Unemployed workers from Jarrow asked for jobs, not payouts. Credit: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

October 8, 2021   5 mins

For a small town on Tyneside, Jarrow has always had an outsized impact on our national story. In the seventh and eighth centuries its church and monastery, on the banks of a muddy tributary of the Tyne, formed one of Europe’s most dazzling centres of civilisation. Its library was among the largest in the world; the scriptorium produced the hefty Codex Amiatinus, a gift for Pope Gregory II in Rome; and both were frequented by Bede, from whose pen flowed the first written English history.

It feels weirdly incongruent, then, that the monastery where Bede lived and prayed is now adjacent to the vast car park where Nissan’s output waits to be exported around the world. The vast Port of Tyne complex sits on the edge of Jarrow Slake, a tidal lagoon, known locally as ‘Jarra Slack’, a name that hints at the town’s ancient history: ‘Släcka’ is the Norwegian word for slake, or quench. In 794 a Viking raiding party met a sticky end here when they were repelled by the local Anglo-Saxons and their retreating longboats were dashed on the rocks at Tynemouth.

Over a thousand years later, Jarrow was once again the site of bloody violence. In the febrile decades of industrial unrest that followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars, a local magistrate was murdered, ostensibly by a striking miner called William Jobling, though the case remains controversial. Jobling was hanged in 1832 and his body was tarred, hung in chains and bolted into a gibbet that was toured through the colliery districts to intimidateee the striking pitmen. At Jarrow Slake it was then attached to a 21-foot wooden post to swing in the wind as a warning to all others (and in full view of the house where Jobling’s widow lived).

Jobling’s trial took place amid what the general commanding the British Army in Northern England called an “almost military occupation”, and his hasty execution was undoubtedly meant as an example to the newly formed miners’ unions of Northumberland and Durham who were striking for better working conditions — including reduced working hours for children from 16 hours per day to 12; indeed the sentencing judge described their strike action as “illegal proceedings which have disgraced the county”, and urged them to take “warning by his fate”.

The pitmen’s final defeat by starvation and intimidation had a profound influence on the generations that followed. In 1939, the local Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson published a famous j’accuse against the capitalists who had laid waste to her constituency of Jarrow: The Town That Was Murdered. She argued that ruthless tyranny abounded in the coalfields, citing the strike-breaking actions of aristocratic coal-owners like the pantomime villain Charles Vane Stewart, 3rd Marquess of Londonderry (who is known for his forceful opposition to the ban on child labour in collieries.)

Londonderry’s was an example followed by the heartless Victorian plutocrat and Liberal MP, Sir Charles Mark Palmer. It was his vast shipyards that turned Jarrow into the archetypal one-industry town, with all the attendant socioeconomic problems. The yards attracted thousands of migrants, especially the Irish, whose presence saw the town become known as Little Ireland, and rekindled in that part of Tyneside a Catholicity that Bede might’ve recognised (“Our Father who art in Hebburn, Jarrow be thy name.”) In matters of industrial relations and employee welfare, Palmer shared the same outlook as The Simpson’s Mr. Burns. Although overblown tributes to civic worthies are not uncommon, it’s rare to see a lie as brazen, and frankly laughable, as the encomium on his statue opposite the town hall: “a life devoted to the social advancement of the working classes”.

The experience of crushing defeats at the hands of coal-owners in the 1830s and 40s, and then in the General Strike of 1926, had bred a cautious and conservative approach among the trade unions of the North East. It partly explains why the Durham Miners Association became the last of the miners’ unions to affiliate to the Labour Party. This pathological resistance to confrontation meant that even as the “hungry thirties” bit hard following the closure of Palmers in 1931, with unemployment levels reaching up to 80% in places like Jarrow, there was surprisingly little unrest, or much in the way of Communist stirrings. This was met with disbelief from those who knew how miserable conditions were for the unemployed — and caused Wilkinson to muse, “if not Jarrow, then where?”

By 1936, as crippling unemployment dragged on, and promised government support failed to materialise, Jarrow Council made a decision. In the conciliatory traditions of North East England, 200 out-of-work local men would march to Parliament and petition Stanley Baldwin’s government to provide work for the town. 85 years ago this week, they set off.

The strategy of the march organisers was astute: they knew that, unless handled carefully, political demonstrations can repel as much as they can galvanise. Therefore, the march organisers were careful to demonstrate discipline and dignity in their demand for work, not handouts. Churchmen were courted and Communists were wheedled out. And, as over 60% of these unemployed riveters and platers were Great War veterans, they presented a disciplined picture of men marching smartly in step, blankets tightly rolled, demonstrating their endurance and good order in a deliberate appeal to Middle England.

And yet, despite all this, what they got at the Palace of Westminster was not government action, nor even a formal reception, but cups of tea. The reaction was captured brilliantly by Thomas Cantrell Dugdale’s painting “Arrival of the Jarrow Marchers in London”, where a socialite in a cocktail dress peers out of her drawing room window at the throng outside, while her bored companion blows smoke rings with studied indifference. After causing a little inconclusive chatter in the Commons, the marchers got the train home.

But it wasn’t just that Londoners didn’t care; it’s that they couldn’t understand. Though the depression may have bit hard in the industrial heartlands of the North, Southern England was booming in the 30s: new light industries producing consumer goods were sprouting along the Thames Valley and London was experiencing an incredible housing boom. Back in Jarrow, the old joke was that Hitler saved the town — albeit temporarily — by providing war-work for the old shipyards.

Still, by 1945, middle-class people had felt “the call of conscience,” as AJP Taylor put it. The immiseration of Jarrow and places like it were uppermost in many voters’ minds when they cast their votes in Labour’s first landslide. But the fundamentals of the British economy did not shift, and have not since — success stories such as Nissan notwithstanding.

Just in recent weeks it’s been reported that the North East has not only the highest levels of child poverty, and the greatest number of deaths from opioid abuse, but it has also seen the sharpest fall in life expectancy of any English region. So, I find it hard to shake the pessimistic view that the North, having experienced a relatively brief few centuries of industrial prosperity, will never again throw off its subordination to the South, or indeed the legacy of its century-long economic decline.

Although there are some signs of optimism, especially in low carbon and renewable energy, with giga factories being built and wind turbine blades emerging from old dockyards — a pleasing narrative arc perhaps given our disproportionate role in carbonising the planet – the ability of the British state to level up the North East will always face the brute facts of geography and history.

Dan Jackson is the author of the best-selling book The Northumbrians: The North East of England and its People. A New History, published by Hurst (2019)