The Jarrow Crusade is the best known hunger march, but there were many others says PETER FROST
EIGHTY years ago this month the Jarrow March, also known as the Jarrow Crusade, arrived in London.
Around 200 men set off 80 years ago today on a 26-day march from Jarrow to London to protest against the unemployment and poverty suffered in the northeast Tyneside town.
Although it wasn’t the first or indeed the biggest protest march of unemployed people, it certainly caught the imagination of the nation.
In fact, many other marches of the unemployed to London, termed hunger marches, had taken place since the early 1920s.
Most of these marches had been organised by the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement (NUWM), an organisation set up and led by members of the recently formed Communist Party.
The Labour Party and Trade Union Congress (TUC) leadership would have little to do with these marches.
They exercised the same policy of detachment towards the Jarrow March, even though it was organised by the borough council with the support of all sections of the town and without any connection with the NUWM.
At the end of the 1920s and into the 1930s, unemployment in Britain reached 3 million — 22 per cent of the workforce.
Unemployment was particularly heavy in Britain’s traditional export industries — coal-mining, shipbuilding, iron and steel and textiles.
These industries were mainly concentrated in the north of England, in Scotland and in Wales, so unemployment in these regions was significantly higher, sometimes more than double the percentage in the south.
Under its charismatic communist leader Wal Hannington (below), the NUWM organised a series of national hunger marches from all corners of Britain to London in 1922, 1927, 1930, 1932, 1934 and alongside the Jarrow Crusade in 1936.
Armies of the unemployed would assemble in different towns and converge in contingents on London.
Often the marches would last over a month with thousands marching in bitter winter conditions.
Successive prime ministers — Stanley Baldwin in 1929, Ramsay MacDonald in 1930 and 1934 — refused to meet the marchers’ representatives.
The Labour Party and the TUC always refused to get involved also.
When, in 1931, Labour leader Ramsay Macdonald became head of a Tory-dominated national government his coalition government imposed a savage means test that slashed unemployment benefits.
Anger at the means test led to the 1932 hunger march and a series of rallies and demonstrations across London.
The police used considerable violence to smash the protests. There were clashes in Hyde Park, Trafalgar Square and Westminster with arrests and imprisonment of the march’s leaders.
This didn’t stop the protests and national marches were held again in 1934 and 1936.
The rise of fascism both at home with Oswald Mosley and abroad with Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy and Franco in Spain helped to unify the British left.
Ellen Wilkinson — Red Ellen, as she was known — had helped to found the British Communist Party in 1920 and had a firebrand reputation.
She had worked with Hannington and the NUWM in the early 1920s.
In 1923 Ellen left the Communist Party and became Labour MP for Middlesbrough East between 1924 and 1931.
In 1932 Jarrow Labour Party selected Ellen as its parliamentary candidate for the general election. The town had lost its shipyard, which was the life blood of Jarrow.
Early in 1934 she led a deputation of Jarrow’s unemployed to meet the prime minister, MacDonald, who was MP for Seaham, near Jarrow.
On Monday October 5, 200 marchers chosen from over 1,200 volunteers left Jarrow for London.
Originally the Jarrow Crusade was planned as part of the NUWM national hunger march but right-wing Jarrow councillors objected, saying it should be about Jarrow only.
Marching at the same time were a group of blind veterans, organised by the National League of the Blind and Disabled.
They were demanding better allowances for the country’s 67,000 blind people. The Jarrow Crusade reached London before the NUWM national march.
But the much larger NUWM march was received by a huge demonstration in London to welcome the six regional contingents of the sixth national hunger march.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the media gave the Jarrow marchers much more sympathetic coverage than it did the much larger communist-led NUWM march.
Their reports on the Jarrow Crusade often used more ink to describe the happy mouth organ music rather than the political objectives of the march.
So why among so many hunger marches is the Jarrow Crusade the best known and remembered?
Out of all the hunger marches its aims were the least militant and it made the most modest gains — and that of course is the main reason why it was the most warmly received by the media, the Tories, right-wing Labour and all those who would, over the years, rewrite working-class history for their own political ends.
This article first appeared on the eightieth anniversary of the Jarrow March setting off for London on 5 September 1936