Jarrow Ramblings: part 2

Old Grange Road, Jarrow, c. 19502(?) (geordstoree.com)
Old Grange Road, Jarrow, c. 19502(?) (geordstoree.com)

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.

HMS Duchess, the last ship to be launched from Palmer's shipyard, July 1932 (Imperial War Museum)
HMS Duchess, the last ship to be launched from Palmer’s shipyard, July 1932 (Imperial War Museum)

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.

Photograph of J McCauley, a Jarrow marcher, singing to his co-marchers on their walk to London, taken in October 1936 by Edward G Malindine for the Daily Herald. The caption read ''Croonin' J McCauley, who helps to keep his co-marchers' spirits high, has been out of work for 5 years' (National Media Museum)
Photograph of J McCauley, a Jarrow marcher, singing to his co-marchers on their walk to London, taken in October 1936 by Edward G Malindine for the Daily Herald. The caption read ”Croonin’ J McCauley, who helps to keep his co-marchers’ spirits high, has been out of work for 5 years’
(National Media Museum)
by Elliott & Fry, half-plate negative, 4 June 1940
Ellen Wilkinson, by Elliott & Fry, 4 June 1940 (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Ellen Wilkinson addresses the Jarrow Marchers (History Today)
Ellen Wilkinson addresses the Jarrow Marchers (History Today)

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.

Jarrow March (BBC)
Jarrow March (BBC)

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.

Ellen Wilkinson marches with the men (Fox Photos)
Ellen Wilkinson marches with the men (Fox Photos)

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.

Clare Balding, Lucy Lunt, Helen Antrobus and Robert Coll in the steps of the jarrow Marchers.
Clare Balding, Lucy Lunt, Helen Antrobus and Robert Colls in the steps of the Jarrow Marchers.

Jarrow Ramblings, part 1

Clare, Lucy, Helen and Robert pose for a group photo. None of us asked for selfies-with-Clare
Clare, Lucy, Helen and Robert pose for a group photo. None of us asked for selfies-with-Clare

I came in the other day to find a message on the answer phone.  The BBC.  Clare Balding wanted to talk to me.  Well, not Clare actually.  She’s one of Britain’s favourite broadcasters and a bit busy I dare say.  Her research assistant Lucy finally got hold of me, and asked me if I’d be able to lead Clare and team on a walk from Ripon to Ripley for ‘Ramblings’, a popular programme on BBC R4 about walking.

Why me?  Because I’m Hon. Sec. of Ripon Ramblers, our local walking group, and our details are out there, if you care to look.  Yes, but why ME?  Lucy thought, after our chat, that I’d be OK on the radio.

OK then, why Ripon?  Because, it turns out that in October 1936 the Jarrow Marchers walked from Jarrow, through Ripon to Ripley and beyond, all 280 miles to London.  In October, ‘Ramblings’ plans to broadcast a programme to celebrate its 60th anniversary.

Perhaps you don’t know much about the Jarrow March.  Neither did I.  Not till I met Clare and Lucy, cultural historian Robert Colls, and Helen Antrobus, who’s a real Ellen Wilkinson enthusiast from the People’s Museum in Manchester.  The five us walked and talked our way along our eight mile route from Ripon to Ripley, and we barely noticed the rain which threatened constantly, but only delivered occasional short sharp showers.

This is a blog in two parts.  The first is our country walk, the second about the Jarrow March. But Friday wasn’t in two parts.  Every step we took, we remembered those marchers.  Robert and Helen told us the story.  Together, we drew comparisons between their march and our own hike.

I’d already dutifully planned and  walked a route.  The marchers went entirely on main roads, but if you’ve ever driven on the A61, you’ll know this is no longer a good idea.  Country paths were the way to go.

'Do we go this way?' Lucy records Clare getting directions.
‘Do we go this way?’ Lucy records Clare getting directions.

As  we set out together from Ripon, we got our instructions.  Lucy had her furry-muff-on-a-stick.  You’ll have seen those, as reporters rove round town centres talking to likely passers-by about some event that’s happened locally.    When recording, Clare’s always on the right of the person she’s talking to, and Lucy’s  there on the left with her recording gear.  It was slightly odd to walk alongside Clare as she formally introduced to the programme, telling listeners where she was, why she was there, and who we all were.  But soon we forgot about that muff.  We all chatted together easily, about that March, about walking, about each other.  Sometimes we had to repeat what we’d said, in a spontaneous ‘I’ve just thought of this’ kind of way, because some passing noise – RAF jets overhead for instance – had ruined the recording.

This was the scenery of the early part of the walk.
This was the scenery of the early part of the walk.

In many ways our walk was a scam.  The A61 passes through rolling hillsides, productive farmland, cows in the pasture, and pretty villages.  It’s all bucolic England at its best.  Our route presented a more hidden countryside.  Isolated farmhouses with dilapidated barn roofs,  ancient pastures, secret dark, damp woodlands, and tiny rather remote hamlets.

If it survives the cut, you'll hear Clare painting a word-portarit of this farmhouse during the programmme.
If it survives the cut, you’ll hear Clare painting a word-portrait of this farmhouse during the programmme.

At first though, we were on a road.  Badly maintained, rather narrow and with tall hedges it’s a bridle path these days, but it is still tarmacced, and perhaps the kind of highway those marchers would have recognised.  Later, on grass-trodden pathways, we passed Markenfield Hall, a 14th century moated country house.

We saw Markenfield Hall nearby as we walked. The Jarrow marchers didn't.
We saw Markenfield Hall nearby as we walked. The Jarrow marchers didn’t.

Those marchers didn’t.  We went through the village of Markington. Apparently the marchers were welcomed here too, though we couldn’t imagine why.  It’s more than a mile or so from the main road and history doesn’t record why exactly they made a detour.  We strode along the edges of barley fields, on woodland paths and across gorsey heath, all without meeting a soul.  Not what the marchers experienced.

This is farming country.
This is farming country.

And we talked.  That’s what I’ll remember most.  The sheer pleasure of walking and talking with a group of people thrust together for the day who quickly found themselves to be friends – just for a day.  Thanks you Clare, Lucy, Robert and Helen for a very special occasion.  It was a real privilege.

Clare strides away into the woods.
Clare strides away into the woods.

And the Jarrow March?  More about that in my next post.