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Dame  (Elizabeth) Leah Manning (1886–1977), by BassanoDame (Elizabeth) Leah Manning (1886–1977), by Bassano
Manning [née Perrett], Dame (Elizabeth) Leah (1886–1977), educationist and politician, was born on 14 April 1886 at Burrish Street, Droitwich, the eldest of twelve children of Charles William Perrett and his wife, Harriet Margaret Tappin, both officers in the Salvation Army. Her mother had been a teacher and her father worked for a time in the family timber business. After her parents emigrated to Canada, Leah was brought up in Stamford Hill, London, in her grandfather's family, a household of evangelical Methodism and radical Liberal politics. She attended St John's School, Bridgwater, and then the Misses Thorns' Select Academy for Young Ladies in London, where she met the Revd Stewart Headlam, whose Christian socialism had an important influence on her own beliefs. In 1906 she entered Homerton Teacher Training College, Cambridge. She was introduced to the university Fabian Society by Hugh Dalton, who became a lifelong political friend, and also joined the Independent Labour Party. Her first teaching post was in a slum school in Cambridge, where her indignation at the poverty and malnutrition of the children contributed to the development of her socialism and commitment to progressive education. She set up an after-school play centre and campaigned (through her membership of the Cambridge Trades Council and of the National Council of Women) for the provision of milk for the schoolchildren, almost losing her job when she condemned the policy of the education committee in unequivocal terms.

On 26 July 1913 Leah Perrett married William Henry Manning (d. 1952), who worked at the university solar physics laboratory. Their only child, a daughter, was born in 1918, but lived for just three weeks. At the outbreak of the First World War, the Cambridge education authority relaxed the marriage bar, enabling Leah Manning to continue in her teaching post. As a pacifist and internationalist she abhorred the war and its consequences and made annual visits to Germany from 1918, building links with socialists there.

In 1920 Leah Manning was appointed head of the new Open Air School in Cambridge for undernourished children, a post in which she achieved success and fulfilment. She continued to be deeply involved in Labour Party and trade union activities in Cambridge in the 1920s, supporting the general strike (despite her position as a magistrate), and attempting to unionize women manual workers in the city. She was elected in 1924 to the national executive committee of her own union, the National Union of Teachers (NUT), and was also active in the left-wing Teachers' Labour League and its successor from 1928, the National Association of Labour Teachers.

In 1930 Leah Manning served as president of the NUT, only the fourth woman to be elected to that position. At this time she sought a parliamentary seat, and won East Islington for Labour in a by-election in February 1931, losing it, however, in the general election in October. In the same year she also lost her seat on the national executive committee of the Labour Party, which she had held since 1930. She was appointed assistant education officer to the NUT, and continued in this post until 1942.

Always on the left of the Labour Party, Leah Manning became increasingly involved in opposing the threat of fascism in the 1930s and served as joint secretary of the Co-ordinating Committee against War and Fascism from 1934. She visited Spain at the outbreak of the civil war in 1936, and took a major part in organizing British fund-raising for medical supplies and transport. In 1937, at the request of the Basque government, she travelled to the besieged city of Bilbao and successfully arranged the evacuation of 4000 children to Britain. By this time she had modified her anti-war views and accepted the idea of collective military security. During the Second World War, Leah Manning severely criticized the government's handling of evacuation. She was promoted in 1943 to head the organization department of the NUT, and was involved in the preparation of the 1944 Education Bill.

In the 1945 Labour landslide Leah Manning won the marginal seat of Epping and returned to the House of Commons. As in 1931 she made foreign affairs and education her particular interests as a back-bencher, as well as the agricultural concerns of her constituency. She supported the idea of a federated Europe and criticized the increasing anti-Soviet policy of the West. She was also known as a forceful advocate of women's rights. Although she described herself as ‘never outstandingly feminist’, Leah Manning was well aware of male hostility towards powerful women, both in the NUT and the House of Commons, but she did not allow it to cramp her activities. She had worked for equal pay and birth control from the 1920s, and during her post-war parliamentary career pressed the government on equal pay, took up the issue of analgesia in childbirth, and raised a number of other questions concerning women's rights.

Leah Manning lost her seat in 1950 and failed to regain it in the two following elections. After her political career ended she returned to teaching, in a friend's private school in Harlow, until her eventual retirement in 1970. A major post-war commitment was family planning, and in 1964 she started a controversial new clinic in Harlow providing contraception for unmarried couples. She was made a DBE in 1966 for political and public services. Dame Leah Manning died at home at the NUT Home for Retired Teachers at Elstree Manor, Barnet Lane, Elstree, Hertfordshire, on 15 September 1977, aged ninety-one. She and her husband (who predeceased her on 22 January 1952) lived apart in their later years.

Leah Manning was a tall and well-built woman, a hugely energetic campaigner, and a fiery orator. She was a left-wing socialist whose political outlook rested on a warm humanitarian commitment rather than a theoretical position. Her lifelong passion was education and the creation of a more just society for women, men, and children. She bequeathed her body for medical research.

Alison Oram

Sources  

L. Manning, A life for education: an autobiography (1970) · Times Educational Supplement (19 April 1930), 177 · Schoolmaster and Woman Teacher's Chronicle (25 April 1930), 784 · Schoolmaster and Woman Teacher's Chronicle (16 Oct 1930), 588 · Schoolmaster and Woman Teacher's Chronicle (20 Nov 1930), 795 · National Union of Teachers Annual Report (1930) · Cambridge Daily News (22 April 1930) · The Teacher (23 Sept 1977) · The Times (19 Sept 1977) · Daily Telegraph (19 Sept 1977) · Essex Gazette (11 Nov 1977) · DLB, vol. 7 · H. Dalton, Call back yesterday: memoirs, 1887–1931 (1953) · H. Dalton, High tide and after: memoirs, 1945–1960 (1962) · The Vote (12 April 1918) · L. Manning, What I saw in Spain (1935) · b. cert. · Hansard 5C (1930–31); (1945–50) · WWW · m. cert.

Archives  

Labour Party archives, London · Marx Memorial Library, London, corresp. with Emergency Committee in Aid of Democratic Spain · U. Warwick Mod. RC, National Union of Teachers archive


Likenesses  

Bassano, photograph, NPG [see illus.] · photographs, repro. in Manning, Life for education · photographs, University of Warwick, National Union of Teachers archive; repro. in Schoolmaster and Woman Teacher's Chronicle (1929–30) · photographs, probably Labour Party archive

Wealth at death  

£21,650: probate, 24 Nov 1977, CGPLA Eng. & Wales