Rachel Whiteread’s sculpture is a great way of marking the Forestry Commission’s centenary – shame about the leaflet

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.

dalbywhitereadhut

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:

  1. It wasn’t employment, and the trainees received unemployment benefit (after deductions to cover board and lodging);
  2. the Ministry of Labour was at pains to stress that its camps offered not skills training but an exposure to heavy manual labour;
  3. the men weren’t even local, but were recruited from high unemployment areas in Cleveland and South Yorkshire.

dalbtnissenfc

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.

 

Rachel Whiteread’s Nissen Hut – commemorating a 1930s work camp

Rachel Whiteread is one of Britain’s most ouststanding artists. I first encountered her work in the form of a plaster cast of some bookshelves, a theme she later explored for her Holocaust Memorial in the city of Vienna. I find her work haunting, thought-provoking, and inspiring, so I was thrilled to hear that the Forestry Commission had asked her to produce a WW1 memorial in Dalby Forest.

Nissen-Hut_06_14-18 Now3

Whiteread’s hut, from the 14-18 Now website

Whiteread’s memorial takes the form of a Nissen hut, which had been mass-produced for the services as a cheap and quick means of housing the fast-expanding number of recruits. You have to take a bit of a walk to reach it, but for most people a stroll through Dalby will be no great hardship. As you would hope and expect,the result is well worth the effort, and its pristine whiteness will darken as it experiences the wonders of Yorkshire weather.

The irony, though, is that Nissen huts came to Dalby well after the War ended. And when they came, their role was to house not soldiers but young unemployed men who were being ‘reconditioned’, to make them fit for heavy manual labour. Dalby was a work camp, or Instructional Centre, where the Ministry of Labour sent unemployed men to work clearing scrubland and rough pasture in readiness for afforestation.

The Forestry Commission came into being immediately after the Great War ended, and it started work at Dalby – or Allerston as it was originally known, after the village where officials stayed while inspecting the land. The Ministry of Labour approached the Commission in 1933, asking to open a camp on the site for unemployed young men from Whitby and Cleveland. The camp took its first inmates, who came from across Yorkshire, in early 1934, and it continued to run until war approached in 1939.

Allerston 1933 2

A 1932 postcard, showing the layout of Dalby work camp

As the postcard shows, the 200 or so inmates were housed in Nissen Huts, each of which held 20 men. The camp also had a sports field, tennis ground, swimming pool, classrooms, sick bay and welfare hut which also served as library and cinema. It was remote, with a long tramp to the nearest piub; one visiting journalist complained that he had to open and close 14 gates on the country lanes to reach the camp.While the inmates were mostly too young to have served in the War, some of the staff had military exerience. After 1939 the huts housed prisoners of war.

Whiteread’s sculpture, as wall as being a fine piece of public art, also serves as an act of public history. Needless to say, if you want to know more about the wider work camp system of which Dalby formed a part, you should just read my book. But even if you don’t, let me encourage you to take a walk in a fine bit of forest.

Why Rendlesham is special – Anglo-Saxon palace, UFO landing site, work camp for the London unemployed

rendlesham-forest-suffolk3

Archaeologists from Suffolk County Council believe that they have uncovered the remains of an Anglo-Saxon palace near Rendlesham. If so, this is quite a find, and puts Rendlesham firmly on the map for all those interested in this island’s distant past. But some of us already know the village well, for other reasons.

Most famously, Rendlesham is known among Ufologists as ‘Britain’s Roswell’, the site of Britain’s first UFO landing. Less well known is the history of the Rendlesham Instructional Centre, which served between 1936 and 1939  as part of the Ministry of Labour’s programme of ‘reconditioning’ long term unemployed men by a programme of heavy manual labour (further details here).

Previously, the Ministry of Labour had built its work camps in isolated areas that were within a train journey of the coalfields and other areas of concentrated unemployment. London’s unemployed were viewed as unlikely to benefit from work camp placements, partly because many of them tended to go into and out of jobs on a more or less casual basis, and partly because new employment opportunities were opening up in and around the capital.

The coalfields, by contrast, were viewed as areas of long term unemployment whose population should transfer to work in other parts of the country. But by 1935 the Ministry of Labour faced difficulties recruiting for its camps, and started to focus on new areas.

new-picture

Ministry of Labour Annual Report, 1936

Rendlesham was selected because of its location. By 1936, Rendlesham already belonged to the Forestry Commission, which had started to plant trees in 1933, so there was plenty of work available to extend the forestable area. It was also within easy reach of London.

The Instructional Centre opened in December 1936, with a capacity of 200 men. Its track record was poor: during its first full year of operation it admitted 810 men, 199 of whom were dismissed or walked out, with a further 441 completing their course only to go back on the dole; only 45 found work, many of them by their own devices rather than the Ministry’s.

None of this stopped the Ministry, and the Unemployment Assistance Board, from congratulating themselves on the wonderful work of the centre. Unsurprisingly, then, Rendlesham work camp was short lived, and it closed well before war broke out. It was certified as an approved school in 1939, and was then designated as a ‘Civil Training Centre’ for conscientious objectors.

Of course none of this story will ever be as well known as the Anglo-Saxon palace and the alien incursion, but it is a pointed reminder that workfare has a history – and that it is a history of failure. And, like many of the former work camp sites, it is a fabulous area for walking.