Turbulent Londoners: Susan Lawrence, 1871-1947

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who played a part in the city’s contentious past. Most of the Turbulent Londoners I feature are women, because their contribution to history has so often been overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. Next up is Susan Lawrence, an upper class politician who started her career as a Conservative Councillor, but converted to socialism.


Susan Lawrence 1930

Susan Lawrence in 1930 (Source: National Portrait Gallery)

Susan Lawrence was born into a life of wealth and privilege. Well educated, she embarked upon a career as a Conservative politician. It didn’t take her long before the realities of life in London helped in her conversion to non-revolutionary socialism. She became a devoted member of the Labour Party, and went on to be an effective politician.

Arabella Susan Lawrence was born in London to a prosperous family on 12th of August 1871. She was well education, studying at University College London and Newnham College, Cambridge. In her early life, Susan was politically and socially conservative, strongly believing in the British Empire, the Church of England, and charity. In March 1910 she was elected to the London County Council (LCC) as a Conservative. As she immersed herself in London politics however, her beliefs began to diverge from the policies of the Conservative Party.

Over the next two years, Susan underwent a political and personal transformation. Previously a devout member of the Church of England, she became much more secular in her beliefs. She also realised that social change could not be brought about by voluntary work alone, it required action by the state. Susan joined the Fabian Society, a group of non-revolutionary socialists (they wanted to bring about a socialist society by gradual means), and became good friends with Sidney and Beatrice Webb, a power couple of British socialism. Susan served  on the executive of the Fabian Society from 1913 until 1945. As a member of the LCC, Susan became aware of how little the women who cleaned London’s schools were paid. As a result, she became involved in women’s trade unionism. She met and befriended Mary Macarthur, the secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL). For the next decade, Susan worked to organise working class women, earning the nickname ‘Our Susan’. In 1912, she resigned from the LCC because of this dramatic change in her beliefs.

Susan still believed in making a difference, and the following year she was re-elected to the LCC as a Labour Councillor for Poplar in East London. After her mother’s death, Susan moved to the East End, living just off the East India Dock Road. It was not unusual at this time for middle- and upper-class women to try to help East London’s poor, but Susan displayed an uncommon level of dedication by actually moving there.

During the First World War, Susan was a Fabian representative on the War Emergency Worker’s National Committee, a coalition of Labour and socialist groups who worked to improve conditions for the working classes. She also served on government committees, trying to ensure the interests of workers,  and particularly female workers, were taken into account. Like many other Labour politicians, Susan was optimistic that post-war reconstruction could be used to benefit the working classes. In 1918, she was elected to the new women’s section of the Labour Party’s National Executive. In just 6 years, Susan had become one of  Labour’s most important women.

In 1919, Susan was elected to Poplar borough council. Two years later, she was one of 30 Poplar Councillors imprisoned because of the Poplar Rates Strike. The Councillors took a stand over the unfair way in which unemployment benefits were paid for in London, which meant that the poorest boroughs had the highest burdens. The government sentenced them to prison indefinitely, but the government backed down and Susan and the other Councillors were released after 6 weeks. Despite their success, the Poplar Councillor’s illegal strategy was unpopular with the rest of the Labour Party.

1924 Women MPs

Women were allowed to stand as MPs for the first time in 1918. By 1924, there were 8 female MPs in Parliament. Susan Lawrence is the second from the left (Source: National Portrait Gallery).

Susan was loyal to the Labour Party however, and in the 1920s she turned her attention to Parliamentary politics. After failing to win seats in the 1920 and 1922 elections, Susan was elected as the MP for East Ham North in 1924, becoming one of Labour’s first 3 female MPs. Although she was never a Minister, Susan held several positions in Labour governments became quite successful. She was the first woman to chair the Labour Party Conference in October 1930. Despite being a trailblazer for women in politics, women’s rights was never a priority for Susan. She had been indifferent at best to women’s suffrage, and she didn’t want women’s issues to divide the Labour Party; for Susan, no other identity was more important than class. Unlike other female politicians at the time, such as Ellen Wilkinson, she seemed impervious to the pressure to appear ‘feminine’; she never took much interest in her clothes or appearance.

In the 1931 general election Susan lost her seat, and this marked the end of her Parliamentary career. She tried to get re-elected in 1935, but was unsuccessful. A new and younger group was increasingly leading the Labour Party, and Susan was increasingly alienated. She remained on the Party’s executive until 1941, however. Susan dedicated her retirement to translating books into braille. She moved to Berkshire after her house was bombed during the Blitz, but returned to London after the war, moving to South Kensington. She died at home on 24th of October 1947.

Susan Lawrence was a dedicated and effective politician. She was not a suffragette, but she shared with them a willingness to go to prison for what she believed in. I think it must have taken a huge amount of bravery and resolve to shift her political allegiance as she did, and I admire her for that. Contemporary politicians seem incapable of admitting that they were wrong, and I think they could learn something from Susan.

Sources and Further Reading

English Heritage. “Lawrence, Susan (1871-1947).” No date, accessed 23rd March 2020. Available at https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/blue-plaques/susan-lawrence/

Howell. David. “Lawrence, (Arabella) Susan.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 28th May 2015, accessed 23rd March 2020. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/34434 [Subscription required to access].

Perera, Kathryn. “Susan Lawrence: The Monocled Maverick.” Labour List. Last modified 20th December 2010, accessed 23rd March 2020. Available at https://labourlist.org/2010/12/susan-lawrence-the-monocled-maverick/

Simkin, John. “Susan Lawrence.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified January 2020, accessed 23rd March 2020. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/TUlawrence.htm

 

 

Turbulent Londoners: Ellen Wilkinson, 1891-1947

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. Today I’m looking at Ellen Wilkinson, a radical politician who became the Minister for Education.


Ellen Wilkinson (Source: Catherine McKinnell MP).

Ellen Wilkinson (Source: Catherine McKinnell MP).

Ellen Cecily Wilkinson was an impressive woman. Rebellious and outspoken from a young age, she was a founding member of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920. As she aged, she either mellowed or suppressed her more radical side, rising through the Labour Party to become the Minister of Education in 1945, only the second woman to ever gain a place in the British cabinet.

Wilkinson was born on the 8th of October 1891 to a working-class family in Manchester. Her father encouraged her to read and learn, and she was academically accomplished. She got involved in politics young, joining the International Labour Party when she was 16. She also campaigned for the suffragist cause, handing out leaflets and putting up posters. She started teacher training college, but her unconventional teaching style was not appreciated and she left, deciding that teaching was not for her.

Teachings’ loss was politics’ gain. In 1910 Wilkinson won a scholarship to Manchester University, where she joined the Fabian Society and Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage. She met many leaders of the radical left during this period, including the indefatigable Charlotte Despard. In her first year at university, she joined the executive committee of the University Socialist Federation, which was formed to unite socialist students across the country.

When she left university in 1913, Ellen got a job working for the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.  She was also active in the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and strongly opposed the First World War. The Suffrage movement was divided by the war, so in 1915 Ellen became National Women’s Organiser for the Amalgamated Union of Cooperative Employees (AUCE). She was the first woman they employed as an official. Here she fought for equal pay and rights for unskilled workers, which were often actively opposed by the better-off craft unions. Her time working for unions made her a skilled speaker and organiser.

A big demonstration in support of the International Labour Policy on Spain was held in Trafalgar Square. Ellen Wilkinson, Member of Parliament, addressing the huge meeting in Trafalgar Square in London, on July 11, 1937. (AP Photo)

Ellen Wilkinson addresses a crowd in Trafalgar Square in 1937 (Source: flashbak.com)

As with many of her contemporaries, Ellen was inspired by the Russian Revolution, and in 1920 she was a founding member of the Communist Part of Great Britain. She also remained in the Labour Party, but it 1923 the Labour Party stopped allowing membership of both, and Ellen chose to stay with Labour, criticising the Communist Party’s dictatorial methods. By this point the AUCE had merged with another union to become the National Union of Distributive and Allied Workers (NUDAW), who sponsored Ellen to run for Parliament. After several failed attempts, she was elected the Labour MP for Middlesborough East in 1924, under a Conservative government. She was the only female Labour MP in the 1924 Parliament.

In Parliament Ellen fought for women’s rights, opposed imperialism, and was a vocal supporter of the May 1926 General Strike. She was elected to the Labour Party’s National Executive in 1927, which gave her a say in Party policy. She campaigned for the voting age for men and women to be equalised, which was achieved in 1928. As the Great Depression struck Ellen continued to fight for worker’s rights, although she lost her Parliamentary seat in 1932.

She continued to campaign whilst out of office, and in 1935 she was elected as the MP for Jarrow, a small town in Tyneside which is known for the Jarrow March, which took place in 1936. Despite criticism, even from within the Labour Party, Ellen supported the marchers, and joined them for some stretches of the march. On the 4th of November she presented the marchers’ petition to Parliament, which contained 11,000 signatures. Although not immediately successful, it is thought that the march helped shaped future attitudes and policies towards unemployment.

The female marcher in the Spirit of Jarrow carrying a bundle that is probably a baby.

A statue in Jarrow commemorating the Jarrow March. As Wilkinson was the only woman permitted to join the march, I assume this is supposed to be her (Source: Hannah Awcock).

During the 1930s Ellen travelled Europe attempting to combat fascism, and was critical of the government’s policy of non-intervention in the Spanish civil war. She was also strongly opposed to appeasement as a method of dealing with Hitler. She supported the declaration of the Second World War in 1939, but disapproved of the way Chamberlain conducted the war. When Churchill took over the government, Ellen was put in charge of air raid shelters and civil defence. During the war she became less radical, and was accepted by the Labour Party mainstream.

In 1945, Ellen Wilkinson became only the third woman to be made a privy councillor. After Labour’s landslide election victory, Atlee made her the Minister for Education. She focused on implementing the 1944 Education Act, which provided universal free secondary education and raised the school leaving age from 14 to 15. She was criticised as the system of the 11+ exams, and grammar, technical, and modern schools was seen as elitist. She stuck by her guns, arguing that the Education Act was the only realistic way of achieving positive change. As well as this, she also increased the amount of university scholarships and part time adult education, both positive steps forward.

Ellen Wilkinson had to fight hard to succeed in the male-dominated world of politics (Source: Parliament.uk).

Ellen Wilkinson had to fight hard to succeed in the male-dominated world of politics (Source: Parliament.uk).

Ellen Wilkinson died in office on the 6th of February 1947. She had always suffered from bronchial asthma, and this killed her, exacerbated by heavy smoking, overwork and an overdose of medicine. Her death was declared accidental, but some still suspect that she committed suicide. Ellen was well known for her fiery hair and matching temperament, and even when her politics mellowed, her passion and conviction did not. She is particularly interesting in the light of the Labour Party’s shift to the left with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Party Leader, and it will be interesting to see if he too moves towards the centre as his career progresses. Regardless, Ellen was an inspiring woman who carved her own political path in a world dominated by men, often in the face of heavy opposition. She fought hard for what she believed in, and proved that politicians can have principles.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. “Ellen Wilkinson,” Wikipedia. Last modified 13th September 2015, accessed 2nd October 2015. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellen_Wilkinson

Harrison, Brian. “Wilkinson, Ellen Cicely (1891–1947)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last updated 2004, accessed 2nd October 2015. Available at http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/36902 (Not free to access)

Simkin, John. “Ellen Wilkinson,” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 2nd October 2015. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/TUwilkinson.htm 

Stevenson, Graham. “Glossary of People: Ellen, Wilkinson,” marxists.org. No date, accessed 2nd October 2015. Available at https://www.marxists.org/glossary/people/w/i.htm#wilkinson-ellen