Rachel Whiteread’s sculpture is a great way of marking the Forestry Commission’s centenary – shame about the leaflet

As part of its centenary celebrations this year, the Forestry Commission has unveiled a sculpture by Rachel Whiteread in Dalby Forest. It’s a splendid piece of work, comprising a full-size cast of a Nissen Hut, which represents both a connection with the First World War, when Major Nissen first designed the eponymous hut, and with the work camp that operated on the site from 1933 to 1939.

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Whiteread’s hut sits deep in the Forest, three miles from the visitor centre, and it’s weathering in nicely. When we visited we combined the short pathway to the sculpture with a muddy walk along rutted tracks. It makes a nice addition to the rich walking tapestry of North Yorkshire, and it has rightly been celebrated on the BBC’s Countryfile.

Disappointingly, the accompanying information leaflet doesn’t match the standards of either the sculpture or the Forest, at least when it comes to the work camp, which it describes as offering “much-needed local employment and skills training”. In one short sentence, the leaflet glosses over the following:

  1. It wasn’t employment, and the trainees received unemployment benefit (after deductions to cover board and lodging);
  2. the Ministry of Labour was at pains to stress that its camps offered not skills training but an exposure to heavy manual labour;
  3. the men weren’t even local, but were recruited from high unemployment areas in Cleveland and South Yorkshire.

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Does this matter to anyone but the historian? I think so, because it misrepresents the fundamental purpose of the entire government work camp system. This was stated bluntly by John Passmore, director of training at the Ministry of Labour, to a reporter who was visiting Dalby – or Allerston as it was then known – while it was under construction, using trainees from the Bourne camp in Lincolnshire.

Passmore described the camp’s purpose as ‘reconditioning’ men who had gone soft through prolonged unemployment, so that they were physically capable of doing heavy work: “We understand that men who have had long periods of unemployment will be in poor condition physically, and it is our intention to recondition them. At first they will be placed on lighter types of work, which will be stiffened as the weeks pass. The heavier jobs will consist of road work in the forest” (Yorkshire News, 29 November 1933).

Plenty of people misrepresented the camps at the time. The Yorkshire News reporter sounds a right Pollyanna, writing “That they were happy was not to be doubted for a moment. The carefree singing and whistling of those who had already felt the benefit of this new job in a healthy atmosphere was indicative enough”. From the Marxist Left, Communists denounced the “slave camps” as echoes of Nazism.

Both were wrong, but the myths persist to this day. Still, don’t let it put you off visiting Dalby and hunting for Whiteread’s Nissen Hut. If a beautiful forest and a haunting sculpture aren’t enough for you, there’s also a wooden Gruffalo close by.

 

Rachel Whiteread’s Nissen Hut – commemorating a 1930s work camp

Rachel Whiteread is one of Britain’s most ouststanding artists. I first encountered her work in the form of a plaster cast of some bookshelves, a theme she later explored for her Holocaust Memorial in the city of Vienna. I find her work haunting, thought-provoking, and inspiring, so I was thrilled to hear that the Forestry Commission had asked her to produce a WW1 memorial in Dalby Forest.

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Whiteread’s hut, from the 14-18 Now website

Whiteread’s memorial takes the form of a Nissen hut, which had been mass-produced for the services as a cheap and quick means of housing the fast-expanding number of recruits. You have to take a bit of a walk to reach it, but for most people a stroll through Dalby will be no great hardship. As you would hope and expect,the result is well worth the effort, and its pristine whiteness will darken as it experiences the wonders of Yorkshire weather.

The irony, though, is that Nissen huts came to Dalby well after the War ended. And when they came, their role was to house not soldiers but young unemployed men who were being ‘reconditioned’, to make them fit for heavy manual labour. Dalby was a work camp, or Instructional Centre, where the Ministry of Labour sent unemployed men to work clearing scrubland and rough pasture in readiness for afforestation.

The Forestry Commission came into being immediately after the Great War ended, and it started work at Dalby – or Allerston as it was originally known, after the village where officials stayed while inspecting the land. The Ministry of Labour approached the Commission in 1933, asking to open a camp on the site for unemployed young men from Whitby and Cleveland. The camp took its first inmates, who came from across Yorkshire, in early 1934, and it continued to run until war approached in 1939.

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A 1932 postcard, showing the layout of Dalby work camp

As the postcard shows, the 200 or so inmates were housed in Nissen Huts, each of which held 20 men. The camp also had a sports field, tennis ground, swimming pool, classrooms, sick bay and welfare hut which also served as library and cinema. It was remote, with a long tramp to the nearest piub; one visiting journalist complained that he had to open and close 14 gates on the country lanes to reach the camp.While the inmates were mostly too young to have served in the War, some of the staff had military exerience. After 1939 the huts housed prisoners of war.

Whiteread’s sculpture, as wall as being a fine piece of public art, also serves as an act of public history. Needless to say, if you want to know more about the wider work camp system of which Dalby formed a part, you should just read my book. But even if you don’t, let me encourage you to take a walk in a fine bit of forest.

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! 🎅🏽

 

I wouldn’t publish with InTech

 

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Another day, another crop of emails from dodgy publishers. Today I learned that “InTech invites you to participate in Unemployment, an upcoming open access book”. I have indeed written about unemployment, mainly in the context of my research into British work camp systems in the years between 1880 and 1940, so I might feel flattered that my work is judged worth sharing.

But I don’t. Intech approaches authors unsolicited, and in my case the book editor played no part in the process. The firm is listed by Jeremy Beall as a predatory publisher. They impose steep author processing charges. Even though the book editor appears to be a genuine researcher, I cannot think of a single good reason for publishing with them.

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Skills and the regeneration of coastal communities

Coastal communities rarely make the headlines, but they are among the UK’s poorest areas. For every small former fishing port with a Michelin-starred restaurant there are dozens whose populations face unemployment, precariety and low pay. Educational standards are well below average, as are such critical infrastructural resources as transport and broadband.

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Whitby. Photo by R Jordan, licensed under Wikimedia Commons

These criticisms are hardly new, yet current government regeneration initiatives are failing. In the words of a new report from the British Hospitality Association, ‘policy across Government is uncoordinated and often at odds’. Instead, the BHA sets out a seven-point plan for central government – including the devolved administrations – to attract and promote opportunities for investment in coastal economies’.

Skills, I am pleased to see, are one of the key areas for investment. A large proportion of projects supported by the Lottery through the Coastal Communities Fund involved upskilling, and it would be rather nice to see a serious evaluation of these before going much further down this track. We might also ask why BHA members are not already doing far more to raise the skills and qualifications of their workforce. Still, it’s good to see the BHA recognise the need for improving skills.

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Point 6 of the BHA’s seven-point plan

Moreover, the BHA proposals for skills are placed within the context of growing demand for labour. I’ve blogged about skills and coastal communities before (see more here), expressing the view that far too much is said about skills supply and far too little about skills demand and utilisation. The question here is whether the BHA proposals, which rely heavily on tax breaks and infrastructure investment, are enough.

The basic economic problem of coastal communities derive from over-reliance on inherently low-skilled, low-paid industry sectors such as those related to tourism, which often also require part-time and seasonal workers. Seasonality of work also makes it difficult for workers to progress in their careers and reduces the incentive to train, as each job may be with a different employer. Part-time work promotes a tendency for people to hold multiple jobs, and again reduces the incentive to train for any of then.
Many of the most highly educated young people leave in order to attend university. Whatever their intentions at the time, they rarely return after graduating. Essentially, this means that new skills either have to be recruited from outside, or developed in the existing – ie adult – workforce. And adult education provision, for reasons of small scale and under-resourcing, is rarely a strong feature in these areas.
Tackling these structural problems is likely to require more than tax breaks and better infrastructure. It also means breaking the over-reliance of coastal communities on tourism and hospitality.This isn’t how the BHA sees it of course (their report offers the model of Folkestone, whose cultural quarter and triennial arts festival are designed to boost tourism).
Diversifying the economy is challenging, and not always comfortable for existing tourist businesses, as can be seen from the early controversies over the new offshore operations hub at Whitby, which has already started to recruit apprentices as well as bringing highly skilled workers into the town. One side effect has been to strengthen the local training system, with a small but successful fisheries school developing into other maritime areas. This seems to me a much better path to go down than further increasing these communities’ dependence on the low skill, low wage tourism sector.

Utopia – Whither the Future?

I’ve been very taken with the idea behind this conference, which examines the past, present and future of utopias. It’s being held in New York in September, and the call for papers is open (details here) until 30 June. I can’t attend myself, but what a great topic!

The organisers pose some attractive questions about the past and present of utopia. The future, reasonably enough, is summarised by a question mark.New Picture (2)

I certainly have an interest in the history of utopian thinking and practice. I encountered numerous cases in researching the British work camp tradition, ranging from the Christian Socialist settlement at Starnthwaite and the Tolstoyan anarchists of Whiteway to the Zionist David Eder training farm, the Aryan work camps of Rolf Gardiner’s group, and the peace-builders of Gryth Fyrd. All of these sought to prefigure a different world; and although none managed to persist with its original intentions, some lasted much longer than others.

Given that work camps are seriously hard work, literally as well as figuratively, there may well be some lessons to be learned from these stories. The tension between academic rigour and utopian activism is one of life’s great pleasures.  And I very much hope that utopian thinking and practices are far from dead: if we cannot imagine a different way of living from the world around us at present, we may as well turn to the bottle.

Child migrants: the Boy Scouts’ training camp for Durham boys

Amidst all the debate over migration and refugees, you could be forgiven for forgetting that European countries have also sent their fair share of ‘economic migrants’. In the case of Britain, this exodus served a dual purpose: ridding the homeland of an unwanted surplus and settling the overseas Dominions with white Britons.

I’ve described elsewhere the role of the labour colony movement in moving ‘the landless man to the manless land’, as well as the many attempts to train young women as wives and servants for Australia and Canada, and to ‘recondition’ unemployed soldiers and miners as farm labourers. But while my book on British work camps concentrates largely on adults, there were also numerous schemes for training children before sending them out to the Dominions.

As well as the large scale schemes of the major charities, including Barnardos and the YMCA, children were also the focus of many smaller, often voluntary initiatives. This included the Boy Scout movement’s training camps for boys from mining villages.

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Baden-Powell’s report on his visit, from the Eynsham Scoouts Archive

The scheme was started in 1929 by Miss Doris Mason, a scoutmaster and then a Scout Commissioner. Based at Eynsham Hall near Witney, in Oxford, it recruited young lads (aged 14-18) from the ‘distressed areas’ and involved them in a mixture of scouting and farm work. Each boy was placed with a local farmer for part of the day, and spent the rest of the day in organised leisure activities. After four or five months, the boys were subjected to a medical examination, and if passed fit were sent on to Australia.

Miss Mason ran her first camp between April and July 1929, with a group of twelve boys from Durham pit villages. By the tenth day, some of the boys were on strike, after getting into trouble for refusing to play cricket after working in the fields. Mason replaced the strikers; eight of the twelve passed their medical, and eventually seven boys were packed off to Queensland.

This is a small scale scheme, but a very interesting one. The scheme aimed to turn each boy into ‘an Empire-building citizen’, through a pedagogic programme of work, scouting and sport.They worked for their badges, and pursued more or less enthusiastically the scouting idea of manly pioneering.

Yet even after four months of demanding labour and  hearty food, the Australian medical examiner failed one third of the boys as unfit. Once in Queensland, subjected to conditions that were at best harsh and at worst abusive in the extreme, several wrote to Miss Mason asking to come home again.

At the time, though, the scouting movement managed to portray the scheme as a resounding success. Arthur Mee praised it in the Children’s Newspaper as showing that ‘A good Scout has in him the makings of a good colonist’.

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Baden=Powell’s report, from the Eynsham Scouts Archive

 

Miss Mason went on to develop other ventures for boys from the mining areas, including a scheme to train lads as butlers, grooms and chauffeurs. The village of Eynsham, meanwhile, hosted other schemes for the unemployed, including a work camp for unemployed men that was established by former scouts who had gone on to Cambridge University.

Meanwhile, there is currently a fabulous exhibition at the Museum of Childhood that tells the wider story of which the Scout camps are a part. It is called On their Own: Britain’s child migrants. If you’re in London, please visit it!