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The March to Save Jarrow

Do you hear the people sing? British politicians didn’t at the time, and yet, writes Stuart Maconie, the lasting legacy of the 1936 Jarrow ‘crusade’ can still be felt to this day
Harmonica players walked with the marchers, belting out There’s a Long, Long Trail, Tipperary and their ilk

There are certain British place names that carry an enduring weight of meaning; a deep and sonorous ring, and not always a pleasant one. Hillsborough, Orgreave, Aberfan, Armagh… these are all places that have become synonymous with some great and profound emotion or event, woven into history through accident, struggle, tragedy, wickedness or bravery. Jarrow is another. In 1936, this industrial town in the northeast of England became, in the words of its MP, “the most famous town in England”; a byword for hardship and misery, but also for defiance, fortitude and dignity.

Jarrow’s MP was Ellen Wilkinson, better known as ‘Red’ Ellen, a brilliant and passionate firebrand who later became a pillar of Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour administration as Minister for Education. But much of her lasting fame rests on her movements in October 1936, when she led 200 of Jarrow’s unemployed men 300 miles to London. The intention was to publicise Jarrow’s plight and to deliver a petition of 10,000 signatures to Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, pleading for help for their dying town in the form of a steelworks, or a similar shot in the arm. Baldwin refused to see them; the petition was taken from them by the Special Branch and then it vanished, and the aid the town needed was never properly given.

But the Jarrow ‘crusade’ lives on as a remarkable, romantic, contentious piece of our social history. In Matt Perry’s excellent, definitive historical account The Jarrow Crusade: Protest And Legend, he cites some of its varied legacy: “Five plays, two musicals, an opera, three pop songs, two folk songs, several paintings and poems, a short story, performance art, a mural, two sculptures, glassware, four television documentaries, four radio programmes, a children’s story, a cuddly toy, a real ale, a public house, an election poster, street names, innumerable pieces of journalism and historical references and of course hundreds of often reproduced photographs.”

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About BBC History Revealed Magazine

In this month’s issue… Secrets of the Templars They were the most formidable military order of the middles ages, feared as crusaders and answerable only to the pope. This month we tell the tale of how they fell from grace, and try to unpick their legends from the truth. Plus: the Jarrow March; the RAF and the battle of Britain; Martin Luther King; 26 weird facts surrounding royal births; how to make a mummy; and the crowning of Charles II