Ellen Wilkinson (1891-1947) was a champion of the rights of women and the working-classes. During her influential political career, she was among the first female Labour MPs and the second woman to serve in the Cabinet. She had many nicknames including ‘Red Ellen’ (due to the colour of her hair and her socialist beliefs) and ‘Shelter Queen’ (because of her tremendous efforts in distributing half a million Morrison shelters as a Minister for Home Security during the Second World War). As a local Mancunian and University of Manchester History graduate, she is well deserving of the UoM building named in her honour.
Wilkinson was born in 1891, in the working-class neighbourhood of Chorlton-Upon-Medlock (Manchester), to Ellen and Richard Wilkinson. They were a poor family and her childhood was tough, with frequent illness often preventing her from attending school. Her father was a former cotton worker who had no formal education, yet he inspired her and she developed into an avid self-learner. At eleven, she won a scholarship to Ardwick Higher Elementary Grade School and then, thanks to a bursary, studied at the pupil teachers’ centre in Manchester. She hoped to be an elementary school teacher until 1910, when she won the Jones History Entrance Scholarship to Manchester University.
Her passion for socialism and feminism began at an early age. Her father was a Methodist and had a strong sense of social justice which inspired her growing up. As a teenager, she got involved in socialist activities, such as joining the Longsight branch of the Independent Labour Party at sixteen and supported women’s suffrage. However, it was not until her time at UoM that her desire to enter the world of politics blossomed. She became active in the University’s debating and Fabian societies, as well as helped found the University’s Socialist Federation. She also joined a local branch of the Women’s Labour League and was a member of the Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage. She graduated in 1913 with an upper second in History, even though she had been predicted to get a first. She later said, ‘I deliberately sacrificed my first … to devote my spare time to a strike raging in Manchester’.
Once she graduated, Wilkinson committed herself to politics. She worked for a women’s suffrage organisation and as a trade union officer, advocating for equal pay for equal work. During WW1, she was active in the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom which saw the war as unnecessary and committed to helping end it. She was also inspired by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and was a founding member of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920. Her aspirations remained high and in 1923 she stood as a Labour candidate for Ashton-under-Lyne. Her campaign focused on issues including unemployment, poverty, housing, and pensions. She lost the national election but was elected to Manchester City Council where she remained until 1926.
Her first major achievement came in 1924 when she was elected to Parliament for Middlesbrough East. She was one of only four female MPs and was the only female Labour MP. Notably, she did not qualify to vote in the election as suffrage was not granted to all women until 1928. She passionately fought for women and the working-classes as an MP, which was demonstrated in her maiden speech to Parliament that advocated for votes for all women, unemployment benefits, and insurance. During the 1926 General Strike, Wilkinson campaigned vociferously for the strikers by touring the country and attending rallies. After losing her seat in 1931, Wilkinson became a prolific journalist and writer. By focusing on the rise of fascism and colonial India, Wilkinson spread her benevolent influence further afield. She wrote The Condition of India based on a visit to India in 1932, where she met Gandhi and became convinced his support was necessary to achieve peace.
Wilkinson was re-elected in 1935 as MP for Jarrow. During this term she achieved national fame for leading the 1936 Jarrow Crusade, a widely publicised hunger march during the Depression. Two hundred citizens of the town marched to London to protest the unemployment and poverty caused by the closure of its shipyard and Wilkinson marched alongside them. As well as marching, Wilkinson spoke in the workers’ defence at the Labour Party conference and published The Town That Was Murdered in 1939, which was a history of Jarrow’s economic exploitation. Although unsuccessful in the short-term, the march helped form post-WW2 attitudes on social justice which led to the great social reform programme.
After her role in the Ministry of Home Security during WW2, Wilkinson was appointed as Education Minister in Attlee’s post-war government. She was the second ever female cabinet minister and tasked herself with introducing the 1944 Education Act which raised the school leaving age to 15 and provided access to secondary education for all. However, her term in this role was cut short due to her tragic death in 1947 whilst in office.
Wilkinson was a champion of those underrepresented both nationally and abroad. Both in government and as a writer and campaigner, she achieved her socialist goals in paving the way towards a fairer country for both women and the working-class. Therefore, next time you pass the Ellen Wilkinson building it is worth remembering the strong woman to which it owes its name.