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Will Crooks, politician

William [Will] Crooks 1852 – 1921,

Will Crooks was born at 2 Shirbutt Street, a one-roomed house at Poplar in between Poplar High Street and East India Dock Road.

He and his 6 siblings spent their early years in extreme poverty after their father lost an arm in an accident at work.

His mother struggled to support the family by working as a seamstress, and for a period William was admitted to the Poplar workhouse and separated from his parents and siblings. Although this experience was only temporary, it made a deep and lasting impression.

After leaving school Crooks found work as a casual labourer in the docks - where he experienced the daily struggle to obtain work - before becoming apprenticed to a cooper. In 1871 he married Matilda South, a shipwright’s daughter, at St Thomas’ Church in Bethnal Green. Of the couple’s 10 children only 6 were to survive.

About this time William began to hold his regular Sunday morning meetings outside East India Dock Gates, which came to be known as Crooks’ College.

This was the venue for the discussion of a number of social and political issues, and from these meetings would come successful campaigns for free public libraries (which led to the foundation of Poplar library and for a number of tunnels under the Thames below Tower Bridge (the first of which was the Blackwall tunnel).

Will Crooks was also one of the leaders of the historic 1889 Dock Strike, in which dockworkers successfully demonstrated for wages of 6d. per hour.

About this time he became involved in the mainstream political establishment with his election to the Poplar Board of Trustees. Shortly after this he was elected as one of the two Poplar representatives to the London County Council. It was also unfortunately at this time that his wife Matilda died and William remarried in 1893 to Elizabeth Lake, who would prove to be a staunch support to her husband throughout his political career.

The couple moved to Gough Street, Poplar, where they remained until William’s death.

As a member of the London County Council on which he served until 1910, he campaigned for fair wages, open spaces (Bromley Recreation Ground, Island Gardens and Tunnel Gardens all resulted from his efforts), technical education, and the opening of the Blackwall Tunnel.

He was elected to the newly formed Poplar Borough Council in 1900 and became mayor (the first Labour mayor in London) in 1901.

Crooks was also an elected member of the Poplar Board of Guardians and along with George Lansbury dominated the proceedings. Their radical measures, which used the poor law to reform the workhouse system and defend working-class living standards, marked the beginnings of what became to be known as “Poplarism” in the deprived East End. The resulting conflict with the municipal alliance of local ratepayers led to an official enquiry by the Local Government Board in 1906.

In 1903 Crooks was elected to Parliament when, as the Labour Representation Committee candidate, he won a sensational by-election at Woolwich, a Tory constituency.

Crooks was a hard working constituency MP, interested in poor-law schooling, old-age pensions and Woolwich arsenal issues.

Extreme ill health ended Crook’s parliamentary career in February 1921 when he resigned his seat. He died in Poplar Hospital on 5th June 1921 and after an impressive funeral service at All Saints’ Church, was buried in Tower Hamlets Cemetery,

An entry for William Crooks can be found in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography