From the Jarrow Crusade to the Brexit Blues: historical protests and expressions of direct action

By Aoife O’Leary McNeice (@aolmcn)

Petitions, marches and referendums have been in the news a lot lately, manifestations of frustration from people who do not feel represented by those in power, and so undertake direct action in an attempt to gain leverage, produce change, or simply quell an increasing feeling of powerlessness. I am of course referencing the online petition to revoke article 50, which as I write has amassed 6,065,623 signatures and rising, comfortably securing the title of most popular online petition in the history of online petitions. The government responded to this petition on the 26th March, asserting ‘this Government will not revoke Article 50. We will honour the result of the 2016 referendum and work with Parliament to deliver a deal that ensures we leave the European Union’.

To add to this expression of mass discontent, on March 23rd up to one million people participated in a march in London calling for a referendum on the final Brexit deal. This march also seems to have failed to change the minds of members of government, who are holding fast to another manifestation of direct democracy – the Brexit referendum results. This government intransigence in the face of these two recent instances of mass direct action reminded me of another march and petition that took place 83 years ago; the Jarrow crusade.

On a page of the London Times from 21 July 1936, largely occupied with news about the Spanish Civil War, , is nestled a small article with the headline ‘JARROW MARCH TO LONDON: PETITION TO THE GOVERNMENT FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT’. This article was reporting on a meeting held by Jarrow Town Council to discuss ‘the failure of the steelworks scheme, and it was decided to organise a march to London to present a petition to the government’.[1] Jarrow is a town in the North East of England. During the years of economic depression in the 1930s unemployment in Jarrow reached 70%. Palmer’s shipyard, a major employer in the region, had shut down in 1931 and the town was bereft of industry. Those who wished to take part registered their names at Town Hall. The marchers carried with them a petition, signed by 12,000 residents of Jarrow and adjacent towns, asking the government to acknowledge their need for employment. They raised money by sending letters appealing for financial support to local authorities across the UK. The march was well organised, each marcher was examined by a doctor to ensure he was fit and healthy, and provided with a pair of boots with iodine socks. Their route had been planned in advance and arrangements made with local authorities for staying in towns along the way. A field kitchen and a lorry with sleeping bags accompanied the marchers.

200 marchers left Jarrow to begin the approximately 300-mile journey on the October 5th 1936. They were led by their MP, Ellen Wilkinson. Wilkinson was elected to parliament as a Labour candidate in 1924, an ardent feminist and committed socialist, she loyally represented her working-class constituents. In the Commons, she gave speeches where she laced minute local information with a sarcastic wit. The march included a mouth organ band and they received warm welcomes in the towns they passed through. An article in the Manchester Guardian from October 13th described the arrival of the marchers in Harrogate, describing how the town ‘welcomed the Jarrow marchers today as cheerfully as if they were a relief column raising a siege’.

Despite this optimism and support, the march failed to materially improve the conditions of people in Jarrow. The march arrived in London on the 31st of October, just in time for the opening of parliament. Wilkinson presented the petition to parliament and delivered a plea highlighting the plight of the town “where formerly 8,000 people, many of them skilled workers, were employed, only 100 men are now employed on a temporary scheme. The town cannot be left derelict”. However, parliament did not respond to Wilkinson’s pleas, no proposal was made for Jarrow’s relief and the depression continued in the town until the second world war created a demand for ships and ammunition. Prime Minster, Stanley Baldwin, stated he was too busy to meet the delegates from Jarrow, and to add insult to injury, the marchers’ unemployment benefits were denied them whilst they were on the march, on the basis that they had not been available for work in Jarrow at the time.

There is a long history of energetic and popular direct action being met with inaction from elected representatives. Those who signed the recent petition, or pounded the pavements demanding a second Brexit vote, are perhaps echoing the frustrations of those exhausted, unemployed marchers eighty-three years ago, sitting on their train returning home with heavy hearts and empty hands.


[1] London Times, 21 July, 1936.

Image: Ellen Cicely Wilkinson, Labour MP for Jarrow, leading the Jarrow Marchers through Cricklewood, London (31 October 1936), made available via the National Portrait Gallery’s creative commons licence.

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