The Edwardian Upton Hunger Marchers, and others influenced by Plaistow's Land Grabbers

Friday, 12 October 2018


The Plaistow Land Grabbers actions, see previous post, provided inspiration and stimulus to a local resident, William Pooley, who soon organised Hunger Marches and the "Back to the Land" movement, as a solution to unemployment in Edwardian England. 

Pooley and his activities provide a colourful, if eccentric, chapter in the radical, anti-poverty politics of pre World War 1 West Ham, and the south-east more generally. They are the primary focus of this article.

The Land Grabbers were also the inspiration to a community garden established in the south of Newham, a century after the original fizzled out. The Abbey Gardens are featured at the end of this article.

Huge thanks to Dr Mark Gorman for sourcing some of the great images, here.

William Pooley was a fascinating character.

He was born in Castle Acre, Norfolk in May 1856, the illegitimate son of an agricultural labourer. By the age of five he was still living there with his mother and an illegitimate sibling, in the house of his grandparents.  The family were all agricultural labourers. A decade later he was, himself, an ag lab, living in West Hexham, Norfolk with his mother and step-father, a shepherd.

He married Catherine Gurney (no connection to the affluent Upton Gurneys), daughter of a bricklayer in Kingston, Surrey on Christmas Eve 1877, and within four years the couple were living at 39 Cypress Place, Beckton, where he was described as an "Eating House Keeper".

A decade later, in 1891, he lived at 175 Queen's Road, Plaistow (subsequently built over by more modern housing) when his occupation was given as a "Temperance Drinks Manufacturer". The couple had nine children, and were at the same address in 1901.

William Pooley was described as an employer, working at home with two of his sons, Herbert and William in the firm in 1901. He began to spread his business wings soon after this, however, and within four years began to display, publicly, the first signs of the showmanship that characterised the rest of his life.

By 1905 he was advertising himself as an estate agent and auctioneer in the Essex Press, promoting "Pooley's East London Auction Repository", which was, in fact his home address.  He was offering businesses for sale: confectioners, land plots in Essex, dining rooms, grocers in Leyton, a blacksmith's in Chelmsford and apparently, his own Mineral Water business (for £175).  See advert, below.

He subsequently moved just around the corner, to 149 Plashet Road, which he described as his "East London Estate Office", offering the same services - see photo of premises, today. 

He was clearly inspired by the Triangular Camp, established by the very local Plaistow Land Grabbers - which set him off in a completely different direction, although still following his business as a soft drinks manufacturer. 

One press report, from the Grays and Tilbury Gazette of 25 May 1907 described him as its "the chief mover behind" the Triangular Camp. But, given his proclivity for self promotion and aggrandisement - see later - this is probably an overstatement, as he scarcely features in contemporaneous press reports of the Camp.

Pooley, above, as estate agent in
1905. Below 149 Plashet Road today



Pooley became a flamboyant anti-unemployment campaigner in the south-east of England, and attracted not a little notoriety and scepticism for his actions and claims.

Shortly after their eviction from the Triangular Camp, in late August 1906, the Land Grabbers  set up another camp, just around the corner, in Pooley's yard in Queen's Road, with their “Commander” Ben Cunningham in charge. To generate funds, Pooley, charged visitors a 1d. entrance fee, for which a glass of ginger beer was served; thus combining his convictions with his business interests, as he was to do for much of the rest of his life. 

Concerts and talks were also on offer to visitors and campers, alike. “Pooley’s Triangular Camp”, as it was called, attracted large numbers of visitors.  Its fate is unclear, but it was short-lived (see press cutting, below).

East London Advertiser 18 August 1906
A new body was set up, the “Right to Live Council”, with Cunningham as its chairman. Its aims were “to bring together labourless land and workless labour” by letting small plots of land at nominal rents, and establishing workshops for unemployed workers.  Anticipating “a terrible winter for the workless”, Cunningham’s committee aimed to force the state to take action.

The Grays and Tilbury Gazette, referred to above, provides a flavour of the "hunger march". The press report continued: "A band of Barking Unemployed are on their way to Southend",  accompanied by the Metropolitan Police. In Leigh-on-Sea:

Arrangements had been made for them to stay in an empty house along the Hadleigh Road, not far from the Elms Hotel. The house is used as a wine store by Mr William Pooley, who has works at Barking etc and who has a great interest in the Barking Unemployed Fund and was the chief mover in forming the Triangular Camp in Plaistow. Mr Pooley has named the home "Paradise Gardens", although it is somewhat difficult to discern the appropriateness of the title.

The last sentence is a somewhat tongue in cheek reference to Pooley's penchant for exaggerating the importance of buildings, by allocating them rather grandiose titles - as will be seen later in this article.

The Gazette reported that there were about 60 people on the march and that according to Pooley: "The object is an account of the starving unemployed, who are willing to work and unable to get it. They are in terrible straits"

The intention of the march was to collect money in Southend for the hungry wives and children of the marchers.  The Gazette said: "Mr Pooley added with pride he and his sons cooked a fish for each man and gave them half a pint of ginger wine."


William Pooley with his "curious looking vehicle"
and hunger marchers campaigning through Essex.
Pooley, in the only surviving photo of him, is
standing waving his arms on a platform
on the vehicle. 



The photo, above, was the front of a postcard, published by Pooley. The message on the obverse was: 

'Back to the Land Movement', headquarters Pooley's Hall, Upton Park (ed: his house!), with City Office: 22 Coleman Street EC. As a result of the 'Hunger March' on July 29th last (as represented from a photograph on the other side) a large number of unemployed have received permanent work on the land, Road-building, etc. 

Similar 'Marches' organised weekly entailing considerable expense are providing equally encouraging and successful. Subscriptions and all other practical help earnestly and urgently needed, and will be gratefully received. W Pooley - founder and organiser.
Pooley and his marchers were on the road again, and in trouble with the police, the following year, when he lead a “right to live” march from Upton Park to Trafalgar Square - the demonstration was broken up with some force by the police.

   The Ross Gazette of 8 October 1908 reported:

Riotous scenes took place on Sunday afternoon at the close of an unemployed and "Right-to-Live" demonstration held in Trafalgar Square, London, resulting in the arrest of Stewart Gray, the leader of the Hunger Marchers and six others, who belonged to the "marchers".

The demonstration was organised by Mr William Pooley of the "Back-to-the-Land" Society. Marching from Upton Park, the "Hunger Marchers", about fifty in number arrived at Trafalgar Square at about three o'clock.

Several thousands of people, a large proportion of whom were unemployed, from various suburbs had gathered to meet them.


Ross Gazette 8 October 1908

The meeting passed a resolution that the government receives a deputation: "with regard to purchasing land by which the working man can live by his labour".


Photo of Stewart Gray at the Trafalgar
Square demonstration, from Illustrated London
News 10 October 1908
As the meeting broke up, seven men were arrested for public order offences.

Pooley, chairman of the “Back to the Land” Society, was seen as a colourful character, whose “chariot”, carrying both himself and a band of musicians, became a familiar feature on “hunger demonstrations".

According to the Nottingham Evening Post, of 13 January 1910, he was a "Back to the Land" candidate for South West Ham in the election of 1910.  This sounds like fanciful story telling by Pooley, for there was no such candidature in the General Election in that year, for the seat held by Will Thorne.

Nonetheless, the Evening Post went on to report that his election address was dominated by quotations from the scriptures, announced that: "With the abolition of the workhouse, there'll be no separation (ed: by gender in the wards) at Pooley's Happy Homes. Hallelujah!"

Pooley told the paper that he planned to leave no stone unturned: "until we get the people back to the land."

On the back of the "election address" were the objectives of the "Associated Garden Village", with "The whole scheme to be carried out by Pooley's Glorious Army."

Later in 1910 he led another march through his home county of Norfolk with the stated intention of petitioning the king at Sandringham. The march petered out, but not before Pooley had been involved in a fracas with local farmers. Described as “thickset and robust” and dressed in a frock coat and silk hat Pooley appeared to have access to funds, which financed a number of ventures apart from the marches, including a farm colony on Canvey Island, and various institutions in east and west London to support the unemployed.

The Norfolk News of 15 October 1910 had this to say about the march:

A curious looking vehicle, quite unlike anything seen in ordinary road traffic, entered Norwich on Thursday (ed: see photo). .. It was drawn by two hardy looking ponies, and on all sides stood out in bold letters words which spoke of an ardent campaign ... most conspicuous was the injunction: "Back to the Land" and the name of Pooley.

The paper variously described Pooley as: "reputed author of The Triangle Camp Plaistow", of "The Hunger Marcher Movement", of "Pooley Farm Colony, Winter Gardens, Canvey Island", with "headquarters at Pooley's Hall, Upton Park" (ed: his house at 66 Plashet Road - see photo, today - yet more aggrandisement of the ordinary, to create effect), "with city offices and branches all over the land."


Norfolk News 15 October 1910
The Norfolk News described some of the information produced by the marchers (Pooley), as being in a little song and hymn book, urging "Back to The Land" policy, clearly influenced by his childhood:

Part of it is vaguely scriptural, some of it is broadly humorous, but all of it passionately advocating the simple joys of the agriculturalist.

Mr Pooley makes a fine figurehead for his campaign, but his thick set, robust figure, clad in a frock coat and silk hat and the massive head and a full-grown beard hardly suggests the "hunger marcher".

Pooley sang and preached "back to the land" messages, accompanied by a man on a harmonium, as the marchers stopped in different settlements on their marches, in an effort to raise funds for the families of the poor marchers.

He said that there was room for 2 million men and their families, on the land - which would solve the problem of unemployment.  The newspaper said that:"His literature talks of establishing a chain of self-supporting garden villages, within 50 miles of the metropolis".


66 Plashet Road, today.  Pooley's house, which
he described as "Pooley's Hall"
Three months later, Pooley was in court in Norfolk for non-payment of rates, for a stable in Oak Street and a shop in Golden Ball Street Norwich. Quite where he obtained the money for these properties is unclear - as he was not, despite his pretensions to the contrary, a man of wealth or substance, as details of his estate, published four years later, showed.

It is not clear, either, whether Pooley had, by now tired of the both the estate agency and auctioning business, as the 1911 census continued to show him as a Mineral Water Manufacturer and employer, based at 62 and 66a Plashet Road, from where he conducted his business.

Later that year he was involved in a court case, in west London for altogether very different activities, which may raise an eyebrow, today, and show a very different side and priority for the man.

The Norfolk News of 11 November 1911 reported the strange case, where details of Pooley's life style were revealed, in passing. He was described as running "Pooley's Castle" (another exaggeration), a former police court in Brook Green, Hammersmith. Pooley, who confirmed his interest in unemployed people, was said to have used "the Castle" to house hunger marchers and was described as a non-alcoholic drinks manufacturer. 

Quite how, or why, he was running a "Castle" in Hammersmith is unclear, but equally unclear is why he ran what was described as "Pooley's Ark" in Fulham Cross - also in west London. It was described in court as being an "Abode of Love ... inhabited chiefly by boys and girls."

This seems to have been Pooley's last significant public foray before his death two and a half years later, but his obituary in the Fulham Chronicle on 24 April 1914, penned by someone clearly unsympathetic to him paints a picture of a complex man. Part showman, part drinks manufacturer, part friend of the unemployed, part Christian - with just a hint of the charlatan about him. 

The article said that he was known as "Father" Pooley at the Ark, which "became notorious in the district as the centre of the professional unemployed of the district." The report continued:

Pooley was a picturesque figure, with long grey beard, usually displayed himself in a frock coat, very shiny at the seams, a top hat of antique shape and a glaring pair of pepper and salt 'reach-me-downs' (ed: second hand trousers).

Pooley was a mob orator of considerable ability and he combined much word philosophy with a good deal of business acumen. He was to restore Eden to earth by placing the unemployed back to the land.

As an earnest of his intentions, Pooley held open-air demonstrations at Fulham Cross and Waltham Green and, incidentally, raked in a good many subscriptions towards the necessary expenses.

But, the unemployed whom he gathered about his banner: "The earth is the land's and the fullness thereof" blazoned across it, never got back to the land.

"Father" Pooley found them employment at very low rates in the manufacture of mineral waters and British wines. The sale of these was promoted by a door-to-door canvass, conducted by "genuine unemployed" who made the ground of the appeal to buy the fact that they received a commission on each bottle sold.

The mineral water cart, with its attendant troop of canvassers, was quite a familiar spectacle in Fulham and district. It travelled far afield, too, and right down to Portsmouth. Pooley's men spread the news of his wonderful wares and his fine philosophy. There was one distinctive feature about the selling which conveys much to the intelligent reader.

They never worked the same district twice. A typical "unemployed" - and in those years it was a distinctive business - told the present writer the secret:

"Why guv'ner", he confessed with a cynical smile, "if yer were to go to an 'ouse where you'd sold a bottle before, they 'it yer over the 'ed with the empty". Volumes would not have said more.

Pooley always gave an air of religious sanction to his "philosophic labours, and by much quoting of the Scripture. His favourite "Back to the Land" banner bore the text; "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof", though why this fact gave Pooley and his followers any claim to it was never explained.

He had a remarkable knack of getting hold of soft-headed parsons and stupid church people and securing a collection. ... Pooley, himself, sang the hymns and attended to the devotional exercises with fine fervour.


He died of syncope (fainting) on 16 April 1914, in a shop in Albert Road, North Woolwich, apparently, as the press reported with some glee, "after eating a very large meal". As one headline put it, the “strange fate of a hunger marcher”. 

His death certificate registered his home address as 66 Plashet Road, and the sole beneficiary of his will, published six months later, was his eldest son, Herbert - who received a total of £175 (less than £20,000 in today's terms).

There is barely a trace of a footnote in the various social histories of life in Edwardian Britain of William Pooley, but  a man with local connections and a colourful past surely demands one. The above piece is written in the spirit of providing it!


Fast forward a century

Exactly century after the Plaistow Land Grabbers occupation, a group of residents from around Abbey Road in Stratford  - about a mile away from the occupation site - took a much more legitimate route to secure a similar plot of land for local use, and established Abbey Gardens. Working with Newham Council, they established a community garden there. In doing so, they have helped create a memorial to the Plaistow Land Grabbers.


Abbey Gardens, today - run on the principles
 of the Triangle Camp - right down
to lay-out of growing beds
Like the Plaistow land, this ground was largely unused at the time of the creation of the gardens. There is within it, however, a small patch of land of archaeological interest. It has been surveyed and excavated twice by the Museum of London and declared to be the site of the entrance to gatehouse to the 12th century Cistercian Stratford Langthorne Abbey. As such, it is protected from development by English Heritage.  Again, like the Plaistow plot, it is almost adjacent to a railway line - this time the DLR, and is next to the Abbey Road station.

Many of those involved in the development of Abbey Gardens were inspired by the Plaistow Land Grabbers and reproduced the principal surviving photo of the group on the outside of the headquarters they established on the site. They have also inscribed the message painted on "The Triangle Hotel" on the back wall of the site - "What Will The Harvest Be?" (see photo, below).


Museum of London excavation of Langthorne
 Abbey gatehouse - an artist's impression of
which is reproduced, below

Volunteers have created 30 raised triangular growing beds - inspired by "The Triangle Camp" - in the garden and run it as a collective allotment, or community garden, similar to that in Forest Gate. No individual "owns" or "rents" any of the raised plots - they are, instead, tended collectively. There are a number of sessions each week when volunteers are encouraged to tend the plants and share the delights of the open space.

Above and below, Abbey Garden's homage to
the Plaistow Land Grabbers, today


Friends of Abbey Gardens are always on the look-out for volunteers and support. They often run events for local people and have started to host a local market, on Saturdays. They can be reached via their website: www.abbeygardens.org and have both a Twitter (@_AbbeyGardens)  and Facebook presence (facebook.com/abbeygardens). They would be delighted to hear from you.


Footnotes. Much of the contents of this article has been extrapolated from the archives of Ancestry and the archives of the British Newspaper Library. Our thanks are extended to  The Friends of Abbey Gardens website (see above) for some of the images reproduced of Abbey Gardens. We wish them well.

1 comment:

  1. any more information on Stewart Gray? possibly a long lost radical cousin :)

    ReplyDelete

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