Ellen Wilkinson (1891 – 1947)

220px-Ellen_Cicely_WilkinsonEllen Cicely Wilkinson PC (8 October 1891 – 6 February 1947) was a British Labour Party politician who served as Minister of Education from July 1945 until her death. As the Member of Parliament (MP) for Jarrow, she became a national figure when, in 1936, she figured prominently in the Jarrow March of the town’s unemployed to London, to petition for the right to work. Although unsuccessful at the time, the march provided an iconic image for the 1930s, and helped to form post-Second World War attitudes to unemployment and social justice.

Wilkinson was born into a poor though ambitious Manchester family, and embraced socialism at an early age. After graduating from the University of Manchester she worked for a women’s suffrage organisation and later as a trade union officer. Inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917, Wilkinson joined the British Communist Party, and preached revolutionary socialism while seeking constitutional routes to political power through the Labour Party. She was elected Labour MP for Middlesbrough East in 1924, and supported the 1926 General Strike. In the 1929–31 Labour government she served as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the junior Health Minister. Following her defeat at Middlesbrough in 1931, Wilkinson became a prolific journalist and writer before returning to parliament as Jarrow’s MP in 1935. She was a strong advocate for the Republican faction in the Spanish Civil War, and made several visits to the battle zones.

During the Second World War Wilkinson served in Churchill’s wartime coalition as a junior minister, mainly at the Ministry of Home Security where she worked under Herbert Morrison. She supported Morrison’s attempts to replace Clement Attlee as the Labour Party’s leader; nevertheless, when he formed his postwar government Attlee appointed Wilkinson as Minister of Education. By this time her health was poor, the legacy of years of overwork. She saw her main task in office as the implementation of the wartime coalition’s 1944 Education Act, rather than the more radical introduction of comprehensive schools favoured by many in the Labour Party. Much of her energy was applied to organising the raising of the school leaving age from 14 to 15. In the exceptionally cold English winter of 1946–47, she succumbed to a bronchial disease, and died after an overdose of medication which the coroner at her inquest declared was accidental. (Source: Wikipedia).

The Division Bell Mystery (1932) is the only detective novel of Ellen Wilkinson. It reminds one of the work of the Coles. Like the Coles, Wilkinson was active in left wing politics – she was a Labour M.P. for over twenty years in Britain. Her book has the satiric tone of the Coles’ work, and its focus on members of the British high life. There is a sly sense in both the Coles and Wilkinson that the British ruling classes are full of eccentrics that shouldn’t be allowed to run a small firm, yet alone a great country. Also that they are quite willing to cover up the most outrageous messes. (Mike Grost at A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection. Continue reading the full text here)

After losing her seat at Middlesbrough East, Wilkinson published The Division Bell Mystery. The mystery surrounding a rich financier’s murder stems from a supremely incompetent police investigation of the crime scene, but in the vivid writing, background colour and characterization there is ample compensation for a lack of ‘fair play’. The book’s enduring appeal is underlined by unexpected parallels between the society Wilkinson describes and British life in the twenty-first century. When she returned to Parliament, politics’ gain was detective fiction’s loss. (Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder, Harper Collins, 2015. Page 262.)

Martin Edwards included Ellen Wilkinson’s The Division Bel Mystery in his book The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

Bibliography: Clash (1929), The Division Bell Mystery (1932)


(Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC. Harrap (UK), 1932)

From Wikipedia: The Division Bell Mystery is a 1932 political murder mystery by Labour Party MP Ellen Wilkinson. A financier is found shot in the House of Commons. A young parliamentary private secretary turns amateur sleuth becoming smitten by the dead man’s gorgeous but enigmatic daughter.

Book Description: Originally published in 1932, this is the first Crime Classic novel written by an MP. And fittingly, the crime scene is within the House of Commons itself, in which a financier has been shot dead. Entreated by the financier’s daughter, a young parliamentary private secretary turns sleuth to find the identity of the murderer – the world of politics proving itself to be domain not only of lies and intrigue but also danger. Wilkinson’s own political career positioned her perfectly for this accurate but also sharply satirical novel of double cross and rivalries within the seat of the British Government. (Source: British Library Crime Classics) This new edition comes with an Introduction by Martin Edwards and Preface by Rachel Reeves MP.

Poisoned Pen Press publicity page.

The Division Bell Mystery has been reviewed, among others, at Golden Age of Detection Wiki, ‘Do You Write Under Your Own Name?’ Classic Mysteries, Cross-Examining Crime, Fiction Fan’s Book Reviews, Mysteries Ahoy!Happiness is a Warm Book, JacquiWine’s Journal, Books Please and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings.

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