When poor South Shields was ‘adopted’ by Tunbridge Wells

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Do you recognise it?: “The long dreary streets are a desolate sight, with their hordes of squalid slum children and their pathetic groups of unemployed men.”

Or how about this: “Unless you can gain access to the houses themselves – those tenements of disease and suffering that abound in their hundreds – it is impossible to guess even dimly at the appalling conditions of these poor out-of-works...”

No? It’s South Shields that’s being talked about.

Yes, I sat up when I read it too, because although times were undoubtedly hard in the 1930s – and these phrases date from the same year as the Jarrow March – it’s an image of the town that I think would have, even at the time, raised a few hackles.

Especially as one other comment was that the town also lacked “the leisured classes” capable of assisting their own community – at odds with the reality that Shields, from the 19th century onwards, had its share of middle-class prosperity, while also having, yes, a great deal of poverty.

So where was all this coming from?

It’s well known that during the Depression, Jarrow was taken under the wing of Sir John Jarvis, who was High Sheriff of Surrey and founder of the Surrey Fund for the town’s assistance.

But less well known is that South Shields was also ‘adopted’ by leafy Tunbridge Wells.

Moved by the high levels of joblessness in the town – 14,000 out of work, out of a population of 113,000 – the Kent community sent clothing, bedding, household items etc north, to alleviate the distress.

A delegation paid a visit, reporting back, through the pages of the Kent and Sussex Courier, on the position of “these poor out-of-works, whose very vitality is slowly ebbing away as the result more of a complete hopelessness outlook than of absolute poverty”.

The degree of impoverishment, they noted, was not always obvious, but often kept by pride behind closed doors. “There is a pathetic British stoicism about these people.”

At the end of their visit, they said, “We set our faces south again, resolved to do all in our power to persuade those who live in these kindlier parts of England to spare some of their bounty for the bitter needs of South Shields, where want, sickness and hopelessness have reached such terrible dimensions.”

How long the support of Tunbridge Wells lasted, I don’t know, and I’m sure it was kindly meant – needed, too, and probably appreciated. But it would be interesting to know if Shields folk actually knew the tone of the reports that went back in the other direction!