Jarrow 1936: serious fuel for thought

The leaders of the fuel protestors have compared themselves to the Jarrow Marchers, but is this a fair connection to make?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Whatever the strengths of the People's Fuel Lobby - and they may be few and dwindling - persuasive analogy isn't one of them. Last month its leader, David Handley, kept likening himself and other oppressed land- and lorry-owners to a rat when it's cornered by a cat (no option but to fight, but which of these two furry creatures would sensible people want to win?).

Whatever the strengths of the People's Fuel Lobby - and they may be few and dwindling - persuasive analogy isn't one of them. Last month its leader, David Handley, kept likening himself and other oppressed land- and lorry-owners to a rat when it's cornered by a cat (no option but to fight, but which of these two furry creatures would sensible people want to win?).

Once he compared the Blair Government to that of Slobodan Milosevic. And then came the Jarrow blunder. Announcing the People Fuel Lobby's plans for a slow-moving blockade of lorries, down the A1(M) from Tyneside to London, one of Mr Handley's colleagues, Andrew Spence, said the convoy would assemble in Jarrow this Friday. "I don't know if anyone has heard of the Jarrow Crusade," Mr Spence said. "Well, it's starting again, only bigger. We want as many vehicles on the road as possible."

Mr Spence's attempt to borrow the memory of a famous episode in what used to be known as the working-class struggle was a disaster. He might as well have gone the whole hog and compared road hauliers to the Spitfire pilots of September 1940. John Edmonds, the leader of the GMB trade union, described his remarks as "deeply offensive": the Jarrow marchers had "fought for jobs, fair wages and decent working conditions for all - they were not employers seeking to blackmail the country into subsidising their profits".

The Labour MP for Jarrow, Stephen Hepburn, said he was "disgusted": the Jarrow marchers had lived in abject poverty and here were people who would travel to London "in the comfort of their lorries, costing jobs through their actions, and then go back to their centrally heated homes and satellite TV".

Finally - rather bad luck for the People's Fuel Lobby - an actual Jarrow marcher was unearthed in actual Jarrow. Cornelius Whalen, aged 91, said he thought there was "something wrong" with protesting farmers and hauliers: "For us it was a question of hardship and hunger but these people are well off, and the farmers are hardly an example to follow - they've sacrificed the country for their own gain."

The more interesting question, however, is why Mr Spence remembered the Jarrow March (aka Crusade) in the first place, and why, generally, it is still remembered. More than 60 years later, with the thread of popular memory running thin, the name "Jarrow" is one of two ("Wigan", thanks George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier, is the other) that still evokes a time, a cloth-capped class, and a struggle.

Was the Jarrow March the largest demonstration of the unemployed? Was it the most dramatic? Was it the angriest or most violent? Did it occur at the height of the inter-war slump? Did it walk further? Was it the most pitiful? Did it have the greatest (or any) effect on government policy? The answer to all the above is no. Only 200 men walked in the Jarrow March. They left Tyneside on 5 October 1936, and reached Marble Arch on 31 October, averaging a not-too-strenuous 12 miles a day over 300 miles. Many of the marchers had served in the First World War. The march kept to the military hour, 50 minutes marching followed by 10 minutes rest.

They carried with them a petition with 12,000 signatures to be presented to Parliament: "Your petitioners humbly pray that His Majesty's Government at this honourable House will realize the urgent need that work should be provided for the town without delay." Then they went home by train.

It happened as Britain began to climb out of recession - the worst year was 1932 - and it was almost the last of such protests. There had been no trouble with the police. Other marches on London, including one that occurred in the same month and year as Jarrow's, were larger in number, longer in route, often wittier, and frequently ended in baton-charges, beatings and arrests. They caused official alarm. Part of the explanation for Jarrow's fame (and a sad truth, perhaps) is that its march made marching respectable throughout the social classes. Brave men had behaved well - stoically. It is easy to imagine more prosperous men laying down the newspaper at the breakfast table and remarking to their wives: If only we could give them some useful work!

Long-distance marching on London by the unemployed had begun long before, organised by the National Unemployed Workers Movement, the NUWM, and its leader, Wal Hannington. Industrial workers had been staging protest marches on and off for more than 100 years, but they were usually short and confined to their own locality.

When the NUWM staged the first National Hunger March in 1922, it hit on two new ideas: that the unemployed could be organised politically at a national level, and that the spectacle of men (and some women) marching hundreds of miles to the centre of power would be powerful publicity for their cause. In 1922, long columns converged on London from Scotland, South Wales, the Midlands and the North. More than 20,000 people marched through the capital. A deputation met the prime minister, Bonar Law, and had a row with him.

There was nothing meek about the NUWM. Their demand was: "Work or Full Maintenance at Trade Union Rates of Wages." In 1929, 1932 and 1936 they again organised full-scale national marches, and in the years between led campaigns and local protests against specific grievances - reductions in benefit and the infamous Means Test.

Wal Hannington, who died in 1966, has left a fine account of this time in his book, Unemployed Struggles 1919-1936. He was a former London tool-maker who had been sacked soon after the First World War for his shop-floor militancy, and a man endowed with a gift for revolutionary theatre. He and his colleagues were frequently arrested. NUWM protests included the brief take-over of public buildings and factories; managers were mocked.

In the Thirties, 100 unemployed people walked into the Ritz hotel and ordered tea; another 200, taking Gandhian protest as their model, suddenly lay down in Oxford Street. In 1922 in Coventry, marchers raided the workhouse and stole several large pots of jam, which were then paraded through the street behind a red flag before being returned ceremoniously to the workhouse steps and piled in a pyramid before the workhouse master. The point was that the marchers needed more than bread and marge, but the symbol of the NUWM's later difficulty in terms of widespread appeal was the flag beneath which they made their demand.

Hannington and other leaders of the NUWM were members of the Communist Party. They sang the "Internationale" as well as the "Red Flag". Other songs were specially composed for the marches - such as "We Are the Hunger-Marchers of the Proletariat": "Now comes the day of reckoning,/No longer we'll endure/Starvation - we will conquer now,/Our victory is sure,/We are a strong determined band,/each with a weapon in his hand."

At which point, according to Hannington, "the marchers would all raise their heavy walking-sticks in the air, as a mark of defiance against the government". Such behaviour scared people.

The press - the capitalist press, as Hannington fairly called it - tended to vilify the NUWM and its protests and label them - probably equally fairly - as a Communist front. The persistence of the NUWM, with its implications of public disorder, may have helped wring government concessions, but when the men of Jarrow marched to London they sang "It's a Long Way to Tipperary", "Annie Laurie" and "The Swanee River" to the wistful, unthreatening music of a mouth-organ band.

Unlike the Hunger Marches and their roots in national unemployment, the Jarrow March's origins lay in a particular industrial tragedy. Jarrow had grown spectacularly in the second half of the 19th century, multiplying its population from 3,500 to nearly 35,000 in 50 years. Almost all of this growth was owed to one company, Palmer's Shipyard, which stretched for nearly a mile along the Tyne. Jarrow was a one-company town - and, after Palmer's launched its last ship in 1932, it suddenly had no work. In 1936, the town had an unemployment rate of 80 per cent.

Various schemes to bring work were tried, including ship-breaking (the Titanic's sister, the Olympic, ended her career there). But the one to which most hope was pinned came from an American, T Vosper Salt, who wanted to build a steel-making plant on the shipyard site. Using new methods, this plant would produce cheap steel. But British steel-makers, struggling with older plant, were against the scheme and, with suspected government connivance, saw it off. When a deputation from Jarrow town council met the president of the Board of Trade, Walter Runciman, they were told: "Jarrow must find its own salvation."

According to Ellen Wilkinson, then Jarrow's Labour MP, Runciman's sentence "kindled the town". In July 1936, the council decided to organise a march on London. As Wilkinson wrote in her history, The Town That Was Murdered: "The mayor decided that if there were to be march it must be the town's march, with the backing of the whole of the citizens - from bishop to businessman. It was this idea which... gave the march its kudos."

Appeals for support went out on council notepaper above the mayor's signature. The agents for both Labour and Tory parties - the Tory vote in Jarrow was about 30 per cent - organised meeting halls and beds in towns on the way south. The town's medical officer vetted volunteers for their physical health; other doctors (and even a cobbler) would accompany the march by car. The Boy Scouts loaned a field kitchen. A waterproof ground-sheet was provided for each man. A Labrador called Paddy was adopted as a mascot.

Before the 200 men set off, they paraded before and were blessed by the Bishop of Jarrow. Every man had 1s 6d pocket money and a weekly ration of stamps for letters home. At their head walked the mayor, dressed in a suit and bowler hat.

Could any assembly be more civic, less threatening? The word most used to describe it was "apolitical". The march was filmed by newsreel crews and newspapers gave it friendly coverage. A man from the Manchester Guardian reported that: "With eggs and salmon and such sandwiches as I saw being consumed, it is is emphatically not a hunger march." There could be no doubt, he wrote, that the march was "a bounding success - the organisation seems well-nigh perfect".

And what did it achieve? Industrially, politically - nothing. What rescued Jarrow in the end was general economic recovery and renewed warship building in other Tyne yards for the war that arrived three years later. But it would not be fair to say that it achieved nothing at all. Jarrow became a focus for charity, which in Jarrow was often resented. Schoolchildren in Surrey, for example, gave money for good works in Jarrow. When Jarrow men got jobs elsewhere on Tyneside, ahead of others in the queue, this too was often resented (though this time not in Jarrow).

Ellen Wilkinson, who, to judge from her book was a courageous and clever woman, walked with the march for some of the way. Eleven years later, in 1947, she died from an overdose of barbiturates. She was Minister of Education in Attlee's government and, according to some reports, was depressed by the failure of her ambition to reform British schooling - such as Cabinet denial of her scheme to raise the school-leaving age to 16.

Reading about all this, what does one think? That the Jarrow marchers were gentlemen, and that Stanley Baldwin was luckier in his class enemies than Gordon Brown.

Ian Jack is editor of 'Granta' magazine