For over a hundred years from the middle of the 19th century, Jarrow, in County Durham, had been a thriving shipbuilding town. By the 1930s, Palmers Shipbuilding and Iron Company employed 80% of the town’s workforce.
Then the Great Depression hit, and Palmers closed. Unemployment soared to 70%. With unemployment benefit lasting just 26 weeks, things soon started looking grim. The people of the town wanted the government to do something. Many wanted them to build a steelworks to provide employment.
And so on 20 July 1936, Jarrow Borough Council decided to present a petition to Parliament demanding that “His Majesty’s Government and this honourable House should realise the urgent need that work should be provided for the town without further delay.”
The petition was circulated and received 11,000 signatures. A “crusade” – a march the length of the country to London – would be staged to bring the petition, carried in an oak box, to the government.
Some 200 physically fit men (women were not invited to march) were selected from the local population and checked to ensure they could endure the 300-mile walk to London. And on this day in 1936, they set off, a mouth organ band leading the way.
It wasn’t the first march of its kind. The National Unemployed Workers’ Movement had organised ‘hunger marches’, including one of 2,000 people in 1932, plus others in 1934 and 1936. But there was a strong scent of Bolshevism about those marches which meant they weren’t widely supported.
Ellen Wilkinson, Jarrow’s Labour MP, threw her weight behind the cause, despite the misgivings of her national party. And her presence ensured huge publicity.
As they wound their way south, the petition was added to, and the marchers received hospitality along the way. They finally reached London on 31 October. And Ellen Wilkinson presented the petition in Parliament on 4 November.
But rather than the petition, it was the coming of war that brought industry back to the town of Jarrow. The shipyards were reopened in 1938, and in 1939, the Consett Iron Company started a steelworks.