Ellen Wilkinson – trade unionist, feminist, socialist

Ellen Wilkinson was born in Manchester in 1891 and was an active trade unionist, feminist and Socialist. She was a councillor in Manchester and later MP for Middlesbrough and then Jarrow. She was Minister for Education in the 1945 Labour government but died suddenly in February 1947.

Ellen Wilkinson was born on 18 October 1891 at 41 Coral Street, Ardwick. Her father Richard was as a textile worker and later an insurance agent, while her mother, also named Ellen, was a dress-maker. Her father was a lay Methodist preacher but Ellen did not grow up to share her parents’ religious beliefs.

As a child she was often ill with asthma and never grew above five foot tall. After an elementary education she won a scholarship in 1902 to attend Ardwick Higher Grade school (later renamed Ellen Wilkinson Highschool in her memory). In 1906 she won a bursary to study at Manchester Day Training college for half a week, teaching at Oswald Road school for the rest of the week.

In her autobiography Myself When Young, published in 1936, she recalled:

“The boys were filling in time, bored stiff under they reached 14 years and could leave. I was an undersized girl. They all towered above me. My only hope was to interest them sufficiently to keep them reasonably quiet. One day the Headmaster came in and demanded to know why the boys were not sitting upright with their arms folded. “They are sitting that way because I am interesting them,” I replied. To which the Headmaster responded by caning almost everyone. We had a grand row, and I was sent home to be reprimanded by an Inspector. But my temper had not calmed. The surging hate of all the silly punishment I had endured in my school days prevented any awe of the Inspector. I whirled all this out at the unfortunate man, who listened quietly and advised: “Don’t do any more teaching when you have finished your two years here. Take my advice. Go and be a missionary in China.”

Ellen did not take the advice, instead in 1910 she gained a scholarship to read history at the University of Manchester, a considerable achievement for a working class young woman.

She was already involved in the Socialist movement, having joined the Independent Labour Party at the age of 16 after hearing a speech by Katherine Glasier, one of the leading women socialists of the day:

“It was a memorable meeting. I got a seat in the front row of the gallery. It seemed noisy to me, whose sole experience of meetings was of religious services. Rows of men filled the platform. But my eyes were riveted on a small slim woman, her hair simply coiled into her neck, Katherine Glasier. She was speaking on ‘Socialism as a Religion’. To stand on a platform of the Free Trade Hall, to be able to sway a great crowd, to be able to make people work to make life better, to remove slums and under-feeding and misery just because one came and spoke to them about it – that seemed the highest destiny any women could ever hope for.”

At college Wilkinson was Secretary of the Fabian Society, meeting Clifford Allen and GDH Cole, and later of the Socialist Federation, and was also active in the Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage. On leaving university she got a job as the Manchester organiser for the National Union of Women Suffrage Societies, whose offices were on John Dalton Street. She spoke at many out-door meetings as well as running recruitment drives and raising funds.

Like many ILP members Ellen Wilkinson opposed the First World War and supported the No Conscription Fellowship, which opposed compulsory conscription and supported pacifists and conscientious objectors who refused to serve in the armed forces. She also joined the Women’s International League for Peacer & Freedom, which called for a negotiated end to the war.

In 1915 she was employed by the National Union of Distributive & Allied Workers to organise the Co-operative Employees, the first woman organiser to work for the union.

By now Wilkinson was an Executive menber of the National Guilds League , established by GDH Cole in 1915, to promote Guild Socialism. In August 1920 she was sent as a delegate by the Manchester branch to attend the unity convention in London which, at the urging of Lenin, brought together a number of existing socialist organisations to form the Communist Party of Great Britain. Ellen joined the party later that year, and in 1921 she attended the founding conference of the Red International of Labour Unions in Moscow.

In November 1923 Ellen Wilkinson was elected as a Councillor for the Gorton ward, standing for the Gorton Trades and Labour Council. and on 7 November she spoke at CPGB rally to mark the sixth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Also speaking on the platform was Shapurji Saklatvala, Communist MP for Battersea.

Ellen left the Communist Party in 1924 when the Labour Party proscribed dual membership. That same year she was elected as a Labour MP for Middlesbrough East, one of the very few women in parliament. In her first speech in the Commons on 3 March 1925 she criticised the arrangements for workers employed at the British Empire exhibition.

On 29 June 1926, whilst speaking during a debate on the Coal Mines Bill, she produced a rope used by miners in Somerset, who had to haul the coal tubs themselves as the roads were too narrow for horses or ponies.

“I am sorry to intrude into the polite environs of this House a thing of this kind. This is what is worn by the men. This is the rope that goes round the man’s waist; this is the chain that passes between his legs, and this is the crook that is hitched on to the tub. This was worn, not 60 years ago, as stated by certain coal-owners, but on 30th April of this year by a miner.”

In July of that same year she also attacked the Tory government’s Emergency Powers Act for imprisoning innocent people.

“One can get into the habit of giving the Government powers like this without realising what they are actually like, when they are put into operation not by the Home Secretary, or the Under-Secretary, but by the local police, and, still worse, by the magistrates, who have shown themselves in many districts completely prejudiced and acting with political bias, and the bias dictated by their own pecuniary interest. I have, through the Class War Prisoners’ Aid Association, come in contact with a number of these cases, and it has astonished me the number of magistrates who are themselves coal-owners, or large employers of labour, who have not hesitated to take their places on the Bench and to deliver judgement in cases when their own property was concerned, and certainly where their own interests were concerned.”

After the defeat of the General Strike she went to the United States to raise money for miners’ families who remained on strike until the autumn and had been left high and dry after the strike was called off by the TUC. In 1927 she wrote a book about the General Strike with Frank Horrabin. In 1929 she wrote a novel called Clash, largely autobiographical.

During the second Labour administration 1929-1931 Wilkinson worked for Susan Lawrence MP, who was parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Health. But she lost her seat in the catastrophic defeat of Labour in the 1931 general election following the formation of a National government. During her time out of the Commons she worked for a trade union and wrote another novel, The Division Bell Mystery. She also campaigned against the rise of fascism, co-authoring a book with Edward Conze entitled Why Fascism?

Ellen returned to the Commons in 1935 as MP for Jarrow, a town suffering massive unemployment because of the slump. In 1936 she took part in the Jarrow Crusade in which several hundred male marchers walked from Jarrow to London to highlight the plight of the unemployed. On reaching London the Prime Minister refused to receive their delegation.

Speaking in the House on 12 November 1936 about the march she said

“As I marched down that road with those men, all of whom I knew well, whom I had worked with in my own constituency, as I marched with them hour after hour, just talking—I come from the working class myself, and my father was unemployed, but I have never known what it was to miss a meal that I wanted—it was just as we walked and talked so intimately that I began to understand something of what it meant, day after day after day, to get up and not know what you were going to do, and never have a copper in your pocket for anything. I mean that it was a revelation to me, and no amount of investigation, and going down for a week, and no amount of talking with these men in the ordinary political sense would have taught me so much.”

In 1939 she wrote a book for the Left Book Club entitled Jarrow, the Town That Was Murdered.

During the war Ellen was acted as parliamentary secretary for Herbert Morrison, the Home Secretary. She was in charge of air raid shelters, often visiting sites personally and urging women to get involved in civil defence.

When the Labour party won the 1945 general election with a huge majority the new Prime Minster Clement Atlee made her Minister of Education with the task of implementing the 1944 Education Act. In 1946 she was successful in getting the School Milk Act through the Commons which provided a free third of a pint of milk every day to every child in the country.

Ellen Wilkinson died suddenly on 6th February 1947 during one of the worst winters of the century. The official cause was pneumonia, although there were rumours that she had taken an overdose. She was buried in Penn, Buckinghamshire. There is a plaque marking the site of her birth place (now demolished) in Baslam Close, Beswick.

Article by Michael Herbert.

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4 thoughts on “Ellen Wilkinson – trade unionist, feminist, socialist

  1. Pingback: Peace and Antiwar activiti in 1930s Manchester « Manchester's Radical History

  2. Incomplete statement: ” … free third pint of milk … ” – should be “free third of a pint” (I had two of them regularly!)

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