Rachel Whiteread’s Nissen Hut – commemorating a 1930s work camp

Rachel Whiteread is one of Britain’s most ouststanding artists. I first encountered her work in the form of a plaster cast of some bookshelves, a theme she later explored for her Holocaust Memorial in the city of Vienna. I find her work haunting, thought-provoking, and inspiring, so I was thrilled to hear that the Forestry Commission had asked her to produce a WW1 memorial in Dalby Forest.

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Whiteread’s hut, from the 14-18 Now website

Whiteread’s memorial takes the form of a Nissen hut, which had been mass-produced for the services as a cheap and quick means of housing the fast-expanding number of recruits. You have to take a bit of a walk to reach it, but for most people a stroll through Dalby will be no great hardship. As you would hope and expect,the result is well worth the effort, and its pristine whiteness will darken as it experiences the wonders of Yorkshire weather.

The irony, though, is that Nissen huts came to Dalby well after the War ended. And when they came, their role was to house not soldiers but young unemployed men who were being ‘reconditioned’, to make them fit for heavy manual labour. Dalby was a work camp, or Instructional Centre, where the Ministry of Labour sent unemployed men to work clearing scrubland and rough pasture in readiness for afforestation.

The Forestry Commission came into being immediately after the Great War ended, and it started work at Dalby – or Allerston as it was originally known, after the village where officials stayed while inspecting the land. The Ministry of Labour approached the Commission in 1933, asking to open a camp on the site for unemployed young men from Whitby and Cleveland. The camp took its first inmates, who came from across Yorkshire, in early 1934, and it continued to run until war approached in 1939.

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A 1932 postcard, showing the layout of Dalby work camp

As the postcard shows, the 200 or so inmates were housed in Nissen Huts, each of which held 20 men. The camp also had a sports field, tennis ground, swimming pool, classrooms, sick bay and welfare hut which also served as library and cinema. It was remote, with a long tramp to the nearest piub; one visiting journalist complained that he had to open and close 14 gates on the country lanes to reach the camp.While the inmates were mostly too young to have served in the War, some of the staff had military exerience. After 1939 the huts housed prisoners of war.

Whiteread’s sculpture, as wall as being a fine piece of public art, also serves as an act of public history. Needless to say, if you want to know more about the wider work camp system of which Dalby formed a part, you should just read my book. But even if you don’t, let me encourage you to take a walk in a fine bit of forest.

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The Midsomer work camp

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.

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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…

We should celebrate Enid Stacy – socialist, suffrage campaigner, and land settler

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Stacy (after her marriage) on a postcard

Enid Stacy was a leading late nineteenth century socialist. She came from Bristol, attended university in Cardiff, became a teacher, was a founder member of the Independent Labour Party, and made a living as an itinerant public speaker. Margaret Cole remembered her as ‘one of the most effective women speakers and lecturers in the nineties’. Stacy took a firm view on equality between the genders, and supported universal adult suffrage, embracing all adults – women and men – on an equal basis. The last months of her life were spent campaigning against the Boer Wars.

Stacy is hardly unknown – she has her own blue plaque, and a London council named a housing scheme after her – but she is not a familiar figure, even among historians of the labour and women’s movements. I have vague memories of Ruth Frow telling me of an unpublished biography by her niece.

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From: openplaques.org

Ruth, who with her husband Eddie founded and curated the marvellous Manchester Working Class Movement Library, was a generous host, and I was an enthusiastic doctoral student, so I must have taken in what she’d said, but this wasn’t my field. I didn’t pay much as much attention to the Stacy story as I did to the tea and sandwiches that she offered me.

Much later on, I encountered Stacy as a member of the Starnthwaite Colony, one of several late nineteenth century utopian settlements that crop up in my study of British work camps. Stacy was as prickly and challenging as a land settler as she was in every other area of her life, but it was hard to find out much about her. So I was delighted to learn from the Lipstick Socialist blog that Stacy’s biography is finally to see the light of day.

For me, Stacy entered the work camps story in 1893. Aged 25, she had been dismissed from her teaching post for her role in supporting local strikers. Together with Katherine St John Conway (later Glasier Conway) she made her way to Starnthwaite, near Kendal, where a Unitarian minister and socialist called Herbert V. Mills had founded a utopian socialist colony, attracting a small number of local unemployed men and committed socialists, among them Dan Irving, the one-legged trade unionist, acquaintance of James Connolly, and subsequently Labour MP.

Like several similar utopian colonies, the Starnthwaite settlers found life hard. The practical challenges of self-sufficiency were hard enough, but there were also ideological and personality differences, with Stacy and Irving among a group of socialists who accused Mills of authoritarianism. Mills, for his part, accused the socialists of being keener on preaching than working, and had the police charge six of them for breaking down a door.

Stacy was expelled within months of joining the colony, along with thirteen others, and proceeded to make her criticisms of Starnthwaite a theme for her public lectures in Lancashire. Starnthwaite struggled on for a time before Mills handed it over to the Christian Union for Social Service, and then withdrew from an active role in the land settlement movement. His reputation was briefly revived by the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who in 1908 justified Mills’ stern government of the colony as unavoidable if it were to survive its early challenges in a disciplined way.

Stacy moved on, speaking at dozens of open-air meetings, often from the back of a Clarion van. She married, writing a short play exploring her socialist approach to marriage, and she continued to advocate the ‘co-operative home’ or settlement as a way of tackling the unequal distribution of domestic labour. And if you want to find out more, then like me you will have to buy the biography.

Stacy’s biography is available, for a mere fiver – yes, less than two pints – here.

 

Why Rendlesham is special – Anglo-Saxon palace, UFO landing site, work camp for the London unemployed

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Archaeologists from Suffolk County Council believe that they have uncovered the remains of an Anglo-Saxon palace near Rendlesham. If so, this is quite a find, and puts Rendlesham firmly on the map for all those interested in this island’s distant past. But some of us already know the village well, for other reasons.

Most famously, Rendlesham is known among Ufologists as ‘Britain’s Roswell’, the site of Britain’s first UFO landing. Less well known is the history of the Rendlesham Instructional Centre, which served between 1936 and 1939  as part of the Ministry of Labour’s programme of ‘reconditioning’ long term unemployed men by a programme of heavy manual labour (further details here).

Previously, the Ministry of Labour had built its work camps in isolated areas that were within a train journey of the coalfields and other areas of concentrated unemployment. London’s unemployed were viewed as unlikely to benefit from work camp placements, partly because many of them tended to go into and out of jobs on a more or less casual basis, and partly because new employment opportunities were opening up in and around the capital.

The coalfields, by contrast, were viewed as areas of long term unemployment whose population should transfer to work in other parts of the country. But by 1935 the Ministry of Labour faced difficulties recruiting for its camps, and started to focus on new areas.

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Ministry of Labour Annual Report, 1936

Rendlesham was selected because of its location. By 1936, Rendlesham already belonged to the Forestry Commission, which had started to plant trees in 1933, so there was plenty of work available to extend the forestable area. It was also within easy reach of London.

The Instructional Centre opened in December 1936, with a capacity of 200 men. Its track record was poor: during its first full year of operation it admitted 810 men, 199 of whom were dismissed or walked out, with a further 441 completing their course only to go back on the dole; only 45 found work, many of them by their own devices rather than the Ministry’s.

None of this stopped the Ministry, and the Unemployment Assistance Board, from congratulating themselves on the wonderful work of the centre. Unsurprisingly, then, Rendlesham work camp was short lived, and it closed well before war broke out. It was certified as an approved school in 1939, and was then designated as a ‘Civil Training Centre’ for conscientious objectors.

Of course none of this story will ever be as well known as the Anglo-Saxon palace and the alien incursion, but it is a pointed reminder that workfare has a history – and that it is a history of failure. And, like many of the former work camp sites, it is a fabulous area for walking.

Work camps: disciplining the body – a review

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There’s a new review of Working Men’s Bodies on the humanities and social science website H-Net. The author is Jihan Abbas, who is both a disability activist and a scholar of disability and inclusion in the labor market and social policy. She summarises the book as covering ‘a broad range of sites and colonies that were used to enforce work and discipline of various and diverse bodies’.

Here is her conclusion:

The book discusses important strands concerning the meaning of work and constructions of male bodies, and it will be of interest to a broad and interdisciplinary audience. It not only provides a rich and thorough history of work camps but also highlights the experiences of those living and working within them and the impact of policy decisions and labor practices. Field illustrates public understanding across space and time, the role of training, and the influence of labor policies. It is an important contribution to shared understandings of how bodies are shaped and managed through public discourse and policy interventions.Working Men’s Bodies will therefore also appeal to readers interested in sociology, labor policy and the gendered nature of work.
If you want to read the full review, you can find it here.

Utopia – Whither the Future?

I’ve been very taken with the idea behind this conference, which examines the past, present and future of utopias. It’s being held in New York in September, and the call for papers is open (details here) until 30 June. I can’t attend myself, but what a great topic!

The organisers pose some attractive questions about the past and present of utopia. The future, reasonably enough, is summarised by a question mark.New Picture (2)

I certainly have an interest in the history of utopian thinking and practice. I encountered numerous cases in researching the British work camp tradition, ranging from the Christian Socialist settlement at Starnthwaite and the Tolstoyan anarchists of Whiteway to the Zionist David Eder training farm, the Aryan work camps of Rolf Gardiner’s group, and the peace-builders of Gryth Fyrd. All of these sought to prefigure a different world; and although none managed to persist with its original intentions, some lasted much longer than others.

Given that work camps are seriously hard work, literally as well as figuratively, there may well be some lessons to be learned from these stories. The tension between academic rigour and utopian activism is one of life’s great pleasures.  And I very much hope that utopian thinking and practices are far from dead: if we cannot imagine a different way of living from the world around us at present, we may as well turn to the bottle.

Cornton Vale: from inebriate colony to women’s gaol

Cornton Vale, Scotland’s one specialist prison for women, is closing.  You will find an interesting account of it by a former inmate here. The Scottish Government plans to replace it with a smaller specialist prison for long term women prisoners and to disperse others across the sector. I’m not qualified to judge whether this will improve prison conditions for women, or simply remove them from the spotlight by dispersing them.

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Image from Scottish Prison Service

This decision brings to an end a long and intriguing history of deviant incarceration. Cornton Vale farm, on the banks of the Forth just outside Stirling, went on the market in the economic downturn of the 1890s. For a number of years it functioned as an inebriate colony, whose inmates included some middle class alcoholics who on graduating were usually sent by their families to run estates in the dominions, but this venture failed and the farm went back on the market.

Inspired by the training colonies associated with the German Lutheran church, the Church of Scotland bought the 34-acre estate in 1907, with a house, sheds and greenhouses, for the sum of £23,500 with the aim of training ‘habitual inebriates’ as ‘colonists or as agricultural labourers’.

Operating through its Social Work Department, the Kirk officially opened its new labour colony in September 1907, aiming for an intake of 44 men. Although it continued to accept inebriates, over time the colony increasingly recruited the unemployed; once more, its aim was primarily to remove them from Scotland, and a number duly shipped out to Canada.

The Army requisitioned the site during WW1, after which the Kirk re-opened the colony , initially training jobless ex-servicemen while negotiating with the government for funding under the Empire Settlement Act. Some thirty to forty unemployed men were still being trained annually at Cornton Vale when the Empire Settlement scheme came to an end in 1929.

The new minority Labour government continued to fund small scale training for would-be emigrants, but this ceased in 1931. The Kirk, though, supported the colony for a number of years in the hope that improving economic conditions would bring about a return to Dominions emigration, and even extended the accommodation as late as 1938.

The colony was again taken over by the government during WW2. In 1946, the Kirk leased and subsequently sold the land to the Scottish Office Prisons Department, who opened it as a Borstal for young male offenders, then later as a prison for women which was partly built by young men serving their Borstal sentence.

Cornton Vale’s story exemplifies the changing ways in which work camps for deviants of different kinds have mutated over time, and as the story of Osea Island confirms, inebriate colonies in particular tended to change as funding sources dried up. Cornton Vale, though, is the only case to my knowledge which started as an inebriate reformatory and ended up as a women’s prison.

If you’d like a more detailed portrait of Cornton Vale, the Smith Gallery and Museum in Stirling has published a booklet that I can warmly recommend (contact details here).