Ellen Wilkinson (1891-1947) is best known as having been the Labour MP that led the Jarrow March.
But she was also an early member of the Communist Party for three or four years.
One of four children of Methodist working class parents, was born in 1891 in Manchester and educated at Ardwick School, winning a scholarship to study history at Manchester University. She joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1907 and, in 1912, she became a member of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and the following year was recruited as one of its district organisers. In 1915, became National Women’s Organiser and the first woman to employed as an official by the Amalgamated Union of Cooperative Employees, which eventually joined the National Union of Distributive and Allied Workers (NUDAW) that, as a result of various merger, became today’s USDAW.
She gave wholehearted support to the Non-Conscription Fellowship during the First World War and joined the Communist Party at its foundation and, in 1921 attended the founding conference of the Red International of Labour Unions in Moscow, She was still a member when elected to Manchester City Council in 1923 on a Labour ticket. She left the Party in 1924, after she was elected as an MP for Middlesborough East and remained vaguely on the left of Labour. Small and fiery, with red hair (inevitably she was dubbed `Red Ellen’!), she was a fluent speaker and writer, with an impish sense of humour and a lively temperament.
In the 1924 General Election she was elected to represent Middlesborough East but she opposed the National Government formed by MacDonald and as a result lost her seat in the 1931 election. She had a novel called “Clash”, published in 1929, "Peeps at Politicians" in 1931 and "The Terror in Germany" in 1933, as well as a novel entitled "The Division Bell Mystery" in 1932.
She re-entered Parliament as MP for Jarrow in the 1935 General Election. Jarrow had one of the worst unemployment records in Britain. In October 1936 a march of 200 unemployed workers went from Jarrow to London, where Wilkinson presented a petition to parliament and later wrote an account of the Jarrow Crusade and its outcome called `The Town That Was Murdered’ (1939).
She was a member of the International Commission of Enquiry into the Reichstag Fire; she often visited Spain, both before and after the Spanish Civil War in 1937, and was active in Spanish relief committees. Her support for anti-fascist unity put her in a state of some tension with Labour’s leadership. But she was made Minister of Education in the 1945 Labour government. However, her plan to increase the school-leaving age to sixteen was abandoned in favour of fifteen, 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.
Seemingly, Wilkinson became depressed over the course of her career and the failure to achieve seriosu reforms as a Labour politician, allegedly taking an overdose of barbiturates and as a result dying on 6 February 1947.
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