Attlee, labour colonies and the welfare state

Clement Attlee

Clement Attlee

In 1920, a thirty-seven year old university lecturer published a book on social work. Clement Attlee, later to become famous as Prime Minister of the 1945 Labour Government, had spent several years after graduating at Oxford serving charities in London’s East End, most notably as secretary of Toynbee Hall. Like most men of his background and generation, he was commissioned in the Great War, and was one of the last to be evacuated from Gallipoli.

I was reminded of Attlee’s book when reading Georgina Brewis’ terrific study of student volunteering in Britain. Brewis shows that the university settlement movement of the late nineteenth century was part of an emerging student associational culture in which voluntary social service started to develop some of the forms of professional social work. She also, incidentally, demonstrates the disproportionate significance of women in the worker

Attlee’s book can be understood as part of the transition from organised volunteering as a form of inter-class bonding through to a professionalised body of social workers. In it, he describes the opportunities available to would-be social workers, and devotes a chapter to the training and qualifications that he deemed desirable. Interestingly, he wrote the book while serving as Labour mayor for Stepney.

It was inevitable that Attlee would say something about the labour colony movement. Given its scale and its much-debated status, he could hardly ignore it. Among others, he singled out the Salvation Army’s colony at Hadleigh, the municipal colony inspired by George Lansbury at Hollesley Bay, and Joseph Fels’ land settlement colony at Mayland.

What did Attlee make of these ventures? His view of Hadfield was coloured by his suspicion of the Salvation Army, whose combination of boisterous religion and financial relief put ‘a premium upon hypocrisy’. He also feared that the Army’s workshops were undercutting ordinary workers. Hadleigh, though, was ‘far better conceived’.

He also admired the other colonies for training the unemployed, though noting that attempts to settle them on the land had come to little. The solution, Attlee suggested, lay in translating the methods of the co-operative movement to land settlement.

It would be unfair, and flawed, to overstate his interest in the labour colony movement: it merited a few mentions in a detailed study of British social service. But Attlee’s reasons for sympathising with the movement are instructive:

It must be recognised that prolonged unemployment is very demoralising, and that it is idle to expect those whose moral stamina has been undermined by casual work and insufficient food to become useful citizens and workers by the mere provision of work. Some form of training is necessary, and also some form of moral suasion, and the Salvation Army employs methods that are, at least in some cases, effective.

Attlee, of course, was far from alone in his sympathies. George Lansbury, Labour’s leader for much of the 30s, was an enthusiastic proponent of labour colonies as a means of resettling London’s unemployed on the land, while the Webbs were among other socialists who took a more punitive view of labour coloniesBeveridge expressed interest in the labour colony as part of the wider remedy for unemployment.

Such ideas and practices were found across large parts of progressive British opinion. We cannot understand the nature of Britain’s welfare state, as it was forged during the 1940s, without having some grasp of this longer background and its influence on the thinking and principles of those who shaped the settlement of the 1940s.

Modernity and socialist land colonies

Why did socialists create so many new utopian communities in the late nineteenth century? In his engaging short book on Modernism and British Socialism, Thomas Linehan revises the neo-Marxist notion of a ‘conjuncture’ (it sounds better in French) where a number of factors came together that encouraged a positive view of the world as it might be, a negative view of the world as it was, and an optimistic sense that an alternative was realistically achievable.


For Linehan, the socialist revival itself in the 1880s and 1890s reflected a belief that capitalism stood stood on ‘the cusp of profound and radical change’ (132). While urbanisation, mechanisation, scientific advance and economic growth had brought about an end to old ways of living, they had palpably failed to produce spiritual renewal and material prosperity for all, while also throwing old certainties into the dustbin of radical doubt. The result was what Linehan calls ‘an acute liminoid moment’ (28), when radicals were able to put into practice their values of fellowship, harmony and equality.

Linehan devotes a chapter to the socialist colonies, paying particular attention to the Tolstoyan settlements at Purleigh and Whiteway, the Christian socialist colony at Starnthwaite in Cumberland, and the Kropotkinite Clousden Hill Communist and Co-operative Colony near Newcastle, as well as the arts and crafts colony at Chipping Campden. He also mentions the one-man settlement of the Scot Douglas Semple, who went to live in a bell tent on Linwood Moss, near Paisley.

These ‘experiments in social modernism’ represented an attempted reconstruction of communal life in communion with nature, as well as a refusal of the spatial and temporal arrangements of modernity. Linehan contrasts these utopian impulses with ‘Fabian modernism’, which he presents as underpinned by a belief in the power of rationalism and science, as well as a strong sense that ‘progress’ was inexorably moving towards the collectivisation of social governance. Fabian efficiency, writes Linehan, was incompatible with and intolerant of the utopian colonies, which Sidney Webb deplored as sentimental expressions of pre-modern nostalgia.

This is a compelling account, and I wish I’d managed to read it before finishing my own study of British work camp systems. My fourth chapter is given over to a discussion of the utopian colonies, and on the whole I think my analysis and Linehan’s complement each other. His work is much stronger on the intellectual history of the period, though, and it forces us to rethink much of the socialist project of the late nineteenth century (and more recently, of course).

Where we part company is, I think, in his use of the term modernism. I’m generally sceptical over such portmanteau concepts as modernism and neo-liberalism, both because they jumble together much that is contradictory and because they tend to be deployed as non-personified actors rather than as general intellectual currents. And I think this has influenced Linehan’s account of the socialist colonies as well.

For one thing, any account of socialist utopian colonies has to acknowledge not only the various autonomous community building endeavours of small groups. It must also consider the ways in which socialists sought to use local government – particularly the poor law institutions – to develop labour colonies that were similarly inspired by the idea of building new, post-industrial and egalitarian communities. The work of George Lansbury and his allies in Poplar and elsewhere in London is the prime example, but there are others.

Science alone was not enough to render utopian colonies unrealistic. Alfred Russel Wallace, one of the great supporters of the labour colony movement, was himself a rationalist and a biologist, who is best known for independently developing the theory of evolution; he was also a spiritualist, and saw nothing contradictory in holding these views.

And this brings us back to the Fabians, who may have understood themselves as dispassionate and scientific, but were perfectly happy to develop plans for labour colonies as part of their wider vision of socialised efficiency. Equally, the Kropotkinites at Clousden Hill thought of themselves as promoters of the latest scientific techniques in agriculture. Science and community building were by no means mutually exclusive.

Finally, the utopian moment passed fairly quickly. Few of the socialist colonies survived more than a couple of years, and those that did survive – like Starnthwaite and Whiteway – had to change their goals and nature pretty drastically. It is then hardly surprising if Fabians thought them of little value in the years before the Great War, as by that time no socialist colonies existed. Interestingly, although the local government colonies also lost their utopian character, Lansbury supported them loyally to the last.

Modernism and British Socialism is a lively, well-written and intellectually fluent book. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and while I don’t agree with part of Linehan’s central argument, nor with his account of the socialist colonies, it helps us rethink the intellectual climate in late nineteenth century Britain and offers a stimulating account of early British socialism.

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.