5 October 2016
Address by Lesley Hanson of the South Tyneside Green Party to an event held at Monkton Stadium on 1st October in Jarrow to celebrate the 80th Anniversary of the Jarrow Crusade (organised by the South Tyneside Labour Party)
80 years ago on the 5th October, 1936, Ellen Wilkinson MP for Jarrow, lead a delegation of volunteers to London to protest against poverty and unemployment in Jarrow.
The events which led up to this monumental journey came about because of the main employer in Jarrow. This was Palmer's Shipyard.
Palmer's was established in 1851. At that time the population of Jarrow was around 3,800. This increased to 35,000 by 1891. In the 1890s Britain held a share of around 80% of the world's shipbuilding. This fell to around 60% by the early 20th century. Ellen Wilkinson said that every industrial country that had bought ships from Britain were now building their own. Palmer's made investments on over optimistic assessments of future demand. This led to heavy losses and in 1930 the 1,000th ship was launched with no more orders on their books. The National Shipbuilders Security Ltd, formed by government, acquired failing yards, dismantling them, and distributing their production amongst a smaller number of profitable yards. By 1934 they had acquired Palmer's. This meant no mor ship building for 40 years. Jarrow's economy was heavily reliant on Palmer's for supplying the needs of the shipyard and the townsfolk. The people lived in a harsh environment of which Palmer considered it 'no part of his duty to see that the conditions under which his workers had to live were either sanitary or tolerable'.
In 1932 Ellen Wilkinson was selected as candidate for Jarrow in the next general election. In 1934 she led a deputation of Jarrow's unemployed to meet Ramsay McDonald in his constituency in Seaham. He told her that the only remedy was for her to go out and preach socialism. She tried pleading in the House of Commons, saying," These are skilled fitters, men who have built destroyers and battleships and the finest passenger ships. The years go on and nothing is done. This is a desperately urgent matter and something should be done to get work to these areas which, Heaven knows, wants work".
A proposal for a steel works was denied. The British Iron and Steel Federation argued that increased production of steel should be achieved by expanding capacity of existing facilities. In 1936, on March 2nd, Ellen Wilkinson said in parliament, "And if the Jarrow Steelworks is not going to happen...That is what we want to know, and it is about time that we knew it." She asked if the matter could be reconsidered by an independent body. Later that summer it became apparent that parliament were indifferent to the plight of Jarrow when she was told that Jarrow would have to work out its own salvation.
David Riley was the Chairman of Jarrow Council. He said, "If I had my way I would organise the unemployed of the whole country and march them on London so they would all arrive at the same time. The government would then be forced to listen, or turn the military on us".
The idea of a march was enthusiastically taken up by the Mayor Billy Thompson, Ellen Wilkinson MP, political, commercial and religious groups. It was decided that a march with no political connotations, representing the town would take place. Two hundred fit men would take a petition to be presented from Jarrow to arrive in London at the start of the new parliament session on 3rd November, 1936.
All local parties including Labour, Conservative and Liberal gave their support, as did the town churches and business community. Medical students from Inter Hospital Socialist Society agreed to attend the march. David Riley was chief marshal. Four sub-committees were formed to deal with organisational details. A march fund which was started, doubled its initial target of £800. This was raised locally and on route. Public meetings were organised for the overnight stops. Out of 1200 volunteers 200 were selected. It was decided to carry a banner stating "Jarrow Crusade" as opposed to Jarrow March. They did not want to be associated with the Hunger Marchers which were organised by the National Unemployed Workers Movement which was a communist led body.
On the evening before they set off, the Bishop of Jarrow, James Gordon, gave them a blessing, much to the criticism of the Bishop of Durham, who called it 'revolutionary mob pressure'. The march from Jarrow coincided with marches from the 6th National Hunger March and the National League of the Blind and Disabled.
They set off on the 5th October, heading for Harrogate by the following weekend. The march was led by a mouth organ band with a labrador dog as a mascot. Cooking equipment, blankets and medical supplies were carried on an old bus which was bought for £20. They travelled through Chester-le-Street, Ferryhill, Darlington and Northallerton, reaching Ripon on the 9th. They were welcomed by The Bishop of Ripon. They had received mixed reception on the way, with Ferryhill and Darlington being warm and friendly. By the time they reached Ripon they had walked 69 miles.
Ellen Wilkinson had to leave the march at Chester-le-Street in order to attend the Labour Party Annual Conference in Edinburgh. She received criticism at the conference for "sending hungry and ill clad men on a march to London". After a weekend rest they resumed their march. They were headed for Chesterfield, travelling through Harrogate, Leeds, Wakefield, Barnsley and Sheffield. Ellen rejoined them at Harrogate where they were warmly greeted by civic authorities. They were fed by the Rotary Club and slept in Territorial Army quarters. A pleasant change from school and church halls and workhouse accommodation. It became apparent that towns would provide assistance to the marchers, no matter what their political persuasion. The crusaders felt that maintaining a non-partisan ethos was important to gain cross party support. A £20 donation from the Communist group was refused by David Riley saying, "We are determined at all costs to preserve the non-political character of this crusade.
The marchers were attracting wide publicity and the government were concerned that King Edward might wish to receive the marchers. The cabinet issued a statement emphasising constitutional means for expressing grievances. They condemned marches as 'causing unnecessary hardship for those taking part in them'. The Bishop of Jarrow wrote to The Times stating that he blessed the marchers as an act of duty and not because he supported them. He said that he thought such marches should be discouraged. Ellen Wilkinson commented that she appreciated his difficult position.
They reached Chesterfield on 17th October and had walked 139 miles.
After a single day of rest the marchers set off for Northampton, travelling through Mansfield, Nottingham, Loughborough, Leicester and Market Harborough. They were warmly welcomed by the Labour led council in Mansfield and again by the Conservative led council in Nottingham, where they received gifts of clothing and underwear from the city manufacturers. When they reached Leicester the Cooperative Society's Bootmakers repaired their boots, working through the night and unpaid. Their next stop was Market Harborough and this was their least welcoming of all. They spent the night on stone floors of an unfinished building.
They reached Northampton on Saturday, 24th October, at the same time as the blind group of marchers. They had gone a further 83 miles, totalling 222 miles. Ellen Wilkinson left the group to make arrangements in London.
On Monday 26th October they marched 21 miles to Bedford.
They rested on Tuesday.
On Wednesday 28th Octoberthey marched 19 miles to Luton.
On Thursday 29th October as they marched the 10 miles from Luton to St Albans, Ellen Wilkinson and Stanley Baldwin were discussing the plight of Jarrow. He declined to meet a deputation of marchers.
On the penultimate 11 mile leg of their journey to Edgware they were beginning to think about their return home and the prospects of nothing to do.
On the final stretch to Marble Arch large crowds gathered to watch the column of men march the final 8 miles in the pouring rain to the accompaniment of their own mouth-organ band. By the 31st October, they had marched a total of 291 miles.
On Sunday, 1st November, Ellen Wilkinson spoke at a rally in Hyde Park Corner. She famously said, "Jarrow as a town has been murdered. It has been murdered as a result of the arrangement of two great combines-the shipping combine on one side and the steel combine on the other. What has the government done? I do not wonder that this cabinet does not want to see us".
On Wednesday, 4th November Ellen Wilkinson presented the Jarrow petition to the House of Commons. It carried 11,000 signatures from Jarrow. A further 90,000 people signed their petition on route. She said,"His majesty's government and this honourable house should realise the urgent need that work should be provided for the town without further delay".
On returning to Jarrow the marchers received ecstatic welcome. Many felt they had failed. Nothing changed. No sudden upsurge of employment. Daily Mail deemed it as 'A Heroic Failure'. Three months preparation, a month marching and a few minutes debate in parliament. One man said he had wasted his time but enjoyed every step of the way.
On a more positive note historians agree that the march helped to shape the post second world war perceptions of the 30s paving a way toward social reform and a general feeling of never wishing to repeat those hard times. The banner was adopted in Labour election posters in 1950 and subsequent Labour leaders have associated with the march. Most Jarrovians refer to the Jarrow March rather than crusade. There are streets named after Wilkinson and Riley. The Art world has produced songs and plays and an opera and a Bronze sculpture, "The Spirit of the Crusade" fashioned by Graham Ibbeson, which stands proudly, outside Morrisons.
I'd like to finish with a local historian Matt Perry's words, "In Jarrow, landscape and memory have fused together, just as the red hot rivets once fastened great sheets of steel in Palmer's yard.
South Tyneside Green Party
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