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Call for plaque in tribute to Sunderland’s first female councillor

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The life and career of Sunderland’s first female councillor is to be honoured.

Ellen Bell was elected to represent Hendon on the then town council, following a by-election in October 1919, just a year after women were granted the right to vote in parliamentary elections.

Serving as a Conservative councillor until 1943, she also sat on committees covering health, education and the arts alongside work as a school governor and borough magistrate.

Sunderland City Council’s Liberal Democrat group launched a motion at full council paying tribute to key female figures – also including Sunderland’s first female MP, Marion Phillips.

Liberal Democrat group leader, Coun Niall Hodson, said the lack of tributes to the role of women in Sunderland was something the council had a “duty to correct”.

“Walking around Sunderland, like a lot of British cities, you will see lots of plaques, statues and monuments celebrating people who have made a contribution in that area. What’s shocking is how few of these monuments celebrate women.

“One exception in Sunderland is the plaque on Chester Road recently unveiled to the Cook sisters Ida and Louise who did great work during the holocaust to help jews from Nazi Germany. That is a rare exception.”

He added: “We have a duty to recognise and acknowledge the work of the pioneering women that shaped our city and a duty as councillors to make sure our residents are informed about their rights to vote given how hard-won that right was.”

“Our motion mentions Ellen Bell as next year seems like a good opportunity to acknowledge our city’s debt to her hard work 100 years to the anniversary when she was elected.”

Councillors heard the aim of the celebrations were to prompt other residents to come forward with information on Sunderland women who have been “unfairly sidelined” in history.

Labour councillor Victoria O’Neill supported the motion and that Hendon councillors would make a contribution from their community chest fund.

She said: “I will be supporting this motion as a female councillor, it’s the legacy of the achievements of the suffragettes that you, I and the other female councillors in the room are sat here tonight and have the privilege of representing our wards,” she said.

Coun Lynn Appleby credited Ellen Bell’s role as a “campaigner for better social and nursing care at a time before the NHS existed”.

She added: “Sometimes we forget what a privilege it is to vote, scrutinise our elected representatives, and have the right to stand for office.

“Hopefully our campaign to remember Ellen will remind us all in this city of this great privilege and how it was won. I am delighted that this motion passed unanimously, with support from all three parties.”

Chris Binding , Local Democracy Reporting Service