Celebrating work camps as national treasures – the case of the Civilian Conservation Corps

Some Australian friends recently sent me some photographs they’d taken while vacationing in the USA. Among other places they visited Colorado, sending me photos of Mesa Verde, where the the Ancestral Pueblo peoples built their cliff dwellings and farms; and the Red Rocks Amphitheatre, where you can watch the moon rising over Denver as you listen to your favourite performer.

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Statue at Red Rocks

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Information panel at Mesa Verde

What both sites have in common was that during the 1930s, they housed work camps for unemployed young men. The Civilian Conservation Corps was a product of Roosevelt’s New Deal; it opened in 1933, placing over a quarter of a million single men in 1,300 camps, employing them on public works that were chosen partly for their public value. In contrast to Britain, the programme became so popular that politicians lobbied to have the CCC open camps in their electoral districts. I’ve met elderly American socialists who will brook no contradiction with their view that the CCC was a force for good.

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This enduring popularity might seem inexplicable, particularly as the camps were segregated, women were excluded, and the men wore uniforms and came under military control. But the USA had no welfare system, in contrast to the unemployment benefit available in Britain and elsewhere, and the CCC made it possible for the federal government to pay unemployed single men. It also benefited from its association with the wider New Deal programme.

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And Roosevelt was not shy of mobilising public opinion. On the contrary, he was one of the first major democratic politicians to make use of new mass media (wireless in his case) to publicise his administration’s work, and the CCC was equally adept at promoting a positive image, helped by the nature of the work it undertook. While the British Government reached an agreement with the trade unions limiting the work to be done in its work camps, the CCC proudly presented itself as building the modern facilities needed for a nation of pioneers.

Hence my interest in Tony and Janet Brown’s photos. I find it fascinating to see how the memory of the CCC is kept alive and celebrated today, and while I love Rachel Whiteread’s Nissen Hut sculpture in North Yorkshire, it is understated and rather remote. If not exactly secret, most of the British work camps are largely forgotten, along with the unemployed young men who laid the basis for so many of our great forests.

Check out my book if you want to find out more about the British experience of labour camps..

 

 

Immigrants and welfare in early 20th century Britain: the German labour colony

libury hall b+wBritain is often supposed to be a ‘soft touch’ for immigrants looking for an easy life. Only yesterday, the Mayor of Calais lectured MPs on creating an ‘El Dorado’ for the world’s poor, citing in evidence the £36-a-week emergency payments given to asylum seekers with no other income. Yes – £36, or one third of the basic state pension – is apparently the hallmark of El Dorado.

Worries about migrants and welfare go back a long way. I want in this blog to discuss the response of the German immigrant community in Britain to these fears, which partly arose from British distaste for the German tramping system (where young craftsmen picked up new skills by travelling from one place of work to another) and partly from middle-class German pride over the community’s respectability.

Quite how many Germans were living in early 20th century Britain is uncertain. The 1911 census recorded 62,500 German-born, and to this we need to add children and other British-born members of the community. Germans worked in a host of trades – musicians, waiters, hairdressers, brewers, bakers and miners – as well as having a small but significant presence in banking and other mercantile roles.

Once in Britain, the Germans brought, or re-constructed, the institutions that provided social support at home: churches, musical associations, sports clubs and charities, so that the community formed what one researcher has called an ‘ethnic colony’ within Britain. As the Evangelical Church had already established a web of labour colonies in late nineteenth century Germany, it is little wonder that they then transplanted the practice to Britain.

In 1899, Baron Sir Henry Schröder, a merchant banker and member of the Evangeliche Gemeinde in London, purchased a farm and 300 acres of land at Libury Hall, near Ware in Hertfordshire. Schröder was a well-known philanthropist, and was well connected in Britain (he endowed a named chair in German at Cambridge that continues to the present day). He was joined in this by his nephew and inheritor Baron Bruno Schröder, as well as the secretary of the German YMCA in London, Wilhelm Müller.

Libury Hall opened in 1900 as German Industrial and Farm Colony. According to a report drafted for the Co-operative movement in 1906, it took in unemployed German men and gave them work, with the aim of maintaining their readiness for employment, preferably back in Germany. The average stay was just under eight weeks.

Most of men worked outdoors, but the colony also offered indoor crafts such as basket weaving and shoemaking, and most of the men lived in a large dormitory, holding up to 80 men. As the illustrations show, like the Ministry of Labour camps during the 1930s, the colony had its own postcards!

 

Postcard showing the poulty farm

Postcard showing the poulty farm

Even though this was a fairly modest operation compared with the Salvation Army colony at Hadleigh or the London Unemployed Fund colony at Hollesley Bay, the German colony dealt with impressive numbers. It received 1,223 men in its first two years; of these, 83 were reported to have been unwilling to work and had left; 44 had been expelled for ‘bad behaviour’. Over 400 had earned enough money while at the colony to return to Germany, and another 370 had found a new job in Britain.

For most of its life, the colony went largely unnoticed by the British, until the outbreak of War. By this stage, most able-bodied Germans had returned home – or were interned. Libury Hall continued, but increasingly as a home for those who were too elderly or frail to support themselves, or whose families were being maintained by German charities. One report during the War described the colony as containing 188 men, 178 German and 10 Austrian.

The Home Office opened up a file on the colony in autumn 1914. The chief constable told the Home Secretary that he had allocated an armed police guard comprising an inspector, a sergeant and ten constables, who were using a spare cottage in the colony as their office. The Home Office thought this excessive, given the ‘probable state of health and physical infirmities of the inmates’, and blocked the chief constable’s plans to intern the 29 inmates who were of military age, but it went along with proposals to appoint a retired army colonel as camp commandant.

This was not enough to satisfy the true patriots. In September 1915, the Home Office learned that the Anti-German Union had been bribing the police guards and stirring up local feeling against the colony. There had been a small attack on Libury Hall in June, and the AGU organised further demonstrations in the autumn.

Some idea of the passions aroused by this small group of elderly Germans, who were technically treated as detainees under the supervision of the authorities, can be seen in an article published in the Barry Dock News on 1 October 1915, describing the colony as a ‘plague-spot’ and calling on the public to support the AGU demonstrations. It went on:

‘Our gentle kinsman from across the North Sea or German ocean, bringing his kultur with him, is once again faithful to his tradition – of biting the hand that fed and nourished him in his adversity . . . . the students of the gentle art of tillage are practically as free as heretofore to play the spy and traitor, and are making the most of their opportunity’.

The supposed threat was still regarded as serious enough in spring 1916 for a committee of MPs to investigate. They duly reported that although they had found no evidence to support rumours of a gun emplacement, underground caves, and other military preparations, or espionage by the inmates, they remained suspicious, and expressed ‘regret that such an institution existed’. They continued to pester the government, to little effect. Libury Hall still does exist, serving as a retirement home for the elderly.