Object of the Month – May 2013

May 2013 - Photograph of Ellen Wilkinson and her Austin 7, 1930

Ellen Wilkinson was a campaigning Labour MP for Middlesbrough East from 1924 to1931. She then served as the member for Jarrow from 1935 until her death in 1947. She was one of the first female MPs.

It was while MP for Jarrow that Wilkinson helped organise the iconic Jarrow Crusade of 1936 which saw a group of unemployed people march from Jarrow to parliament demanding work. Whilst the people of Jarrow failed to find work, the well publicised event helped highlight the plight of many industrial towns in the North of England. Wilkinson also published several books during her lifetime, including a response to the rise of fascism in Europe, The Terror in Germany 1933, and Why War? 1934, as well as a Left Book Club publication The Town That Was Murdered, 1939 which focused on the plight of Jarrow.

Here we can see Wilkinson reaching into her Austin 7 motor car while a man looks on. The Austin 7 was a triumph of British engineering. It was produced by Sir Herbert Austin in 1922 and was made to be small, agile and affordable. This set it apart from other motor cars produced in the UK at the time. Because of its size it was nicknamed ‘Baby Austin’ and became one of the most popular cars produced by the British market.

Motoring was still an upper and middle class activity in the early 1930s, however cars like the Austin 7 made motoring cheaper and more accessible with car ownership becoming more common. Despite this it was still out of reach of most working people as even a basic Austin 7 would have cost £125 (equivalent of around £4,500 today) in 1930.

Unfortunately the ‘Baby Austin’ in the photograph isn’t registered today which suggests that it does not survive. The fabric cover over the front of the car is a radiator muff used to keep the engine warm on colder days. Judging from this, and Wilkinson’s clothing, it is likely that the picture was taken during winter. The starting handle is inserted below the radiator suggesting that Ellen is preparing to leave. Perhaps she is reaching in to turn the petrol on. She often used her car to get to and from the House of Commons but not always successfully, in 1930 she had a crash on her way there.