Ellen Wilkinson: Wikis


Note: Many of our articles have direct quotes from sources you can cite, within the Wikipedia article! This article doesn't yet, but we're working on it! See more info or our list of citable articles.

Did you know ...

More interesting facts on Ellen Wilkinson

Include this on your site/blog:


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Right Honourable
 Ellen Wilkinson

In office
Prime Minister Clement Attlee
Preceded by Richard Law
Succeeded by George Tomlinson

Member of Parliament
for Middlesbrough East
In office
30 May 1929 – 27 October 1931
Preceded by Penry Williams
Succeeded by Earnest James Young

Member of Parliament
for Jarrow
In office
14 November 1935 – 1947
Preceded by William George Pearson
Succeeded by Ernest Fernyhough

Born 8 October 1891(1891-10-08)
Ardwick, Manchester, UK
Died 6 February 1947 (aged 55)
St Mary's Hospital, London
Political party Labour

Ellen Cicely Wilkinson (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 female MPs in Britain.



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 and was thus able to progress her education, mainly at the Ardwick School. 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

Wilkinson developed an interest in socialism after reading Merrie England by Robert Blatchford. At the age of sixteen she joined the Independent Labour Party after hearing a speech made by Kathleen Glasier.

At University she became active in various organisations including the University Socialist Federation, the Fabian Society and the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, for which she became an organiser in 1913.

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

She was a founder 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 CP in early 1924. She was also active in local politics and in 1923 was elected to Manchester City Council.


Middlesbrough East

In the 1924 General Election, Wilkinson was elected to represent the depressed north-eastern 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',[2] 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]

Wilkinson 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 a novel, The Division Bell Mystery - and campaigning.


In the 1935 General Election, Wilkinson re-entered Parliament as MP for Jarrow, 'the town that was murdered',[2] having one of the worst unemployment records in Britain with nearly 80% of the insured population out of work. In 1936, 'in the grandest tradition of British dissent'.[2] she organised the historic 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 travelled to Spain with Clement Attlee where they documented the German bombing of Valencia and Madrid.

In 1938 Wilkinson succeeded in making her 1938 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, and protecting hirers who had paid at least one third of the price, who might otherwise lose their payments if the goods were seized due to arrears.

Parliamentary Secretary

In Churchill's wartime coalition government, 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.

Minister for Education

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.[3] However, the leadership bid was scuppered by Ernest Bevin, who advised Attlee to pre-empt the challenge: 'You get down to the Palace quick, Clem.'[3]

On being confirmed as Prime Minister, Attlee appointed Wilkinson as Minister of Education, the first woman to hold the post in Britain, and only the second woman ever to have held a position in the cabinet in British history, after Margaret Bondfield.

As minister, Wilkinson oversaw the implementation of the 1944 Education Act. Admirers say she began to impose herself in cabinet and won some notable victories,[2] leading Morrison to complain, 'sometimes she is a bit of a nuisance to us',[4] although critics contend that she missed a unique opportunity for a radical egalitarian reform of the education system.[1] Even her plan to increase the school-leaving age to sixteen was abandoned when the government decided that the measure would be too expensive. However, she did persuade Parliament to pass the 1946 School Milk Act that gave free milk to all British schoolchildren.

Personal life

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 had their long affair become public knowledge.[5] Neither of Wilkinson's relationships led to marriage, leaving her disappointed in her emotional life.[1]


Wilkinson was exhausted by overwork and became depressed, allegedly because of her failure to see through all the reforms she had hoped for, as well as disappointment in her private life. She took an overdose of barbiturates and died at St Mary's Hospital, London on 6 February 1947 aged 55.

The official cause of death was recorded as being a heart attack brought on by an accidental overdose of barbiturates, though this account was privately disputed by Labour insider J. F. Horrabin, who spread a rumour that Wilkinson had committed suicide over Morrison.[6]

Morrison was anxious to keep his affair with Wilkinson quiet and did not attend her funeral.[5]

Signage for the Ellen Wilkinson School for Girls in Acton, London - one of several named in honour of the MP and her activities. (September 2006)


The Times nostalgically describes Wilkinson as 'a passionate, intelligent old-school socialist' [7] She is remembered as 'one of the leaders of the Jarrow March and among the best known pioneer women MPs'.[8] 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.'[2] Her feminism and concern for social justice inspired others to similar political activity.

Two schools in England still bear her name but the 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 re-named in her honour. A block of flats in Bethnal Green, East London is named Ellen Wilkinson House, built in 1949.

Ellen Wilkinson Primary School, London

Fictional role

H.G. Wells in "The Shape of Things to Come", published in 1934, 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 "brillant pacific speeches" which "echo throughout Europe" but fail to end the war [1](the other would-be peacemakers, in Wells' vision, included Duff Cooper, Hore Belisha and Randolph Churchill)

Books by Ellen Wilkinson

  • The Workers History of the Great Strike (1927), with Frank Horrabin and Raymond Postgate
  • Clash (1929), a thinly veiled personal history in novel form of her activities in the 1926 General Strike.
  • Peeps at Politicians (1931)
  • The Terror in Germany (1933)
  • The Division Bell Mystery (1932), a novel. It was reprinted in 1976 by Garland in the USA in their series Fifty Classics of Crime Fiction. Ellen Wilkinson's thriller is considered good enough to be included in a list with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Raymond Chandler.
  • Why War? (1934) - with Edward Conze
  • Why Fascism? (1934) - with Edward Conze
  • The Town That Was Murdered (1939), account of the Jarrow March


  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. ^ a b c d e 'Politics - Jennie and the awkward squad', The Independent (London, 8 November 1997)
  3. ^ a b Alan Watkins, 'You can't blame him for being a bit touchy', Independent On Sunday (4 July 2004), p. 25.
  4. ^ '100 North East Heroes - Ellen Wilkinson', The Sunday Sun (29 October 2006), p. 21.
  5. ^ a b Francis Beckett, 'Secrets and lies', New Statesman, (16 January 2006), p. 12.
  6. ^ Chris Wrigley, A.J.P. Taylor: Radical Historian of Europe (2006), p. 116.
  7. ^ 'Six working-class heroes', The Times (5 May 2007), p. 4.
  8. ^ Mike Amos, 'John North: The first ladies', Northern Echo (7 June 2004).


  • 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

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
Succeeded by
George Tomlinson


Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address