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.

 

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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.