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Working Men’s Bodies

Work Camps in Britain, 1880-1940


John Field


Manchester: University Press, 2013

Hardcover. xii + 276 p. ISBN 978-0719087684


Reviewed by Jacques Carré

Université Paris-Sorbonne



This book explores the various attempts to control poverty and unemployment by means of rural colonies between the Great Depression and the Second World War. Gathering the poor in an institution in order to make them work was no novelty, since for more than two centuries the English workhouse had provided a similar kind of treatment, with similar ingredients: a reluctant body of paupers, a combination of relief and discipline, and of course the good conscience of its promoters. But now broader causes underlay these efforts, such as public health, the scare about the debilitation of the English ‘race’, the rise of mass unemployment, and to some extent the land question.

The anti-urban bias of many supporters of work camps explains why practically all the work camps were ‘farm colonies’, thus linking the movement with earlier Owenite and Chartist projects of ‘return to the land’. J. Field shows that this tradition was continued in various utopian communities, cooperative villages and anarchist colonies. These, however, concerned only a tiny number of motivated and militant people (some being middle-class).        

On the contrary most of the work camps discussed in this book were reserved to the very poor. After social enquirers like Charles Booth had identified irreducible numbers of casual workers or ‘unemployable’ poor, various reformers found it desirable to create rural communities in attempts to restore their health and train them to labour discipline. The earliest ones were initiated by charitable and church agencies, but Poor Law authorities soon followed, and finally, in the 1920s and 1930s, the State itself financed work camps in order to ‘recondition’ a limited number of unemployed poor.

Precedents in Holland, Germany and Switzerland inspired the first projects, although British reformers rejected the penal aspects of the foreign colonies. Their idea was to train volunteers, not to punish offenders. The aim of the English work camps was to turn unemployed poor and workhouse paupers into physically fit and morally disciplined citizens, before they could find regular jobs or emigrate to the Empire. The idea was defended by a variety of church reformers like William Booth and Samuel Barnett, as well as by intellectuals like Charles Booth and Percy Alden. And it was taken up in the 1930s by the Labour and the National governments.

William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, was the first to organise a large work-camp of 1300 hectares in 1891. Situated at Hadleigh in Essex it was called a ‘Land & industrial colony’. The hundreds of men that were accepted every year were trained to agricultural work, to building and draining, and also to essential crafts. The idea was to make the camp as self-sufficient a possible. Most of the volunteers seem to have been young and healthy although many had alcohol problems. They do not seem to have belonged to the ‘residuum’ at all. If all inmates put on weight in the work camps, their training was minimal and the social results were inconclusive, as little was known about their later life.

The publicity given to the salvationist experiment encouraged the opening of many other farm colonies after 1900, in a period of high unemployment. Some were charitable, others financed by the Local Government Board which, at least under Walter Long, was favourable. Several London Poor Law authorities opened camps for selected workhouse paupers. The colony at Laindon (Essex) was opened in 1904 by the politically progressive Board of Guardians of Poplar, that included George Lansbury and Will Crooks. The larger colony at Hollesley Bay in Suffolk was financed partly by the London Unemployed Fund, a public body, and the American millionaire Joseph Fels. Its results, however, proved disappointing in terms of return to employment. Only a minority of inmates actually found jobs; an even smaller minority managed to emigrate. Moreover, the Local Government Board under John Burns soon turned against such experiments, finding them expensive and incapable of dealing with mass unemployment. One problem was that their promoters had never really identified what sort of poor men were to benefit from a stay.

After the Great War, work camps were connected less and less with Poor Law guardians (who disappeared in 1929), and more and more with the new Ministry of Labour. The Empire Settlement Act of 1922 meant State funding for training suitable candidates to emigration. The camp at Claydon (Suffolk), opened in 1925, raised great hopes. By 1929 the Ministry had opened eight camps, able to accommodate 3500 men. Yet the governements of dominions like Canada and Australia were selective in their immigration policies, and were not always prepared to accept paupers. And from 1929 the flow of British emigrants was greatly reduced, because of this reluctance and of the world economic crisis.

In the years of the second Labour government (1929-1931), the Ministry of Labour under Margaret Bondfield again tried to use work camps to relieve unemployment. The numerous ‘Transfer instructional centres’, which aimed at making unemployed people physically fit and able to start anew outside the depressed areas, were not very popular, especially when for a limited period attendance was made compulsory under pain of receiving no benefit (exactly as with the 1834 New Poor Law !) About 30 Instructional Centres lived on throughout the 1930s, although their results were as disappointing as ever. J. Field describes their daily routine, which featured abundant food, Spartan accommodation, progressive adaptation to hard manual work, and limited leisure activities. Altogether about 200,000 men passed through them, generally for eight weeks.

J. Field also devotes a chapter to the training of a small number of unemployed girls for domestic service, which was developed from the 1920s by a government agency, the Central Committee for Women’s Training and Employment, with particular encouragement by the Australian government. There was no question here of farm colonies. The girls’ training took place in mansions that were generally close to towns, and suggested the atmosphere of middle-class suburban homes. The selected girls were taught to be polite, clean and efficient maids or housewives. And for them at least jobs were forthcoming, not just in private homes, but in institutions.

The 1930s also saw the development of ‘social service’ camps run by University students in the tradition of the late 19th-century ‘settlements’. They were again designed for unemployed volunteers (and, separately, for their wives). The idea was to encourage mutual knowledge and hopefully a sense of shared national values. The influence of German experiments in that line was clear, for example in the case of Rolf Gardiner, although there was little in common between the militarised and compulsory Reichsarbeitsdienst (after 1933) and the purely civilian British camps.

The book ends by an analysis of the fierce propaganda of the Communist Party and a few trade-unionists against the organisation of work camps by the Labour and National governments. It described them as ‘slave camps’ controlled by a ‘pro-fascist gang’ inside the government. The immediate justification of such attacks was that the inmates were made to work practically without wages. Inside the camps themselves, it seems there were occasional protests, a few strikes, and a lot of walking out. But, as J. Field regrets, all the local archives were deliberately destroyed seven years after the closure of each camp, by order of the government, and precise documentation is lacking.

In spite of the scarcity of testimonies by camp inmates, the author has managed to provide a balanced and lively survey of his subject. He firmly situates their development in a global context, where dozens of other countries also had more or less similar schemes in the same period. He carefully takes into account the political and ideological contexts of the various phases of the work camp movement. It is a pity that the production of the book is very austere: there are no photographs of camps and their inmates (although some do exist), and there is no map of the work camps, which were often situated in out-of-the-way places.


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