When a group of workers marched to the capital to make sure their government was listening
The 1930s was a time of deep, economic hardship for much of the world. The financial crash of 1929 had crippled the global economy, and the UK was hit hard.
By 1936 towns and cities reliant on industry, particularly those in the north of England, were hit hardest. From 5–31st October, workers from one town had had enough. They made a stand.
Jarrow, located to the south of the River Tyne, was home to a steelworks up until the year before the crusade. When it closed, it left hundreds of men out of work. The quality of life in the town was made much worse as the steel yard was the main source of employment. For the workers and their families, the situation was devastating.
Feeling like they were being forgotten about 200 men, along with the MP for Jarrow, Ellen Wilkinson, set off from their town on the Tyne to the centre of London, to Westminster. They carried with them a petition to hand over to the government, signed by 11,000 people.
The crusade was an effort to show people in the south that, although coming from a deprived working class area, the men could make an inspired and civilised protest. They wanted to show people what it was really like to live in a town with no work.
The marchers were given a warm welcome en route. At Leeds they were told they would get their return journey home on the train paid for, and in Barnsley they were given the chance to use specially heated municipal baths. One helper along the route described how, on one occasion, he saw a marcher take the ham from inside his sandwich, and place it in an envelope. When asked what he was doing he replied, ‘I’m sending it home …my family haven’t had meat in the house for six weeks.’
The brutal reality of life in an industrial town during an economic depression was taken down to the capital by people who experienced it.
The crusade reached London but, despite the public support, it failed to have a true impact. Wilkinson took the petition to Parliament. When she had asked the prime minister to receive a deputation from the men, he had refused: ‘He said he was too busy.’
This lack of consideration for the efforts made by the Jarrow Crusaders or the harsh lives they lived was heartbreaking. The marchers would return home with the sympathy of the public, but little had changed within the government. No plan was drawn up to support industrial towns such as Jarrow.
By 1939 a ship breaker and a steel yard had been established in the town, but unemployment remained high until the outbreak of the Second World War. For all its horror, the war put thousands back into work.
The Jarrow Crusade was a protest like no other. Desperate men left their homes and families to make a point to the ruling classes. They may have received attention during the march, but once they returned home very little had changed. Only the start of a global conflict would see any real change for the town on the Tyne.