The march to save Jarrow

Do you hear the people sing? British politicians didn’t at the time, and yet, writes Stuart Maconie, the lasting legacy of the 1936 Jarrow ‘crusade’ can still be felt to this day

Unemployed men from the shipyard town of Jarrow march to London with Ellen Wilkinson MP © Getty

There are certain British place names that carry an enduring weight of meaning; a deep and sonorous ring, and not always a pleasant one.

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Hillsborough, Orgreave, Aberfan, Armagh… these are all places that have become synonymous with some great and profound emotion or event, woven into history through accident, struggle, tragedy, wickedness or bravery. Jarrow is another.

In 1936, this industrial town in the northeast of England became, in the words of its MP, “the most famous town in England”; a byword for hardship and misery, but also for defiance, fortitude and dignity.

American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their fists and give the Black Power Salute at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City © Getty

Jarrow’s MP was Ellen Wilkinson, better known as ‘Red’ Ellen, a brilliant and passionate firebrand who later became a pillar of Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour administration as Minister for Education. But much of her lasting fame rests on her movements in October 1936, when she led 200 of Jarrow’s unemployed men 300 miles to London.

The intention was to publicise Jarrow’s plight and to deliver a petition of 10,000 signatures to Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, pleading for help for their dying town in the form of a steelworks, or a similar shot in the arm. Baldwin refused to see them; the petition was taken from them by the Special Branch and then it vanished, and the aid the town needed was never properly given.

But the Jarrow ‘crusade’ lives on as a remarkable, romantic, contentious piece of our social history. In Matt Perry’s excellent, definitive historical account The Jarrow Crusade: Protest And Legend, he cites some of its varied legacy: “Five plays, two musicals, an opera, three pop songs, two folk songs, several paintings and poems, a short story, performance art, a mural, two sculptures, glassware, four television documentaries, four radio programmes, a children’s story, a cuddly toy, a real ale, a public house, an election poster, street names, innumerable pieces of journalism and historical references and of course hundreds of often reproduced photographs.”

Jarrow may not always be remembered accurately – many think that it was a miners’ protest and explicitly sought to bring down the government. It was neither, but the name and the story have echoed down the decades since.

A sinking ship

Between 1851 and 1934, Jarrow was a centre for shipbuilding, and the town’s economy depended almost entirely on the yard of the “vain and vigorous” shipping magnate Sir Charles Mark Palmer.

Unlike the paternalistic entrepreneurs of other ‘company towns’, Palmer was no Titus Salt, George Cadbury or Lord Lever. He gave his town little in the way of concert halls or public baths, nurseries, libraries or clinics.

In her famous account of Jarrow’s fortunes called The Town That Was Murdered, Wilkinson wrote: “There is a prevailing blackness about the neighbourhood. The houses are black, the ships are black, the sky is black, and if you go there for an hour or two, reader, you will be black … Sir Charles Palmer regarded it as no part of his duty to see that the conditions under which his workers had to live were either sanitary or tolerable.”

Life was hard in Palmer’s Jarrow, but in 1934 it became appreciably worse. With profits suffering from cheaper foreign competition and without any government protection, the bottom fell out of Jarrow’s shipping economy and Palmer’s yard closed.

The town was plunged into an economic abyss. Eight out of every ten men became jobless. Child mortality rates soared to twice the national average. Houses were overcrowded and infested with vermin.

To the misery of unemployment was added the humiliation and degradation of the means test, an invasive inquisition intended to determine whether the unemployed deserved any benefit. Mothers were checked to see if they breastfed their babies; if they did, their meagre benefit was cut.

If one member of a family worked, the others would receive less. Thus families were forced to split up to avoid starvation. When JB Priestley visited Jarrow three years prior to the march, he saw a town ruined and a vision of urban hell on Earth.

“Wherever we went men were hanging about, not scores of them but hundreds and thousands of them,” he wrote in his 1934 travelogue English Journey. “The whole town looked as if it had entered a perpetual penniless bleak Sabbath. The men wore the masks of prisoners of war. A stranger from a distant civilisation, observing the condition of the place and its people would have arrived at once at the conclusion that Jarrow had deeply offended some celestial emperor of the island and was now being punished. He would never believe us if we told him that in theory this town was as good as any other and that it’s inhabitants were not criminals but citizens with votes.”

On their own

The town attempted to fight back. When a delegation of Jarrow workers met with head of the Board of Trade, Walter Runciman his response to their requests for aid was that “Jarrow must work out its own salvation”, a remark described by historian Ronald Blyth as “the last straw in official cruelty”.

Runciman’s chilly indifference and callous response “kindled the town”, according to Wilkinson. In July 1936, a packed public meeting agreed that the town should ask again for government help in the form of a new steelworks, but this time the appeal should be backed up by a petition.

Signatures should be collected from Jarrow and beyond. When the meeting was debating what to do after this, an unknown voice in the crowded public gallery shouted: “Let’s march down with it.” Within days, plans were afoot to do just that.

The march was planned with military precision and in military style, which was appropriate since many of the men were veterans of World War I, and even the Boer War in one case. They would march in step, parade-ground style, to the beat of a drum and a harmonica band. There would be no drinking or rowdiness. Two medical students would accompany the marchers to monitor their health.

Some 1,000 men applied to go on the march. Two hundred were chosen but, by the time of departure from Christ Church in Jarrow on 5 October, seven had dropped out – most because
of ill health or family pressure, though one fortunate chap did so because he had found a job.

Substitutes were ushered in quickly, though, including Billy Beattie: his wife was out when the march began, so he left a note on the mantelpiece saying he’d set off for London and would see her in a month.

Most of the town turned out to see the men off and support was almost total, with a few minor dissenting voices. Councillor Isaac Dodds remarked: “I am not so ready as I was
to support an ordinary march to London. I am willing enough to march, God knows, and there was a time when I would have suggested that we put the women and children on buses
while the men of the town marched with the council at their head. But now I think we should get down to London with a couple of bombs in our pockets.

“Oh Christ, yes, I am perfectly serious. We should go down there with bombs in our pockets. These people of Westminster have no use for us anyway. These people do not realise that there are people living in Jarrow today under conditions which a respectable farmer would not keep swine. Do not put any limits on your demonstration. Get down there. And I think we should go to the absolute extreme.”

March marshal David Riley was more conciliatory. He and the organising committee in general were wary of Jarrow’s endeavour being known as a hunger march and preferred to call it a crusade, a rather emotive and pious self-naming that intended to emphasise the saintly, admirable nature of the Jarrow men’s efforts, and disassociate them from the other hunger marches of the day, which were more expressly political.

It was his idea to have the ‘crusade’ start from a church, to have it blessed by the town’s religious leaders and to give it that name. “At the time there was quite a number of [hunger] marches being held all over the country and they weren’t being too well received in many places,” he later wrote.

Despite this emollience, the march found little support from its own kind. The Labour Party, led by the ineffectual and timid Ramsay MacDonald, washed its hands of the march, panicky about possible infiltration by communists and desperately keen to be seen as moderate. The Trades Union Council actually issued a circular denouncing it.

The public response along the march’s 300-mile route was far better, growing warmer as the days went by and news of it spread. This was helped by a generally supportive press – encouraged by some very savvy dealings by the organisers, who set up a four-person ‘press group’ to liaise with local and national papers.

Two Fleet Street journalists were ‘embedded’ within the march. And, in the same week that the crusade began, the BBC started its TV service from Alexandra Palace. Though little in the way of footage survives, the fact that the corporation and the Jarrow march’s ‘origin stories’ were so closely connected may explain why the BBC has given it extensive and sympathetic coverage in scores of documentaries and dramas.

After a fairly cool greeting on their first night in Chester Le Street, they were welcomed more effusively in Ferryhill with cherry cake and an impromptu dance. By Leeds, they were met by a full-scale civic reception in the town hall (here, as in many other towns, it was Conservative councils who were most welcoming, perhaps to embarrass the indifferent Labour officialdom).

In Leicester, the city’s cobblers worked through the night to mend the marchers’ boots. In Nottingham, they were given 200 pairs of clean underwear. Only occasionally, as in Market Harborough, did they meet with apathy or suspicion.

The men slept in drill halls and old workhouses, dined on beef paste sandwiches and broth cooked up in roadside tureens by their two cooks (one of whom, Cuddy Miles, was the grandfather of 1970s pop hit-maker John Miles).

Along the way, several marchers dropped out due to ill health (one went back to Jarrow to have all his teeth taken out), but
in the main spirits were high for the three week journey, kept buoyant by roadside well-wishers and whip-rounds, uniformly warm press coverage and the cheery rasp of their harmonica band.

A plea on deaf ears

They reached Marble Arch in drenching rain on 31 October 1936, tailed by the Special Branch. Prime Minister Baldwin refused to see them and the petition was hurriedly taken at the House of Commons. It’s never been seen since and no-one know where it is, or if it still exists.

There was just enough money in the coffers to buy each man a cheap suit to replace his worn clothes and a train ticket back to Newcastle. Though homesick for their wives and children and friends, it was not a prospect that they fully relished. For the three weeks of the march they had known purpose and camaraderie.

They had also eaten better than they had in years, even on a diet largely of ‘butties’ and soup; most had put on weight. In Jarrow, all that awaited were long days of boredom and poverty.

No new steelworks was ever built in Jarrow. A pipe plant opened a year later, dreamed up primarily as a face-saving ruse by Runciman, but it employed only 200 men and then only briefly. The last surviving marcher to have walked the entire route, Con Whalen, who died in 2003, gave his verdict. “It was a waste of time … but I enjoyed every step.”

Yet the Jarrow crusade may well have affected the course and tide of history in subtle and pervasive ways that are not obvious from immediate results.

Many think that the constant and largely supportive publicity for the Jarrow march, the effort and endurance of the men, and the focus on the plight of the town and conditions in industrial Britain, shaped new public attitudes into a desire for change.

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This national mood led to the Labour landslide of 1945 and thus to the setting up of the welfare state and the NHS, secular sacraments of modern Britain that are still part of our self-image and identity and still debated and fought over by modern governments.