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The Jarrow March

60 second histories
by: Squaducation date: 05 Oct

The Jarrow March Began


-  5th to 31st October 1936  - 


In the 1930's Britain was suffering the effects of a worldwide depression. Some of the worst hit areas were those relying on heavy industry such as shipbuilding, iron, coal and steel. These industries were already in crisis due to competition from other countries and the fact that they hadn't modernised after the war.


Jarrow was a town in the North-East which had previously thrived with the coal industry developing in the 19th century and the establishment of a shipyard in 1851. In the following years over 1000 ships were launched in Jarrow. During the Depression Jarrow's steelworks, coal mine and shipyard all closed and every man in the town was made unemployed.


During the fallow years of the Great Depression unemployment benefit for British people was available for 26 weeks. When the allocated time was up people were subjected to the much resented means test that had been introduced in 1931. This test assessed family’s income, taking into account their wages and any assets, including personal items such as wedding rings. After calculating the family’s worth and their outgoings, an official would decide whether the family qualified for any relief. The means test was introduced as, with over 3,000,000 people unemployed, the government could not afford to pay the dole to everyone and this was seen as a fair way of ensuring that people received their fair share of benefits. However it was hated by the people as it meant that an unemployed man could end up being financially dependent  on his wife or even his daughter.


In protest against the long term and widespread unemployment issue the National Unemployment Workers' Movement (NUWM) - a communist led body - arranged 'hunger marches'. These included a march of 2000 people in 1932, a March of 200 blind people in 1936 and 2 further marches in 1934 and 1936.


On July 20th 1936 Jarrow Borough Council decided to stage their own march to London. Their march had no connection to the NUWM and many people referred to it as the Jarrow Crusade in order to distance themselves from this group.


The march was carefully thought out. From 1,200 volunteers, 200 men who had been medically examined and deemed as fit were selected to march. Women were not invited. The marchers were led by a mouth organ band and accompanied by a barber, 2 doctors, members of the press and a Labrador mascot.


On Monday 5th October, after a service and blessing given by the Bishop of Jarrow, the marchers left to begin their 280 mile trek to London. The plan was to present to the House of Commons a petition signed by 11,000 people. The petition asked that "His Majesty's Government and this honourable House should realise the urgent need that work should be provided for the town without further delay." The marchers carried blue and white banners saying 'Jarrow Crusade'


They were accompanied by a bus carrying supplies such as cooking equipment and ground sheets for sleeping outside although the marchers were often offered more comfortable sleeping arrangements in church halls, schools and even town halls by supporters along the way. Morale was kept up by the playing of harmonicas and frequent bouts of singing. Many of the men preferred to march 'army style' - walking for 50 minutes and resting for 10.


They arrived in London on October 31st, almost a month after beginning their trek.

The petition, contained in an oak box with gold lettering was duly handed in to Parliament. The Prime Minister of the day, Stanley Baldwin, refused to meet with any of the marchers as he claimed it would set a dangerous precedent and that he was too busy. The M.P. for Middlesborough East was a lady called Ellen Wilkinson. She was one of just four women Labour M.P.s at the time and was an outstanding orator as well as having a fierce political zeal. She had previously been a member of the Communist Party before joining the Labour Party. She broke off briefly from the march as it reached London to speak to the Labour Party conference and told them that “…our people shall not starve.”


She presented the petition to Parliament on November 4th with some of the marchers watching from the gallery. Despite her best efforts the movement gained little attention. However the protectionist policies of the National Government gradually led to an improvement in the state of the nation’s economy. Cheaper mortgages led to a boom in house building and a ship-breaking yard and engineering works did open in Jarrow. It wasn’t until World War 2 however that towns such as Jarrow started to break out of recession however as the country’s need for armaments led to a boom in manufacturing.


The last of the surviving 200 marchers died on December 26th 2012. Con Shiels had been just 20 when he marched. His daughter, Moya Green, said: “Dad loved talking about the Jarrow March and remained proud of his role in the event throughout his life. His memories of those times remained very sharp.”

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