Anarchists and work camps in 1930s Britain


Red Clydeside collection:

This leaflet comes from the Glasgow Digital Library, a fabulous mine of information and collection of resources for teaching. It must date to around 1933-34, when the Left was campaigning vigorously against what became the 1934 Unemployment Act. The National Government introduced the Act in order to restructure poor relief and bring unemployment benefits under central control. It also contained a clause which combined the old poor law requirement of the ‘work test’ with existing powers to compel claimants to undertake training.

The campaign against the Bill was enormous, and the historian Neil Evans describes it as the most-discussed piece of legislation in inter-war Britain. Most of the agitation was led by the Labour Left (including the Independent Labour Party) and the Communist Party. But others were involved as well.

This flyer was published by a group calling itself the Workers’ Open Forum, a Glasgow-based network launched by the veteran anarchist Guy Aldred. I don’t know much about the Forum, except that it renamed itself as the United Socialist Movement. Aldred, on the other hand, was and is quite well-known. He viewed himself as a Communist-Anarchist, had been imprisoned for anti-imperialist activities in 1907, and was a conscientious objector in the First World War.  A Londoner by birth and upbringing, he had moved to Glasgow where he thought the prospects for building a new movement were strong.

Several work camps recruited men from Glasgow. In 1933-34, Carstairs Instructional Centre was being prepared for closure, and the Ministry of Labour was opening a new camp out on the Cowal peninsula, at Glenbranter. Both camps experienced a number of protests by angry trainees, and both were visited by Harry McShane, one of the NUWM’s Scottish organisers.

By comparison with the Communist Party, and the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement that the CP dominated, Aldred’s group was tiny. Judging by this flyer, the anarchists shared the Communists’ concern with the threat that work camps posed to the integrity of family life; but they placed a much stronger emphasis than the Communists on what they saw as the militaristic role of the British work camps. Interestingly, the Ministry of Labour’s officials were worried about this issue, and always kept the armed forces at arm’s length, to the point of refusing them to publicise recruitment materials within the camps.

5 thoughts on “Anarchists and work camps in 1930s Britain

  1. This is very interesting, thanks for sharing! It’s ironic that the leaflet mentions a ‘trade war with Japan’. It seems like the language hasn’t changed that much as we see ‘trade wars’ with China in the press quite often (and also still referring to Japan since the recent Yen devaluation).

  2. The Workers Open Forum was a precursor to Aldred’s United Socialist Movement.

    In 1934 Aldred flirted, briefly with Townhead ILP. He, and William Dick were soon suspended. And they gathered together with Tom Anderson, a veteran Glasgow Radical, for the WOF.

    It is mentioned briefly in Mark Shipway’s, ‘Anti-Parliamentary Communism’. Harry McShane, who was involved, does not mention it in his ‘No Mean Fighter’.

    The Minute books are in the Aldred Collection at the Mitchell Library, bundle 127.

    The Unemployed movement was strong in Glasgow because of the earlier activities of John Maclean, James MacDougall and Tom Anderson. A staff member at Kielder slave camp recalled that, at one point, Glasgow ‘trainees’ demanded that the red flag be flown over the camp in preference to the union jack (all two hundred of them were sent back to the Gorbals on the instructions of Whitehall [Colledge, ‘Labour Camps’]

  3. Further to my earlier post, from J.T. Caldwell, ‘Come Dungeons Dark’;
    “Those who left the [Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation]… with Guy Aldred…formed the Workers Open Forum, with a rented hall at 3, Balmano Street.
    Unity of the workers was the aim. Career-hungry politicoes were marching the unemployed all the way to London for a look at Westminster….The workers should stay at home, form their own local Councils, and invest them with the power of the producers.” p.223

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