I am looking at a photograph from 1933 of Palmers, the great Jarrow shipyard on Tyneside. It had just closed making most of the town unemployed. My Great Grandmother Maggie is trying to making ends meet and failing. The Thirties are hard and it’s going to get harder. Maggie knew that better than me. Here are the notes and letters Maggie wrote. My mother gave then to me years ago and I didn’t read them until recently.
She lost two children in child birth, the infant mortality rate in the town was 11% in the Thirties, today’s it’s less than half of one-percent. I’ve not had a child. I don’t know if I will. Do I want one? My partner says I should make up my mind. My M.A. is ‘taking over’, he says. My dissertation is on Jarrow in the 1930s and Ellen Wilkinson, the town’s MP from 1935.
Here is a photograph of her in Jarrow during the 1935 election. I have written how she must have felt, ‘My first time in Jarrow. I had just turned forty and thought I had seen poverty but not this defeat in people: it made me ill. My heart was wrung out. I saw knots of worn-out men hanging round corners, lined faces told their stories: hunger, cramped lives, hearts and heads held in a giant vice, locked in pain. I looked again at these old men and women and they were young and trapped in cramped life cages. The government had closed ranks on them. It had decided, in the words of the President of the Board of Trade, Lord Runciman, that Jarrow, ‘must work out its own salvation.’ I was hungry to change their lives. I held a meeting on the Pit Heap at Jarrow and saw men’s eyes glisten in the blue-black-gas-lamped night and was lifted. I was guided by their pain. I was carried. The government has closed its all-seeing eyes and decided not witness the devastation it was causing. An entire town does not deserve to live like this.
I could hear the emotion in my voice and held-in rage as I spoke, “I will do my utmost. You will be my witness, if I fail you must tell me. My failure must not happen. Let’s reach for the stars….”
After the meeting I talked to families and they revealed the harsh realities of their lives, these were not mere statistics. Their demands for the bare necessities were being denied. I had a burning hatred for all in power, but I knew I could not allow that to rule.’
I have read so much about the 1930’s and marching as a means of protest was not unusual. The blind marched from Edinburgh and miners from Wales, all saying the same thing: what is happening can only be wrong. Jarrow Council organised a march to London in October 1936. I could hardly believe when I read Maggie’s notes but she was at Ellen’s meeting. Here is what she wrote in pencil. I had to photocopy them to save them:
‘I was on the Pit Heap. There were hundreds there. When Ellen got up to speak, she was wearing red, that’s one of the reasons she’s called, ‘Red Ellen.’ Aa’ll never forget it. Aa was lifted. Aa thought she can do something; we can escape this. You know we had nowt. TB in Jarrow was aa scourge. Aa lost aa sister through it; she was only thirteen. Aa was hungry all the time. The walls in our streets were filled with beetles we would squash and see blood splashing on the walls. We felt our blood was being taken and wasted.
Our lives were being wasted. Do you know hunger? You can think of nothing else. Nowt. Don’t talk to me of problems, until you’ve known real poverty. You can’t even look at me. On the night of Ellen’s meeting the stars seemed to be sitting on me head, the air had aa bite but was fresh, it smelt of hope. She gave me a sprig of hope and that’s something aa’ d never known. Never. I loved and breathed something new, it made me forget about me empty belly.’
I felt Maggie was writing directly to me. I have cried over her words more than anything else in my life. I suffer from asthma, so did Ellen. Medication’s more sophisticated now, I use a spray. At the time they thought it was psychosomatic. She used tablets. There were doubts about her cause of death. She was only fifty-six, and the Minister of Education. Some intimated she committed suicide. Do people die through a lack of love? Is it enough for life to just drift on? Is that enough? We must need more. Ellen was a passionate woman and has stayed in people’s hearts and minds eighty years later. But was she really loved? She had lovers but was she loved?
I love this photograph, of Ellen in full-flow. She was not some bloodless, passionless facsimile but the real bloody thing. My partner says I have become too engrossed in Ellen, to the detriment of everything else. What he means is that the flat is a mess and why has he got to come home to a darkened room with me on my lap top looking at, ‘Ellen bloody Wilkinson photos?’
This is a Jarrow Crusade photograph. Do you know who has the copyright on the photos? The Getty Foundation. The irony is not lost on me. In this photo Ellen’s leading the march. She didn’t walk all the way from Jarrow to London. She joined the march when she could leave The House of Commons. Here she is having a break with the marchers. And it wasn’t just a photo opportunity. This was the crusade to save a town. And what happened? Defeat’s a bitter pill and it’s hard to swallow?
Their petition was ‘presented’ to Parliament and that was it. No debate. Some of the marchers were all for going back into the House and causing a disturbance but that would have been undemocratic and Ellen spoke to them and persuaded them not to. What did the marchers achieve? What were they given? A second-hand suit and a third-class rail ticket back to Jarrow.
Here is another note from Maggie. I will include it in my dissertation. This is her during the Second World War. She must have written it in the shipyard, the back is covered in grease.
‘Aa got aa job as aa Lady Driller during the war. It was bloody hard. When aa first started aa couldn’t lift the drill, men would stand around, watching me struggle, laughing their socks off. By the end aa could throw it over me shoulder as if it was aa bairn. They stopped laughing. Mind you’ve got to be careful when the drill bits snaps, they fly all over the place. One flew off and hit the foreman right up the arse! All the lasses screamed but he never said aa thing. Just walked slowly to the lavatory, where he screamed like aa stuffed pig.
I’m expecting an’ aa pray it’s a boy. That’s what me man wants. Not that he has ever said. It might make him happy and pigs would definitely fly. He never spoke much about the march. Except when he had a drink. He said they had been sold down the river. He used to get really mad but he was never good with words and they would spill out and aa would end-up battered and bruised and aa’d go ti bed with the bairns.’
I picture Ellen alone, after the marchers have had their boat trip on the Thames, after they have picked-up their second-hand suits and after being been waved off from Kings Cross. Do you know that feeling? Not just the way you feel when you have the kind of loneliness that lasts for days. It is corrosive, drags its heels for years through your heart so you settle for second best, for anything rather the emptiness that brings such pain. You endure anything after that.
Is that the way I feel about my partner? Ellen and Maggie’s lives have made me look at my own: I have to do more. Maggie, on one of her notes said, ‘Me father could neither read nor write.’
I am writing this for Ellen, Maggie and me.
About the Author:
Tom Kelly is a Jarrow-born poet, short story writer and playwright. He has had eleven books of poetry, short stories and a play published in as many years. His new poetry collection THIS SMALL PATCH has recently been published and re-printed by Red Squirrel Press.