Saying farewell to Michael Barratt Brown

001Around 80 people gathered yesterday at Golders Green to say goodbye to Michael Barratt Brown. Michael was an extraordinary man: born in 1918, he made his mark as an economist, political activist, gardener, peace campaigner, free trade pioneer, Quaker and above all as an adult educator. Oh – and as a runner.

Yesterday’s gathering brought together people from all his life worlds, as well as members of his family. It may seem heartless to say so, but it was a lovely occasion, marked more by celebration of a life than by mourning, and enlivened by fine violin music. And as Robin Murray said in his tribute, the baton passes on to us who remain very much alive.
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I’ve already written of my own memories of Michael on this blog. Recently, Harry Barnes – Derbyshire miner, adult educator and MP – shared his recollections of a beloved friend, colleague and comrade. So let me just add one final thing: the last message I had from him.

It is typical of Michael that in his 90s he had no fear of social media. We were in touch through LinkedIn, and he wrote about my review of his autobiography:

Good to hear from you, John. I am glad you liked “Seekers”. It has had a mixed reception. Some of my family and friends thought I was too open about my love life.You would undertand the problem. I have often thought of you at Stirling, because I used to visit there regularly with Kenneth ALexander. You mention my UNRRA experience, but, apart from Northern College and Fair Trade, I think my most important work was with the Humanities Committee of the EU, with Ben Bella and others and trying to save a Yugoslavia. What are you going to do in retirement? We need a major defence of adult education.Best wishes, Michael

So his last sentence to me was about the need to campaign for adult education. Though I have cheated a little, and changed one word: I’ve put Stirling, in place of Strathclyde. It isn’t often that I could correct Michael, and it gives me great pleasure to have this last opportunity.

Britain’s 1930s work camps: more Midsomer than Maribor?

New Picture
My book on British work camp systems has just been reviewed in the august pages of the English Historical Journal. It’s a largely positive review (phew!) and provides a more than fair summary of the contents. Inevitably, the author has some reservations; she points to limitations in my treatment of gender relations and also argues that I overemphasise the body at the expense of the communitarian dimension of work camp schemes.

These are valid points, which I largely accept (though I defend my inclusion of a chapter on residential training centres for unemployed women on the grounds that these present such a contrast with the masculine world of the work camps). On one point I do take issue, and this is where the reviewer quotes me as saying that ‘the British work camps were “more Midsomer than Majdanek”‘.

I did indeed use that phrase, but not in relation to work camps. I was writing about the vision of a future England that was proposed by the British Germanophile and environmentalist thinker Rolf Gardiner, who in turn was writing about the Danish folk high school movement. Gardiner’s dream, I claimed, was ‘an idealised rural vision of Nazism – more Midsomer than Majdanek’.

While I don’t think that even the most stringent British work camps can compare with the extermination centres of the Third Reich, I also made it very clear that I did not share the view of some historians that the Ministry of Labour camps in particular, along with their predecessors in the labour colony movement, were a comfortable place to be.

I wanted to clarify this point partly because we need to be clear about what the work camp experience involved, and partly because of contemporary debates about work-to-welfare. But in the end, this is a small part of a nice review, which is written by Christine G. Krüger, a historian who is researching youth volunteering in West Germany and Britain in the 20th century. She writes with authority and with knowledge of the sources, and I’m grateful to her.

Remembering Michael Barratt Brown

SeekersMichael Barratt Brown was the first Principal of Northern College, a residential college for adults which opened in September 1978. I was lucky enough to take one of the first jobs at the College, and taught there from 1978 to 1985.  Working with Michael was a baptism of fire for a young and inexperienced lecturer, particularly as he had no patience with the belief that you could learn anything about teaching from books or training courses.

I already knew of Michael before joining the College. His political work in the peace movement and in the campaign for industrial democracy were well known; he often co-authored with Ken Coates, another adult educator who like Michael had left the Communist Party in 1956, and who became quite a high profile figure in the Labour Left. I had also met Michael, through my Warwick mentor Royden Harrison, the historian and an old friend and political comrade of Michael’s (Royden also wrote a reference that was, I suspect, instrumental in getting me the job).

Michael was an inspirational figure who was capable of haranguing the College staff – and students – when things didn’t go entirely to his liking. My first experience of Michael in rant mode was when the Deputy Principal, in Michael’s absence, declared the College closed during a snowy cold snap; Michael was furious, spluttering that if he could get in to the College then there was no reason to close it down. He then went out skiing.

To be honest, his harangues tended to cause more amusement than anxiety. Yet, as you might expect of someone with his wartime experiences, there was real toughness in the man – and indeed there had to be. For the first few years of its life, the College battled to survive. The Sheffield Conservative Party was particularly virulent in its attacks, both through its one local MP Irvine Patnick, a nasty piece of work who fed misinformation to the media in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster), and through the local Chamber of Commerce. And all this during the Thatcher years.

Michael was robust in his defence of the College, and disarmingly charming with its critics. He was also capable of puncturing others’ self-importance, usually employing his sly sense of humour. I remember him one chairing a disciplinary hearing involving two students, both activists in the Yorkshire Area of the National Union of Mineworkers, who had been involved in a fight. It was a tense and difficult occasion, with claim and counter-claim over the origins of the dispute, which Michael defused by asking “And what exactly is a pillock?” To this day I’m uncertain whether he genuinely didn’t known what the word meant, but it brought us all back to our senses.

He worked hard and expected others to do the same. He was an enormously productive writer while contributing a full teaching load and doing all the networking and admin that came with the job. He also drank hard: the College then expected all its teaching staff to serve as residential tutors once a week, and occasionally I’d find him in his study at night, polishing off a bottle of red wine while writing an article or a pamphlet.

He was capable of enormous generosity, supporting students in terrible hardship with ‘loans’ (rarely repaid) from his own pocket. As some students never tired of pointing out, he could well afford to be generous, though much of his wealth came from canny investments. I did once ask him about the ethics of a Quaker Marxist gambling on the stock market; his response, with a grin, was “Why be an economist if you don’t use it?”

In many ways Michael became an adult educator almost by accident – or at most through planned happenstance – as I did. His formal education had been richly supplemented by a lifetime of political activity, but he had taught for the WEA before joining the Extra-Mural Department at Sheffield University, where he was drawn into teaching on the miners’ day release programme. He thought that adult educators were made through experience; when I asked about financial support to undertake an OU course called Education for Adults, he snapped at me: “Why on earth would anyone want to study adult education?” I paid for the course myself (and thoroughly enjoyed it).

Robin Murray has written a beautifully worded obituary of Michael for the Guardian. And there is plenty more detail in Michael’s autobiography for anyone who is interested in his remarkably varied and influential life. There is much more to be said, and critiqued, about his life and work, and what it tells us about the turbulent trajectory of British adult education. But now is a time for mourning and celebrating, and sharing personal memories of someone who contributed so much to the lives of those around him.

1940: when work camp trainees paraded through Dublin, saluting De Valera

On 8 December 1940, the 1st Battalion of the Construction Corps marched through Dublin. The 408 men wore uniform, had undergone initial training at the massive Curragh army camp, carried a blue flag bearing the Corps emblem, and were led by the Number 1 Army Band. As they passed Government Buildings on Merrion Street, they saluted the Taoiseach, Éamon DeValera, and four of his Ministers.

From The Irish Times, 3 October 1940

From The Irish Times, 3 October 1940

The Construction Corps was in fact a labour corps, recruited from the unemployed. Bryce Evans, writing in the Irish labour history journal Saothar, traced its origins to proposals from Seán Lemass, who had taken a keen interest in imitating the Civilian Conservation Corps, part of Roosevelt’s New Deal. With rising unemployment following the outbreak of the Second World War, Lemass’ ideas were revived. The Construction Corps, run by Ministry of Defence, was the result.

Recruitment, of young unmarried unemployed men, began at the start of October 1940. As in Britain, the authorities argued that work, decent food and camp life would together help rebuild men’s bodies after the damaging effects of unemployment. The men lived in hutted or tented camps, far from the cities, and worked on land reclamation or peat digging in areas such as Connemara. And although born of war-time conditions, it lasted until 1948.

The Construction Corps badge

The Construction Corps badge

The Dublin parade took place early on in the Corp’s life. It is particularly interesting for me because this was such a public event, watched and applauded by thousands of Dubliners. There was much comment on the men’s bodies: according to an Irish Press reporter,

No onlooker could have failed to appraise these young men, their good colour, fitness and their smart military bearing.

The reporter duly drew a contrast with the unemployed ‘street corner’ city boys who were now ‘erect, healthy and determined’. In similar vein, the Catholic Herald thought that ‘This is what weakening bodies and minds have needed too long . . . we may hope for a better manhood when the trial is over’.

Ireland’s work camp system was distinctive, developing as it did in a nation where the land had historical resonance, where wartime conditions were leading to a steady flow of young men to Britain, and where severe economic disruption led to a series of significant but poorly co-ordinated government interventions. Nevertheless, as anyone familiar with work camp systems will know, manhood and health were pervasive themes: working men’s bodies degenerated if left idle for too long – hard work, solid food and outdoor living could ‘recondition’ these weakened frames.

Learned societies and social media: historians on Twitter

royal hist soc

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the ways in which learned societies in education were using social media, and Twitter in particular. Twitter matters because it is a way of engaging with a broad public audience while making often unexpected connections between researchers who have something to say to each other.

Education researchers, I thought, seemed to be finding Twitter a bit of a struggle. Some big societies didn’t have a Twitter account, some accounts were dormant, and none had a particularly impressive number of followers. Some people thought this was a bit unfair, so I decided to look at historians, to see how they compare. I picked historians partly because some of my own interests like in the history of education and training, and partly because they are a small (compared with education) but well organised research community.

learned soc hist I expected that historians would come out of the exercise looking good – or at least better than educationists – and so it seems. The peak societies are well-represented on Twitter, attracting much larger follower numbers than are their equivalents in educational research.

Specialist societies are also generally active, with the rather surprising exception of the Economic History Society. While only one education society had over 2,000 followers, and only two had more than 1,000, the table shows that such levels of support are common for learned societies in history.

So my main finding is that historians seem to be much more successful at network-building through social media than educationists. There are several reasons for this, including the fact that the peak learned societies for historians have been around for much longer than – say – the British Educational Research Association. It’s still interesting, though, that the historians have taken so readily to Twitter to maintain and build their networks.

I am also aware that historians have, over time, developed very close connections with a wider public that is keenly interested in historical issues, and social media are an obvious extension of this. My list reflects this with the example of History West Midlands, a local group with more Twitter followers than any educational society apart from BERA. It seems rather odd that education scholars, with their natural constituencies of teachers and learners, have so far failed to do the same.

What I haven’t done, of course, is look here at the ways in which different societies use Twitter. That would be an interesting exercise, and of course the simple numbers can only be a rough guide to the level of engagement that is involved. And the table also suggests that while historians as a group punch above their weight on Twitter, there are also gaps and unmet potential; some of the smaller accounts seem to be dormant. Scholarly engagement through social media remains in its early days.

Remembering Eric Hobsbawm: historian, Marxist and adult educator

I was delighted to learn about Birkbeck College’s Eric Hobsbawm Postgraduate Scholarships. Hobsbawm was one of Europe’s leading historians, who inspired several generations of younger scholars through his remarkable syntheses of world history. He was also a fine teacher and one of British Communism’s few intellectual giants.

Theoretically, Hobsbawm’s work was visibly strongly informed by his Marxism. But as well as a broadly Marxist conceptual framework, his interests and thinking were also influenced by his lengthy membership of the Communist Party. He claimed in his autobiography, as well as in person, that his political loyalties were forged during the struggle against Nazism, and when others forged new movements in the 50s and 60s, he remained.

Coming from a later generation, viewing the Soviet Union as an oppressive, imperialist and violent dictatorship, I found this hard to swallow. But it wasn’t something he was prepared to argue about with young whipper-snappers like me, and – as Perry Anderson points out – his autobiography is at best oblique about his views on Stalinism and the dishonesty that it engendered.hobsb times

What he did take from the Communist tradition was a strong belief in the virtues of discipline, hard work and organization. I have strong memories of Hobsbawm’s bewilderment and dismay when Raphael Samuel and others involved in History Workshop suggested that creativity and even a bit of chaos never did anyone much harm. For Hobsbawm, this was the sin of ‘romanticism’.

He was also – although I don’t think ever he saw himself this way – a lifelong adult educator. He often spoke of his disappointment at being denied a post at Cambridge, which he attributed – publicly at least – to the anti-Communist anxieties of the University authorities.

Even McCarthyism could have unintended consequences, and perhaps one of them was that Hobsbawm spent most of his working life teaching at Birkbeck College. Or perhaps it was partly that, like several of his friends and comrades who also found themselves teaching adults in the late 1940s, full-time academic posts at that time were few and far between.

Hobsbawm must have given gave hundreds of lectures to non-academic audiences, of trade unionists and weekend schoolers and others, in Britain and elsewhere, showing every sign of enjoying the lively exchanges that followed. He was a spell-binding speaker, combining analytical precision and clarity with a broad sweep across the historical landscape.

So it should be clear that I am ambivalent about Hobsbawm, whom I see as a complex figure and a flawed one. But he was an inspirational writer, an encyclopedic historian and a great teacher, and the Birkbeck scholarships are a fine way of marking his memory.

Immigrants and welfare in early 20th century Britain: the German labour colony

libury hall b+wBritain is often supposed to be a ‘soft touch’ for immigrants looking for an easy life. Only yesterday, the Mayor of Calais lectured MPs on creating an ‘El Dorado’ for the world’s poor, citing in evidence the £36-a-week emergency payments given to asylum seekers with no other income. Yes – £36, or one third of the basic state pension – is apparently the hallmark of El Dorado.

Worries about migrants and welfare go back a long way. I want in this blog to discuss the response of the German immigrant community in Britain to these fears, which partly arose from British distaste for the German tramping system (where young craftsmen picked up new skills by travelling from one place of work to another) and partly from middle-class German pride over the community’s respectability.

Quite how many Germans were living in early 20th century Britain is uncertain. The 1911 census recorded 62,500 German-born, and to this we need to add children and other British-born members of the community. Germans worked in a host of trades – musicians, waiters, hairdressers, brewers, bakers and miners – as well as having a small but significant presence in banking and other mercantile roles.

Once in Britain, the Germans brought, or re-constructed, the institutions that provided social support at home: churches, musical associations, sports clubs and charities, so that the community formed what one researcher has called an ‘ethnic colony’ within Britain. As the Evangelical Church had already established a web of labour colonies in late nineteenth century Germany, it is little wonder that they then transplanted the practice to Britain.

In 1899, Baron Sir Henry Schröder, a merchant banker and member of the Evangeliche Gemeinde in London, purchased a farm and 300 acres of land at Libury Hall, near Ware in Hertfordshire. Schröder was a well-known philanthropist, and was well connected in Britain (he endowed a named chair in German at Cambridge that continues to the present day). He was joined in this by his nephew and inheritor Baron Bruno Schröder, as well as the secretary of the German YMCA in London, Wilhelm Müller.

Libury Hall opened in 1900 as German Industrial and Farm Colony. According to a report drafted for the Co-operative movement in 1906, it took in unemployed German men and gave them work, with the aim of maintaining their readiness for employment, preferably back in Germany. The average stay was just under eight weeks.

Most of men worked outdoors, but the colony also offered indoor crafts such as basket weaving and shoemaking, and most of the men lived in a large dormitory, holding up to 80 men. As the illustrations show, like the Ministry of Labour camps during the 1930s, the colony had its own postcards!

 

Postcard showing the poulty farm

Postcard showing the poulty farm

Even though this was a fairly modest operation compared with the Salvation Army colony at Hadleigh or the London Unemployed Fund colony at Hollesley Bay, the German colony dealt with impressive numbers. It received 1,223 men in its first two years; of these, 83 were reported to have been unwilling to work and had left; 44 had been expelled for ‘bad behaviour’. Over 400 had earned enough money while at the colony to return to Germany, and another 370 had found a new job in Britain.

For most of its life, the colony went largely unnoticed by the British, until the outbreak of War. By this stage, most able-bodied Germans had returned home – or were interned. Libury Hall continued, but increasingly as a home for those who were too elderly or frail to support themselves, or whose families were being maintained by German charities. One report during the War described the colony as containing 188 men, 178 German and 10 Austrian.

The Home Office opened up a file on the colony in autumn 1914. The chief constable told the Home Secretary that he had allocated an armed police guard comprising an inspector, a sergeant and ten constables, who were using a spare cottage in the colony as their office. The Home Office thought this excessive, given the ‘probable state of health and physical infirmities of the inmates’, and blocked the chief constable’s plans to intern the 29 inmates who were of military age, but it went along with proposals to appoint a retired army colonel as camp commandant.

This was not enough to satisfy the true patriots. In September 1915, the Home Office learned that the Anti-German Union had been bribing the police guards and stirring up local feeling against the colony. There had been a small attack on Libury Hall in June, and the AGU organised further demonstrations in the autumn.

Some idea of the passions aroused by this small group of elderly Germans, who were technically treated as detainees under the supervision of the authorities, can be seen in an article published in the Barry Dock News on 1 October 1915, describing the colony as a ‘plague-spot’ and calling on the public to support the AGU demonstrations. It went on:

‘Our gentle kinsman from across the North Sea or German ocean, bringing his kultur with him, is once again faithful to his tradition – of biting the hand that fed and nourished him in his adversity . . . . the students of the gentle art of tillage are practically as free as heretofore to play the spy and traitor, and are making the most of their opportunity’.

The supposed threat was still regarded as serious enough in spring 1916 for a committee of MPs to investigate. They duly reported that although they had found no evidence to support rumours of a gun emplacement, underground caves, and other military preparations, or espionage by the inmates, they remained suspicious, and expressed ‘regret that such an institution existed’. They continued to pester the government, to little effect. Libury Hall still does exist, serving as a retirement home for the elderly.