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).

Osea Island: workfare camp, inebriate retreat

Helen Rogers, a socio-cultural historian who studies working class writing among other things, runs the fabulous website on working class autobiographies called Writing Lives. The other day she tweeted a link to a post about the life of May Owen, a Londoner born in 1896, whose father was an alcoholic.

May writes that: ‘I can remember Charrington the Brewers son forming a club for alcoholics my father was one of thirty sent to a small island off the Thanet coast Osea Island. No drink, his wage given to my mother and he had to help build a sea wall.’

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Osea Island – image from Wikipedia

Helen’s Tweet asked whether Osea was one of my ‘work camps’. The short answer is yes: it was indeed one of the many work camps that were opened in Britain for marginal and stigmatised groups. Osea hosted a labour colony for unemployed Londoners, which became a colony for habitual inebriates, as the island’s owner was a leading temperance campaigner and social reformer.

Frederick Charrington might seem an unexpected adherent of temperance. Son of a London brewing dynasty, Charrington reportedly sold his shares in the family business after seeing a drunk man punch his wife. He promoted the Ragged School movement, supported striking Jewish tailors, and helped open a temperance assembly hall on the Mile End Road.

Charrington bought the island in 1903,with a view to turning it into an inebriate retreat. Initially, he opened a small colony for inebriate women. This proved a failure, and in 1904 he invited the London local authorities to use it for poor relief.Supported by the Lord Mayor’s fund, unemployed male heads of household were sent in the following winter to live on the island, where they laid roads, leveled land, and built sea walls while living in wooden huts.

Further groups were sent in the following year, under the auspices of the Central (Unemployed) Body for London. At full capacity, the dormitories held 80 bunks, but William Beveridge estimated that  there were usually around 70 men in residence.

A number of interested visitors came to view the colony, including Beveridge, who  noted that the unemployed residents were supplied with boots on loan, and had to bring one change of clothing. They had to be accustomed to heavy labour, and were inspected for infections and cleanliness before entering the colony. The colony rules, he reported, were simple:

(a) Prompt obedience to orders;

(b) Sobriety;

(c) Observance of appointed hours

Rules or not, three of the first group of 25 men rapidly scurried off to the mainland, where they apparently caused a disturbance in the pubs of Malden.

After 1905, and using the infrastructure built by the unemployed Londoners, Charrington then opened a temperance holiday village on the island. According to the Little Book of Essex, the locals smuggled alcohol out to the island, and ferried thirsty holiday-makers to Malden.

Charrington’s holiday settlement continued until the Great War, when the Admiralty commandeered the island for use as a motor boat harbour. In 1934, the Rural Community Council of Essex opened a ‘reconditioning camp’ on the Island to help unemployed men improve their fitness and readiness for work.

Since the 1940s, its main claim to fame is as a splendid habitat for bird life. Strangely, though, the great house on Osea briefly returned to its earlier role at the start of the present century, when it was opened as a retreat for wealthy addicts – including, most famously, Amy Winehouse. That venture also failed, and the island is now marketed as a luxury holiday destination.

May is wrong about one thing: Osea is off the Essex coast, and not Thanet. Essex was a popular location for labour colonies, situated close enough to London to simplify transport but far enough to cause trainees to think twice about running away. There was also plentiful land, much of it economically marginal so that it therefore presented abundant opportunities for reclamation work.

 

Benny Lynch: the world boxing champion who fought in a work camp

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Lynch’s grave, image copyright Lairich Rig and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons

Benny Lynch was arguably the greatest boxer that Scotland has ever produced. Born in the Gorbals in 1913, he became world flyweight champion in 1936 (or 1935, depending on which world championship we are talking about) and was a popular Glasgow hero. The popular actor Norman Wisdom, himself a handy amateur flyweight boxer, was said to be desperate to play him.

Now a campaign for a statue in his honour has received support from the actor Robert Carlyle among others. I happen to think a statue would be highly fitting. But my interest in Lynch was sparked less by his sporting prowess than by the fact that he fought an exhibition match in front of an audience of staff and trainees at a government work camp.

This information comes from Mr Ian MacArthur, who contacted the Dunoon Observer after reading an interview about my book on work camps. Mr MacArthur’s grandfather kept a local temperance hotel, and in 1934 his father became woodwork and metalwork instructor at Ardentinny Instructional Centre. Mr MacArthur remembered his father saying that the camp manager had arranged for Benny Lynch to visit the camp, where he fought an exhibition match with the physical training instructor.

Ardentinny was one of 24 ICs in 1934, run by the Ministry of Labour to ‘harden’ young unemployed men through a combination of hard work, a solid diet, and basic medical care. By 1934, the camps also provided some basic skills training, literacy classes, and entertainment, including films and sports, of which football and boxing were far the most popular (along with rugby in Wales). If you look closely at the postcard below, you can see men swimming in the Clyde.

Ardentinny postcard

These activities were, of course, highly compatible with the camps’ aim of ‘reconditioning’ male bodies. Presumably, they also went some way to alleviate the tedium of camp existence, particularly if a local celebrity like Lynch was involved.

 

Child migrants: the Boy Scouts’ training camp for Durham boys

Amidst all the debate over migration and refugees, you could be forgiven for forgetting that European countries have also sent their fair share of ‘economic migrants’. In the case of Britain, this exodus served a dual purpose: ridding the homeland of an unwanted surplus and settling the overseas Dominions with white Britons.

I’ve described elsewhere the role of the labour colony movement in moving ‘the landless man to the manless land’, as well as the many attempts to train young women as wives and servants for Australia and Canada, and to ‘recondition’ unemployed soldiers and miners as farm labourers. But while my book on British work camps concentrates largely on adults, there were also numerous schemes for training children before sending them out to the Dominions.

As well as the large scale schemes of the major charities, including Barnardos and the YMCA, children were also the focus of many smaller, often voluntary initiatives. This included the Boy Scout movement’s training camps for boys from mining villages.

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Baden-Powell’s report on his visit, from the Eynsham Scoouts Archive

The scheme was started in 1929 by Miss Doris Mason, a scoutmaster and then a Scout Commissioner. Based at Eynsham Hall near Witney, in Oxford, it recruited young lads (aged 14-18) from the ‘distressed areas’ and involved them in a mixture of scouting and farm work. Each boy was placed with a local farmer for part of the day, and spent the rest of the day in organised leisure activities. After four or five months, the boys were subjected to a medical examination, and if passed fit were sent on to Australia.

Miss Mason ran her first camp between April and July 1929, with a group of twelve boys from Durham pit villages. By the tenth day, some of the boys were on strike, after getting into trouble for refusing to play cricket after working in the fields. Mason replaced the strikers; eight of the twelve passed their medical, and eventually seven boys were packed off to Queensland.

This is a small scale scheme, but a very interesting one. The scheme aimed to turn each boy into ‘an Empire-building citizen’, through a pedagogic programme of work, scouting and sport.They worked for their badges, and pursued more or less enthusiastically the scouting idea of manly pioneering.

Yet even after four months of demanding labour and  hearty food, the Australian medical examiner failed one third of the boys as unfit. Once in Queensland, subjected to conditions that were at best harsh and at worst abusive in the extreme, several wrote to Miss Mason asking to come home again.

At the time, though, the scouting movement managed to portray the scheme as a resounding success. Arthur Mee praised it in the Children’s Newspaper as showing that ‘A good Scout has in him the makings of a good colonist’.

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Baden=Powell’s report, from the Eynsham Scouts Archive

 

Miss Mason went on to develop other ventures for boys from the mining areas, including a scheme to train lads as butlers, grooms and chauffeurs. The village of Eynsham, meanwhile, hosted other schemes for the unemployed, including a work camp for unemployed men that was established by former scouts who had gone on to Cambridge University.

Meanwhile, there is currently a fabulous exhibition at the Museum of Childhood that tells the wider story of which the Scout camps are a part. It is called On their Own: Britain’s child migrants. If you’re in London, please visit it!

 

 

 

 

Families, welfare benefits and economic migration: the case of London’s early 20th century labour colonies

Hollesley Bay Labour Colony, from the collection of Peter Higginbotham

Hollesley Bay Labour Colony, from the collection of Peter Higginbotham

Governments over the years have repeatedly tried to work out how to structure benefits and taxation systems to encourage the poor to work. A cynic would say that they seem to have no such problems when it comes to the rich, of course. Still, it has been instructive to see the pickle that the British government has got itself into over its plans to remove tax incentives from the poorest workers in the economy.

These debates are, of course, not new. Indeed, they remind me of the discussions over municipal labour colonies in early twentieth century Britain. A number of towns and cities considered plans for labour colonies where unemployed men could be sent to work on the land, where they might maintain their physical strength while undertaking productive labour. A number were subsequently opened up by local public authorities in cities like Glasgow, Edinburgh, Leeds and Manchester; but the largest number by far were those opened by local governments in London.

The London labour colonies are relatively well documented. Quite a large amount of archival material survives in the London Metropolitan Archives, journalists and social workers found it easy to visit the London colonies (most of which were in Essex), and organisations like the Central (Unemployed) Body produced printed reports. I used all of these sources for my book on British work camps; more recently, I came across some helpful references in the reports of local medical officers of health, which have just been digitised by the Wellcome Library.

In their annual reports, the medical officers of health (MOH) often discussed conditions among the poor, including those who had been sent to labour colonies. In Hammersmith, for example, the MOH noted in 1905 and 1906 that men had been sent out to four labour colonies. The largest number went to Hollesley Bay Labour Colony in Suffolk, which took in 16 Hammersmith men in 1905; four were sent up to the Garden City, where a student-led colony helped to landscape the new town; three went to reclaim marshland and build sea walls on Osea Island; and one solitary individual went out to a colony at Fambridge.

I was particularly interested to see that the MOH sometimes gave details of payments to the men’s families. Whereas unemployed men engaged on public works were given minimum wages, men in the labour colonies were fed, housed, clothed, and given simply a small weekly allowance – six pennies a week in the case of Hammersmith men – to spend on cigarettes or food. However, their dependents received a small allowance: the Hammersmith Distress Committee paid 10 shillings (50p) for the wife, 1s 6d for the first child, and 1s for subsequent children, up to a maximum of 17s 6d per family per week.

What attracted my attention was the way in which the Hammersmith Distress Committee – appointed by the Borough Council under the 1905 Unemployed Workmen Act – chose to issue the family allowances. Members of the Distress Committee visited the homes, firstly to investigate the family’s behaviour, and secondly to consider whether they could be sent to the colonies.

From the Annual Report for 1906, Medical Officer for Health, Hammersmith

From the Annual Report for 1906, Medical Officer for Health, Hammersmith

Both of these reasons for visiting are significant. The second, though, provides a timely reminder that entire families were pressurised to migrate to the White Dominions, and to Canada and Australia in particular. There is a great deal of controversy about migration into Britain, and rather less awareness of forced emigration out of it. This is changing, thanks partly to campaigns over child migrants, as exemplified in the current Museum of Childhood’s exhibition; we also need to recognise those who were sent on long journeys abroad simply because their menfolk were unemployed.

 

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.