Remembering Sir John Jarvis - the man behind the Jarrow Crusade of 1934
No, that isn’t a misprint. The 1936 Jarrow March is chiselled upon the national consciousness, but two years earlier a dedicated yet largely overlooked supporter of the town had started his own campaign.
Sir John Jarvis helped a desperate Jarrow in many ways, not least by ensuring that £1million of his own fortune was invested there; about £60million in today’s money.
His efforts are recognised. Slightly. He became a freeman of Jarrow and so has his name engraved on a brass plaque in Jarrow Town Hall.
Otherwise there is little to remind us of him. Not a street, tower block or pub is named in his honour.
Indeed, as Jarvis Stadium was renamed Monkton Stadium and Jarvis Park became Valley View Park, it can be reasonably argued that his name has, if anything, been lost to the town.
His main commemoration from Jarrow is 300 miles away in Surrey. The “Jarrow Stone” is displayed in Guildford Cathedral in his honour – he was MP for Guildford from 1935 to 1950.
Jarvis was a Conservative and there is a long-held suspicion that the colour of his rosette is a prime reason for his relative anonymity in South Tyneside today. His investiture as a freeman of Jarrow was boycotted in 1935 by the local Labour Party.
This is certainly a view held by historian Tom Tweddell, author of the book The Other Jarrow Crusade.
But that’s for another day. In the meantime here is the (severely) abridged story of Sir John Jarvis and the “other” crusade; with many thanks to Mr Tweddell.
John Jarvis was born in London in 1876, the eldest of eight children. Aged 15 he entered the family construction business as a painter and decorator, turning it from a moderately successful enterprise into a hugely successful firm which would make him a fortune.
He was also a successful racehorse breeder and owner, economist and sportsman. Everything he achieved was through intelligence and passion. He opined “‘Look before you leap’ is a much overrated proverb.”
There’s an element of the superhuman about John Jarvis and he became known for his philanthropy. One Sunday in 1914 he heard that refugees from the newly started World War One would be in his home town of Enfield, Middlesex. By the following Wednesday they were living in a furnished house.
He was made a baronet in 1922 and moved to Surrey, where he later financed, amongst other things, a new maternity hospital.
In early 1934 he was appointed High Sheriff of Surrey. At the height of the Depression he “look(ed) round for the most difficult job in which I could help my fellow countrymen”.
He added: “I found it on Tyneside, in Jarrow, the worst hit town in England.”
In 1934 Jarrow was crippled by unemployment. The single most vicious economic blow to the town had been the collapse of Palmers shipbuilding.
Upon visiting Jarrow, disguised as “Mr Jones”, Jarvis was shocked by the poverty, but also impressed by the proud resolve of the people and their willingness to work. His first response was what became known as the Surrey Fund.
The Surrey Fund was a programme of social relief from financial aid, launched in October 1934, two years before the Jarrow March. So there was a Jarrow Crusade before the far more famous one.
The setting for the launch was the opulent Claridge’s Hotel in London, but this did not detract from the passion and sincerity with which Jarvis spoke.
Six months later he told the people of Surrey: “I have just returned from Jarrow and I speak of what I know and what I have seen. I am horrified that in Christian England such things can be.” He was working the crowd.
The result was a successful whip-round. Surrey citizens responded to his rhetoric and, aware that fortune had treated them well, they donated £40,000; several million pounds being today’s equivalent.
Much of it was spent on materials to provide work on building playgrounds, sports facilities and redecorating houses. It was a start.
Despite recognising the plight of Jarrow’s people, Jarvis seems to have been constantly impressed by them, saying: “They are a proud people who do not wish it believed they are down and out.”
In 1935 he personally bought the decommissioned liner Olympia, Titanic’s sister ship, for £97,500 to create work in Jarrow with its breaking up. He did the same with Berengaria in 1938 for £108,000.
He would eventually plough £1million of his own into Jarrow; a decent sum now, but an astronomical one then. This compares to the £25 chipped in by local mining tycoon, the appalling Lord Londonderry.
Sir John Jarvis died at home in Surrey aged 74 on September 27, 1950. He is buried in Hascombe churchyard near Godalming, beside his son Dennis who had died in 1929.
Physical clues as to his efforts in Jarrow, such as Monkton Stadium, are conspicuous. Yet his name is less so and the Surrey Fund wound up not long after his passing.
However, in 1951 Jarrow Town Council commemorated the Festival of Britain with a plaque honouring the people of Surrey who contributed to the fund. It still hangs in Jarrow Town Hall. The town hall clock which says “1951” was pretty much the last thing to be paid for by the fund.
A blue plaque would seem fitting, but is as yet not forthcoming. Watch this space.
John Jarvis’ Herculean efforts could only ameliorate the distress in Jarrow and the ensuing social emergency. The subsequent 1936 Jarrow March responded to the refusal of the government to approve Sir John’s plans for a new steelworks.
When the march reached London, Jarvis was there to address it; Conservative or not. Ellen Wilkinson, left-wing firebrand and Jarrow MP, was angry but always retained respect for him.
It isn’t too late to make him as well known as he perhaps ought to be. And this article barely scratches the surface.