Ellen Wilkinson was born in Manchester on 8th October 1891,
the daughter of a textile worker of a strict Methodist background.
She attended the local Ardwick School where she won many scholarships
as well as a teaching bursary in 1906 to attend the Manchester
Day Training College while doing part-time teaching at Oswald
Road Elementary School. Her highly developed social conscience
led her to join the Independent Labour Party. In 1910 she became
a history student at Manchester University , where she was active
in the University Socialist Federation. In 1912 she joined the
National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and quickly
rose to become a district organiser. As a dedicated pacifist,
she gave wholehearted support to the Non-Conscription Fellowship
during the First World War. By 1915 she had been employed by
the National Union of Distributive & Allied Workers (AUCE).
Wilkinson, its first female organiser, and was elected to the
Manchester City Council in 1923. In 1924 she was elected as
Member of Parliament for the Middlesbrough East constituency.
Her sometimes extreme left wing politics and her flame red hair
combined to earn her the nickname of “Red Ellen” . During the
General Strike of 1926 she co-wrote “The Workers History
of the Great Strike” . In 1929 she was appointed as
Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health, though she
lost her seat in the following General Election in 1931. Ellen
Wilkinson followed by writing two books on politics, “Peeps
at Politicians” in 1931 and “The Terror in
Germany” in 1933, as well as a novel entitled “The
Division Bell Mystery” in 1932. She also contributed
regular articles to Time and Tide, a left wing feminist
In 1935 she was re-elected as MP for Jarrow, a north eastern
town with one of the worst unemployment records in Britain at
that time – almost 80% of the population was unemployed. This
resulted in her helping to organised a march of 200 unemployed
workers from Jarrow to London to present a petition to parliament
calling for action. In 1939 she recorded her account of the
Jarrow Crusade was recorded in “The Town That Was Murdered” .
In 1936 she joined the team writing the left wing Tribune .
That year she also fought passionately to overturn the Conservative
Government’s policy of non-intervention in the Spanish Civil
War. In December of that year she actually went to Spain to
give support to the International Brigades fighting against
General Franco. She also organised appeals to raise money for
the families of casualties of that war.
She was active in broader issues at home and was instrumental
in 1938 in the passing of the High Purchase Act. In Winston
Churchill’s wartime cabinet of 1940 (alongside Lord
Woolton, her one-time teacher at Ardwick), she was appointed
parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Pensions, and later,
Prime Minister Clement Attlee appointed her as Minister of Education,
the first woman in British history to hold the post. In 1946,
she pushed through the School Milk Act that gave free milk to
all British schoolchildren. Altruistic and idealistic to the
end, Wilkinson was an outgoing romantic who was an inspirational
orator and defender of the underprivileged. However, she eventually
became deeply depressed by her failure to bring in all the reforms
she believed necessary, took her own life by an overdose of
barbiturates and died on 6th February 1947. The Ellen Wilkinson
School on Hyde Road is named after her.
Hannah Mitchell was born in 1871, the daughter of John Webster,
a Derbyshire farmer. She had virtually no formal schooling due
to heavy domestic duties and work on her father’s farm. Though
this was not uncommon in rural communities at that time, the
fact that all of her three brothers had schooling, made Hannah
aware of the inherent unfairness, and that she was being discriminated
against because of her gender. This came to a head when, at
just fourteen years of age, Hannah rowed bitterly with her mother
over her unfair workload, for which she was badly beaten, forcing
her to run away from home. She took work with a dressmaking
firm in Bolton, earning eight shillings a week. Even so, she
saved enough to join the local library and to teach herself
to read and write.
In Bolton she met Gibbon Mitchell, a strong local socialist,
and began attending meetings with him at the Bolton branch of
the Independent Labour Party. She increasingly became active
in the local trade union movement, subscribing to The Clarion
journal, published by Robert Blatchford. Hannah married Mitchell
in 1895. Ever egalitarian, and with a strong sense of fairness,
she insisted that they should share domestic duties – Mitchell
agreed but found it impossible to live up to her high expectations.
Disillusioned by her husband, and thereby with men in general,
she determined to make it her business to promote the rights
of women, no matter how unpopular or untimely her views might
In 1904 she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).
Her husband actually supported her involvement and acted as
a bodyguard at public meetings. By 1905 she had become a full-time
worker for the WSPU. Despite this, she objected to dominance
of the Pankhursts
in the movement and their lack of consultation on important
In 1907 she was persuaded her to join Women’s Freedom League,
and she became a pacifist, refusing to become involved the WSPU
army recruiting campaign in 1914. She joined the Independent
Labour Party and opposed the War – she also was associated with
the No-Conscription Fellowship and the Women’s Peace Council.
Hannah Mitchell was elected to the Manchester City Council in
1924 and remained a major political figure in Manchester until
her retirement. Her
autobiography, The Hard Way Up , was published after her
death in 1956.
Gormley of Ashton-in-Makerfield
(1921-1993) The former National Union of Mineworkers president, Joe
Gormley, was born in Ashton-in-Makerfield in 1921. He is best
remembered for his leadership of miners in the 1977 national
strike, and the controversial so-called “winter of discontent”
which led more than any other factor to the collapse of the
Labour Government. In 1983 he was made Baron Gormley of Ashton-in-Makerfield.
Joe Gormley started work in a pit at the age of 14 and spent
the whole of his working life in the mining industry. For much
of that time he lived in Shevington, Wigan and was a lifelong
fan of Wigan Rugby League Football Club. He was made a life
peer as Baron Gormley of Ashton-in-Makerfield in Greater Manchester
in the 1982 Birthday Honours. He died in 1993. Several years
after his death it was revealed that he had worked undercover
for Special Branch.
(1890-1960) Harry Pollitt was born on 22nd November 1890 and spent all
of his formative years in Droylsden. At the age of 12 he began
work at the local Benson’s Mill as a weaver, and within three
years had moved on to work at the Great Central Railway locomotive
works in Gorton. While here he continued his education at evening
classes and in 1906 he became a member of the Openshaw Independent
Labour Party; he moved to the British Socialist Party in 1911
and by 1912 had become local branch secretary. In 1915 he left
Droylsden for Southampton which was followed a succession of
engineering jobs ending in London in 1918.
In London he enrolled as a member of the Boilermakers’ Society
and the Workers’ Socialist Federation. By 1919 the Boilermakers
had elected him secretary. He was active in the “Hands
Off Russia” movement and helped organise strikes in British
shipyards. In 1920 Pollitt was a cofounder of the British Communist
Party and was to become its leader from 1929 to 1956.
Pollitt was a dynamic orator and outspoken public speaker –
he was arrested and served a prison sentence for seditious libel
in 1925 and was actually deported from Belfast in 1933. He stood
unsuccessfully for election to parliament on a number of occasions.
After the Second World war he made a series of overseas visits
to foreign Communist Party leaders including Germany, Hungary,
Romania, Russia, Czechoslovakia and China. He also published
several books and tracts, including “Reform v Revolution”
in 1908, “How to Win a War” in 1939 and his
autobiography, “Serving My Time” in 1940. >
Alf Morris of Wythenshawe
Manchester born Alf Morris, one of eight children, (the uncle
of former Labour Education Secretary Estelle Morris – see below),
was Member of Parliament for Wythenshawe from 1964, He was elevated
to the peerage in 1997 and took the title of Lord Morris of
Wythenshawe when he moved to the House of Lords.
Brought up in what he described as “a Manchester slum”
in the 1930s, he was evacuated at the outbreak of war at the
age of eleven. He began work at the age of 14 as a clerk in
the local Wilson’s Brewery. Even at his tender age, he was entitled
to 24 bottles of Wembley Ale every week as part of his remuneration
– which his mother is said distributed amongst the neighbours!
He first stood, unsuccessfully, as a candidate for parliament
in Liverpool in 1951 while he was still an undergraduate at
Oxford – the youngest standing candidate in the country. In
1955 he stood again, this time as Member of Parliament for Wythenshawe,
but it was to be 1964 before he would be successful in his bid.
He held the Wythenshawe constituency seat until his retirement
in 1997. Almost immediately after election he was appointed
as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Fred Peart, Agriculture
Minister in Harold Wilson’s new Labour government.
In 1970 he was instrumental in the creation of the Chronically
Sick & Disabled Persons Act and in 1974 the Prime Minister
invited him to become the very first Minister for the Disabled.
Alf Morris is also Patron of the Co-op Foundation, and introduced
the Motability scheme whereby severely disabled people could
get a free motor vehicle. It is said that Alf first became passionate
about working to improve the lot of disabled people as a result
of watching his father, a one-time local signwriter, suffer
a long drawn out decline and eventual death after being severely
gassed in the Great War – Alf was just seven years old at the
time. Loss of the war pension and a pauper’s funeral in Manchester
left a lasting impression on the young lad.
In 1991 he introduced a Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill,
which set out in more detail how anti-discrimination for disabled
people should work. Lord Morris’s legislation became the model
for similar legislation around the world. He is President of
the Haemophilia Society, Vice-president of Northern Civic Society
and Chairman to the Committee on Restrictions Against Disabled
In 1994 he became a founder member of the inter-parliamentary
Gulf War Group, and in 2004 he began to organise a public enquiry
into the so-called ‘Gulf War Syndrome’, (which successive governments
had failed to do). The debilitating symptoms are said to affect
over 6,000 British veterans of the 1991 campaign, (as well as
around 100,00 Americans) with illnesses varying from motor neurone
disease to cancer.
Estelle Morris, niece of Lord Alf Morris (see above) was brought
up in a council estate in Manchester and went to the Rack House
Primary School in Wythenshawe and Whalley Range High School.
On finishing school she moved to Coventry, where she attended
the local College of Education before completing her Bachelor
of Education degree at Warwick University. On graduation she
began teaching PE and humanities at a comprehensive school in
Coventry where she worked for 18 years. Interested in politics
since an early age, she went on to become leader of the Labour
group on Warwick District Council before becoming MP for the
Birmingham Yardley constituency in 1992 and was appointed an
opposition whip in 1994. She also acted as opposition spokesperson
for education and employment.
In the new Labour government of 1997 she became and worked closely
with David Blunkett until 1998 when she was appointed Minister
of State for Education by Tony Blair. She is probably best known
for introducing performance-related pay despite fierce opposition,
and was responsible for much of the ‘contracting out’ of education
services to private companies.
late summer 2002, after a much-publicised fiasco in the publication
of A-Level Examination grades, many delays, remarking and suggestions
of unfair marking practices, she took much of the blame, most
believe honourably, and In October 2002 she resigned from her
ministerial post to remain as a backbench Member of Parliament.
Joseph Stephens was born in Edinburgh in 1805, the son of a
Methodist minister and one of six children. In 1819 his father
was posted to Manchester and the family moved to live here,
Joseph attending the celebrated Manchester Grammar School. By
1823 he was teaching at a school in Cottingham in Yorkshire
and by 1825 had taken steps to train as a Methodist minister
like his father before him. He was posted to Stockholm from
1826-1829 and returned to England to be a minister in Newcastle-upon-Tyne
before being posted in 1832 to Ashton-under-Lyne. Stephens was
to become known as an outspoken radical, a fervent supporter
of factory reform and an instrumental figure in the fight for
a so-called People’s Charter. His chequered career included
an 18 month long spell in the New Bailey Gaol in Manchester
for ‘seditious behaviour’ after being arrested for addressing
a Chartist Meeting in Hyde in 1838.
In Ashton, Stephens was deeply moved by the plight of the working
poor and the inhumane conditions in which most lived and worked
– he spent much of his life in pursuit of means to improve the
living and working conditions of ordinary people, and as such
was regarded by many as their champion. The inequalities of
the 1834 Poor Law reform Act were his main bone of contention.
Educated, intelligent, fearless, committed and incisive, he
was to become a powerful dissenting voice against conditions
of his day, particularly against the 1834 Act and in favour
of the introduction of a Ten Hours Bill, to restrict working
hours, particularly for children who often worked up to 14 hours
a day. His
speeches often encouraged violent reform which brought him into
opposition from local powers and magistrates. He was also imprisoned
at Knutsford, in Cheshire, and at Chester.
a brief spell living in London, he returned to live in Stalybridge,
where, in 1848 he launched the Ashton Chronicle and District
Advertiser , a doggedly pro-Chartist publication. Later,
it was renamed The Champion , and continued in publication
until 1850. Having
suffered from gout and bronchitis for much of his later life,
he died in 1879 and is buried in St John’s Cemetery in Dukinfield.
A significant figure in the Parliamentarian cause in the English
Civil War and prominent Puritan Leader in Northwest England,
Robert Duckenfield was born in 1619 in Tameside from one of
the oldest and most powerful landed families of the area. Oliver
Cromwell appointed Duckenfield Governor of Chester Castle from
1648-1653. A strong supporter of the Congregationalists, he
helped establish what may have been the first Congregationalist
Church in England at his own home at Dukinfield Hall.
When the Civil Wars broke out Duckenfield was just 23 years
old, and soon joined William Brereton’s camp at Nantwich, from
which he fought at the ill-fated Battle of Middlewich in 1643,
after which he was promoted as Brereton’s colonel. In 1644 he
took part in the relief of the siege of Nantwich, fought with
Prince Rupert in the defence of Stockport and in the siege of
Beeston Castle. The highlight of Duckenfield’s career came in
1653 when he was called to serve in Cromwell’s first parliament
(known as the Barebones Parliament), but, by 1655 had become
so disillusioned that he retired from politics and returned
to Cheshire to play a minor role in local peacekeeping actions.
After the Restoration, Duckenfield played no further role in
politics, either nationally or locally, and was indeed, viewed
suspiciously by Charles II government as a dangerous and potentially
subversive influence, and was implicated in the so-called Cheshire
Conspiracy of 1665. This was a plot to overthrow the King and
establish a Republic. In the event, after a year in incarceration,
Duckenfield was cleared of all charges. Even so, he was barred
from returning to Cheshire and was sent to live in the Isle
of Wight. In 1668, he was granted a full pardon and returned
home. His first wife having died, Duckenfield remarried to Judith
Bothomley, who bore him six children. He
died in September 1689 and is buried in Denton.