Working men’s bodies

Work camps in Britain, 1880–1940

John Field
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The book provides a comprehensive account of work camp movements in Britain before 1939, based on thorough archival research, and on the reminiscences of participants. It starts with their origins in the labour colony movement of the 1880s, and examines the subsequent fate of labour colonies for the unemployed, and their broadening out as disciplined and closed therapeutic communities for such groups as alcoholics, epileptics, tuberculosis sufferers and the ‘feeble-minded’. It goes on to examine utopian colonies, inspired by anarchist, socialist and feminist ideas, and designed to develop the skills and resources needed for a new world. After the Great War, unemployed camps increasingly focused on training for emigration, a movement inspired by notions of a global British national identity, as well as marked by sharp gender divisions. The gender divisions were further enhanced after 1929, when the world economic crisis closed down options for male emigration. A number of anti-industrial movements developed work camps, inspired by pacifist, nationalist or communitarian ideals. Meanwhile, government turned increasingly to work camps as a way of training unemployed men through heavy manual labour. Women by contrast were provided with a domesticating form of training, designed to prepare them for a life in domestic service. The book argues that work camps can be understood primarily as instrumental communities, concerned with reshaping the male body, and reasserting particularistic male identities, while achieving broad social policy and economic policy goals.

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‘Working Men's Bodies: Work Camps in Britain, 1880-1940 is an exhaustive exploration of the role of work camps and camp movements in modern British history…The sheer scope of John Field's analysis is impressive…It is an important contribution to shared understandings of how bodies are shaped and managed through public discourse and policy interventions. Working Men's Bodies will therefore also appeal to readers interested in sociology, labor policy, and the gendered nature of work.'
Jihan Abbas, Carleton University
July 2016

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