The Church Army farm colonies and the Second World War

I found this advertisement in a local guidebook, published in early 1946. I find it interesting for a number of reasons,  not least that the Church Army clearly expected to encounter similar conditions after WW2 to those it faced in 1919, with large numbers of bored and rebellious servicemen (and in 1946 women) cooped up in camp under military discipline, while tens of thousands of veterans returned to unemployment, emigration and loneliness.

church army

In fact, however harsh the conditions experienced in austerity Britain, the economy absorbed most of the returning veterans, and the emerging welfare state replaced many of the functions previously performed by charities. The Church Army, which had staff and volunteers providing services in the armed forces and working in air raid shelters at home, found a new post-War role in youth work. I do wonder, though, whether  it was involved in providing accommodation during the desperate housing shortages of the late 1940s.

In particular, the Church Army lost its role in training emigrants. It had founded its first farm training colony in 1890, less than a decade after its birth. Its leader Wilson Carlile always intended the new colony, at Newdigate in Surrey, to expand its activities to training unemployed Londoners for emigration to the Dominions, but instead it turned its attention to providing a rudimentary farm training for inebriates.

In 1905 the Church Army sold Newdigate after acquiring a second, larger estate at Hempstead Hall in Essex, where it started a farm training colony, preparing unemployed men for emigration. By 1917, it was already focusing its attentions on discharged oldiers and sailors, and was still described as a Church Army training farm in Kelly’s Directory for 1937. I’m  not sure what happened to it during WW2, but by the late 1940s it was a remand home for boys, which in turn closed in 1950. These days it seems to be an upmarket bed and breakfast.

As ever, there’s far more about the labour colony movement in my book. Check it out if you want to know more.


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.


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?


Women and labour colonies

A variety of labour colonies sprang up in late nineteenth century Britain, usually as a way of handling the poor or the deviant. This movement was overwhelmingly male, in so far as it addressed what were seen as male problems (particularly unemployment) and recruited male participants.

Women from the middle classes might be involved as volunteers, and a small number of women worked in specialist roles in the larger colonies. And radical women certainly joined socialist or anarchist utopian colonies, though in at least one case they then rebelled against their male leaders. But very few colonies were designed to recruit women, with a couple of remarkable exceptions.

One was Duxhurst farm colony, founded by Lady Henry Somerset in 1895. Born into the landed gentry, Isobel Somerset was a forceful and passionate Christian and president of the British Women’s Temperance Association, who leased an estate at Duxhurst on behalf of the colony. Somerset believed that across the civilised world, England was ‘the only nation that has a drunken womanhood’. The colony’s founders set out to rescue women inebriates from the ‘sadness and remorse’ of their addiction, by setting them to work at bee-keeping, poultry-rearing, horticulture, basket-weaving and other rural occupations.

Britain’s class structure was replicated inside the colony. The Manor House was used to house ‘ladies’ suffering ‘from alcoholism or narcotism’, mostly sent and paid for by their families. Patients of ‘a less educated class’ were housed ‘some little distance’ from the Manor House, at a weekly fee of up to thirty shillings. Finally, ‘habitual inebriates of a still lower class’, usually sent by the courts, lived in ‘six prettily constructed cottages’, built in a semi-circle with a central building for catering and recreation, with provision for children as well as the women.

Class also dominated the thinking behind the Women’s Training Colony. Founded by a group of suffragettes and public health campaigners, the Colony opened at Cope Hall near Newbury in 1917. Most of the founding group had long campaigned against the double standards governing attitudes and legislation on prostitution, which penalised the woman but left their clients untouched.

Dr Helen Wilson, a Sheffield GP and president of the Sheffield Women’s Suffrage Society, was a typical member of the group. In her view,

The ultimate remedy [for prostitution] is the acceptance of a single standard for men and women, and the recognition that man is meant to be the master and not the slave of his body.

The War, she commented, had raised the urgency of the problem, with mass conscript armies making a bad situation worse.

Wilson and her fellow activists recruited ‘women whose lack of character and training renders them ineligible for other institutions’, aiming to train them ‘in a sense of responsibility and independence’ as well as ‘perseverance and self-control’, by isolating them and providing work. And as suffragettes, they also hoped to train the women in citizenship by leaving ‘much of the administration . . . in the hands of the colonists’.

Like many of the utopian communities, the WTC was short-lived, closing in 1919. By then, Dr Wilson and her fellow sexual purity suffragettes looked decidedly old-fashioned when set beside women who campaigned for birth control and sex education, let alone those radical spirits who sought to break altogether with conventional definitions of sexuality. They were unable to raise funds to keep the Colony alive, and the warden left to become a social worker elsewhere. There was also a gulf between the Colony’s founders (and managers) and those women whom they portrayed as ‘human wreckage’ living ‘waste lives’.

Women were, then, by no means absent from the labour colony movement. They played a role as activists and managers. Some joined and even led the utopian colonies, while Nellie Shaw chronicled the life of the Tolstoyan colony at Whiteway, which she helped found in 1899. Duxhurst survived into the 1920s, when – like other inebriate colonies – its role was subsumed into the emerging public health system.

As for the sites themselves, Duxhurst became a Village for Gentlefolk. Most of the cottages were demolished, along with the church, but a couple remain.  Cope Hall was also demolished, though it is remembered in a street name.

For an interesting blog about the WTC, and link to a Masters’ thesis, see: