Leicester’s March Through Lavendon, 1905


Leaders of the Leicester Unemployed March to London via Lavendon, 12th June 1905. Photo with thanks to www.thiswasleicestershire.co.uk

Leaders of the Leicester Unemployed March to London via Lavendon.

Most people in Lavendon are generally aware of the village connection with the Jarrow March of October 1936 when a group of 200 men from the north-eastern town of Jarrow marched 300 miles to London in a protest against unemployment. However, not many people are aware of an earlier march which on 6th June 1905 also threaded its way through Lavendon, passing from Northampton to Bedford on its way to London. This was the Leicester Unemployed March which set off from Leicester in the morning of Sunday, 4 June 1905, with some 497 men who were protesting about their lack of employment. Many of the men had been working in the hosiery and boot making trade, but were out of work following a rapid industrial decline, especially in boot making for soldiers when the Boer War ended in 1902.

Some 30,000 people came to watch as the Leicester marchers set off from the Market Square to make the 100-mile trek lasting six days. Most but not all managed to complete the journey despite bad weather, tiredness, blisters and general exhaustion. On reaching London, the aim of the march was to meet with King Edward VII, or the Home Secretary or the Archbishop of Canterbury. The marchers received strong support from local well-wishers on the route even though the weather conditions were poor. However, enthusiasm was somewhat dented on arrival in London when the King refused to meet them and also the turnout at their rally in Hyde Park was again dampened by yet more bad weather.

Leicester's Unemployed Marchers, June 1905. With thanks to www.thiswasleicester.co.uk.

Leicester’s Unemployed Marchers, June 1905. With thanks to http://www.thiswasleicester.co.uk.

The progress of the march through our village of Lavendon was recorded in the Northampton Mercury of 9th June:

The 500 unemployed of Leicester arrived in Northampton shortly before five o’clock on Monday afternoon, and were once conducted by the Chief Constable (Mr. F. H. Mardlin) to the Grand Stand on the Racecourse, where the men were sheltered for the night. Witnessed from a spot on the Racecourse, the “army” made a striking show; 500 ill-clad and dejected-looking men, their faces sunburnt, and each wearing rosette or badge his buttonhole. It was a noticeable fact that the majority of the men were not above 25 years of age. Many carried haversacks or waterbottles, and an ambulance wagon brought up the rear.

At the Grandstand the men were treated to a simple meal paid for by local gentlemen, before setting off for a meeting in Northampton’s Market Square attended by some 2000 people. The men were up betimes on Tuesday morning, and having had a wash, settled down at seven o’clock to the food that was placed before them. The Chief Constable and his men again superintended. With the exception of some 20 men, who had to be sent back to Leicester the previous night and that morning, all the men were on parade after breakfast, ready for the longest and most tiresome march of the route. At 8.15, headed by the band, leader, and the Chief Constable, the men proceeded via Kettering-road, York-road, and Cheyne-walk, along the Houghton-road, on their way to Bedford, which town they hoped to reach at six o’clock that evening. During the departure the rain was falling thick and fast, and the men were promised a muddy and fatiguing journey.

After leaving Northampton good progress was made through Little Houghton, Brafield, and Denton, and Yardley Hastings, eight miles from Northampton, was reached about two hours after leaving the town —very good progress under the circumstances as rain still continued to fall. Here the main body stopped for a considerable time waiting for the arrival of Mr. Sheriff, who had been left to purchase the midday meal. The delay in Yardley provided some most pathetic scenes, for there was only shelter for a few of the men, who took refuge under the overhanging porches of cottages and any other minute spot of dry ground, while the dray occupied the centre of the open space in the middle of the village. Just before twelve it was decided to make a move, and Mr. White led the way out of the village. At Lavendon a halt was made for dinner, Mr. Sherriff putting in an appearance, accompanied by a cart laden with bread and cans of corned beef. Several men had fallen out during the march to Lavendon, one with a blister right across the ball of the foot. There were several occupants of the dray, including the partially crippled man whose ankle failed him before arriving Market Harborough, and who had not yet been sent home. The long tramp of eight miles to Bedford then commenced, with the rain pelting down faster than ever. Progress was slow but sure past the lovely little village of Turvey; thus the town associated with the name of Bunyan was approached through a veritable Slough of Despond. Eventually, however, Bedford was reached about six o’clock The men, though obviously very tired, with a last effort squared their chests, and marched in step, with their sackcloth coats under their arms, for the rain had now moderated somewhat.

A 19 mile tramp to Luton, with a steady rain failing, was the prospect facing Leicester’s 450 out-o’-works 8.30 on Wednesday morning. They were stiff and sore as a result of the previous day’s severe exposure, and but little of the usual cheerfulness was evinced. However, a mile of steady marching put new heart into them, and the old enthusiasm returned.

Following on from their long hard journey to London, there was of course the essential matter of getting back once again to Leicester. The marchers returned home by a slightly different route which judging from the account contained in the following week’s Northampton Mercury of 16th June 1905, appears to have passed closeby to Lavendon from Newport Pagnell, via Olney and seemingly Warrington, and then onwards to Bozeat and Wellingborough.

Pretty good progress was made to the sleepy little town of Newport Pagnell, whose inhabitants appeared very surprised, not to say nervous, at the invasion of a small army of dusty and perspiring men, with brass band and colours complete. A short halt was made before attacking the next stage of the journey, to Olney, where had been arranged that dinner should taken. By this time, however, the difficulties of walking on a bunch of blisters in the place of feet, had begun to appeal strongly to many, and the ambulance brigade used up all their bandage in the endeavour to render damaged soles serviceable. Meanwhile, the main body got a good way ahead going a good deal too fast to suit the disabled ones. “Going at the double again,” growls one. “They think of nobody but themselves.” A satisfactory arrangement of this question of pace is not likely to be arrived at. Someone suggested that there should be division into a fast brigade, a slow brigade, and cripples’ brigade, but there are difficulties in the way. Dinner just outside Olney, eleven miles from Wellingborough, consisted of the customary proportions of bread and corned beef purchased by Mr. Sheriff in the town associated with the name of the poet Cowper. A long rest on the grass by the side of the road was necessitated, not only on account of the rest it gave, but to allow the stragglers to come up and have dinner. The lame ones tailed off again on the long and hilly road to Bozeat, where, however, a good fairy came along in as unlikely a shape as one could expect a good fairy to take – that of two large motor wagons, on their way back, empty, to the Victoria Mills, Wellingborough. An invitation to the weary ones who brought up the rear to have a lift did not need to be repeated; in a very short time about 80 were packed like sardines in the two wagons, and overhauling the rest of the marchers was matter of only a few minutes. The old soldiers regarded this method of progression with some disapproval, and did not trouble to disguise sentiments…

Needless to say, upon their return to Leicester the marchers were treated as heroes by a large crowd that gathered to welcome them home some seven days after setting out from London.

Memorial to Leicester's Unemployed 1905 March to London. With thanks to Fiery Fred Flickr (Creative Commons Licence).

Memorial to Leicester’s Unemployed 1905 March to London. With thanks to Fiery Fred Flickr (Creative Commons Licence).

There is more information about the Leicester Unemployed March at http://www.thiswasleicestershire.co.uk/2012/11/leicester-unemployment-march-1905.html
Thanks also go to http://www.thiswasleicestershire.co.uk for the photographs of the marchers and their leaders, and also to Fiery Fred (Creative Commons Licence) for the photograph of the commemorative plaque in Leicester Market Place that honours the unemployed marchers.

NBS: June 2015

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