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.

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