Wilkinson, Ellen Cicely

Born at Chorlton on Medlock, Manchester, on 8 October 1891. Her father Richard Wilkinson, a cotton worker and insurance agent, was a staunch Methodist with a strong concern for justice. Her brother, Richard Arthur Wilkinson (1883-1975; e.m. 1908) became a Wesleyan minister. After training at Richmond College, he served mainly in Lancashire circuits and retired in 1952, dying on 19 September 1975.

Despite her limited educational opportunities, she became a pupil-teacher in Manchester and then won a history scholarship to Manchester University. She became an organizer with the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies and then with the National Union of Distributive and Allied Workers. She was active in the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom; then became Labour MP for Middlesbrough East 1924-1931 and for Jarrow from 1935. In 1936 she identified herself closely with the 'Jarrow Marchers' and three years later published The Town that was Murdered.

She served as Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Pensions and the Ministry of Home Security in the war years and was briefly Minister of Education in the Labour government of 1945. As such she was responsible for the implementation of the 1944 Education Act and for such improvements as smaller classes and the raising of the school leaving age to 15. Her books Peeps at Politicians (1930) and a detective story, Division Bell Mystery (1932) drew on her parliamentary experience. Noted for her hard work and fighting qualities, she had 'a passion for justice, especially for the under-privileged'. She never married, but in her later years had a close relationship with Herbert Morrison. Sarah Burton, the headmistress in Winifred Holtby's South Riding, was partly modelled on her. She died at Paddington, London on 6 February 1947.


'Ellen had a multiple political individuality that escapes easy definition: she was a socialist, a feminist, a trade unionist, a pacifist, a Wesleyan Methodist, a vegetarian, an anti-fascist, an internationalist, a parliamentarian, and at one time a revolutionary.'

Paula Bartley (2014), p.134

  • Times, 7 Feb. 1947
  • M. Stenton & S. Lees (eds.), Who's Who of British MPs, vol.4 (1981)
  • Betty D. Vernon, Ellen Wilkinson, 1891-1947 (1982)
  • John Mapplebeck, 'Ellen Wilkinson', in North East History, vol.36 (2005) pp.114-25
  • Geoffrey Fisher, 'Ellen Wilkinson' in Bulletin of the North East Methodist History Society, no. 100, Autumn 2013, pp. 13-17
  • Matt Perry, 'In search of "Red Ellen" Wilkinson beyond frontiers and beyond the nation state', in International Review of Social History, vo.58, no.2, August 2013, pp.345-63
  • Paula Bartley, Ellen Wilkinson: from Red Suffragist to Government Minister (2014)
  • Matt Perry, 'Red Ellen' Wilkinson: Her Ideas, Movements, and World (2114)
  • Laura Beers, Red Ellen: the Life of Wlen Wilkinson, Socialist, Femininist, Internationalist (Cambridge, 2016)

Entry written by: JAV
Category: Person
Comment on this entry