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..



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 movement.social 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.

William Beveridge – a supporter of the labour colony

William Beveridge is widely known as the architect of the welfare state. As such, he is automatically a hero for the Left. Right-wing modernisers like the Free Enterprise Group praise Beveridge’s intentions and principles while lamenting the supposedly bloated socialist bureaucracy that has distorted and displaced his original vision. Now Geoffrey Wheatcroft of the Guardian has joined in, reminding us that Beveridge was indeed a reluctant convert to state intervention, and was shocked by the Attlee government’s contempt for friendly societies.

Beveridge was also a youthful fan of the labour colony movement. This is sometimes passed over by later generations as a fleeting fancy, a brief moment of authoritarianism towards the poor that he inherited from the reformer and researcher Charles Booth. Booth famously classified the poor into five groups, and proposed that the most idle two groups should be packed off to ‘labour schools’ in the countryside.

Beveridge developed this idea in a paper in 1904, proposing that labour colonies should be used to train, not the idle poor, but those who were genuinely unemployed. Beveridge’s early ideas were based on experience. During the trade recession of 1903-5 that followed the Boer Wars, a number of poor law bodies and charities opened labour colonies.

Beveridge, then living in the university settlement at Toynbee Hall, visited several of the colonies, and wrote extensive notes. At Osea Island (later famous as a ‘retreat’ for celebrities struggling with addictions), he noted that the 80 unemployed residents were required to be sober at all times, and were inspected for infections and cleanliness before entering the colony. He concluded that ‘work on the colonies, carried out under good conditions, in country air, with good food, and in the absence of intoxicants, produced a marked improvement in the physique of the men’, and also ‘widened their horizon and stimulated their enterprise’.

Several historians suggest that Beveridge later changed his mind about labour colonies. As an economic liberal, they argue, he saw labour exchanges as more effective in underpinning labour mobility, believing that once the unemployed knew about opportunities for work, they would have every incentive to move to new jobs. Labour colonies, they argue, were part of an outdated way of thinking about the poor – and entirely inconsistent with Beveridge’s recognition of the importance of structural unemployment.

But this is simply not the case. Beveridge saw unemployment as partly what we would call structural in nature, but he also accepted that there was a small number of ‘unemployables’, arguing that their defects were often the result of casual employment. Just as they had learned to balance extremes of employment and idleness, so they might learn to work steadily if only they were properly schooled. And they would learn to labour in organised colonies.

This is clear from Beveridge’s evidence to the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws. Beveridge told the Commission that a labour colony could usefully serve either as a ‘technical school’, training for a specific purpose, such as emigration, or as ‘a hospital’ for the reintegration of ‘men broken down through privation or vice’. He also favoured more penal types of colony, to discipline the few who were ‘incurably defective or idle’.

Similarly, in his well known book on Unemployment: A problem of industry, Beveridge praised those colonies which focused on training, such as Hollesley Bay. He had certainly modified his view since 1904, warning that their positive effect was largely short term, and that they tended to institutionalise the trainees. But I am in no doubt that he continued to see a place for labour colonies, alongside rather than instead of labour exchanges, as a way of reducing unemployment.

Did this make Beveridge an enthusiast for state intervention? Hardly. The labour colonies of 1903-5 were mainly created and directed by municipal rather than national government, usually working with voluntary bodies, charities and philanthropists. While the movement had many supporters on the Left (and the Right), they tended to belong to the land reform wing of Labour, like George Lansbury.

The idea of a national state system of labour colonies was developed most systematically by the Fabian Socialist thinkers Beatrice and Sydney Webb, but Beveridge and the Webbs did share an interest in creating national quasi-penal colonies for the ‘incurably defective or idle’.

Wheatcroft’s much-debated article is at: www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/07/william-beveridge-hated-term-welfare-state