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History of a protest march

On 5 October 1936 a group of men set out from Jarrow, near Newcastle, the start of a 300-mile protest march to London to inform Parliament of their feeling about the crippling poverty and unemployment in Tyneside, and the closure of the shipyards. Led by the Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson, they marched to London to present a petition to Parliament protesting against the proposed means tests and cuts in employment benefit.

The shipbuilding industry on the Tyne was in decline, cheap steel was being imported from Germany, and unemployment statistics were being manipulated. The Palmers Yard shipbuilding industry had grown since its founding by Charles Mark Palmer in the mid- 19th century, and now the skills built up were being lost through the short-sightedness of uncaring leadership. Local unemployment had reached 72% by 1935, and the government massaged the figures to hide the truth. Two decades of uncertainty and despair finally broke into anger. The workers felt betrayed by Government and employers alike, and anger and frustration had escalated to the point where public action had to be taken to draw the country's attention to the plight of the North-East.

Some 200 men set out, in the cold and damp of the British autumn, staying in hostels and workhouses, sometimes having to break stones in payment for their keep, sometimes welcomed and supported in the communities they found, sometimes spurned. Harassed by the police, criticised by the authorities, and with blistered feet and hungry bellies, they marched for four weeks, to arrive in London on November 1st.

Although known as the Jarrow March, it did not begin there - fifty marchers representing the National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM) had already set off from cities as far away as Aberdeen, up to two weeks before the Jarrow marchers. It was the Jarrow men which captured the attention of the media, though - their determination, and the support they had from families and the local Council appealing to hearts and minds throughout the UK.

Did they win? In the short term, no. The Government continued to cover up the truth about poverty and their heartless treatment - the local industry and economy continued to die and the skills were lost, but the country was no longer prepared to allow such conditions to continue. The Jarrow March, best-known of all the protests of the period, marked a milestone in British history, and I for one salute them.

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