March 8th 2016 three of my short films were screened at an event celebrating International Women’s Day at The Customs House in South Shields. They featured Dame Rosemary Cramp (Bedes World, Jarrow), Eileen O’Shaughnessy (‘Wildflower’ first film made about George Orwell’s South Shields born wife, ) and Ellen Wilkinson MP (Jarrow Crusade). When the event was being put together I found a newly released book about Ellen’s political life, the author was Paula Bartley who I contacted and asked if she would like to come up to The Customs House and talk about her book….The talk I enjoyed most was in South Shields. It was as if I had come home. People knew about Ellen, they knew why she was important, they loved her as much as I did.
In research did you find anything surprising about Ellen ? I found out that Ellen had enjoyed a relationship with a communist spy, a man called Otto Katz. He was a Soviet agent who used at least 21 aliases. If these photos below are all of the same man – two of them are of Arnold Deutsch – then he was very dangerous indeed. Arnold Deutsch, who was also known as Otto, recruited Kim Philby, Britain’s most notorious spy. Certainly Katz – whoever he was – was a handsome man and willing to use his looks and natural magnetism to further his political cause. He even managed to charm Hollywood: Otto Katz and his wife Ilse were immortalized as Victor Lazlo and Ilse Lazlo in the film Casablanca.
M15 thought Katz the most important communist agent outside Russia and put him under surveillance. You can see a report of it below – it’s of Otto Katz staying overnight with Ellen. It says ‘he went with Miss Ellen Wilkinson to her flat at No 18, Guildford Street WC1 where he spent the night’. The two sometimes evaded the Secret Service by driving as fast as Ellen could in her car.
Otto Katz’s letters were opened. Below is a negative of a letter from Ellen to Otto that the Secret Services made. It says ‘WHAT a bombshell. Honestly, I am scared stiff. You simply must destroy the negatives or the worst, or send them to me, and any copies there are. PLEASE’. I don’t know what these photographs illustrated or the result of Ellen’s plea, but Ellen and MI5 destroyed her papers.
What I do know is that Ellen became friendly with Otto Katz in the 1930s and remained so all her life – even when she became a Cabinet Minister. He accompanied her on a number of trips to Spain during the Civil War and involved her in communist-led campaigns. Sadly, Ellen died in 1947, and never knew that in 1952 Otto Katz was put on trial for conspiring against the Czechoslovakian communist state, was tortured, found guilty and hanged.
Spy stories are always interesting, Agent Zig Zag (Durham born Eddie Chapman) is a fascinating tale of traitor, villain and hero. Ben Macintyre made a BBC documentary about him and his exploits as a double agent during the Second World War. On Tyneside was Russian born William Fisher and his son Heinrich, a KGB spy born in Newcastle, he worked for the British Socialist Party in South Shields. My great uncle Alexander Allikivi, born Russia 1888, was living in South Shields at the same time. How many more Soviets were living in the town and was Allikivi a member of the party? (‘The Kremlin’s Geordie Spy’ by Vin Arthey is a great source for research. Interview with Vin on the blog 30th July 2019).
Paula continues…. Like a lot of young people, Ellen was excited by the 1917 Russian revolution. She joined the Communist Party and planned for socialism in Britain. The Soviet Union gave her and Harry Pollitt (later General Secretary of the British Communist Party) £500 to travel first class to Russia so that they could attend the Red Trade Union Conference in Moscow. Here she met leading revolutionaries like Leon Trotsky and Alexandra Kollontai.
Back in Britain, she helped found the Red International of Labour Unions, known as the Profintern. But there was a problem. She was also a member of the Labour Party. In 1924 communists were banned from belonging to the Labour Party and Ellen had to make a choice. In 1924 she left the Communist Party but its ideas influenced her.
What inspired you to write about Ellen ? I was intrigued by her, her name kept coming up in lots of books about women’s history: a photo; a mention of the Jarrow March; a bit on the first women Labour MPs. I wanted to know more. I did an internet search, read a book about her by Betty Vernon and was gripped. Why was this 4ft 11’ bundle of dynamite not better known? The more I read, the more I fell in love. I became a little bit obsessed – and two years later, after a lot of research I finished an introductory book about her: Ellen Wilkinson – from Red Suffragist to Government Minister.
It was challenging researching Ellen’s life as she had destroyed all her papers and I had to rely on Hansard, newspapers, archives and people who had known and written about her. I visited lots of archives: Hull, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Newcastle, Oxford and Warwick to try and find more about her.
Why did I like her so much? I admired her energy, her passion, her warmth, her charm and her sheer doggedness to make life better for the less well-off.
Where was Ellen born and what kind of upbringing did she have ? She was born in Manchester to parents who didn’t have much money. Ellen, her parents, her two brothers and her sister all lived together in a tiny two-bedroomed terraced house with no bathroom or inside lavatory. The family struggled: her father worked in a very low paid job while her mother was too ill to work outside the home. Ellen’s future didn’t look particularly bright, yet she went to Manchester University, became a Labour MP and then first-ever female Minister of Education.
Do you think it would have been difficult being one of the first women MP’s ? In 1924 Ellen was elected Labour MP for Middlesbrough East. She walked into a space that was both masculine and upper-class. The Palace of Westminster was a grand building with its panelled walls, high ceilings, crystal chandeliers, vast halls and chambers, heraldic symbols and statues of dead white men. Intimidating for those, like Ellen, who had not grown up in a big house, been to public school or Oxbridge.
The benches in the House of Commons were made for men. Ellen was so short and the benches so high that she had to sit with her feet dangling inches from the floor. In fact, she used her brief-case to rest her feet.
On her second day in Parliament Ellen made her debut speech. She looked confident but was scared stiff. Ellen had to stand up alone in the House of Commons while over 600 MPs, mostly men, looked at her. But Ellen was a street-fighter, she had learnt how to deal with difficult crowds when she was campaigning for votes for women, had rotten fruit thrown at her and had to think of quick witty replies to hecklers. And she knew that what she had to say was more important than her fears: she told MPs that she was determined to improve the lives of women and poor people.
Since women had not been expected to be members of Parliament there were no facilities for them in the House of Commons. It was a male space. The first women MPs had to squash into one small dressing room which contained a wash stand, a tin basin, a jug of cold water and a bucket – a situation they naturally found intolerable. Ellen called it ‘The Tomb’. Even so they rarely complained, partly because they were just glad to be in the building.
These women soon found that they were not welcome in certain areas of the House namely the bars, the smoking rooms and the members’ cloakroom. Either because they feared giving offence or were intimidated, they tended to stay away from these places. Ellen broke this by striding into areas that the men thought exclusive to them.
Did you come across anything unusual when researching Ellen ? These early women MPs tended to stick together and give each other support. Ellen became friends with someone who was very different from herself: the American, Conservative and very rich Nancy Astor. The two women worked closely together to improve women’s lives, getting better pensions for women, changing the Nationality Laws (British women lost their nationality if they married a foreigner), allowing more women to join the police force, helping to gain votes for women on the same terms as men, and trying (unsuccessfully) to improve the laws on prostitution.
Where have you publicized your book and have you any projects planned ? I wanted to share my research about this remarkable woman so I spoke at lots of different places, from the Ellen Wilkinson School in Ealing, to Labour Party groups, to women’s groups and even at the House of Commons. You can see one of my talks ‘The Mighty Atom’: Ellen Wilkinson and parliamentary politics on the parliamentary you tube channel (https://youtube/2bi409l621l).
My work on Ellen Wilkinson encouraged me to find out about other Cabinet Ministers and last year my book, Labour Women in Power: Cabinet Ministers in the 20th Century was published. But no-one captured my heart more than Ellen Wilkinson.
Interview by Gary Alikivi February 2020.