The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.
Alice Cullen (1891-1969) and Eveline Hill (1898-1973) were committed to the communities that they represented, chalking up impressive records in local government before taking their seats in the Gorbals and Wythenshawe constituencies respectively. Housing and the health and welfare of their constituents were among their main concerns.
Cullen left school at 14 to train as a French polisher before moving to the Gorbals in 1914. At the age of 25, she joined the Independent Labour Party, taking a particular interest in housing and welfare issues in an area of Glasgow notorious for its slums. She was a member of Glasgow Corporation from 1935 to 1945, and also served as a Justice of the Peace. In 1948, George Buchanan, MP for Gorbals, resigned his seat to become Chairman of the National Assistance Board. Cullen competed against three men to become the Labour candidate for the seat, securing it thanks to her decades of work in the community. After her election to this safe Labour seat, she became the first Catholic woman to take a seat in the Commons.
An infrequent speaker in debates, particularly in her later years, Cullen focused almost entirely on housing, welfare and public health issues. In her maiden speech, she spoke of the “tragedy and the misery” of life in the “dilapidated, tumble-down, rat-infested” housing of her constituency, which she described as the “greatest slum menace” that she had ever known. Her campaigning, which resulted in the demolition of 62 acres of substandard housing in the Gorbals and its replacement with modern housing and flats in the 1960s, led the Sunday Express to dub her the “champion of the slum dweller.” When the Queen visited in 1961 to see the new housing, Cullen caused controversy by insisting on also showing her the older, inferior housing stock. She held the seat until her death in 1969. Her successor, Frank McElhone MP, said that, in his constituency, she became “a legend of a lifetime”.
Hill was educated in state schools and went on to join her parents’ catering business. On her father’s death, she and her brother took joint control of the family business. She served as a Manchester city councillor for 30 years from 1936, specialising in health issues. She entered Parliament as the Conservative MP for the new constituency of Wythenshawe in 1950. Although the Conservative opposition increased to 246 in that election, only six women were elected as Conservative MPs. She held the seat with a reduced majority in the next two elections, but was defeated in 1964 by Labour’s Alf Morris.
In her maiden speech, Hill drew on her local government experience to attack the Labour Government’s reduced house-building programme, and restrictions on private building. Describing the harm that poor accommodation did both to people’s mental and physical health and to family life, she characterised good housing as a “fundamental to establishing good health” , describing it as “preventive medicine”.
In 1950, Hill introduced the Deserted Wives Bill to allow the tenancy of a marital home to be transferred to a deserted wife, but like many private Members’ bills it was defeated on second reading and did not become law. She wrote to The Times in 1952 to urge Conservative associations to adopt more women candidates. They did so “not as feminists” but because “many able and distinguished women…could serve their party and the country if given the chance.” Hill was a knowledgeable speaker on health and an advocate of well-funded preventive and community provision.
House of Commons Hansard Writing Team
Alice Cullen’s maiden speech: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1948/dec/17/housing-scotland#S5CV0459P0_19481217_HOC_39
A debate on housing in the King’s Address: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/1950-03-13/debates/c97415d3-6c43-4dca-8d3f-fda900f18625/Housing