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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

 

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

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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.

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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.

Wishing you were here: work camps on postcards

ardentinny card viewPowerPoint comes in for a lot of stick, but I’ve found it really handy while travelling around talking about work camps to local history groups. Most groups expect their speaker to carry on for an hour – something I can do perfectly happily, of course, but illustrations make the whole session a lot more interesting. So where do you find images of work camps?

For interwar Britain, postcards are an indispensable resource. Or at least, they are a great source of images, but so far I haven’t got much from the texts on the back. Apart from anything else, postcard messages are usually pretty short, and it often isn’t clear who sent them.

Here’s an example – a postcard of Ardentinny Instructional Centre that I use to illustrate talks to audiences in the west of Scotland. It was posted in summer 1939 by someone signing themself “J McN”, and addressed to a Miss Bannatyne who lived in the Garden City, Kilbirnie.ardentinny card

The image is fine. If you look carefully, you will see that the camp is partly tented. This is because it operated only in the summer, unlike the nearby hutted camp at Glenbranter. And you can also see people swimming, confirming that people used to be much hardier than they are today.

The message seems clear enough. The writer was ‘Having the time of my life’. But who was he? Was he a trainee at the camp, or a member of staff? We he being serious or sarcastic? Or was he unconnected with the camp – a visitor or a local, perhaps? And while I reckon the odds are on a male author, there is a chance that it was a woman.

I did spot one clue, though. While the sender wrote the address neatly and confidently, the message itself has been over-written: in several places you can see the original writing – in the ‘g’ of ‘having’, for example. Maybe J McN had to ask for help to write his message? If so, then the odds move in favour of the author being a trainee.

As centres for training young unemployed men, the Instructional Centres mainly focused on heavy manual labour. But they also offered brief basic classes in reading and writin, as well as British geography, woodwork and metalwork.

Interesting as all this is, what really strikes me is that there was a market for postcards of work camps. In this case, the card was produced by a Glaswegian stationer, in their Real Photographic Series, probably for a largely regional market. But larger firms like Francis Frith and Valentines also sold postcards featuring work camps.

What can we learn from this? Certainly, the marketing of these images suggests a degree of openness by those who ran these institutions. In the case of the Instructional Centres, the Ministry of Labour also encouraged visits from the public as well as journalists and broadcasters.

Of course, this was a controlled process – the Ministry didn’t welcome visits from radical opponents like the National Unemployed Workers Movement). But it shows conclusively that there was nothing “secret” about the camps.

Second, the existence of these images tells us that there was a demand for them from somebody. We don’t know whether it was trainees, staff or others who actually bought the cards; and the demand wasn’t necessarily very high, as a local firm could easily print a small run of cards. But the fact is that someone bought them, and used them.

This in turn suggests that the camps were seen as an interesting feature of the local landscape. It might also suggest that for many people, the camps carried no particular negative connotations, which might seem counter-intuitive.

Other places feature on interwar postcards that we might today find slightly odd. Thanks to Twitter, I recently came across an account of an asylum illustrated with images from postcards. Where else, I wonder?

Work camps and the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement

We have a number of organisations and individuals today who campaign for the interests of the unemployed and dispossessed. It is not disparaging their efforts, though, to recognise that we have nothing today to compare with the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement. During the interwar years, according to the historian Rick Croucher, the NUWM’s activities represented ‘a highpoint of unemployed organisation in British history’.

The NUWM is best known for organising the hunger marches, large and spectacular demonstrations that etched themselves into national memories of the 1930s. But it many other, arguably more important roles, from local lobbying and protests through to systematic support and advocacy for individual men and women who were fighting against reductions in their benefits.

Among other campaigns, the NUWM was also active in opposition to the use of work camps. It campaigned in general terms against the camps, it made a public issue of conditions within them, and – though infrequently and with limited success – it tried to organise within them. In my book on British work camps, I devote the best part of a chapter to the NUWM, so this blog simply tries to give a taste of these campaigns.

Initially, the NUWM was most active in denouncing local government camps. It was particularly hostile to the labour colonies that London County Council inherited in 1930 from the district councils. There is little doubt that the Communist Party, to which most NUWM leaders belonged, wished to target Labour-led local authorities, in keeping with Stalin’s wider attack on what the Communists called ‘social fascism’.

At this stage, most of the NUWM’s anger was directed against Labour-controlled public assistance committees who sent unemployed men to the LCC’s ‘slave colonies’. Its main criticisms were that colonies like Belmont and Hollesley Bay separated men from their families, and mingled honest workers with criminals and men with learning difficulties.

But they also attacked the Labour Government for introducing compulsory attendance at its Transfer Instructional Centres for long term unemployed young men, and for expanding the residential training centres for unemployed women. They called Margaret Bondfield, the Labour Minister of Labour, ‘the slavey queen’, while other Labour leaders such as Dr Marion Phillips and George Lansbury were denounced as ‘social fascists’ for supporting residential training schemes.

The peak of NUWM campaigning against the camps came with the furore over the 1934 Unemployment Assistance Act. One clause in the Act caused particular fury, as it restated the principle of compulsory attendance at work camps for the long term unemployed. Wal Hannington, the NUWM’s leading figure, described the new law as ‘the biggest attempt at slave labour and the introduction of slave colonies yet made’. It was, said the NUWM, a ‘fascist measure’. From 1934, with an eye on the Nazi seizure of power, the NUWM started to describe the Ministry of Labour centres as ‘concentration camps’.

This campaign was certainly not limited to a few speeches by leading figures. In Durham, for example, 54 delegates from miners’ lodges joined the local NUWM in lobbying the public assistance committee, subsequently appointing a delegation to visit the ‘slave camp’ in Hamsterley Forest. Six hundred demonstrators, led by a flute and drum band, joined an NUWM demonstration against Kirkcaldy PAC for sending men to ‘slave camps’.

By this time, as these examples suggest, the NUWM had softened its hostility towards other socialists, and was allying itself with the wider trade union and socialist movement. It also devoted some of its advocacy work to representing unemployed men who were appealing against attempts by the Unemployment Assistance Board to remove benefits from those who refused to attend a camp course.

The NUWM also tried to organise within the camps. Its greatest success came in South Wales, where it persuaded men at Brechfa Instructional Centre to down tools on at least three occasions in order to join NUWM rallies in Llanelli. Reportedly, the sight of the men in their corduroy trousers and brown jackets provoked considerable sympathy from onlookers. But this was a rare success; although there were strikes and protests among the trainees, these seem to have been self-organised, and I can’t find much evidence of NUWM activity within the camps.

Needless to say, the Ministry of Labour was well aware of these efforts. It spent a long time discussing an application from a Leeds Communist to attend a camp course in 1933, deciding in the end that refusal would provoke more trouble than he was likely to cause if accepted. It also tried to prevent Wal Hannington and Harry McShane from visiting Glenbranter Instructional Centre; they found a way around the ban.

So the NUWM saw the camps as a fruitful focus for lobbying and demonstrating; and they defended individual trainees or their families. My own judgement is that these activities had an effect: it is clear from the records that civil servants in the Ministry of Labour were very aware of the possibility of NUWM campaigning, and that this influenced their thinking. UAB officials were constantly frustrated by the Ministry of Labour when trying to implement compulsory attendance at the camps.

So the NUWM mattered, to the individuals it represented and to the wider experiences of the unemployed. I think its positive power was minor, but on the other hand it set limits to what government could do.  This brief sketch of the NUWM confirms that the absence of a similar organisation organising and representing the unemployed is a really significant gap in today’s political landscape.