Monday 10 November 2014

Ellen Wilkinson and the uses of biography by Sarah Gristwood

Another march from Jarrow to London? - this time to protest against privatisation of the NHS. For many people that’s a crusade for today; for others, looking back to the 1930s, it’s just a colourful piece of history. It means something else to me. The original Jarrow march was made by many men, one woman, and a dog - and it’s the woman of whom I’ve always wanted to write a biography.

I’ve never succeeded, and that may say something about our reaction to politicians, and women politicians in particular (‘the two unsexiest words in the language’, one man said to me). But it also, surely, says something about what we want from a biography. Yet Ellen Wilkinson, MP for Jarrow, is someone who should be easy to pitch, surely?

She wasn’t just an early woman politician, trade union leader, feminist and socialist - try any of those on a publisher’s marketing department, and you can guess what they’re going to say. But she was also a writer and novelist, and, as ‘Red Nellie’, a hugely popular public personality. Reporting on the German refugee camps and the Spanish Civil War; visiting Gandhi in prison; making speeches with Bertrand Russell and H.G. Wells; in the Tube tunnels during the Blitz . . . Something in that, surely?

The nuts and bolts of her career are easy. Born on 8 October 1891, near Manchester, into a nonconforming Methodist family. Into the ‘proletarian purple’, as she put it herself; a terraced two up, two down, with outside privy. Her mother was bed bound for much of her childhood; her father was an insurance agent, who had started out in a cotton mill at 8, and been head of a household at 12. Ellen herself won a teaching bursary to a Manchester school; was only 16 when she joined the Independent Labour Party.

In 1915 she became National Woman Organiser to the union of shop assistants and factory workers, crusading against the idea ‘that a woman’s wages are practically settled forever when she becomes 21, and that however important a woman’s work may be she must be considered as assistant to some male manager’, as she wrote. Manchester was a centre of suffrage protest; the Pankhursts lived nearby. But the young Ellen was a non militant feminist: a suffragist, rather than a suffragette; one, moreover, who regarded women’s suffrage as only one step towards a broader equality. A brief membership of the new Communist Party lead to a rapid resignation, but in 1923 she was elected to Manchester City Council and in 1924, as a trade union sponsored candidate for Middlesborough East (‘a book of illustrations to Karl Marx’, she called it), she became Ellen Wilkinson MP.

Only four women were returned to Parliament in that election, and each of the other three had inherited their husband’s seat. Lady Astor, the Duchess of Atholl and Mrs Philipson, a former actress. Women were only allowed to vote at 30. She was 33. Her maiden speech demanded the extension of female franchise; deplored the penalisation of women in pension and unemployment. Ellen Wilkinson’s ghost is still there when you speak the size of school classes, or questions of equal pay. These were issues on which she campaigned in her day.

Many of her favourite causes had particular relevance for women. She fought for the extension of child welfare centres; to allow women who married foreigner to keep their British citizenship, and to end women’s exclusion from the diplomatic corps on the grounds that they were unsuited to secrecy. There was a row when she equated wifehood to slavery . ‘A man never learns the cash value of a good wife until she falls ill and then he has to pay a housekeeper!’ Within the House she lamented the long hours and lack of female-oriented facilities. She knew that she was wielding a double edged sword. ‘I have women’s interests to look after but I do not want to be regarded purely as woman’s MP’, she said. Nonetheless she found herself with, in effect, a dual constituency. It’s still an issue for women Members today.

Her nicknames reflected her tiny size – under five foot – and her flaming red hair. The ‘fiery particle’, the ‘Mighty Atom’. The ‘Pocket Pasionaria’ and ‘Topsy MP’. She was aware of the dangers of being a ‘pet lamb’; but she was conscious also of the advantages of having an easily recognisable image, and one which bought her a certain amount of leeway. All her life in fragile health, she was not above playing on her very frailties. The Glasgow Herald once wrote of her ‘histrionic ability . . . She seats herself almost lost in the great chair, tiny feet dangling. Such a forlorn, child-like figure . . . “Ellen is overdoing it”, remarked a delegate.’

In 1926 - when only the miners held out, after the collapse of the General Strike – she chaired the Women’s Committee for the relief of the miners’ wives and children. She brought a miner’s hauling rope into the House of Commons, and raised cash in America with stories of children standing by soup kitchens in the rain, because they liked the smell. She was returned as MP for Jarrow – ‘The Town That Was Murdered’ as she called it - in 1935, at a time when the closure of the great shipyard had lead to 80% unemployment, so that men, as she told the Minister of Health, were actually dying of malnutrition. When a deputation set out to walk to London and present their petition to Parliament, Ellen went with them, covering much of the journey on foot.

Because of her links with European socialists, she was one of the first to warn against ‘treating Hitler as a bad smell, a temporary nastiness to be disinfected by boycott, or perfumed by legality.’ Visits to Germany in the early Thirties gave her the raw material for several brutally detailed pamphlets; as did relief work with the children of concentration camp victims. With the war, and Churchill’s wartime coalition, she became one of the Parliamentary secretaries to Herbert Morrison, the new Home Secretary.

Five sixths of her job, she said in 1940, was nights spent in endless visits to the air raid shelters that were to her special responsibility; dispensing ‘hygiene and cheer’ in the teeming tunnels of the London Underground. Serving on the Fire Service Council, she came under attack for conscripting women as well as men to Civil Defence duties. But the end of the war brought a return to party politics – along with a tidal wave of hopes and expectations that were unlikely to be fulfilled, since no-one could expect ‘to get a Socialist State tied up in pink ribbon as an armistice present’, as Ellen put it warningly.

As Minister of Education in Attlee’s new government, she was faced with the task of implementing the 1944 Education Act – a Herculean task and something of a poisoned chalice. The eighteen months of her tenure laid the groundwork for the much of the education system as we know it today - saw the raising of the school leaving age; saw free milk and school meals; and more state scholarships for further education. But it brought her a punishing workload, and the distress of finding herself at odds with many in her party. In 1947 she caught pneumonia and died at the age of 55. An inquest decided that she died from pulmonary problems, accelerated by an overdose of the drugs prescribed for her asthma. The Coroner felt it necessary to state that there was nothing to suggest she had taken the overdose deliberately.

But those who thought differently could suggest a cause – less Ellen’s problems as a minister than her feelings for Herbert Morrison, the unhappily married Deputy Prime Minister. Their relationship went back a long way; even to Morrison’s days at the London County Council. (‘An able administrator and a bit of a brute – the rudest man I know’, she called him. ‘Stick to women’s issues’, he himself once told another MP.) Great stuff! - just what a biography needs, a little love interest, and with a bit of a brute, ideally. But it may be because of her relationship with Morrison that Ellen left instructions her personal papers should be destroyed after her death . . . Bad, very bad, that, for anyone dreaming a conventional biography.

But, dammit, does that mean we have to leave it there? Is there no room for negotiation in the nature of the narrative? Any of us who write about more distant history are used to working with a infinitely more daunting paucity of sources. We have Ellen’s novels as well as her articles; colour and controversy; a Cinderella story.

Ellen Wilkinson’s sterling work in pushing through the Hire Purchase Act of 1938 isn’t going to make a page turner, granted. (Though it made a real difference to many in her day.) But a word picture of Gandhi sitting on the floor of her Bloosmbury flat, with its poster of Lenin above the bed . . Surely that would do nicely?

Yet she has been forgotten to a great degree. Back in the days of ‘Blair’s babes’ I found myself at a party to meet the new, unprecedented, influx of women MPs. I hoped, foolishly, for someone who had admired Ellen, someone who had read her speeches. Someone whose mother saw her in the wartime bomb sites, as mine did. Instead, I met with a blank, ‘who?’, unfamiliarity. But (if those women had but known it) her concerns and her challenges, her conflicts and her compromises, mirrored their own to an extraordinary degree. And without some awareness of how many have been battles fought before, we are going to be reinventing the wheel into eternity.

We thank our Reserve History Girl, Sarah Gristwood, for today's post. Michelle Lovric has been called away on a family emergency and should be back here on 10th December


Penny Dolan said...

A fascinating post, Sarah. Ellen Wilkinson isn't a name I'd heard about before, so thank you for introducing her.

Lydia Syson said...

Oh, I was so hoping that your second paragraph might go the other way - I too don't understand why nobody would want to publish a biography of a woman as wonderful and unusual as Ellen Wilkinson. I wonder if it might work as a group biography…with Charlotte Haldane, perhaps, also far less well known than she deserves…?
I loved the fact that she was known as the 'pocket Pasionaria' (after the Spanish Republic's most effective orator, Dolores Ibarruri).

Glad to say I discovered last year that her name lives on in the Ellen Wilkinson School for Girls in Ealing - I was delighted to meet a party from the school at the Guardian Fiction Prize party.

But also sad that there was so little media coverage of the recent Jarrow/NHS march reprise.

Thank you for a marvellous post honouring a great woman.

Clare Mulley said...

Great post Sarah. Red Nellie has been on my 'possible future subjects' list for some time, but I would love it if you got there first...

Carol Drinkwater said...

Very sad that no one will pick this up as a subject for a book. WHY? WE need books about such inspirational women. Thank you, Sarah.

Spade and Dagger said...

Surely a self-published book (e-book or paper) would be the solution here. Her life & work sound far too important to be left in the ever lengthening past.