The hidden trials of a work camp manager: placating local residents

There’s an exciting new research project going on into the Landscapes of the Depression. A team of archeologists is investigating physical traces of the Great Depression in four sites in north-east England. One of the sites is the former Ministry of Labour’s work camp at Hamsterley, which is now a visitor centre for the Forestry Commission.

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Visitor Centre, Hamsterley Forest

As with most of its sites, the Ministry chose Hamsterley because it was remote and because it was on land acquired by the Forestry Commission. This provided an opportunity to recruit young unemployed men from Cleveland (including Whitby) and the Durham coalfield, and set them to heavy manual labour preparing the land for afforestation. A group of ‘pioneers’ was recruited from Newcastle to build the camp, which opened in spring 1934.

In most respects, Hamsterley followed the same pattern as other British government work camps in the 1930s. As described in my book, the Ministry of Labour used the camps – known as Instructional Centres – to ‘recondition’ young males who had ‘gone soft’ through prolonged unemployment. Hamsterley, though, was distinctive in the number of protests by its inmates, as well as in the fact that Eve Rendle, who grew up in the camp where her father was manager, has written a valuable account of it.

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Hamsterley Instructional Centre: huts and the Union flag

Hamsterley also nicely illustrates one of the less well-known features of the work camps: complaints from local residents. Whether this is simply an accident of surviving archives is unclear to me, but we have two files of documents in the Minstry of Labour archives which include letters from or about complainants.

The complaints started well before the camp opened. An internal memo in November 1933 proposed that “There has been so much trouble in connexion with Hamsterley that I think it would be of real value to us if a letter of thanks could go to the Vicar of Hamsterley as from the Minister”. Whether such a letter was ever posted is unclear, but a senior Ministry official visited the Rev. G. H.Linnell to thank him personally for his kindness to the pioneers building the camp. The trouble arose, it seems, from trespassing pioneers.

Next off the mark was a Major Wormald, who held a shooting tenancy in the area and lived two miles from the camp. He complained to the Forestry Commission before the camp opened, claiming that it would breach the terms of his lease. The Commission organised a meeting between the Major and the Ministry’s director of training, after which the trail goes cold (National Archives LAB 2 2035 1871 Part II).

Rather more persistently, a Mrs Fogg-Elliot of Bedburn Old Hall made a number of complaints (National Archives LAB2/2041/ET1871, LAB2/2041/ET598). Walter Workman, the camp manager, reported to his superiors in London that “You are doubtless aware of the type of lady we have to contend with, and it may be sufficient to say she is always ‘full of trouble’”. His correspondent at the Ministry in turn wrote in an internal memo in May 1934 that “Mrs Fogg-Elliott appears to be what a Negro porter on a Canadian train described as ‘A Constant Ticker!’”

Mrs Fogg-Elliott’s grievances were multiple. She complained about a side gate at the camp which allowed trainees to access a public footpath to Bedburn village that crossed her land; she alleged that trainees were trespassing on her tenant’s property, and “they have spoillen the land”; she complained about “visiters” to the camp, adding that “I saw girls go to the camp on Sunday”. She was also angry about the use of Scandinavian pines on the woodland, as it was “very annoying for the English Government to bring so much foreign timber into Bedburn when we have sold some of our woods to pay death duties”.

The Ministry tried hard to placate this ‘constant ticker’. During the construction phase, the supervisor called on Mrs Fogg-Elliott in November 1933; the recently widowed lady was out, but he spoke to her son-in-law, who apparently spoke highly of the pioneers. He subsequently reported that he had discussed her with the Vicar, who apparently also found her “difficult”.

Once the camp was open, the Ministry then urged Workman to meet Fogg-Elliott, as “you may find it possible to persuade her to take an interest in the Centre instead of criticising us all the time”. Workman reported in May 1934 that “I know Mrs Fogg-Elliott quite well and pay occasional visits to her house; she, in turn, visits the Centre and brings books.” While he tried to discourage trainees from using the footpath, he insisted that as a public right of way there were limits to his powers; he also fought off attempts by the Forestry Commission to have his trainees disciplined.

What happened afterwards, if anything, is not in any of the files I’ve seen. Still, these cases do tell a story, which shows the seriousness with which the Ministry of Labour treated its local critics, even those whom its staff regarded as cranks. This in turn meant that camp managers had to try to placate those critics, and it seems in the case of Mrs Fogg-Elliott that Walter Workman had some success.

It would also interesting to explore in depth the relationship between trainees and the local community. I have some reminiscences which allude to this, mostly fairly briefly, and some archival records also mention it. I might return to this topic for a future post.

 

An adult residential college for Nazi leaders

Aerial view, from http://www.vogelsang-in.de


I recently enjoyed a very pleasant few days walking in the North Eifel, an area of Germany that seems virtually unknown to British tourists. Situated between the major cities of the Rheinland and the borders with Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, it is enchantingly beautiful with its mixture of forests, hills, rivers, lakes and valleys. And it is bursting with historical remains, from the stunning valley bottom former weaving town of Monschau to the bunkers and tank traps of the Westwall (better known to my parents as the Siegfried Line).

On of the more curious remnants is Vogelsang, built by the Nazi Party after seizing power with the aim of producing a new leadership cadre. I’d not really given the issue much thought, but after 1933 the Nazis suddenly had to fill hundreds of positions of power at all administrative and political levels. And they simply couldn’t get the staff. 

Work began in 1934, and the first intake started their course in 1936. This was a serious long-term programme, intended to take four years, and comprising a mix of physical training (including fencing and gymnastics), studies of such key Nazi fields as history and racial science, and basic training in public administration. There were sports fields and a swimming pool, as well as a faux-medieval dining hall with chivalric statues of blonde, strapping knights on horseback. 

The location itself, as well as the buildings and statuary, had a pedagogic aim: standing outside the main buildings, looking down on the valley and river below, was meant to imbue the students with pride in and love for their Heimat – an untranslatable word that can be rendered, weakly, as homeland. The college’s official name – Ordensburg Vogelsang – is also hard to translate, but loosely means the fortress of the order (as in order of knights).

Cast for statuary, from the Vogelsang exhibition


The aim was to recruit young men, but in practice most of the students were in their thirties, with some years of party activity behind them. None ever finished the course. When war broke out, Vogelsang was handed over to the army as a training centre, then turned into an Adolf Hitler School. The students went straight to work, many of them finding administrative posts in the occupied territories in the east.

After the US Army duly occupied it, bored American and British soldiers passed away the hours by firing at the genitals on the imposing statues that littered the site. It later became part of a training ground for the Belgian Army, before being handed back to the German government in 2005.

Vogelsang (the name means birdsong) is now a museum and educational centre, run by a voluntary organisation. The site itself is huge, and the buildings for the most part are remarkably well preserved. There are changing exhibitions as well as standing displays of materials from the past, mainly dealing with the National Socialist period. If you get th chance to visit, snap it up: as well as seeing a remarkable example of Nazi adult education, with the corresponding architecture and design, you will find yourself in one of the loveliest regions of western Germany.

What Einstein said about adult education

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Einstein in 1921

In 1919, Albert Einstein wrote to the Freie Vereinigung für technische Volksbildung (Independent Association for Technical Popular Education) praising their objectives. His letter was subsequently published in the monthly magazine Volksbildung. This is my own translation, which is complete and should be reasonably accurate – and if it isn’t, let me know!

Education always threatens a peculiar risk of detachment from the world of sensual experience. All education creates a world of concepts. These are closely related in their origin with the realities, they are formed out of their clear recognition. But closely bound to the linguistically fixed concept is a tendency to generalization that on the one hand expands its field of application, on the other hand weakens its connection to sensory experience. So particularly in times when culture is aging, we see concepts becoming empty and formal, losing touch with sensory experience. Who would deny that the grammar schools, where the focus of attention is directed to the language, are particularly exposed to this risk? But the nurturing of mathematics uncoupled from applications brings the same risk; and so the geometricians were able over the centuries to forget that their science ultimately deals with constant bodies and rays of light; the geometrician who fundamentally denies this demotes his science to a meaningless word game. Science can only stay healthy and active if it maintains its relationship with the world of sensual experience, however indirect this relationship may be. Engagement with technology is highly suited to counteracting the degeneration of science in the sense indicated.

On the other hand it is important to make the technology a true cultural factor, by which one brings its rich spiritual and aesthetic content closer to the general consciousness. What comes into the mind of a fine person when he hears the word technology? Greed, exploitation, social division of people, class hatred, soulless mechanization, racial degeneration, senseless hasty bustle … is it any wonder that the educated person hates technology as a wayward child of our times, which threatens to destroy the finer attractions of life? For this robust child of society to grow up safe and sound, we must not let it grow wild. One must try to understand it in order to influence it. It possesses powers that can ennoble life. Here I see the second task of your Association.

Einstein, who by this time was a professor at the Humboldt University of Berlin, was on the way to becoming world famous by 1919. His theory of relativity was well known among theoretical physicists, and was being subjected to testing by empirical physicists. I don’t know the context of this letter, but presumably Einstein – who had taken Austrian citizenship when appointed to a chair in Prague – had been invited to make a public statement supporting the newly-formed Association.

Einstein chose to write about the importance of technology as the place where science meets society. His underlying argument is one that scientists today might associate with the world of ‘impact’ and ‘user engagement’. And Einstein clearly thought that an audience of adult educators was likely to sympathise with his belief that technology might ‘ennoble life’, and share his view on the value of fusing abstract conceptual thinking with the world of lived experience.

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I – and anyone else interested in the history of adult education – have to thank the Austrian Folk High School Association and the Austrian Folk High School Archive for the fact that Einstein’s letter is in the public domain, as one of the many resources available through their fabulous portal, Knowledge Base Erwachsenenbildung. Some of the materials are also in English, though most are in German. You can find out more here. Meanwhile, I’d be interested to know whether Einstein had any other connections with the adult education movement.

 

In praise of Trove: an Australian reports on the World Association for Adult Education

In 1929, a Tasmanian school teacher attended the conference in Cambridge of the World Association for Adult Education. In early 1931, Mr G. W. Knight spoke of his visit, which had also encompassed a teachers’ conference in Geneva, at a public meeting in Hobart Library.

The Mercury, Hobart’s local paper, duly reported what he had to say. If their account is reliable, Knight’s main preoccupation was with levels of drop-out in adult education, which he thought high. He also reported that the Association adopted a constitution, and appointed a Council representing seven international regions, which he described as ‘Teutonic, Slav, English, Scandinavian, USA, and Latin and the Orient’. However, he failed to secure separate representation for Australia.

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The Mercury, 3 February 1931

This snippet adds just a little to what we already know about the World Association specifically, and early attempts to internationalise adult education more generally. The otherwise largely unknown Mr Knight (briefly famous for dying in an air crash in 1946) does give us some idea of how an Australian educator viewed the London-based, WEA-led World Association.

Founded in 1919, but unable to survive WW2, the Association’s archives are well represented in the Albert Mansbridge Papers in the British Library. This snippet from Hobart adds to our understanding of the Association’s history, if only at the margins. In its way, then, it is a nice example of the way in which digitised records can make the past accessible to historians, amateur and professional, who cannot possibly travel to view the originals.

The Hobart Mercury is one of many records – diaries, letters, archives and newspapers – that have been made available through the National Library of Australia, through its Trove repository. I found Trove invaluable in researching my book on work camps, and many other historians will echo this praise. In return, I continue to do bits of editing for Trove, improving the accessibility and accuracy of this wonderful resource, as do many other historians.

The Australian Government has slashed the NLA’s budget, and Trove is now at risk. It is a world class resource, and we shouldn’t let it go without a world class fight.

 

Osea Island: workfare camp, inebriate retreat

Helen Rogers, a socio-cultural historian who studies working class writing among other things, runs the fabulous website on working class autobiographies called Writing Lives. The other day she tweeted a link to a post about the life of May Owen, a Londoner born in 1896, whose father was an alcoholic.

May writes that: ‘I can remember Charrington the Brewers son forming a club for alcoholics my father was one of thirty sent to a small island off the Thanet coast Osea Island. No drink, his wage given to my mother and he had to help build a sea wall.’

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Osea Island – image from Wikipedia

Helen’s Tweet asked whether Osea was one of my ‘work camps’. The short answer is yes: it was indeed one of the many work camps that were opened in Britain for marginal and stigmatised groups. Osea hosted a labour colony for unemployed Londoners, which became a colony for habitual inebriates, as the island’s owner was a leading temperance campaigner and social reformer.

Frederick Charrington might seem an unexpected adherent of temperance. Son of a London brewing dynasty, Charrington reportedly sold his shares in the family business after seeing a drunk man punch his wife. He promoted the Ragged School movement, supported striking Jewish tailors, and helped open a temperance assembly hall on the Mile End Road.

Charrington bought the island in 1903,with a view to turning it into an inebriate retreat. Initially, he opened a small colony for inebriate women. This proved a failure, and in 1904 he invited the London local authorities to use it for poor relief.Supported by the Lord Mayor’s fund, unemployed male heads of household were sent in the following winter to live on the island, where they laid roads, leveled land, and built sea walls while living in wooden huts.

Further groups were sent in the following year, under the auspices of the Central (Unemployed) Body for London. At full capacity, the dormitories held 80 bunks, but William Beveridge estimated that  there were usually around 70 men in residence.

A number of interested visitors came to view the colony, including Beveridge, who  noted that the unemployed residents were supplied with boots on loan, and had to bring one change of clothing. They had to be accustomed to heavy labour, and were inspected for infections and cleanliness before entering the colony. The colony rules, he reported, were simple:

(a) Prompt obedience to orders;

(b) Sobriety;

(c) Observance of appointed hours

Rules or not, three of the first group of 25 men rapidly scurried off to the mainland, where they apparently caused a disturbance in the pubs of Malden.

After 1905, and using the infrastructure built by the unemployed Londoners, Charrington then opened a temperance holiday village on the island. According to the Little Book of Essex, the locals smuggled alcohol out to the island, and ferried thirsty holiday-makers to Malden.

Charrington’s holiday settlement continued until the Great War, when the Admiralty commandeered the island for use as a motor boat harbour. In 1934, the Rural Community Council of Essex opened a ‘reconditioning camp’ on the Island to help unemployed men improve their fitness and readiness for work.

Since the 1940s, its main claim to fame is as a splendid habitat for bird life. Strangely, though, the great house on Osea briefly returned to its earlier role at the start of the present century, when it was opened as a retreat for wealthy addicts – including, most famously, Amy Winehouse. That venture also failed, and the island is now marketed as a luxury holiday destination.

May is wrong about one thing: Osea is off the Essex coast, and not Thanet. Essex was a popular location for labour colonies, situated close enough to London to simplify transport but far enough to cause trainees to think twice about running away. There was also plentiful land, much of it economically marginal so that it therefore presented abundant opportunities for reclamation work.

 

Jewish refugee children and a 1930s work camp

Refugees are very much the talk of the moment, evoking memories of earlier groups of people who sought and found refuge in these islands. One of these was the Kindertransport movement, which after Kristallnacht helped to settle thousands of refugee Jewish children from Nazi Germany. As with today’s Syrian refugees, it was a surge of public opinion that forced the government to act; and again with contemporary echoes, government opened its borders to under-17s, on the understanding that they would return to Germany when things improved.

Much of the responsibility for practical arrangements was delegated to local authorities and voluntary bodies. However, the government did make some facilities available, including a holiday camp at Dovercourt Bay near Harwich, as well as a number of other sites where refugee children could be housed until voluntary agencies or individuals could find a more permanent home, perhaps a foster family or a hostel.

National Archives: From the the First Annual Report for the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany Limited, November 1938-1939

National Archives: From the the First Annual Report for the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany Limited, November 1938-1939

One of these was a former workhouse in Suffolk. Bosmere and Claydon Union Workhouse was a substantial building, originally constructed in the 1760s and upgraded in the nineteenth century. In 1920, the government took it over for use as an Instructional Factory, training ex-servicemen in handicrafts until 1923. Two years later it re-opened as a training farm, preparing the unemployed in batches of 300 for emigration to the white Dominions of Canada and Australia.

Organised emigration came to an end with the global crisis in 1929. As part of the Labour Government’s plans for compulsory training of the unemployed, the Ministry of Labour took the farm over in 1930 as a Transfer Instructional Centre, in which capacity it trained young unemployed men until it too closed in February 1933. It seems to have remained empty until 1939, when the government made it available to a voluntary group for use as a transit camp where boy refugees could learn English and handicrafts while awaiting transfer.

The Kindertransport movement is reasonably well documented. The Ministry of Health kept administrative files on the care provided for the children, the Home Office kept records of their movements, the Foreign Office reported on the persecution of Jews in Germany, and the security services speculated on whether the political views of 16-year olds were of any interest to the state. The National Archives has placed a sample of these files on its website, together with teaching notes.

There are also reasonably good records relating to individual children. Some recorded their memories for the Kindertransport Association or the Association of Jewish Refugees. Diane Samuels recorded oral reminiscences for her play about the movement, and other memories are held by the Wiener Library.

I’ve picked two of these stories, but many others are available. Max Dickson, formerly Max Dobriner, was first placed in Claydon and then moved to a former labour colony site near Oxford. He served in the British army, first in the Pioneer Corps and then the Commandos, and later interrogated German prisoners of War, taking part in the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals before returning to Britain and marrying a local girl.

Sigi Faith, born Siegfried Samuel Feitlowitz in Hamburg, was ten when he arrived at Harwich. He found the diet at Claydon monotonous, but otherwise recalled it as great fun: “The house had been converted to house some 800 boys and was just perfect for a 10 year old – no discipline, attendance at meals was optional and it was much morefun building a raft and drifting in the nearby river”. After a few months, he was placed with a family in Oswestry, subsequently moving to London where he founded a chain of shoe shops. His parents escaped to Shanghai and survived.

After the last of the children was moved, the camp was used to house Italian prisoners-of-war, and became derelict after the War. By 2003, one intrepid visitor discovered that the site had apparently become a gathering place for sexual adventurers; I cannot confirm this personally.

Saying farewell to Michael Barratt Brown

001Around 80 people gathered yesterday at Golders Green to say goodbye to Michael Barratt Brown. Michael was an extraordinary man: born in 1918, he made his mark as an economist, political activist, gardener, peace campaigner, free trade pioneer, Quaker and above all as an adult educator. Oh – and as a runner.

Yesterday’s gathering brought together people from all his life worlds, as well as members of his family. It may seem heartless to say so, but it was a lovely occasion, marked more by celebration of a life than by mourning, and enlivened by fine violin music. And as Robin Murray said in his tribute, the baton passes on to us who remain very much alive.
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I’ve already written of my own memories of Michael on this blog. Recently, Harry Barnes – Derbyshire miner, adult educator and MP – shared his recollections of a beloved friend, colleague and comrade. So let me just add one final thing: the last message I had from him.

It is typical of Michael that in his 90s he had no fear of social media. We were in touch through LinkedIn, and he wrote about my review of his autobiography:

Good to hear from you, John. I am glad you liked “Seekers”. It has had a mixed reception. Some of my family and friends thought I was too open about my love life.You would undertand the problem. I have often thought of you at Stirling, because I used to visit there regularly with Kenneth ALexander. You mention my UNRRA experience, but, apart from Northern College and Fair Trade, I think my most important work was with the Humanities Committee of the EU, with Ben Bella and others and trying to save a Yugoslavia. What are you going to do in retirement? We need a major defence of adult education.Best wishes, Michael

So his last sentence to me was about the need to campaign for adult education. Though I have cheated a little, and changed one word: I’ve put Stirling, in place of Strathclyde. It isn’t often that I could correct Michael, and it gives me great pleasure to have this last opportunity.