Performing masculinity: teaching the haka to the unemployed

I have just 21 weeks to wait before the start of the Rugby World Cup. To while away the time, I want to remember a rugby-playing Marxist from New Zealand who in 1934 taught the haka at a summer camp for unemployed men.

Bertram in China in 1937

Bertram in China in 1937

James Munro Bertram was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford when he volunteered to spend his summer with the Universities Council for Unemployed Camps (UCUC). Born in Auckland on 11 August 1910 to a Presbyterian family, he came to England with left-wing views and a training in journalism. He graduated in 1934 with a first in English, then took a second class degree in modern languages in the following year.

UCUC, though based in Cambridge, drew support from a number of English and Scottish universities, and is best understood as part of the broader tradition of student social service, sharpened by the political and economic divisions of the 1930s. Its founders came from a broadly Christian milieu, as did Bertram.

Launched in 1933, UCUC organised some ten work camps during the long summer vacation in the following year. One camp was in Eynsham, on the estate of the fabulously-named Col. Raymond ffenell, a former gold mine owner who used his estate at at Wytham Abbey to promote charitable causes. As was typical in UCUC camps, it involved a small group of around a dozen student leaders and some 60 unemployed men, who worked together to prepare a camp site for the Girl Guides, including digging out an area for use as a swimming pool.

Extract from The Times, 19 July 1934

Extract from The Times, 19 July 1934

The camp leaders also organised a visitors’ night, inviting Col. ffenell and other local inhabitants for an evening’s entertainment. Such events were quite common in UCUC camps, and had a number of different functions; the organisers certainly hoped that they might help reduce local suspicions of the unemployed; they also aimed to build bonds between the unemployed and the students; and they provided an opportunity to raise funds from the audience.

The high point of the Eynsham visitors’ night was Noah’s Flood, a medieval miracle play, performed on Pinkhill Lock and lit by car headlamps. The play was directed by the leading Chaucerian scholar Nevil Coghill, who also featured earlier on the programme as a violinist. The acts also included songs, humour (stand-up), animal mimicry, and a ‘Maori dance and war cry’ performed by the men of Tent 9.

First half of the Visitors' Night programme

First half of the Visitors’ Night programme

James Bertram was leader of Tent 9 (in keeping with the UCUC principle of allocating one student to each tent as its leader). The decision to teach the men to perform the haka reflected his keen interest in rugby, while presumably it was his political beliefs that led Coghill to cast him in Noah’s Flood as a somewhat ahistorical ‘Red Shirt’.

What was a New Zealander, studying English, doing at an unemployed camp? Bertram was a Christian and a convinced socialist, and he reportedly decided to join UCUC after supporting the Hunger Marchers as they paraded through Oxford. As a democratic Marxist he opted to join the Independent Labour Party rather than the Communist Party, starting an ILP branch at the University. After leaving Oxford he worked as a journalist, becoming a foreign correspondent in China before eventually being imprisoned by the Japanese. Subsequently he obtained a senior lectureship in English at Victoria University College, Wellington, where he taught until his retirement.

Bertram died in 1993, and I’m sorry that I never met him. He probably wouldn’t have agreed with my view of the work camps as a form of intervention on the male body – but he sounds as though the discussions would have been interesting and informative.

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Did Moscow control the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement in Interwar Britain?

westI’ve been reading Nigel West’s book Mask, which recounts MI5’s surveillance of the Communist Party of Great Britain. It’s a rum old book, and West is an odd character, but I was given it, and it tells a good story. It also includes a large amount of original material, including a 1934 message from Alexander Abramovich of the Comintern telling the British Communist leader Harry Pollitt how to handle the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement.

The NUWM was one of the most successful radical campaigning groups in inter-war Britain. Its protests, marches and local advocacy enjoyed significant popular support, and won the NUWM considerable publicity. But ever since the 1930s, participants and historians alike have debated the extent to which the NUWM was controlled by the Communist Party.

In the most authoritative account to date, Alan Campbell and John McIlroy concluded that from 1929 on, the CP effectively imposed its own agenda on the NUWM, at least at national level. Or, more accurately, it translated the interests of the Soviet leadership into its own agenda. It also, on Comintern instructions, tried to undermine Wal Hannington, the NUWM organiser viewed by Moscow as failing to turn the unemployed towards revolution.

Of course, if the CP did Moscow’s bidding, it did so with an eye to maintaining the NUWM’s support among the unemployed, and its attempts at control were sometimes resisted by leading NUWM members like Hannington, as well as by local branches who simply got on with their own activities without always paying much attention to headquarters.

Campbell and McIlroy benefited from access to a much wider range of evidence than was available to earlier historians. In particular, they were able to use the Communist Party archives, as well as reproductions of material in the Russian State Archives. They also use the material that West has reproduced, drawn from the declassified decrypts of radio messages between the Soviet-controlled Comintern and officials of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Campbell and McIlroy used the November 1934 message in their 2008 article, so it is not surprising that it largely confirms what we already know. In the message, the Comintern urged the CP to get the NUWM to engage with the trade union movement and their local unemployed associations in what it called the United Front, and told them to put pressure on Labour controlled councils by organising union delegations to work camps, with a view to demanding their closure.

In the event, this was pretty much what happened. NUWM branches demonstrated at meetings of public assistance committees in Labour-controlled areas like Llanelli, Kirkcaldy and Durham, and the movement made closure of the ‘slave camps’ a central feature of its campaign against the 1934 Unemployment Assistance Act.

In 1934, the campaign against the Unemployment Assistance Act was genuinely popular, and the NUWM needed no persuasion to focus on the Act’s provisions for compulsory training in camps. Where the Comintern did require change was where it told the CP to get the NUWM to cooperate with the official trade union movement, particularly its local unemployed associations. For the previous four years, the CP had complained that the NUWM was not enthusiastically following it in attacking such groups as ‘social fascist’; now it turned on Hannington for continuing to criticise the official unemployed associations as too moderate.

As it happens, I had not read the Comintern message – other than the few lines cited by Campbell and McIlroy – when I wrote about protest and resistance in my book on British work camps. I can’t see that it would have changed my understanding of the NUWM, which I believe was weakened by the CP’s attempts to use it to pursue the twists and turns of Stalinist policy.

Masculinity and domesticity: who did the housework in work camps?

Most work camps in Britain, as elsewhere, were run by men for men. There were exceptions, which I’ve written about, but in the main these were masculine institutions where male bodies undertook heavy manual labour. And much thought was given to feeding and nurturing those male bodies.

Cleanliness was certainly a virtue. Most camps had baths and many had showers, at a time when many working class and some middle class families made do with a tub in front of the fire. And indoor spaces had to be ket clean and tidy, usually by the inmates.

Bodies were actively cared for. Men were routinely inspected for lice, and subjected tomedical inspection. In the Ministry of Labour camps in the 1930s, they were even given free dental and eye treatment – something the men would otherwise have paid for, if they could afford it. And they were weighed, with a view to achieving a desirably stronger and heavier body.

For there was food. Diet was a big deal, for the organisers and the inmates. The authorities usually took care to nourish working bodies with substantial servings of protein and carbohydrate, washed down with mugs of tea. Yet complaints about food – lack of variety, or poor quality – were by far the greatest cause of protests within the camps.

Again, the inmates did the cooking, usually supervised by specialist staff who were also male. Interestingly, the Ministry of Labour’s camps during the 1930s were equipped with shiny metal cookers and dishwashers, set up to cater to the 200 trainees and forty staff. So in these camps at least, male domestic labour was also technologically mediated labour.

That this was of wider interest in interwar Britain is clear. The Ministry of Labour encouraged  public visits (except for supporters of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement). In 1936, for example, the Ministry invited the public to an evening of variety in its Instructional Centre at Ardentinny, in the west of Scotland. According to the Dunoon Herald, ‘Great admiration was shown by the ladies especially in the huge kitchens and their equipment for feeding nearly two hundred and forty persons’.

Very few camps brought men and women together. Some did, including the voluntary work camps organised by the International Voluntary Service for Peace, whose endeavours included the conversion of stables into a youth hostel in Whitby, and a massive swimming lido at Brynmawr in South Wales. The Quaker-led IVSP expected male volunteers to work with ‘pick and shovel’, while the ‘sisters’ were expected to cook, clean and sew. IVSP did not place women on a formally equal footing until well after WW2.

Work camps were more or less bounded communities, whose central role was to rebuild enfeebled male bodies through hard work and nurture. Where they were solely male in membership, men did the domestic work, usually on a rota basis, just as they might have done in the armed forces. Where they were mixed, which was extremely rare, men undertook ‘hard work’, and women did domestic labour.

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.