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/

3 thoughts on “Women and labour colonies

  1. Wow – I’d love to speak more. I grew up in Newbury, and wrote that thesis that you link to about the WTC for my undergraduate history degree some years ago now. It sounds like you’ve found out more about the WTC? Would be really curious to speak. Including my email in the post requirements. Best wishes, Guy

  2. Interesting. Magdalene Laundry was possible Irish version with additional religious dimension, reform for the next life needed lots of cleansing.

  3. excellent stuff, John. When I first went to the Friends Centre we hosted the annual meeting of the Women;s \league for Total Abstinence – all 80 if a day. As I was setting up the record player for them my father (a publican) who was staying with us at the Quaker meeting house appeared at the other end of the room saying – coming for a drink, boy? Collapse of my credibility!
    More seriously, it is interesting how movements with absolute energy can suddenly die on their feet, isn’t it? And several of your blogs point to this effect with work camps.

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