Walter Workman, a 1930s British work camp manager

While we know quite a lot about the inmates – who were recruited precisely because they fell into pre-defined categories – it isn’t always easy to find out much about those who managed them. This is hardly surprising for the nineteenth and early twentieth century labour colonies, where the records are scattered and often sparse; but we don’t know a great deal about the more organised and bureaucratic twentieth century systems either.

The largest system in Britain was run by the Ministry of Labour in the fifteen years before the Second World War. Mythology says that the managers were largely ex-military men, a view repeated recently by Del Roy Fletcher, and it is quite possible that some had seen service in the Great War. However, civil service regulations required the Ministry to recruit its camp managers from within.

As one senior official pointed out, work camp managers needed rather different qualities from those usually found in the civil service – or the army. Dealing with up to 200 unemployed men, he said, required ‘very special qualifications’, including an ‘ability to handle men with sympathy, tact, patience and firmness’.

We know a little about Albert Rendle, who managed first the Hamsterley camp in County Durham, and then took on Cairnbaan in Argyll in 1939. Eve Rendle, his daughter, has written a brief account based on a collection of her father’s letters. She adds some useful detail – for example, his habit of waking the trainees by playing ‘hot jazz’ over the camp loudspeakers – but doesn’t say much about the man, a career civil servant who was awarded the OBE in 1951.

The visitor centre in Hamsterley Forest, on the site of the old work camp.

The visitor centre in Hamsterley Forest, on the site of the old work camp.

So who were the camp managers? Mark Freeman, the historian, tweeted recently that hed come across a case of ‘nominative determinism’ in my study of British work camps. This was the nicely-named Mr Workman, who became manager of Cranwich Instructional Centre in June 1932.

Walter Bridgemore Workman was an Employment Clerk in the Ministry of Labour. My understanding is that he would therefore have been a permanent (or ‘established’) civil servant, who had almost certainly worked in a labour exchange. What is certain is that he transferred to the instructional centre at Shobdon, on the Herefordshire side of the Welsh border, and that he was working there when he applied for a manager’s post.

We also know that he was born on 3 December 1895, making him 36 when he was appointed and 18 when War broke out. I think he would have seen military service before moving into the new Ministry of Labour. By autumn 1933 he was manager at Bourne Instructional Centre, in Lincolnshire. As well as managing the camp’s work, he also had to select a working party of 22 men to go and build a new camp at Dalby, near Pickering in North Yorkshire; he duly sent the men, along with a football – not simply for leisure, but to allow for a ritual ‘kick-off’ at the new camp.

By May 1934, Workman was temporary manager at another newly-opened camp. By this time, the Ministry was routinely appointing experienced camp managers to oversee new camps, before appointing a permanent manager once things had settled down. ‘Things’, in this case, included smoothing the ruffled features of local residents, including the recently-widowed Mrs Frances May Fogg-Elliot of Bedburn Old Hall.

As well as a general dislike of her new neighbours, Mrs Fogg-Elliot took exception to unemployed trainees using a public footpath on her land, and to the appearance of girls in the camp at weekends. The Ministry wrote to Workman asking him to contact Mrs Fogg-Elliot, with a view to persuading her ‘to take an interest in the Centre instead of criticising us all the time’. Workman already knew the lady, whom he described as ‘full of trouble’, but took the precaution of banning trainees from the footpath.

And that is it. I do not now where Workman went after setting up Hamsterley – he was still under 40 at this stage – nor what became of him later in life; we know no more than the bare bones of his life before 1932. Like all the other camp managers, there are a few scattered mentions in the files, and precious little else.

From work camp to Arsenal: the footballer Jimmy Evans

In March 1935, Arsenal recruited a twentysix year old Welsh footballer called Jimmy Evans. Evans, who came originally from Merthyr Tydfil, was a work camp trainee who was playing at the time as an amateur for Hereford United in the Birmingham and District League.

As a long term unemployed young male, Evans had chosen to join – or was pressured into attending – one of the Ministry of Labour’s Instructional Centres. In 1937, there were thirty ICs, charged with the role of ‘hardening’ young men whose bodies had supposedly been ‘softened’ by protracted unemployment.

Mainly, the young men’s bodies were hardened through a daily routine of heavy manual labour combined with a solid, if unimaginative, diet. But sport also played a role, not just in improving physical fitness, but also in boosting morale and building an esprit de corps.

When Evans entered Shobdon IC, some 20 miles north of Hereford, his footballing skills clearly flourished. Back home in Wales, he had never managed any better than his local Sunday School team. In Shobdon he initially played for the IC team, before joining Presteign and then Hereford United, who recommended that he turn professional.

Jimmy Evans - reproduced with thanks from www.margatefchistory.com

Jimmy Evans – reproduced with thanks from http://www.margatefchistory.com

Having found work, Evans has no longer any direct concern of the IC, though in early May the camp hosted a visit from Hereford United, who duly won 4-0. He stayed on Arsenal’s books until 1937, spending most of the time on loan to Margate, before moving to Fulham, then serving in the RAF before returning to Margate after the War, and retiring from the game at the age of 45. He died in Margate in 1993.

I’m not sure how much Jimmy Evans’ story tells us about the experiences of young men more generally in the Ministry of Labour camps. But it does offer some insights into the importance of sport in the camps, as well as the extent to which the camps were integrated into their local economy and society. Incidentally, I only encountered his story thanks to Jon Price, a knowledgeable Hereford citizen and blogger, who sent me several reports from the Hereford Times, including two that I’ve drawn on here.

Modernity and socialist land colonies

Why did socialists create so many new utopian communities in the late nineteenth century? In his engaging short book on Modernism and British Socialism, Thomas Linehan revises the neo-Marxist notion of a ‘conjuncture’ (it sounds better in French) where a number of factors came together that encouraged a positive view of the world as it might be, a negative view of the world as it was, and an optimistic sense that an alternative was realistically achievable.

linehan

For Linehan, the socialist revival itself in the 1880s and 1890s reflected a belief that capitalism stood stood on ‘the cusp of profound and radical change’ (132). While urbanisation, mechanisation, scientific advance and economic growth had brought about an end to old ways of living, they had palpably failed to produce spiritual renewal and material prosperity for all, while also throwing old certainties into the dustbin of radical doubt. The result was what Linehan calls ‘an acute liminoid moment’ (28), when radicals were able to put into practice their values of fellowship, harmony and equality.

Linehan devotes a chapter to the socialist colonies, paying particular attention to the Tolstoyan settlements at Purleigh and Whiteway, the Christian socialist colony at Starnthwaite in Cumberland, and the Kropotkinite Clousden Hill Communist and Co-operative Colony near Newcastle, as well as the arts and crafts colony at Chipping Campden. He also mentions the one-man settlement of the Scot Douglas Semple, who went to live in a bell tent on Linwood Moss, near Paisley.

These ‘experiments in social modernism’ represented an attempted reconstruction of communal life in communion with nature, as well as a refusal of the spatial and temporal arrangements of modernity. Linehan contrasts these utopian impulses with ‘Fabian modernism’, which he presents as underpinned by a belief in the power of rationalism and science, as well as a strong sense that ‘progress’ was inexorably moving towards the collectivisation of social governance. Fabian efficiency, writes Linehan, was incompatible with and intolerant of the utopian colonies, which Sidney Webb deplored as sentimental expressions of pre-modern nostalgia.

This is a compelling account, and I wish I’d managed to read it before finishing my own study of British work camp systems. My fourth chapter is given over to a discussion of the utopian colonies, and on the whole I think my analysis and Linehan’s complement each other. His work is much stronger on the intellectual history of the period, though, and it forces us to rethink much of the socialist project of the late nineteenth century (and more recently, of course).

Where we part company is, I think, in his use of the term modernism. I’m generally sceptical over such portmanteau concepts as modernism and neo-liberalism, both because they jumble together much that is contradictory and because they tend to be deployed as non-personified actors rather than as general intellectual currents. And I think this has influenced Linehan’s account of the socialist colonies as well.

For one thing, any account of socialist utopian colonies has to acknowledge not only the various autonomous community building endeavours of small groups. It must also consider the ways in which socialists sought to use local government – particularly the poor law institutions – to develop labour colonies that were similarly inspired by the idea of building new, post-industrial and egalitarian communities. The work of George Lansbury and his allies in Poplar and elsewhere in London is the prime example, but there are others.

Science alone was not enough to render utopian colonies unrealistic. Alfred Russel Wallace, one of the great supporters of the labour colony movement, was himself a rationalist and a biologist, who is best known for independently developing the theory of evolution; he was also a spiritualist, and saw nothing contradictory in holding these views.

And this brings us back to the Fabians, who may have understood themselves as dispassionate and scientific, but were perfectly happy to develop plans for labour colonies as part of their wider vision of socialised efficiency. Equally, the Kropotkinites at Clousden Hill thought of themselves as promoters of the latest scientific techniques in agriculture. Science and community building were by no means mutually exclusive.

Finally, the utopian moment passed fairly quickly. Few of the socialist colonies survived more than a couple of years, and those that did survive – like Starnthwaite and Whiteway – had to change their goals and nature pretty drastically. It is then hardly surprising if Fabians thought them of little value in the years before the Great War, as by that time no socialist colonies existed. Interestingly, although the local government colonies also lost their utopian character, Lansbury supported them loyally to the last.

Modernism and British Socialism is a lively, well-written and intellectually fluent book. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and while I don’t agree with part of Linehan’s central argument, nor with his account of the socialist colonies, it helps us rethink the intellectual climate in late nineteenth century Britain and offers a stimulating account of early British socialism.

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.