Why a fearless Welsh journalist praised German work camps in 1933

Gareth Jones was a fearless investigative journalist, famous for his reports on the horrific famine that followed enforced collectivization in the Ukraine. He is the subject of a biography published by the Welsh Academic Press, but is now becoming familiar to a wider audience thanks to the newly-released Mr Jones, a major film directed by the wonderful Agnieszka Holland, starring James Norton as Jones (and featuring part of Fife as his home town of Barry).

James Norton

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I first came across Jones in a rather different context, while researching for my study of British work camps. In a series of articles in spring 1933 for the Western Mail and South Wales News, Jones reported on his visits to German labour camps in February 1933, an experience that ‘impressed me deeply’.

Jones’ impressions of the German camps he visited were overwhelmingly positive. He compared the large scale of the German Arbeitsdienst camps with the handful of voluntary and government camps in Wales, concluding that the latter had lessons to learn.

If Wales had done as much as Germany for the unemployed there would now be 300 camps here, and about 10,000 young Welshmen between 18 and 25 years of age would be engaged at useful work, repairing boots, singing, doing physical exercise, playing football or cricket and discussing everything under the sun. . . .Germany is years ahead of Wales in tackling unemployment. Thus Wales has a chance of catching up its brother nation and perhaps of beating Germany in the quality of work done. The opportunity is a magnificent one, especially for the Churches (Western Mail & South Wales News, 27 April 1933).

This cheery picture might seem odd, given how we now view the German labour camps. But when Jones visited Germany, the Nazi Party was just consolidating its hold on power, participation in labour service was still voluntary, and the camps were still organised by a wide variety of voluntary organisations.

Jones visited at least one camp run by the Stahlhelm, a nationalist and conservative paramilitary grouping founded in 1918 as a veterans’ movement; after the Nazi seizure of power, it was integrated into the Nazi structures in 1934. Jones noted that the unemployed trainees wore uniforms and helmets, concluding that the Stahlhelm camp ‘had done excellent work in making orchards and building roads, but their outlook was nationalistic and military’.

Jones also visited other types of camp, including one organised by a Christian group. But he worried that ‘Now, however, the whole system is in the melting-pot, for Hitler is in power, and it is feared that he may destroy its voluntary basis and make it compulsory and narrowly nationalistic’. As indeed was the case when the Nazis replaced the voluntary system with their universal male Reichsarbeitsdienst.

Jones was far from alone in admiring the voluntary labour service of pre-Nazi Germany. In my book I quoted Jones alongside the example of a Workers’ Educational Association study tour which was particularly taken with the ‘democratic way of living’ in a German camp. The fact is that many if not most of these camps were very different animals from the universal labour service enforced by the Nazis.

Entirely consistently, Jones also admired Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, another large scale work camp initiative which trained young unemployed men on public works, in what Jones described as ‘a labour army’. Jones valued such camps because they ‘rescue’ unemployed men from ‘the apathy of worklessness’; what he despised was indifference to their plight.

Did this make him a Nazi sympathiser? Not at all, but Jones certainly has good contacts with the Nazi leaders, and he was denounced by some Western anti-fascists for ‘smearing’ the Soviet Union, of which the Ukraine was a part.

Jones died young, murdered in China in 1935 shortly before his 30th birthday. I very much welcome the film’s celebration of a journalist who uncovered uncomfortable truths about things most readers preferred to ignore. Meanwhile, if you want to read more on 1930s work camps in Britain (and to a lesser extent Ireland), hunt down a copy of my book.

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..

 

 

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.

Why Rendlesham is special – Anglo-Saxon palace, UFO landing site, work camp for the London unemployed

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Archaeologists from Suffolk County Council believe that they have uncovered the remains of an Anglo-Saxon palace near Rendlesham. If so, this is quite a find, and puts Rendlesham firmly on the map for all those interested in this island’s distant past. But some of us already know the village well, for other reasons.

Most famously, Rendlesham is known among Ufologists as ‘Britain’s Roswell’, the site of Britain’s first UFO landing. Less well known is the history of the Rendlesham Instructional Centre, which served between 1936 and 1939  as part of the Ministry of Labour’s programme of ‘reconditioning’ long term unemployed men by a programme of heavy manual labour (further details here).

Previously, the Ministry of Labour had built its work camps in isolated areas that were within a train journey of the coalfields and other areas of concentrated unemployment. London’s unemployed were viewed as unlikely to benefit from work camp placements, partly because many of them tended to go into and out of jobs on a more or less casual basis, and partly because new employment opportunities were opening up in and around the capital.

The coalfields, by contrast, were viewed as areas of long term unemployment whose population should transfer to work in other parts of the country. But by 1935 the Ministry of Labour faced difficulties recruiting for its camps, and started to focus on new areas.

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Ministry of Labour Annual Report, 1936

Rendlesham was selected because of its location. By 1936, Rendlesham already belonged to the Forestry Commission, which had started to plant trees in 1933, so there was plenty of work available to extend the forestable area. It was also within easy reach of London.

The Instructional Centre opened in December 1936, with a capacity of 200 men. Its track record was poor: during its first full year of operation it admitted 810 men, 199 of whom were dismissed or walked out, with a further 441 completing their course only to go back on the dole; only 45 found work, many of them by their own devices rather than the Ministry’s.

None of this stopped the Ministry, and the Unemployment Assistance Board, from congratulating themselves on the wonderful work of the centre. Unsurprisingly, then, Rendlesham work camp was short lived, and it closed well before war broke out. It was certified as an approved school in 1939, and was then designated as a ‘Civil Training Centre’ for conscientious objectors.

Of course none of this story will ever be as well known as the Anglo-Saxon palace and the alien incursion, but it is a pointed reminder that workfare has a history – and that it is a history of failure. And, like many of the former work camp sites, it is a fabulous area for walking.

Osea Island: workfare camp, inebriate retreat

Helen Rogers, a socio-cultural historian who studies working class writing among other things, runs the fabulous website on working class autobiographies called Writing Lives. The other day she tweeted a link to a post about the life of May Owen, a Londoner born in 1896, whose father was an alcoholic.

May writes that: ‘I can remember Charrington the Brewers son forming a club for alcoholics my father was one of thirty sent to a small island off the Thanet coast Osea Island. No drink, his wage given to my mother and he had to help build a sea wall.’

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Osea Island – image from Wikipedia

Helen’s Tweet asked whether Osea was one of my ‘work camps’. The short answer is yes: it was indeed one of the many work camps that were opened in Britain for marginal and stigmatised groups. Osea hosted a labour colony for unemployed Londoners, which became a colony for habitual inebriates, as the island’s owner was a leading temperance campaigner and social reformer.

Frederick Charrington might seem an unexpected adherent of temperance. Son of a London brewing dynasty, Charrington reportedly sold his shares in the family business after seeing a drunk man punch his wife. He promoted the Ragged School movement, supported striking Jewish tailors, and helped open a temperance assembly hall on the Mile End Road.

Charrington bought the island in 1903,with a view to turning it into an inebriate retreat. Initially, he opened a small colony for inebriate women. This proved a failure, and in 1904 he invited the London local authorities to use it for poor relief.Supported by the Lord Mayor’s fund, unemployed male heads of household were sent in the following winter to live on the island, where they laid roads, leveled land, and built sea walls while living in wooden huts.

Further groups were sent in the following year, under the auspices of the Central (Unemployed) Body for London. At full capacity, the dormitories held 80 bunks, but William Beveridge estimated that  there were usually around 70 men in residence.

A number of interested visitors came to view the colony, including Beveridge, who  noted that the unemployed residents were supplied with boots on loan, and had to bring one change of clothing. They had to be accustomed to heavy labour, and were inspected for infections and cleanliness before entering the colony. The colony rules, he reported, were simple:

(a) Prompt obedience to orders;

(b) Sobriety;

(c) Observance of appointed hours

Rules or not, three of the first group of 25 men rapidly scurried off to the mainland, where they apparently caused a disturbance in the pubs of Malden.

After 1905, and using the infrastructure built by the unemployed Londoners, Charrington then opened a temperance holiday village on the island. According to the Little Book of Essex, the locals smuggled alcohol out to the island, and ferried thirsty holiday-makers to Malden.

Charrington’s holiday settlement continued until the Great War, when the Admiralty commandeered the island for use as a motor boat harbour. In 1934, the Rural Community Council of Essex opened a ‘reconditioning camp’ on the Island to help unemployed men improve their fitness and readiness for work.

Since the 1940s, its main claim to fame is as a splendid habitat for bird life. Strangely, though, the great house on Osea briefly returned to its earlier role at the start of the present century, when it was opened as a retreat for wealthy addicts – including, most famously, Amy Winehouse. That venture also failed, and the island is now marketed as a luxury holiday destination.

May is wrong about one thing: Osea is off the Essex coast, and not Thanet. Essex was a popular location for labour colonies, situated close enough to London to simplify transport but far enough to cause trainees to think twice about running away. There was also plentiful land, much of it economically marginal so that it therefore presented abundant opportunities for reclamation work.

 

Britain’s 1930s work camps: more Midsomer than Maribor?

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My book on British work camp systems has just been reviewed in the august pages of the English Historical Journal. It’s a largely positive review (phew!) and provides a more than fair summary of the contents. Inevitably, the author has some reservations; she points to limitations in my treatment of gender relations and also argues that I overemphasise the body at the expense of the communitarian dimension of work camp schemes.

These are valid points, which I largely accept (though I defend my inclusion of a chapter on residential training centres for unemployed women on the grounds that these present such a contrast with the masculine world of the work camps). On one point I do take issue, and this is where the reviewer quotes me as saying that ‘the British work camps were “more Midsomer than Majdanek”‘.

I did indeed use that phrase, but not in relation to work camps. I was writing about the vision of a future England that was proposed by the British Germanophile and environmentalist thinker Rolf Gardiner, who in turn was writing about the Danish folk high school movement. Gardiner’s dream, I claimed, was ‘an idealised rural vision of Nazism – more Midsomer than Majdanek’.

While I don’t think that even the most stringent British work camps can compare with the extermination centres of the Third Reich, I also made it very clear that I did not share the view of some historians that the Ministry of Labour camps in particular, along with their predecessors in the labour colony movement, were a comfortable place to be.

I wanted to clarify this point partly because we need to be clear about what the work camp experience involved, and partly because of contemporary debates about work-to-welfare. But in the end, this is a small part of a nice review, which is written by Christine G. Krüger, a historian who is researching youth volunteering in West Germany and Britain in the 20th century. She writes with authority and with knowledge of the sources, and I’m grateful to her.