Like everyone I had heard about the Jarrow Marches, though other than realising there were major problems in the area which had resulted in the workers there walking all the way to London some time in the 1930’s to protest to Parliament I really knew little else.
Apparently by October 1936 the unemployment and poverty in the area had become so unbearable
due to the closure of the shipbuilding yard throwing over seventy percent of the men out of work that they marched. Although there was mass publicity of the event, very little was done for them. The Prime Minister of the day, Stanley Baldwin refused to meet them, saying it would set a dangerous precedent. The shipbuilding industry remained closed and the marchers given £1 each for their train fare back.
So it was no wonder the display in the old dining room of Jarrow Hall seemed a little bitter.
Jarrow had been a mining area from almost as far back as the Norman Conquest, but it wasn’t until early in the nineteenth century when the industrial revolution was demanding more coal that mining in the area really took off. As I had seen on my Coal Mining Tour health and safety at the time was non-existent, working conditions appalling and many lives lost. This mine was nearly 900ft deep, and suffered badly from flooding owing to the geography of the area, plus suffocation from carbon dioxide, or explosions from methane gas were major problems. In the twenty eight years from 1817 there were five major explosions resulting in many deaths, some of children as young as seven.
This is a sad little page from the museum archives.
The children were interviewed by the Medical Attendant at the colliery (who mentions no medical qualifications), and this evidence was then presented to the Children’s Employment Commision. He says in his submission that ‘few work more than eight hours’. Though reading through they appear to have gone down the shaft at 3am, not returning till 3pm! Would these children have dared to say they were il,l or hard done by? Probably too frightened of being sacked and their family loosing the small income they did earn.
Unrest at the poor conditions and the fact that men were not paid in money, but by credits with the company store, plus workers had to sign a contract to stay for a year and a day led to the formation of the first Miner’s Union, which was a source of more conflict in the area. A miner - one William Jobling returning from the pub begged money from an elderly local magistrate and was refused. The sailor accompanying Joblin then attacked the magistrate and the two left him badly injured. The magistrate died some days later, though after saying that Jobling was not involved in the attack, but by then the sailor had fled back to sea and Jobling was sentenced to death and gibbetting after death, the body being hung for several weeks within sight of his widows house. Once the military guard had been removed from the body it disappeared, but reading stories like this gives some insight into the elements which have influenced the characters and thinking of those living in the area
Gradually Acts were passed which did slightly improve the lives and conditions of the workers, and the presence of the elements for making iron and steel led to metalworking industry in the area. By the middle of the ninetieth century an enterprising local businessman Charles Palmer decided to try his hand at ship building - the first iron ship having been made and launched in 1787 (by John Wilkinson of Broseley to carry his iron goods up the canal: confounding his doubters he wrote 'It answers all my expectations, and it has convinced the unbelievers who were 999 in a thousand.’)
The Old Hall at Jarrow where the museum is sited was occupied by Palmer's family who in 1852 set up as Palmer Brothers and soon launched an iron screw collier, faster than any sailing ship. Their vessels were in high demand and in sixty years they built over one thousand vessels of all sizes, the business going from strength to strength, such that Jarrow was at one time known as Palmer’s Town.
In 1910 Mr. Palmer retired and sold out, but later with the Great Depression, the ship building industry collapsed and the business was once again sold this time to National Shipbuilder’s Securities - a government body who’s remit was ‘ to remove over-capacity from the British shipbuilding industry’ Which it did with alacrity in Yarrow resulting in over 70 percent unemployment, which in turn led to the Jarrow March mentioned above
So in a somewhat sombre mood we departed this industrial area headed for the country home of Thomas Bewick