Following the Stock Market crash of 1929, the 1930s were a decade of mass unemployment. Despite mass demonstrations and pressure from the TUC the government refused to implement the sort of ‘new deal’ economics of major public works that President Roosevelt was using to tackle these issues in the USA. During this decade, there were many ‘hunger marches’ but the one that captured the public imagination was the one that became known as the Jarrow Crusade.
It started with a boom
Until the early 1800s, Jarrow was a sleepy town on the River Tyne. With the discovery of coal, the town’s population doubled in 20 years – reaching 3,500 in 1821. By 1851, the mines were empty, but a new industry filled the void. Palmer’s shipyard launched its first boat in 1852 and by 1891, the town’s population had boomed to 35,000.
On 24thJuly 1930, the shipyard launched its thousandth ship. But the milestone marked the end of an era. With no new orders on the books, the company soon went out of business – leaving tens of thousands of Jarrow residents unemployed.
In search of salvation
By 1932, Jarrow had become “a workplace without walls”. There was 70% unemployment, and little hope of improvement. The local Labour Party selected Ellen Wilkinson, previously a paid worker for the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), as its parliamentary candidate, and she went on to win the seat at the general election in 1935.
In 1936, Walter Runciman (the president of the Board of Trade) met with Ellen and a group of workers. He insisted “Jarrow must work out its own salvation”, a phrase that “kindled the town” to action.
Marching on London
As poverty, overcrowding, poor housing and mortality rates worsened, the town’s political, commercial and religious leaders devised a plan to march the 300 miles to Westminster to appeal for help. Out of the 1,200 volunteers, 200 fit men were chosen, with their MP at the helm.
The march left in early October, and was due to arrive at the opening of parliament on 3rd November. A mouth organ band kept “the men swinging along”, the marchers – nicknamed the Jarrow crusaders – soon attracted the attention of the press.
The group planned public meetings along the way to publicise the plight of Jarrow and areas like it. One marcher explained: “We were more or less missionaries of the distressed areas, [not just] Jarrow.”
At every stop, the group were offered food, clothes, shoe repairs and – more often than not – a place to sleep. At Barnsley, the men were treated to a wash in the specially-heated municipal baths. Any marchers suffering ill health were cared for by medical students from the Inter Hospital Socialist Society.
When the Jarrow Crusaders arrived in London, Ellen Wilkinson presented their petition for help (signed by 11,000 Jarrow people and carried in an oak box with gold lettering) at parliament, along with a further petition with names collected en route.
Despite widespread support for the march, there was no change of government policy and mass unemployment remained endemic in much of the country until the Second World War created an unprecedented demand for labour, both in the military and civilian industries.
Ellen Wilkinson went on to become education minister in the post war Labour Government.