Who was Red Ellen? Here's everything you need to know about the life of Jarrow MP Ellen Wilkinson which has inspired a new play

A new play is set to tell audiences about the life and work of the MP who presented the Jarrow Crusaders’ petition to parliament.

By Fiona Thompson
Sunday, 9th February 2020, 11:25 am
Updated Friday, 14th February 2020, 11:36 am
Northern Stage will host performances of Red Ellen from September, before the show goes on tour.
Northern Stage will host performances of Red Ellen from September, before the show goes on tour.

Ellen Wilkinson was the Labour MP for the town from 1935 to 1947 and presented the document to the Government after the marchers completed their walk to London.

Now the story about how the working-class woman made it into Westminster is to be turned into a play with its debut to be made at Northern Stage in Newcastle.

An audience is being offered a chance to see Red Ellen in a preview before its full run begins and it heads out on tour.

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Jarrow MP Ellen Wilkinson addressing a crowd during the Jarrow Crusade.

Here’s what you need to know about the woman who mixed with some of the greatest minds – from Albert Einstein to Ernest Hemingway – and the show she has inspired as tickets go on sale.

Where was Ellen Wilkinson from?

Born in 1891 near Manchester, she was the daughter of a former cotton worker and insurance agent and her early days were tough due to a lack of welfare support.

A series of illnesses meant she struggled to attend school, but she was a keen reader and had a curious mind, winning a scholarship at the age of 11.

The play Red Ellen will be performed to audiences later this year.

How did she become interested in politics?

Parliament’s Living Heritage pages say she was heavily influenced her devout Methodist and socialist father, who taught himself when he had no formal education.

In 1910 she was awarded a scholarship to study at Manchester University, where she helped found the University Socialist Federation, became a member of the Women’s Labour League and signed up as a member of the Independent Labour Party in 1912.

She backed the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies in Manchester, which put her in contact with the Labour Party, was involved what became the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, and was active in the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.

In the early 1920s she was a member of groups including the Communist Party, the Independent Labour Party, the Fabians and Labour Party.

How did she get into Parliament?

She first stood in 1923 as the Labour candidate for Ashton under Lyne, and while she failed to make it as an MP, she was elected onto Manchester’s city council that year.

In 1924, Wilkinson was elected to as MP for Middlesborough East, making her the only woman Labour MP.

At this time she did not herself possess the household qualification which allowed her to vote and used her maiden speech to address the need for votes for all women, unemployment benefits and insurance among other issues.

She served the constituency until 1931 and was then elected as Jarrow’s MP in 1935, holding the post until 1947.

What did she do as Jarrow’s MP?

She used her position to drawn attention to the hardship people in the town were facing, including malnutrition.

On November 4, 1936, she presented the 12,000-name Jarrow Crusade petition, delivered by the 200 men who had spent 26 days from October 5 walking the 282 miles from South Tyneside to Parliament and raised the closure of the shipyard and troubled steelworks during her speech.

The Crusade was led by David Riley, the chairman of Jarrow’s council, and highlighted how 8,000 people, many skilled workers, had been left without jobs.

Better lifestyle at the heart of her work

In 1940, she became parliamentary secretary in the minister of pensions, making her the second woman to be given a cabinet place, and later that year became joint parliamentary secretary in the Ministry of Home Security, which saw her introduce safer air raid shelters and responsible for the care of the homeless.

In 1945 she became Minister for Education, backing the Education Act of 1944 which offered free secondary school places and a rise in the minimum leaving age of school by a year to 15.

She also led reforms including the provision of free school milk, better school meals and a boost to university scholarships and part-time courses for adults through colleges.

Death followed periods of ill health

Her time as a cabinet minister faced setbacks due to her own problems, as she had neglected her health during the war and suffered from bronchial asthma.

She died in a London hospital, on 6 February 1947, from heart failure following an overdose of medication and she had also been suffering from emphysema with pneumonia and acute bronchitis.

What will the play Red Ellen tell us about her life?

Written by Caroline Bird and produced by Northern Stage, Nottingham Playhouse and Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh, it will follow the history of the woman who was “forever on the right side of history, forever on the wrong side of life.”

It will look at her fight for a better world, such as how she battled to save Jewish refugees in Nazi Germany, campaigned for Britain to fight against Franco’s Fascists in Spain and of course her support for the Jarrow Crusade.

The team behind it say they will also cover how she served as a member of Churchill's cabinet and had affairs with communist spies and government ministers, but still found herself on the outside looking in.​

When can we see it?

A preview performance will be held at Northern Stage on Thursday, September 17, at 7pm, with tickets £10.

It will then run until Saturday, October 3, with a post-show discussion planned for Monday, September 21.