Wishing you were here: work camps on postcards

ardentinny card viewPowerPoint comes in for a lot of stick, but I’ve found it really handy while travelling around talking about work camps to local history groups. Most groups expect their speaker to carry on for an hour – something I can do perfectly happily, of course, but illustrations make the whole session a lot more interesting. So where do you find images of work camps?

For interwar Britain, postcards are an indispensable resource. Or at least, they are a great source of images, but so far I haven’t got much from the texts on the back. Apart from anything else, postcard messages are usually pretty short, and it often isn’t clear who sent them.

Here’s an example – a postcard of Ardentinny Instructional Centre that I use to illustrate talks to audiences in the west of Scotland. It was posted in summer 1939 by someone signing themself “J McN”, and addressed to a Miss Bannatyne who lived in the Garden City, Kilbirnie.ardentinny card

The image is fine. If you look carefully, you will see that the camp is partly tented. This is because it operated only in the summer, unlike the nearby hutted camp at Glenbranter. And you can also see people swimming, confirming that people used to be much hardier than they are today.

The message seems clear enough. The writer was ‘Having the time of my life’. But who was he? Was he a trainee at the camp, or a member of staff? We he being serious or sarcastic? Or was he unconnected with the camp – a visitor or a local, perhaps? And while I reckon the odds are on a male author, there is a chance that it was a woman.

I did spot one clue, though. While the sender wrote the address neatly and confidently, the message itself has been over-written: in several places you can see the original writing – in the ‘g’ of ‘having’, for example. Maybe J McN had to ask for help to write his message? If so, then the odds move in favour of the author being a trainee.

As centres for training young unemployed men, the Instructional Centres mainly focused on heavy manual labour. But they also offered brief basic classes in reading and writin, as well as British geography, woodwork and metalwork.

Interesting as all this is, what really strikes me is that there was a market for postcards of work camps. In this case, the card was produced by a Glaswegian stationer, in their Real Photographic Series, probably for a largely regional market. But larger firms like Francis Frith and Valentines also sold postcards featuring work camps.

What can we learn from this? Certainly, the marketing of these images suggests a degree of openness by those who ran these institutions. In the case of the Instructional Centres, the Ministry of Labour also encouraged visits from the public as well as journalists and broadcasters.

Of course, this was a controlled process – the Ministry didn’t welcome visits from radical opponents like the National Unemployed Workers Movement). But it shows conclusively that there was nothing “secret” about the camps.

Second, the existence of these images tells us that there was a demand for them from somebody. We don’t know whether it was trainees, staff or others who actually bought the cards; and the demand wasn’t necessarily very high, as a local firm could easily print a small run of cards. But the fact is that someone bought them, and used them.

This in turn suggests that the camps were seen as an interesting feature of the local landscape. It might also suggest that for many people, the camps carried no particular negative connotations, which might seem counter-intuitive.

Other places feature on interwar postcards that we might today find slightly odd. Thanks to Twitter, I recently came across an account of an asylum illustrated with images from postcards. Where else, I wonder?

Did Moscow control the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement in Interwar Britain?

westI’ve been reading Nigel West’s book Mask, which recounts MI5’s surveillance of the Communist Party of Great Britain. It’s a rum old book, and West is an odd character, but I was given it, and it tells a good story. It also includes a large amount of original material, including a 1934 message from Alexander Abramovich of the Comintern telling the British Communist leader Harry Pollitt how to handle the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement.

The NUWM was one of the most successful radical campaigning groups in inter-war Britain. Its protests, marches and local advocacy enjoyed significant popular support, and won the NUWM considerable publicity. But ever since the 1930s, participants and historians alike have debated the extent to which the NUWM was controlled by the Communist Party.

In the most authoritative account to date, Alan Campbell and John McIlroy concluded that from 1929 on, the CP effectively imposed its own agenda on the NUWM, at least at national level. Or, more accurately, it translated the interests of the Soviet leadership into its own agenda. It also, on Comintern instructions, tried to undermine Wal Hannington, the NUWM organiser viewed by Moscow as failing to turn the unemployed towards revolution.

Of course, if the CP did Moscow’s bidding, it did so with an eye to maintaining the NUWM’s support among the unemployed, and its attempts at control were sometimes resisted by leading NUWM members like Hannington, as well as by local branches who simply got on with their own activities without always paying much attention to headquarters.

Campbell and McIlroy benefited from access to a much wider range of evidence than was available to earlier historians. In particular, they were able to use the Communist Party archives, as well as reproductions of material in the Russian State Archives. They also use the material that West has reproduced, drawn from the declassified decrypts of radio messages between the Soviet-controlled Comintern and officials of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Campbell and McIlroy used the November 1934 message in their 2008 article, so it is not surprising that it largely confirms what we already know. In the message, the Comintern urged the CP to get the NUWM to engage with the trade union movement and their local unemployed associations in what it called the United Front, and told them to put pressure on Labour controlled councils by organising union delegations to work camps, with a view to demanding their closure.

In the event, this was pretty much what happened. NUWM branches demonstrated at meetings of public assistance committees in Labour-controlled areas like Llanelli, Kirkcaldy and Durham, and the movement made closure of the ‘slave camps’ a central feature of its campaign against the 1934 Unemployment Assistance Act.

In 1934, the campaign against the Unemployment Assistance Act was genuinely popular, and the NUWM needed no persuasion to focus on the Act’s provisions for compulsory training in camps. Where the Comintern did require change was where it told the CP to get the NUWM to cooperate with the official trade union movement, particularly its local unemployed associations. For the previous four years, the CP had complained that the NUWM was not enthusiastically following it in attacking such groups as ‘social fascist’; now it turned on Hannington for continuing to criticise the official unemployed associations as too moderate.

As it happens, I had not read the Comintern message – other than the few lines cited by Campbell and McIlroy – when I wrote about protest and resistance in my book on British work camps. I can’t see that it would have changed my understanding of the NUWM, which I believe was weakened by the CP’s attempts to use it to pursue the twists and turns of Stalinist policy.

No more heroes? Educational thinkers and activists in austere times

Paulo Freire, from Wikimedia Commons

Paulo Freire, from Wikimedia Commons

Ann Walker, a prominent British adult educator, has been providing a wonderful resource for anyone interested in educational ideas. The Educational Thinkers Hall of Fame has covered such eminent figures as Paulo Freire, John Dewey and Mary Wollstonecraft, summarising their main contribution and indicating why they matter today.

After a few of us retweeted her most recent post, on the American radical Myles Horton, Ann replied with the question: “Who can compare with Horton & Freire today?” Others weighed in with similar questions, asking where the younger passionate voices are, and why there is so much more effort invested in writing and speaking but so little in action? These are good questions, promoting me to wonder whether a truly heroic period of innovation and passion ever existed, and if it has, whether it has now come to a close.

There probably is less institutional and theoretical innovation now than when I started my professional career, in the late 1970s. Recently, I reviewed the memoirs of Michael Barratt Brown, and was struck by how many organisations he had helped to found, from the Institute for Workers’ Control through a successful fair trade company to Northern College (where I was lucky enough to work from 1978 to 1984).

But the context has changed. The social movements that inspired Michael, as well as other originators such as Freire and Horton, are now a shadow of their former selves. I ended my review by reflecting on the number of Michael’s creations that no longer exist, while the movements that nurtured them have either vanished or have changed beyond recognition. Radical educational organisations like Northern College have had to adapt to survive.

Northern College for residential adult education

Northern College for residential adult education

Much the same is true for the wider intellectual climate. Michael was one of many left-leaning academics who saw the labour movement as a natural ally, Freire found a mass readership at a time when liberation theology (which he greatly admired) spoke to and for mass struggles for land and liberty. Today, radical academics may be powerfully attracted to ideas of ‘transgression’, but these are largely personal and unconnected with and irrelevant to wider social movements.

Historians are always suspicious of any notion of a ‘golden age’ – a scepticism summarised neatly in the title of a book by Gwyn Alf Williams, When was Wales? But I do think that some periods are generally propitious for social inventors, and other periods favour people who are good at maintaining and defending what we have rather than building new structures and ideas. We are now in the second type of period.

That said, we still have our educational heroes – people who are creating great new institutions, and developing new ideas about knowledge and learning. In the last year or so, I have been mightily impressed by the spread of the Men’s Shed movement, a remarkable bunch of quiet revolutionaries who are changing the ways in which men promote their sociability and wellbeing.

Then there are such collaborative movements as citizen science and citizen journalism, often exploiting new social media, in which knowledge creation itself is the basis of socio-cultural action. Not to mention the flourishing self-help world of older adults, exemplfied in the Universities of the Third Age.

This list could go on, but these are enough to give us grounds for supposing that we are living in at least a silver age of educational creativity. What strikes me is that these seem to be generally collective and collaborative ventures, that generally have few outstanding leadership figures. And that seems to me better suited to the bottom-up, somewhat dislocated and at times inchoate world of social and political anaction that we now inhabit.

George Orwell and adult learning

Plaça de George Orwell, Barcelona

Plaça de George Orwell, Barcelona

George Orwell is well known as a novelist and journalist, and as a democratic socialist. I’ve never given much thought to his involvement in adult education until recently, when I picked up a copy of his diaries, in which he tells of lectures he gave at Morley College and the Working Men’s College during the Second World War.

So far as I can find out, Orwell initially showed an interest in adult education during his 1936 journey through the north of England. While researching poverty and unemployment for The Road to Wigan Pier, he visited unemployment centres run by local Councils of Social Services, and he attended two radio discussion circles in Leeds.

On balance, Orwell took a rather dim view of these types of adult education. He suspected that the unemployed centres were mainly intended to ‘keep unemployed men quiet by giving them the illusion of being busy; also to keep them out of the pubs’.

After listing the classes offered by the Barnsley Centre, he added a handwritten note to his typescript, regretting that facilities for the more valuable courses such as carpentry ‘cannot be in the genuinely pro-working class movements such as the NUWM’. He was less than impressed with what he heard in the radio circles, and was disappointed by the degree of sympathy expressed for Nazi Germany.

Presumably Orwell had a more positive view of the educational activities of socialist groups, at least at first. He was certainly impressed by the political literacy of the working class men that he encountered on his travels on the north. And he took part in the Independent Labour Party’s summer schools and lectured at a summer school organized by the Adelphi magazine. Although he famously used the experience to parody some of the ‘cranks’ who attended, his biographer noted that in practice Orwell rather enjoyed their company.

He also lectured for the Left Book Club, which also reported that The Road to Wigan Pier was one of its best products for generating discussion among its local reading groups. After Orwell’s experiences in Spain, he turned against the LBC for its silence on Communist atrocities, and duly satirised one of its lectures in his 1939 novel Coming up for Air.

In June 1940, Orwell joined the predecessor of the Home Guard, immediately becoming a sergeant whose first major task was to train his section of ten men. Our view of the Home Guard has been coloured by the BBC comedy series Dad’s Army, but at the time it was a very serious movement, and along with the civil defence organisations it included many men who – like Orwell – had tried to join the armed forces but had been rejected on grounds of health. It also took guts: the Nazis had announced that they would treat captured members of the Home Guard as partisans and execute them without ceremony.

Orwell took it very seriously, attending the quasi-insurrectionary college at Osterley Park run by Spanish veterans like Tom Wintringham. Bernard Crick tells us that his unpublished papers include ‘fourteen pages of tightly-written, detailed notes for lectures that he gave either to Home Guard units or to other audiences on the theme of the Home Guard’. These include two lectures, which he gave on several occasions, calling for compulsory ‘political instruction’ on war aims for all Home Guard members, as well as making the case for developing the Home Guard into a popular militia, an argument he continued to explore after retiring on health grounds in 1943.

There’s also a case for seeing Orwell’s own wartime role at the BBC as an educational intervention, though one that he viewed as too close to propaganda for comfort. And I’d be interested to know what Orwell made of the educational materials published for members of the armed forces, under the auspices of the Army Bureau of Current Affairs or the British Way and Purpose scheme.

Adult education played a rather important role during the Second World War. While Orwell almost certainly never thought of himself as an adult educator, a role he only took on as an adjunct to other activities, it comes no surprise that someone as engaged in home defence and political debate had connections with some of its institutions.

Drinking and work camps

I’ve just given a seminar on British work camps between the wars, and one thing that got the audience going was a brief mention of unemployed inmates going to the pub. I was using this as an example of a more general feature of the Ministry of Labour’s unemployed camps – namely, that although they were ‘bounded communities,’ they were not completely closed.

This discussion reminded me of a curious episode that I came across in the Dunoon Herald for 2 November 1934. By then, Dunoon was close to two Ministry of Labour camps, a permanent camp at Glenbranter and a summer camp at Ardentinny, each housing 200 men.

The Ardentinny men were in the habit of taking the bus to Dunoon for an evening out, which attracted the attention of a local entrepreneur. The owner of the Ardentinny Temperance Hotel, who also ran a farm, applied to the licencing court for permission to sell alcohol. The court heard from his neighbours, who claimed that extra police would be needed to deal with badly behaved drunks from Greenock.

Ardentinny Hotel in the 30s, image from http://ardentinny.org/

Ardentinny Hotel in the 30s, image from http://ardentinny.org/

The manager of Ardentinny Instructional Centre, a Mr Greeenwood, also opposed the application. From the Ministry of Labour’s perspective, Greenwood wanted things to stay as they were:

The chief attraction, so far as their scheme was concerned, was that there was no hotel there. If there were, it would be a temptation to the lads and might spoil their chances of getting employment. As it was the lads were well treated by the residents and there had been no complaints of any kind.

The court refused the licence, and the men continued to do their drinking in Dunoon.

My career in the movies

The Moor in Sheffield before its recent modernization, copyright Peter Barr

The Moor before its recent modernization, copyright Peter Barr

Thirty years ago today, at 9.30 pm, the BBC screened Threads, a drama about the effects of a nuclear attack on the city of Sheffield. It had an audience of 6.9 millions on first showing, and was nominated for seven BAFTAs, winning three of them including Best Single Drama. It was an ambitious project, taking a neo-realistic approach that combined elements of documentary with an almost soap-like family narrative. And I was in it.

The BBC had tried to produce a docu-drama about nuclear war before. Peter Watkin’s 1965 film The War Game was banned by the then Labour Government, though like most of my friends I had seen it – in my case several times. By 1984, Cold War tensions remained high, with Britain placing itself in the front line through its acceptance of US missile bases and Mrs Thatcher’s expressed willingness to use Trident. Unsurprisingly, the peace movement was experiencing a huge revival.

I had joined the Sheffield branch of END, a Europe-wide movement that attacked nuclear weapons of both East and West; this set it apart from CND in Sheffield, whose leading activists included Communists who dismissed END as “Trotskyite”. I don’t know how much success we had, though we had a very large meeting in the City Hall with the historian E P Thompson as our main speaker, and of course we enjoyed the much larger CND marches. Although I think the filming took place before the miners’ strike broke out, there were already plenty of other tensions as Thatcherism ate into the industrial heartland of South Yorkshire.

A BBC drama about nuclear war, in this polarised and highly charged atmosphere, was always going to be controversial. Looking at the Times for the following days, I see that Mary Whitehouse, then a very influential figure, attacked the BBC for screening the film, whose makers received around 100 letters – quite a post-bag in those pre-email days – most of which supported the decision. The BBC also organised a studio discussion, with the Labour politician Robin Cook vigorously defending the film.

And my own part? From where I stood, it was important to support and help this project; the script writer, the author Barry Hines, was a friend of a friend, so I was among the first to get my name down when the appeal for extras went out. I also offered to take my son and his half-brothers (I hope I asked them first!).

What I remember is waiting in the City Hall while the producers selected the likely extras, then hanging around for what seemed like ages on the Moor, a pedestrianized shopping street. I drank some watery coffee. The four of us were filmed marching along with a banner in a demonstration, and later we had to lie down on the pavement and pretend to be dead. Then we went home.

The future of lifelong learning in the European Commission

Mariane Thyssen, the incoming Commissioner for Employment

Mariane Thyssen, the incoming Commissioner for Employment

Where should political responsibility lie for lifelong learning? Should its home lie in the ministry responsible for education, or in the government department that handles employment? There is a case for each: coherence within education, or synergies within employment. And different countries have different structures, which can also change from time to time.

Within the EU, the new Commission will see a significant shift. Jean-Claude Juncker, the incoming President of the Commission, has announced that several departmental portfolios will be ‘reshaped and streamlined’. Among these, responsibility for adult education and vocational training will be transferred from education to employment, a decision that is almost certain to take effect from November.

This means that two important parts of the lifelong learning system will now sit within an expanded Directorate General for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility. As well as inheriting policy remits and staff who ran programmes such as GRUNTVIG and LEONARDO, the DG also acquires responsibility for three EU agencies: the European Centre for Development of Vocational Training (CEDEFOP), the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound), and the European Training Foundation (ETF).

The good news is that the Employment DG is considerably larger and more powerful than its Education counterpart. It has historically played a major role in promoting labour mobility across the EU, as well as in developing and administering some of the structural funds, both areas where there are synergies for adult learning. It is usually led by a political big-hitter, in this case Commissioner Mariane Thyssen, a former leader of the Flemish Christian Democrats (the same party as Herman van Rompuy, President of the European Council).

In addition, President Juncker has asked both the Commissioners for Education and for Employment to co-ordinate their activities, and to report through the same Vice-President. Previously largely an honorific role, Vice-Presidents in the new Commission will have a portfolio of activities that they are expected to ‘co-ordinate and steer’. In this case, both Commissioners will be steered by the VP for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness.

So to some extent, the EU is ‘vocationalising’ all of its policies for education, including higher education and schools. But if this is a wider trend, adult learning in particular is being pushed unambiguously into the field of employment and social affairs, and separated out from the rest of the lifelong learning system. It is also moving out of a DG that specialises in student mobility programmes, and into one much more concerned with sharp end policy. What this will mean in practice is, though, still to be seen.

One risk is that in a larger directorate with a strong focus on tackling the current crisis of employment, adult learning will simply get lost in the noise. This risk is higher for me because it comes at a time when the Commission has set targets for reducing its staff levels. So one simple message, then, is that those who are interested in adult learning need to lobby policy makers – including Members of the European Parliament – and ensure that adult learners’ needs and voices are heard.

There is also a danger that the Employment DG will adopt the narrowest, skills-based definition of adult learning. However, against this we can set the experience of many in the UK and elsewhere, who have found that adult learning can thrive when placed alongside strategies for employment and social inclusion.

And it is worth remembering that the Employment DG carries responsibility for social affairs, including the Social Fund; and that as well as ‘promoting vocational training and lifelong learning’, the President has asked Commissioner Thyssen to address a range of issues – including digital skills, population aging and welfare ‘modernisation’ – that also have an adult learning dimension. So how professionals and institutions position themselves in relation to this agenda will affect the outcome.

Overall, then, I see some grounds for concern in the transfer of responsibility to an expanded DG for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility. And of course, this is taking place at a time when the Commission as a whole is shifting firmly to the centre-right. But I also see some potential benefits and synergies, as well as opportunities to raise the profile of adult learning as a field. As ever, it will be partly up to us to shape the direction that events now take.