To say people mourned was an understatement. As the carriage passed through the gates of Bow Cemetery, thousands of mourners gazed upon the handsome horse-drawn carriage that contained the remains of a fighter. His coffin was barely visible beneath the floral tributes which only barely expressed the sentiment so many felt at his death. A fighter for social justice, the rights of workers and the personal nemesis of poverty. The year was 1921 and Will Crooks was dead.
Crooks was born in Poplar in 1852, the third son of George Crooks, a Ship’s stoker who’d lost his arm when Will was aged 3. This left their mother with the responsibility of bringing money into the household, which was no easy feat for a woman in Victorian England. Consequently, five of the seven Crooks children ended up in the Workhouse – an experience which coloured Will’s outlook on inequality and poverty for the rest of his life, like another famous Londoner from the generation before.
There was no time to enjoy youth in such circumstances: aged 14 Crooks became an Errand boy, Blacksmith’s labourer and then an apprentice Cooper. A bright lad, his mind was ablaze with ideas after hearing of reformers such as Richard Cobden and John Bright, to the point where his passion for better workplace conditions led to the encouragement of his colleagues to speak up against his employers about their ridiculously long working hours. This he did with such tenacity that they fired him for being a ‘political agitator’.
His dismissal did not silence his voice. Working briefly in Liverpool and then on the London docks, his oratory skills soon had him holding ‘sermons’ to hundreds of dockers in what became known as ‘Crooks’ College’ which helped raise money for the 1889 London Docker’s strike. His oratory skills were superb – he mixed evangelism with humour on a variety of subjects, with good sense and refreshing honesty – which made people listen to him.
Earlier that year he became the first Labour member for the London County Council. His career and empathy with the voters secured his ascension to more prominent political roles, such as overseeing changes in the operation of the Poplar Board of Guardians, which oversaw Workhouse operations from 1835 until 1930. A popular local politician, he ‘warmly endorsed’ a cap on immigration and opened Island Gardens on the Isle of Dogs.
His career continued upwardly, First Labour Mayor of Poplar and then two years later became the MP for North Woolwich, defeating a previously Tory stronghold. Despite his rise to power, he never forgot his background and the needs of his fellow men. He supported plans for a workers’ Pension as well as limiting the powers of the House of Lords.
Crooks featured on my tour of Tower Hamlets Cemetery as part of the Shuffle Festival. As I gave the tour, I wondered why he wasn’t interred in somewhere more prestigious, such as Westminster Abbey – and this was indeed offered to his family, who declined the honour stating that he was born, married, lived and died in Poplar, and his death would not remove him from the area he loved so much. However, further research reveals that some of his opinions sat uncomfortably with his opinion on equality and prejudice – through modern eyes, at least.
He supported the ‘Feeble Minds Act‘ which suggested putting those with mental illnesses into Labour Camps – an idea suggested by Winston Churchill in 1911 and supported Eugenics, seeing the disabled as ‘human vermin…who corrupt everything they touch’. A peculiar standpoint considering that his father was disabled – I wonder if their relationship informed his standpoint on the subject. At the outbreak of the First World War, he led the chamber in singing the National Anthem and supported the action of going to War, including being a member of a committee that included the Prebendary of St Paul’s Cathedral which would break up pacifist meetings.
Upon his death, the East End shut for business. Cinemas and pubs were deserted. People lined the funerary route to say goodbye to a man who’d touched the lives of countless Eastenders. Floods of memorials came in, one claiming:
‘Listening to Will Crooks was like listening to the very soul of East London’
I wonder how many politicians today could get such a compliment.