Jewish refugee children and a 1930s work camp

Refugees are very much the talk of the moment, evoking memories of earlier groups of people who sought and found refuge in these islands. One of these was the Kindertransport movement, which after Kristallnacht helped to settle thousands of refugee Jewish children from Nazi Germany. As with today’s Syrian refugees, it was a surge of public opinion that forced the government to act; and again with contemporary echoes, government opened its borders to under-17s, on the understanding that they would return to Germany when things improved.

Much of the responsibility for practical arrangements was delegated to local authorities and voluntary bodies. However, the government did make some facilities available, including a holiday camp at Dovercourt Bay near Harwich, as well as a number of other sites where refugee children could be housed until voluntary agencies or individuals could find a more permanent home, perhaps a foster family or a hostel.

National Archives: From the the First Annual Report for the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany Limited, November 1938-1939

National Archives: From the the First Annual Report for the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany Limited, November 1938-1939

One of these was a former workhouse in Suffolk. Bosmere and Claydon Union Workhouse was a substantial building, originally constructed in the 1760s and upgraded in the nineteenth century. In 1920, the government took it over for use as an Instructional Factory, training ex-servicemen in handicrafts until 1923. Two years later it re-opened as a training farm, preparing the unemployed in batches of 300 for emigration to the white Dominions of Canada and Australia.

Organised emigration came to an end with the global crisis in 1929. As part of the Labour Government’s plans for compulsory training of the unemployed, the Ministry of Labour took the farm over in 1930 as a Transfer Instructional Centre, in which capacity it trained young unemployed men until it too closed in February 1933. It seems to have remained empty until 1939, when the government made it available to a voluntary group for use as a transit camp where boy refugees could learn English and handicrafts while awaiting transfer.

The Kindertransport movement is reasonably well documented. The Ministry of Health kept administrative files on the care provided for the children, the Home Office kept records of their movements, the Foreign Office reported on the persecution of Jews in Germany, and the security services speculated on whether the political views of 16-year olds were of any interest to the state. The National Archives has placed a sample of these files on its website, together with teaching notes.

There are also reasonably good records relating to individual children. Some recorded their memories for the Kindertransport Association or the Association of Jewish Refugees. Diane Samuels recorded oral reminiscences for her play about the movement, and other memories are held by the Wiener Library.

I’ve picked two of these stories, but many others are available. Max Dickson, formerly Max Dobriner, was first placed in Claydon and then moved to a former labour colony site near Oxford. He served in the British army, first in the Pioneer Corps and then the Commandos, and later interrogated German prisoners of War, taking part in the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals before returning to Britain and marrying a local girl.

Sigi Faith, born Siegfried Samuel Feitlowitz in Hamburg, was ten when he arrived at Harwich. He found the diet at Claydon monotonous, but otherwise recalled it as great fun: “The house had been converted to house some 800 boys and was just perfect for a 10 year old – no discipline, attendance at meals was optional and it was much morefun building a raft and drifting in the nearby river”. After a few months, he was placed with a family in Oswestry, subsequently moving to London where he founded a chain of shoe shops. His parents escaped to Shanghai and survived.

After the last of the children was moved, the camp was used to house Italian prisoners-of-war, and became derelict after the War. By 2003, one intrepid visitor discovered that the site had apparently become a gathering place for sexual adventurers; I cannot confirm this personally.

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.

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.

Cyril Norwood and a national labour service

Workfare schemes are constantly in the news at the moment. Many of Britain’s historic work camps schemes were very much forms of welfare, aimed at giving unemployed men and other vulnerable groups – including sex workers, people with learning disabilities, epileptics and the tubercular – exposure to a period of therapeutic manual labour.

The idea of some kind of universal voluntary work service for the young, popular among Conservative thinkers when the current British coalition government was formed, seems to have slipped under the radar. But there were persistent campaigns, particularly during the 1930s, for public work – mainly in camps – as a form of universal national service.

Sir Cyril Norwood

Sir Cyril Norwood

Cyril Norwood is best known in Britain for his influence on the 1944 Education Act. R. A. Butler, then minister for education, chose Norwood to chair a committee on secondary education, which  produced a report on Curriculum and Examinations in Secondary Schools that in turn influenced the 1944 Education Act, setting out the template for the division of state schools in England into three categories: secondary modern, technical, and grammar.

Little wonder that Gary McCulloch described Norwood as “one of the most prominent and influential English educators of the part century”. He was also a died-in-the-wool establshment figure who had passed the civil service entrance examination before devoting himself to a career in education. He served as a teacher in Leeds Grammar School, then as Master of Marlborough College, then headteacher of Harrow for eight years, before becoming Master of an Oxford College in 1934.

Norwood’s interests were many and varied, but among them was the idea of a national labour service. On a number of occasions Norwood wrote and spoke in favour of compulsory labour camps, setting down his ideas in journals like the Spectator. But his ideas were less concerned with workfare – or work-for-benefits – than with building character through collective body work, as a politically palatable alternative to national military service.

From Norwood's 1938 New Statesman article

From Norwood’s 1938 New Statesman article

Like a number of other writers – including GDH Cole and the Webbs, socialists who had little in common with Norwood’s political stance – he favoured a universal scheme for all young men. He delliberately contrasted his scheme with the Ministry of Labour’s work camps for unemployed men, presenting his proposals for camps as “places for education and recreation” rather than mere training, which would “shake together the classes of the country as nothing else can”. The result should be “a generation with a new temperament . . . proud of itself and with a new sense of power and fitness”.

This was, of course, a selective and masculine focus. McCulloch points out that Norwood’s career was spent entirely in organisations for boys, staffed almost entirely by men, and this formative environment was common in Norwood’s social milieu. Hard work was widely viewed as good for the male body; Norwood’s argument was that hard work and camp life for young men were also good for the nation.

Attlee, labour colonies and the welfare state

Clement Attlee

Clement Attlee

In 1920, a thirty-seven year old university lecturer published a book on social work. Clement Attlee, later to become famous as Prime Minister of the 1945 Labour Government, had spent several years after graduating at Oxford serving charities in London’s East End, most notably as secretary of Toynbee Hall. Like most men of his background and generation, he was commissioned in the Great War, and was one of the last to be evacuated from Gallipoli.

I was reminded of Attlee’s book when reading Georgina Brewis’ terrific study of student volunteering in Britain. Brewis shows that the university settlement movement of the late nineteenth century was part of an emerging student associational culture in which voluntary social service started to develop some of the forms of professional social work. She also, incidentally, demonstrates the disproportionate significance of women in the worker

Attlee’s book can be understood as part of the transition from organised volunteering as a form of inter-class bonding through to a professionalised body of social workers. In it, he describes the opportunities available to would-be social workers, and devotes a chapter to the training and qualifications that he deemed desirable. Interestingly, he wrote the book while serving as Labour mayor for Stepney.

It was inevitable that Attlee would say something about the labour colony movement. Given its scale and its much-debated status, he could hardly ignore it. Among others, he singled out the Salvation Army’s colony at Hadleigh, the municipal colony inspired by George Lansbury at Hollesley Bay, and Joseph Fels’ land settlement colony at Mayland.

What did Attlee make of these ventures? His view of Hadfield was coloured by his suspicion of the Salvation Army, whose combination of boisterous religion and financial relief put ‘a premium upon hypocrisy’. He also feared that the Army’s workshops were undercutting ordinary workers. Hadleigh, though, was ‘far better conceived’.

He also admired the other colonies for training the unemployed, though noting that attempts to settle them on the land had come to little. The solution, Attlee suggested, lay in translating the methods of the co-operative movement to land settlement.

It would be unfair, and flawed, to overstate his interest in the labour colony movement: it merited a few mentions in a detailed study of British social service. But Attlee’s reasons for sympathising with the movement are instructive:

It must be recognised that prolonged unemployment is very demoralising, and that it is idle to expect those whose moral stamina has been undermined by casual work and insufficient food to become useful citizens and workers by the mere provision of work. Some form of training is necessary, and also some form of moral suasion, and the Salvation Army employs methods that are, at least in some cases, effective.

Attlee, of course, was far from alone in his sympathies. George Lansbury, Labour’s leader for much of the 30s, was an enthusiastic proponent of labour colonies as a means of resettling London’s unemployed on the land, while the Webbs were among other socialists who took a more punitive view of labour coloniesBeveridge expressed interest in the labour colony as part of the wider remedy for unemployment.

Such ideas and practices were found across large parts of progressive British opinion. I find it hard to understand the nature of Britain’s welfare state, as it was forged during the 1940s, without having some grasp of this longer background and its influence on the thinking and principles of those who shaped the settlement of the 1940s.

A metalwork instructor in a 1930s British work camp

The last remaining hut from Glenfinart Instructional Centre, sadly demolished in 2011

The last remaining hut from Glenfinart Instructional Centre, sadly demolished in 2011

Back in November, the Dunoon Observer reported on my research into British work camps, focusing mainly on the Glenfinart Instructional Centre in Ardentinny. The Ministry of Labour opened the Centre in 1934 as a summer camp where young unemployed men were ‘hardened’ through a programme of heavy manual labour, supported by health care and a solid diet. Most of the work involved preparing rough scrubland and pasture for planting, and the area is now largely covered by a very attractive forest.

Subsequently, a local reader contacted the paper. Mr Ian MacArthur’s grandfather was manager of the Ardentinny Temperance Hotel during the period when the Centre was open; and his father, John MacArthur, found work in the Centre as an instructor.

In the Dunoon Observer for 12 December 2014, Mr MacArthur described the background to his father’s appointment as follows: “He worked with a coke-raising forge, the fumes of which eventually poisoned him after a couple of years and hospitalised him”. After a period away from the west coast, John MacArthur applied for the post at the Centre.

The Ministry of Labour had approved this position in February 1934, but decided as an economy measure to merge the roles of woodwork instructor and metalwork instructor into one role. In May 1934 the Ministry listed the wages and salaries of its staff at the camp; the woodwork instructor was being paid 55 shillings weekly, significantly above what local farmworkers would have received at the time and slightly more than skilled engineers were receiving.

Mr MaccArthur also remembered his father saying that the IC manager had arranged for the well-known boxer Benny Lynch to visit the camp, where he fought an exhibition match with the physical training instructor. He doesn’t say who won this encounter, but Lynch was the world flyweight champion, and a popular Glasgow hero. He was then at his peak and his visit to the camp must have been sensational for staff and trainees alike. I’ve also been told that the heavyweight Tommy Farr (“the Tonypandy Terror”) also visited and fought in one of the Welsh camps.

Such memories are, of course, second hand, and we need to check them against other sources. My judgement is that Mr MacArthur’s account broadly confirm two features of the Ministry of Labour’s IC system.

First, the camps provided a fairly limited programme of skills development. As well as woodwork and metalwork, they usually offered some basic literacy and geography, but their major focus was on a regime of heavy manual labour, with the aim of building strength and stamina.

Second, those who ran the camps organised a range of recreational activities for the trainees, from cinema to but the ideal masculine body was central to many of these activities. Given that Benny Lynch symbolised the idealised virile physique, it is sad but ironic to report that his career ended in alcoholism.

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.