Page last updated at 13:12 GMT, Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Work camps that tackled Depression

Unemployed men protest outside a Labour exchange in London during the Great Depression
Unemployed men protest outside a Labour exchange in London during the Great Depression

As unemployment nudges closer to two million, the government is being forced to re-evaluate ways of helping those out of work to get jobs.

But as the recession deepens, the concern is about how to maintain the skills of those thrown out of work.

BBC Scotland's Social Affairs Correspondent, Reevel Alderson, looks at the way the problem was tackled in the Great Depression 80 years ago.

It may seem incredible to us now, but it was Ramsay MacDonald's Labour government which introduced work camps - officially called "Instructional Centres."

A network was established throughout the UK with a number in Scotland. They were at Carstairs in Lanarkshire, Glenbranter near Strachur in Argyll and Glentress near Peebles.

Prof John Field explains how the work camps of the 1930s operated.

Ministers were concerned that many men who had been unemployed for long periods were no longer fit for work.

An official at the Ministry of Labour wrote of "the younger men who, through prolonged unemployment, have become so soft and temporarily demoralised" that they required to be "hardened" or "reconditioned."

Those attending the camps came from the depressed industrial areas of Lanarkshire, Ayrshire and Glasgow. They stayed away from home for up to 12 weeks - and if they refused to go, their dole money was stopped.

But many were in such poor physical shape when they arrived, they needed decent food before they could carry out the work.

Professor John Field of Stirling University's Department of Lifelong Learning, who has studied the work camps, said: "They were certainly successful in getting people up to a better standard of physical fitness.

"There were medical reports which showed that people had put on quite a bit of weight, for example. We're not talking about obesity, we're talking about muscle.

"They were doing very hard heavy manual labour in the hills and in the forests."

Typically the men worked for 10 to 12 hours from 6am, living in dormitories in wooden nissen huts, and they were supervised in military-style discipline by former police officers or sergeant majors.

They received part of their unemployment benefit, with the remaining nine shillings being sent to their families.

And they were provided with suitable clothing for their work, including corduroy trousers and waterproof boots.

'Voluntary basis'

In total about 200,000 men were sent to the camps, which continued in operation until 1939.

But it is estimated that fewer than 10% of those who had been trained there were able to get work when they went back home.

The camps were reviled by the Left. The Daily Herald called them "concentration camps," but Prof Field dismisses that notion.

"It certainly wasn't forced labour in that people could walk out at any time," he said. "And certainly after 1932 when the Labour Government fell, it was only on a voluntary basis.

"That said, it was obviously not the best experience; it would have been far better to get a job, and most people would have preferred to get a job.

"And one of the reasons for not coming here that people gave was that they were more likely to get a job if they stayed at home and hung around and waited for their uncle or their cousin or their friend to tell them of an opportunity, and they were right."

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