Recently I was contacted by Gerard Gilbertson who has written a short history of his Grandfather John F. Gilbertson who was Mayor of Poplar between 1938 and 1939. John F. Gilbertson was born and lived on the Isle of Dogs and spent many years working for the local community. Although the work of John F. Gilbertson has largely been forgotten, the following piece by Gerard reminds us that in the darkest times for the area, many men and women worked tirelessly for their local community.
For whatever reasons, in recent years Mayors of Tower Hamlets have often been in the headlines. Many of their policies, and personalities, have been somewhat contentious and have aroused interest and comment way outside the confines of the East End. It is an interesting experience to look back at some earlier Mayors (e.g. of the former Poplar Council)) to note what their concerns and policies were in times immeasurably different to modern ones. I often wonder when seeing certain views over the Isle of Dogs from high up in the tower blocks of Canary Wharf (for example in Lord Sugar’s “The Apprentice -You’re Fired!” programmes), how many of the participants have any idea whatsoever of what life there used to be like.
One of these earlier Mayors of Poplar was my Grandfather, John F. Gilbertson, who was in office at the time of the outbreak of World War II. When he was elected on November 9th 1938, few could imagine the horrors of the coming war in what was certainly one of the area’s darkest times, or the changes it would bring for Britain as a whole and for the Isle of Dogs in particular.
His speech of acceptance after being elected was generously reported in the local press. The London Shipping Chronicle (an edition of the East End News), for example, published a long article on November 11th 1938 reviewing his speech, as well as dwelling on the successful work of the retiring Mayor Mrs. E. Lambert.
Then, as now, nearly 80 years later, the provision of modern and affordable housing was a major problem , but – in the words of the Chronicle – the new Mayor pointed out the comprehensive adoption of “ legislation into municipal affairs that was 20 years in front of other people’s” since the Poplar Borough Council became Labour-dominated. It continued that “the Labour Council found that its predecessors had built one house in about 25 years. In a few years, the Labour Council built houses and flats and he could say from observation that the Council houses and flats in Poplar were second to none”. He added that “people were taken out of hovels, and put in decent accommodation”.
Mayor Gilbertson was well qualified from personal experience to talk about poor housing, for he had been born in 1882 in the Elizabeth Cottages, a small block of four slum houses, often flooded at high tide, and prone to disease, which by the 1880’s backed onto a coconut fibre works along the Westferry Road . They were demolished at long last in 1933-4 and the site was buried under the new Westferry Estate built by the LCC.
Source (British History online)
Elizabeth Cottages on the edge of the Barnfield Estate on the Westferry Road. Much of the area shown on this map from 1871 is now under the Westferry Estate built in 1933-35.The cooperage shown here became the coconut fibre manufactory.
Moreover, in approximately 1901, John Gilbertson moved with his parents to Crew(s) Street, one of the three near-identical Thames-side streets close to Kingsbridge which were coloured “black” in Booth’s poverty map of 1897 – black being the category “ lowest class, vicious, semi-criminal”. These streets exemplified Booth’s comment elsewhere that the poorest were always to be found closest to the River. Not until after his marriage to Margaret Rose Gilbertson (née Stamp) did he reside in better housing at the western end of Mellish Street, and from ca 1911 in Havannah Street.
Coconut fibre manufactory yard in Elizabeth Place next to Elizabeth Cottages, 1885 (Isle of Dogs History/Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archive)
In his acceptance speech, the new Mayor also praised the work of those members of the Council who had been Members of the old Board of Guardians, for they had helped bring about major reforms and improvements on a wide social level: “When he was a boy children went to school without boots and stockings. They did not see that today”. He was also proud of Poplar’s record in laying down many miles of modern street surfaces of tarmac. (The stabilizing of road surfaces by using tar was , incidentally, invented in Millwall way back in 1834 by Cassel’s Lava Stone Works, see entry on Wikipedia). However, cobblestone surfaces were still the norm in the 1920’s and ‘30s, as is shown in most street photos of the Isle in that era. The arrival of motorized traffic in the early years of the century gave a boost to an improved tarmacadam process introduced by Edgar Hooley.
Westferry Road 1901, Chapel House Street on right, looking north – road gang repairing road with large cobblestone blocks. Asphalting was still a fairly rare event worthy of note even in the 1930s. (Photo Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archive)
One of the very first tasks Mayor Gilbertson had to tackle was the move of the Council offices from the old Town Hall to the new one in Bow Road. This move and official opening took place barely a month into his period of office. It is difficult to imagine the administrative and personnel /staffing difficulties of such a move at the very start of one’s period of office! The opening ceremony was attended by, among others, the Labour MP George Lansbury who himself had been Mayor of Poplar more than once.
Former Poplar council offices in Poplar High Street ca 2010. (built 1870)(Wiki)
…and the new Town Hall in the Bow Road opened in 1938 (THLHLA ca 1965).
The ceremonial opening of the new Poplar Town Hall in Bow Road, December 3rd 1938. The recently elected Mayor John F.Gilbertson is in the centre, his wife Rose Gilbertson the Mayoress with a large bouquet is on his left, with MP and former Poplar Mayor George Lansbury on extreme left of photo. (Enlargement from THLHLA photo)
Less than a year after John Gilbertson became Mayor, war was declared on Germany in early September 1939. The initial worries, panic even, that flooded the country were accompanied by the first massive evacuations of children from major cities into the countryside in an attempt to save them from the dangers of enemy bombing. Although the “real” Blitz on London’s East End did not occur until the autumn of 1940, Poplar children were already evacuated in large numbers towards the end of 1939 to places like Wells in the west country. The “Wells Journal” of October 13th 1939 carried an article headlined “The evacuees in Wells – Letter of thanks from the Mayor of Poplar”. The wording of this Mayor-to- Mayor letter reads as follows:
(Wells Journal, 13th October 1939)
Isle of Dogs evacuees in Wells, Somerset in 1939 Photo (Island History Trust/ Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archive)
The national edition of the “Daily Herald” of just a few weeks later in January 1940 carried a large article claiming that East End children evacuated to Oxford “..all like being up at Oxford” and carrying a large photo of Clement Attlee (the Labour MP for neighbouring Stepney) visiting them in their temporary homes. The paper also gave information on the larger number of extra trains being laid on for parents of evacuees to visit their off-spring.
After handing over his position as Mayor to Mrs. E. Lambert towards the end of 1939, John Gilbertson continued to serve on Poplar Council through the war years, but shortly afterwards became ill. He stepped back from his duties on the Council for several months, returned briefly in April 1947, but died on June 10th 1947. The naming of Gilbertson House in Mellish Street after its construction in 1948-50 was Poplar’s tribute to its former Mayor. This building is still occupied and in good condition.
Gilbertson House towards the western end of Mellish Street.(Own photo, 2012)
Dog and Anderson shelter during WW2 in back garden somewhere in Havannah Street (Photo Island History Trust/ Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archive)
John Gilbertson was in office in momentous times, on the cusp of a very dark period for Poplar and particularly the Isle of Dogs. His Mayorship covered the inauguration of the new Town Hall, the increasing political and military tensions on an international level, the declaration of the second world war, the first bombing attacks on London, the first call-ups for active duty in the armed forces, the wide-spread construction of Anderson bomb shelters, the compilation of the historic 1939 Register, the first mass evacuations of children to safer homes outside the cities, and a host of other wartime measures.
If one combines the management of the effects of these events with his many, many years of leading activity in the Labour Party and the Trade Union movement, it can indeed be said that he served Poplar and its citizens well. He rose from extremely impoverished circumstances to positions of great responsibility, ability, and trust. He was indeed a great, if little-known, Mayor.
John Francis Gilbertson was a dry dock worker in the Millwall docks. He was on the executive of the Dry Dock Workers’ Union for some 18 years before its amalgamation with the General and Municipal Workers Union. He represented Cubitt Town as a Labour Councillor from 1933 and was elected Mayor of Poplar in 1938. He was Treasurer of the local Labour party, and of the Poplar Trades Council. He was a school manager for the Isle of Dogs Group of Schools. He was a close associate of the MP and former Mayor George Lansbury in many of these political activities. From 1911 until he died in 1947 he lived with his family at 46 Havannah Street on the Isle of Dogs opposite St Luke’s church.(IHT)
Many thanks to Gerard Gilbertson for sharing his family history with our readers and reminding us of a man who served the Island community for many years.