A while back I bought a book by Kenneth Morgan called Labour People: Leaders and Lieutenants, Hardie to Kinnock, Out of the 36+ people this book covers only 3 of them are female and one of these is only mentioned in association with her husband. So I thought I’d do my version of Labour People, a whistlestop tour of some of the people (especially women) who make our politics so interesting but often get left out.
It’s taken me a while to write this as I had major difficulties finding books about Ellen Wilkinson, so few have been written about this titan of Labour History (unlike her male contemporaries). Luckily I was signposted to Paula Bartley’s Ellen Wilkinson: From Red Suffragist to Government Minister which is available direct from Pluto Press for less than Amazon. I recommend this book for all Labour History fans! Pretty much all my info about Red Ellen comes from this book which goes into far more detail than I am here.
To start at the beginning Ellen was born on the 8th October 1891 in the traditional two up, two down Chorlton-on-Medlock an area of Manchester known for it’s slums, factories and exploitation. “Only to classes mattered in Chorlton: the industrialists and the workers. Ellen was born into what she called the ‘proletarian purple’.” Her youth was spent in difficult circumstances, the family were unable to afford a midwife when she was born and it was a dangerous labour resulting in a life of ‘agonising suffering’ for her mother and Ellen herself was sickly. The poor health of Ellen and her mother put extra strain on the family’s finances.
The three foremost inspirations to Ellen can be said to be her faith, education and Katherine Bruce Glasier.
Ellen was a Christian Socialist of the old school, brought up in the Methodist faith she learnt her politics at a young age, the “basic Christian principles of social justice and egalitarianism undoubtedly shaped her later socialist compassion”. Like many of her contemporaries she learnt her oratory at religious meetings and in later life her political speeches still contained the fervor and passion of a Methodist preacher.
While her religion had a positive effect on her unfortunately her education had a distinct negative one. She referred to the ‘vast educational sausage factory’ and fought to be appointed to the board of education precisely to tackle the problem of that type of teaching. The best education Ellen got was via the books her father gave her and the lectures he took her to, he was self taught himself.
At 16 she enrolled in Manchester Pupil Teacher’s Centre where she quickly stood out due to her sharp intelligence. During this time she was asked to stand as a socialist candidate during a mock election, this was to be one of the defining points of her life. After researching her subject and reading Robert Blatchford she became a convinced socialist.
Her experiences in the mock election, especially combating hecklers, had convinced her to get involved in politics. So dressed in her Sunday best she went to her first ILP meeting and had an experience not uncommon to women nowadays. First to arrive she was soon baffled by all the acronyms flying about and left thinking this wasn’t for her. Luckily she decided to attend a big meeting at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. At this meeting she was enthralled by Katherine Bruce Glasier and at the end of the meeting Katherine encouraged her to ‘come out and speak at our meetings. We need young women for Socialism’. This was inspiring to Ellen and depressing, although she believed with all her heart and soul she knew she would not be able to further socialism’s cause “Only you fellows, will be able to go to parliament and do the job, and they won’t even let me vote for it” despite this she joined the ILP in 1907.
In 1910 Ellen won a Scholarship to Manchester University and it was here she truly developed her political voice, she founded the University Socialist Federation, organised meetings including ones featuring Mary McArthur, joined the Manchester Sociery for Women’s Suffrage, ran the local branch of the Fabian Society and joined the Tyldesley branch of the Woman’s Labour League. Understandably her politics had a detrimental effect on her studies and she graduated with a second. However her time at university meant she could abandon teaching as a career and instead focus on her politics. In 1913 she was appointed assistant organiser in training by MSWS which brought with it a decent wage of two guineas a week. The timing of her appointment was perfect, she joined in time to help organise the July Suffrage Pilgrimage, she spoke at meetings to advertise the Pilgrimage and this increased her knowledge of how to capture attention and deal with hecklers ‘go home, Carrots, and darn the stockings” and in a further coup she was appointed to the post of Liaison to the Labour Party, combining her feminism and socialism in one role.
Then the first world war broke out and with it potential disaster for Ellen. With the breakup of the NUWSS and the cessation of Suffrage activity by MSWS Ellen was out of a job. However thanks to the MSWS she was found a job helping to organise voluntary help for the relief of distress caused by war. Ellen showed her organisation skills and seeing high female unemployment in Stockport, caused by the collapse of the two main industries (cotton and knitting), she created a sewing room by commandeering, borrowing and begging so as to be able to employ 150 women.
By 1915 Ellen was aged 23 and found the ideal job, national organiser for the Amalgamated Union of Co-operative Employees, with special responsibility or organising women shop assistants and factory workers, despite having never worked in a Co-op or been active as a shop steward.
Between 1915 and 1918 Ellen:
- fought for equal pay and by late 1916 had negotiated male rates of pay for women in 57 different coops
- Organised Laundry Workers and improved their terms and conditions
- Negotiated with the government over compulsory arbitration
- Was involved in a bitter dispute between her union, the coop and craft unions in Plymouth and then the nastiest of the internecine fights in Longsight, Manchester
- Was elected to the Standing Joint Committee of Industrial Women’s Organisations (was elected onto the Exec by Feb 1923 and chair by July 1925)
In December 1918 she was fired for her role in Longsight however Branches, groups and individuals protested this, a deputation of union reps asked for a withdrawal of notice and a Special Delegate Meeting challenged the dismissal. After negotiation she was reinstated after an apology.
In the post war period Ellen was just as busy working in the TU movement (NUDAW), helping found the Communist Party and campaigning for peace and equality. In the early 1920s she was a member of both the ILP, the Fabians, the Labour Party and The Communist Party!
In 1923 NUDAW decided to finance an extra four MPs and Ellen came top of the poll for candidates. She unsuccessfully ran for selection by Gorton Labour Party. In November she became a Manchester City Councillor whilst running for parliamentary selection in Ashton-under-Lyne. Successfully selected she came third in the poll.