Helen Rogers, a socio-cultural historian who studies working class writing among other things, runs the fabulous website on working class autobiographies called Writing Lives. The other day she tweeted a link to a post about the life of May Owen, a Londoner born in 1896, whose father was an alcoholic.
May writes that: ‘I can remember Charrington the Brewers son forming a club for alcoholics my father was one of thirty sent to a small island off the Thanet coast Osea Island. No drink, his wage given to my mother and he had to help build a sea wall.’
Helen’s Tweet asked whether Osea was one of my ‘work camps’. The short answer is yes: it was indeed one of the many work camps that were opened in Britain for marginal and stigmatised groups. Osea hosted a labour colony for unemployed Londoners, which became a colony for habitual inebriates, as the island’s owner was a leading temperance campaigner and social reformer.
Frederick Charrington might seem an unexpected adherent of temperance. Son of a London brewing dynasty, Charrington reportedly sold his shares in the family business after seeing a drunk man punch his wife. He promoted the Ragged School movement, supported striking Jewish tailors, and helped open a temperance assembly hall on the Mile End Road.
Charrington bought the island in 1903,with a view to turning it into an inebriate retreat. Initially, he opened a small colony for inebriate women. This proved a failure, and in 1904 he invited the London local authorities to use it for poor relief.Supported by the Lord Mayor’s fund, unemployed male heads of household were sent in the following winter to live on the island, where they laid roads, leveled land, and built sea walls while living in wooden huts.
Further groups were sent in the following year, under the auspices of the Central (Unemployed) Body for London. At full capacity, the dormitories held 80 bunks, but William Beveridge estimated that there were usually around 70 men in residence.
A number of interested visitors came to view the colony, including Beveridge, who noted that the unemployed residents were supplied with boots on loan, and had to bring one change of clothing. They had to be accustomed to heavy labour, and were inspected for infections and cleanliness before entering the colony. The colony rules, he reported, were simple:
(a) Prompt obedience to orders;
(c) Observance of appointed hours
Rules or not, three of the first group of 25 men rapidly scurried off to the mainland, where they apparently caused a disturbance in the pubs of Malden.
After 1905, and using the infrastructure built by the unemployed Londoners, Charrington then opened a temperance holiday village on the island. According to the Little Book of Essex, the locals smuggled alcohol out to the island, and ferried thirsty holiday-makers to Malden.
Charrington’s holiday settlement continued until the Great War, when the Admiralty commandeered the island for use as a motor boat harbour. In 1934, the Rural Community Council of Essex opened a ‘reconditioning camp’ on the Island to help unemployed men improve their fitness and readiness for work.
Since the 1940s, its main claim to fame is as a splendid habitat for bird life. Strangely, though, the great house on Osea briefly returned to its earlier role at the start of the present century, when it was opened as a retreat for wealthy addicts – including, most famously, Amy Winehouse. That venture also failed, and the island is now marketed as a luxury holiday destination.
May is wrong about one thing: Osea is off the Essex coast, and not Thanet. Essex was a popular location for labour colonies, situated close enough to London to simplify transport but far enough to cause trainees to think twice about running away. There was also plentiful land, much of it economically marginal so that it therefore presented abundant opportunities for reclamation work.