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.

Modernity and socialist land colonies

Why did socialists create so many new utopian communities in the late nineteenth century? In his engaging short book on Modernism and British Socialism, Thomas Linehan revises the neo-Marxist notion of a ‘conjuncture’ (it sounds better in French) where a number of factors came together that encouraged a positive view of the world as it might be, a negative view of the world as it was, and an optimistic sense that an alternative was realistically achievable.


For Linehan, the socialist revival itself in the 1880s and 1890s reflected a belief that capitalism stood stood on ‘the cusp of profound and radical change’ (132). While urbanisation, mechanisation, scientific advance and economic growth had brought about an end to old ways of living, they had palpably failed to produce spiritual renewal and material prosperity for all, while also throwing old certainties into the dustbin of radical doubt. The result was what Linehan calls ‘an acute liminoid moment’ (28), when radicals were able to put into practice their values of fellowship, harmony and equality.

Linehan devotes a chapter to the socialist colonies, paying particular attention to the Tolstoyan settlements at Purleigh and Whiteway, the Christian socialist colony at Starnthwaite in Cumberland, and the Kropotkinite Clousden Hill Communist and Co-operative Colony near Newcastle, as well as the arts and crafts colony at Chipping Campden. He also mentions the one-man settlement of the Scot Douglas Semple, who went to live in a bell tent on Linwood Moss, near Paisley.

These ‘experiments in social modernism’ represented an attempted reconstruction of communal life in communion with nature, as well as a refusal of the spatial and temporal arrangements of modernity. Linehan contrasts these utopian impulses with ‘Fabian modernism’, which he presents as underpinned by a belief in the power of rationalism and science, as well as a strong sense that ‘progress’ was inexorably moving towards the collectivisation of social governance. Fabian efficiency, writes Linehan, was incompatible with and intolerant of the utopian colonies, which Sidney Webb deplored as sentimental expressions of pre-modern nostalgia.

This is a compelling account, and I wish I’d managed to read it before finishing my own study of British work camp systems. My fourth chapter is given over to a discussion of the utopian colonies, and on the whole I think my analysis and Linehan’s complement each other. His work is much stronger on the intellectual history of the period, though, and it forces us to rethink much of the socialist project of the late nineteenth century (and more recently, of course).

Where we part company is, I think, in his use of the term modernism. I’m generally sceptical over such portmanteau concepts as modernism and neo-liberalism, both because they jumble together much that is contradictory and because they tend to be deployed as non-personified actors rather than as general intellectual currents. And I think this has influenced Linehan’s account of the socialist colonies as well.

For one thing, any account of socialist utopian colonies has to acknowledge not only the various autonomous community building endeavours of small groups. It must also consider the ways in which socialists sought to use local government – particularly the poor law institutions – to develop labour colonies that were similarly inspired by the idea of building new, post-industrial and egalitarian communities. The work of George Lansbury and his allies in Poplar and elsewhere in London is the prime example, but there are others.

Science alone was not enough to render utopian colonies unrealistic. Alfred Russel Wallace, one of the great supporters of the labour colony movement, was himself a rationalist and a biologist, who is best known for independently developing the theory of evolution; he was also a spiritualist, and saw nothing contradictory in holding these views.

And this brings us back to the Fabians, who may have understood themselves as dispassionate and scientific, but were perfectly happy to develop plans for labour colonies as part of their wider vision of socialised efficiency. Equally, the Kropotkinites at Clousden Hill thought of themselves as promoters of the latest scientific techniques in agriculture. Science and community building were by no means mutually exclusive.

Finally, the utopian moment passed fairly quickly. Few of the socialist colonies survived more than a couple of years, and those that did survive – like Starnthwaite and Whiteway – had to change their goals and nature pretty drastically. It is then hardly surprising if Fabians thought them of little value in the years before the Great War, as by that time no socialist colonies existed. Interestingly, although the local government colonies also lost their utopian character, Lansbury supported them loyally to the last.

Modernism and British Socialism is a lively, well-written and intellectually fluent book. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and while I don’t agree with part of Linehan’s central argument, nor with his account of the socialist colonies, it helps us rethink the intellectual climate in late nineteenth century Britain and offers a stimulating account of early British socialism.

William Beveridge – a supporter of the labour colony

William Beveridge is widely known as the architect of the welfare state. As such, he is automatically a hero for the Left. Right-wing modernisers like the Free Enterprise Group praise Beveridge’s intentions and principles while lamenting the supposedly bloated socialist bureaucracy that has distorted and displaced his original vision. Now Geoffrey Wheatcroft of the Guardian has joined in, reminding us that Beveridge was indeed a reluctant convert to state intervention, and was shocked by the Attlee government’s contempt for friendly societies.

Beveridge was also a youthful fan of the labour colony movement. This is sometimes passed over by later generations as a fleeting fancy, a brief moment of authoritarianism towards the poor that he inherited from the reformer and researcher Charles Booth. Booth famously classified the poor into five groups, and proposed that the most idle two groups should be packed off to ‘labour schools’ in the countryside.

Beveridge developed this idea in a paper in 1904, proposing that labour colonies should be used to train, not the idle poor, but those who were genuinely unemployed. Beveridge’s early ideas were based on experience. During the trade recession of 1903-5 that followed the Boer Wars, a number of poor law bodies and charities opened labour colonies.

Beveridge, then living in the university settlement at Toynbee Hall, visited several of the colonies, and wrote extensive notes. At Osea Island (later famous as a ‘retreat’ for celebrities struggling with addictions), he noted that the 80 unemployed residents were required to be sober at all times, and were inspected for infections and cleanliness before entering the colony. He concluded that ‘work on the colonies, carried out under good conditions, in country air, with good food, and in the absence of intoxicants, produced a marked improvement in the physique of the men’, and also ‘widened their horizon and stimulated their enterprise’.

Several historians suggest that Beveridge later changed his mind about labour colonies. As an economic liberal, they argue, he saw labour exchanges as more effective in underpinning labour mobility, believing that once the unemployed knew about opportunities for work, they would have every incentive to move to new jobs. Labour colonies, they argue, were part of an outdated way of thinking about the poor – and entirely inconsistent with Beveridge’s recognition of the importance of structural unemployment.

But this is simply not the case. Beveridge saw unemployment as partly what we would call structural in nature, but he also accepted that there was a small number of ‘unemployables’, arguing that their defects were often the result of casual employment. Just as they had learned to balance extremes of employment and idleness, so they might learn to work steadily if only they were properly schooled. And they would learn to labour in organised colonies.

This is clear from Beveridge’s evidence to the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws. Beveridge told the Commission that a labour colony could usefully serve either as a ‘technical school’, training for a specific purpose, such as emigration, or as ‘a hospital’ for the reintegration of ‘men broken down through privation or vice’. He also favoured more penal types of colony, to discipline the few who were ‘incurably defective or idle’.

Similarly, in his well known book on Unemployment: A problem of industry, Beveridge praised those colonies which focused on training, such as Hollesley Bay. He had certainly modified his view since 1904, warning that their positive effect was largely short term, and that they tended to institutionalise the trainees. But I am in no doubt that he continued to see a place for labour colonies, alongside rather than instead of labour exchanges, as a way of reducing unemployment.

Did this make Beveridge an enthusiast for state intervention? Hardly. The labour colonies of 1903-5 were mainly created and directed by municipal rather than national government, usually working with voluntary bodies, charities and philanthropists. While the movement had many supporters on the Left (and the Right), they tended to belong to the land reform wing of Labour, like George Lansbury.

The idea of a national state system of labour colonies was developed most systematically by the Fabian Socialist thinkers Beatrice and Sydney Webb, but Beveridge and the Webbs did share an interest in creating national quasi-penal colonies for the ‘incurably defective or idle’.

Wheatcroft’s much-debated article is at: