The Jarrow Crusade remains one of the most evocative emblems of the interwar period. It captures something of the resilience of the interwar British population in the face of unemployment, hunger and depression. In October 1936, 207 hungry and bedraggled marchers travelled to London from Jarrow in the North East to protest against the terrible circumstances they faced daily due to the strain of poverty, unemployment, and hunger. There they presented parliament with a petition demanding the creation of jobs and improved conditions.
With levels of unemployment recorded at 80%, Jarrow was England’s worst affected constituency. Yet the plight of the marchers represents that of so many from Britain’s industrial north, where years of economic depression had achingly taken their toll. It was in this period when the divide between the old industrial towns of the north and the more prosperous areas of the south became firmly defined. This north-south divide continues to characterise Britain today, inevitably widening in our own current years of economic gloom.
It was Ellen Wilkinson, one of Manchester University’s very own students, who was the Labour MP for Jarrow and led the March. She was one of the first women in Britain to be elected as an MP and her legacy has not been forgotten by the University, with one of its most prominent buildings named in her honour. She was initially a founding member of the Communist Party in the early 1920s, thus gaining a reputation as ‘Red Ellen’.
However, the Jarrow March asa political expression is notable for its lack of extremism. John Stevenson, in his article Britain in the Depression, contends that Jarrow has in fact become legend particularly because the marchers ‘obeyed the rules’. They rejected violence, communist involvement and extreme political intentions.
The Jarrow March, therefore, contrasted greatly with other unemployment marches of the period that were often much bigger in size but were rendered unpopular in public opinion due to their more riotous nature. Thus the popularity of the Jarrow March in society at the time and within British history since is perhaps indicative of Britain’s disinclination from extremism and violence within politics. This is a significant point to consider, especially given the tumultuous situation in Europe at the time march’s close chronological proximity to the Second World War.
Yet the march itself achieved very little, perhaps even because of its so moderate tone. The ship industries remained closed and the marchers were given £1 each, just enough for them to get the train home.
Wilkinson, however, used the march’s public success to launch further campaigns for social equality, with the most important culminating in the Education Act implemented in 1944.