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Friday, 12 February 2016

Lions Betrayed by Donkeys


The marchers led by their soon to be famous mouth organ band. 

In 1932 Palmers the shipbuilders collapsed and three quarters of Jarrow found themselves unemployed, and remained so for most of the decade. In 1936 there was talk of building a modern iron and steel works there, but the British Iron and Steel Federation blocked it for fear something modern might threaten existing more archaic plants.

 Jarrow sent deputation after deputation to Sir Walter Runciman, President of the Board of Trade to step in and get the plant built. They were asking the wrong man. The socialist, Ellen Wilkinson called him ‘One of England’s minor disasters. For him nothing can be done about anything.’ She was right. Runciman’s cold response:  ‘Jarrow must work out its own salvation’ sparked off the Jarrow March on London.
Ellen Wilkinson of the ILP

It’s interesting that the spark was that of a Pontius Pilate washing his hands and looking the other way. It’s depressing that the two great ‘moral’ organisations of the realm, the Church and the Labour Party acted in a similar manner. It’s also instructive that real life politics cannot be easily divided into good guys and bad guys.

The Mayor of Jarrow, Bill Thompson insisted that it shouldn’t be a ‘hunger march’ but a ‘crusade for jobs’. He insisted it should embrace all parties and got in touch with Conservative controlled councils along the route of the march.

They walked twelve miles a day over four weeks in all weathers, sleeping on the bare floors of drill halls, schools or church institutes. The Boy Scouts lent them a field kitchen, and an unemployed barber trimmed and shaved them enroute to ensure they looked presentable.




The first betrayal began with a service of blessing. Dr James Gordon, the suffragan Bishop of Jarrow, along with ten other clergy representing the different  denominations prayed for God’s blessing on those taking part. When the bishop of Durham, Gordon’s senior discovered the march had been blessed by the Church he was furious and forced Gordon to publicly recant via a letter to the Times. The official response of the Church was now condemnation.


You might have assumed the Labour Party and the TUC would have supported them, but no. Both organisations were wary. Hunger Marches were associated with communism so they hurried to distance themselves.

 They instructed local branches to refuse any requests for help from the marchers. Some Labour delegates attacked the diminutive (five foot four inches) Ellen Wilkinson for sending ‘hungry, half-clad men’ on a march to London. They suggested that a documentary should have been made instead! Far less offensive.

Ellen Wilkinson talking to the journalist Ritchie Calder of the Daily Herald.

There were exceptions. A few Labour areas disobeyed the directive to withhold help and support. At one stop the local Miner’s Institute provided scones and ham sandwiches. One man extracted the ham from his sandwich and posted it home to a family that hadn’t seen meat for weeks.


In contrast the marchers were given shelter and food from every Tory Council they passed through. In Tory Harrogate, money was thrust into the Marchers’ hands and banners were unfurled welcoming them. At Leeds the Lord Mayor and the President of the Conservative Association provided a “sumptuous meal’ of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding washed down with good beer.

The Labour Party’s disavowal of them hurt. Condemnation from the Tory dominated National Government they expected. The support from the Tory heartlands they didn’t expect.

In Sheffield, the Tory Agent wished them well as they set off and rounded off his speech with: ‘We are told you will not be received by the Powers-That-Be. To the Devil with that. Your march is a good thing in my opinion, and whether my Head Office likes it or not, I don’t care.’

In contrast the Labour controlled Chesterfield refused every request for help, forcing the marchers to seek the support of local businesses and Conservative Associations – which they got in abundance.

The government briefed against them, hinting at the dangers of violent insurrection, but realised the game was up when even Lord Rothermere’s Daily Mail came out in open support for the marchers. London’s Labour Leader, Herbert Morrison did not, refusing to speak at their rally.


Herbert Morrison. In the words of Churchill, ‘a curious mix of geniality and venom,’ and reputed lover of Ellen Wilkinson.

The marchers  spent four days in London, Ellen Wilkinson leading them into the city on a particularly rainy day. Their petition was ignored. In the words of one marcher. ‘We got turned down. We got a cup of tea, they gave us a cup of tea. When we got it turned down in the House of Commons, that was it. . .  you knew you were finished.’

They returned to Jarrow as heroes and have since been appropriated by Labour as heroes, which is ironic really.

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