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.

Eynsham Camp Report2

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’.

Eynsham Camp Report2

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.

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.