Attlee, labour colonies and the welfare state

Clement Attlee

Clement Attlee

In 1920, a thirty-seven year old university lecturer published a book on social work. Clement Attlee, later to become famous as Prime Minister of the 1945 Labour Government, had spent several years after graduating at Oxford serving charities in London’s East End, most notably as secretary of Toynbee Hall. Like most men of his background and generation, he was commissioned in the Great War, and was one of the last to be evacuated from Gallipoli.

I was reminded of Attlee’s book when reading Georgina Brewis’ terrific study of student volunteering in Britain. Brewis shows that the university settlement movement of the late nineteenth century was part of an emerging student associational culture in which voluntary social service started to develop some of the forms of professional social work. She also, incidentally, demonstrates the disproportionate significance of women in the worker

Attlee’s book can be understood as part of the transition from organised volunteering as a form of inter-class bonding through to a professionalised body of social workers. In it, he describes the opportunities available to would-be social workers, and devotes a chapter to the training and qualifications that he deemed desirable. Interestingly, he wrote the book while serving as Labour mayor for Stepney.

It was inevitable that Attlee would say something about the labour colony movement. Given its scale and its much-debated status, he could hardly ignore it. Among others, he singled out the Salvation Army’s colony at Hadleigh, the municipal colony inspired by George Lansbury at Hollesley Bay, and Joseph Fels’ land settlement colony at Mayland.

What did Attlee make of these ventures? His view of Hadfield was coloured by his suspicion of the Salvation Army, whose combination of boisterous religion and financial relief put ‘a premium upon hypocrisy’. He also feared that the Army’s workshops were undercutting ordinary workers. Hadleigh, though, was ‘far better conceived’.

He also admired the other colonies for training the unemployed, though noting that attempts to settle them on the land had come to little. The solution, Attlee suggested, lay in translating the methods of the co-operative movement to land settlement.

It would be unfair, and flawed, to overstate his interest in the labour colony movement: it merited a few mentions in a detailed study of British social service. But Attlee’s reasons for sympathising with the movement are instructive:

It must be recognised that prolonged unemployment is very demoralising, and that it is idle to expect those whose moral stamina has been undermined by casual work and insufficient food to become useful citizens and workers by the mere provision of work. Some form of training is necessary, and also some form of moral suasion, and the Salvation Army employs methods that are, at least in some cases, effective.

Attlee, of course, was far from alone in his sympathies. George Lansbury, Labour’s leader for much of the 30s, was an enthusiastic proponent of labour colonies as a means of resettling London’s unemployed on the land, while the Webbs were among other socialists who took a more punitive view of labour coloniesBeveridge expressed interest in the labour colony as part of the wider remedy for unemployment.

Such ideas and practices were found across large parts of progressive British opinion. We cannot understand the nature of Britain’s welfare state, as it was forged during the 1940s, without having some grasp of this longer background and its influence on the thinking and principles of those who shaped the settlement of the 1940s.

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.

Keir Hardie and the labour colony movement


In Working Men’s Bodies, I pay quite a lot of attention to socialist perspectives on work camps. This isn’t because I’ve got it in for the Left, but because I was interested in the way that socialist understandings of work and the body have changed over time. I was also struck by how many well-known thinkers and activists played an important role in promoting work camps.

Keir Hardie wasn’t one of these figures. I note in the book that he was interested that poor law authorities had powers to buy and work the land, and he thought farm colonies offered a way of combining social enterprise with land reform. He also took the opportunity to attack John Burns, the Liberal minister responsible for local government, for blocking municipal proposals for labour colonies. I also quoted a rather patriotic phrase from Hardie, which intrigued me as much for its Anglo-centrism as anything else.

All this was pretty much the norm for his generation of socialists, so I didn’t give Hardie much more thought. I was relying here largely on the work of Jose Harris, and particularly her fabulous book on unemployment and politics at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Since then, I’ve found and read two articles by Hardie that expand on his views of labour colonies. Both appeared in a magazine called The Nineteenth Century.

In his first article, published in January 1905, Hardie analysed the prospects of the Unemployed Workmen Act. Hardie broadly welcomed the Act, introduced by the Tory MP for Dublin Walter Long, which allowed local distress committees to relieve unemployment through public works. But Hardie noted that Long’s measure would deal with the unemployed, and not with unemployment. Unemployed, he argued, required a ministry of labour, with labour exchanges to match workers with vacancies. Work, he argued, was a right. It could never be delivered through the Poor Law, because the ‘the decent man out of work’ was always neglected in favour of punishing ‘the clever imposters and shiftless wastrels of our social wreckage’.

Labour colonies, Hardie thought, would ‘by employing men on the land for wages weed out the deserving from the loafers’. But ‘as a means of dealing with the genuine unemployed’, they were ‘of very doubtful value. That they have their part to play, and a very useful part, I do not dispute; but their value lies chiefly in the fact that they deal with a class of the unemployed who require special treatment. For reclamation purposes, and also as a means of training people to work upon the land, they are in the latter case useful, in the former indispensable; but as a means of dealing with the genuinely unemployed they have not been a success’.

Nevertheless, Hardie did not see labour colonies as solely concerned with the ‘social wreckage’. He called for public works to ‘afforest the waste, and plant a race of yeomen on the fertile land of Britain’, with ‘proper facilities for teaching and training people of both sexes to work upon the land’.

Hardie returned to the theme a year later. Writing about the forthcoming General Election, called for‘the cost of working labour colonies or other undertakings’ to fall upon the wider public purse, and not on the deprived communities from which the pauper trainees came, and he repeated his case for a larger programme of public works of the kind carried out in labour colonies, such as land reclamation, as well as greater support for land settlement.

This fills out some of the detail, but doesn’t greatly add to our knowledge of Hardie’s view of the labour colony as a policy instrument. But I hadn’t known about his (rather brief) mention of women. George Lansbury had developed plans for a women’s labour colony – which were blocked, as usual, by John Burns. Lansbury and Hardie supported the extention of the suffrage to women (and indeed to those men who were still denied the vote), but they were far more exceptional in supporting women’s right to work.

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: