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’.