Poplar is perhaps best known at the moment as the setting for the popular Call the Midwife books and TV series. But, this area of the East End has a lot more history to it than that. It was the location for some of the worst damage inflicted on this area of London in both world wars and can even lay claim to being the home of the one of the most famous pirates of the 17th century.
The early history of Poplar
Like much of the East End of London, Poplar started out as a rural village or hamlet. Originally known as the manor of Popeler, the area was given to the Abbey of St Mary de Graces in the late 1300s by William of Wykeham, the Bishop of Winchester. Later, it became the property of Charles II when he was invested as Prince of Wales.
Places to Visit in the East End of London – Poplar
As London grew over the years, areas like Poplar became more populated and industrialised. Poplar was the home of many docks, including the large East and West India dock sites and played a significant role in London’s life as a port. The area was home to many different sea-related industries, including warehousing, ship building and rope making. The East India Company built the area’s church in the 1650s. Originally called the Poplar Chapel, this church is now called St Matthias Old Church and operates as a community centre.
The Poplar Pirate
In the 1600s, an unlikely pirate, John Mucknell, lived in Poplar. He was originally born in Stepney but moved to the area with his wife after they got married. Originally a commander serving on a ship for the East India company, Mucknell became known as the “King’s Pirate”, as during the English Civil War, he sided with Charles I in his fight against the Puritans. Mucknell seized the ship under his command and started life as a pirate, disrupting trade around the English coast. He banded together with other local pirates on the south coast of England and flew the flag of the King on his ship.
The Poplar Rates Rebellion
The borough of Poplar was home to the famous Poplar Rates Rebellion in 1921. Rather than being a major rebellion, this was a protest against property taxes. It was led by George Lansbury with the support of the local council. Lansbury had been the Mayor of Poplar and would later become the leader of the Labour Party.
Like many East End boroughs, Poplar was relatively poverty-stricken at this time. The Poor Law rules meant that the borough itself had to manage issues like unemployment and poverty with no support or funding from central government. The only way that local councils could do this was to raise money from charging property rates. The problem was that poor boroughs like Poplar had to charge high rates to raise the necessary money, which residents and local business people just could not afford to pay. Richer boroughs could charge lower rates to raise the same sums of cash, even though they had little need of the money compared to areas like Poplar.
The rebellion started because people thought that all rates should be charged equally and that poor areas such as Poplar should not be penalised for having poverty problems. It included a protest procession of 2,000 locals and eventually other boroughs said that they would join forces with Poplar if things did not change. An Act of parliament ultimately took note of local feeling and changed the system to make it fairer to all areas.
Poplar in the Wars
Poplar suffered from bomb damage in both the First and Second World Wars. Due to its proximity to the docks, Poplar and the rest of London’s East End suffered badly in the Blitz during the Second World War and was badly damaged by a number of V1 and V2 raids. However, the area was also affected badly during the First World War. Initially, the Germans used night-time Zeppelin raids to bomb the docklands areas, causing some damage to Poplar and killing some civilians.
The worst incident of the First World War happened in June 1917 with the first daytime attacks on London. A fleet of Gotha bombers came over London from Essex, dropping shrapnel bombs. One bomb hit a primary school in Upper North Street, killing 18 children and badly injuring around 40 others.
Poplar and Call the Midwife
Recently, the BBC has brought post-war Poplar back to life in its Call the Midwife TV series. Based on the books by Jennifer Worth who actually worked as a midwife here in the 1950s, the series recreates the conditions of much of the East End after the war and highlights some of the social conditions that the people of Poplar had to contend with.