As part of its centenary celebrations this year, the Forestry Commission has unveiled a sculpture by Rachel Whiteread in Dalby Forest. It’s a splendid piece of work, comprising a full-size cast of a Nissen Hut, which represents both a connection with the First World War, when Major Nissen first designed the eponymous hut, and with the work camp that operated on the site from 1933 to 1939.
Whiteread’s hut sits deep in the Forest, three miles from the visitor centre, and it’s weathering in nicely. When we visited we combined the short pathway to the sculpture with a muddy walk along rutted tracks. It makes a nice addition to the rich walking tapestry of North Yorkshire, and it has rightly been celebrated on the BBC’s Countryfile.
Disappointingly, the accompanying information leaflet doesn’t match the standards of either the sculpture or the Forest, at least when it comes to the work camp, which it describes as offering “much-needed local employment and skills training”. In one short sentence, the leaflet glosses over the following:
- It wasn’t employment, and the trainees received unemployment benefit (after deductions to cover board and lodging);
- the Ministry of Labour was at pains to stress that its camps offered not skills training but an exposure to heavy manual labour;
- the men weren’t even local, but were recruited from high unemployment areas in Cleveland and South Yorkshire.
Does this matter to anyone but the historian? I think so, because it misrepresents the fundamental purpose of the entire government work camp system. This was stated bluntly by John Passmore, director of training at the Ministry of Labour, to a reporter who was visiting Dalby – or Allerston as it was then known – while it was under construction, using trainees from the Bourne camp in Lincolnshire.
Passmore described the camp’s purpose as ‘reconditioning’ men who had gone soft through prolonged unemployment, so that they were physically capable of doing heavy work: “We understand that men who have had long periods of unemployment will be in poor condition physically, and it is our intention to recondition them. At first they will be placed on lighter types of work, which will be stiffened as the weeks pass. The heavier jobs will consist of road work in the forest” (Yorkshire News, 29 November 1933).
Plenty of people misrepresented the camps at the time. The Yorkshire News reporter sounds a right Pollyanna, writing “That they were happy was not to be doubted for a moment. The carefree singing and whistling of those who had already felt the benefit of this new job in a healthy atmosphere was indicative enough”. From the Marxist Left, Communists denounced the “slave camps” as echoes of Nazism.
Both were wrong, but the myths persist to this day. Still, don’t let it put you off visiting Dalby and hunting for Whiteread’s Nissen Hut. If a beautiful forest and a haunting sculpture aren’t enough for you, there’s also a wooden Gruffalo close by.