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Last updated:07 August 2017

Ellen Wilkinson

Ellen Wilkinson plateBorn in 1871 in Ardwick, Manchester, the daughter of a Tory father who was a cotton operative and later insurance clerk.  As a teenager Ellen supported women’s suffrage, supported socialist activities and joined the Independent Labour Party.

She graduated from Manchester University as a scholarship student with a 2:1 in history.  In 1913 after graduating she was an organiser with the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.  In 1915 she became national woman organiser to the Amalgamated Union of Cooperative Employees, a union with a large female membership.  Inspired by the Russian Revolution she joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920, the year it was formed.

In 1921 a merger made the union part of the National Union of Distributive and Allied Workers.  In 1923 when she was 32 years old she became MP for Middlesbrough East.  She was the first female Labour MP and at the time was one of only four female MPs in the House of Commons.  In 1926 Ellen supported the General Strike and she held the seat until Labour's defeat in the 1931 general election. 

She was elected MP for Jarrow in 1935 just as Palmer’s Shipyard closed.  She supported the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War and made several visits to the battle zones.  In 1936 she led the Jarrow March from Jarrow in the North East of England to London.  She later wrote a book, The town that was murdered, about the suffering of the people of Jarrow.

During WWII Ellen worked at the Ministry for Home Security, and ensured that adequate bomb shelters and other defence precautions were in place.  The newspapers called her the ‘Shelter Queen’.

After the war she was appointed Minister for Education - the first female in that post.  She introduced free school milk and free school meals for those who could not afford to pay.  She also raised the school leaving age to 15.

She died in the winter of 1947 after taking an accidental overdose of medication for bronchial asthma – a condition with which she had battled all her life.  Small (less than 5 feet tall), red-haired, impassioned, she was nicknamed ‘Red Ellen’ or ‘The Fiery Particle’.

Resources in the Library by Ellen Wilkinson include:

A workers’ history of the great strike.  R.W. Postgate, Ellen Wilkinson, J.F.  Horrabin.  London, Plebs League, 1927 (Shelfmark B35)

Clash: a novel. London, Harrap, 1929 (Shelfmark C20)

Peeps at politicians.  London, Philip Allan, 1930 (Shelfmark A49).

Why fascism? EW and Edward Conze. London, Selwyn and Blount, [ca. 1934] (Shelfmark A01)

Why war? A handbook for those who will take part in the Second World War by EW and Edward Conze. London, NCLC Publishing Society, 1934 (Shelfmark P02)

We saw in Spain...  Clement Attlee, Ellen Wilkinson, Philip Noel-Baker, John Dugdale. London, Labour Party, undated (Shelfmark Labour Party - Box 30)

The town that was murdered: the life-story of Jarrow.  London, Gollancz (Left Book Club edition), 1939 (Shelfmark E09)

The terror in Germany: being an account of some of the Nazi outrages in Germany under Hitler, with photographs - compiled from witnessed and authenticated documents, medical certificates, and personal observation. London, Committee for the Relief of the Victims of Fascism, undated (Shelfmark Fascism Box 8)

Ellen was a prolific journalist.  Indeed at times it was how she earned her living.

Articles by Ellen in Plebs Magazine include: 

‘Should women wash up? Or, the Marxist and his missus’.  Vol. XX No. 1, January 1928,  pp.  13-14

 ‘The modern case for socialism’. Vol. XX No. 8, August–September 1928, pp. 172-173

 ‘The wage-workers’ place in literature’.  Vol. XXI No. 11, November 1929, pp. 247-249

Articles in The Labour Woman include:

‘Guard the poor!  Minister of Health orders better treatment’. Vol. XVIII No.2,  February 1930, pp. 25-26

 ‘House of Commons works (!) overtime:  Ellen Wilkinson MP describes the struggle against obstruction’.  Vol. XVIII No.3, March 1930, p. 40

 ‘Out of the slums and into homes!’  Vol. XVIII No.5, May 1930, p. 67

 WCML has other periodicals with articles by her in them.


Resources in the Library about Ellen Wilkinson include:

Bartley, Paula.  Ellen Wilkinson: from red suffragist to government minister. London, Pluto, 2014 (Shelfmark JS47)

Beeres, Laura. Red Ellen: the life of Ellen Wilkinson, socialist, feminist, internationalist. Cambridge MA, Harvard Universityh Press, 2016 (Shelfmark U09)

Lockett, T.A.  Three lives: Samuel Bamford, Alfred Darbyshire, Ellen Wilkinson. London, University of London Press, c.1968 (Shelfmark B53)

Perry, Matt.  Red Ellen Wilkinson: her ideas, movements and world. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2014 (Shelfmark C51)

Sleight, John. Women on the march: the story of the struggle for political power and equality for women in the North East from 1920 to 1970 - told through the lives of seven remarkable women. Newcastle upon Tyne, The Author, 1986 (Shelfmark E56)

To find out more you can search the online library catalogue here.

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