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

lynch

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.

 

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.

Wishing you were here: work camps on postcards

ardentinny card viewPowerPoint comes in for a lot of stick, but I’ve found it really handy while travelling around talking about work camps to local history groups. Most groups expect their speaker to carry on for an hour – something I can do perfectly happily, of course, but illustrations make the whole session a lot more interesting. So where do you find images of work camps?

For interwar Britain, postcards are an indispensable resource. Or at least, they are a great source of images, but so far I haven’t got much from the texts on the back. Apart from anything else, postcard messages are usually pretty short, and it often isn’t clear who sent them.

Here’s an example – a postcard of Ardentinny Instructional Centre that I use to illustrate talks to audiences in the west of Scotland. It was posted in summer 1939 by someone signing themself “J McN”, and addressed to a Miss Bannatyne who lived in the Garden City, Kilbirnie.ardentinny card

The image is fine. If you look carefully, you will see that the camp is partly tented. This is because it operated only in the summer, unlike the nearby hutted camp at Glenbranter. And you can also see people swimming, confirming that people used to be much hardier than they are today.

The message seems clear enough. The writer was ‘Having the time of my life’. But who was he? Was he a trainee at the camp, or a member of staff? We he being serious or sarcastic? Or was he unconnected with the camp – a visitor or a local, perhaps? And while I reckon the odds are on a male author, there is a chance that it was a woman.

I did spot one clue, though. While the sender wrote the address neatly and confidently, the message itself has been over-written: in several places you can see the original writing – in the ‘g’ of ‘having’, for example. Maybe J McN had to ask for help to write his message? If so, then the odds move in favour of the author being a trainee.

As centres for training young unemployed men, the Instructional Centres mainly focused on heavy manual labour. But they also offered brief basic classes in reading and writin, as well as British geography, woodwork and metalwork.

Interesting as all this is, what really strikes me is that there was a market for postcards of work camps. In this case, the card was produced by a Glaswegian stationer, in their Real Photographic Series, probably for a largely regional market. But larger firms like Francis Frith and Valentines also sold postcards featuring work camps.

What can we learn from this? Certainly, the marketing of these images suggests a degree of openness by those who ran these institutions. In the case of the Instructional Centres, the Ministry of Labour also encouraged visits from the public as well as journalists and broadcasters.

Of course, this was a controlled process – the Ministry didn’t welcome visits from radical opponents like the National Unemployed Workers Movement). But it shows conclusively that there was nothing “secret” about the camps.

Second, the existence of these images tells us that there was a demand for them from somebody. We don’t know whether it was trainees, staff or others who actually bought the cards; and the demand wasn’t necessarily very high, as a local firm could easily print a small run of cards. But the fact is that someone bought them, and used them.

This in turn suggests that the camps were seen as an interesting feature of the local landscape. It might also suggest that for many people, the camps carried no particular negative connotations, which might seem counter-intuitive.

Other places feature on interwar postcards that we might today find slightly odd. Thanks to Twitter, I recently came across an account of an asylum illustrated with images from postcards. Where else, I wonder?

Drinking and work camps

I’ve just given a seminar on British work camps between the wars, and one thing that got the audience going was a brief mention of unemployed inmates going to the pub. I was using this as an example of a more general feature of the Ministry of Labour’s unemployed camps – namely, that although they were ‘bounded communities,’ they were not completely closed.

This discussion reminded me of a curious episode that I came across in the Dunoon Herald for 2 November 1934. By then, Dunoon was close to two Ministry of Labour camps, a permanent camp at Glenbranter and a summer camp at Ardentinny, each housing 200 men.

The Ardentinny men were in the habit of taking the bus to Dunoon for an evening out, which attracted the attention of a local entrepreneur. The owner of the Ardentinny Temperance Hotel, who also ran a farm, applied to the licencing court for permission to sell alcohol. The court heard from his neighbours, who claimed that extra police would be needed to deal with badly behaved drunks from Greenock.

Ardentinny Hotel in the 30s, image from http://ardentinny.org/

Ardentinny Hotel in the 30s, image from http://ardentinny.org/

The manager of Ardentinny Instructional Centre, a Mr Greeenwood, also opposed the application. From the Ministry of Labour’s perspective, Greenwood wanted things to stay as they were:

The chief attraction, so far as their scheme was concerned, was that there was no hotel there. If there were, it would be a temptation to the lads and might spoil their chances of getting employment. As it was the lads were well treated by the residents and there had been no complaints of any kind.

The court refused the licence, and the men continued to do their drinking in Dunoon.