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.
This chapter discusses the importance of work in modern societies, and then suggests that before 1939 work camps were a normal feature of British life. It defines the concept of ‘work camp’, and argues that the majority of work camp movements were centrally concerned with reshaping the male body. In contemporary societies, body obsessions can change rapidly, and it is sometimes hard to place ourselves in the past, in a society where the comfortable middle and upper classes worried that the working class was physically too weak to contribute to the wider well-being of the community. Work camps, I argue, are therefore of a wider significance in showing us how ideas of work, community, the body and identity were intertwined.
This chapter explores the early idea of the labour colony, and places it in a wider context of concern with unemployment and struggle over access to the land. Debates over the labour colony arose partly out of frustration at the shortcomings of the poor law system in general and the workhouse in particular. Radical thinkers such as George Lansbury and Herbert Mills proposed labour colonies as a way of simultaneously removing the unemployed and settling the land. Others took a more conservative view, seeing the labour colony as a way of restoring the body physically and preventing the moral and physical degeneration that had arisen from urbanisation. Yet others, including Sydney and Beatrice Webb, took a largely punitive approach, seeing colonies as reformatories for the idle. There was also a strong international dimension to the debate, with many looking to German social policy for an example.
Most of the earliest British labour colonies were opened by non-conformist churches. By far the largest was the Salvation Army colony at Hadleigh, which opened in 1891, and others followed in England and Scotland. In the aftermath of the Boer Wars, public opinion was concerned over the prospect of physical deterioration; preoccupations with national efficiency were intensified by the economic crises of the early years of the twentieth century. Following the passage of the Unemployed Workmen Act, a number of local authorities opened labour colonies. All of the early colonies were exclusively for men, and overwhelmingly were seen as a way of relieving unemployment. William Beveridge saw them as complementing labour exchanges and other reformed institutions. However, the municipal labour colony movement lost momentum by the time of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws.
The physical deterioration debate, as well as wider concerns over the poor law’s failure to deal with the sick and infirm, led a number of public bodies to explore the idea of the labour colony as a therapeutic community. The value of the labour colony lay in its combination of physical isolation with ready access to fresh air and plentiful work. As well as being therapeutic, work ensured that the ‘clients’ made an economic contribution to their own upkeep, while isolation served the eugenic purpose of inhibiting breeding. Labour colonies were developed for alcoholics (particularly women alcoholics), epileptics, tuberculosis sufferers, and the ‘feeble-minded’. As a consequence, they became both centres of treatment and research, facilitating the development of expertise among both professionals and specialist volunteers.
Ideas of land settlement have a long history in Britain. By the 1880s, a number of groups had developed proposals for alternative utopian colonies that would become the kernel of a new way of living. Ruskin’s ideas had a lasting and direct influence, particularly through the small colony associated with his Guild of St George. In 1892, Herbert V Mills launched his small Christian socialist colony at Starnthwaite, near Kendal. It was followed by a series of utopian colonies, including those associated with Tolstoy and Kropotkin, as well as a later Women’s Training Colony launched by supporters of the suffrage movement. Most of these ventures were under-capitalised, and suffered from interminable internal disputes, and failed to take root.
Many in the labour colony movement saw an obvious outlet for unemployed Britons in Empire settlement. Before 1918, a number of voluntary labour colonies co-operated with governments in Australia, Canada and other ‘settler societies’ to develop training for emigration. Race was an important part of the equation, with British movements and Dominions governments agreeing on the need for white settlers. After 1918, the British government took a more active role, developing training centres for unemployed emigrants under the Empire Settlement Act. While men were given heavy manual work to prepare them for farming careers, women were trained in domestic skills. While this process was scaled back after the 1929 crisis, British authorities always hoped it would resume.
In 1929, the Labour Party came to power, and the overseas training centres were turned into camps for training the long term unemployed. The focus of the new camps was to be on ‘reconditioning’ young unemployed men, through heavy manual labour in remote settings. The Labour Government introduced compulsory recruitment for the long term unemployed, as part of its wider policy for ‘labour transference’. This reflected a longer term socialist debate about national citizens’ service, with the Webbs in particular taking a strongly authoritarian view of the obligations of the unemployed. In practice, compulsory training – workfare in modern terms – was a failure, and it was abandoned when Labour lost power.
Instructional Centres under the National Government
Under the National Government, the Ministry of Labour’s control over work camps grew, as did its scale. While recruitment was voluntary once more, the number of camps and training places were expanded, and the scheme was opened up to all long-term unemployed males. Its main focus continued to be ‘reconditioning’ through heavy manual labour. The creation of the Unemployment Assistance Board brought the remaining municipal labour colonies under the control of central government, and increased the civil service professional cadre concerned with training. A number of policy-makers continued to press for compulsory recruitment (workfare) but this was resisted by the training professionals, who preferred the more relaxed discipline of voluntary recruits. There was increasing attention to measuring and analysing the physical changes brought about by ‘reconditioning’. However, placement rates were low after training, and the majority of trainees returned to unemployment. In its own terms, the scheme must be judged a failure. The camps closed in 1939.
Women never seem to have entered the thinking of those who developed and ran government work camps. After the Great War, rising unemployment among women workers led to a number of training programmes designed to produce domestic servants, and from the mid-1920s these increasingly included residential training centres. Initially, these were jointly developed with the Australian government, which sought to recruit white young women with domestic skills. After 1929, the training centres were redesigned to produce domestic servants for the British labour market. The centres were managed nationally by an arm’s length non-governmental body, which provided a forum for female policy makers to develop their own labour market measures, but these were always constrained by the focus on domestic service.