My awareness and appreciation of Will Crooks (1852 – 1921) has steadily grown over the years. Imagine a large jigsaw puzzle. Over the years I’ve stumbled across bits and pieces of information relating to Crooks, but it wasn’t until I read this book that all of the pieces of that puzzle finally came together.
Being an East Ender myself, I had often heard the name of Will Crooks mentioned, especially from the older generation (mostly with great reverence). I’ve lived in quite a few areas of London, and on both sides of the river. For a time I lived in Poplar too where I had to walk past the Will Crooks estate to and from work every day. Obviously I knew the estate was named after the man, but at that time I was still young and I didn’t put any more thought into it. Although I had always been interested in history, it wasn’t until later in life when I started to develop a greater interest in the history of London itself that I was surprised by just how often the name Will Crooks kept popping up.
The author of ‘Where there’s a Will, there’s a way’ is right to subtitle of this book, ‘The remarkable life story of Will Crooks MP’, but because quite frankly it is ‘remarkable’. The book itself I might add, I found remarkable too. The fact that some of the subject matter is quite serious and heavy at times in describing the depressing social conditions of the time, the author manages to convey quite nicely how Will Crooks’ never ending optimism, his happy nature and his genuine love of his fellow man, especially the poor and needy carried him through the many challenges he faced in improving the lives of ordinary working people.
As a 9 year old boy in London’s East End, Crooks was sent to the Poplar Workhouse when his family was plunged into poverty, an event that he described as being etched into his soul. This might have killed any desire in most people to help their fellow man, but when Crooks became a man, he became chairman of the very board that years earlier had been responsible for sending him to the workhouse. He then began reforming and humanizing the Poplar Workhouse, reforms that would then spread throughout Britain’s workhouse system. The book does a very good job of detailing Crooks’ childhood experiences so the reader can see how those experiences shaped the man, the life he led and his policies.
Will Crooks did much, not just for London, but for the nation as a whole.
- He first came to prominence as one of the leaders of the great dock strike of 1889; an episode which nearly cost him his life.
- He was the first ever Labour Mayor in London.
- He became only the fourth ever Labour MP.
- He was a Privy Counsillor to King George V.
- As part of the London County Council, he gave Londoners the Rotherhithe Tunnel, the Greenwich Foot Tunnel and the Woolwich Foot tunnel. He even had one of the Woolwich Ferries later named after him.
- He dealt a killer blow against Baby Farming in London, one of the darker sides of Victorian Britain after the nation was outraged by the Amelia Dyer baby murders.
- He fought for, and won many social reforms.
- He fought for ten years for the introduction of our National Old Age Pension scheme.
- He was mainly responsible for unemployment becoming a government responsibility.
- He was calling for a minimum wage in parliament 86 years before Tony Blair’s government first introduced one.
There are so many other achievements and episodes related to his name that I could list, but I don’t want to go into too much detail and spoil the book, which by the way is written in novel format and makes for a super easy read. I’m surprised Will Crooks isn’t more widely known today and that he has become a bit of a forgotten figure. Hopefully this book will open people’s eyes to one of the East End’s and London’s finest sons. Although the main point of the book is Will Crooks, it also covers the social conditions of the times and how those conditions affected the birth of the British Labour Party and ultimately our welfare state, but don’t be put off of reading this book if you are not a fan of the Labour party, as the book is so much more than a political biography and I’m sure readers of any political leaning will enjoy reading this simply inspiring story.
Where there’s a Will, there’s a way: The remarkable life story of Will Crooks MP (212 pp) by Jim Crooks is available in both paperback (list price £8.99) and Kindle (list price £3.35) editions.