Socialist Worker

How Britain built work camps for the unemployed in the 1930s

Today’s government is not the first to make the unemployed work for free, writes Ken Olende

Issue No. 2310

In the 1930s, the British government set up a series of work camps for the unemployed—supposedly to make them fit enough to work.

New arrivals at one camp received a typical speech, “It’s our job here to help those of you who’ve become soft to get back to that state of fitness in which you can hold up your end of a job.”

Just as with David Cameron’s latest barbaric attacks on benefits, this quote shows no understanding of the fact that people might be unemployed because of a shortage of jobs.

On the minimal benefits available at the time, many unemployed people were in poor physical condition. More than one in five people sent to the camps were rejected as too unfit for the physical regime.

The first of these “labour instructional centres” opened in 1929. Their numbers increased as the Great Depression intensified.

At the peak in 1937 there were 30 camps. More than 20,000 people passed through. They only closed as the Second World War broke out and all able-bodied men were conscripted into the armed forces.

Ramsey MacDonald’s National Government accelerated the scheme. At the time, the press noted parallels with Adolf Hitler’s more “ambitious” schemes in newly fascist Germany.

An ex-soldier “training” in the east of England wrote, “Work commences at 8am, the trainees being marched to their jobs from the parade ground in a thorough military style.

“At 10.30 at night the night watchman calls the roll in army style.” He added, “The meals served are very bad, the supposed hot meals generally being served cold.”


But he reported a healthy rebellious attitude. “On one occasion we all refused to leave the camp for work in support of a worker, penalised on certain food allowances, and we secured a victory. The lads would not remain at the centre for a day but for the threat to stop their benefits.”

As with modern workfare schemes, officially it was a matter of choice. But many said they were never told that it wasn’t compulsory. Once someone had “volunteered” and arrived for weeks of gruelling “training”, they could not leave without losing all benefits for six weeks.

An activist in the National Unemployed Workers Movement was jailed for three months for protesting against the schemes.

In 1934 a delegation went to inspect a camp in Scotland. They reported, “Twenty persons slept in each hut… In the hospital we saw five beds which were empty.

“The manager said that very few wanted to go to hospital during the good weather. We found out later that the men lost their allowance whilst they were in hospital.”

A workers’ delegation in Yorkshire reported, “The alleged training consisted of stone-breaking in a quarry nearby.

“The only real evidence of anything that could be called skilled training was to be found at the joiner’s shop, where the trainees were engaged in repairing hammers that had been smashed by other trainees.”

For its duration, the scheme was dogged by workers’ protests about bad food, conditions and lack of real training. Only about 20 percent got a job and most of those would probably have found work anyway.

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Tue 3 Jul 2012, 17:54 BST
Issue No. 2310
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