollections of campaigning against racism in the 1970s and Bengali politics in the borough
  • Farrukh Dhondy (reference: O/BEE/6): includes reflections on his efforts to combat racism. These include his involvement with the Anti-Racist Committee for the Defence of Asians in East London

The papers of Edith Ramsay, 1923–1980 (P/RAM) document the fight against racial prejudice. Ramsay assisted African seamen and other immigrants suffering racial discrimination in east London in the 1950s.

Other records include

  • Press-cuttings 1928–1939, including articles relating to anti-Semitism in east London (reference: I/OXF/A/4/4/1)
  • The reflections of Alan Conway (reference: O/ADN/3) include his thoughts on anti-Semitism in the 1950s and 1960s
  • Description by John Day of fights with the British Union of Fascists in Victoria Park (reference: O/MTC/5)
  • Papers of the Cable Street Group, 1978-2016 (reference: S/CSG). Since 1986, the Group has organised events to commemorate the Battle of Cable Street of 4 October 1936. At the time 20,000 anti-fascist demonstrators gathered to prevent the British Union of Facists' march through the Jewish East End. The collection includes eye-witness accounts of the Battle and documents on the history of anti-fascism in Tower Hamlets
  • Correspondence concerning the Anti-Apartheid Movement 1964 (reference: L/THL/B/1/2/5)
  • File relating to opposition to a meeting held by the British National Party at John Scurr School, 1986 (reference: P/AYL/1/3)

Protection of nature and the environment (590)

  • East London Local Committee of the Commons Preservation Society (later reorganised as the Epping Forest Preservation Society) minute book 1866–1869 (reference: S/MIS/13)
  • Papers of the Bow Common Community Action Group on Greater London Council plans for Tower Hamlets Cemetery, 1972–1974 (S/MIS/19)
  • The Environment Trust, records 1995–2000 (reference: I/EVT). These include the Trust’s promotion of green homes

Built environment (721)

Campaigns relate to the preservation of historic buildings and the control of development for the benefit of residents:

  • Spitalfields Community Association, records 1974–2005 (reference: S/SCA). Also Includes the Campaign to Save Spitalfields from the Developers (reference: S/SCA/1) and Spitalfields Market Under Threat (SMUT) (reference: S/SCA/3)
  • Bishopsgate Arches Action Group records relating to redevelopment of Bishopsgate Goodsyard, 2002 (reference: S/SCA/1/7/5)
  • London Borough of Tower Hamlets Engineer and Surveyor’s Department: Historic Buildings/Conservation Section records, mainly photographs, 1970s–1980s (reference: L/THL/D/3)
  • Records of the campaign against McDonald’s being built in Tower Hamlets, 1990 (reference: P/WIN/13)
  • Campaign to Save Mile End Teachers’ Centre at Seager Place, 1978 (P/BSL/A/2/4/7)
  • Campaign to prevent the closure of the Post Office on Commercial Street, 1984 (reference: I/SPP/4/6/29)

Women’s movement (320.6)

Explore women’s campaigning and activism through

  • Records of St Margaret’s House 1872–1988 (reference: I/SMH)
  • Conference notes and other records of Women Unite Against Racism c. 1980–1995 (accession references: TH/9754-9755; currently uncatalogued, contact staff for updates on access)
  • File on Bengali Mahila Samity (Women’s Association), 1979–1985 (reference: I/AVU/A/11/1)
  • File on Nari Samity (Women's Association), 1984–1987 (reference: I/AVU/A/11/2–3; see also I/SPP/4/9/21)
  • File on Somali Women’s Association, 1979–1980 (reference: I/SPP/4/9/22)
  • Papers on Labour Party women’s organisations 1969–1970 (reference: S/LAB/B/9/20)
  • Oral history of Shahiyaz Alam (reference: O/WIB/2): includes recollections of attending marches and rallies to campaign for better legislation on equal rights

Housing (331)

The right of Tower Hamlets residents to good quality housing is extensively covered in the collections. Both the problems and the solutions are on record. Examples include

  • Farrukh Dhondy (reference: O/BEE/6): includes reflections on the poor housing endured by Bengalis in Tower Hamlets
  • A file on Campaign for Homes in Central London, 1983–1988 (reference: I/SPP/4/2/14)
  • The personal papers of Jane Downey about mobile homes in Essian Street, Stepney and the East London Claimants’ Union, 1980–1992 (reference: P/DOW)
  • The personal papers of Jeanne Wiseman on the proposed demolition of houses in Haverfield Road, 1988–1993 (reference: P/MIS/455)
  • A file on Housing for Asian people in Spitalfields, 1977 (reference: I/SPP/4/2/6)
  • The papers of Edith Ramsay (P/RAM): Ramsay did much work to assist African seamen and other immigrants facing poor housing conditions in east London in the 1950s
  • The papers of Father Joe Williamson, 1914–2002 (reference: P/WLM) cover his campaigns for slum clearances
  • Papers on the East London Claimants’ Union, 1977–1987 (reference: P/DOW/3)

Peace campaigning (346.1)

  • Tower Hamlets Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, records 1985–1998 (reference: S/THC)
  • File on an exhibition organised by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, 1985 (reference: L/THL/H/1/4/7)

Public health campaigns (610)

Campaigns to improve public health in Tower Hamlets include

  • Bethnal Green Health Society letter-book, 1908–1909 (reference: S/MIS/6)
  • File on Spitalfields Community Public Health Project, 1986-1991 (reference: I/AVU/A/8)
  • Papers about the Campaign to Save Bethnal Green Hospital, 1977–1979 (reference: S/LAB/K/4/29)

Gender issues (306) including LGBTQ+ people

  • The papers of Edith Ramsay (reference: P/RAM) includes documents relating to gay men referred to in the files as 'homosexuals'. The collection also has extensive files on the sex worker trade referred to as prostitution or 'Vice in Stepney' in the 1950s
  • The papers of Father Joe Williamson (reference: P/WLM) cover his assistance to help sex workers
  • Tower Hamlets Lesbian and Gay Campaign Group, records 1986–1989 (reference: S/LGG). These files cover the Group’s campaign against Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act. The Act prevented the education of young people about LGBTQ+ matters.