The Jarrow March was an organised protest against the unemployment and poverty suffered in the Tyneside town of Jarrow during the 1930s. It began on the 5th October, 1936.
On September 14th 2003, 93 year-old Con Whalen of Hadrian Rd in Jarrow, South Tyneside, the last of the original Jarrow Marchers, died at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Gateshead. For 60 plus years, Con treasured the memories of the now famous march and of the solidarity he and his comrades encountered along their 291 mile route to London, even if he could dismiss the event as having achieved nothing. Con, who last year had a beer named after him by a Jarrow Brewery – the Old Cornelius – was proud to have taken part in an event that had been the subject of numerous books and which would even feature in the National Curriculum.
Indeed, so significant is the march now that it is a poor 1930s documentary that does not show footage of the 200 strong band of thin-faced Geordies making their way to the capital to protest to Stanley Baldwin’s government the plight of the town.
The economic slump that plunged Britain and many other countries into depression was felt in fewer places harder than in Jarrow, where unemployment soared above 80 percent, where people lived in overcrowded and vermin-infested houses and where poverty was unimaginable.
In 1933, JB Priestly, having visited Jarrow, wrote about the town in his book English Journey:
“Wherever we went men were hanging about, not scores of them but hundreds and thousands of them. 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.” (Penguin edition, 1977, page 296).
Not long after the publication of the English Journey, in January 1934, a delegation of 300 people from Jarrow, Hebburn and Felling travelled to Seaham to argue their case with the town’s MP and leader of the largely Conservative National Government, Ramsay McDonald.
Leading the delegation was “Red” Ellen Wilkinson, MP for Jarrow, hoping to impress upon the PM the plight of the people along the Tyne and their desperation for work.
No doubt McDonald was all too aware of the pathos of the situation and the reality of the present situation and capitalism’s inability top solve the crisis. The advice he gave the member from, Jarrow was later described by her as “sham sympathy”:
“Ellen, why don’t you go and preach socialism, which is the only remedy for this?”
The reply was cold and smacked of the same indifference a similar delegation received when they visited Walter Runciman, President of the Board of Trade, regarding the opening of a steelworks in Jarrow. Said Runciman, “Jarrow must work out its own problems.”
Jarrow, it seemed, was indeed left to sort out its own problems. To a town whose ship industry had closed down and whose much anticipated steelworks had failed to materialise, Runciman’s words were received as icily as they had been uttered and sent a shiver down the collective spine of the borough.
At a time when the entire country seemed to be taking part in hunger marches and protest rallies, Councillor David Riley’s suggestion in July 1936 that the unemployed of Jarrow should march to London hardly seemed original or serious in light of the fact that many marches had been dismissed as “communist demonstrations.”
However, the idea was discussed at length with the town’s MP and the Jarrow Labour Party executive. Eventually, it was decided that any march should be a town’s march and only to go ahead with the full support of the citizens. The town council went on to sanction the march and above the signature of the mayor went appeals for support, and this was followed by the sending out of letters requesting the use of services and halls to towns along the proposed route to London. As the pace of events hotted up, the organisation of the march was done from the town hall and under the supervision of the town clerk.
At the same time, though denied the oxygen of publicity the Jarrow march was attracting, men were marching from South Wales, Cumberland, Durham and Yorkshire, all bent on expressing their grievances against the means test and the UAB regulations, which was for the Jarrow men “a welcome sign that other men felt the same as they did and were kicking, too.” (Wilkinson, The Town that was Murdered, 1939.)
So on a cold morning, October 5th, 1936, 200 marchers set out; ahead of them representatives from the Labour and Conservative parties to arrange meetings en-route to London. Even the Inter-Hospital Socialist Society came to their assistance, sending out relays of helpers performing dentistry and medical necessities.
The marchers had hardly time to get blistered feet when their organisers were condemned by a labour party meeting in Edinburgh for “sending hungry and ill-clad men across the country on a march to London.”
Incensed, Ellen Wilkinson left the marchers and travelled to the Conference in Edinburgh in an attempt to rally support. Her efforts were in vain for the conference had more important matters to discuss, such as their attitude to the Spanish question and the rearmament issue – a time-honoured and typical response from the Labour Party to requests for help from the working class.
Neither was any support to be found with the TUC, who similarly blacked the march and advised trade councils against giving help.
Wilkinson had this to say: “I went from the warm comradeship of the road to an atmosphere of official disapproval;…had the Labour Party put its powers behind the marches, sent out the call for solidarity with them, then by the time these men reached London, not only from Jarrow, but from all parts of the country, the support that would have been aroused…would have been enough to shake the complacency of the Baldwin government.” (ibid. p.204-5).
There was, however, no shortage of support and working class approval of the march. After all, 47 per cent of the industrial population of the country at that time resided in areas scheduled as “distressed” or in need of being so scheduled.
The brainwashed Trades and Labour Council at Chesterfield might have obeyed the TUC circular denouncing the march, but this did not stop the local Conservative Party from rallying to the aid of the marchers, providing hot meals and a place to sleep. The Labour Party rationalised their apathy by asserting that if they gave support to one march, then support would have been demanded by them all. This from an allegedly working class party!
Along the route to London, members of the working class and, indeed, capitalist class, were all too ready to support the march
By the time the marchers reached Leicester their boots were falling apart. In response, the Co-operative Society’s own cobblers took it upon themselves to work all through the night without pay to repair the boots of the Jarrow men, the Co-op donating the necessary material free.
One cobbler almost anticipated Socialism, saying: “Its seems sort of queer, doing your own job just because you want tot do it, and for something you want to help, instead of doing it because you’d starve if you didn’t.” (ibid. p. 297).
Elsewhere, at Leeds, a newspaper proprietor laid on free food and beer (no doubt providing his own paper with a story) and at Barnsley, Joe Jones, a miners’ leader, had the municipal baths specially opened and heated in time for the arrival of the marchers. A group of journalists, following he march, even clubbed together and purchased a dozen mouth organs in an attempt top boost the morale of the marchers.
The march continued and gained support and sympathy the entire 291 miles of its journey. The men marched between 10 and 21 miles every day and held meetings every night. After three and a half weeks on the road, they reached Marble Arch tired and rain-soaked, perturbed that only a small crowd had braved the October weather to greet them.
The following day they were given permission to hold a meeting at Hyde Park. The Communist Party was already there, holding a mass demonstration to protest unemployment. Realising the Jarrow men were in the area, they suspended their rally for an hour and asked their audience to swell the Jarrow Crusade meeting.
When Parliament reassembled two days later, the men marched to the Houses of Parliament and handed in 2 petitions, one containing 68,500 signatures from towns along the Tyne. The petition presented the case for Jarrow in simple language, pointing out how Jarrow was experiencing a stage of industrial depression unprecedented in the town’s history. Shipyards had closed and the steelworks had been denied a lifeline. Once, 8,000 workers were in employment. Now the figure stood at 100, with others on temporary schemes. The petition continued:
“The town cannot be left derelict, and therefore your petitioners humbly pray that His Majesty’s Government and this honourable house will realise the urgent need that work should be provided without delay.”
As many of the marchers as possible had been crammed into to public galleries anticipating a lengthy debate, aware that many an MP had been bombarded with letters regarding the march from their constituents. But there was no debate! As Wilkinson points out:
“A few questions were asked…and the house moved on to consideration of other things.” (ibid. p.209).
The marchers took it all in their stride. Wilkinson describes them as being “rather sporting about it” and how they were afterwards entertained to tea in the house. Demoralised to the point they had given up hope would have been a more fitting description of the marchers’ sentiments – men pushed and crushed until they could only accept their fate.
When the marchers arrived home, they did so to a hero’s welcome. Tens of thousands turned out to greet them and bonfires burnt long into the night. For many, they had achieved something – even if it meant no change to their meagre existence.
Wilkinson writes of the marchers:
“Many were politically educated men, who through the long, bitter struggle, knew who and what was the real enemy.”
To be honest, and not to disparage an important event in labour history, were they? Were they so educated as to think marching could better their lot and did they really think it possible that capitalism could be bargained with? Did they realise that, in truth, they were marching for the right to be exploited by a system that cared not a jot had the marchers perished to a man en-route to London?
Three years later, work did come to Jarrow in the form of a new rolling mill, and much more would follow as World War Two kicked in and the capitalist war machine revved up.
Walking through the site when the men were laying the concrete foundations of the rolling mill, Wilkinson was greeted with: “This is what we marched to get.”
Red Ellen could only find a strange pathos in the statement. She commented:
“The grim reality is that the workers have no share in these mills. When the works are built they will still be subject to the toll of profit, the exigencies of a system where they can be closed at the will of people far away to suit a financial policy.” (ibid. P.213).
Perhaps like the cobbler at Leicester, the stark reality of the madness, the insanity of capitalism, had finally become apparent to the member for Jarrow, and perhaps she at last realised that the internal mechanisms of capitalism run on with a will of their own, oblivious of logic and their own foul contradictions and men with Geordie accents and sweaty feet.