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Jarrow hunger marchers

Updated on May 27, 2013

Jarrow Hunger marchers

The Jarrow Hunger Marchers were organised by their local council to march to London as a protest at the lack of investment in Jarrow and the North East. People were out of work and they were starving, and it seemed to the Northerners that no one cared about their predicament.

Degrading treatment

In the 1930's, Britain, like most other countries was suffering from world wide depression.

The heavy industries such as shipbuilding had no work, and men were laid off in their thousands.

Unemployment benefit was a pittance but even to get that small amount, the workers had to undergo the indignity of a Means Test. Households were subjected to humiliating scrutiny by officials who had no sympathy with the out of work, and who were very reluctant to recommend anyone for the few shillings that they were due. Even if a person was granted unemployment benefit, it lasted for only 26 weeks. After that period, they were given transitional payments, subject to another Means Test. The 'Unemployment Assistance Board' was created in 1934. This bureaucratic nightmare had a responsibility to the long-term unemployed, but the money given was tiny, and and was grudgingly doled out by officials who treated the money as if it were their own.

In the Means Test, all the wages of all the family members, any household assets such as furniture and fittings, were taken into account when deciding whether or not a man should be given anything. Men who were thrown out of work through no fault of their own, could get no help if their families were earning a wage.

Organised march

In the Northeastern shipyards of Jarrow long-term male unemployment had crippled the town. The workers had nothing and their prospects were bleak. To protest against this, the National Unemployed Workers' Movement (NUWM) organised 'hunger marches.' The marches included a march of 2000 people in 1932, and two more in 1934 and 1936. It was on 20th July 1936 that Jarrow Borough Council, decided to organise a march to London to present a petition to Parliament, 300 miles away. This was separate from the the NUWM as they felt that the Communist leanings of the Union would not be welcome in the capital. The Labour party wanted nothing to do with the Union because of this.
The Jarrow crusade, however, was welcomed by other local political parties including the local Conservatives.

In 1936, as plans for the Jarrow march got under way, Ellen Wilkinson, a conservative Member of Parliament decided that she would support it by walking some of the way to gain publicity for the marchers.

Marchers were chosen carefully, medical examinations carried out, and 200 fit men were chosen to march. An old bus was bought to carry cooking equipment and tarpaulins were provided for cover in the rain. Overnight stops and accommodation were arranged and finally a church service was held on the eve of departure to bless the marchers.

The Jarrow men started at 8.45 each morning of their 25-day march. Some did it the Army way: 50 minutes marching with banners flying, then 10 minutes' rest. A band playing mouth organs kept the men swinging along and there was singing, led sometimes by Ellen Wilkinson. Passers by clapped and cheered the men as they continued in cheerful procession, rain or shine.

11,000 Jarrow people had signed the petition and it was carried on the march in an oak box with gold lettering. Another petition was collected on the way. Overnight accommodation was provided, from the the wards of workhouses to lodgings in the houses of sympathetic people. Food was donated by businesses and citizens. Businesses in Leeds provided the Jarrow men with train tickets for their return trip. In Barnsley the men were given access to the heated municipal baths and Ellen Wilkinson had the women's foam bath all to herself. Those of the marchers who were showing signs of the strain they were under were cared for by medical students from the Inter Hospital Socialist Society.

The jubilant marchers arrived in London on 31 October, nearly a month after leaving Jarrow. The total number of signatures on the petition was 11,000, and was handed into Parliament by Ellen Wilkinson. Prime minister at that time was Stanley Baldwin but he refused to see any of the marchers, claiming it would set a dangerous precedent. The petition was accepted into the Commons and was acknowledged with a single simple sentence. The House of Commons then went back to their previous business. The march had achieved nothing.

Two years after the march in 1938, a ship breaking works and a heavy engineering company were established in Jarrow. The next year, a steelworks was opened. The depression continued in Jarrow until war broke out in September 1939, when production was stepped up due to the nation's need for re-armament.

The Jarrow March is fondly remembered by those in British politics as a landmark in the history of the labour movement, even though the Labour Party of the day opposed it, and the trades Union Congress advised Trade Councils not to help the marchers.

The last surviving member of the march, Cornelius Whalen, died on 14 September 2003. He was 93 years of age.

Alan Price sings the Geordie marching song


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    • scarytaff profile imageAUTHOR

      Derek James 

      8 years ago from South Wales

      Thanks for your input,The Bard. They were dreadful times all round.

    • The Bard profile image

      The Bard 

      8 years ago from London, England & San Pablo City, Philippines

      An excellent hub. The Jarrow March was divisive in the town and many did not agree with it. This sentiment echoed for a good forty years afterwards.

      Now that it has passed from human memory into history it has adopted the image of a "heroic crusade". For many the march tarnished the town, and its name became synonymous with unemployment. This legacy still resounds today, and is particularly galling for those who prefer to remember it as a great industrial town producing mighty ships from the Palmers shipyards, not to mention the home of Bede and his life at the Jarrow monastery - now a Unesco World Heritage Site.

      I spent my childhood in Jarrow in the sixties and well recall my Victorian grandmother's disdain everytime the march was mentioned. Indeed, my own father and his two brothers (all in their twenties) did not march, but left some months earlier to seek work in London and watched the sad and bedraggled marchers arrive. As you say, they achieved little and were shunned by the Government.

      Anyway - the war began soon after which set the wheels of industry in motion and put many back to work. Not all however - some were never to work again for one reason or another. If you can get your hands on "The Town that was Murdered" by Ellen Wilkinson, it is an excellent contemporary account of the events with an excellent history of the town.

    • The Rope profile image

      The Rope 

      9 years ago from SE US

      Ummm, Interesting info - and as always you shared it so well. Thanks! I love reading history in short bytes like this.


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