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The last Crusader

James Clegg on the legacy of the Jarrow crusade

Last September a 93 year old man called Cornelius Whalen died in a hospital in Gateshead. There is no reason why this should be of any interest to anyone other than his friends and family except for the fact that Con Whalen was the last living member of the Jarrow Crusade.

Like the execution of the Tolpuddle Martyrs the Jarrow Crusade is one of the most iconic and emotive events in the history of British socialism. On 5th October 1936 around two hundred unemployed men led by local politicians and accompanied by two doctors, three journalists, a barber and a dog set out from the town of Jarrow, their mission to draw attention to the mass unemployment and poverty in their area and in Tyneside in general by presenting the Tory Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, with a petition with 11,572 signatories requesting “that the necessary active assistance be given by the Government for the provision of work in the town of Jarrow”.

Jarrow had been hit particularly hard by the Depression with the local shipyard, the main source of employment, closing and attempts to open a steelworks in its place labelled as uncompetitive and blocked by certain elements within the British Iron and Steel Federation. In September 1935 unemployment in Jarrow reached 72.9%. In an example of spin that would put New Labour to shame the government cut unemployment figures by merging Jarrow labour exchange with that of the comparatively affluent nearby area of Hebburn in June 1936 causing an apparent drop in unemployment to 39.6%. In reality no new jobs had been created and the people of Jarrow were still starving.

Although organised by seasoned campaigners on the left-wing of the Labour Party such as ‘Red’ Ellen Wilkinson, MP for Jarrow, and town councillors, notably David Riley and Paddy Scullion, the Crusade itself seemed to transcend local party politics. Harry Stoddart, the agent for Jarrow Labour Party and R. Suddick, his Tory counterpart, worked together as an advance group for the main body of the march to organise accommodation and public meetings at each of the towns in which they stopped. The parties on Jarrow Town Council agreed not to hold elections in November as a sign of unity.

The march eventually reached London on 31st October. A public meeting had been held at every town along the way at which Wilkinson, Riley, Scullion and J.W. Thompson, the Mayor of Jarrow, spoke about the plight of their town. On the 4th November the petition was presented to Parliament but the Prime Minister refused to see the marchers or their representatives. Delegates from the protest including Ellen Wilkinson and Mayor Thompson addressed a group of MPs from all parties in the largest committee room in the House of Commons. Raising his chain of office in front of them Thompson said, “Its links form a cable, its badge is an anchor… symbols in gold of the cables and anchors of the thousand ships we built at Jarrow.” And then, letting the chain fall on the desk in front of him, “If you are not going to help us then this means nothing.”

Then it was over: after twenty-two stops, thirty days and two hundred and ninety miles of marching they returned, by train, to lives of poverty and hardship. So had the Crusade really achieved anything? Ostensibly, no; the government did its best to ignore it and the employment crisis was only eased by Britain’s entry into WWII three years later. But they had caught the attention of the public: in the poorer towns they had visited there was empathy, in the wealthier ones a raised awareness of poverty in Britain. After the war there would be a landslide Labour victory; perhaps a reflection of the discontentment with the pre-war government which the Jarrow marchers seemed to embody.

When Cornelius Whalen left Jarrow for London in 1936 unemployment was around 72%; when he died South Tyneside, the council area of which Jarrow is now a part, had unemployment figures of less than 5%. There will never be another protest like the Jarrow Crusade in this country. Firstly because the quality of life for even the poorest people in Britain has improved over the last 77 years. Secondly because what was left of Britain’s industrial sector, the kind of industry that towns like Jarrow depended upon, was run into the ground by Thatcher’s governments. Most of the main employers in the town are now retail outlets; most notably a Morrison’s supermarket.

There are still those who try to invoke the memory of the march: in the fuel tax protests of 2000 the protestors called for a second “Jarrow Crusade” of slow moving lorries from Tyneside to London. At the time Con Whalen dismissed this as, “a ridiculous insult… For us it was a question of hardship and hunger, but these people [farmers and hauliers] are well off.”

But if we look elsewhere perhaps we can find a more convincing legacy to the Crusade. A few months before the march took place David Riley told the people of Jarrow, “We should remember that every change that has been made in political and social history has been made as a result of direct action.” The past year and a half have seen some of the biggest demonstrations in our nation’s history with people from all over the country taking to the streets of London to protest against the War on Iraq. Perhaps, even though the last of the Jarrow crusaders has passed on, the spirit of the Crusade, the idea that the best way to achieve change is through the democratic right to peaceful, mass-protest, is still with us.