What image comes into your head when you think of Jarrow? If, like me, you’ve only really heard of it in the context of the Jarrow March, it may be a depressing one. Grimy desolate streets, a down-trodden and abandoned population, with little hope of change for the better maybe.
Well, Robert Colls, who walked with us on our Jarrow March Mark 2 for ‘Ramblings’ won’t entertain such images He’s irritated by those commentators, often from the south, who see nothing but the negative. He could do without the likes of George Orwell painting such depressing, hopeless images about the Industrial North. He was raised in nearby South Shields. His memories of the town are of a place that was gritty, maybe dingy, but where there was a rich cultural life, and a warm and supportive community where it was good to grow up.
Jarrow, in the North East of England, had been dependant on shipbuilding since the 1850s, but demand for ships fell throughout the 1920s and became worse during the 1930s. The main shipyard, Palmers, once the source of Jarrow’s prosperity, closed in 1934 after years of steady decline . By 1936, there was 70% unemployment in the town.
Town councillors planned a march to London to present a petition to Parliament highlighting the desperate conditions in Jarrow and towns like it. They secured cross-party support. They involved local churches and the business community. They fund-raised. Socialist medical students volunteered to work as medical attendants along the route. Nobody in town wanted yet another communist-inspired ‘hunger march’. No, Jarrow people planned a respectable event, one that would win widespread support.
It rained on and off the day we walked last week. I suggested to Robert that those marchers, with shabby, worn-out clothes would have had a thin time of it. I was wrong. The organisers insisted the men who were chosen to march – and yes, they were chosen – should wear their ‘Sunday best’, look smart and conduct themselves well. They had medicals, and only the 200 fittest men were chosen to march, accompanied by a second-hand bus carrying cooking equipment and ground sheets. A successful fund-raising campaign ensured the march was well-prepared and equipped, and that the men had a little pocket-money.
They started marching at 8.30 each morning of their 25-day journey (with Sundays as rest days). Many marched army style – 50 minutes to the hour with 10 minutes’ rest. A mouth organ band was a great success, ‘keeping the men swinging along all the time’, according to a report in the Shields Gazette, and there was singing – led sometimes by Ellen Wilkinson. Local papers apart, the only national paper to give the Jarrow Crusade wide coverage was The Manchester Guardian. Copy was supplied by the journalist Peter Richie-Calder, who walked much of the way with them.
Ellen Wilkinson was one of only four women MPs at the time, and she represented Jarrow. Though from a poor background, she was well-educated – she won a scholarship to Manchester University – and built up an impressive career both in the unions and in parliament. By the age of 24 she was already National Women’s Organiser for the Cooperative Employees union, and only nine years later, an MP – one of only four women in parliament. She was a terrific orator, she was passionate, and she believed in the Jarrow marchers and their cause. She walked with them whenever she could, distinctive with her fiery red hair. Towards the end of the march, Ellen broke away in order to address the Labour party conference and, with tears streaming down her face, exhorted delegates to ‘…tell the government our people shall not starve!’ She failed, however, to win special attention for her cause.
The lack of political affiliation helped those marchers. They were fed and watered and given places to sleep all along their route. Harrogate, for instance, just south of Ripley, then as now is a true blue and prosperous sort of place. But the civic authorities greeted them warmly, the Rotary Club fed them, and they were given sleeping quarters by the Territorial Army.
I depend on good boots when I’m walking and wondered about how the marchers were shod. They had decent shoes, Robert said. And what’s more, when they arrived in Leicester, the Cooperative Society’s bootmakers stayed up all night to repair all their by now thin-soled shoes, and did so without pay. The story of the Jarrow march is peppered with such examples of support and kindness.
They arrived in London. They presented their petition in Parliament, the petition that had 11,00 signatures. It prompted only the briefest and most complacent of discussions. And that was that. The disillusioned marchers returned to Jarrow by train, their fares paid by benefactors.
Astonishingly, many men finished the march healthier than when they had started. Boosted by regular exercise – and the decent food and accommodation they had received along the route – many put on weight. This was just as well. For the duration of the march, their unemployment benefit had been suspended as they were ‘unavailable for work’.
A few modest attempts to bring work to the town resulted in jobs for a few hundred people, but only with the start of World War II did work once more surge back into the shipyards and factories of Jarrow. For the duration only.
Ellen Wilkinson continue to be a thorn in the side of the Labour party, though she worked tirelessly at home and abroad against fascism. Perhaps her greatest achievement was in 1945, when as Minister for Education in the Labour Government, she was instrumental in having the school-leaving age raised to 15. No wonder Helen is an enthusiast for this most dynamic, charismatic and troublesome woman.
So there we are. One – no two – history lessons, all parcelled up in an agreeable package of a long country walk, following, if not exactly by the same route, in the footsteps of those Jarrow Marchers.