Ellen Wilkinson, the daughter of a worker in a textile factory, was born in Manchester on 8th October, 1891. Ellen's parents, Richard Wilkinson and Ellen Wood, were both devout Methodists. She later recalled: "I was utterly bored with religion and sermons... sick of the discussions as to what this or that text meant."
According to Angela Jackson: "Her rebellious tendencies were in evidence even in elementary school and developed alongside a growing moral indignation at the social evils she encountered.... Ellen would accompany him (her father) to lectures on the contemporary debates surrounding evolution, exploring the subject further to reading together.
Ellen was educated at Ardwick School and at the age of eleven won the first of several scholarships. As a result of a series of illnesses, she had been largely educated at home. She later recalled that from this date "I paid for my own education by scholarship until I left university."
In 1906 Ellen won a teaching bursary that meant she could enter the Manchester Day Training College for half a week and she spent the rest of the week teaching at Oswald Road Elementary School.
After a period out of work, Ellen Wilkinson's father became a an insurance clerk. Although her father was a supporter of the Conservative Party, Ellen developed an interest in socialism after reading Merrie England by Robert Blatchford. At the age of sixteen Ellen joined both the Independent Labour Party after hearing a speech made by Kathleen Glasier.
In 1910 Wilkinson became a student at Manchester University where she studied history under Professor George Unwin. Wilkinson was active in the University Socialist Federation where she met Clifford Allen and G.D.H. Cole. Wilkinson became disillusioned with her studies at Manchester and later, when she became involved with the National Council of Labour Colleges, she realised "how little real history" she had been taught at university.
In 1912 became a member of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and the following year was recruited as a district organizer. Wilkinson also ran the local branch of the Fabian Society where she arranged for people such as Charlotte Despard, Katharine Glasier and Beatrice Webb to speak in Manchester. A pacifist, Wilkinson supported the Non-Conscription Fellowship during the First World War.
There were very few women trade union officials at this time but in July 1915 she was employed by the National Union of Distributive & Allied Workers (AUCE). Wilkinson, the first woman organizer of the AUCE, was also active in local politics and in 1923 was elected to serve on the Manchester City Council.
Wilkinson became known as Red Ellen (both for the colour of her hair and her politics). Active in the 1926 General Strike, afterwards she was co-author with Frank Horrabin and Raymond Postgate of The Workers History of the Great Strike (1927).
Following the 1929 General Election the Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, appointed Wilkinson as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health. Wilkinson opposed the National Government formed by MacDonald and as a result lost her seat in the 1931 General Election. During this period she began an extramarital affair with Frank Horrabin.
Wilkinson became close to Stafford Cripps, the leader of the left-wing of the Labour Party. Other members of this group included Aneurin Bevan, Frank Horrabin, Winifred Batho, Frank Wise, Jennie Lee, Harold Laski, William Mellor, Barbara Betts and G. D. H. Cole. In 1932 the group established the Socialist League.
While out of the House of Commons Wilkinson wrote two books on politics, Peeps at Politicians (1931) and The Terror in Germany (1933) and a novel, The Division Bell Mystery (1932) and contributed articles to the left-wing feminist journal, Time and Tide.
In the 1935 General Election Wilkinson re-entered Parliament as MP for Jarrow. The town had one of the worst unemployment records in Britain. In 1935 nearly 80% of the insured population was out of work. Of the 8,000 skilled manual workers in Jarrow, only 100 were working. In 1936 Wilkinson organised a march of 200 unemployed workers from Jarrow to London where she presented a petition to parliament calling for government action. Wilkinson later wrote an account of the Jarrow Crusade and its outcome called The Town That Was Murdered (1939).
In the 1936 Labour Party Conference, several party members, including Wilkinson, Leah Manning, Stafford Cripps, Aneurin Bevan and Charles Trevelyan, argued that military help should be given to the Spanish Popular Front government, fighting for survival against General Francisco Franco and his right-wing Nationalist Army. Despite a passionate appeal from Senora Isobel de Palencia, the Labour Party supported the Conservative Government's policy of non-intervention.
In December 1936, Wilkinson and Clement Attlee travelled to Spain where they documented the German bombing of Valencia and Madrid and gave support to the Republican forces fighting against General Francisco Franco. On his arrival back home Attlee sent the British Battalion a message: "I would assure the Brigade of my admiration for their courageous devotion to the cause of freedom and social justice. I shall try to tell the comrades at home of what I have seen. Workers of the World unite." Leah Manning commented "henceforth, the No. 1 Company of the Battalion was known as the Major Attlee Company."
In January 1937 Stafford Cripps and George Strauss decided to launch a radical weekly, The Tribune, to "advocate a vigorous socialism and demand active resistance to Fascism at home and abroad." William Mellor was appointed editor and others such as Wilkinson, Barbara Betts, Aneurin Bevan, Ellen Wilkinson, Harold Laski, Michael Foot, Winifred Batho and Noel Brailsford agreed to write for the paper.
William Mellor wrote in the first issue: "It is capitalism that has caused the world depression. It is capitalism that has created the vast army of the unemployed. It is capitalism that has created the distressed areas... It is capitalism that divides our people into the two nations of rich and poor. Either we must defeat capitalism or we shall be destroyed by it." Stafford Cripps wrote encouragingly after the first issue: "I have read the Tribune, every line of it (including the advertisements!) as objectively as I can and I must congratulate you upon a very first-rate production.''
In May 1937 Wilkinson joined with Charlotte Haldane, Duchess of Atholl, Eleanor Rathbone and J. B. Priestley to establish the Dependents Aid Committee, an organization which raised money for the families of men who were members of the International Brigades.
Wilkinson was a strong advocate of Hire Purchase reform. She was concerned about the large number of working-class people who fell into arrears and then lost the goods that they had partly paid for. In 1937 an average of 600 people a day were having high purchase goods seized. These were then sold to the public, providing companies with extra profits. Wilkinson also objected to the high rates of interest being charged on the goods. In 1938 Wilkinson's High Purchase Act became law. The act required traders to display on the goods the actual cash price plus the sum added for interest, and protected hirers who had paid at least one third of the sum contracted.
In the coalition government formed by Winston Churchill in 1940, Wilkinson was appointed parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Pensions. Later she joined the team led by Herbert Morrison at the Home Office. Wilkinson was made responsible for air raid shelters and was instrumental in the introduction of the Morrison Shelters in 1941.
Following the 1945 General Election, the new Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, appointed Wilkinson as Minister of Education, the first woman in British history to hold the post. Wilkinson's plans to increase the school-leaving age to sixteen had to be abandoned when the government decided that the measure would be too expensive. However, she did managed to persuade Parliament to pass the 1946 School Milk Act that gave free milk to all British schoolchildren.
Ellen Wilkinson, depressed by her failure to bring in all the reforms she believed necessary, took an overdose of barbiturates and died on 6th February, 1947.