Dr Marion Phillips: Sunderland’s First Female MP (1929-1931) by Dr. Sarah Hellawell

Heritage matters! In our latest brilliant blog post, Dr. Sarah Hellawell tells us about Dr. Marion Phillips, Sunderland’s First Female MP and the installation of a blue heritage plaque at the site of the Sunderland Labour Party’s former offices.

Over the last 18 months, I have delivered a number of public talks in Sunderland as part of the suffrage centenary commemorations. Surprised that few people in the audience have heard of Sunderland’s first female MP, I have delved a little deeper into the archival sources on Marion Phillips and her work in the North East of England. One of the outcomes of this research is the installation of a blue heritage plaque at the site of the Sunderland Labour Party’s former offices at 18 Foyle Street. Recently, there have been various efforts to commemorate the generation of first women MPs, such as the Astor100 project and plaque to Margaret Wintringham in Louth. In a more ‘guerrilla’ attempt to celebrate the achievements of ‘rebel women’ Rosie’s Plaques have installed eight plaques around Norwich.[1] Phillips’ plaque in Sunderland will help to rectify the dearth of public memorials to women.

Academic to Chief Woman Officer

Born in Australia, Phillips moved to the UK in 1904. She graduated from London School of Economics with a D.Sc. She then worked on the Royal Commission into the Poor Laws and became closely aligned to the British labour movement. In 1911 she assumed leadership of the Women’s Labour League and the editorship of the League Leaflet, which was later renamed Labour Woman. She was secretary of the Standing Joint Committee of Industrial Women’s Organisations and worked with the international network of Labour and Socialist women. During the Great War, she was appointed to a number of significant bodies, including the Reconstruction Committee. In 1918, Phillips became the Labour Party’s first Chief Woman Officer, a role she retained until her death. Although Beatrice Webb wrote in her diaries that Phillips ‘is much disliked by other leading women of the Labour Movement’, she was respected by the grassroots membership of the Labour Party, especially in the North-East of England.[2]

Marion Phillips and Sunderland

So, why was this prominent figure in the labour and women’s movements selected as a parliamentary candidate for Sunderland? As Chief Woman Officer, Phillips travelled the country and was a regular visitor to the North-East of England for the women’s rally held in Durham.[3] Her biographer notes that Sunderland was a difficult seat for Labour. Despite a large working-class population, there was a growing middle-class and the seat was held by the Conservatives.[4] Despite her position with the party, ‘she had not intended to seek membership to the House of Commons’. Yet, compelled by her work with the Durham County Labour Women’s Advisory Council, Phillips accepted the nomination as the Labour Party’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Sunderland.[5]

Her work with the Women’s Committee for the Relief of Miners’ Wives and Children during the General Strike brought her into close collaboration with the women of the Durham coalfield. In July 1926, Phillips visited the Ryhope Miners’ Hall in Sunderland. She donated a christening gown and shawl to an impoverished mining family who were expecting a baby. In turn, the Barnes family christened their daughter Marion Phillips Barnes.[6] Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of meeting Marion Phillips’ namesake, who is now 93 years old.[7]

This example is one of many acts of kindness that earned the Chief Woman Officer a positive reputation within the North-East community. In 1926, the Durham County Labour Women’s Advisory Committee asked her to stand as one of Sunderland’s Labour candidates and donated £70 to her campaign. At that time, Sunderland was still a two-member borough. Alf Smith had the financial backing of the party and trade unions. Notably, the next General Election was held after the Equal Franchise Act. In July 1928 Phillips sent a letter to all women in the constituency, stating that ‘FOR WOMEN ESPECIALLY, THIS NEXT ELECTION WHICH WILL TAKE PLACE IN 1929 IS VERY IMPORTANT’.[8] On 30 May 1929, Phillips was elected with 31,794 votes. Alf Smith was also elected.[9]

As an MP, Phillips campaigned on issues relating to the interests of the working people of Sunderland, including paid holidays, unemployment schemes and training for women workers. However, her tenure as MP was short. Phillips – along with all other Labour women MPs – lost her seat at the General Election in October 1931. Phillips died just three months later, following a short battle with stomach cancer. Obituaries paying testament to her life’s work poured in. Ellen Wilkinson described her as ‘one of the best all-round women M.P.s we have yet had’. [10] E. Stewart from Sunderland wrote that ‘by her death, Sunderland has lost a figure that will go down in history as its first woman member of Parliament’.[11]

In September 2019, 90 years after her election, Marion Phillips will be commemorated by a blue plaque in Sunderland.

Dr Sarah Hellawell is Lecturer in Modern British History at the University of Sunderland. Her research focuses on British women’s activism during the interwar years, particularly the dynamic between the local, national and international levels of activism.

[1] Astor100 see https://research.reading.ac.uk/astor100/; ‘The first British-born woman to take her seat in Parliament is recognised in her Louth constituency’, Market Rasen Mail, 5 December 2018; ‘Unofficial Norwich blue plaques mark ‘rebel women’, BBC News, 21 May 2019.

[2] Beatrice Webb, Diaries, Typescript, May 1918. LSE Digital Library, https://digital.library.lse.ac.uk/objects/lse:vat325giy

[3] ‘A Great Day for Durham’, Labour Woman, Vol. XI, No. 7 (July 1923), p. 108.

[4] Marian Goronwy-Roberts, A Woman of Vision: A Life of Marion Phillips, MP (Wrexham: Bridge Books, 2000), p. 153.

[5] ‘Durham Women and the House of Commons’, Labour Woman, Vol. XIV, No. 10 (October 1926), p. 157.

[6] Marion Phillips Barnes Christening Certificate, St Peter’s Church Ryhope, 28 July 1926 [family collection].

[7] University of Sunderland, ‘A Tale of Two Marions’, 29 May 2019, https://www.sunderland.ac.uk/more/news/story/a-tale-of-two-marions-how-a-92-year-old-was-named-after-first-female-mp-in-sunderland-1005

[8] Marion Phillips, Letter to Sunderland Women, July 1928. Labour History Archives, Marion Phillips Collection, MP/4/82.

[9] ‘Dramatic Day for Sunderland’, Sunderland Echo and Shipping Gazette, 1 June 1929.

[10] Ellen Wilkinson, ‘Tributes from Colleagues’, Labour Woman, Vol. XX, No. 3 (March 1932), p. 37.

[11] E. Stewart, ‘International and Other Tributes’, Labour Woman, Vol. XX, No. 3 (March 1932), p. 39.