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.

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