by Steve Lawton
IT WENT down in history as “the town that was murdered “. Jarrow’s workers were cast out of their world renowned shipyards in droves. As the 1930s wore on, the town council and workers felt something had to be done.
So a small group of 200 workers hit the road on a 300-mile trek to London supported by Tynesiders, of whom over 90,000 signed a petition addressed to Parliament.
Sixty years ago tomorrow, on 5 October 1936, Jarrow’s workers began an action which commanded the attention of millions. The march went down in the history books as a landmark in the unemployed struggles and hunger marches of the time.
The Jarrow Crusade,as it’s two banners proclaimed, was a determined act aimed at persuading the government that their industry could be rebuilt. When the marchers finally reached Parliament’s public gallery on November, their hopes were dashed.
Jarrow’s workers launched the Crusade because the world’s leading giant crane-shadowed heartland of shipbuilding was about to breathe its last. Grandfathers’ and fathers’ cutting- edge skills passed down the most advanced and experienced knowledge to find the next generation betrayed by shipbuilders and the steel cartel. (The slogan “Jarrow Crusade”, it has been suggested may be the result of the evangelical influence which arose in the staunchly Catholic town amid the crisis of unemployment).
When Ellen Wilkinson — the town’s first Labour MP in 1935 leader of the march and a fear less anti-fascist — said it hac been murdered, she was warning of the terrible social consequences such a loss of industry has on the life and people of a community. The goverment didn’t heed the message then today the Tories have made a virtue of industry and community-wrecking.
Industry and life in Jarrow
The Jarrow march of unemployed did not come about overnight It was the result of nearly two decades of industrial rundown never before known in such an economically active town.
And this was part of the wider wrecking of British shipbuilding as a world economic force.
The Palmers Yard ship building industry at Jarrow grew through the innovative and economically far-sighted capitalist enterprise of its founder Charles Mark Palmer in the mid- 19th century. Palmer was a pioneer in manufacturing and was at the forefront in hamessing new processes and practices as well as securing the raw material sources of iron under his ownership. Jarrow became a boom-town into the very early 20th century.
Bill Batty, an 87-year-old born-and-bred Jarrowman and former Aerospace engineers’ union shop steward who was working in Weybridge at the time of the march, told the New Worker: “Even when Jarrow was busy unemployment was still high. I was one of the few to get an apprenticeship in the shipyard and one of the last batch of apprentices to come out of the yard when it closed. I cried when the cranes came down. There were only two of this kind in the world: one in Bilbao and one in Jarrow.”
Indeed Cornelius Whelen, who was 27 when he went on the Jarrow march and is still resident in the town today, had a long spell on the dole and went on a six-week training scheme in the Thames Valley. “They wanted to send me to London to do a paint spraying job,” he told the New Worker. “I couldn’t do that, it would have killed me! You didn’t last long in those jobs.”
As the National Shipbuilding Securities rationalisation body set up by the shipbuilders themselves broke up Jarrow’ s backbone,just as it had been doing elsewhere, unemployment reached 72.9 per cent by September 1935. But to disguise this the Ministry of Labour decided to merge the Jarrow and nearby Hebburn Labour Exchanges.
This created a more favourable impression of unemployment in Jarrow because Hebbum was a wealthy neighbour with low unemployment. So the figure soon miraculously declined to 39.6 per cent by the middle of 1936.
The bosses were secretly given the separate Jarrow figure, but Jarrow’s workers were kept in the dark. The Ministry of Labour used this “change” to show how Jarrow’s position had “recovered”. Manipulating unemployment statistics … nothing new under the sun ot course. Bill knew Wal Hannington -leader of the National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM) founded in 1921 and with whom Bill was active — as well as Nye Bevin, Jennie Lee, Willie Gallacher and others. He remembers Ellen Wilkinson: “Whenever she had meetings in Jarrow or South Shields,” Bill said, “it was always packed to the rafters. Ellen was a great lass, greatly concerned about the poverty in particular in Jarrow.” Comelius has much the same recollection of her presence.
Born 100 yards from the River Tyne and hardly able to sleep through the clatter, Bill recalls tough times in Jarrow. “My mother used to keep us in bed in the morning because she couldn’t afford to feed us. There was real starvation on Tyneside. It was hard for my parents – – I was one of ten children but all of us survived. My sistter is 94.
“I went to school in my bare feet with my britches arse hanging out. In hot or cold, in winter with six inches of snow, I would get home and my mother would have to rub a towl on my feet to stop me getting frostbite. People can’t believe this, but it’s true -and I wast’t the only one. This happened in many industrial areas.
“I used to play in the same streets as Catherine Cookson, the bestselling writer, and she describes all of this in one: of her first books called The Fifteen Streets.” It’s what’s known in tourist terms as “Catherine Cookson country” today — complete with visitor’s “trail”.
Bill’s father was a sea-going fireman and taught him the need for trade unionism. “I learnt my socialisrn sitting on his knee and when I was 16 my father took me into his trade union branch. My father told me: “Whatever you do, always keep in your trade union.”‘
He remembers an incident at a meeting in Byfleet: “After it, six Tory women surrounded me and one of them grabbed my lapel. “You,” she said, “you you man from Jarrow, why don’t you go back to Wales?”.
The NUWM Hunger March
But while Jarrow has retained a presence in the history books, generally much larger hunger marches — organised by the NUWM headed by leading Communist Wal Hannington — had been harnessing workers’ rising political anger from the 1920s long before, during and after the Jarrow Crusade.
Wilham Gallacher pointed out in his Tariffs and Starvation (1930), five years before he became a Communist MP, that: “Unemployment has found its way into almost every working class home; whole towns have become but graveyards of industry, and starvation’s bony hand is tightening its grip round the throat of millions of workers and their dependants. Wage reductions, longer hours and speeding-up have become the order of the day.” While the Jarrow march received favourable headlines -because the march was conceived as strictly non-party — the NUWM march of 2,000 hunger marchers was descending on London to rally in Hyde Park with up to 250,000 supporters.
According to Frank Graham, a hunger marcher who went to fight in the International Brigade against France fascism in December 1936, this is where misunderstanding arises. “The confusion needs to be cleared up,” Frank told the New Worker. “There were two marches. I took part in the hunger march to London — which went by different routes — and we criticised the Jarrow march because we said they were going about with a begging bowl. But we wished them well even so.”
Of all the marches it is the Jarrow Crusade that became a by-word for the callous reality of bosses’ power to deny and destroy work. In that respect, it has come down with an enduring image epitomising not only unemployment, but the consequences ofit to whole cornmunities.
Yet clearly, the government’s blanking of the NUWM marches was a political act to.keep the degree of organisation and support that Communist leadership in the NUWM could rally from public notice.
And in Frank’ s view, there was another factor: “We felt that our demands were specific, one’s that were achievable.” Cuts were intended to be made on 1 6 November 1936 to the meagre unemployment benefit levels and that was the immediate target of the NUWM marches.
But it was also an angry reaction to what Hannington called the growing Distressed Areas – areas designated under the Special Depressed Areas Act These areas of wholesale unemployment had as Wal Hannington put it in Why Do They March (1936), “been rendered derelict by capitalism”.
Fifty NUWM marchers had already set off with the furthest most leg on 26 September 1936 from Aberdeen — more than a week before the Jarrow marchers — and many other contingents joined it on the way. Hannington said “hardships were involved in the march” and Frank remembers this well enough. “We slept in halls at towns where we stopped but sometimes only workhouses were available. The rule was that if you stayed you had to break stones in the mornings for roadworks.
We refused to do that. It was obvious, because if you’re breaking stones you’re not looking for work. At York they shut the doors on us. We settled in the street for the night, but then they opened them again.”Not all were bad. In one workhouse a progressive was in charge and ensured many had hospital treatment for blisters. Many would not have made the rest of the journey otherwise.”
At various stages there was some trouble with the police, but in most areas he said the public support was tremendous. He recalls that even a local businessman donated hundreds of pairs of boots for the march.
If the attention given to Jarrow had also been applied to the NUWM’s activities, the government would have been faced with real difficulties over its treatment of the unemployed. To link Jarrow -and this request had been made by the NUWM to Jarrow’s organisers — with the NUWM hunger march at that time may well have created a powerful impact. In any event by the outbreak of the Second World War, the NUWM had undoubtedly forced into the open the issue of poverty and unemployment in a lasting way. It would be remembered after the war too.
Frank recalls that about 12 miles from Hyde Park, Ellen Wilkinson crossed from the Jarrow march to the NUWM march as it converged into central London through the East End. He considers her genuinely dedicated to the cause and that what she did was to demonstrate a united front between them. Not surprisingly, this identity was ignored by the official coverage.
Did fascism sink Jarrow?
Jarrow has a significance which goes much deeper than the consequences of industrial shutdown. One of the hidden aspects of Jarrow is the fascist connection which as far as the evidence goes, may explain why certain members of the government and captains of industry were so wary of the march and its purpose.
Lord Runciman, Tyneside’s major shipping owner who had top government access, was favourably disposed to Mussolini. In 1933 he said that industrial disputes should be dealt with in “the Mussolini way”.
His son, Walter Runciman, as President of the Board of Trade, was directly involved in the wrecking of Jarrow’s industry when he backed the existence of an international steel cartel. It had been argued in 1936 that the resources were available to build a steel plant in Jarrow.
In Tom Pickard’s Jarrow March (1976) produced to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Jarrow march, local journalist Guy Waller had very definite views on why Jarrow retained its historical presence. Waller said the govemment was nervous because:”The Jarrow March, for 30 days and quite unwittingly, posed the threat of exposing what can only be called, The Fascist Connection.”
What he meant was that between 1933 and 1936 Britain was importing millions of tons of German steel. It was known that our tonnage was cheaper, yet industrialists argued there was no market for our steel.
Britain was part of the steel cartel which operated on a quota basis.Any country going beyond their quota was fined. Britain gained a great deal from the excess profit Germany made from its steel production.
As Waller says: “So the set-up encouraged the German steel industry and shut Britain’s steel mills. But to make it worse than that, in 1933 the British steel makers were given a subsidy from the British government to produce steel. They were getting a subsidy from our own government to produce steel and they were getting a subsidy from the Germans not to Produce steel.” Runciman gave Germany’s Nazi firms preference and prevented the building of a steel plant in Jarrow.
This has never been fully investigated– and it may never be possible to do so. Pickard said the Jarrow files in the Public Record Office have suffered a depletion … suggesting much shredding [and] relevant Cabinet minutes are inaccessible until the year 2000 and that a key government document is “found to be missing”, to quote the computer. With just a few years to go, will anything new be revealed?
The industrial and historical records of Jarrow and the march are held in the Bede Gallery, Springwell Park, Butchersbridge Road, Jarrow, Tyne & Wear NE32 5QA. Details from Vince Rea, curator. Tel: +44 1914 200585.