Women Who Inspire: Ellen Wilkinson

As a student at University of Manchester, you probably recognise the name - it’s one of the two buildings on campus named after a woman. But who was Ellen Wilkinson?

Born in Chorlton-on-Medlock to a working-class family, Wilkinson was never lacking in ambition considering her humble beginnings. While studying at UoM, she campaigned for Women’s Suffrage and joined the executive committee of the University Socialist Federation. In 1924, she was elected as the Labour MP for Middlesborough East and, after losing her seat in 1931, was re-elected in 1935 for Jarrow.

As MP for Jarrow, Wilkinson organised the Jarrow March in 1936 where 200 local unemployed men marched 290 miles from Jarrow to Westminster against industry closure. She kept a low profile during the organisation and joined the march whenever and wherever she could, depending on other commitments. When the march reached London, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin refused to see them. But it was not just the Prime Minister that was hostile to the march. Her own party, the Labour Party, dismissed her attempts to help the workers of her constituency. When the marchers returned to Jarrow their allowances had been reduced because they had not been available to work while marching. Wilkinson campaigned relentlessly in the Commons to ensure those men in her constituency received their allowances and, finally, in 1937 a new steel plant was opened in Jarrow. The Jarrow marchers were a defining moment for interwar Britain and captured the despair of 1930s Britain struggling under the Great Depression and Ellen Wilkinson was determined to help those struggling the most.

In 1945, she was the second woman to be given a Cabinet position with her role as Minister for Education. As the Minister she implemented the 1944 Education Act which provided universal free secondary education, and raised the minimum school leaving age from 14 to 15.

On her death in 1947, Winston Churchill said, 'active, courageous, competent, accessible, she had many of the traits at which Ministers of every Government and of every party have been taught to aim.'