ALICE Cullen was the first Roman Catholic woman to be elected to the House of Commons. She cared deeply for the people who lived in slum conditions in her Gorbals constituency. She died 50 years ago but many of her concerns are still relevant today.

INTO the church they all crowded: a large number of MPs, Glasgow's Lord Provost, the Scottish Secretary of State and his immediate predecessor. Donald Dewar, then the MP for Aberdeen South, took his seat, close to Teddy Taylor, the MP for Glasgow Cathcart.

The woman they had come to remember at this requiem mass on Monday, June 2, 1969, lived just 50 yards from the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Balornock. Her name was Alice Cullen, the first Roman Catholic woman to enter the House of Commons. She was the MP for the Gorbals, and her death occurred 50 years ago this May.

Archbishop James Donald Scanlan told the congregation that Mrs Cullen was "a woman, the likes of whom Glasgow will never see again." He declared that the presence of the Secretary of State "and all the other dignitaries ... is an indication of the high esteem in which she was held by all." To her grandchildren, and all children – Mrs Cullen, who was twice married, had three daughters – the archbishop urged them to follow the example she had set in devoting so much of her life to serving the community.

Alice Cullen might not warrant a mention in, say, the Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century British Politics, or in many political memoirs of the era, but she has a full entry in the first volume of Honourable Ladies: Portraits of Women MPs. Journalist Sarah Mackinlay notes at the outset that Cullen's political career was dedicated to improving living standards of the Gorbals people – "especially the woefully inadequate housing in which many lived. The Gorbals was notorious as one of the most deprived parts of the UK, home to Britain's worst slums."

Cullen's by-election victory in September 1948 may have owed something to an intervention by the then Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, who urged voters not to be distracted by the "red herrings" of the Communist and Conservative Unionist candidates.

When Cullen made her maiden speech in the Commons in December 1948, she took Gorbals housing as her subject. "Even if I were a great orator," she said at one point, "it would be quite impossible for me adequately to describe the slum conditions of my constituency." Nevertheless, she gave a persuasive picture of local housing conditions. "There are many families living in dilapidated, tumble-down, rat-infested buildings," she declared. "The latest statistics show that slightly over 4,500 families live in one-apartment houses. Nearly 10,000 families live in two-apartment houses

No constituency in Glasgow was worse than the Gorbals, she added. To her, the apartments were mere "dens." She appealed to the Scots secretary, "from the bottom of my heart" for him, together with the local authorities, to make a survey of the Gorbals "with a view to finding a site on which a block of flats might be erected. I have no doubt that such a site could be found for this purpose. I ask him to make a start in the Gorbals, which is the greatest slum menace that I have ever known."

Due to her tireless efforts in Parliament over the decades, Sarah Mackinlay writes, "more than 60 acres of slums were demolished and, by the 1960s, were replaced with modern housing and flats."

In all, Cullen fought and won no fewer than seven general elections, proof of the high regard in which her voters held her.

In November 1968 she said she would stand down at the next election. Her last recorded question in the Commons occurred on March 12, 1969, on the subject of the jubilee year of the Forestry Commission.

Her death at the age of 77 made the front page of the Glasgow Herald on May 31, 1969. The article said she had been recently been taken ill while returning to Glasgow from Westminster and had appeared to make a good recovery in hospital. A local Gorbals councillor said: "Gorbals has lost a great friend. Many, many people in the constituency owe a great deal to Mrs Cullen."

Alice Cullen was the maternal grandmother of Elizabeth Cairns, who lives today in Bishopbriggs. (Elizabeth’s mum May is Alice Cullen’s sister’s daughter. Elizabeth’s dad married May after his wife (Elizabeth’s mum) passed away.

She was very young when Cullen died – her own mother died later that same year – but she nevertheless has many fond memories of her.

She has photographs and home cine-films of Alice Cullen with her family. There's a picture of wedding, the guests apparently including Bessie Braddock, the campaigning Labour MP. There's a photograph of Cullen with the Queen at a ceremony in the Gorbals. Somewhere there is a CD recording of that 1948 maiden speech, and, possibly, even a black-edged postcard from Jacqueline Kennedy in response to a letter from Cullen, in which she expressed her condolences on the death of her husband, John F Kennedy, in Dallas in 1963.

And, intriguingly, there are some of the MP's prized possessions. There is a copy of Attlee's 1954 autobiography, As It Happened, the flyleaf of which bears the signatures not only of Attlee but also of other leading figures in the Labour Party: Hugh Gaitskell, party leader; Harold Wilson, Prime Minister between 1964 to 1970 and 1974 to 1976; Herbert Morrison, whose many posts included Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary; and Jim Callaghan, the party's last Prime Minister before Tony Blair took office in 1997.

There's also a teapot, inscribed "To Alice, from her Women Colleagues in the House of Commons with warmest good wishes." It is dated December 20, 1950. There's a Christmas card from Harold and Mary Wilson, too.

Lord Snowden, no less, once took a photograph of a group of a dozen prominent female MPs. Dated sometime in 1964, it shows Cullen alongside other notables: Bessie Braddock, Judith Hart, Margaret (Peggy) Herbison and Barbara Castle.

"My mother died of pancreatic cancer in December 1969," says Elizabeth. "She was in terrible pain but she apparently gave a eulogy for Alice at the Immaculate Heart despite being in such agony.

"I have very vivid memories of my grandmother. She used to come from Parliament and sneak up to see me, and waken me. She would kid on that she was going upstairs for the bathroom. She'd come in and ask me what I'd learned at nursery. We were always giggling and laughing.

"I remember all the family parties where everybody, of course, is smoking in a tiny room.

"Alice really was the most generous person. You couldn't say you liked something, like 'that's a nice brooch, or watch' and when you got home you'd find it in your bag. That's the type of person she was.

"She had no interest in material things. She wouldn't covet things or hold onto them. My mum said it got to the point where nobody would ever say such-and-such a thing was nice, because she would just give it to them."

Alice had two sisters, Sarah and Annie, who both moved to England, leaving Alice behind in Glasgow. Elizabeth remembers growing up in a political family. One of Alice's sisters once voted for Margaret Thatcher, "because she thought it was quite nice for a woman to get in, and that caused an absolute war in the house."

Alice, she adds, had a "real moral conscience. She would have been turning in her grave at the thought of what happened with MPs and their expenses. She was a person of a high moral code, and I think that's our family as well.

"I remember that she was full of fun. She's been described as a foreboding figure but that wasn't my experience of her at all. She didn't allow children to behave badly or in a spoiled way. She would correct you with a look.

"She took a genuine interest in handicapped children's welfare, and family poverty and health issues and nurses' rights. She also spoke up forcefully on things like the crisis in care for the elderly. All of these subjects are sadly still relevant today to too many people.

She would been out in George Square in Glasgow, doing her things with all the other people campaigning on things like equal pay. A lot of the things she was interested in and spoke up for are still relevant today, and that is sad. But it proves how far ahead of her time my grandmother was."

Alice Cullen's maiden speech, House of Commons, December 17, 1948:

"I am glad to be given the opportunity of making my maiden speech on housing, a subject of paramount interest to the people whom I have the honour to represent. I feel sure that I shall be given the same courteous and favourable hearing as is usually given to hon. Members when they are making their maiden speeches. I want to confine my arguments to the constituency which I represent. The people of Gorbals are, no doubt, known to hon. Members of this House through the play "The Gorbals Story." The Gorbals people are hard-working, decent citizens, but at the present time they are depressed and disheartened because of the conditions in which they are living. There are many families living in dilapidated, tumble-down, rat-infested buildings.

"I should like to give some figures which will demonstrate the appalling lack of proper housing accommodation. The latest statistics show that slightly over 4,500 families live in one-apartment houses. Nearly 10,000 families live in two-apartment houses. For those who have never experienced living in such conditions, it is difficult to imagine the tragedy and the misery of living, eating and sleeping all in the one apartment, especially when the family consists of anything up to eight members, while sometimes in two-apartment houses it is as high as 14 members. I am sorry to say that amongst these families are many young people in their teens suffering from tuberculosis.

"There are also in my constituency 2,289 houses of one or two apartments which have been scheduled as unfit for human habitation and are still occupied; yet because of the shocking neglect of the housing needs of the people of my area, they must continue to be occupied. Even if I were a great orator, it would be quite impossible for me adequately to describe the slum conditions of my constituency. Thousands of young men from Gorbals answered the call in the 1914-18 war, and their sons in the 1939-45 war did likewise. They fought for a better way of life, for decent homes in which to rear their families and for a certain amount of home life, of which they are now deprived. They have waited in vain for that result. It is true to say that 900 families from the Gorbals have been housed, but the tragedy of that is that when these families were transferred to new houses, instead of the tumble-down shacks being demolished they were allowed to be reoccupied.

"That is how conditions are in my area. I do not blame the Government. Like my hon. Friend who has already spoken, I think the Government have done a great job of work in regard to housing during the last few years, but I feel that many working people in my own constituency have been neglected for nearly 30 years. When materials and labour were both plentiful and cheap, the Government of that day did not think fit to start to remedy the slums and do something for the people living in them, and in particular for the Gorbals constituency, which is, I maintain, the worst in the whole city of Glasgow.

"My appeal to the Secretary of State for Scotland, from the bottom of my heart, is that he should, in conjunction with the local authorities, make a survey of the Gorbals with a view to finding a site on which a block of flats might be erected. I have no doubt that such a site could be found for this purpose. I ask him to make a start in the Gorbals, which is the greatest slum menace that I have ever known.

"I was elected to this House on 13th September and I took my seat on 27th October. During the first fortnight that I was here, the Press made vicious attacks upon me because I had not spoken in this House about the housing conditions of my people, and especially Mr. Cummings of the 'News Chronicle,' who seemed to think that had I got up in this House and thrown a fit of hysteria, some fairy would have waved a wand and all would have been well in the Gorbals. That does not happen. I appeal to the Joint Under-Secretary of State to do his best to make the survey for which I have asked. We are coming near to Christmas; thousands of my people have still to spend Christmas in their dens. The only way I can express myself is by calling their apartments 'dens'. I trust that, in this holy season of Christmas, the season of good will towards men, my appeal will be successful and that by next year, quite a large number of my folk will be able to spend Christmas in much brighter and happier homes."