As Oswald Mosley was on his way to Berlin on Monday 5th October, two hundred men left the derelict south Tyneside town of Jarrow at the start of a three-hundred mile march to London. It was the march to end all marches, quite literally. There had been a series of marches of the unemployed, from the 1931 one which had ended in a police baton charge in Hyde Park, to one in 1934 which reached Parliament without a struggle, but failed to meet Ramsay MacDonald, the then PM of the unpopular National Government, to the Hunger marches and demonstrations against the Means Test of 1935.
Jarrow, on the south bank of the Tyne, was an ancient centre of Celtic Christianity from the seventh century until the eighteenth, when it became a mining village. In 1852 Palmer’s Shipyard arrived and transformed it into a centre of heavy engineering. Its population continued to rise to 35,000 in the 1920s, but in 1932 an asset-stripping company, National Shipbuilding Security Ltd., bought Palmer’s Yard and promptly dismantled it, with the approval of Walter Runciman at the Board of Trade.
The town had grown up on shipbuilding and was entirely dependent on it for its living. Without the shipyard, Jarrow was dead. ‘Palmer’s was Jarrow and Jarrow was Palmer’s’ it was said. It was a one-company town, now without its company, left as a scrap heap but yet expected to ‘sort out its own salvation’ in Runciman’s infamous words. Three-quarters of the town’s workforce suddenly found themselves on the dole and Ellen Wilkinson, the MP for the borough, ‘Red Ellen’ as she was known, mainly because of her red hair, described her ‘Town that was Murdered’ as ‘utterly stagnant’. Early in 1936 hopes had been raised by the prospect of a new high-capacity steel mill being built on the old shipyard site, but the British Iron and Steel Federation, which feared that their old-fashioned foundries would be unable to compete with a modern plant, opposed the plan. Though Jarrow sent ‘deputation after deputation’ to London to beg their fellow Tynesider, Walter Runciman, to intervene so that the plant could be built, he refused.
They took him at his Biblical word, and decided to try to work out their own salvation by organising a great ‘crusade’. This was Ellen Wilkinson’s idea, and so it was that, on that Monday morning, the diminutive fireball set out with her two hundred men, whom she had personally selected for their fitness of mind and body. The Mayor and Mayoress led them, the Mayor in all his ceremonial robes, behind Palmer’s Brass Band. After the first twelve miles, they handed over to Ellen Wilkinson. On the whole, the marchers were well-received on their way south. The Press was sympathetic, and they were given great hospitality in some of the towns they passed through. Tory-controlled Harrogate, Leeds and Sheffield gave them great receptions. In Nottingham and Leicester, the Co-op worked all night mending their boots. Bedford also rallied to support them and when they arrived in London on 31st October, they were met by a cloudburst, so that their marching in mackintosh capes and flat caps to the time of ‘the Minstrel Boy’ played by their mouth-organ band was well-received by the many who had turned out to welcome them.
However, as they marched on the next day from Stepney through to the West End, which bore no trace of hard times and seemed utterly indifferent, they began to feel alienated again. They held an open-air rally in Hyde Park; with Ellen Wilkinson describing Jarrow’s suffering to the crowd. After a day’s rest, the marchers went to the Mall to watch King Edward pass in the State Coach on the way to the State Opening of Parliament. To their disappointment, the procession was cancelled due to rain, and they had to make do with a glimpse of the Daimler as it sped by. Their final public meeting took place that night in the Farringdon Street Memorial Hall. They had hoped for a platform of worthy Londoners, but in the event only Dick Shepherd and Sir John Jarvis MP agreed to speak. Jarvis dropped a bombshell, announcing that he was negotiating for a new steel tubes mill on the Palmer’s site. Hundreds of jobs would be created by it, which would make cases for shells needed as part of the demands of rearmament. The marchers were flabbergasted and didn’t know how to
respond. In fact, the scheme had been invented by Sir Walter Runciman at the Board of Trade as a means for the government to save face. When the tube works opened a year later, it employed only two hundred men. However, the announcement by the prominent Tory MP who had raised money in his Surrey constituency for Jarrow, took the political wind out of the crusaders’ sails.
Arriving in Westminster the next morning, the marchers were given a guided tour of the Palace by their MP. After lunch, the majority of them went for a pleasure cruise on the Thames, paid for by Jarvis as a ploy to avoid any ugly scenes as the petition was presented. Only a small number of them watched from the gallery they as Ellen Wilkinson delivered the petition and spoke of their plight. They also heard Walter Runciman refusing to answer a question about them because it had not been published beforehand on the order paper, and the Prime Minister, Mr Baldwin, refuse to comment. They felt deflated and defeated. When they arrived home on 5th November, by train, they were given a conquering heroes’ welcome, complete with fireworks. However, they soon found that their dole had been cut because they had not been ‘available for work’, though none had been offered. Ellen Wilkinson was rebuked at the Labour Party Conference for her ‘irresponsibility’ in organising the march, and next to nothing was achieved for Jarrow, which had to wait another three years for the demands of war to restore its shipbuilding fortunes.
A march of four hundred Glaswegians was also underway at the same time as the Jarrow Crusade, but it did not capture public imagination to the same extent, and the epidemic of marching, at least on the Left, was more or less over by the end of 1936. Although the Jarrow Crusade did not achieve its main objective, it had struck the conscience of the country, helped to found a new political consensus and, in the longer term, itself found an important place in the people’s memory.