On this day in 1936, 207 men marched almost 300 miles from the town of Jarrow to the Houses of Parliament in Westminster as a protest against the mass unemployment and extreme poverty they and their communities were suffering in the North East of England.
The background to the march is not dissimilar to the situation we find ourselves in today. Back in 1936, the global depression had brought particular suffering to the North East. With many being ordinary miners and ship-builders, the collapse of domestic and international trade in shipbuilding, coal-mining and the steel industries led to severe unemployment and hardship. At the time, unemployment benefit lasted for just 26 weeks, and the Unemployment Assistance Board – established to support those suffering from unemployment – provided inadequate relief for those experiencing long term unemployment. The ‘Poor Law’ of the time also forced the long-term unemployed to work for less money than normal, resulting in many generations of families being forcibly evicted from their homes.
National Shipbuilding Securities (NSS) was set up to try and counter the increasingly dire situation in the North East. It recommended ‘rationalisation’, a process that meant closing down a number of shipyards. GIven that the yard at Jarrow was one of the older ones, the NSS closed it in an attempt to protect the more modern yards. In 1935, the yard’s huge cranes were dismantled leaving the town and its people to face a bleak future.
The National Unemployed Workers’ Movement had arranged several similar marches before the Jarrow Crusade, albeit with little political support given the Movement’s links with the Communist Party. Because of this, when Jarrow Borough Council organised the protest in July 1936, they named it a ‘Crusade’ to make it clear that their protest was not affiliated with the Movement in the hope of gaining more support.
The march was organised in the hope of finding jobs to support Jarrow men and their families. It was also a bid for respect and recognition, not only for the people of Jarrow but for all others that were facing a similar situation elsewhere in the country. The marchers had no resources other than their own commitment and a bus that carried cooking equipment and ground sheets for them to sleep on. Beyond this, their boots were supplied to them by the general public and their food provided by locals from wherever the marchers stopped for the night.
Marching army style, the men marched for 50 minutes before having a 10 minute break. They carried blue and white banners. A harmonica band and communal singing kept their morale high. Sometimes, the local Member of Parliament for Jarrow, Ellen Wilkinson – or ‘Red Ellen’ as she was known – marched with them to give credence to the Crusade. The petition the marchers took with them to Parliament was signed by 11,000 people from Jarrow and was carried in an oak box. Supporters along the way were able to add to an additional petition.
The Crusade arrived in London on October 31, nearly a month after leaving Jarrow. The total number of signatures on the petition when it reached it’s destination was 12,000 and was handed into Parliament by Red Ellen. The Prime Minister of the day, Stanley Baldwin, refused to meet with any of the marchers or their representatives, stating that he was too busy. Whilst the marchers received some empathy from MPs, no proposal was made to help Jarrow. The ship yard remained closed and the marchers were each given £1 to get the train back from London.
It was not until two years after the Jarrow Crusade in 1938, that a ship-breaking yard and an engineering works were established in Jarrow. The following year, a steelworks was established. The effects of the depression continued in Jarrow until after the beginning of the Second World War when industrial production increased due to the need for re-armament.
At a time when we are experiencing a global economic crisis (Depression? Recession?) the story of the Jarrow Crusade is a reminder of the fact that it is often the poorest people that suffer the most at these times – despite the fact that our politicians and media fixated focus is on the multinationals, merchant bankers, hedge fund profiteers and all round professional capitalists. As I wrote after the demise of Lehman Brothers, despite images of ‘poor’ and ‘unfortunate’ bankers being forced to clear their desks amid a flurry of head-hunters ready to snap them up for other posts with six and seven figure salaries, there are many, many more ‘workers’ that don’t even have a desk to clear that are also being shown the door. These are the people that the Jarrow Crusade was for.
This work by Chris Allen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales License. Based on a work at www.chris-allen.co.uk.