Voices from the Labour Camps – Writing Lives

Voices from the Labour Camps

John Field Working Men's BodiesWe are delighted to share the second post in our Guest Blog series on autobiographical recollections on working-class history. Here John Field writes about the little known history of the labour colonies set up for the unemployed, drawing on his important study, (Manchester University Press, 2013). We came across these labour colonies through one of our authors. When she was a child, May Owen‘s father was sent to a work camp and retreat for inebriates at Osea Island, which John has written about here. In this post, John tells us about some of the rare first-hand accounts of life at the camps, including the recollections of Joe Ayre, another Writing Lives author, who served time in labour colonies in Canada and England.

John Field is a Visiting Professorial Fellow at Universität zu Köln and blogs on life-long learning at . Follow him on twitter .

By the end of July 1899, J. D. Clarke had spent three weeks in Lingfield labour colony, and he was fed up. Clarke, a clerical worker, wrote to his sponsors, the Charity Organisation Society, to thank them for supporting him, but quickly added that ‘The heat is intence & we are out in it all day, hoeing, haying (finished), fruit & pea picking’. The colony’s organisers, the Christian Union for Social Service, allowed him 6d a week for essentials such as stamps and cotton, ‘& after 3 months a possible grant of 1/- or 2/- whilst many have been 5 or 6 months & not obtained any’. Unsurprisingly, the unemployed trainees, mainly Londoners like Clarke, were not enjoying their experience. ‘Discontent & grumbling prevail’, Clarke reported, which ‘adds to my feelings. You will please understand I am not complaining, but I feel I must use every effort to regain office work’ [1].

Hadleigh Labour Colony
The first in Britain, set up by the in Hadleigh, Essex, in 1891

Clarke’s is a rare voice. Some hundreds of thousands of men, most of them unemployed, went to labour camps of one kind or another in Britain in the six decades before 1939. So did some thousands of women, usually defined as habitual inebriates or prostitutes. But hardly any of them wrote about their experiences, and very few spoke about them; now, when the very youngest men to be in a work camp in 1939 would be in their late 90s, there are few left to interview. So the voices of work camp inmates are seldom heard.

My interest in Britain’s work camps was first awaked by a memoir. Len Edmondson, a retired fitter and active trade unionist, provided a chapter for a book of working class memories of the 1930s, published by Strong Words, a radical publishing collective from Newcastle [2]. Edmondson mentioned his brother, who had been sent to a camp in County Durham, and had organised a strike over the quality of the meals. Later, I was pleased to see that John Burnett had quoted this story in his own study of unemployment, Idle Hands [3].

At that stage, I was mainly interested in using Edmondson’s chapter for teaching, which prompted one of my students to write a short thesis on the Ministry of Labour’s camps during the 30s, drawing on interviews and correspondence with former trainees [4]. Between us, we tracked down a large body of archival material, most of it originally compiled for administrative purposes. Over time I found a wealth of other material, including newspaper articles and even a film that Edgar Anstey produced for the Ministry of Labour [5], which included interviews with trainees. Of course, these were collected for a purpose, and subsequently edited to suit that purpose, and using them required me to make judgements about whose voice I was hearing.

I managed to trace some surviving trainees, and collect their memories of camp life, as well as tracing the written accounts of a handful of people who had spent time in work camps or had lived close by a camp. It was harder to interview people who had been preparing for emigration in a training farm, though through the good services of Alan Bordoley I was able to draw on the memories of those who had attended the David Eder Training Farm to prepare for life on a kibbutz in Palestine.

Courtesy John Field
‘This bark was cut of a tree in July 4th 1934 at Wigmore’. Courtesy John Field

Very few people wrote about their lives in a work camp. There were exceptions, usually well-educated and left-wing, such as the anarchist-feminist Nellie Shaw who wrote about her time in the Tolstoyan colony in Gloucestershire [6]. Some relatives of former trainees produced brief messages, including one from Hughie Edwards from the Ministry of Labour camp at Wigmore, written on tree bark. And in a second hand shop I stumbled across an enigmatic postcard from someone – presumably a worker or trainee – at the Ministry’s camp in Glenfinart. These traces were few and far between, though it is interesting that commercial postcard producers found it worth their while to manufacture images of the camps.

Work camps find mention in at least one of the Burnett memoirs. Joe Ayre, a Liverpudlian born in 1910, was sent by his stepmother to a children’s home, and ended up emigrating to Canada [7]. Ayre took a number of farm jobs, became unemployed, and went on the road. One cold November night in 1933, he jumped a freight train in Ontario, and ‘met a hoboe (sic) about my own age, he was going to Trenton Ontario where there was a relief camp for single men’.

Ayre provides a detailed account of life in the camp, one of a number opened by the Department of National Defence from 1933 onwards, with the support of the Ministry of Labour. In 1934, by which time Ayre had moved on, the camps enrolled over 50,000 men in a year [8]. A year later, the Communist-led unemployed workers’ movement organised a mass walk-out of relief camp workers, ending only when a large group of strikers heading for Ottawa were attacked by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police [9].

Ayre returned to Britain in 1935, working his passage across the Atlantic, and moving to London where he became active in the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement. When he applied to the Public Assistance Committee

the chairman said we have decided to send you to an institution on Belmont Rd, you will be taken care of there. I became furious, I had some choice words for the chairman and his committee. The institution they wanted me to go to had at one time been the workhouse. It was now a place for the aged and the infirm.

The upshot of this episode was that Ayre was bound over after admitting to assault and breach of the peace, but received outdoor relief.

Detail , in Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, Brunel University

Belmont had indeed been built as a workhouse, as Ayre describes. By 1929 it had been taken as over as a labour colony by London County Council, who sought to transform a ‘dreary and not very satisfactory institution to a useful and modern training institution’, providing some basic adult education along with work and classes in crafts such as carpentry [10]. Violet Markham visited the colony in November 1936, reporting that one block was set aside for younger men, but that ‘physical training has had to be reduced to a minimum owing to poor physique of men’. She also reported an ‘Excellent diet. Breakfast 3 days porridge & bacon, porridge & sausage. Better fed than many working men’ [11].

Joe Ayre’s account informs our understanding of the work camp experience in a number of different ways. First, he allows us to place his time in work camps in the context of his wider life history, a history marked by extremes of institutionalisation and mobility. As someone active in the NUWM campaigns, and who refused a place in Belmont, he brought the very different experience of life in a Canadian relief camp, as well as his earlier exposure to a children’s home. Second, like many first-hand narratives, Ayre’s story adds a counter voice to those of the managers and journalists, civil servants and philanthropists who otherwise dominate the story of the camps. I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t wish I’d known about it before writing my book, but I was delighted to encounter it in the Burnett , one of many that are being made freely available to all who want to understand at first hand the lives of working class people in the past.


For interviews with men who worked in the labour camps, watch ‘ (dir. Chris Reeves, Writers Republic, 1999)


[1] London Metropolitan Archives, A/FWA/C/D254/1, Christian Union of Social Service: Farm Training Colony, Wallingford, Letter from J. D. Clarke to the Charity Organisation Society, 30 July 1899


[2] Keith Armstrong and Huw Beynon (editors), Hello, Are You Working? Memories of the Thirties in the North-East of England, Strong Words, Whitley Bay, 1977


[3] John Burnett, Idle Hands: The Experience of Unemployment, 1790-1990, Routledge, London, 2002


[4] Dave Colledge, Labour Camps: The British Experience, Popular Publishing, Sheffield, 1989


[5] On the Way to Work, 1936, held in the British Film Archive (details at )


[6] Nellie Shaw, Whiteway: A Colony on the Cotswolds, C. W. Daniel, London, 1935


[7] Burnett Archive, Volume 02:29, Brunel University. Catalogue details at:


[8] Department of National Defence, Annual Report, 1934, DND, Ottawa.


[9] Ron Liversedge, Recollections of the On to Ottawa Trek, McGill-Queens University Press, Kingston, 1973


[10] Poor Law: Report of Special Inquiry into Test Work, Parliamentary Papers 1929-30, Cmd 3585, pp. 29-30


[11] British Library of Political & Economic Science, MARKHAM 8/11: Visits to Training Centres, 3 November 1936


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