Leah Manning by Palmer Clarke courtesy of Cambridge Collection

Leah Manning trained at Homerton College, and started her teaching career at the New Street Ragged School, from 1908 to 1917.

She made her mark campaigning for the local children of Barnwell, then an area of great deprivation. She lobbied the City Council to provide milk and school meals, and set up an after-school play centre and holiday activities, going on to head the first Cambridge Open Air School for sick and undernourished children from 1920-1930.

She was an activist for women’s rights, one of the first women JPs and joined in founding Cambridge’s first birth control clinic. Active in the Cambridge Labour Party she supported especially women workers in the General Strike and became President of the National Union of Teachers.

Internationally, Manning’s most lasting legacy is her effort to secure the evacuation to Britain of 4,000 children from Bilbao to Britain during the Spanish Civil War in 1937.

Manning was elected as MP for Epping in 1945, becoming heavily involved in policy-making for educational reform, social reconstruction and international peace. She was a lifelong champion of causes affecting women and children, advocating for women’s rights, birth control and equal pay.

Student Life and Early Teaching Career

Educated in a London Elementary School, Leah Manning entered Homerton College, Cambridge in 1906 as a trainee teacher. As a student she enjoyed her social life, played hockey and tennis, swam and enjoyed picnics on the river without permission or even chaperones! She chaired the debating society and drama club, and – already a strong Christian socialist – was secretary of the Christian Union.

Active in politics, she joined the Fabian Society and the Labour Party, and was mentored by Hugh Dalton, then a student at King’s College, later MP and cabinet minister.

From 1901 Homerton had supported and extended the ‘undenominational’ New Street Ragged School, in a very deprived area of east Cambridge. But College governors had become dissatisfied with its teaching. On completing her course, Manning was asked by Principal Mary Allan to take up a post at the school, expecting she had the skills and sense of responsibility to bring about improvement.

From 1908–1918 Manning promoted improvements in the education, health and welfare of children in her school and community. She was resourceful in setting up an after-school play centre, with student volunteers.

In this she gained support from Florence Keynes and the National Council of Women.

Leah Manning in 1906 courtesy of Homerton College

Teaching, Social Welfare and Civic Activity

Taking personal responsibility for the welfare of pupils and community, Manning cultivated strong resilience in the face of opposition. She publicly denounced the City Council over the death of an underfed child, was summoned before the committee for disciplinary action, but secured provision of milk and meals at school.

In the 1914–18 war she trained and worked in her spare time as a volunteer nurse in the tented military hospital on West Road. She took on significant public roles, on the Borough Food Control Committee, a local Insurance Committee, as Chair of Cambridge Trades Council, and of the local Independent Labour Party.

With local activists she campaigned for women’s rights, and in 1921 joined with others in opening Cambridge’s first Family Planning Clinic. That year she was appointed one of the first three women JPs in Cambridge Magistrates’ Court. In 1920 she was appointed to head a new open-air school for children in poor health, where she found success and fulfilment.

She remained as Headteacher until 1930, opening a new purpose built open-air school in 1927.

Trade Union and National Politics

Manning’s leadership qualities were in demand nationally as well as locally. In 1924 she was elected to the National Executive of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), a largely male dominated union. In 1930, she was the fourth woman president to be elected in 60 years.

As President she stressed her ‘faith in the value and potential of each individual life’. She was seen to preside over the annual conference with ‘efficiency, charm and dignity’.

In her membership of the Women’s Freedom League, she campaigned for equality of rights and opportunities between the sexes, to promote communal wellbeing, and for election of women to Parliament and other public bodies.

The first woman ever sponsored by the NUT for parliamentary election, she was elected MP for Islington East, 1931.

In the House of Commons she made education and foreign affairs her particular interests. She was a forceful advocate for women’s rights, equal pay and birth control.

Resolute in her own principles, she would defy the party whip when necessary. Despite her pacifism she respected a public vote in the 1935 ‘peace ballot’ for armed resistance against Fascist aggression.

International Aid and Child Rescue

Manning espoused internationalist ideals, cooperation for peace, was a founding member of the English Speaking Union, travelled frequently to Europe, and conducted a lecture tour for the Women’s Club of America.

In the 1920s she visited the USSR to observe socialism there, and Germany to meet opponents of Nazism. She was active in opposing the threat of fascism in the 1930s and 1940s in the Committee for Relief of Victims of Fascism and as Chair of the Women’s Committee against War and Fascism.

Her travels abroad were targeted in attacks by the press and political opponents, labelling her a ‘red menace’. But she retained her Christian faith, and much of her peace work was conducted in collaboration with the Quakers.

She visited Spain before and during the Civil War, publicising repression and persecution of the Basque people, and raising funds for medical supplies. At the request of the Basque government, she visited the besieged city of Bilbao in 1937 and personally arranged the evacuation of nearly 4000 children to Britain.

Leah Manning by Ramsay-Muspratt courtesy of Cambridgeshire Collection

National Politics, Children & Community

In 1945 Manning was elected MP for Epping, and brought her professional teaching experience to bear in policy-making for educational reform, social reconstruction and international peace. Her constituency included Harlow, and she vociferously defended the New Town policy for displaced Londoners.

She advocated decent housing for working people, with attention to building communities and good quality living environments.

‘Growing Up’ was the post-war Labour government’s plan for women and children. Manning authored a booklet explaining new approaches to childcare in the family and provision for nursery and infant education.

Action and enterprise continued to mark her years of retirement. A major commitment was family planning, and in 1964 she started a controversial new clinic in Harlow providing contraception for unmarried couples.

She won acclaim as a champion of women’s causes and as an outstanding constituency MP. She made BBC radio broadcasts, on topics including her memories of New Street Ragged School. In 1966 she was honoured as Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. A centre for the elderly in Harlow was named in her memory.

In 1970 she published her autobiography A Life for Education, of which a reviewer noted how, from an early age, she felt her Christian beliefs could be practically expressed through socialist politics – a clear moral purpose to bring human betterment at home and abroad.

Leah Manning Blue Plaque

Manning’s plaque is on the wall of the former New Street Ragged School, now the Jerome Booth Music Therapy Centre at Anglia Ruskin University, Young Street, Cambridge CB1 2LZ. We are grateful for the University's permission to install the plaque. The blue plaque was unveiled by Manning’s friend, Stan Newens, at a ceremony at Homerton College on 28 September 2019 and followed up with another commemorative event at Anglia Ruskin University on 15 January 2020. The plaque was kindly sponsored by Homerton College.

We are grateful to Dr Peter Cunningham for writing this biography, which was taken from a pamphlet produced for the unveiling event. Click here to download the pamphlet.