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The fiery particle (vote Ellen)

Submitted by on July 31, 2014 – 10:41 amNo Comment

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As reported in The Guardian, Manchester is set to ask residents to vote on which female should feature as a new statue to mark the centenary of women’s suffrage.

One of those being touted as a deserving recipient of this civic award is Ellen Wilkinson. Ellen featured on the cover of issue eight of A Fine Lung, and in issue 11 Elsie wrote a lovely piece about her:

Ellen Wilkinson was born in Ardwick in 1891 to Methodist parents.

She joined the Independent Labour Party at the age of 16, and also briefly joined the Communist Party – she was still a member when elected to Manchester City Council in 1923. Her radical leanings, as well as her hair colour, meant she became known as Red Ellen.

Author, agitator, feminist and trade union pioneer, Ellen was an empathetic dynamo of a woman, memorably described once as a ‘fiery particle’. 

She undertook a tour of Germany in 1932, taking with her an anti-fascist flag from British women, and was a member of the International Commission of Enquiry into the Reichstag Fire, the act of arson which preceded the elections that brought Hitler to power in 1933. She also visited Spain during its Civil War, and was active in Spanish relief committees.

She was elected as MP for Middlesbrough East in 1924 – the fourth ever female Labour MP – and then in 1935 became MP for Jarrow which had levels of unemployment recorded at 80%. In October 1936 Ellen led the Jarrow crusade, when 200 marchers travelled to London to protest against the terrible circumstances they were facing.

The photo on the cover of AFL issue 8 comes from the Working Class Movement Library in Salford, and shows Ellen with some of the marchers.

Ellen was appointed Minister for Education after Labour won the 1945 General Election, the only female cabinet minister and the first woman to hold that post.  She tried in vain to get the school leaving age raised to 16.  

However she did bring in the 1946 Act which gave free milk to all British schoolchildren.  Her sudden death of an overdose (whether accidental or deliberate is still disputed) on 6 February 1947, at the age of only 55, meant that that legislation was the final legacy of a life of direct action and fierce commitment. Amongst the many great facts about Ellen, I have to admit that my favourite is that she was under five foot tall.

For those of us who get nightmares at the onset of autumn about wandering into a pile of fallen leaves and not being able to find our way out again, she is a true midjmo role model. 
She is a superb example of what I seen referred to as the Tinkerbell Syndrome.  That’s a weird name though, as frankly I wouldn’t give great odds on even you crazed cause-fighting Fine Lung readers putting your copy down at this point and clapping to prove you believe in fairies.  (Aww, go on, prove me wrong. Especially if you’re reading this on the 135).

Whereas I’m sure you have all had drilled into you by your tiny auntie Jean the following important warning – patronise small women at your peril. If you do, we will tower under you until you see the error of your ways.

Viewed from what is admittedly a biased dachshund perspective, I would say – in quite an assertive tone, actually – that women do often seem to exhibit an inverse ratio of feistiness to heightiness.  Maybe we just do have to learn early on to shout louder, to avoid the curse of miniature invisibility? 

Those of you who get served at the bar because the staff can see you as your head is higher than the beer pumps have no idea of just how much jumping up and down can be required to attract attention. Although in moments of extreme frustration I do find setting off a flare to be quite effective in this setting.

My great-auntie Louie, known to all as Dodo (that’s pronounced as in ‘DooBeDooBeDoo’, not the wingless thing hunted to extinction by Alf Ramsey) was nearer four foot than five, thanks to a childhood spinal condition. She ran a greengrocer’s shop in Birkenhead which had originally been her father’s. 

We used to love going in there as kids, and on the rare occasions when I’m in a traditional greengrocer’s these days the fruit and veg aromas always take me back. 
Louie sat on a high chair at the back of the shop, keeping a pretty stern eye on all that was going on and generally keeping the Oxton village high street in order. 

She had piercingly vivid blue eyes, just as Ellen Wilkinson is described as possessing.  She also had a sweetie jar full of an impressively wide range of toffees; maybe that was some sort of rebellion against her five a day working environment.

Perched on a slightly bonkers pile of cushions so that she could see over the steering wheel she drove a Morris Minor round Oxton, very firmly positioning it in the middle of the road at all times. Fortunately roads were quieter then, and the locals knew to take evasive action.  (Curiously, I’ve just read that Ellen Wilkinson drove an Austin Seven ‘because any bigger car would give the impression that it was driverless and might cause trouble with the police’).

Louie kept that shop running longer than anyone of taller stature would have managed, sheer willpower meaning her suppliers cut her some slack and her regulars stayed loyal – helped also perhaps by the fact that she let slip, when the new Sainsbury’s opened, that she had bagged a prime sniper position overlooking its entrance. 
She finally traded in her Maris Pipers for carpet slippers at getting on for 80.

When she died in 1980 at the age of 84, rather to the discombobulation of the local vicar my dad insisted in having carved on her gravestone the phrase ‘Small but indomitable’.

Great word, that. I reckon Ellen the ‘fiery particle’ might have approved.

Buy back issues, including eight and 11, from here: ONLINE STALL

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