Wishing you were here: work camps on postcards

ardentinny card viewPowerPoint comes in for a lot of stick, but I’ve found it really handy while travelling around talking about work camps to local history groups. Most groups expect their speaker to carry on for an hour – something I can do perfectly happily, of course, but illustrations make the whole session a lot more interesting. So where do you find images of work camps?

For interwar Britain, postcards are an indispensable resource. Or at least, they are a great source of images, but so far I haven’t got much from the texts on the back. Apart from anything else, postcard messages are usually pretty short, and it often isn’t clear who sent them.

Here’s an example – a postcard of Ardentinny Instructional Centre that I use to illustrate talks to audiences in the west of Scotland. It was posted in summer 1939 by someone signing themself “J McN”, and addressed to a Miss Bannatyne who lived in the Garden City, Kilbirnie.ardentinny card

The image is fine. If you look carefully, you will see that the camp is partly tented. This is because it operated only in the summer, unlike the nearby hutted camp at Glenbranter. And you can also see people swimming, confirming that people used to be much hardier than they are today.

The message seems clear enough. The writer was ‘Having the time of my life’. But who was he? Was he a trainee at the camp, or a member of staff? We he being serious or sarcastic? Or was he unconnected with the camp – a visitor or a local, perhaps? And while I reckon the odds are on a male author, there is a chance that it was a woman.

I did spot one clue, though. While the sender wrote the address neatly and confidently, the message itself has been over-written: in several places you can see the original writing – in the ‘g’ of ‘having’, for example. Maybe J McN had to ask for help to write his message? If so, then the odds move in favour of the author being a trainee.

As centres for training young unemployed men, the Instructional Centres mainly focused on heavy manual labour. But they also offered brief basic classes in reading and writin, as well as British geography, woodwork and metalwork.

Interesting as all this is, what really strikes me is that there was a market for postcards of work camps. In this case, the card was produced by a Glaswegian stationer, in their Real Photographic Series, probably for a largely regional market. But larger firms like Francis Frith and Valentines also sold postcards featuring work camps.

What can we learn from this? Certainly, the marketing of these images suggests a degree of openness by those who ran these institutions. In the case of the Instructional Centres, the Ministry of Labour also encouraged visits from the public as well as journalists and broadcasters.

Of course, this was a controlled process – the Ministry didn’t welcome visits from radical opponents like the National Unemployed Workers Movement). But it shows conclusively that there was nothing “secret” about the camps.

Second, the existence of these images tells us that there was a demand for them from somebody. We don’t know whether it was trainees, staff or others who actually bought the cards; and the demand wasn’t necessarily very high, as a local firm could easily print a small run of cards. But the fact is that someone bought them, and used them.

This in turn suggests that the camps were seen as an interesting feature of the local landscape. It might also suggest that for many people, the camps carried no particular negative connotations, which might seem counter-intuitive.

Other places feature on interwar postcards that we might today find slightly odd. Thanks to Twitter, I recently came across an account of an asylum illustrated with images from postcards. Where else, I wonder?

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5 thoughts on “Wishing you were here: work camps on postcards

  1. Thanks for this. I’m part way through writing a short story about a photographer in the North in 30s, inspired in part by the odd subjects of some postcards I saw at the National Media Museum in Bradford. The work camp may well get a mention.

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