Poverty and all its associated miseries can crush and starve the human spirit, but it can also be the kindle that starts raging fires in individuals and movements. Julia Scurr (née O’Sullivan) was born into, grew up with, and lived with poverty and all the miseries it lavishly spreads so freely; but crush and starve her it did not.
Politically active from her late teens, she fought tirelessly against the ills and injustices of capitalism until her early death (at the age of 54) in 1927.
At 1905 Julia was working alongside George Lansbury, Dora Montefiore and Keir Hardie; she organised a deputation of 1000 unemployed women to meet with the Tory Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour.
Coming from an Irish immigrant family, Julia fought to improve the conditions of Irish families in the East End.
She was elected to the Board of Guardians in Poplar 1907 and remained a member until her death 20 years later.
Julia was well known for the central role she played in organising the feeding of 7,000 dockers’ children throughout a 1912 dock strike, understanding that strike support work was essential to keep the strike strong and defeat the bosses.
She campaigned for women’s suffrage, working closely with Sylvia Pankhurst while she was active in the Women’s Social and Political Union. She helped Pankhurst set up the East London Federation of Suffragettes in 1913.
Recognising the need to organise working class women and men in the fight for universal suffrage, she played a role in organising marches, rent strikes and deputations.
She led a deputation of women to see Prime Minister Asquith in 1914 and did not spare her words to him: “… Our husbands die on average at a much earlier age than do the men of other classes. Modern industrialism kills them off both by accident and by overwork… The poor law treats us mercilessly. It is hated by every poor woman.”
Julia made her speech only weeks before “modern industrialism” took working-class men from all over the world to the battlefields of Europe to die in their millions for the profit system. Like other serious socialists of the time Julia Scurr had the intellectual courage to oppose the war.
In 1919, along with 38 other Labour Party members, Julia was elected to Poplar Council. At that time, dole for the unemployed was paid by local councils rather than central government. The council had to finance that from the rates (property taxes), but poor boroughs such as Poplar obviously had less property to tax than richer boroughs with fewer unemployed.
Under the leadership of George Lansbury, Poplar council refused to cut the dole or raise the property tax. The councillors were summoned to court and told they would be sent to prison. Thirty councillors were arrested and imprisoned. Julia was one of five women councillors to be sent to Holloway prison. Her husband John Scurr was sent to Brixton Prison alongside George Lansbury and the 23 other men.
Conditions in prison were appalling. The councillors protested and demanded improvements for all prisoners.
Under substantial pressure from a growing movement of support, Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, and the London County Council backed down and the councillors were freed.
In 1925 Julia was elected a member of the London County Council. Like others imprisoned, she suffered ill-health, and she died in 1927.
Julia Scurr understood the centrality of solidarity, of collective action, of working out a principled position and fighting for it, even if it meant losing her personal liberty.
Julia Scurr is not simply a historical figure to be admired. She is a role model for working class women and for socialists today. Julia Scurr was a life-long class-fighter. What else is a woman to do?