Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


'Red' Ellen Wilkinson persuades British Parliament to pass the Free Milk Act

This year, 'Red' Ellen Wilkinson (1891-1947), the first female Minister of Education in British history and a long-time politician, persuaded the British Parliament to pass the Free Milk Act. This legislation, which provided free milk to all British schoolchildren, was the culmination of Wilkinson's long career of public service and social activism, because she committed suicide shortly thereafter, frustrated with the slow pace of social reforms that she deemed necessary for her country.

Ellen Wilkinson (sometimes referred to as 'Helen Wilkinson') was born in 1891 in Manchester, in a strict Methodist working class home. In 1906 she won a teaching bursary, which allowed her to take training courses while teaching at an elementary school called Oswald Road. In one of her books, Myself When Young (1936), she recounted her classroom experiences at Oswald Road, including her frustrations with the traditional British education system of that time. In one section of the book, for instance, she recalled one incident in which she was reprimanded by the headmaster and advised to become a missionary in China by a school inspector:

The boys were filling in time, bored stiff under they reached 14 years and could leave. I was an undersized girl. They all towered above me. My only hope was to interest them sufficiently to keep them reasonably quiet. One day the Headmaster came in and demanded to know why the boys were not sitting upright with their arms folded. "They are sitting that way because I am interesting them" I replied. To which the Headmaster responded by caning almost everyone. We had a grand row, and I was sent home to be reprimanded by an Inspector. But my temper had not calmed. The surging hate of all the silly punishment I had endured in my school days prevented any awe of the Inspector. I whirled all this out at the unfortunate man, who listened quietly and advised: "Don't do any more teaching when you have finished your two years here. Take my advice. Go and be a missionary in China."

Although her father was a supporter of the Conservative Party, Ellen Wilkinson became interested in socialism at the early age of 16 and, after hearing a speech made by Kathleen Glasier, she joined the Independent Labour Party. That moment was also captured in her autobiographical 'Myself When Young':

It was a memorable meeting. I got a seat in the front row of the gallery. It seemed noisy to me, whose sole experience of meetings was of religious services. Rows of men filled the platform. But my eyes were riveted on a small slim woman her hair simply coiled into her neck, Katherine Glasier. She was speaking on 'Socialism as a Religion'. To stand on a platform of the Free Trade Hall, to be able to sway a great crowd, to be able to make people work to make life better, to remove slums and underfeeding and misery just because one came and spoke to them about it - that seemed the highest destiny any women could ever hope for.

A few years later she studied history at Manchester University, where she became active in the University Socialist Federation. Then she continued her active involvement in civic affairs, joining the women's suffragist movement in 1912 and the pacifist movement during the First World War (1914-1918). A few years later she became the first woman organizer of the National Union of Distributive & Allied Workers (AUCE). She was also active in local politics (was an elected member of the Manchester City Council) and was elected twice to the House of Commons, where she became known as 'Red Ellen' (both for chromatic and ideological reasons). She participated in the 1926 General Strike, and a few years later acted for a brief period as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health.

In the mid-thirties she was elected again to the House of Commons, representing a district (Jarrow) with one of the highest levels of poverty and unemployment in the country: only 100 of the 8,000 skilled manual workers in Jarrow were working. Following the closure of the shipyard, she organized and led a hunger march from Jarrow to London to draw attention to the plight of the unemployed in the North East and to present a petition to Parliament, in an episode that would be known as the Jarrow Crusade. During those years she was also active in the anti-fascist movement, and in April 1937 undertook a fact-finding mission to Spain with Katherine Stewart and Eleanor Rathbone, where they observed first hand the terror caused by the German bombs and by the repressive army of General Franco. Upon her return, she was part of a group that founded the Dependents Aid Committee, an organization that helped the families of men who were in Spain and had joined the International Brigades to fight Franco.

The next year, Wilkinson submitted to Parliament the High Purchase Act, to protect working class people who had paid part of the goods they purchased but lost them when falling into arrears. The act, which became law, 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.

Despite her busy political life, Ellen Wilkinson managed to find some time to write. She was one of the authors of 'The Workers History of the Great Strike', published in 1927, and recounting events in which she actively participated. She also published several political and literary books, including Peeps at Politicians (1931), The Terror in Germany (1933), The Division Bell Mystery (1932), the above mentioned Myself When Young (1936), and The Town That Was Murdered (1939), in which she discussed the Jarrow Crusade. She also published a variety of articles in political journals, newspapers and magazines, including Time and Tide, a feminist journal, and Tribune, a progressive weekly that she contributed to create.

During Winston Churchill's wartime coalition government, Wilkinson was appointed parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Pensions in 1940, and after the elections of 1945, the post-war Prime Minister Clement Attlee named her as Minister of Education, becoming the first woman to hold this post in the country. One of Wilkinson's first proposals as Minister of Education was to increase the school-leaving age to sixteen, but the government delayed this proposed policy because of its potential costs.

In 1946 she was more successful with another proposal, which built on the early campaigns of McMillan sisters and Katharine Glasier, which resulted in the 1906 Provision of School Meals Act. Wilkinson's proposal followed the same argument made by the McMillan sisters 40 years before, namely that malnutrition detracts from good learning. Wilkinson's proposal was passed by Parliament and became the 1946 School Milk Act, which provided a free third of a pint of milk to all British schoolchildren.

The following year, depressed by the slow pace of the social reforms she was pushing for, Ellen Wilkinson took an overdose of barbiturates and died on February 6, 1947. This was a sad ending for a person known for her altruism, idealism, passion, valor and activism who devoted her life to defend the underprivileged and inspired many around her. As Margery Corbett Ashby noted, Ellen Wilkinson was…

a first rate organizer who in addition to the necessary virtues of good organizing and eloquent speaking, possessed deep convictions and enthusiasm. To her delightfully warm personality and great charm she added courage in facing hostile audience and wit to deter hecklers.

Two days after her untimely death, on February 8th, The Times Educational Supplement published an obituary that included the following text:

Had Helen Wilkinson lived longer, there is little doubt that the children of England and Wales would have had reason to bless her name. She would have made mistakes; she would have provoked bitter antagonism; but she would have seen to it in fact, as well as promise, no child would be denied the opportunity that was his due.

Indeed, Ellen Wilkinson made a great contribution to the struggle for equalization of educational opportunities and for a strong and vibrant public education system.

A few decades after her death, in 1974, a newly established school in the London Borough of Ealing was named after. The Ellen Wilkinson School for Girls was created a comprehensive school for girls, and it is still the only all girls comprehensive school in Ealing. One of the main principles of the Ellen Wilkinson School for Girls is that everyone, irrespective of age, has an infinite potential for learning and a capacity for change.

Main sources:

Manchester Politicians, Law & Social Reformers. http://www.manchester2002 

Other sources:  

Margery Corbett Ashby. NUWSS in a letter written on 9th September 1978.

The Ellen Wilkinson School for Girls

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