Roaming the Rates Rebellion: Crafting a Digital Zine

Emily Stone and Jodie Adams in Conversation

Roaming the Rates Rebellion[1] is an online zine and audio walking tour created by Emily Stone and Jodie Adams. It responded to the brief set out by Poplar Union to create an interactive artwork that could be hosted online and commemorate 100 years since the Poplar Rates Rebellion, a protest against the unfair property taxation system known as ‘rates’ that disproportionately affected more deprived London boroughs[2].  It was a radical time in Labour’s working class history and an event which led to the principled imprisonment of 30 local councillors.

The zine was created first by hand, telling the story of the rebellion through handmade collage and handwritten text which was scanned into a digital format that could be accessed online and link to google map points and soundcloud audio files to accompany the walking tour. [3]

Colour photograph of the Poplar Rates mural painted on to a brick wall next to a road. The corner of a silver car and the edge of a person’s coat are on either side of the photograph.

As residents of Tower Hamlets, formerly the borough of Poplar,  the opportunity to investigate our local history in an innovative and interactive way, felt like something we couldn’t pass up.

JA: When you first saw the proposal, how did you come to the idea of a zine and walking tour?  

It became apparent that we wanted to create a walking tour, to encourage an exploration of the borough and to try and create an interaction with the past and the present. Janet Cardiff’s The Missing Voice (Case Study B)[4] at Whitechapel Gallery was a big influence on the work and how she took you on an audio journey physically describing places that no longer exist, creating a dialogue between past events and the present geography. Narrating the journey became important, but this didn’t feel enough to tell the whole story. [5]

Collage of George Lansbury’s face with a hand painted quote ‘All reforms come from those who are ready to break bad laws’

Zines and zine aesthetics are embedded within activism and protest. It has traditionally been a democratic way to circulate messages and take control over the presentation of a message without needing approval of or fitting into the establishment. It felt appropriate to make a zine as a way to visually tell the story of the radical councillors and integrate the audio and map of the tour somehow. 

JA: how did you decide on your style of collage and the images you would use, and how important was this to the narrative you were telling?

It is a style I’ve been developing that uses maps and archive material to help tell a story. Either selecting and cutting out the archive imagery so it stands out or using maps as the basis for portraits. I like trying to source relevant photos and locations that I can include and chop them up to make a layered story. It was also important to show the diversity of Poplar, fortunately there are a lot of strong photographs from the 1910s and 20s showing the working class population that we could get printed and then select which elements to include, sometimes just a face, sometimes a wall but it all helps evoke a sense of place and time. Using collage allowed us to be playful with the stories we could tell visually that were not captured in photographs at the time, Minnie Lansbury sliding down a bannister at Holloway Prison being one of those. I can imagine that and create it with found imagery and sketches. [6]

A collage showing a sketched drawing of Minnie Lansbury sliding down a bannister.

ES: I saw the zine and the audio tour as integral to each other and not as an illustration for a narrated story. For me they didn’t quite feel enough without each other… what did you think of this layered approach to storytelling?

We were telling a story of Labour Councillors standing up in defence of their working class constituents and unusually for the time most of the Councillors were also labourers working on the docks or in the factories. The physical labour involved in working and protesting was something we were very mindful of. The marches which took place through Bow took physical tolls on people and that isn’t something that can be conveyed from simply looking at a screen or an artwork. Equally, the physicality of making the zine was important, to see handwriting, to use a typewriter, to cut out 1920s ordinance survey maps of Stepney Green and Poplar, to spend time with the material and to be physically surrounded by it felt essential. We discussed making the zine digitally, as it would ultimately be going online, but it didn’t fit either my skill set or the research process. It certainly took a lot longer to do it this way, but sitting with the images helped the zine take shape. We wanted to share a sense of the uncanny, seeing photographs of council buildings brand new in 1921 that now exist as hotels or houses. We also needed to convey complicated tax figures which were at the heart of Poplarism, a photo can’t show this, neither can a verbal explanation do it justice, but the zine enabled us to be playful with how we presented the different rates paid by different boroughs using a mixture of handwriting on placards and quotes from the time.[7]

Collage of black and white photographs showing the Poplar town hall, people marching with a banner and Minnie Lansbury at the centre of a crowd of people accepting flowers that are collaged in colour.

The layered approach was really important – the audio tour was crucial for context. By putting people in the places where these events took place, you contextualized the story, and also allowed an exploration into the differences of the historical events and current societal framework. The visuals and aesthetic of the zine both gave the feeling of protest and rebellion, and gave a pictorial history of events as they happened at the time. Both aspects together gave a more 360 and immersive experience than having one without the other. 

[8] Hand drawn map of Poplar showing the walking tour route

ES: What do you think it added to the work by making the zine by hand? (Apart from extra time!)

Creating the map was a complicated process, we wanted to show the different walking points but a standard map was too busy to do this well on A4. I drew over the streets and connecting streets to create a map that was tailored to our tour. This is perhaps where analogue becomes less useful and needs digital to back it up. I don’t think you could sufficiently walk that map without having Google to back you up.

Again, the handmade aspect was really important to give the feeling of rebellion and protest. Zines have historically been associated with underground and cult movements, and their handmade nature makes them accessible and subversive, which is something we wanted to represent with our zine. 

ES: We needed to scan in and animate the zine by hyperlinking to the audio files on soundcloud and the google map points. Do you think this integration worked? 

Anecdotally it was great to see people engaging with the work. It was also interesting to see several people print out the zine to accompany their walk. It made the click through links fairly redundant but was so great to see the zine and the audio used in their traditional forms. They do depend on each other online, you need the zine to access the audio and the map points, and you need the audio to walk the story. However, I would love to have a version that does exist in analogue, handmade copies of the zine with the audio tour delivered on a separate device, or even through a live guided tour with a real person.

The integration of something quite handmade and DIY with a piece of more modern and slick media production was quite interesting, and was a really effective way of bringing the narrative and the visuals together. As Emily says though, the zine does work best in its analogue form, so it would be great to explore other ways the audio could be delivered at the appropriate points. 

JA: What did you learn from our project, and how do you think this medium worked in bringing a historical commission to life?

It was interesting because from the very beginning it was always going to be a hybrid work. Making the zine and walk with the intention for it to be online helped us reach an audience who are searching for something that can be flexible. We know that local schools have used our work, they accessed the online material and could choose to physically walk the route whilst also taking a device to access the sound clips and corresponding visuals. The layered interactivity felt like an engaging way to share historical stories.

[1] Roaming the Rates Rebellion zine and audio walking tour,

[2] Ben Gliniecki,The 1921 Poplar Rates Rebellion: A lesson in fighting the cuts, Socialist Appeal,

[3] Poplar Rates mural taken during a test walk. Photograph by Emily Stone.

[4] Janet Cardiff, The Missing Voice Case Study B, Artangel

[5] George Lansbury collage, taken from Roaming the Rates Rebellion zine.

[6]  Collage of Minnie Lansbury sliding down a banister,  taken from Roaming the Rates Rebellion zine.

[7] Poplar collage including Minnie Lansbury,  taken from Roaming the Rates Rebellion zine.

[8] Hand drawn map of the walking tour, taken from Roaming the Rates Rebellion zine.