Jarrow Crusade through St Albans in 1936: Year of ‘Max the Red’ inquest and low unemployment

The legendary Jarrow March in 1936

The legendary Jarrow March in 1936 - Credit: Archant

When politician ‘Red Ellen’ arrived in St Albans - alongside 195 men and a dog - in 1936, the group must have been startled by the vast difference in living standards between their hometown of Jarrow and this prosperous historic city.

Although the Jarrow protest marchers spent just one night in St Albans 80 years ago, on Thursday October 29, with their red-haired Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson, they would have noted how few residents were suffering by comparison.

Jarrow, in 1934, had 68 per cent unemployment, while in St Albans, the figure was only 3.9 per cent.

Proof of this was evident in the Herts Advertiser back in those days, which was heaving with advertisements for jobs, ranging from ploughmen and farm hands to maids and millinery assistants.

‘Lads’ were needed to ride carrier cycles, or to work at petrol pumps. Jobs for women included vacancies for a ladies hairdresser - with ‘a good personality essential’.

Health care was also better, with the average infant mortality rate in the south being 42 per thousand live births during the 1930s, while in Jarrow it was 114.

But appearances could be deceptive, as reading through editions of the Herts Advertiser showed St Albans definitely had an underbelly that belied its well-to-do exterior.

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Court reports showed that steps were to be taken to “dissuade Londoners from coming into the county for the purpose of housebreaking”.

There were stories aplenty about decree nisi being granted to spouses of both sexes, normally on the ground of adultery.

A more gruesome story hitting the headlines was that of a ‘sensational’ inquest ino the death of ‘Max the Red’ held at St Albans Town Hall. The bullet-riddled body of Max Kassell was found in a hedge in Cell Barnes Lane, after his corpse had been brought by car from Soho, where he was known to deal in drugs and prostitution.

There were reports too of men being ‘sent to Borstal’ for theft.

A chef, Fred Desmond, gave himself up to the police, stating he took a bicycle because he wanted to be “sent back to prison”.

This paper reported the man saying: “I am treated in prison with humanity. I work and I am paid wages. Outside in the world, I worked for an avaricious employer and got no wages and no cards stamped. He said he was giving me board and lodging.”

But the jury discharged him, with a promise that he would endeavour to keep straight.

A homeless man was given one month’s imprisonment for stealing a tea cloth, bottle opener and piece of soap from the pavilion of the Ace Tennis Club in Radlett.

Admittedly, though, St Albans in 1936 was a good place to live, with less than two per cent of the total working class houses in Harpenden being rated as overcrowded, according to a report from the Housing Commission.

The Herts Advertiser reported in that year: “The new pavilion of Harpenden Cricket Club is rapidly nearing completion on its site just west of the old and dilapidated building.”

In London Colney, meanwhile, there were talks about a sewerage scheme.

Wheathampstead parish council was purchasing a new fire engine and St Albans Cathedral had welcomed a new Dean of St Albans.

Interestingly, although the Jarrow march was a legendary event, no photos of the protesters entering St Albans were published in the Herts Ad in the following day’s edition. Instead, the front page of the October 30, 1936 captured the opening of the new headquarters of the St Albans branch of the British Legion in Verulam Road, by Viscount Hampden, with a glowing story inside about it being a ‘dream that has come true’.

• In a book written by Ellen Wilkinson is a telling quote from a 60 year old man who said: “I have suffered hardships for years. Rain and cold and wind on the way will mean nothing to me after that. I have suffered all that a man may suffer. Nothing that can happen on the road between here [Jarrow] and London can be worse.”

He died before the marchers returned.