Jarrow at Work by Paul Perry
There was a time when there was not a town called Jarrow, fields streams and riverbanks were all that existed. Eventually settlements were raised in the area around the banks of the River Don. Without doubt, the most memorable of the early settlements was an order of Benedictine Monks at the monastery at Donmouth as Jarrow was referred to in the 6th century. This was home to the town’s most celebrated resident the Venerable Bede: monk. Scholar, historian and very probably one of the most remarkable men this country has ever produced, who was responsible for writing the oft referred to Northumbrian Chronicles, one of the few learned works to survive from those dark days in the mists of time. Jarrow at this time was a centre of learning, a beacon of light in an otherwise dark age.
If all that Jarrow had to offer history was a monk and a book it would still be worthy of note and recognition, but the town had so much more to give. The proximity of mineral resources and water borne transportation gave rise to the period of industrialisation which dominated the life and prosperity of the town from the eighteenth century to recent times. The shipyards, steelworks, coal mines, chemical plants and its connection with the fuel industry, have all in turn contributed towards the growth, wealth and success of the town.
When talking of Jarrow, it is not always possible to talk of light and life. No work which ever purports in any way to tell the story of the town can ignore and portray the hardship and privation suffered by its people during the interwar years of the great depression. Subject to a greater rate of unemployment than any other borough in the land, Jarrow came to epitomise the desperate state of affairs endured by so much of industrial Britain during that period.
Nothing, depression and wars included, lasts forever, and the post war years saw a welcome and marked improvement in the well-being of the town and its people. This improvement took many forms: new schools, public houses, recreational facilities, a state of the art shopping complex, but most importantly the rehousing of thousands of residents to Jarrow’s own garden suburb, Primrose.
For many years, the Borough of Jarrow had been subject to a programme of ongoing changes and refurbishment, with the construction of a network of ring roads skirting the town, removed the burden of pollution from industrial and constant heavy traffic from the town centre. Together with the introduction of the ‘Clean Air Act’ of 1955, the town was once again looking forward to a brighter future. The working base of the town has undergone equally radical alteration. None of the former lucrative heavy industries of old exist. Today many would consider Jarrow as a dormitory town. In strict legal terms, the Borough of Jarrow no longer exists, amalgamated in 1974 with the much larger borough of South Tyneside. Instead, many would consider Jarrow a dormitory town, home to the office and retail personnel of the commercial enterprises of the surrounding area.
As the 21st century dawned, there was little or no evidence of any industrial activity in Jarrow, as very few relics of the town survive any more. The shipyards and rolling mills have been replaced with industrial business parks. Although these parks provide employment in the town and contribute heavily towards its ongoing economy, they seem somewhat soulless. No longer do we build ships or even repair them, long gone are the slipways and dry docks which were once the throbbing heart of the town.
We must be eternally grateful to the amateur historians of the last two centuries who trawled the streets and shipyards with their cameras taking photographs for future generations to enjoy. Through their eyes, they left us a legacy of images of times past that we must treasure and preserve. Without these images, the history and heritage of the town would be almost impossible to piece together. The history of Jarrow is a vital link with the past, not only for ourselves, but more importantly for future generations. Through the days of triumph and tragedy, the outstanding feature of Jarrow has been its people. Famous writers, singers, local characters and villains have grown up in the town, but it is the ordinary Jarovian possessing a rare mixture of honesty, decency and good humour that has given the town its unique personality. In return all are marked forever by the town and have a genuine affection for it and proud to be called Jarra’ lads and lasses.
Paul Perry's new book Jarrow at Work is available for purchase now.