Entertaining the unemployed: a musical revue in a British work camp 1938

Aerial photo of Haldon Instructional Centre (from Haldon’s Hidden Heritage)

Haldon Instructional Centre was the only government work camp to open in south-west England. Opened in December 1936 with a capacity of 200 places, and located on the Haldon Hills half way between Exeter and Dawlish, the camp was built to take unemployed men from Wales and the south west and north west of England.

As with the other 26 Ministry of Labour camps, the primary purpose was to ‘recondition’ men who had supposedly gone ‘soft’ through unemployment by exposing them to hard manual labour. Conditions The men lived in Nissen huts and worked to clear rough land and build roads so that the estate wad ready for planting by the Forestry Commission. According to a report in the Daily Worker in 1937, the men were “subjected, from 8 am to 4 pm, to an extremely severe discipline”.

But there was also another side to camp life. Early experience had taught the Ministry of Labour that isolating 200 young men in a forest camp was a recipe for trouble; it also discovered that many young unemployed men had trouble reading or writing, or were held back by poor underlying health, so that the camps became a kind of laboratory for adult education and free dental, medical or eyesight care.

As for misbehaviour, the Ministry concluded that the problem lay in boredom. Through the thirties it increasingly approved provision for organised leisure, from film showings to sports teams. And it agreed to allow well-meaning locals to perform in front of the men – a decision that from the Ministry’s point of view brought several benefits: it entertained the trainees while also showing that others cared for them; and it gave a positive public impression of the camp to visitors and more widely.

Devon and Exeter Gazette, 11 February 1938

Like the other Ministry of Labour camps, Haldon closed shortly before the outbreak of war in September 1939. The camp concert was far from unique – similar events took place at other work camps, but always with the approval of the camp authorities, who had their own reasons for entertaining the unemployed. You can read more about a range of British work camp schemes in my book, Working Men’s Bodies: Work camps in Britain 1880-1940.

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