Walter Workman, a 1930s British work camp manager

While we know quite a lot about the inmates – who were recruited precisely because they fell into pre-defined categories – it isn’t always easy to find out much about those who managed them. This is hardly surprising for the nineteenth and early twentieth century labour colonies, where the records are scattered and often sparse; but we don’t know a great deal about the more organised and bureaucratic twentieth century systems either.

The largest system in Britain was run by the Ministry of Labour in the fifteen years before the Second World War. Mythology says that the managers were largely ex-military men, a view repeated recently by Del Roy Fletcher, and it is quite possible that some had seen service in the Great War. However, civil service regulations required the Ministry to recruit its camp managers from within.

As one senior official pointed out, work camp managers needed rather different qualities from those usually found in the civil service – or the army. Dealing with up to 200 unemployed men, he said, required ‘very special qualifications’, including an ‘ability to handle men with sympathy, tact, patience and firmness’.

We know a little about Albert Rendle, who managed first the Hamsterley camp in County Durham, and then took on Cairnbaan in Argyll in 1939. Eve Rendle, his daughter, has written a brief account based on a collection of her father’s letters. She adds some useful detail – for example, his habit of waking the trainees by playing ‘hot jazz’ over the camp loudspeakers – but doesn’t say much about the man, a career civil servant who was awarded the OBE in 1951.

The visitor centre in Hamsterley Forest, on the site of the old work camp.

The visitor centre in Hamsterley Forest, on the site of the old work camp.

So who were the camp managers? Mark Freeman, the historian, tweeted recently that hed come across a case of ‘nominative determinism’ in my study of British work camps. This was the nicely-named Mr Workman, who became manager of Cranwich Instructional Centre in June 1932.

Walter Bridgemore Workman was an Employment Clerk in the Ministry of Labour. My understanding is that he would therefore have been a permanent (or ‘established’) civil servant, who had almost certainly worked in a labour exchange. What is certain is that he transferred to the instructional centre at Shobdon, on the Herefordshire side of the Welsh border, and that he was working there when he applied for a manager’s post.

We also know that he was born on 3 December 1895, making him 36 when he was appointed and 18 when War broke out. I think he would have seen military service before moving into the new Ministry of Labour. By autumn 1933 he was manager at Bourne Instructional Centre, in Lincolnshire. As well as managing the camp’s work, he also had to select a working party of 22 men to go and build a new camp at Dalby, near Pickering in North Yorkshire; he duly sent the men, along with a football – not simply for leisure, but to allow for a ritual ‘kick-off’ at the new camp.

By May 1934, Workman was temporary manager at another newly-opened camp. By this time, the Ministry was routinely appointing experienced camp managers to oversee new camps, before appointing a permanent manager once things had settled down. ‘Things’, in this case, included smoothing the ruffled features of local residents, including the recently-widowed Mrs Frances May Fogg-Elliot of Bedburn Old Hall.

As well as a general dislike of her new neighbours, Mrs Fogg-Elliot took exception to unemployed trainees using a public footpath on her land, and to the appearance of girls in the camp at weekends. The Ministry wrote to Workman asking him to contact Mrs Fogg-Elliot, with a view to persuading her ‘to take an interest in the Centre instead of criticising us all the time’. Workman already knew the lady, whom he described as ‘full of trouble’, but took the precaution of banning trainees from the footpath.

And that is it. I do not now where Workman went after setting up Hamsterley – he was still under 40 at this stage – nor what became of him later in life; we know no more than the bare bones of his life before 1932. Like all the other camp managers, there are a few scattered mentions in the files, and precious little else.

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Carstairs: work camp and high security hospital

View of Lampits Farm from the  old railway bridge, part of a line that linked the centre with Carstairs Junction

The old railway bridge, part of a line that linked the centre with Carstairs Junction, with Lampits Farm in the distance. Taken on a dreich day.

Fiona Watson, the well-known Scottish historian, interviewed me recently for the BBC’s Making History programme. We met in the small Lanarkshire village of Carstairs, known mainly as a very busy railway junction and above all as the site of one of the UK’s four high security hospitals. Not far away, a local eccentric has converted an old water tower into Hagrid’s Hut.

In July 1928, the Ministry of Labour bought 507 acres just outside the village for the sum of £7,500. And that is why Fiona and I were standing in a lane leading up to Lampits Farm, where the Ministry opened a centre for emigrant training in early 1929.

Most of the trainees came from North Lanarkshire and Glasgow, where they had often worked in industries such as mining; they came to Carstairs in the hope that a few weeks of rough farm work and good food would prepare them to leave Scotland for Canada or Australia. The centre hit the headlines shortly after opening, when William Young Todd, the ploughman instructor, was killed by the corn threshing machine (his widow was duly evicted from their tied cottage).

Australia recruitment poster

Demand for harvesters and labourers was high, particularly in Canada, until the 1929 crisis. Faced with a pool of unemployed workers at home, the Dominions governments were reluctant to accept half-trained and poorly fed Scots. The Ministry intended to close the centre, and sell it as well as the nearby Colombie Farm, which it had bought with a view to expanding its emigrant training programme.

In 1929, though, the British voted in their first Labour government. Margaret Bondfield, the new Minister of Labour, was an enthusiastic advocate of training, and she approved plans for a new type of residential training. Carstairs became one of Bondfield’s new Transfer Instruction Centres, and set about training unemployed young men, who on pain of losing their benefits were prepared to transfer out of the old distressed regions to one of the areas where new industries were developing.

As elsewhere, training in the TICs largely consisted of heavy manual labour, supported by a heavy diet and a small amount of basic adult education. Reports vary over the conditions. The Glasgow organiser of the building trades union visited Carstairs in 1930, reporting reassuringly that the men were training ‘in ideal surroundings and under ideal conditions’. His main interest, though, was making sure that the trainees would not compete with his members for jobs.

Some evidence suggests a less rosy picture. Sixty men walked out of the TIC in July 1930 in a protest over the food; the trainees went on strike three years later, and ninety were dismissed or resigned. By then, the Ministry was trying to sell off its land and buildings and transfer its operations to new camps on Forestry Commission land at Glenbranter and Glentress, as there was little more serious labour to be done at Carstairs.

Failing to find a private buyer, the Ministry eventually handed the land over to the Special Areas Commissioner, who used it as a showcase for training the unemployed to become crofters. Meanwhile, the trainees at Lampits were sent to help the Prison Department prepare the land across the road for the more skilled builders who erected what was initially called the Criminal Lunatic Asylum and State Institution.

Carstairs was a good place for Fiona and I to talk about the ways in which ideas about the land and rural labour came together with proposals for disciplining unemployed bodies, while trains rattled past on the junction and visitors drove into the hospital car park.