It's true. Shops closed, flags flew at half-mast and thousands of mourners lined the streets of London to pay their last respects to a much loved politician. It's hard to imagine such a thing isn't it with the calibre of politicians today? Especially as the politician in question wasn't even a Prime Minister, a President or even the leader of a political party. So who was this politician and why did he deserve such a send-off?
The politician in question was in fact the Member of Parliament, Will Crooks. Most people in Britain today have probably forgotten about Will Crooks, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Will Crooks fought for, and gave Britain many of the things that we take for granted in our daily lives today. Crooks was a pioneer of the Labour movement and a prominent social reformer whose early life, which was like something straight out of Dickens, was to shape his political life and his becoming a champion of the poor and the working class.
As a young boy in London's East End, Crooks was sent to a Victorian workhouse when his family was plunged into poverty when his father became disabled after he lost an arm in an accident. Crooks described the experience as being “burnt into his soul”. Years later, after witnessing a bread riot by unemployed men, the 14 year old boy made a vow to his mother. He told her, “When I grow up to be a man, I'm going to do all that I can to help these poor unfortunate people”. And so he did.
Will Crooks first came to prominence in 1889 as one of the leaders of the great dock strike, alongside such men as Ben Tilllett and John Burns. Crooks' fund raising rallies went a long way to bringing in some much needed relief funds for the striking dock workers and their families as the dock owners tried to starve the striking dockers into submission. Crooks had been steadily creating a name for himself in Poplar because of his weekly Sunday morning political meetings and lectures down at the dock gates, which locals referred to as the ‘Crooks College'. By the time of the dock strike, Crooks was already known as a powerful public speaker. John Robert Clynes MP once said;
“Will Crooks combined the inspiration of a great evangelist with such a stock of comic stories, generally related as personal experiences, that his audience alternated between tears of sympathy and tears of laughter. I know of no stage comedian who can move his audience today to such roars of merriment as could Will Crooks, when he related the human incidents that formed so valuable a part of his platform stock. I once heard him say that a non-Union workman who tried to gain personal advancement at the expense of his mates was like a man who stole a wreath from his neighbour's grave and won a prize with it at a flower show!”
Crooks put his oratory skills to good use in his fund raising rallies for the striking dock workers.
His exploits, which by the way resulted in a lengthy hospital stay thanks to overwork during the dock strike (he was still working his regular day job at the time) did not go unnoticed and the Poplar Labour League approached Crooks to ask him to give up his job as a Cooper and represent them in Public life; his wages to be paid out of the ‘Will Crooks wages fund'. Crooks accepted the offer and quickly got himself elected onto the London County Council (LCC), which had been formed just a few years earlier. At the LCC, as Chairman of the Bridges Committee, Crooks was responsible for giving Londoners the Rotherhithe tunnel, along with the Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels under the River Thames. He was already known across London as the public face of the Blackwall tunnel thanks to his popular lectures which promoted the project. Also as part of the LCC, as Chairman of the Public Control Committee, Crooks dealt a killer blow against one of the darker sides of Victorian Britain, ‘Baby Farming'.
His rise to prominence coincided with the birth and rise of the British Labour Party. In fact, Crooks was the first ever Labour Mayor in London and became only the 4th ever Labour Member of Parliament when he won his seat in a stunning by-election victory in the Conservative stronghold of Woolwich. A win that the then Liberal Speaker of the House of Commons, William Court Gully, would later describe as the ‘Greatest by-election victory of modern times'.
The people of Britain owe Crooks a huge debt of gratitude for the introduction of their national old age pensions. As part of the National Committee on Old Age pensions, Crooks was part of the 10 year campaign which finally saw some reward in 1908 with the introduction of the Old Age Pensions Act. Crooks was also mainly responsible for unemployment becoming the state's responsibility. Although Crooks fought for and won many social reforms, the one that surely must have meant the most to him was as an adult becoming Chairman of the Poplar Guardians, that very same board that years earlier had been responsible for him being sent to the Poplar Workhouse. He then went on to humanize and reform the Poplar Workhouse system; reforms that were then adopted by workhouses throughout the land.
Although Crooks received many offers that would have set him up financially for life, he spurned these offers to remain living among the poor and the working class that he represented. His door was always open to them all, literally. There was an endless stream of visitors to his home from ordinary people needing help and advice on all manner of subjects in their daily lives. True to his happy nature, he always welcomed them with a friendly smile and his cheery disposition. To the people that he represented, Crooks was a true working class hero. It is little wonder, therefore, that when he died, thousands of mourners took to the streets of London to say goodbye, while shops closed and flags flew at half-mast. It's hard to imagine such a thing happening for any of today's politicians.