Thousands of people lined the streets of London to pay their last respects to a politician – Really?
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 caliber of politicians today? Especially since the politician in question was not 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 we take for granted in our daily lives today. Crooks was a pioneer of the labor movement and a leading social reformer whose early life, which seemed straight out of Dickens, would shape his political life and become a champion of the poor and the working class.
As a boy in London’s East End, Crooks was sent to a Victorian workhouse when his family was thrown into poverty when his father became disabled after losing an arm in an accident. Crooks described the experience as “burning 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 everything I can to help these poor unfortunate people.” And he did so.
Will Crooks first rose to fame in 1889 as one of the leaders of the great dock strike, alongside men like Ben Tilllett and John Burns. Crooks’ fundraising rallies went a long way toward bringing in some much-needed relief funds for striking dock workers and their families as dock owners tried to subdue striking longshoremen. Crooks had been making a name for himself in Poplar due to his weekly Sunday morning political meetings and lectures by him at the dock gates, which were referred to by the locals as ‘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 number of comic stories, usually told as personal experiences, that his audience alternated between tears of sympathy and tears of laughter. I know of no stage comedian who could move his audience to such roars of joy as Will Crooks, when he recounted the human incidents that formed such a valuable part of his platform: who stole a wreath from his neighbor’s grave and won an award with it at a Christmas exhibition! flowers!”
Crooks put his oratorical skills to good use at his fundraising rallies for striking dockworkers.
His exploits, which incidentally resulted in a lengthy hospital stay due to overwork during the dock strike (he was still working his regular job at the time) did not go unnoticed and Crooks was approached by the Poplar Labor League asking him to resign his job as Cooper and represent them in public life; His salaries will be paid out of the ‘Will Crooks salary fund’. Crooks accepted the offer and quickly got himself elected to the London County Council (LCC), which had been formed only a few years earlier. At LCC, as Chairman of the Bridge Committee, Crooks was responsible for providing Londoners with the Rotherhithe Tunnel, along with the Greenwich and Woolwich pedestrian tunnels under the River Thames. He was already known in London as the public face of the Blackwall Tunnel thanks to his popular lectures that promoted the project. Also as part of the LCC, as Chairman of the Public Control Committee, Crooks dealt a death 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 Labor Party. Indeed, Crooks was London’s first Labor mayor and became Labor’s fourth member of parliament when he won his seat in an impressive partial victory in the Conservative stronghold of Woolwich. A victory 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 Great Britain owe a huge debt of gratitude to Crooks for the introduction of their national old age pensions. As part of the National Old Age Pensions Committee, Crooks was part of the 10-year campaign that finally got some reward in 1908 with the introduction of the Old Age Pensions Act. Crooks was also primarily responsible for making unemployment 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 becoming as an adult president of the Alamo Wardens, that same board that years before had been responsible for getting him sent to the Alamo Workhouse. He then went on to humanize and reform the Poplar Workhouse system; reforms that were later adopted by work houses throughout the country.
Although Crooks received many offers that would have set him financially for life, he turned down these offers in order to continue living among the poor and the working class he represented. His door was always open to all of them, literally. There was an endless stream of visitors to his home from ordinary people who needed help and advice on all kinds of issues in his daily life. True to his cheerful nature, he always greeted them with a friendly smile and his jovial disposition. To the people he represented, Crooks was a true working-class hero. It is no wonder, therefore, that when he died, thousands of mourners poured into the streets of London to say goodbye, as shops closed and flags flew at half mast. It’s hard to imagine something like this happening to any of today’s politicians.