KATE OSBORNE: Crusade still an inspiration in these times of wide inequality
Next week marks the 85th anniversary of the famous Jarrow Crusade – one of the most significant historical events in the labour movement.
On 5th October 1936, 200 local people set off from Jarrow on a near 300-mile trek to London carrying a 12,000-named petition to the Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. They were demanding the re-establishment of industry in the town following the devastating closure of Palmers Shipyard, the main employer in the area.
It was organised to obtain widespread publicity and the sympathy of the general public and – it was hoped – the re-establishment of heavy industry to provide work for unemployed men in the town.
Most of the men marching were employed in Palmer’s, which closed down in 1931, and their petition captured the imagination of the nation, drawing attention to the serious unemployment situation that existed in Jarrow.
There was severe hardship, with about 70 per cent of workers in the town left unemployed. Britain in the 1930s was suffering from the Great Depression, and its areas of heavy industry, such as Jarrow, were the hardest hit.
And when the Government-led National Shipbuilding Securities closed Palmer’s Shipyard it left the majority of families in Jarrow struggling to put food on the table.
These proud, dignified men wanted Parliament, and the people across the country, to understand that they were living in an area where there were many difficulties.
They were demanding that steelworks be built to bring back jobs to their town, following the closure of the shipyard. Palmer’s yard had been Jarrow's major source of employment, and the closure compounded the problems of poverty, overcrowding, poor housing and high mortality rates in the area.
The Crusade, led by David Riley, who was the Chair of Jarrow Council, and the MP for Jarrow, “Red” Ellen Wilkinson, aimed to arrive in Westminster at the opening of Parliament, where they would present a petition signed by the many thousands of residents of Jarrow to the government.
But disgracefully, when Wilkinson and the Jarrow marchers reached London the Conservative Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, did not even have the courtesy to meet with them and when they returned home many found their benefit had been cut because they had not been available to work.
Despite the overwhelming feeling of disappointment, the Jarrow March became recognised as a defining event of the 1930s and it is believed to have helped to foster the change in attitudes that prepared the way for social reform measures after the Second World War.
The 1936 Jarrow Crusade instilled a great amount of strength and togetherness which still shines through this area today.
Just by taking a walk around Jarrow town centre, you quickly see permanent reminders of the Jarrow Crusade. The statue outside of Morrisons, the artefacts inside Jarrow Town Hall, and even buses named after the famous Crusade!
However, comparisons must be drawn between those bleak times in the 1930s and today.
The North East has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, and the outlook is expected to get worse as energy bills continue to rocket, national insurance goes up, the furlough scheme ends, and the government forces through its dangerous cuts to Universal Credit.
And let’s not forget the rise in food banks under this government – led by fabulous local people helping vulnerable people across our communities who are in desperate need.
Even 85 years on, the Jarrow Crusade remains an inspiration to people fighting for justice. We still live in a world of widening inequality and great injustices so the issues raised by the marchers all those years ago are, sadly, still relevant now.