Ellen Wilkinson

Ellen Wilkinson

honorific-prefix = The Right Honourable
name = Ellen Wilkinson
honorific-suffix =

imagesize = 200px
office = Secretary of State for Education
term_start = 1945
term_end = 1947
primeminister = Clement Attlee
predecessor = Richard Law
successor = George Tomlinson
constituency_MP2 = Middlesbrough East
term_start2 = 30 May 1929
term_end2 = 27 October 1931
predecessor2 = Penry Williams
successor2 = Earnest James Young
constituency_MP3 = Jarrow
term_start3 = 14 November 1935
term_end3 = 1947
predecessor3 = William George Pearson
successor3 = Ernest Fernyhough
birth_date = birth date|1891|10|08|df=yes
birth_place = Ardwick, Manchester, UK
death_date = Death date and age|1947|02|06|1891|10|08|df=yes
death_place = St Mary's Hospital, London
party = Labour

Ellen Cicely Wilkinson (October 8, 1891 – February 6, 1947) was the Labour Member of Parliament for Middlesbrough and later for Jarrow on 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.

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 [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 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 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 March of 200 unemployed workers from Jarrow to London where 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 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.

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.

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 Act that 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, London on February 6, 1947 aged 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 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


* 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]

External links

* [http://www.marxists.org/archive/wilkinson/index.htm Ellen Wilkinson Archive] Marxists Internet Archive

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