Will Crooks MP, local activist and Labour pioneer
By Paul Tyler
2003 marks the 100th anniversary of the by-election on 11 March, of Will Crooks, as the first Labour MP for Woolwich, and the fourth member of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC). He was a member of the Philanthropic Coopers’ Union, which amalgamated to the NUGMW (GMB) in February 1924. Also he was a leading member that helped set up the Woolwich Labour Party on 31 March 1903, and campaigned for the implementation of independent Labour representation throughout the country. Crooks travelled 50,000 miles in 1904/5 speaking and educating working people on why they should support the Labour cause. He was a significant Labour pioneer: ‘A Servant of the People.’ Crooks was a member of the Coopers’ Union for fifty-four years 1867-1921, and was Chairman of the Woolwich Labour Party 1910-1918. J. R. Clynes MP said of him: ‘No man of his time did more to awaken the conscience of the nation upon social conditions; he pleaded the cause of the poor on all manner of platforms, as well as in Parliament.’
Crooks was the first LRC candidate to win a straight fight against a Conservative in a single seat constituency. His victory in Woolwich was the first example of what could be achieved in a Tory stronghold without Liberal opposition. It accelerated the electoral success of Labour, and became pivotal in the Lib-Lab electoral pact in September 1903. The pact in turn laid the ground for the anti-Tory landslide general election of 1906. Crooks’ victory should be seen as the beginning of Labour’s rise as an electoral force of political significance. The Woolwich election result marked the beginning of Labour’s rise electorally, and had a lasting political importance on the pattern and style of future elections throughout the country. The advent of Labour threatened the electoral supremacy of both the Liberals and the Conservatives by influencing decisions that sought to change the balance of power within the bounds of national politics.
Will Crooks was born in a one-roomed home on 6 April 1852, at 2 Shirbutt Street, Poplar, not far from Gough Street, where he lived until his death in 1921. He was the third of seven children, the son of George and Charlotte Crooks. He was born into poverty, and his early years were dominated by want and sorrow. To make things worse, when Crooks was three years old, his father, who was a ship’s stoker, lost his arm in a steamship accident. ‘We were so poor’, he said, ‘that we children never got a drop of tea for months together. It used to be bread and treacle for breakfast, dinner and tea, washed down with a glass of water.’ When Crooks was nine years old he was put into Poplar workhouse along with his disabled father and brothers and sisters. His mother remained outside the workhouse with the eldest and youngest of the children. Three weeks after entering the workhouse he was sent with his younger brother to a Poor Law School. Years later he recalled, ‘every day spent in that school is burnt into my soul.’ In addition he said, ‘I may truly say that I commenced my acquaintance with the outside world by entering the workhouse door!’ Thirty-five years later Crooks became Chairman of the Poplar Board of Guardians, the very board that had given him and his brothers and sisters shelter at that youthful stage and dark times of their lives.
Crooks’ work in regard to the Poor Law was perhaps the most important phase in his life. He was different from other Poor Law reformers in that he spoke from experience. He had seen the system from the inside. His bitter encounter with the Poor Law in early childhood had filled him with the resolve to bring about its change; especially in the way it treated children. Concerns with the issues surrounding poverty served to give Crooks the justification to agitate for trade union and political action for the abolition of long hours, sweating, all forms of overwork, conditions of privation, and its corollary unemployment. These in essence were the convictions that underpinned Crooks’ political life 1887-1921.
From the mid 1880s until the early 1900s, Tory businessmen dominated Woolwich civic life, being in control of the local vestries, the Board of Works, and subsequently the Borough Council. Edwin Hughes, who held the Woolwich parliamentary seat 1885-1902, was a local solicitor and magistrate. Also, in this period the alliance between the trade unions and the Liberal Party weakened,q and finally withered away. Because of the demise of the Liberals, the Tories were able to fill the political vacuum, and
win workingmen to their cause. Crooks helped break Woolwich’s political and geographic isolation, and thus the Tories hold on the district. He not only helped to politicise the workingmen of Woolwich though, but he was also instrumental in providing them with better access to work. Crooks was at the forefront of the campaign to build a tunnel at Blackwall, the opening of which in 1896 had a significant social and political impact upon the Woolwich district. Also, while he was Chairman of the LCC Bridges Committee (1898), he oversaw a scheme to provide foot-tunnels underneath the Thames between Greenwich and the Isle of Dogs and Woolwich and Silvertown; the later providing an alternative to the ferry. The foot-tunnels opened in 1902. In addition, it is worth remembering, Crooks was on the LCC Woolwich Ferry subcommittee. Therefore, most workers who voted for him in 1903 were aware that Crooks had influenced improvements in their daily life, whether they had to travel over the river to work, or attend trade union/ political meetings.
Crooks saw that unemployment and low pay were a major cause of poverty, and he emphasized the issues surrounding unemployment and the minimum wage. He believed that the Government of the day should be made responsible for poverty, and played a significant role in placing unemployment and low pay before the House of Commons. The Unemployed Workmen Act of 1905, and the implementation of a minimum wage by the Blair Government in 1999, is part of Crooks’ enduring legacy to industrial relations. Also of significance were his contributions in the creation of Labour Exchanges to deal with the unemployed, and the payment of old age pensions to workingmen. Crooks played a leading role in calling for Government intervention in the feeding of schoolchildren. He spoke in support of a Bill, which provided for the feeding of necessitous school children. It was eventually passed in December 1906. After 1945, with the onset of the Welfare State, free school milk and a national network of school meals provision came into being - a measure Crooks had campaigned for since the 1890s. The provision of school meals highlighted for Crooks the relationship between poverty, low pay, unemployment, education and poor housing conditions, which he believed were all contibutory and important factors in determining poverty.
It is important to recognize that Crooks was an important Labour figure, and that his experiences in both Poplar and Woolwich influenced his judgment on the wider issues of unemployment, low pay and poverty. Thus his local knowledge of the needs and interests of his constituents informed his national outlook, enabling him to make better assessments because of his strengths as a local MP.