- Ellen Wilkinson
The Right Honourable
name = Ellen Wilkinson
imagesize = 200px
office = Secretary of State for Education
term_start = 1945
term_end = 1947
predecessor = Richard Law
constituency_MP2 = Middlesbrough East
30 May 1929
27 October 1931
Earnest James Young
constituency_MP3 = Jarrow
14 November 1935
term_end3 = 1947
William George Pearson
birth_date = birth date|1891|10|08|df=yes
Ardwick, Manchester, UK
death_date = Death date and age|1947|02|06|1891|10|08|df=yes
St Mary's Hospital, London
party = Labour
Ellen Cicely Wilkinson (
October 8, 1891– February 6, 1947) was the Labour Member of Parliamentfor Middlesbroughand later for Jarrowon Tyneside.
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 with a shock of red hair, pale skin and arresting blue eyes.
Wilkinson developed an interest in socialism after reading "Merrie England" by
Robert Blatchford. At the age of sixteen she joined the Independent Labour Partyafter hearing a speech made by Kathleen Glasier. At University she became active in various organisations including the University Socialist Federation, the Fabian Societyand 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 [http://www.manchester.gov.uk Manchester City Council] .
In the 1924 General Election, Wilkinson was elected to represent Middlesbrough East. In the House of Commons she was given the nickname of 'Red Ellen' both for her hair colour and her politics. Wilkinson had a reputation for being tough and charismatic. She was active in the 1926 General Strike. Following the 1929 General Election, Prime Minister
Ramsay MacDonaldappointed Wilkinson as Parliamentary Secretaryto 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 had one of the worst unemployment records in Britain with nearly 80% of the insured population out of work. In 1936 she organised the historic
Jarrow Marchof 200 unemployed workers from Jarrow to Londonwhere she presented a petition for jobs to Parliament.
Wilkinson became associated with the left of the
Parliamentary Labour Party, helping to found Tribune Magazine and supporting the International Brigadesfighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War. She travelled to Spainwith Clement Attleewhere they documented the German bombing of Valencia and Madrid.
In 1938 Wilkinson succeeded in making her
1938 Hire Purchase Actlaw. 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.
In Churchill's wartime coalition government, Wilkinson was appointed parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Pensions. Later she joined
Herbert Morrisonat the Home Office. She was responsible for air raid shelters and was instrumental in the introduction of Morrison Shelters in 1941.
Following the 1945 General Election, Prime Minister Clement 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 position in the cabinet in British history, after Margaret Bondfield. 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 Actthat gave free milk to all British schoolchildren.
Tragically, Wilkinson became depressed, allegedly because of her failure to see through all the reforms she had hoped for, and took an overdose of
barbiturates. She died at St Mary's Hospital, Londonon February 6, 1947aged 55.
Despite there being rumours of Ellen Wilkinson committing suicide, the official cause of death was recorded as being a heart attack brought on by an accidental overdose of barbiturates, though this account remains disputed.
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 recently been re-named in her honour. Her feminism and concern for social justice inspired others to similar political activity.
[http://www.ellenwilkinson.newham.sch.uk/ Ellen Wilkinson Primary School, London]
*"The Workers History of the Great Strike" (1927), with
Frank Horrabinand 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
*"Why Fascism?" (1934) - with Edward Conze
*"The Town That Was Murdered" (1939), account of the Jarrow March
* Brian Harrison, ‘Wilkinson, Ellen Cicely (1891–1947)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/36902, accessed 15 Feb 2008]
* [http://www.marxists.org/archive/wilkinson/index.htm Ellen Wilkinson Archive] Marxists Internet Archive
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