Workfare schemes are constantly in the news at the moment. Many of Britain’s historic work camps schemes were very much forms of welfare, aimed at giving unemployed men and other vulnerable groups – including sex workers, people with learning disabilities, epileptics and the tubercular – exposure to a period of therapeutic manual labour.
The idea of some kind of universal voluntary work service for the young, popular among Conservative thinkers when the current British coalition government was formed, seems to have slipped under the radar. But there were persistent campaigns, particularly during the 1930s, for public work – mainly in camps – as a form of universal national service.
Cyril Norwood is best known in Britain for his influence on the 1944 Education Act. R. A. Butler, then minister for education, chose Norwood to chair a committee on secondary education, which produced a report on Curriculum…
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PowerPoint comes in for a lot of stick, but I’ve found it really handy while travelling around talking about work camps to local history groups. Most groups expect their speaker to carry on for an hour – something I can do perfectly happily, of course, but illustrations make the whole session a lot more interesting. So where do you find images of work camps?
For interwar Britain, postcards are an indispensable resource. Or at least, they are a great source of images, but so far I haven’t got much from the texts on the back. Apart from anything else, postcard messages are usually pretty short, and it often isn’t clear who sent them.
Here’s an example – a postcard of Ardentinny Instructional Centre that I use to illustrate talks to audiences in the west of Scotland. It was posted in summer 1939 by someone signing themself “J McN”, and addressed to a Miss Bannatyne…
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While we know quite a lot about the inmates – who were recruited precisely because they fell into pre-defined categories – it isn’t always easy to find out much about those who managed them. This is hardly surprising for the nineteenth and early twentieth century labour colonies, where the records are scattered and often sparse; but we don’t know a great deal about the more organised and bureaucratic twentieth century systems either.
The largest system in Britain was run by the Ministry of Labour in the fifteen years before the Second World War. Mythology says that the managers were largely ex-military men, a view repeated recently by Del Roy Fletcher, and it is quite possible that some had seen service in the Great War. However, civil service regulations required the Ministry to recruit its camp managers from within.
As one senior official pointed out, work camp managers needed rather different…
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Red Clydeside collection: http://gdl.cdlr.strath.ac.uk/redclyde/
This leaflet comes from the Glasgow Digital Library, a fabulous mine of information and collection of resources for teaching. It must date to around 1933-34, when the Left was campaigning vigorously against what became the 1934 Unemployment Act. The National Government introduced the Act in order to restructure poor relief and bring unemployment benefits under central control. It also contained a clause which combined the old poor law requirement of the ‘work test’ with existing powers to compel claimants to undertake training.
The campaign against the Bill was enormous, and the historian Neil Evans describes it as the most-discussed piece of legislation in inter-war Britain. Most of the agitation was led by the Labour Left (including the Independent Labour Party) and the Communist Party. But others were involved as well.
This flyer was published by a group calling itself the Workers’ Open Forum, a Glasgow-based network…
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Since yesterday’s post on British work camps for the unemployed seems to have stirred up a lot of interest, you should check out this blog – the author has written a book on them !
We have a number of organisations and individuals today who campaign for the interests of the unemployed and dispossessed. It is not disparaging their efforts, though, to recognise that we have nothing today to compare with the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement. During the interwar years, according to the historian Rick Croucher, the NUWM’s activities represented ‘a highpoint of unemployed organisation in British history’.
The NUWM is best known for organising the hunger marches, large and spectacular demonstrations that etched themselves into national memories of the 1930s. But it many other, arguably more important roles, from local lobbying and protests through to systematic support and advocacy for individual men and women who were fighting against reductions in their benefits.
Among other campaigns, the NUWM was also active in opposition to the use of work camps. It campaigned in general terms against the camps, it made a public issue of conditions within them, and…
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> Part of the Great British history they don’t teach you at school – how the jobless were treated in the 1920s and 30s… and who’d bet against camps returning again ?
During the prolonged unemployment of the 1920s the British government proposed a scheme for transferring labour from the worse effected areas to training schemes in the South of England. For this purpose an Industrial Transference Board was set up in 1928 to monitor and control the transfer of labour form unemployment black-spots. The ITB soon brought to the attention of the Ministry of Labour a ‘class‘ of men not easily fitted into the broader scheme, men deemed ‘soft and temporarily demoralised through prolonged unemployment‘. These men were considered a danger to the morale of the other men and were considered unfit for transfer until they had been ‘hardened’.
The scheme for ‘hardening’ in Labour Camps (on penalty of loss of the dole) was devised by Baldwin’s Tory government, but was carried through with Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour Government and expanded by the 1931 National Government. They were supported by the TUC as well as the Labour Party, and were opposed and exposed only by the National Unemployed Workers Movement, in which the Communist Party was the leading influence.
Between 1929 and 1939 25 secret concentration camps were built in the most remote areas of Britain and more than 200,000 unemployed men were sent to these camps. The Labour Camps were conducted under military discipline and men were interned in the centres for three-month periods, working for up to nine hours a day breaking rocks, building roads and cutting down trees. In August 1939, in preparation for the war against Germany, the Ministry of Labour issued instructions that the managerial records of its own concentration camps should be weeded out, and much of the documentation was destroyed.