The Jarrow March (or Jarrow Crusade, from the phrase on banners carried by the marchers), was an October 1936 protest march against unemployment and extreme poverty suffered in North East England during the Great Depression. The 207 marchers travelled from the town of Jarrow to the Palace of Westminster in London, a distance of almost 300 miles (480 km), to lobby Parliament. Their MP, Ellen Wilkinson, known as 'Red Ellen', walked with them. When the marchers completed their feat, very little was done for them. The town's shipbuilding industry remained closed, with the marchers given £1 each for the train fare back from London.
Jarrow is a small industrial town on the southern bank of the mouth of the River Tyne, situated six miles east of the city of Newcastle. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century its main industries were iron and steel manufacture and shipbuilding. A boomtown, Jarrow prospered at the start of the 20th century with Palmers Shipbuilding and Iron Company, which had been established in Jarrow in the mid-19th century, providing the main source of employment. Nonetheless, similar to other British shipyards during the inter-war years, a collapse in orders due to the Great Depression led to its closure in 1933. The yard was then sold to National Shipbuilders Securities, which set about demolishing the shipyard's infrastructure. Despite the efforts of industrialist and Member of Parliament Sir John Jarvis, by September 1935, Jarrow had lost most of its heavy industry, and unemployment stood at 72.9%
One of the two grocery shops closed. As unemployment increased so did the number of people living in extreme poverty. Poor housing and malnutrition contributed to a high level of infant mortality. The Local Labour Party MP declared, "The plain fact is that if people have to live and bear and bring up children in bad houses on too little food, their resistance to disease is lowered and they die before they should."
The National Unemployed Workers' Movement had organised several similar marches before the Jarrow March, but they received little political support due to the NUWM's links with the Communist Party. When the Jarrow Borough Council organised the protest in July 1936, they named it a 'walk' rather than a march, partly to make it clear their protest was not affiliated with the NUWM — in the hope of gaining more support.
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The march was to find 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 others in a similar situation all over the country. The marchers had no resources other than their own determination, and some good boots supplied by the public. During the march, wherever the marchers stopped for the night, the local people gave them shelter and food.
The marchers were selected carefully, with only fit men being allowed to participate. A separate march of 200 blind people also left for London in October 1936 (see debate title in Hansard for Prime Minister's Questions on 5 November 1936 (vol 317 cc 234-5): "Jarrow and Blind Marchers.")
The marchers were supported by a bus which carried cooking equipment and ground sheets for when the march had to stop outside. Many of the men marched in army style, walking for 50 minutes before a ten-minute break, and they held blue and white banners. A harmonica band and frequent singing helped to keep morale of the marchers high. Sometimes, the local Member of Parliament, Ellen Wilkinson, marched with the group to give higher profile to the crusade.
The original petition, which demanded government aid for the town of Jarrow, signed by 11,000 people from Jarrow, was carried in an oak box, whilst supporters of the March could add to an additional petition. The marchers spent the nights in local accommodation, whilst sometimes receiving extra aid from locals. For example, in Barnsley, the marchers were allowed to use specially-heated municipal baths.
The route the marchers took was in 22 legs with overnight stops, covering a total of 280.5 miles (451.4 km) as follows:
- Jarrow to Chester-le-Street – (12 miles)
- Chester-le-Street to Ferryhill – (12 miles)
- Ferryhill to Darlington – (12 miles)
- Darlington to Northallerton – (16 miles)
- Northallerton to Ripon – (17 miles)
- Ripon to Harrogate – (11½ miles)
- Harrogate to Leeds – (15½ miles)
- Leeds to Wakefield – (9 miles)
- Wakefield to Barnsley – (9¾ miles)
- Barnsley to Sheffield – (13½ miles)
- Sheffield to Chesterfield – (11¾ miles)
- Chesterfield to Mansfield – (12 miles)
- Mansfield to Nottingham – (14½ miles)
- Nottingham to Loughborough – (15 miles)
- Loughborough to Leicester – (11¼ miles)
- Leicester to Market Harborough – (14½ miles)
- Market Harborough to Northampton – (14½ miles)
- Northampton to Bedford – (21 miles)
- Bedford to Luton – (19 miles)
- Luton to St Albans – (10¼ miles)
- St Albans to Edmonton – (11 miles)
- Edmonton to Marble Arch, London (8½ miles)
Impact and aftermath
The marchers arrived in London on 31 October, almost a month after leaving. The total number of signatures on the petition was 11,000, and it was handed into Parliament by Wilkinson. The Prime Minister of the day, Stanley Baldwin, refused to see any of the marchers' representatives, claiming it would set a dangerous precedent. The marchers generally received sympathy, though no proposal was made to help Jarrow, despite the petition being accepted in the House of Commons — with a single-sentence announcement, after which the House of Commons went back to their previous business. The march was also discussed at Prime Minister's Questions in the British House of Commons on 5 November 1936.
It was not until two years after the Jarrow March, in 1938, that a ship breaking yard and engineering works were established in Jarrow. The next year a steelworks was established. However the depression continued in Jarrow until after the beginning of World War II in September 1939, when industrial production increased due to the nation's need for re-armament.
The Jarrow March is fondly remembered by those on the left in British politics as a landmark in the history of labour movement, even though the Labour Party of the day opposed it, and the Trades Union Congress circularised Trades Councils advising them not to help the marchers.
The last surviving member of the march, who went the whole distance, Cornelius Whalen, died on 14 September 2003, at 93. Con Shiels, who took part in the final leg of the march, died aged 96 on 26 December 2012. His father, Con Shiels Snr., became the march's cook and his letters sent en-route are the only ones to survive.
In 2008, Go North East made a tribute bus called the Crusader 27/27A as an honour.
- BBC - History - The Jarrow Crusade
- Delap, Sean "Dictatorship and Democracy 1920-1945" 2004 p.141
- Lucey, Dermot "Modern Europe and the Wider World" 2004 p.87
- Delap p.141
- Delap p.141
- Wilkinson Ellen "The Town That Was Murdered: The Life Story of Jarrow" 1939
- British House of Commons Adjournment Debate, 11 November 1936, Hansard, vol. 317, cc 957-1011
- Hansard, vol. 317, cc 234-5
- Delap p.146
- Ellen Wilkinson — "The Town That Was Murdered
- 'Farewell to last Jarrow marcher', BBC News, 19 September 2003.
- Mark Tallentire, 'Last Jarrow March survivor dies, aged 96', The Northern Echo, 2 January 2013. Retrieved 3 January 2013.
- Lewis Mates (2006). "'Debunking Myths: Review of Matt Perry, The Jarrow Crusade: Protest and Legend'".