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.

 

Sprouts and all the trimmings: London’s protesting unemployed gardeners, 1906

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From the Abbey Gardens website: http://www.abbeygardens.org

I’m an expert on Brussels sprouts. Well, not really, but I was really pleased when a journalist interviewed me about the 1906 Triangle Camp to be able to tell him that the unemployed squatters of Plaistow planted, among other things, my favourite winter greens.

The Triangle Camp was one of a number of ‘land-grabs’ mounted in 1906 as part of a socialist campaign against unemployment. The logic was simple: if the middle classes believed that the unemployed were idle scroungers, then the unemployed would demonstrate their willingness to work in the most eye-catching, theatrical manner possible. By working, in the full gaze of the public.

Of course, squatting land and planting it was not the only option. Plaistow then fell within the boudaries of the Borough of West Ham, whose council established a labour colony for unemployed men at South Ockenden in Essex. John Burns, a former socialist and trade union official who became a Liberal minister, visited the colony and reported that it was full of ‘Tired Tims’ and ‘Weary Willies’, who ‘where skilled did not belong to Friendly Societies or Trade Unions’.

Led by Ben Cunningham, a local trader and councillor, a small group of unemployed men occupied a small plot of derelict land in the early hours of 13 July 1906. They ran up a tent, which they called the ‘Hotel’, agreed some rules, recruited a band, and started digging. They banned alcohol from the site, and set themselves a long working day. 

Although it had no particular plans for the site itself, West Ham Council took a dim view of this protest. Its first attempt to evict the campers fizzled out when the Council workmen decided to donate to the Triangle support fund instead. It then obtained an injunction, and sent bailiffs with a police guard. Watched by a large and sympathetic crowd, the men left peacefully enough, most of them heading for a neighbouring plot – donated by a sympathiser – to plant their cabbages and sprouts. 

Ben Cunningham and his supporters continued to hold meetings protesting unemployment, and eventually he was arrested for trespassing once more on the Triangle site. After serving his prison sentence, Cunningham duly appeared on the stage of the Bow Palace theatre and music hall, re-enacting the land-grab in front of appreciative local audiences. 

The journalist asked, reasonably enough, whether I thought this story had any contemporary relevance. Three things occurred to me. First, it reminds us of the need to resist the contempt in which our society holds our unemployed. Second, the tradition of guerilla gardening is alive and well, and indeed the Triangle protesters are evoked in a community garden in Plaistow to this day. Third, it shows that protest can capture the imagination and resonate down the years when it is imaginative and – literally in Cunnungham’s case – theatrical. 

If you want to read more about this story, and the wider context, then you will have to get hold of my book – and I say this, of course, purely in the sprouty tradition of seasonal goodwill. Happy Christmas! 🎅🏽