On the 80th anniversary of the Jarrow Crusades, Paula Bartley, author of the biography Ellen Wilkinson: From Red Suffragist to Government Minister, chronicles the story of the people who marched and the woman who lead them; Ellen Wilkinson.
Eighty years ago today – on 5th October 1936 – two hundred unemployed men and their local MP, Ellen Wilkinson, left Jarrow to walk to London. They carried a petition, signed by nearly 12,000 Jarrow citizens, which they hoped to present to Parliament. The petitioners, it said, ‘humbly pray that His Majesty’s Government and this honourable House will realise the urgent need that work should be provided for the town without delay’.
In 1936 Jarrow was one of the most disadvantaged and depressed towns in England: out of a population of 35,000, 6,000 were on the dole and 23,000 were on relief. Only 100 out of 8,000 skilled manual workers were employed. There was no work. ‘No one’ Wilkinson declared, ‘had a job, except a few railwaymen, officials, the workers in the co-operative stores, and the few clerks and craftsmen who went out of the town to their jobs each day’. The town, she cried, was down and out.
Conditions in Jarrow were aggravated by world-wide economic catastrophe. In 1929 the Wall Street crash, largely caused by greed and speculation, had precipitated a worldwide economic crisis. Banks collapsed, businesses went bust, consumer spending plummeted, currencies lost their value and unemployment rose. At the time, the Labour Party was in Government but it could not agree on how to resolve the crisis and in 1931 it broke apart leaving a Conservative-dominated National Government in power for the rest of the 1930s. Bankers caused the mess but the British worker was forced to pay for the clean-up. The Tories quickly cut public expenditure. Unemployment rocketed, to the detriment of British towns like Jarrow with a strong industrial base.
Jarrow had once been a prosperous town, proud of its ship building and steel industry. In 1931 Jarrow lost its steel works and three years later the prestigious Jarrow ship yard was demolished, a closure Wilkinson insisted that ‘cut the throat of Jarrow’ as the vast majority of the working population depended upon it for employment.
Wilkinson deemed the attitude of the Conservative dominated Government to the plight of the North East ‘simply damnable’. She was determined to force London to take notice and persuaded the Jarrow authorities to support a march to Parliament to gain publicity for the town. Wilkinson had helped organise marches before, ones mainly for the Unemployed Workers’ Movement, and led by the Communist Party. Only too aware that these Communist inspired marches were easily condemned by official trade unions and the Labour Party as far-left propaganda, Wilkinson realised that it was crucial for the Jarrow Crusade to be different if it was to have an impact. From the beginning the Crusade was carefully stage-managed, making it impossible for the Government to ignore or undermine it. The march tried to be ‘non-political’. Wilkinson kept a deliberately low profile and carried out most of her work behind the scenes. The March was organised by Jarrow Town Hall, supervised by the Town Clerk, blessed by the local Church and supported by the Mayor. The marchers chose banners in neutral colours – bold blue letters on a white background – so no political party could claim them.
Wilkinson recognised the importance of image. She knew that previous marchers had been derided as a crowd of bedraggled itinerants so she encouraged the Jarrow marchers to look smart: faces were carefully shaved, broken boots were repaired and polished, shabby clothes were brushed and mended and waterproof capes were rolled neatly over shoulders. The men wore ties. Two hundred men, half of whom were ex-servicemen, were selected and vetted by the Medical Officer to make sure they were fit and well enough to walk to London. Wilkinson recognised that previous marches had been dismissed as communist propaganda so members of the Communist Party were banned from taking part. It was decided that participants had to appear respectable and god-fearing, not atheistic fire-brands. On the Sunday before they left, prayers were said in every Jarrow church and chapel. Just before they left the men attended a short Church service blessed by the Bishop of Jarrow.
In her electrifying account of the Crusade, The Town that was Murdered, Wilkinson charted the progress of herself and the men. She spoke of how the marchers got up at 6.30am after sleeping on bare boards of a school or other hall – if lucky, they had mattresses supplied – or else on the casual ward of a workhouse. Each day the men shaved, had breakfast and were ready to leave at 8.45 each morning. The men marched for 50 minutes, rested for 10 minutes then marched again. At noon they ate lunch, sometimes stew, tinned fruit and hot tea and in fine weather took a nap lying on the grass. When the weather was poor they stood in the rain under their capes, eating sandwiches. Each night there was a meeting at which Wilkinson normally spoke.
Neither the Labour Party nor the TUC approved of the Jarrow Crusade. Indeed, the TUC sent out a circular to each local Trades Council advising them not to help the marchers. This, Wilkinson later claimed, led to marchers being given hot meals, help and a place to sleep by the Conservative Party because the Trades Council and the Labour Party had obeyed the circular sent out by the TUC. Even the Tory press wrote sympathetically about the marchers and of how there were ‘friendly feelings shown towards the men during the whole of their long march’.  Positive newspaper coverage inspired Cabinet discussions about whether journalists could be fed information exposing the origins, motives and ‘uselessness’ of the Hunger marches in order to discourage the public from giving assistance to them. The government wishes were not fulfilled as the media portrayals of the marchers were overwhelmingly benevolent and public flooded in. At Leicester the Co-operative Society’s boot repairers, encouraged by Wilkinson, provided the materials and worked all night without pay to repair the worn-out boots of the marching men; in Harrogate the Territorial officers took care of them, in Leeds a newspaper proprietor gave them a meal and free beer; in Barnsley the municipal baths were opened especially for the marchers; in Bedford they were given cigarettes and tobacco by the Rotary Club and sausages by the local butchers; and in Edgeware a large and comfortable room at the White Hart Hotel was set ready for the men and Wilkinson to enjoy a hearty meal of tomato soup, steak and kidney pudding and apple pie, all paid for by the Mayor and the Rotary Club.
On October 31st 1936, thirty days and 290 miles later, the marchers reached London.
Hoping to be received into the capital by good weather, unfortunately ‘heavy rain, driven before a cold north-westerly wind, beat on the backs of the Jarrow marchers’. Wilkinson wearily remarked that ‘we all looked so utterly shabby and weary in our wet clothes that we presented London with the picture of a walking distressed area’.
On November 4th ,when Wilkinson and the Jarrow marchers tried to present their petition to Parliament, the Conservative Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, refused to meet them. It seemed as if the Jarrow Crusade had failed. However, largely as a result of Wilkinson’s passionate oratory, organisational genius and evocatively titled book The Town that was Murdered, the situation in Jarrow won headline inches.
Jarrow was not the biggest demonstration in British labour history but it has turned out to be one of the most iconic, becoming part of Labour Party and Trade Union mythology. The chief success of the Jarrow Crusade, it is argued, lay in its future. Historians believe that the march achieved little of concrete value at the time but ‘did, however, shape the post-war perceptions of the 1930s and ensured the attachment of the word “Hungry” to the 1930s in the popular mind’. More importantly, Jarrow became a by-word for resistance against heartless and unjust governments.
Paula Bartley is an independent scholar and former Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Wolverhampton. She is the author of Votes for Women (2007), Emmeline Pankhurst (2002) and The Changing Role of Women (1996). Her work has appeared in the American Historical Review, Social History, Midland History and Women’s History Review.
Ellen Wilkinson: From Red Suffragist to Government Minister by Paula Bartley is available from Pluto Press.
 Ellen Wilkinson, The Town that was Murdered, Victor Gollanz, 1939 p209
 Ellen Wilkinson, The Town that was Murdered, Victor Gollanz, 1939 p191-192
 North Mail, July 2nd, 1936 1280
 The Guardian, October 15th, 1936, p5
 The Guardian, October 5th 1936, p12
 The Times, Novermber 2nd, 1936, p11
 Cabinet minutes 56 (36) p244 CAB/23/85
 The Times Tuesday October 27th p11
 The Times Tuesday October 31st p9
 The Guardian, November 2nd, 1936, p14
 Wilkinson, The Town that was Murdered, Victor Gollanz, 1939 p208
 Malcolm Pearce and Geoffrey Stewart, British Political History, 1867-2001, Routledge, 1992 p359