Ellen Wilkinson’s politics were as red as her hair

Ellen Wilkinson.
Ellen Wilkinson.

Gazette readers are being offered the chance of a unique insight into the life of one of the most significant figures in South Tyneside during the 20th century.

Ellen Wilkinson will forever be associated with the famous 1936 crusade for jobs during her time as MP for Jarrow.

But she was a multi-faceted character whose politics was as red as her hair.

Now an insightful biography of her has been published for the first time in paperback.

And for the next three days we will be publishing extracts from ‘Red Ellen’ Wilkinson: Her Ideas, Movements and World, written by Matt Perry, a reader in Labour history at Newcastle University.

Ellen met famous political figures such as Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and Mahatma Gandhi, as well as writing fiction and journalism and witnessing at first hand the rise of Germany’s Third Reich and the Spanish Civil War.

Matt Perry who has written a book about Ellen Wilkinson.

Matt Perry who has written a book about Ellen Wilkinson.

Mr Perry, a reader in Labour history at Newcastle University, told the Gazette: “Ellen Wilkinson is a hero in these parts.

“She can be seen on a banner at the annual Durham Miners’ Gala, and Jarrow Brewery named a beer after her. You cannot get more authentic than real ale!

“While I was researching the Jarrow Crusade, I became more and more intrigued by Ellen Wilkinson.

“I hope to have unravelled the reasons why she was so popular with very different audiences.”

Mr Perry added: “I wanted to deepen our understanding of her commitment to the causes of working people, women, anti-fascism and peace, as well as her journey from rebel to the Cabinet. In so doing, I try to challenge some myths about her, but I think my portrayal shows there was nevertheless something heroic about her life.”

The Gazette has 10 copies of the book to give away.

For the chance of winning one, simply answer the following question and fill in the coupon in today’s paper.

• In what year was Ellen Wilkinson selected as parliamentary candidates for South Shields?

Send your answers to the Gazette office, 7 Beach Road, South Shields, NE33 2QE. Remember to include a daytime telephone number.


This extract tells the story of Ellen Wilkinson’s selection as prospective parliamentary candidate in 1932 and how she approached her new constituency.

Wilkinson’s name has become synonymous with Jarrow. Yet, Labour opinions were divided when news leaked out that NUDAW intended to nominate Wilkinson for the Jarrow constituency. Felling Labour Women’s Section supported her nomination enthusiastically, remembering her ‘spade work’ for R.J. Wilson in 1923, commenting, ‘Her hard work was a great factor towards Mr Wilson’s election.’ NUDAW executive had decided initially to nominate Wright Robinson, the NUDAW’s Political General Secretary, for the constituency and local organisations were circulated with this. However, the NUDAW executive council of 10 January 1932—with a delegation in attendance from the Pelaw CWS branch—had a long discussion about the matter. The outcome was that Robinson withdrew and Wilkinson was nominated. The Jarrow branch was angry that the press had erroneously reported their support for her nomination and that there was ‘a lot of noise’ over the switch. Some in Jarrow Labour circles wanted to teach NUDAW a lesson and show that the constituency was not in its pocket and that the local party was ‘not to be pawns in any underhand game played by your employees.’ Despite this, Wilkinson won the selection conference held on 30 April 1932 against Councillor George Harvey, of Follonsby Miners’ Lodge, by a margin of 43 to 10.

Wilkinson visited Jarrow between 5 and 8 June, attending a series of meetings. She spoke before 500 Labour Party members in Jarrow and then addressed the 1,200 to 1,500 outside the venue who could not gain admittance. Her agent Coutts believed that the visit was a great success. Her emphasis that electoral victory relied upon the local party membership did much to allay the ‘murmurings and grumblings’. Her first impression was that party organisation was uneven and beset by local quarrels. Party work was effective in Jarrow and Hebburn, but less so in Felling, Billy Quay, Pelaw and Wardley Colliery. Her plan was to get Coutts to strengthen these weaker areas in which case she felt confident of success. She wanted to get local Labour Party organisation to work on ‘modern lines’ and become more self-reliant.

Unemployment had beset the town in the early 1920s as the wartime boom ended and the demand for shipbuilding plummeted. Jarrow had vividly entered her imagination from the 1922 and 1923 election campaigns, closing her eyes and seeing Jarrow’s ‘narrow streets’ where ‘men with nothing to do’ tramped around endlessly and ‘starving women’ lurked in ‘dreary back streets’. On her visit in June 1932, two councillors took her around the worst slums in Jarrow. As with Middlesbrough East, the NUDAW political general secretary intervened in constituency organisation, interviewing Coutts, after which the latter resigned in early 1933. It seems that Wilkinson’s strategy for the Jarrow constituency only really took off when Harry Stoddart became her electoral agent in summer 1933. During her first visit under his term, she spoke at special meetings in Pelaw, Bill Quay and Wardley as well as two women’s meetings in Felling and Hebburn. With his careful preparation, Wilkinson commented that ‘they were the best attended meetings she had had since her adoption as the Labour Candidate for the Division.’ This paid off in terms of new local organisation in Wardley. This strategy of using Wilkinson’s visits to build up organisation continued. In December 1933, she spoke on three occasions in Bill Quay and at a large meeting in Felling.

With the turn of the year, the strategy in Jarrow shifted towards agitation with the organisation of a march to Easington on 17 January to challenge the Prime Minister in his constituency over the closure of Palmers’ shipyard. It was a great success. Three hundred men and women accompanied Wilkinson on the 15-mile trek. Their placards demanded ‘steamships not hardships’ and ‘shipyards not graveyards’. Police prevented the marchers from assembling directly outside the house where MacDonald was staying but a delegation was able to see him. Having organised it in ten days, Stoddart reported that the event ‘will long remain with us a very happy and treasured memory.’

TOMORROW: Ellen visits Germany in 1936.