Work camp entertainment in the 30s: concerts in Cornton Vale Farm Colony

The spread of work camp systems in the early twentieth century posed a number of challenges of organisation and management. Apart from any other consideration, large groups of bored young men in an enclosed space are a combustible mix, so the authorities went to some trouble to provide approved forms of leisure, from sports to film. I’ve written about the organisation of Christmas Day and boxing contests in Ministry of Labour camps, but the same problems also affected voluntary sector camps, such as the Church of Scotland’s farm colony at Cornton Vale.

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Bridge of Allan at around the time  Cornton Vale colony opened in 1907. Image taken from Flickr‘s The Commons

 The Kirk had two advantages in organising entertainments at Cornton Vale. First, it could call on its congregations not only to help finance events, but also to perform; and second, the neighbouring congregations included the affluent small spa town of Bridge of Allan. In March 1934, concerts at the colony featured local musicians plus Miss Ella Ewing, an elocutionist from St Ninian’s in Stirling, and Mr Andrew Wingate, a ‘humorist’ from Bridge of Allan, and the local Chalmers Church Choir, who led the audience in Auld Lang Syne and God Save the King.

Much the same programme featured in January 1935, suggesting that the Kirk knew who its reliable performers were. Following the death of George V, the programme was amended to include a performance of ‘The Flo’ers o’ the Forest’ by the church choir of Stirling’s Holy Rude, followed by a lament on the pipes.

The concerts were duly reported in the Stirling Journal and Advertiser, but the newspaper says nothing about how the young male inmates received them. Cornton Vale was relatively small following the demise of empire emigration; the 1932 census reported it as housing 24 inmates, two members of staff,  and four relatives of officials. But as far as I know, none of these have left much behind by way of memories and records. What did they make of performances by Presbyterian humorists and elocutionists?

 

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).