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.

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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.

Workfare and the Fabians

Britain’s Fabian socialists are famed for their contribution to modern welfare policy. They are particularly well known as architects – or at least popularisers – of ideas about the public provision of labour exchanges, health care, pensions and a range of other foundation stones of the welfare state. A reasonable assessment must acknowledge their central role in developing important institutions and measures that were taken for granted until the end of the twentieth century.

We know less about their part in promoting paths that in the end were not taken, perhaps the chief of which was a new design for incarcerating the poor. At the time, they were responding to the failure of the 1834 Poor Law to deal with unemployment, as well as the inability of the workhouse to cope with groups such as vagrants and the sick. But if we look back from the present, we can see the Fabians as the Edwardian designers of what we now call Workfare.

The Webbs made no bones about it: for those who were unemployed for more than a few months, their favoured solution was compulsion. Maintenance, they wrote in 1911, should be conditional on such training – physical and mental, general and technological – as may be found appropriate. They developed a proposal for training centres, run in conjunction with the labour exchanges and offering a combination of physical exercise and basic adult education alongside skills training. Some would be residential and based in the countryside,  while day centres ran in the towns.

Like many Edwardian reformers, the Webbs worried about those who refused to train. For those who insisted on sponging on the public, the Webbs proposed compulsory segregation’in what they called reformatory detention colonies. This idea – which Sidney described as following strict eugenic lines – had a history among the Fabians. In 1890, Sidney Webb reassured readers that they need not worry that socialist would deal tenderly with chronic cases of sturdy vagrancy, idle mendacity and incorrigible laziness’ – under socialism, they would go straight into a labour colony.

Nor were the Webbs alone. In a collection of essays edited in 1908 by George Bernard Shaw, Annie Besant laid out a plan for County Farms in each region, run by trained and experienced agriculturalists, housing the unemployed in the towns, the agricultural laborers who have wandered townwards in search of work, and many of the unskilled laborers.

H. G. Wells was a maverick (and philander) among the socialist planners, but he was also interested in work camps. Writing in 1903, Wells advocated a general conscription and a period of public service for everyone, mainly as a means of promoting a sense of civic obligation, with every class in the community having a practical knowledge of what labour means.

Wells’ ideas had wider support among the Fabians. Writing shortly before the 1929 election, Sydney and Beatrice Webb called for a national Government Labour Corps, a suggestion that Sidney riginally made in 1886.Young unemployed men who refused to serve, they recommended, should be committed to a penal detention colony. G.D.H. Cole also spoke publicly in support of a National Labour Corps in The Next Ten Years, which the prolific left-wing economist, historian and policy thinker published in the hope of influencing the 1929 Labour Government.

Beatrice Webb returned to the topic in her evidence before the Royal Commission on Unemployment Insurance in 1931, calling for a National Labour Corps, recruited from the unemployed, who would be sent about in detachments, equipped with tents, lorries and tools . . . to execute works of coast protection, embanking and draining land, and other improvements. She also thought government should have powers to order the unemployed to undertake Swedish drill.

It is important to understand these ideas in their historical context. Many people favoured labour colonies for the poor – especially for what they called the ‘won’t works. Relatively few, though, favoured compulsion, and a bare handful pursued the idea as consistently as the Webbs. Interestingly, Margaret Bondfield, Labour’s first cabinet minister, introduced compulsory service in work camps for unemployed young men in 1929.

Like the Fabians, Bondfield believed that she was doing it for their own good. It seems, then, that for all its admirable concern for equity and social justice, when it comes to work and unemployment, the socialist tradition includes a rather persistent streak of authoritarianism.