Labour Camps: The British Experience
Brendan Clifford reviews a book by Dave Colledge about a scheme for dealing with the unemployed that Thatcher would never have dared propose, but which was carried through with general support between 1929 and 1939.
This is the story of a line of social development which was tried out in Britain between the two World Wars and was largely abandoned in August 1939 when Britain was preparing itself to make war on Germany.
In the large-scale and prolonged unemployment of the 1920s,
“it became the aim of all Governments to shunt labour from the North and South Wales via various training schemes” (page 4).” For this purpose an Industrial Transference Board was set up in 1928. But “the very nature of monitoring and controlling transference soon brought to the attention of the Ministry of Labour a ‘class’ of men not easily fitted into the broader scheme. On the 12th December 1928 one F.G. Bowles from the Ministry of Labour wrote to A. W. Hurst of the Treasury: ‘I refer to those… who, through prolonged unemployment, have become so ‘soft’ and temporarily demoralised that it would not be practical to introduce more than a very small number of them into our ordinary training centres without danger to the morale of the centre on which the effect of the training depends… the class of whom I am speaking cannot be considered for transfer until they are 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” (page 7).
Between 1929 and 1939:
“120,000 men were punished with terms of three months hard labour”.
The Labour Camps were set up in isolated regions and were conducted under military discipline. 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.
Dave Colledge shows that this way of dealing with the unemployed was first proposed around 1890, and was supported by Fabian socialists such as H. G. Wells and G. B. Shaw. Many people of all political tendencies looked on unemployment as a manifestation of biological inferiority, and advocated the ‘sterilisation of failures’ by one means or another.
The ‘hardening centres’ were freely called Labour Camps or Concentration Camps. 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. And at the end of the war
Concentration Camps were in such bad odour that the British ones could not be reopened.
Dave Colledge’s unique history of them is a useful reminder of what the world was like before 1939. In the course of the war most of the ‘biological’ conceptions of social problems were sloughed off. And after the war history was written as if those biological notions were peculiar to Germany. They were not. They were part of the common stock of the advanced cultures of the prewar era. Hitler, in the desperate conditions into which Germany was plunged by the Versailles Treaty, only gave them a ,more comprehensive and systematic application than was done elsewhere. And by doing that he caused the biological conception to go down with him.
If the accidents of history had worked out differently, Britain might well have become the land of the Concentration Camps.
(Labour Camps: The British Experience, by Dave Colledge, is 74 pages long, and is available at £4.95 from Sheffield Popular Publishing, Star Works, Danall Road, Sheffield, S9 5AF.)
This article appeared in January 1991, in Issue 21 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.