You might realise by now that I enjoy a bit of crime fiction, and that includes a taste for Midsomer Murders, even though it is way past its peak as a more or less gentle mockery of middle class manners. Midsomer doesn’t exist, of course, but its county capital, Cawston, is largely filmed in the Thames Valley market town of Wallingford. And Wallingford, as well as being the fictional home of many a murderous snob with status anxieties, has a history.
In 1911, the Christian Social Union, effectively the social service arm of the Congregationalist and Presbyterian Churches, purchased a farm near Wallingford for use as a labour colony. The Congregationalists viewed social service as a form of missionary work, a view articulated particularly by the Nottingham minister John Brown Paton, who helped popularise in Britain the ideas of the Lutheran Pastor von Bodelschwingh, who had launched an elaborate system of social service agencies, including Arbeiterkolonien, in Bielefeld.
Interestingly, Brown Paton described himself as a socialist. He was alluding here to the idea of socialised support for the weaker members of society, but it is worth noting that more radical Christian socialists like George Lansbury were equally enthusiastic advocates of labour colonies as a way of both tackling unemployment and helping train urban Britons for a life on the land.
The Christian Union for Social Service ran its Wallingford Colony as a training farm. As in the German Lutheran colonies, the staff were described as Brothers, and subsequently when women started to work in the residential colonies they were known as Sisters. The main recruits were young men, including those they took from the Foundling Hospital.
It housed conscientious objectors during the First World War, who worked the land as an alterntive to military service, before returning to its original purpose of retraining unemployed young men, with most of the costs paid by local boards of guardians, but by the 1920s – by which time the colony could take 270 trainees – the noble aim of repopulating rural Britain had been replaced by the more practicable goal of shipping the trainees off to the Dominions. It changed again during the Second World War, when it housed child emigrants who had fled the Nazis, and was subsequently used as a therapeutic reform community for young offenders.
Throughout these shifts several factors did not change. First and foremost, the colony was a residential community. Second, with few exceptions, its inmates were male. Third, it reformed character and body alike through exposure to hard work on the land. I’ve eplored the interplay between these features in a wider study of work camp movements in Britain and Ireland, and there’s also a very good short account of Turner’s Court, apparently still available, for those who would like more detail.
The reformatory closed in 1991, and of the earlier buildings only the clock tower remains. The site now houses upmarket homes for commuters and the affluent retired, so it’s clearly only a matter of time before Inspector Barnaby receives a call…