Ellen Wilkinson – Manchester’s Forgotten Stateswoman

Ellen Wilkinson’s extraordinary achievements and big-hearted, fiery Mancunian personality endeared her to the nation in the 1940s and she was an international celebrity. Yet today she hardly registers in British consciousness.

By Karen Shannon · August 23, 2022

This blog is written by Nakib Narat. Nakib is an actor, writer, theatre maker & presenter and formerly a journalist with the BBC and Granada News.

My interest in Ellen piqued when researching a Drama Documentary that I wrote and presented for BBC Radio 4 about Shapurji Saklatvala. Another remarkable, yet now largely forgotten, working-class hero. An Indian from the fabulously wealthy Tata Dynasty. He worked for Tata in Manchester from 1905 and was politicised after witnessing the city’s grinding poverty previously recorded by Engels. Saklatvala was later elected as a Communist MP for Battersea in 1922 and 1923.

Ellen Wilkinson delivering a passionate speech to a crowd
Ellen Wilkinson AKA The Fiery Particle

Like Ellen, “Sak” was an outsider and a glorious maverick – he was even imprisoned for making seditious speeches in favour of striking miners during the 1926 General Strike.  

He and Ellen met as fellow speakers commemorating the Russian Revolution in the Free Trade Hall on 7th November 1923. Ellen was starting out in politics, Sak was already famous. The 3,000 strong Manchester crowd sang Sak’s campaign song: “Vote Vote Vote for Saklatvla – Sak is the man who’ll give us Bread and Jam and we won’t go hungry anymore”. Ellen had just been elected Labour Councillor for Gorton and was soon to be an MP. She was already noted as a Trade Union organiser and fighter for women’s votes and, because of her Socialist passion and red hair, known as “Red Ellen” and the “Fiery Particle.” 

Only 4’10” in height, she suffered lifelong chronic illness from growing up destitute in Chorlton on Medlock. Ellen was born on 8th October 1891. Her mother (also named Ellen) was crippled by lifelong pain because they could not afford medical treatment for Ellen’s birth complications. This injustice steeled Ellen in her fight for human rights.  

Ellen launched into politics whole heartedly. At 16, when giving a speech about women’s emancipation to a crowd of men, they jeered and violently threw stones at her. She fearlessly gathered the stones into a neat pile and, turning to the astonished men, scolded: “Only women, lunatics and criminals can’t vote. Yet you are the lunatics and criminals.”  They listened with respect after that. Her passion for women’s and worker’s rights led her to being accused of using guerrilla warfare tactics during an industrial dispute in Longsight in 1918. She was sacked by her bosses at the Amalgamated Union of Co-operative Employees, but quickly rehired after protests from the women workers. 

By sheer intellect, will, and her family’s support, Ellen won a place at Manchester University to read History and went on to become the most powerful woman in the world. As Education Secretary, she was the only female in Atlee’s famous 1945 Labour Government. Arguably, she became the first global British politician: taking the fight for worker’s and women’s rights from Detroit Car Makers Strikes to even being shot at on the front line of The Spanish Civil War. Under Churchill she had been in charge of Bomb Shelters and often walked about in the open during Blitz fire-bombing to support rescue workers and keep up morale. 

Seemingly indomitable, she even collided with a lorry during a blackout and still turned up for work the next day with a fractured skull! As a Labour MP, she is best known as leader of the 1936 Jarrow March. Walking with 200 starving men for many of the 280 miles from Jarrow to London to petition parliament for support. 

Ellen Wilkinson standing with protesters underneath banner that reads 'Jarrow Crusade'
Ellen on the 1936 Jarrow March

When Education Secretary she oversaw the de-Nazification of German education, personally rescued Jewish children at the Saar border just before an attack by Nazi troops, and even found time to write several novels. As a journalist, she broke the news of Hitler’s imminent advance on the Rhineland. She hated Fascism, and the Nazis hated her even more for her public exposes of their brutality. Hermann Goering contemptuously described her as “The Jew of the Jews.” To Ellen, raised a Methodist, it would have been a great compliment! 

She helped found UNESCO in 1945. It was her idea to have the “S” for “Scientific” in the title as she was so horrified by the Atom Bomb and wanted scientists to be aware of their responsibilities to humanity. In Parliament she fought for widow’s rights, birth control and implemented a new education system. She believed in Grammar Schools as they were her lifeline out of poverty, so set up the new tripartite system with Secondary Moderns and Technical Schools. 

Ellen’s personal life was reputedly as colourful and astonishing as her life’s work – including being Home Secretary Herbert Morrison’s lover at the same time as a rumoured affair with notorious Communist spy Otto Katz. Katz was Stalin’s main man in Europe before being executed by him. British Intelligence worried about Katz’ influence on her. The National Archives report that Special Branch Police Officers tailed and chased her at high speed before she shook them off whilst driving Katz to one of their outings! 

Ellen achieved so much in a tragically short life. On February 6th 1947, she died by overdose of barbiturates, as decades of ill health and unremitting work took their toll. By then she had provided free milk and meals for deprived children, created 400,000 classroom spaces, given grants to 37,000 ex-servicemen and women to train as teachers, and rescued millions of poor households from paying crippling interest to unscrupulous Higher Purchase companies. She left behind a kinder and more caring world. 

Despite her extraordinary life and achievements, Ellen is not honoured in her own city with the most appropriate recognition of a public statue. In fact, there are only 2 women honoured with outdoor statues in central Manchester – Queen Victoria in Piccadilly Gardens and Emmeline Pankhurst in St Peter’s Square. Manchester University named their Humanities Building after her and there is a small Blue Plaque on the site of her old family home in Coral Street Ancoats…and that’s it.  

Perhaps it is time to remember her in a more significant and public manner, as Ellen Wilkinson is certainly far more representative of the spirit of Manchester than the many Merchants and Military men on our civic plinths.