Immigrants and welfare in early 20th century Britain: the German labour colony

libury hall b+wBritain is often supposed to be a ‘soft touch’ for immigrants looking for an easy life. Only yesterday, the Mayor of Calais lectured MPs on creating an ‘El Dorado’ for the world’s poor, citing in evidence the £36-a-week emergency payments given to asylum seekers with no other income. Yes – £36, or one third of the basic state pension – is apparently the hallmark of El Dorado.

Worries about migrants and welfare go back a long way. I want in this blog to discuss the response of the German immigrant community in Britain to these fears, which partly arose from British distaste for the German tramping system (where young craftsmen picked up new skills by travelling from one place of work to another) and partly from middle-class German pride over the community’s respectability.

Quite how many Germans were living in early 20th century Britain is uncertain. The 1911 census recorded 62,500 German-born, and to this we need to add children and other British-born members of the community. Germans worked in a host of trades – musicians, waiters, hairdressers, brewers, bakers and miners – as well as having a small but significant presence in banking and other mercantile roles.

Once in Britain, the Germans brought, or re-constructed, the institutions that provided social support at home: churches, musical associations, sports clubs and charities, so that the community formed what one researcher has called an ‘ethnic colony’ within Britain. As the Evangelical Church had already established a web of labour colonies in late nineteenth century Germany, it is little wonder that they then transplanted the practice to Britain.

In 1899, Baron Sir Henry Schröder, a merchant banker and member of the Evangeliche Gemeinde in London, purchased a farm and 300 acres of land at Libury Hall, near Ware in Hertfordshire. Schröder was a well-known philanthropist, and was well connected in Britain (he endowed a named chair in German at Cambridge that continues to the present day). He was joined in this by his nephew and inheritor Baron Bruno Schröder, as well as the secretary of the German YMCA in London, Wilhelm Müller.

Libury Hall opened in 1900 as German Industrial and Farm Colony. According to a report drafted for the Co-operative movement in 1906, it took in unemployed German men and gave them work, with the aim of maintaining their readiness for employment, preferably back in Germany. The average stay was just under eight weeks.

Most of men worked outdoors, but the colony also offered indoor crafts such as basket weaving and shoemaking, and most of the men lived in a large dormitory, holding up to 80 men. As the illustrations show, like the Ministry of Labour camps during the 1930s, the colony had its own postcards!

 

Postcard showing the poulty farm

Postcard showing the poulty farm

Even though this was a fairly modest operation compared with the Salvation Army colony at Hadleigh or the London Unemployed Fund colony at Hollesley Bay, the German colony dealt with impressive numbers. It received 1,223 men in its first two years; of these, 83 were reported to have been unwilling to work and had left; 44 had been expelled for ‘bad behaviour’. Over 400 had earned enough money while at the colony to return to Germany, and another 370 had found a new job in Britain.

For most of its life, the colony went largely unnoticed by the British, until the outbreak of War. By this stage, most able-bodied Germans had returned home – or were interned. Libury Hall continued, but increasingly as a home for those who were too elderly or frail to support themselves, or whose families were being maintained by German charities. One report during the War described the colony as containing 188 men, 178 German and 10 Austrian.

The Home Office opened up a file on the colony in autumn 1914. The chief constable told the Home Secretary that he had allocated an armed police guard comprising an inspector, a sergeant and ten constables, who were using a spare cottage in the colony as their office. The Home Office thought this excessive, given the ‘probable state of health and physical infirmities of the inmates’, and blocked the chief constable’s plans to intern the 29 inmates who were of military age, but it went along with proposals to appoint a retired army colonel as camp commandant.

This was not enough to satisfy the true patriots. In September 1915, the Home Office learned that the Anti-German Union had been bribing the police guards and stirring up local feeling against the colony. There had been a small attack on Libury Hall in June, and the AGU organised further demonstrations in the autumn.

Some idea of the passions aroused by this small group of elderly Germans, who were technically treated as detainees under the supervision of the authorities, can be seen in an article published in the Barry Dock News on 1 October 1915, describing the colony as a ‘plague-spot’ and calling on the public to support the AGU demonstrations. It went on:

‘Our gentle kinsman from across the North Sea or German ocean, bringing his kultur with him, is once again faithful to his tradition – of biting the hand that fed and nourished him in his adversity . . . . the students of the gentle art of tillage are practically as free as heretofore to play the spy and traitor, and are making the most of their opportunity’.

The supposed threat was still regarded as serious enough in spring 1916 for a committee of MPs to investigate. They duly reported that although they had found no evidence to support rumours of a gun emplacement, underground caves, and other military preparations, or espionage by the inmates, they remained suspicious, and expressed ‘regret that such an institution existed’. They continued to pester the government, to little effect. Libury Hall still does exist, serving as a retirement home for the elderly.

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.