Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Remembering Ellen Wilkinson

Ellen Wilkinson was born in a working-class area, Chorlton-on-Medlock, Manchester, on 8 October 1891. One of four children, her father was a Methodist minister, and she attended the Ardwick Higher Elementary School, and later studied history at Manchester University, to which she won a scholarship. Before the first world war, she found employment in the suffragette movement, speaking passionately for votes for women. Indeed, throughout her later political career, she spoke with great conviction. In 1915, still only 23, she found a new job, as an organiser for the Amalgamated Union of Cooperative Employees. This union later amalgamated with the Warehouse Workers’ Union to become the National Union of Distributive and Allied Workers, and provided support for Wilkinson to enter parliament as one of its nominated candidates.

After several false starts, and a short period of Communist party membership, Wilkinson was elected as Labour member of parliament for Middlesbrough East in the 1924 general glection. She initially combined the role with sitting as a councillor on Manchester city council from 1923 to 1926. In 1929, when Labour took power for the second time, she was appointed as parliamentary private secretary to the parliamentary secretary to the ministry of health, Susan Lawrence. However, she lost her seat in the 1931 general election, which reduced Labour to just 52 seats after the economic dislocation caused by the Wall Street crash and prime minister Ramsay MacDonald’s defection to form the national government. She went back to work at her union, and devoted her time to writing, even producing a novel, The Division Bell Mystery, in 1932.

She returned to the House of Commons as member for Jarrow following the 1935 general election. ‘Red Ellen’, as she became known – both for her politics and her hair colour – campaigned tirelessly for the many unemployed people in her constituency. In 1936, she led the famous Jarrow March. In her biography, Ellen Wilkinson: from Red Suffragist to Government Minister, Paula Bartley described it as follows: ‘Two hundred men, half of whom were ex-serviceman, were selected and then vetted by the medical officer to make sure they were fit and well enough to walk to London. The marchers, many wearing British Legion badges, set off with their MP on Monday 5 October 1936 to walk the 282 miles to London.’ Wilkinson herself described her experiences in The Town That Was Murdered: The Life-Story of Jarrow, published in 1939.

In the second world war, she became parliamentary private secretary to the coalition home secretary, Herbert Morrison, to whom she became close. She rose through the Labour ranks to become chair of the National Executive Committee, and was appointed to the privy council in January 1945. After Labour’s landslide election victory in July 1945, she became Labour’s second female cabinet minister after Margaret Bondfield in 1929.

Labour’s new prime minister, Clement Attlee, was initially minded to appoint Wilkinson as minister of health, but instead gave that job to Aneurin Bevan and appointed Wilkinson to education. Her main job was to implement the Butler Education Act of 1944, with its tripartite division of education into grammars, secondary moderns and technical schools. The school age was raised from 14 to 15, and Wilkinson also introduced free school milk in 1946, which was not abolished until Margaret Thatcher’s tenure at education from 1970-74.

Her period as a cabinet minister was only to last just over 18 months. Wilkinson’s health had been in decline for some years; she had a long history of lung problems. Having worked hard for many years, she contracted pneumonia. Tragically, she died at the age of just 55 on 6 February 1947, the coroner recording a verdict of accidental death as her health problems were made worse by an overdose of barbiturates. Had she lived longer, she would have achieved much more. But for what she did achieve, she remains an inspiration.


Nick Thomas-Symonds writes the Labour history column for Progress and tweets @NThomasSymonds


Photo: TUC library collection

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Nick Thomas-Symonds MP

is member of parliament for Torfaen and author of Attlee: A Life in Politics

1 comment

  • I am not an historian, but in educational terms, Ellen Wilkinson’s tenure as Minister for Education was not good, missing the post war opportunity to forge a single school system in the way Bevan was able to do so with the National Health Service. Labour has been trying to catch up ever since but not very successfully. The main objective of the 1994 Act was secondary education for all. Wilkinson’s Ministry made a slow start, eventually taking 20 years to implement. And incidentally, the 1944 Act did not require the tripartite division of education into grammars, secondary moderns and technical schools. This was in the White Paper which preceded the Act, although Wilkinson’s Ministry accepted this view of dividing children without question.

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