HC Deb 06 February 1947 vol 432 cc1982-5
The Prime Minister (Mr. Attlee)

I am sure that the House would wish, before turning to the Business of the day, to express its sorrow at the sudden and untimely death of the Minister of Education, Miss Ellen Wilkinson, and to pay a tribute to her work and character.

She had not been well for some time, but it was a great shock to learn this morning that she had passed away, for I had hoped that she had many years of good service before her. Ellen Wilkinson owed her position to her own qualities. Coming from a working-class home, she won scholarships which took her to the secondary school and the university. While still very young, she became the national organiser of her trade union, and took an active part in the political life of Manchester, serving on the city council. She had been a Member of this House, except for a break of four years, since 1924, first for Middlesbrough and afterwards for Jarrow, and she had taken a full part in our Debates.

She had great courage and a burning sympathy for all those who suffered, which extended far beyond the bound of this country. She had visited many countries. I recall today how she marched from the North with the unemployed of Jarrow and her Valiant efforts to bring assistance to that sorely stricken area. I recall visiting, in her company, Spanish Republicans during the course of the civil war. I remember her complete disregard for danger, and how, on a return journey, although her plane was struck by lightning, she got to this House in time to move her Bill on hire purchase which subsequently became law.

It was, therefore, no surprise to any of us when, during the war, after a short period at the Ministry of Pensions, she became Under-Secretary to the Ministry of Home Security. She was to be found, night after night during the blitz, in the midst of the destruction and the falling bombs, fearlessly doing her duty She developed, too, a great organising ability in the work of that office. In the Ministry of Education, she found work very dear to her own heart. She saw here the opportunity of giving to others the educational chances that she managed to secure by her own effort. The difficulties of bringing into force the Education Act in the conditions obtaining after the war, were very formidable, but she set herself to overcome them. It is sad that she could not have lived to see in operation the raising of the school age, for which she had striven so hard. She had great gifts of eloquence and had a trenchant and effective pen. She earned the respect and affection of all her comrades.

To all of us who knew her well and worked with her, her memory will remain as that of a good comrade, a proud and brave spirit. I am sure that the sympathy of the House will go out to her sister, who was her companion for so many years.

Mr. Churchill

I rise to associate myself with the tribute which the Prime Minister has paid to the late Minister of Education. Miss Ellen Wilkinson served for five years and three months in the Administration of which I had the honour to be the head, and I can testify, from a different point of view, to the earnestness, zeal and sympathy with which she discharged all her work.

The Prime Minister has spoken about Jarrow and the grim winter of 1940–41. Constantly under the fire of the enemy, she was always pursuing her task and her duty, and giving the greatest possible aid to the measures which it was necessary to take in those days of great stress. Active, courageous, competent, accessible, she had many of the traits at which Ministers of every Government and of every party have been taught to aim. She had a very warm sympathy for social causes of all kinds, and was fearless and vital in giving expression to them. But she also had a great pride in our country and in its flag. This was very noticeable in several of her speeches and actions, not only during the crisis of the war, but later. She always wished to see this Island great and famous, and capable of offering a decent home to all its people.

Mr. Clement Davies

We are all distressed by the sad news of the unexpected death of Miss Ellen Wilkinson. Able, active, alert, conscientious and extraordinarily hard working, she devoted her life entirely to the service of the country. If there is a quality which we always felt she had in a more remarkable degree than another, it was her deep human sympathy with those who were in distress and suffering, and her desire to relieve it. Those of us who heard her in this House will never forget the deep emotions which she not only felt but caused in her speech on behalf of the people of Jarrow. She was small in body and great in heart. On behalf of my colleagues and myself, I desire to join in this tribute and to express our deep sympathy with her sister.

Earl Winterton

There was a custom when I first entered the House for those who occupied my position, being the senior Member of the House in length of service, outside the Government, to say a word on these occasions. For various reasons, I have departed from the rule on previous occasions. I hope the House will allow me to say a few words on this occasion, for three simple reasons. One is that Miss Wilkinson was a great friend of my wife, and of myself. As so often happens in public life, those who are exact opposites in politics are great personal friends. Secondly, as my right hon. Friend and Leader has said, she was a very courageous woman in every way. Thirdly—one of the most admirable traits in her qualities—she was a great Member of this House.

Mr. Piratin

I would like to associate myself, my colleague and my party with the tributes that have been expressed this afternoon to Miss Wilkinson. Naturally, I did not know her as well as the preceding speakers, but I know of her work. Therefore, I can say that it is a great tragedy that, in the prime of her life and in the midst of her work, she should suddenly leave us. It will be a loss to the nation, and particularly to the working class. I wish to associate myself with everything that has been said.