Christmas Day in the work camp

I was trying to explain ‘It Was Christmas Day in the Workhouse’ to a friend the other day. I told her about the tradition of dramatic monologues (brilliantly kept alive by Stanley Accrington and other hardy souls) as well as the harshness of the Poor Law that the poem critiques. It’s a sentimental piece, and was much parodied later on, with a particularly bawdy version passing down from the trenches of 1914-18 to the rugby teams of my youth.

The discussion made me wonder how Christmas was marked in the various work camp systems that permeated British social policy between the 1880s and 1930s. No archival material is dedicated to this topic, and I forgot to ask anyone I interviewed. But I can piece together a sketchy picture from a hint here and an aside there.  

Many early labour colonies were founded either by churches or by Christian charities. Both saw Christmas as an ideal time for fund-raising. Routinely, officials would write to the press, reminding readers that unfortunate fellow-citizens relied on the public to finance their labours. Some charities arranged seasonal entertainment: the good Presbyterians of Bridge of Allan, for instance, serenaded the unemployed inmates at Cornton Vale Labour Colony.

Most of the inebriate colonies – largely run for women, but that’s another story – demanded daily prayer, as did the colonies for unemployed men run by Nonconformists in England and Presbyterians in Scotland. On Christmas Day itself, as the managers and officers were Christians, work was forbidden and religious services were compulsory. 

We know next to nothing about how the inmates responded to this combination of religion with a day off work. However, there is a clue in the discipline register of Dunton Farm Colony, which was run by Poplar Board of Guardians. John Clark, the superintendent, recorded in December 1907 that nineteen men were sentenced to one meal of bread and water for returning after hours and under the influence of drink on Christmas Day and Boxing Day (a larger number who merely came in after hours were reprimanded).

Some of the labour colonies continued to function after 1918, usually with some sort of government support. At Belmont Labour Colony, near Sutton, London County Council allowed the unemployed inmates to take five days holiday at Christmas, provoking the men in 1931 to elect a deputation to demand an extra day’s rest.

During the 1930s, the Ministry of Labour developed a much larger and more systematic programme. Its main aim was to ‘recondition’ young unemployed young men, taking them to live in huts or tents in a camp of around 200 men, usually located in areas being prepared for forestry. The tented camps were seasonal, and held in the summer months, so Christmas was not an issue for them. In the hutted camps, the Ministry of Labour allocated seven days for Christmas, with an extra day for travel for any men who wished to visit their home.

What the men were expected to do for seven days is unknown, and I imagine that most chose to return to their families. Each camp had a welfare officer who organised games, film shows and other entertainments; there was usually a nearby village pub; and while the Ministry did not organise religious services, the local clergy could visit, and the men could borrow the camp lorry to visit church.

Did the men see seven days with no work, other than whatever was required to prepare meals and keep the camp in order, as an attractive prospect? Several of the trainees told me that their life in the Ministry’s camps was often tedious at the best of times, so we can probably guess how they felt about the idea of seven days of ‘leisure’.

William Beveridge – a supporter of the labour colony

William Beveridge is widely known as the architect of the welfare state. As such, he is automatically a hero for the Left. Right-wing modernisers like the Free Enterprise Group praise Beveridge’s intentions and principles while lamenting the supposedly bloated socialist bureaucracy that has distorted and displaced his original vision. Now Geoffrey Wheatcroft of the Guardian has joined in, reminding us that Beveridge was indeed a reluctant convert to state intervention, and was shocked by the Attlee government’s contempt for friendly societies.

Beveridge was also a youthful fan of the labour colony movement. This is sometimes passed over by later generations as a fleeting fancy, a brief moment of authoritarianism towards the poor that he inherited from the reformer and researcher Charles Booth. Booth famously classified the poor into five groups, and proposed that the most idle two groups should be packed off to ‘labour schools’ in the countryside.

Beveridge developed this idea in a paper in 1904, proposing that labour colonies should be used to train, not the idle poor, but those who were genuinely unemployed. Beveridge’s early ideas were based on experience. During the trade recession of 1903-5 that followed the Boer Wars, a number of poor law bodies and charities opened labour colonies.

Beveridge, then living in the university settlement at Toynbee Hall, visited several of the colonies, and wrote extensive notes. At Osea Island (later famous as a ‘retreat’ for celebrities struggling with addictions), he noted that the 80 unemployed residents were required to be sober at all times, and were inspected for infections and cleanliness before entering the colony. He concluded that ‘work on the colonies, carried out under good conditions, in country air, with good food, and in the absence of intoxicants, produced a marked improvement in the physique of the men’, and also ‘widened their horizon and stimulated their enterprise’.

Several historians suggest that Beveridge later changed his mind about labour colonies. As an economic liberal, they argue, he saw labour exchanges as more effective in underpinning labour mobility, believing that once the unemployed knew about opportunities for work, they would have every incentive to move to new jobs. Labour colonies, they argue, were part of an outdated way of thinking about the poor – and entirely inconsistent with Beveridge’s recognition of the importance of structural unemployment.

But this is simply not the case. Beveridge saw unemployment as partly what we would call structural in nature, but he also accepted that there was a small number of ‘unemployables’, arguing that their defects were often the result of casual employment. Just as they had learned to balance extremes of employment and idleness, so they might learn to work steadily if only they were properly schooled. And they would learn to labour in organised colonies.

This is clear from Beveridge’s evidence to the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws. Beveridge told the Commission that a labour colony could usefully serve either as a ‘technical school’, training for a specific purpose, such as emigration, or as ‘a hospital’ for the reintegration of ‘men broken down through privation or vice’. He also favoured more penal types of colony, to discipline the few who were ‘incurably defective or idle’.

Similarly, in his well known book on Unemployment: A problem of industry, Beveridge praised those colonies which focused on training, such as Hollesley Bay. He had certainly modified his view since 1904, warning that their positive effect was largely short term, and that they tended to institutionalise the trainees. But I am in no doubt that he continued to see a place for labour colonies, alongside rather than instead of labour exchanges, as a way of reducing unemployment.

Did this make Beveridge an enthusiast for state intervention? Hardly. The labour colonies of 1903-5 were mainly created and directed by municipal rather than national government, usually working with voluntary bodies, charities and philanthropists. While the movement had many supporters on the Left (and the Right), they tended to belong to the land reform wing of Labour, like George Lansbury.

The idea of a national state system of labour colonies was developed most systematically by the Fabian Socialist thinkers Beatrice and Sydney Webb, but Beveridge and the Webbs did share an interest in creating national quasi-penal colonies for the ‘incurably defective or idle’.

Wheatcroft’s much-debated article is at:

Why I’m not writing a chapter about lifelong learning

I’ve just rejected an invitation to write an entry for the International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences. The editors wanted me to write 5,000 words covering life course approaches to education and learning. It’s an easy enough task, and it is important to ensure that our field is well represented in multi-disciplinary collections like this, so normally I’d have been happy to get on with the job.

Earlier this year, I joined a growing group of academics who are taking action against commercial publishers who block public access to research. Elsevier, who are publishing this Encyclopedia, are a particular focus of attention because they have so actively lobbied governments, especially in the USA, to enact legislation blocking the free exchange of information. They also charge exorbitantly high prices for subscriptions to individual journals, then offer discounts to libraries who buy ‘bundles’ of journals (many of which they do now want).

This is an enormously profitable business. In 2010, Elsevier reported a profit margin of 36% on revenues of $3.2 billion. Very little of this makes its way back to academics or their universities. Like most people, I never expected to make money from academic publishing, so let me be very clear that I am not boycotting Elsevier because I want a fatter slice of the pie.

The first edition of this Encyclopedia is still available, apparently, at the price of €7,360. Elsevier offered me a fee of $100 for my chapter – just 2 cents a word, or 1 cent after tax (and we could write pages about that as well).

There’s nothing wrong with making a living. But academic research is largely funded from the public purse – yet commercial publishers ensure that the public never get to see most of it, except in the garbled form of a press report. According to the specimen contract, Elsevier allow authors ‘the right to post the Contribution on a secure network (not accessible to the public) within your institution’.

Note that qualification – not accessible to the public. In short, those who have paid for my research. I find this abhorrent, and that is why I am a supporter of open access publishing, which makes academic research available online. It isn’t the answer to all our prayers, and it doesn’t resolve the problems of ensuring that our research is understood and accessible. That is another challenge. In the meantime, I’m supporting the Cost of Knowledge movement, and encourage others to do likewise.

For details of the Cost of Knowledge boycott, see: