Ellen Wilkinson

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The Right Honourable
Ellen Wilkinson
Minister of Education
In office
1945 – 1947 (died in office)
Prime Minister Clement Attlee
Preceded by Richard Law
Succeeded by George Tomlinson
Member of Parliament
for Middlesbrough East
In office
1924 – 27 October 1931
Preceded by Penry Williams
Succeeded by Ernest Young
Member of Parliament
for Jarrow
In office
14 November 1935 – 1947 (died in office)
Preceded by William George Pearson
Succeeded by Ernest Fernyhough
Personal details
Born (1891-10-08)8 October 1891
Ardwick, Manchester, UK
Died 6 February 1947(1947-02-06) (aged 55)
St Mary's Hospital, London
Political party Labour

Ellen Cicely Wilkinson PC (8 October 1891 – 6 February 1947) was the Labour Member of Parliament for Middlesbrough and later for Jarrow, on Tyneside. She was one of the first women in Britain to be elected as a Member of Parliament.


Wilkinson was born in Ardwick, Manchester, the daughter of Richard Wilkinson and Ellen Wood, both Methodists. Richard Wilkinson was employed as a Manchester textile worker then became an insurance clerk. Ellen won several scholarships at the Ardwick School and in 1910 she became a student at the University of Manchester, where she studied history. She was a very small woman, under five feet in height,[1] with a shock of red hair, pale skin and arresting blue eyes.

Political career[edit]

Wilkinson developed an interest in socialism after reading Merrie England by Robert Blatchford. At 16, she joined the Independent Labour Party. At university, she became active in various organisations including the Fabian Society and the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, becoming an organiser for the latter in 1913. In 1915 she was employed by the Amalgamated Union of Co-operative Employees to organise the Co-operative Employees, as the first woman organiser of that union.[2]

She was a founding member of the Communist Party in 1920 and, in 1921, attended the founding conference of the Red International of Labour Unions in Moscow, but left the party in early 1924. She was also active in local politics and in 1923 was elected to Manchester City Council.

Middlesbrough East[edit]

In the 1924 general election Wilkinson was elected to represent the depressed northeastern iron- and steel-making constituency of Middlesbrough East. In the House of Commons she was given the nickname of "Red Ellen", both for her hair colour and her left-wing politics. A 'class warrior',[3] she had a reputation for being tough and charismatic. She hung a portrait of Lenin over her bed, saying, "I look at it and get cracking."[1] She was active in the 1926 General Strike.

Following the 1929 General Election, Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald appointed Wilkinson as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health. Wilkinson opposed the National Government formed by MacDonald and lost her seat in the 1931 general election, along with many of her Labour colleagues. She then devoted herself to writing, including two novels, ""Clash"" and The Division Bell Mystery, and campaigning.[citation needed]


In the 1935 General Election Wilkinson re-entered Parliament as MP for Jarrow, "the town that was murdered", having one of the worst unemployment records in Britain, with nearly 80% of the insured population out of work.[3] In 1936, "in the grandest tradition of British dissent", she organised the "Jarrow March" of 200 unemployed workers from Jarrow to London, where she presented a petition for jobs to Parliament.

Wilkinson was associated with the left of the Parliamentary Labour Party, helping to found Tribune magazine and supporting the International Brigades fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War. She also wrote a column entitled "Mustard & Cress" for the Sunday Referee newspaper. She traveled to Spain with Clement Attlee where they documented the German bombings of Valencia and Madrid.[3]

In 1938 Wilkinson succeeded in making her Hire Purchase Act law. The Act protected those who bought high-cost goods on credit, requiring shopkeepers to display on the goods the actual cash price plus the sum added for interest. It also protected hirers who had paid at least one third of the price and might otherwise lose their payments if the goods were seized because of arrears.[citation needed]

Parliamentary Secretary[edit]

In Churchill's wartime coalition government, formed in 1940, Wilkinson was appointed parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Pensions. Later she joined Herbert Morrison at the Home Office. She was responsible for air raid shelters and was instrumental in the introduction of Morrison Shelters in 1941.[citation needed]

Minister for Education[edit]

Following Labour's victory at the 1945 general election Wilkinson urged Morrison to call for a meeting of the newly enlarged parliamentary party to elect a new leader, opening the way for him to become Prime Minister instead of Clement Attlee.[4] However, the plan was scuppered by Ernest Bevin, who advised Attlee to pre-empt the challenge: "You get down to the Palace quick, Clem."[4] After being confirmed as Prime Minister Attlee appointed Wilkinson as Minister of Education, the first woman to hold the post in Britain. She was only the second woman ever to hold a position in the cabinet, after Margaret Bondfield.

As minister Wilkinson oversaw the implementation of the 1944 Education Act. Admirers say that she began to impose herself in cabinet and won some notable victories,[3] leading Morrison to complain, "sometimes she is a bit of a nuisance to us",[5] but critics contend that she missed a unique opportunity for a radical egalitarian reform of the education system.[1] Even her plan to increase the leaving age to 16 was abandoned when the government decided that the measure would be too expensive. However, she persuaded Parliament to give free milk to all British schoolchildren.

Personal life[edit]

Wilkinson was linked romantically in turn to Labour MPs John Jagger and Herbert Morrison, who was estranged from his wife.[1] It is unlikely that either she or Morrison would have received cabinet appointments if their long affair had become public knowledge.[6] Neither of Wilkinson's relationships led to marriage, leaving her, according to one commentator, 'disappointed in her emotional life'.[1]


Wilkinson, who had inherited her father's bronchial asthma and whose health was neglected during the Second World War,[7] took an overdose of barbiturates, while ill with emphysema, pneumonia and bronchitis[7] and died[8] at St Mary's Hospital, London[7] on 6 February 1947, at 55. The official cause of death was recorded as being a heart attack brought on by an accidental overdose of barbiturates but that was privately disputed by Labour insider J. F. Horrabin, who contended that Wilkinson had committed suicide over Morrison.[9] Morrison was anxious to keep his affair with Wilkinson quiet and did not attend her funeral.[6]

Signage for the Ellen Wilkinson School for Girls in Acton, London, one of two named in her honour (September 2006).


The Times nostalgically describes Wilkinson as "a passionate, intelligent old-school socialist",[10] She is remembered as "one of the leaders of the Jarrow March and among the best known pioneer women MPs".[11] On her death the Times Educational Supplement said: "Ellen Wilkinson illustrated not unfairly in her political career, which was her life, the broad evolution of Labour views and attitudes over the past quarter century".[1]

According to The Independent, "She was not the only significant Labour woman MP at that time – Edith Summerskill, the scourge of the boxing fraternity, Bessie Braddock, that larger-than-life Liverpudlian, such compassionate personalities as Peggy Herbison and Alice Bacon – but no one else quite spelt out the grievances of her people with Red Ellen's power and charisma."[3] Her feminism and concern for social justice inspired others to similar political activity.

Two schools in England still bear her name, but Ellen Wilkinson High School in Ardwick, Manchester was merged with Spurley Hey to form Cedar Mount in 2000. A Humanities building at the University of Manchester has been renamed in her honour. A block of flats in Bethnal Green, East London is named Ellen Wilkinson House and was built in 1949. The University of Manchester's School of Arts, Languages and Culture new graduate offices are in the Ellen Wilkinson Building on campus.

Fictional role[edit]

H. G. Wells in The Shape of Things to Come, published in 1933, predicted a Second World War in which Britain would not participate but would vainly try to effect a peaceful compromise. In this vision, Ellen Wilkinson was mentioned as one of several prominent Britons delivering "brilliant pacific speeches" which "echo throughout Europe" but fail to end the war.[12] The other would-be peacemakers, in Wells' vision, included Duff Cooper, Hore-Belisha and Randolph Churchill.

Books by Ellen Wilkinson[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Rex Winsbury: 'Books: Woman pioneer – Ellen Wilkinson by Betty D. Vernon', Financial Times (13 March 1982), p. 19.
  2. ^ Sir William Richardson, A Union of Many Trades: A History of USDAW (undated), pg.70
  3. ^ a b c d e 'Politics – Jennie and the awkward squad', The Independent (London, 8 November 1997)
  4. ^ a b Watkins, Alan (4 July 2004), "You can't blame him for being a bit touchy", Independent On Sunday )
  5. ^ "100 North East Heroes – Ellen Wilkinson", The Sunday Sun, 29 October 2006 
  6. ^ a b Francis Beckett, 'Secrets and lies', New Statesman, (16 January 2006), p. 12.
  7. ^ a b c Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Volume 58. Oxford University Press. 2004. p. 997. ISBN 0-19-861408-X. Article by Brian Harrison, who considered her death was "almost certainly accidental".
  8. ^ Vernon, Betty D. (1982). Ellen Wilkinson: A Biography. Law Book Co of Australasia. p. 234. ISBN 978-0-7099-2603-0. Retrieved 21 July 2010. 
  9. ^ Chris Wrigley, A.J.P. Taylor: Radical Historian of Europe (2006), p. 116.
  10. ^ "Six working-class heroes", The Times, 5 May 2007 
  11. ^ Amos, Mike (7 June 2004), "John North: The first ladies", Northern Echo 
  12. ^ The Shape of Things to Come: Book the Second, telelib.com, retrieved 12 May 2010 


  • Brian Harrison, ‘Wilkinson, Ellen Cicely (1891–1947)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 15 Feb 2008
  • Betty D. Vernon, Ellen Wilkinson, 1891–1947 (London: Croom Helm, 1982).

External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Penry Williams
Member of Parliament for Middlesbrough East
Succeeded by
Ernest James Young
Preceded by
William George Pearson
Member of Parliament for Jarrow
Succeeded by
Ernest Fernyhough
Political offices
Preceded by
George Ridley
Chair of the Labour Party
Succeeded by
Harold Laski
Preceded by
Richard Law
Minister of Education
1945–1947 (died in office)
Succeeded by
George Tomlinson