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The Way We Were - Medway hunger marchers

Hunger marches are normally associated with the industrial areas of the north of England.

But in the early part of the 20th century there were hunger marches in Kent as unemployment grew to unprecedented levels, particularly among brick and cement workers around Medway.

In Chatham it was reported that more than 1,000 people were unemployed. The resulting poverty brought with it acute distress, and one woman drowned herself in the Medway rather than face the humiliating prospect of the workhouse.

The Kent Messenger of the day warned of an emerging underclass of people permanently dependent on hand outs.

The government had introduced an act enabling local authorities to set up distress committees and to instigate public works to create jobs.

One of these was the filling in of the foreshore at the Esplanade, Rochester, and each day saw 200 men queuing for the work. But only 30 could be taken on.

Many of the Chatham marchers joined a demonstration and marched on the Union Workhouse in Magpie Hall Road to demand more job creation projects.

By and large the Kent hunger marchers were orderly and well behaved. On a Friday in September, 1908, they again arrived in Chatham where they held an open-air meeting at Luton Arches. There was later a gathering at the Waghorn Memorial.

On the Sunday they went to Rochester Cathedral where they were met by “a strong body of police”.

Chief Constable Mr A.S. Arnold told them to move their van from outside the building, whereupon the leader, Mr Gray, argued that he had as much right to drive to church as any wealthy manufacturer. But they nevertheless removed the vehicle as ordered.

At the cathedral they were welcomed by the clergy and given seats in the choir. Canon Cooke, who led the service, spoke sympathetically of the hunger marchers’ distress.

Later, they were taken to Canon Ottley’s garden where Mrs Ottley served them “a substantial tea”.

Don't miss The Way We Were each Friday in the print edition of the Medway Messenger

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