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.

 

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.

Masculinity and domesticity: who did the housework in work camps?

Most work camps in Britain, as elsewhere, were run by men for men. There were exceptions, which I’ve written about, but in the main these were masculine institutions where male bodies undertook heavy manual labour. And much thought was given to feeding and nurturing those male bodies.

Cleanliness was certainly a virtue. Most camps had baths and many had showers, at a time when many working class and some middle class families made do with a tub in front of the fire. And indoor spaces had to be ket clean and tidy, usually by the inmates.

Bodies were actively cared for. Men were routinely inspected for lice, and subjected tomedical inspection. In the Ministry of Labour camps in the 1930s, they were even given free dental and eye treatment – something the men would otherwise have paid for, if they could afford it. And they were weighed, with a view to achieving a desirably stronger and heavier body.

For there was food. Diet was a big deal, for the organisers and the inmates. The authorities usually took care to nourish working bodies with substantial servings of protein and carbohydrate, washed down with mugs of tea. Yet complaints about food – lack of variety, or poor quality – were by far the greatest cause of protests within the camps.

Again, the inmates did the cooking, usually supervised by specialist staff who were also male. Interestingly, the Ministry of Labour’s camps during the 1930s were equipped with shiny metal cookers and dishwashers, set up to cater to the 200 trainees and forty staff. So in these camps at least, male domestic labour was also technologically mediated labour.

That this was of wider interest in interwar Britain is clear. The Ministry of Labour encouraged  public visits (except for supporters of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement). In 1936, for example, the Ministry invited the public to an evening of variety in its Instructional Centre at Ardentinny, in the west of Scotland. According to the Dunoon Herald, ‘Great admiration was shown by the ladies especially in the huge kitchens and their equipment for feeding nearly two hundred and forty persons’.

Very few camps brought men and women together. Some did, including the voluntary work camps organised by the International Voluntary Service for Peace, whose endeavours included the conversion of stables into a youth hostel in Whitby, and a massive swimming lido at Brynmawr in South Wales. The Quaker-led IVSP expected male volunteers to work with ‘pick and shovel’, while the ‘sisters’ were expected to cook, clean and sew. IVSP did not place women on a formally equal footing until well after WW2.

Work camps were more or less bounded communities, whose central role was to rebuild enfeebled male bodies through hard work and nurture. Where they were solely male in membership, men did the domestic work, usually on a rota basis, just as they might have done in the armed forces. Where they were mixed, which was extremely rare, men undertook ‘hard work’, and women did domestic labour.