Published on 29 May 2019
Ninety-two years ago she was named after Sunderland’s first female MP and christened in a gown gifted by the history-making politician.
Today, Marion Phillips Barnes returned to hear a University academic share the life-story of the woman who changed her life.
Sitting with her daughter, Judith Brown, in Sunderland civic centre, the great grandmother listened as Dr Sarah Hellawell, a Lecturer in Modern British History at the University, spoke about the life and times of the MP.
Marion Phillips was MP for Sunderland between 1929 and 1931, although it was in her role as Chief Woman Officer for the Labour Party that she made her name.
A feminist of her time, she campaigned tirelessly to educate women, urging them to stand up for their rights and take part in political and social reforms.
It was in July 1926 that the campaigner visited Ryhope Miners’ Hall in Sunderland. There she came across the grandmother of the baby who would be named after her.
After hearing about the imminent arrival, she gifted a christening gown, shawl and bonnet to Marion’s expectant mother, Agnes Jane Barnes.
Although the MP never married, maternity and baby care were her primary concerns, with history now showing how millions of mothers owe her a debt of gratitude for establishing the first baby clinic in Britain.
The crusader also demanded regular health checks for schoolchildren, the building of open air schools, as well as improving housing and town planning. She also campaigned for free school milk and set up launderettes to lighten the burden on women.
Judith said: “My mother grew up knowing she had been named after Marion and all the good work she had done.
“When we heard about the talk that was being given by Dr Hellawell, mum wanted to come along and hear it.”
Marion, who turns 93 this summer, was born on July 3, 1926. She was christened at St Paul’s Church in Ryhope on July 28. She has five grandchildren and eight great grandchildren and currently lives independently in sheltered accommodation in the city.
Marion’s namesake was elected MP for Sunderland in the general election of 1929 – the first in which women over 21 were eligible to vote. Both Sunderland seats were won by Labour, with Marion topping the poll with 31,794 votes.
She was one of 14 women Members of Parliament, nine of whom were Labour. But when Parliament was dissolved in October 1931, amid gathering clouds of poverty, Marion lost her seat as the UK turned against Labour.
Sadly, this was to be Marion’s last political battle as soon after she was diagnosed with stomach cancer and died in January 1932.
Dr Sarah Hellawell said: “More than 100 years since women were eligible to stand as MPs and 90 years since Sunderland elected its first woman MP, it is fitting to remember Marion Phillips and the impact she had on the local community. It was a real honour to meet her namesake.’
A Blue Heritage Plaque in memory of Sunderland’s first female MP is currently being manufactured and is expected to be installed this summer at 18 Foyle Street in Sunderland, once the Labour Party Committee Rooms for the city.