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

History Revealed - - FROM THE EDITOR -

Sig­na­tures on a pe­ti­tion plead­ing for gov­ern­ment help, marched 300 miles from Jar­row to Lon­don by 200 un­em­ployed men. The Prime Min­is­ter re­fused to meet with them.

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

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.”

This list is prob­a­bly not ex­haus­tive, and to it I would add sev­eral ex­hi­bi­tions and thou­sands of ci­ta­tions in pop cul­ture. It re­mains a cen­tral mod­ule of the GCSE syl­labus and the Learn English Net­work. 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.


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.”


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.


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.”

Wilkin­son joined the marchers when­ever her sched­ule al­lowed

Jar­row was told to pull it­self up by its boot­straps

Each man was is­sued two penny stamps a week to write home

The towns­folk did not want char­ity, only the op­por­tu­nity to work

Be­fit­ting a cru­sade, the march be­gan with a hymn and a bless­ing

Most of Jar­row was on the dole by the time of the march

“It is the symp­tom of a na­tional evil,” wrote Red Ellen of Jar­row’s plight

Once one of Bri­tain’s boom in­dus­tries, the Great De­pres­sion pre­cip­i­tated the col­lapse of ship­build­ing across the isles

It is said that one man picked the ham to from his sand­wich fam­ily send back to his Scenes like this were com­mon in what some called the ‘Devil’s Decade’

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