When you say “labour camps” you might almost automatically think of places like the punishment camps on Gulag Archipelago and the more authoritarian aspects of the old communist regime in Russia. What most people fail to realise is that back in the 1930s there were many labour camps in Britain, and several of them were located in Wales.
The idea behind the British labour camps was very different from those of Russia – or even Nazi Germany. They were voluntary establishments and were the brainchild of the Ministry of Labour. Their aim was to help young men from the distressed areas of the country where unemployment was particularly high.
In places such as Wales where, in the early 1930s, the unemployment figures were over 40% there was a clear need for something to be done. The government of the day was very concerned about “the younger men who, through prolonged unemployment, have become so soft and temporarily demoralised as to require reconditioning by hardening off... in healthy, open countryside surroundings.” (quoted in The Encylopaedia of Wales, University of Wales Press)
Growing number of camps
As a result, by 1929 eight labour camps had been established, the number growing steadily until, in 1938, there were 28 camps in various locations across the UK. To begin with they were called transfer instructional centres but the name was changed in 1931 to instructional centres. All of the men attending the camps had to have been unemployed for a lengthy period and over the 10 year period of their existence almost 200,000 trainees passed through their doors.
Wales, as well as having a desperate need for help of some type, was also the ideal location for such camps where the work was of a very physical nature - chopping down trees, preparing land for the Forestry Commission, digging ditches and even building roads.
Labour camps in Wales were located at Brechfa, Llansawel, Presteigne, Ganllwyd and Betws-y-Coed. As early as 1925 there had been three similar camps in existence but these were very low key and they were concerned with offering training for men who were willing to emigrate to the colonies in order to start a new life.
In 1929 the instructional centres catered for just 3,518 men but as the number of camps grew, so too did the number of trainees. In 1936 they dealt with no fewer than 24,146 young men. It was a peak year as numbers began to fall thereafter and with the outbreak of war in 1939 the camps were abandoned altogether.
The camps were run, in the main, by ex-service personnel and the regimes were both hard and draconian. As a result, many men did not stay the course, a period of 12 weeks where they worked 12 hour shifts, usually for six days a week. They slept in Nissen huts and received part of their unemployment benefit as pay. The rest, somewhere in the region of nine old shillings, was sent to their families.
Rest and relaxation
There were periods of rest and relaxation. Most men, for example, were given a half day pass to visit nearby towns and, sometimes, films and sporting events such as boxing matches and games of football were organised. In the main, however, all activities in the camp were based around the concept of work – after all, that was why the men were there in the first place, to make them more employable.
Whether or not the camps worked remains a moot point. It is estimated that as many as 50,000 of the trainees – about a quarter of the total number attending the camps - simply walked out and did not return. In Wales, where the camps were located in particularly remote and distant parts of the countryside, the percentage of “drop outs” was probably even higher.
Of those who stayed, fewer than 10% were able to find work when their course ended. No matter how effective the camps were – or were not – they still had to exist and operate within the confines of the economic difficulties of the 1930s. It was really only the coming of war in 1939 that ended the country's financial woes.
Likened to concentration camps
There was opposition to the scheme from the left of the political spectrum – even though the camps had originally been set up by Ramsey MacDonald's Labour government. And papers such as The Daily Herald called them “concentration camps". It was an emotive response, one that was undoubtedly aimed at selling papers.
No matter how much persuasion the Ministry of Labour used to get people into the camps they were, at the end of the day, voluntary affairs. Men could – and did – leave whenever they wanted. The labour camps remain an interesting, if misguided, example of just one of society's attempts to cope with the curse of unemployment.