Carstairs: work camp and high security hospital

View of Lampits Farm from the  old railway bridge, part of a line that linked the centre with Carstairs Junction

The old railway bridge, part of a line that linked the centre with Carstairs Junction, with Lampits Farm in the distance. Taken on a dreich day.

Fiona Watson, the well-known Scottish historian, interviewed me recently for the BBC’s Making History programme. We met in the small Lanarkshire village of Carstairs, known mainly as a very busy railway junction and above all as the site of one of the UK’s four high security hospitals. Not far away, a local eccentric has converted an old water tower into Hagrid’s Hut.

In July 1928, the Ministry of Labour bought 507 acres just outside the village for the sum of £7,500. And that is why Fiona and I were standing in a lane leading up to Lampits Farm, where the Ministry opened a centre for emigrant training in early 1929.

Most of the trainees came from North Lanarkshire and Glasgow, where they had often worked in industries such as mining; they came to Carstairs in the hope that a few weeks of rough farm work and good food would prepare them to leave Scotland for Canada or Australia. The centre hit the headlines shortly after opening, when William Young Todd, the ploughman instructor, was killed by the corn threshing machine (his widow was duly evicted from their tied cottage).

Australia recruitment poster

Demand for harvesters and labourers was high, particularly in Canada, until the 1929 crisis. Faced with a pool of unemployed workers at home, the Dominions governments were reluctant to accept half-trained and poorly fed Scots. The Ministry intended to close the centre, and sell it as well as the nearby Colombie Farm, which it had bought with a view to expanding its emigrant training programme.

In 1929, though, the British voted in their first Labour government. Margaret Bondfield, the new Minister of Labour, was an enthusiastic advocate of training, and she approved plans for a new type of residential training. Carstairs became one of Bondfield’s new Transfer Instruction Centres, and set about training unemployed young men, who on pain of losing their benefits were prepared to transfer out of the old distressed regions to one of the areas where new industries were developing.

As elsewhere, training in the TICs largely consisted of heavy manual labour, supported by a heavy diet and a small amount of basic adult education. Reports vary over the conditions. The Glasgow organiser of the building trades union visited Carstairs in 1930, reporting reassuringly that the men were training ‘in ideal surroundings and under ideal conditions’. His main interest, though, was making sure that the trainees would not compete with his members for jobs.

Some evidence suggests a less rosy picture. Sixty men walked out of the TIC in July 1930 in a protest over the food; the trainees went on strike three years later, and ninety were dismissed or resigned. By then, the Ministry was trying to sell off its land and buildings and transfer its operations to new camps on Forestry Commission land at Glenbranter and Glentress, as there was little more serious labour to be done at Carstairs.

Failing to find a private buyer, the Ministry eventually handed the land over to the Special Areas Commissioner, who used it as a showcase for training the unemployed to become crofters. Meanwhile, the trainees at Lampits were sent to help the Prison Department prepare the land across the road for the more skilled builders who erected what was initially called the Criminal Lunatic Asylum and State Institution.

Carstairs was a good place for Fiona and I to talk about the ways in which ideas about the land and rural labour came together with proposals for disciplining unemployed bodies, while trains rattled past on the junction and visitors drove into the hospital car park.

Masculinity and domesticity: who did the housework in work camps?

Most work camps in Britain, as elsewhere, were run by men for men. There were exceptions, which I’ve written about, but in the main these were masculine institutions where male bodies undertook heavy manual labour. And much thought was given to feeding and nurturing those male bodies.

Cleanliness was certainly a virtue. Most camps had baths and many had showers, at a time when many working class and some middle class families made do with a tub in front of the fire. And indoor spaces had to be ket clean and tidy, usually by the inmates.

Bodies were actively cared for. Men were routinely inspected for lice, and subjected tomedical inspection. In the Ministry of Labour camps in the 1930s, they were even given free dental and eye treatment – something the men would otherwise have paid for, if they could afford it. And they were weighed, with a view to achieving a desirably stronger and heavier body.

For there was food. Diet was a big deal, for the organisers and the inmates. The authorities usually took care to nourish working bodies with substantial servings of protein and carbohydrate, washed down with mugs of tea. Yet complaints about food – lack of variety, or poor quality – were by far the greatest cause of protests within the camps.

Again, the inmates did the cooking, usually supervised by specialist staff who were also male. Interestingly, the Ministry of Labour’s camps during the 1930s were equipped with shiny metal cookers and dishwashers, set up to cater to the 200 trainees and forty staff. So in these camps at least, male domestic labour was also technologically mediated labour.

That this was of wider interest in interwar Britain is clear. The Ministry of Labour encouraged  public visits (except for supporters of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement). In 1936, for example, the Ministry invited the public to an evening of variety in its Instructional Centre at Ardentinny, in the west of Scotland. According to the Dunoon Herald, ‘Great admiration was shown by the ladies especially in the huge kitchens and their equipment for feeding nearly two hundred and forty persons’.

Very few camps brought men and women together. Some did, including the voluntary work camps organised by the International Voluntary Service for Peace, whose endeavours included the conversion of stables into a youth hostel in Whitby, and a massive swimming lido at Brynmawr in South Wales. The Quaker-led IVSP expected male volunteers to work with ‘pick and shovel’, while the ‘sisters’ were expected to cook, clean and sew. IVSP did not place women on a formally equal footing until well after WW2.

Work camps were more or less bounded communities, whose central role was to rebuild enfeebled male bodies through hard work and nurture. Where they were solely male in membership, men did the domestic work, usually on a rota basis, just as they might have done in the armed forces. Where they were mixed, which was extremely rare, men undertook ‘hard work’, and women did domestic labour.

Work camps and the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement

We have a number of organisations and individuals today who campaign for the interests of the unemployed and dispossessed. It is not disparaging their efforts, though, to recognise that we have nothing today to compare with the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement. During the interwar years, according to the historian Rick Croucher, the NUWM’s activities represented ‘a highpoint of unemployed organisation in British history’.

The NUWM is best known for organising the hunger marches, large and spectacular demonstrations that etched themselves into national memories of the 1930s. But it many other, arguably more important roles, from local lobbying and protests through to systematic support and advocacy for individual men and women who were fighting against reductions in their benefits.

Among other campaigns, the NUWM was also active in opposition to the use of work camps. It campaigned in general terms against the camps, it made a public issue of conditions within them, and – though infrequently and with limited success – it tried to organise within them. In my book on British work camps, I devote the best part of a chapter to the NUWM, so this blog simply tries to give a taste of these campaigns.

Initially, the NUWM was most active in denouncing local government camps. It was particularly hostile to the labour colonies that London County Council inherited in 1930 from the district councils. There is little doubt that the Communist Party, to which most NUWM leaders belonged, wished to target Labour-led local authorities, in keeping with Stalin’s wider attack on what the Communists called ‘social fascism’.

At this stage, most of the NUWM’s anger was directed against Labour-controlled public assistance committees who sent unemployed men to the LCC’s ‘slave colonies’. Its main criticisms were that colonies like Belmont and Hollesley Bay separated men from their families, and mingled honest workers with criminals and men with learning difficulties.

But they also attacked the Labour Government for introducing compulsory attendance at its Transfer Instructional Centres for long term unemployed young men, and for expanding the residential training centres for unemployed women. They called Margaret Bondfield, the Labour Minister of Labour, ‘the slavey queen’, while other Labour leaders such as Dr Marion Phillips and George Lansbury were denounced as ‘social fascists’ for supporting residential training schemes.

The peak of NUWM campaigning against the camps came with the furore over the 1934 Unemployment Assistance Act. One clause in the Act caused particular fury, as it restated the principle of compulsory attendance at work camps for the long term unemployed. Wal Hannington, the NUWM’s leading figure, described the new law as ‘the biggest attempt at slave labour and the introduction of slave colonies yet made’. It was, said the NUWM, a ‘fascist measure’. From 1934, with an eye on the Nazi seizure of power, the NUWM started to describe the Ministry of Labour centres as ‘concentration camps’.

This campaign was certainly not limited to a few speeches by leading figures. In Durham, for example, 54 delegates from miners’ lodges joined the local NUWM in lobbying the public assistance committee, subsequently appointing a delegation to visit the ‘slave camp’ in Hamsterley Forest. Six hundred demonstrators, led by a flute and drum band, joined an NUWM demonstration against Kirkcaldy PAC for sending men to ‘slave camps’.

By this time, as these examples suggest, the NUWM had softened its hostility towards other socialists, and was allying itself with the wider trade union and socialist movement. It also devoted some of its advocacy work to representing unemployed men who were appealing against attempts by the Unemployment Assistance Board to remove benefits from those who refused to attend a camp course.

The NUWM also tried to organise within the camps. Its greatest success came in South Wales, where it persuaded men at Brechfa Instructional Centre to down tools on at least three occasions in order to join NUWM rallies in Llanelli. Reportedly, the sight of the men in their corduroy trousers and brown jackets provoked considerable sympathy from onlookers. But this was a rare success; although there were strikes and protests among the trainees, these seem to have been self-organised, and I can’t find much evidence of NUWM activity within the camps.

Needless to say, the Ministry of Labour was well aware of these efforts. It spent a long time discussing an application from a Leeds Communist to attend a camp course in 1933, deciding in the end that refusal would provoke more trouble than he was likely to cause if accepted. It also tried to prevent Wal Hannington and Harry McShane from visiting Glenbranter Instructional Centre; they found a way around the ban.

So the NUWM saw the camps as a fruitful focus for lobbying and demonstrating; and they defended individual trainees or their families. My own judgement is that these activities had an effect: it is clear from the records that civil servants in the Ministry of Labour were very aware of the possibility of NUWM campaigning, and that this influenced their thinking. UAB officials were constantly frustrated by the Ministry of Labour when trying to implement compulsory attendance at the camps.

So the NUWM mattered, to the individuals it represented and to the wider experiences of the unemployed. I think its positive power was minor, but on the other hand it set limits to what government could do.  This brief sketch of the NUWM confirms that the absence of a similar organisation organising and representing the unemployed is a really significant gap in today’s political landscape.

Work-for-Benefits – some lessons from the 1930s

The idea of demanding work in exchange for benefits crops up repeatedly. We therefore know quite a lot about how work-for-benefit schemes operate in practice. Looking back at the various schemes of the interwar years, it is possible to draw a number of conclusions that are worth considering before any such initiative is adopted today.

  1. Expect to spend a lot of money. The British government work camps system, which ran between 1929 and 1939, processed around 200,000 long term unemployed men. This might sound like a lot, but it was a tiny proportion of the total unemployed. And although successive governments considered a significant expansion, they decided that they could not afford to do so.
  2. Supervision is very challenging. Even at the best of times, the British Ministry of Labour supervisors found it difficult to keep everyday order in the camps, and in some respects they didn’t bother, but rather accepted that there would be a certain level of violence between the men. This was a particular problem between 1929 and 1931, when the Labour Government made attendance compulsory for the long term unemployed. As a result, the Ministry of Labour always objected to any later attempts to reintroduce compulsion.
  3. Training is minimal. The trainees are reluctant to be there, and therefore their motivation to learn is very low. This was again a particular problem between 1929 and 1931, during the period of compulsory attendance.
  4. The work has to have significance. The great success among interwar work camp movements was Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps in the USA. Here, the men undertook work of real national significance, which could then be publicised across the nation, and celebrated. Even today, older socialists in the USA remember the CCC with affection.
  5. Job placement rates are low. Men who went through the British government work camps were no more likely to find work at the end than those who did not. In some years, the job placement rates were lower for the trainees than for those outside the camps, presumably because the trainees spent their time working on the land rather than hearing about jobs.

So the bottom line is that compulsory work-for-benefits will only work if it is universal, expensive and prestigious – if we assume that its main aim is to get the unemployed into work and off benefits. In this context, it’s worth noting that the UK Government’s own mandatory work programme has similarly been judged expensive and ineffective – though this has not stopped them from extending it.

One other possible aim of mandatory work-for-benefit is, of course, to win political approval. There is always a constituency of voters who want government to be tougher on welfare claimants. Pleasing this group is a lot easier than it was in the 1930s, when the National Unemployment Workers Movement led a number of lively campaigns against what it called “slave camps”. No similar movement exists today, and politicians can accordingly expect little or no organised protest against their treatment of the unemployed.

Spying on sword dancers: Nazis, work camps, and English folk music

In 1927, a party of 46 German students visited Newcastle. The local chief constable duly reported this to the British security services, who opened up a new file on Rolf Gardiner, the Germans’ English contact, and the spooks duly monitored Gardiner for the next twenty years. Gardiner loved folk music all his life, and he ensured that folk song and dance was an integral part of the work camps that he founded and led.

I’ve been thinking about Gardiner and race this week, as the folk festival season gets into full swing, and I pass my evenings stewarding concerts in my local rugby club. Rolf Gardiner (father of John Eliot Gardiner) has intrigued and divided historians for years. His most recent biographers sum him up as a ‘folk dancer, forester, poet and visionary’. He was all of these, and more, for Gardiner was also an adult educator, youth worker, organic farmer and lifelong Germanophile with strong public views on Jews, racial purity, and the future of Europe. He admired the Danish adult education thinker Nikolai Grundtvig, and described his own rural work camps as attempts to put the ideal of the Danish folk high school into practice in England.

He became involved in folk dancing while a pupil at Bedales School, and joined a dance side while a student at Cambridge. So when he joined a work camp in Germany in 1927, it was entirely in character that he led his young male camper comrades in a naked sun dance – at six in the morning. By 1930 he was hosting work camps for Kings’ College students at his uncle’s farm in Dorset, complete with singing around the campfire (though he seems to have found the students less adept at dancing).

By this time, Gardiner was spending time in Cleveland, researching local sword-dancing traditions and encountering a ‘people of robust Scandinavian stock’. He opened further work camps for unemployed miners that he had met through the dancing sides, as well as sympathetic students on their summer vacations, as well as visitors from the German youth movement. Again, folk singing and dancing were part of the everyday routine, along with the demanding labour of converting rough pasture into small-holdings. And they also helped Michael Tippett, himself a communist and a student volunteer in Gardiner’s, to compose a somewhat völkisch opera about Robin Hood, duly performed in the miners’ hall.

Boosbeck: the site of Gardiner's Cleveland work camp as it looks today

Boosbeck: the site of Gardiner’s Cleveland work camp as it looks today

By 1933, Gardiner had fallen out with his Cleveland partner (and owner of the land), who disliked Hitler’s treatment of German Jews. By now he had his own farm in Dorset, at Springhead, and could organise his own ‘harvest camps’. Once more, the camp day started with a supposedly Nordic ritual, and closed with song; plentiful dance and song opportunities arose in the evenings.

Gardiner’s aim, whether through heavy labour or folk music, was ‘to restore and remake the real England which is basically that rural England upon whose final destruction the forces of today are willy-nilly bent’. Gardiner was clear and unambiguous in portraying Jews as among these destructive forces. In one article, published two years before the Nazi seizure of power, he denounced ‘deliberate misinformation by our Jew-controlled press, cinema, wireless and advertising’ for having ‘corrupted the soul of England’.

By contrast to these dark forces, both labour and dance, he said, taught ‘order, beauty and rhythm’, which ultimately ‘come of the soil and care of the soil’. These were, of course, fundamentally masculine – he would have said ‘virile’ – qualities. And the folk high school model was attractive because, as conceived by Grundtvig, it provided a form of ‘national education’ that underpinned work and cultural activities with a suitably nationalist – or Nordic and Germanic – knowledge of history, agriculture and current affairs.

Gardiner was, then, more than a Germanophile. His understanding of history and culture was racially based, and he was more than a sympathiser with the Nazi Party. He was on good terms with Otto Bene, the Nazi Party’s Landesgruppenleiter for the British Isles (ironically, given the Irish Republican movement’s sympathies, when it came to their own organisation, the Nazis treated Ireland and the UK as a single political space). Gardiner disparaged Oswald Mosley to Bene as ‘very shallow’. In exchange, Bene reported to Berlin that Gardiner’s work camp movement, while puny by German standards, was ‘well above the average English one’.

What Britain’s spooks made of this is another matter. While they opened his mail, and monitored his connections, a report in March 1940 mocked him for ‘still worshipping the sun, Wotan etc at a Dorset farm and being generally “nordic” and “voelkisch”‘, concluding that ‘I do not think he is a danger’. Nevertheless, the authorities carried out period checks, including an inquiry into rumours that he had planted trees on his farm in the shape of a swastika, and was engaging young men ‘in disgusting practices under the influence of hypnotism’ (neither of which could be confirmed). The last report, in 1949, asked for British security officers in Germany to monitor Gardiner’s contacts during a visit to recruit managers for a tea company.

Don’t for a moment think I am damning the whole of English folk music with this reminder of a dark, racially-rooted past. Gardiner was denounced on several occasions by other folk enthusiasts for his attempts to weave dance and music into a mystical pan-Nordic völkisch world-view. But there was enough overlap to cause discomfort: in presenting folk dancing as manly, for example, Gardiner was echoing the views of Cecil Sharp, and an interest in national culture often went together with beliefs in racial purity. I have blogged previously about Scottish nationalist thinking on race and work camps.

I see Gardiner as a man of his time. He shared the racial assumptions of many English and German men of his generation, and was certainly guilty of anti-Semitism; unlike some, I do not minimise his Nazi sympathies. But I’m also not persuaded that I should see sword dancing and folk singing as quintessentially tainted by association. Far more important to me is how we reposition British traditional music today so that it appeals to and engages a more diverse audience that is representative of the entire population of these islands. British folk festivals routinely include Irish, Australian and American performers; it is high time that they also made space for black British traditional music.

Life in an early twentieth century lunatic colony

Just off the M8, to the north of Livingston, a cluster of buildings stretches out across acres of meadow. Some of the yellow stone buildings are remarkably beautiful, even in their run-down state, with arched windows, turrets, gables and other decorative features; it comes as little surprise to learn that they are listed as fine examples of ‘Scots Renaissance’ architecture.

A group of villas

A group of villas

Bangour village is worth a visit. You can’t enter the buildings, which are derelict, but locals clearly treat the site as a kind of country park, somewhere to have a nice stroll on a Sunday afternoon. Most know something of its history, and are torn between preserving a nice open space and seeing the site rescued for development.

What few of the dog walkers will know is just how revolutionary Bangour was. It was designed as Britain’s first village asylum, opening in spring 1904 as part of the poor relief system operated by Edinburgh parish council.

Previously, the parish had paid to send its pauper lunatics to the city’s Royal Asylum. Now, they took a train to the west of the city, there to be classified into different disorders, accommodated in well-equipped villas (five for men, four for women), with fine views across the valley.

By 1907, Bangour had over 700 patients, over half of whom were women. If judged fit enough, they were given ‘real work’ on the 900 acre estate, though of course the men were to be found labouring on the farm and gardens, while the women sewed, washed and cooked.

In contrast with the old city asylum, the Bangour patients were mostly allowed their freedom, and some promptly escaped. The village’s reputation for work-based therapies attracted the attention of the armed forces in the Great War, and between 1915 and 1923 it became a centre for occupational therapy as well as mental nursing.

The cricket pavilion

The cricket pavilion

As late as 1924, the British Medical Journal judged that Bangour ‘remains one of the best examples of the more enlightened methods of caring for the subjects of mental disease’. Butr humane, howev it was also, of course, an experiment – and one conducted on patients who came largely from poor and working class backgrounds.

Including illustrations in your article or book

Most social scientists accept the value of visual data. You can use them to illustrate a particular point, and they also serve as forms of evidence in their own right. So including them in your published work can make sense, but it isn’t always easy.

Originally, I planned to use about a dozen illustrations in my book on British work camp systems. There are hundreds of images of work camps, labour colonies, training farms and instructional centres, so my main problem at that stage was choosing which images to use, in agreement with the publisher. Then came the crunch: negotiating with copyright holders.

Most of the photographic images are under the control of large firms. You may have heard of some: Getty and Corbis, for instance, own the copyright of many photographs originally commissioned by the press, while Francis Frith specialises in old postcard collections (yes, postcards – of work camps).

Still others belong to libraries and archives. Sometimes the archivist does not know who holds copyright; sometimes they don’t reply, or apparently have never heard of the image, which, of course, you have found on their website.

Almost all of these organisations charge for their services. Some don’t, including the fabulous British Museum. Others do: Newham Library has several images of the 1906 Triangle Camp, taken when unemployed Londoners squatted and worked a patch of waste land in order to show that they were not idle; they charge £5 to scan each image, £40 for UK reproduction and £80 for worldwide use – in short, £125 for the first edition of the book using the image, and £120 for subsequent editions.

This isn’t a lot, and it is certainly less than most big private companies charge. But what it means is that a dozen images will cost far more than you will ever receive in royalties. And working your way through the procedures is loaded with risk and uncertainty: if you tick the wrong box on – say – paperback sales in Samoa, and pay the wrong fee, what happens next? I was not keen to find out.

In the end, after talking with the publisher, I gave up. We decided to use an image on the front cover of men at an International Voluntary Service camp in South Wales; it’s a good photo, but we chose it partly because the IVS archivist happily provided the image for free, and even wanted to know which format we would prefer.

What is really frustrating is that several other people offered images for free. The photo at the head of the blog shows young women and men at the David Eder training farm, run by a Zionist youth movement for members who wanted to prepare for life on a Kibbutz. It is one of a fantastic series of images given to me by Allen Bordoley, whose uncle attended the farm, and who himself knows and helped interview several trainees.

I could, I suppose, simply have used the images that came for free. That would, though, have strongly biassed the story. No images of women (Getty hold the copyright to a fine picture of women standing in line outside the Lapsewood Home Training Centre, brooms and dustpans held out for inspection), for example. None of the major Instructional Centres, or the local government labour colonies.

But it would have included a letter from Wigmore Instructional Centre. It was written by Hughie Edwards, an unemployed Welshman, on tree bark, and was given to me by his nephew. Hughie wrote:

Dear Maw, Just a few lines hoping you are ok the same as I am. I am sending you a photo of the South Wales boys and myself, it was taken up the forest. Well, I will only be here for a week next Wednesday. And overleaf: This bark was out of a tree in July 4th 1934 in Wigmore.

Wigmore hughie edwards2

Does this tell us something useful about trainees’ experiences in the work camps? Right now, I’m annoyed with myself for giving up so easily.

Using offensive language – a user’s guide

How should we treat language and attitudes that once were common, and which we now find unacceptable? I’m facing up to this problem when describing labour colonies for people with disabilities. These colonies were fairly widespread in Britain before 1939, and a variety of terms were used by their founders and managers to describe their inmates.

I’m feeling slightly sensitive about this issue, as I recently walked into a language skirmish largely of my own making. In a presentation on higher education, I referred to Joan Bakewell’s commendable campaigning on behalf of part-time higher education. As most of the audience came from a generation who are unlikely to remember her, I briefly said who she was, and also referred to a derogatory way in which she was described by many in my own generation. At least one person was offended by this, and said so (though not to me at the time).

Language skirmishes are frequent, and easily survived, but this one made me think. How should we handle the problem in academic writing? My own research has produced many examples of terms and ideas that we would now find deeply offensive, and I hesitated long and hard about whether I should include those that referred to people with learning disabilities or who suffered from mental ill-health.

In the end, I used the terms that contemporaries used. For the most part, I was using direct quotes, so it should be pretty clear to a reader that this is the case, but I also added a very short footnote to make it explicit and ambiguous. While I added no such explanation to justify the inclusion of language that expresses anti-Semitic views, fear of the Chinese, loathing for the Irish, and racial hatred in general, I think it is clear that I am quoting, and not approving, these contemporary perspectives.

Will that stop someone getting offended when they read this material? Probably not, but at least my intention is clear. And I don’t like the alternatives. One is for me to interject on every occasion that this particular term or view is unacceptable to me; that seems utterly ahistorical. The other is to ignore completely any scheme that was developed by people who used a language for their inmates that people like me now find offensive; that seems to me utterly dishonest.

Am I entirely comfortable with my compromise? Not really, but I can live with it (and the occasional complaint that I expect to receive). I’d love to hear from anyone who has a better solution. But thinking about it today made me aware of the one body of objectionable language that I haven’t really thought about: namely, how people used to talk about people from the working class.

I’ve written about the period between 1880 and 1939, then the powerful and comfortable thought nothing of describing unemployed men in the most disparaging terms. They took it for granted that they could attack and undermine the standing and respect of those whom they saw as their moral and social, and not just economic, inferiors. The language they used about people’s bodies and dignity was just what Pierre Bourdieu was talking about when he spoke of ‘symbolic violence’.

Why didn’t I reflect on this before starting today’s blog? Is it that we once more live in a similar culture, where mockery and disdain colour so many conversations about ‘neds’ or ‘chavs’, and where the unemployed are again portrayed casually as layabouts and slobs who deserve nothing from the rest of us but contempt?

Race and work camps: interwar Scottish nationalist perspectives

All nationalist movements view themselves as guardians of their country’s heritage, and woe betide those who point to anything that does not chime with the “true” history of the land. Scotland is no exception, as we can see from the storm over Gavin Bowd’s newspaper article about Scottish fascism. I’ve not yet seen his book on this subject, but Bowd is a professional historian, and I expect to see him set out his evidence and name his source material.

Some of that evidence is well known. Indeed, I have stumbled across some of it while looking at the various work camp systems that were scattered across these islands before the 1940s. Nationalist campaigners in Scotland tended to see the main ‘other’ as the Irish, and they found a broad audience for their views. This complicated their views on work camps, which could be seen as vehicles for emigration of fine Scots (bad) or as training schemes to prepare Scots for jobs at home or life on the land (good).

The Reverend Duncan Cameron, chief author of a report for the Kirk on The menace of the Irish race to our Scottish nationality, made himself available for speeches and lectures. Among other organisations who invited him was the City Business Club in Glasgow, who in 1926 heard him call for ‘drastic measures’ to ‘safeguard the Scottish race in their native land’ from the Irish.

A decade later, Charles Davidson spoke to the National Party in Elgin of the racial deterioration caused by government training policy: ‘The finest went overseas’, he said, and were replaced by immigrants ‘not of the same stock, class or quality’. Meanwhile, a National Party delegation to the Scottish Office complained that ‘the flower of the race’ was being encouraged to leave home in search of work, while the government’s work camps were filled with inferior migrant stock.

So it isn’t hard to find plenty of examples of nationalist movements in Scotland that were bigoted, racist and sympathetic to the radical right. We can also find similar movements in England (part of my book is devoted to the work camps associated with Rolf Gardiner, who was profoundly anti-Semitic and thought the people of Cleveland and North Yorkshire were to be admired for being of ‘robust Scandinavian stock’. And of course we can find such people across much of Europe – just as we can also find Scottish, English and indeed German and Italian anti-fascists.

Details of Gavin Bowd’s book are at: http://www.birlinn.co.uk/Fascist-Scotland.html

Women and labour colonies

A variety of labour colonies sprang up in late nineteenth century Britain, usually as a way of handling the poor or the deviant. This movement was overwhelmingly male, in so far as it addressed what were seen as male problems (particularly unemployment) and recruited male participants.

Women from the middle classes might be involved as volunteers, and a small number of women worked in specialist roles in the larger colonies. And radical women certainly joined socialist or anarchist utopian colonies, though in at least one case they then rebelled against their male leaders. But very few colonies were designed to recruit women, with a couple of remarkable exceptions.

One was Duxhurst farm colony, founded by Lady Henry Somerset in 1895. Born into the landed gentry, Isobel Somerset was a forceful and passionate Christian and president of the British Women’s Temperance Association, who leased an estate at Duxhurst on behalf of the colony. Somerset believed that across the civilised world, England was ‘the only nation that has a drunken womanhood’. The colony’s founders set out to rescue women inebriates from the ‘sadness and remorse’ of their addiction, by setting them to work at bee-keeping, poultry-rearing, horticulture, basket-weaving and other rural occupations.

Britain’s class structure was replicated inside the colony. The Manor House was used to house ‘ladies’ suffering ‘from alcoholism or narcotism’, mostly sent and paid for by their families. Patients of ‘a less educated class’ were housed ‘some little distance’ from the Manor House, at a weekly fee of up to thirty shillings. Finally, ‘habitual inebriates of a still lower class’, usually sent by the courts, lived in ‘six prettily constructed cottages’, built in a semi-circle with a central building for catering and recreation, with provision for children as well as the women.

Class also dominated the thinking behind the Women’s Training Colony. Founded by a group of suffragettes and public health campaigners, the Colony opened at Cope Hall near Newbury in 1917. Most of the founding group had long campaigned against the double standards governing attitudes and legislation on prostitution, which penalised the woman but left their clients untouched.

Dr Helen Wilson, a Sheffield GP and president of the Sheffield Women’s Suffrage Society, was a typical member of the group. In her view,

The ultimate remedy [for prostitution] is the acceptance of a single standard for men and women, and the recognition that man is meant to be the master and not the slave of his body.

The War, she commented, had raised the urgency of the problem, with mass conscript armies making a bad situation worse.

Wilson and her fellow activists recruited ‘women whose lack of character and training renders them ineligible for other institutions’, aiming to train them ‘in a sense of responsibility and independence’ as well as ‘perseverance and self-control’, by isolating them and providing work. And as suffragettes, they also hoped to train the women in citizenship by leaving ‘much of the administration . . . in the hands of the colonists’.

Like many of the utopian communities, the WTC was short-lived, closing in 1919. By then, Dr Wilson and her fellow sexual purity suffragettes looked decidedly old-fashioned when set beside women who campaigned for birth control and sex education, let alone those radical spirits who sought to break altogether with conventional definitions of sexuality. They were unable to raise funds to keep the Colony alive, and the warden left to become a social worker elsewhere. There was also a gulf between the Colony’s founders (and managers) and those women whom they portrayed as ‘human wreckage’ living ‘waste lives’.

Women were, then, by no means absent from the labour colony movement. They played a role as activists and managers. Some joined and even led the utopian colonies, while Nellie Shaw chronicled the life of the Tolstoyan colony at Whiteway, which she helped found in 1899. Duxhurst survived into the 1920s, when – like other inebriate colonies – its role was subsumed into the emerging public health system.

As for the sites themselves, Duxhurst became a Village for Gentlefolk. Most of the cottages were demolished, along with the church, but a couple remain.  Cope Hall was also demolished, though it is remembered in a street name.

For an interesting blog about the WTC, and link to a Masters’ thesis, see: http://guyshrubsole.wordpress.com/2010/12/27/arts-crafts-and-prostitution/