Families, welfare benefits and economic migration: the case of London’s early 20th century labour colonies

Hollesley Bay Labour Colony, from the collection of Peter Higginbotham

Hollesley Bay Labour Colony, from the collection of Peter Higginbotham

Governments over the years have repeatedly tried to work out how to structure benefits and taxation systems to encourage the poor to work. A cynic would say that they seem to have no such problems when it comes to the rich, of course. Still, it has been instructive to see the pickle that the British government has got itself into over its plans to remove tax incentives from the poorest workers in the economy.

These debates are, of course, not new. Indeed, they remind me of the discussions over municipal labour colonies in early twentieth century Britain. A number of towns and cities considered plans for labour colonies where unemployed men could be sent to work on the land, where they might maintain their physical strength while undertaking productive labour. A number were subsequently opened up by local public authorities in cities like Glasgow, Edinburgh, Leeds and Manchester; but the largest number by far were those opened by local governments in London.

The London labour colonies are relatively well documented. Quite a large amount of archival material survives in the London Metropolitan Archives, journalists and social workers found it easy to visit the London colonies (most of which were in Essex), and organisations like the Central (Unemployed) Body produced printed reports. I used all of these sources for my book on British work camps; more recently, I came across some helpful references in the reports of local medical officers of health, which have just been digitised by the Wellcome Library.

In their annual reports, the medical officers of health (MOH) often discussed conditions among the poor, including those who had been sent to labour colonies. In Hammersmith, for example, the MOH noted in 1905 and 1906 that men had been sent out to four labour colonies. The largest number went to Hollesley Bay Labour Colony in Suffolk, which took in 16 Hammersmith men in 1905; four were sent up to the Garden City, where a student-led colony helped to landscape the new town; three went to reclaim marshland and build sea walls on Osea Island; and one solitary individual went out to a colony at Fambridge.

I was particularly interested to see that the MOH sometimes gave details of payments to the men’s families. Whereas unemployed men engaged on public works were given minimum wages, men in the labour colonies were fed, housed, clothed, and given simply a small weekly allowance – six pennies a week in the case of Hammersmith men – to spend on cigarettes or food. However, their dependents received a small allowance: the Hammersmith Distress Committee paid 10 shillings (50p) for the wife, 1s 6d for the first child, and 1s for subsequent children, up to a maximum of 17s 6d per family per week.

What attracted my attention was the way in which the Hammersmith Distress Committee – appointed by the Borough Council under the 1905 Unemployed Workmen Act – chose to issue the family allowances. Members of the Distress Committee visited the homes, firstly to investigate the family’s behaviour, and secondly to consider whether they could be sent to the colonies.

From the Annual Report for 1906, Medical Officer for Health, Hammersmith

From the Annual Report for 1906, Medical Officer for Health, Hammersmith

Both of these reasons for visiting are significant. The second, though, provides a timely reminder that entire families were pressurised to migrate to the White Dominions, and to Canada and Australia in particular. There is a great deal of controversy about migration into Britain, and rather less awareness of forced emigration out of it. This is changing, thanks partly to campaigns over child migrants, as exemplified in the current Museum of Childhood’s exhibition; we also need to recognise those who were sent on long journeys abroad simply because their menfolk were unemployed.

 

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