CHAPTER 23: RECONDITIONING THE UNEMPLOYED The board’s welfare role When Chamberlain launched his “statutory commission” proposal

in October 1932, he envisaged that, as well as “doling out relief”, the commission would provide “occupational, training, educational and recreative facilities etc.”. Betterton’s subsequent insistence that its constructive functions should have a high profile resulted in section 35(2) of the 1934 Act, defining the board’s objects as the assistance of persons ... who are in need of work and the promotion of their welfare and, in particular, the making of provision for the improvement and re-establishment of the condition of such persons with a view to their being in all respects fit for entry into or return to regular employment, and the grant and issue to such persons of unemployment allowances ... . A similar “welfare” provision was to appear in the legislation which replaced the 1934 Act between 1948 and 1986. The board’s specific power to provide training courses for persons aged 18 or over, or to contribute to the cost of courses provided by the Ministry of Labour, local authorities or other bodies, was conferred by section 37 of the Act. The local education authorities had a duty to provide courses of instruction for those under 18, mainly at government expense, and the Minister of Labour, advised by local boards, could require young people to attend them. Section 39(2) of the Act, under which an allowance could be granted “for the maintenance of the applicant at a training course or course of instruction”, was intended to give the board a similar power to compel an applicant of any age to attend a training course; but, as Stuart King pointed out, unless the course was residential, the allowance would remain payable whether the applicant actually attended or not. The board, therefore, had the power to provide training courses but its ability to compel attendance at them, even if it wished to do so, was limited.

The board’s broader concern with the welfare of the unemployed was reflected both in the regulations - in particular, the provisions relating to discretionary additions and lump-sum exceptional needs payments and in the encouragement given to area officers to take a helpful interest in the financial and other problems of applicants and their families. Examples of the latter were highlighted in the district officers’ contributions to the board’s first annual report, giving rise to Graham White’s vision of “a company of guardian angels descending upon the distressed areas to remove in their beneficence the ills to which mankind is subject”. The Carlisle district officer, for instance, wrote: It is astonishing to see the number of matters on which an Area Officer’s advice has been asked. Domestic difficulties are common enough, or the placing of children grown too old for school; perhaps even their retention at a secondary school will be discussed. An applicant has called to ask the Area Officer’s

opinion of the treatment offered to cripple children. One wanted to have advice on the tithe rent commutation on a small property. Another Area Officer found himself expected to advise an elderly applicant whether he should marry a certain widow with some resources. There are, of course, times when more than mere advice is needed. The applicant who drinks or otherwise misspends his allowance is fortunately uncommon but can be dealt with. In one case a small payment was made to the man weekly, and the rest to his wife who pays the rent and apportions all the rest of the income. Both parties have since thanked the Area Officer. In another similar case the husband is allowed 10s. but must find his own food, the remainder going to his wife, who pays the rent and all other expenses. A case has even been found where an applicant was terrorized by his wife, who frequently locked him out and made him do without food, though he paid his whole allowance regularly to her. Ten minutes plain speaking in the home cleared the whole matter, and the trouble has not recurred.

These aspects of the officers’ work were obviously inflated for political reasons, but the emphasis placed by the board on its duty to make provision for the “improvement and re-establishment” of the condition of the unemployed was genuine. The ways in which it carried out this function were largely determined by the existing pattern of training and reconditioning courses. Training and instructional centres Before 1935 the Ministry of Labour ran two kinds of training centres: government training centres (GTCs) and instructional centres (ICs). Both were started experimentally in 1925, exclusively for men, but they developed in very different ways. It was the ICs that were to provide the main focus of the board’s training activities, and the following paragraphs therefore give a fuller account of their development. The GTCs, located in urban areas, offered six-month courses of training as “handymen” in skilled or semi-skilled trades ranging from engineering to hairdressing. Trainees were at first recruited locally but later, as the training became more specialised, from a wider area, most of them living in lodgings near the centres. The Park Royal centre near London, training cooks and waiters, was described by Ronald Davison as “a short cut from Tyneside and the Rhondda to the Savoy and the Dorchester hotels”. The total number of trainees was small - about 3,000 in nine centres at the end of 1934. The ministry’s policy was to limit recruitment to the number for whom jobs would be available.
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The ICs were residential centres situated in rural areas, originally serving two purposes: “handyman” training for farm work in Britain and training of young single men for work on the land in Canada and Australia. The latter purpose soon became dominant. Like the GTCs,

they initially offered a six months’ course. The syllabus for those preparing for emigration included handling horses, milking, simple agricultural operations, woodwork, fencing and timber felling. The demand for labour in the dominions, however, was so pressing that the courses were shortened and lost much of their training content. Two tented camps, each for 200 men, were opened in 1928 on Forestry Commission land, where farming was not possible and the forestry work was admitted by the ministry to be “valuable not so much for its own sake as in hardening the muscles and testing the capacity of the men for strenuous open-air work”. Some 2,000 men from the centres embarked for Australia or Canada during that year. Following the Canadian government’s offer to take 6,000 men in 1929 another five hutted camps were opened on or near Forestry Commission land, to provide four or five weeks of hard outdoor work for 1,200 men at a time.
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At this point, disaster struck. An abnormal drought devastated the Canadian wheat crop and economic difficulties led to suspension of the Australian assisted immigration scheme. Canada sent 588 trainees back in 1929 under deportation orders. By 1931, organised emigration to the dominions had ceased. The “training” courses were replaced by a new type of “transfer instructional centre” (TIC) to prepare men from the depressed areas, considered unsuitable for a GTC course, for transfer after two or three months to employment on public works, mainly roadbuilding, in other parts of the country. Five of these were opened in 1929, of which two were residential forestry centres, using the existing hutted camps. At the other three the training consisted mainly of labouring work on local authority projects (recreation grounds at Poole and Carshalton and an airfield at Blackpool), together with instruction in carpentry, metalwork and shoe repairing and “some instruction ... in ordinary educational subjects both for its own sake and to help to solve the problem of keeping the men occupied in wet weather”.

Throughout these changes, the principle of training only the number of men for whom jobs were available was adhered to. As a result, nearly all those completing a TIC course in 1929 found employment or were transferred to a GTC for more specialised training. But more than one in three TIC trainees left before the end of the course, voluntarily or otherwise, while many men who were offered a TIC place refused it. This, in the ministry’s view, amounted to refusing an offer of employment. In 1930, therefore, the previously unused power to require attendance as a condition of payment of unemployment benefit was put into operation. Within a few months it was reported that the admission of men who had “volunteered” for fear of losing their benefit had “very greatly increased the difficulties of maintaining discipline and of giving efficient training”. The justification for compulsion disappeared when government grants for public works ceased in 1931-32 and jobs could no longer be guaranteed. Attendance once more became voluntary. Nevertheless, from 1933 on, the number of places was increased in the summer months by setting up tented camps, mainly as extensions to existing centres. By the end of 1934, when the UAB arrived on the
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scene, there were sixteen ICs offering 12-week courses and a cabinet decision had been taken to open about twenty more. All but two were residential, most being on Forestry Commission land. The success rate in placing IC trainees in employment was by then unimpressive. During 1934, 16,248 men were admitted to the centres and camps but only 2,475 found employment during or at the end of the course (in the same year 6,970 men entered the nine GTCs and 4,819 trainees found employment - figures which understate the success rate, since the number of training places rose during the year from 2,132 to 3,056). Even without the promise of a job, some unemployed men might have welcomed a few weeks’ healthy activity in congenial surroundings. A reconditioning course at an IC, however, was anything but a holiday.

“Slave camps” Much of the evidence of conditions at the ICs is to be found in Wal Hannington’s books and can reasonably be suspected of bias, but the Treasury files contain a detailed report by an official, R A Grieve, on his visit to an IC at Bourne, Lincolnshire, in July 1935. There is nothing in the report to suggest that he was unduly swayed by sympathy for the trainees. The first week at the Bourne centre was devoted to “education”, the second and third to metalwork and woodwork, followed by one or two weeks of “camp fatigue and garden”, with regular physical training throughout. The rest of the time was spent in quarrying, gravel pit work, forest clearing, fire ride cutting and levelling. “The whole technique of the centre”, Grieve wrote, “is borrowed from the Army”. The manager had been an army officer during the war and the chief ganger was an ex-sergeant-major. The other gangers were paid only 40s. a week for looking after a gang of thirty men. Grieve wrote: “I had a look at two of them and thought them little above the level of their gangs.” As for the trainees, he found them “a pretty rough poor-looking lot as one would expect”. Despite the heavy work they were expected to do, few were “of the really big ‘navvy’ type” and a number were “physically in the B and C class”.

Another IC was described by a trainee in a letter to his wife in February 1939, quoted by Hannington: Living quarters: There are 26 beds in a hut. The hut is made of corrugated iron with two fires. The bed consists of three boards, two trestles, a mattress, six blankets, one straw pillow. The lighting is very bad as it is oil lamps - one at each end - you have a terrible time trying to read at night. There are six gangs: No. 1 centre gang do gardening; No. 2, sanitary gang; No. 3, carpenters; No. 4, hut orderly; No. 5, staff and dining-room stewards; No. 6, sand-pits and forest gang - nicknamed “Hell’s Angels”. It is where the work begins with a capital “H”.

If a chap gets seriously ill he has to wait for a doctor to come from Woodbridge, about ten miles away. To put it bluntly, the description “Slave Camp” is quite right. My throat is sore - I get terrible colds here. I am writing this letter at 5 o’clock in the morning because I am unable to sleep.

There was a good deal of unrest among the trainees. Hannington records cases at four different centres in which a number of men left or were dismissed as a result of grievances about food, discipline, secondhand clothing (from which one man was said to have caught a skin disease) and lack of medical facilities. Sanitary arrangements were primitive, dry bucket latrines being the normal provision. When a Labour MP, J J Davidson, complained that “dry carriage” was “a complete disgrace”, Ernest Brown replied, “... any Member who served in the last war will know that it is not.”
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By the mid-thirties, the ICs had acquired a bad reputation among unemployed men. To the NUWM, they were simply “slave camps”, whose inmates were forced to do backbreaking work in harsh conditions without wages and with little prospect of finding a real job. It was becoming increasingly difficult to find willing volunteers: the experience of a large number of men who had been “reconditioned” only to face a further lengthy spell of unemployment was bound to discourage others. In autumn 1934 a UAB official wrote: “... a great deal of gentle persuasion has had to be exercised by the staff of the Employment Exchanges to get sufficient volunteers.” What officials regarded as “gentle persuasion” probably seemed like bullying to its recipients, reinforcing their reluctance to “volunteer”. But that reluctance was seen as evidence of the demoralising effect of prolonged idleness, thus confirming the need for firm treatment.

Reluctant trainees It was at this unsatisfactory point in the history of the instructional centres that the question of the UAB’s responsibility for training arose. The board was anxious to play a constructive role. The ministry, however, was reluctant to hand over part of its training functions. Bower summed up its attitude in September 1933: It is becoming the fashion to talk as though anybody can do training, and the like, properly; but the history of the matter is quite the reverse. Most efforts of that kind have been waste of money. In my judgment therefore it is in the public interest, including the interest of the workpeople themselves, that training, so far as it is conducted nationally, shall be in the hands of one authority; and that authority should, I think, be that of the Ministry.


The board’s involvement, therefore, was mainly limited to recruitment for the ICs (some 80 per cent of IC trainees were in receipt of allowances from the board ).

Even on the question of recruitment, the ministry and the board did not always see eye to eye. There was agreement on the need to prepare men from the depressed areas for transfer to other areas, and on the value of maintaining or restoring physical and mental fitness, even if the prospect of employment was remote. But there was less agreement on the balance between these objectives or the methods to be used. Should there be an element of compulsion? Should recruitment be extended beyond the depressed areas? If so, on what basis? These questions were particularly pressing at the beginning of 1935, with fifteen new centres planned. There was a certain ambivalence about the board’s views. The officials believed they could make a better job of recruitment than the ministry had done, and that enough trainees could be found from the depressed areas to keep the ICs full. On the other hand, conscious of its wider responsibilities, the board wanted to offer the opportunity of reconditioning to those in need of it, wherever they might be found. In January 1935 board and ministry officials agreed on a number of measures to attract recruits from the depressed areas, including more generous allowances for trainees, efforts to place more trainees in jobs, and a review of the standards of fitness required. If, after two months, these measures proved ineffective, the areas of recruitment might have to be widened and it might even be necessary to consider reintroducing an element of compulsion.

It was also agreed that the board’s officers should add their powers of persuasion to those of the ministry. The board’s assistant secretary responsible for welfare and training policy, G.S. Owen, produced a draft circular authorising methods of persuasion which included the threat of being sent to a work centre as a “case of special difficulty” under section 40 of the Act. By the time this draft reached the ministry, however, the storm of protest against the cuts had reached its peak and the board was told that pressure of the kind suggested was out of the question. For the present, its officers’ role was to be limited to participating in the interviewing of potential recruits; but, whereas previously only men who had indicated their willingness to consider training had been interviewed, in future all eligible applicants in the target areas would be summoned before an interviewing panel.
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The results of mass interviewing proved disappointing. The purpose of the interview was not explained in advance to the interviewees, who were “called in from the Waiting Room in quick rotation”. Only a small minority accepted the offer of training. In March 1935, the ministry, despairing of finding enough trainees from the distressed areas, proposed to extend recruitment to other areas with unemployment over 20 per cent, or even 15 per cent (“The latest national percentage of unemployment was 17.5 per cent”, Owen protested to Eady, “and the M/L are working on a 15 per cent basis for defining a depressed


area!”). The board would have preferred the allocation of IC places without geographical limits, on the basis of individual need, to the extension of mass interviewing. As a compromise, however, the 20 per cent limit was agreed, though further extensions were to follow.
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In these discussions, the idea of compulsory training for young men was never far from the surface. Its chief exponent was the Commissioner for the Special Areas of England and Wales, Malcolm Stewart, who regarded the ICs mainly as a means of attaining his aim of mass transference. At a board meeting in May 1935, he urged that, in areas such as the Welsh valleys and parts of County Durham, where there was little prospect of industrial renewal, “all the younger people capable of establishing themselves in other parts of the country should be transferred, and he would like a policy of inducement and pressure to be exercised”. On being told by Rushcliffe that the board’s contribution to the transfer policy lay in helping with the cost of moving and setting up home, and paying allowances during periods of unemployment in the new area, he replied disparagingly that the standstill and the general atmosphere of relaxation which was created by it was adding to the difficulties of securing a proper attitude. Far too many people in the depressed areas were expecting things to be brought to them from outside, and one of the most necessary tasks was to tell the people that this could not happen and that they must make an effort on their own behalf.

The following month, the board turned down a proposal by Stewart that men who refused to transfer should have their allowances reduced.

At a meeting with ministry officials in October 1935, Eady proposed that, while some of the ICs should be reserved for men from the special areas, for whom job vacancies in the developing areas should also be reserved, the other centres should be thrown open to long unemployed men nominated by the board from all parts of the country, possibly with an element of compulsion. The two aims of transfer and reconditioning would thus be separated. The proposal got no support from the ministry, Wolfe commenting that “separate centres reserved for young men aged 18 to 21 compulsorily attending would mean running a new type of centre altogether much more on the lines of a penal colony”.

Soon after, Stewart made a similar proposal for compulsory training for the 18-20 age group at non-residential “intermediate” centres, combined with a programme of arterial road-building to guarantee at least 12 months’ employment for ex-IC trainees - a return to the situation in 1930-31 when compulsory training was justified by the near certainty of a job. Such ideas, however, stood little chance of acceptance. The Keynesian public works solution to unemployment had been firmly rejected by the National government (Eady himself has been identified as the leader of a group of Treasury officials who, as late as 1944, “were still sceptical of Keynesianism” ). A committee of Ministry of Labour and UAB officials on training policy agreed, however, that the idea of intermediate centres for men aged 18-20, without
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compulsion, should be pursued and further efforts made to improve IC trainees’ job prospects.

If compulsion was politically unacceptable, so was the combination of large numbers of young unemployed men and a substantial proportion of unused places at training centres. Even the GTCs were short of recruits. More were being opened to meet the demands of the rearmament programme but, at the same time, the chances of finding work without six months at a training centre were improving. To fill the vacant places, Merseyside and Glasgow were added to the GTCs’ catchment areas. Recruitment for the ICs by mass interviewing had already been extended, against the board’s wishes, far beyond the officially recognised “depressed areas” and was to be further extended to include London towards the end of 1936, but there were still not enough trainees to fill them. Eight of the fifteen new centres planned for 1935-36 were cancelled. It was clear that a new approach was needed if full use was to be made of the existing centres.
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The individual approach The change of direction took place in 1937 as a result of research by the board into the reasons for the high rate of refusal of training. Men who had refused IC places in six areas of the north-east and Scotland in April 1936 were re-interviewed by the board’s officers. Out of 654 men, 45 changed their minds as a result (though in one area seven out of eight later backed out). Of the other 609, as many as 359 had an acceptable reason for refusing: mainly domestic responsibilities, fear of missing local job vacancies, the absence of reasonable job prospects after training, the “unsuitability of the IC to various types of men”, physical defects of all sorts and the lack of amenities at the centres. The proportion of men with wives or other dependants considered to have good reason for refusal was as high as 70 per cent, although nearly twothirds of those attending ICs were married. These findings were interpreted by the board’s training and welfare subcommittee (Reynard, Markham and Hallsworth) as an indictment of both the methods of recruitment and the training provided. They recommended less emphasis on forestry and more suitable training for men “not of the navvy type”. The new intermediate centres, they suggested, could cater for men prevented by domestic ties from going to residential centres. Above all, they wanted a new approach to IC recruitment. The board should be responsible for selecting potential trainees, including men living outside the existing recruitment areas, and, instead of “mass-production” methods, there should be “a less formal and a more personal and private approach to each man by persons acquainted with his character and domestic circumstances”.

Despite objections to widening the areas of recruitment while large numbers of men in the depressed areas remained in need of training, the board accepted the sub-committee’s recommendations. Phillips grudgingly agreed, with the proviso that, if the individual approach proved ineffective in any area, mass interviewing would be resumed. In


reply to Phillips’ concern that the board’s methods might be suspected of involving an element of compulsion, Eady assured him that there was no intention of allowing officers to threaten any loss of allowances for refusal of training, though the subsequent treatment of those who had refused would be “a matter of policy for the board”.

Instructions on the new arrangements were issued in March 1937 (by then, the shortage of trainees had forced Eady to agree to a temporary extension of mass interviewing to all parts of the country). In future, monthly lists of applicants aged 18-45 unemployed for 6 months or more were to be submitted to the board’s area officers who would select those likely to profit from an IC course and not debarred from attending a residential centre by ill-health, domestic ties or other factors, including a “criminal or doubtful record”. Young single men were, in principle, to be given priority, but for the time being there was room for men of all ages. Interviews would normally be conducted at the area office but home interviews in the presence of the applicant’s father or mother were not excluded. The purpose of the interview was not to be disclosed in advance and it was to start with a general discussion of the applicant’s situation before being “gradually brought round to the subject of training” and the attractions of the ICs:

Stress may be laid on the free supply of suitable clothing and the provision of good food without stint, on the healthy situation of the camps and on the physical benefits deriving from attendance as well as on the provision of organized games and recreation both indoors and out. Employment prospects (the exchanges were to give ex-trainees priority for nine months after completing the course) and opportunities for more specialised training were also to be stressed. “Reasonable efforts” were to be made to persuade applicants to sign up on the spot, but in some cases it might be “tactical” to allow 24 hours to think the matter over.

Interviews carried out on this basis proved far more effective than the methods used previously. In February 1937 only 3.9 per cent of interviewees had accepted IC training. By the end of September, of about 140,000 men interviewed by the board’s officers, 21,750 or about 15 per cent had accepted and recruitment had been slowed down because the ministry could not cope with the demand.
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Towards the end of 1937 a new initiative was launched by the board, involving members of the local advisory committees in mass interviewing of applicants aged 30 and under. A more detailed account is given at the end of chapter 24, since its aims were more general than that of recruitment for training. Local training centres The new intermediate centres, known as local training centres, were less successful. The first two were opened in July 1937 at Oakdale, Monmouthshire, and Spennymoor, County Durham. Those offered places included men aged 18-24 considered unsuitable for residential

centres because of minor physical defects for which medical, optical or dental treatment could be given at the local centre; those unwilling to leave home, who might feel differently after a few weeks at a local centre; and those with valid personal or domestic reasons for refusing residential training. Two months after the opening of the Spennymoor centre with room for 200 trainees, the board was told, “industrial revival has so denuded the area of young unemployed men that it has never been more than half full”. At the Oakdale centre, 100 out of 150 places were vacant. The age limit was raised to 45 to fill the vacancies but, with more jobs available, those remaining unemployed were increasingly likely to present problems with which the local centres could not cope. The board’s annual report for 1937 admitted that, of the 383 men leaving the centres from July to the end of the year, only 52 had proceeded to other centres and 36 had left to take up employment. There had been problems of voluntary relinquishment of training, casual absenteeism and refusal to transfer to other centres. A table published without comment in the 1938 annual report showed that, out of 2,529 trainees leaving the four local centres up to the end of 1938, 529 had been “discharged for refusal to transfer, etc.”, 422 were “voluntary relinquishments”, 108 were discharged for sickness and 702 completed the course but did not proceed to either employment or further training. On the positive side, nearly 500 did transfer to other training centres, mainly GTCs, and 274 found work.
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Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the local centres was the treatment of dental, optical and other physical impairments. In 1938, 22 per cent of applicants who agreed to attend ICs were rejected on medical grounds. Arrangements were made for the provision of dental, optical and medical treatment at the local centres and at two ICs, though some local authorities refused to provide these services on the grounds that they were being “asked to remedy defects on a higher standard than that adopted by employers in industry”.
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The value of reconditioning From the point of view of prospective trainees, the crucial question was whether training would improve their prospects of employment. Most IC training was based on the assumption that, even when jobs were available, the long-term unemployed needed “reconditioning” to fit them for employment. Towards the end of 1938, the board was presented with evidence which threw doubt on this assumption. The subsequent employment record of 423 single men aged 18-25 completing an IC course in July-September 1937 was compared with that of 1,339 men in the same age group regarded by area officers as having unreasonably refused training in the same period. By the end of March 1938, 53 per cent of the trainees had obtained some employment - a relatively high proportion, apparently due to the fact that the enquiry was limited to younger trainees (for IC trainees of all ages, about 20 per cent found work on leaving and another 20 per cent within six months). But the proportion of training refusers who had found work was nearly as high - 47 per cent. The average number of

days worked by those who found work was 71 for the trainees and 57 for the refusers. The trainees, however, had been given priority by the employment exchanges: of their 71 days’ work, 32 were in jobs found for them by the exchanges, compared with only 11 of the refusers’ 57 days’ work. These findings had clear policy implications. First, if the proportion of young single trainees finding work was higher than the average, the opposite must be true of older and married trainees, for whom reconditioning must be regarded as an end in itself rather than as preparation for employment. Secondly, as the report on the enquiry put it, “great caution is necessary in condemning men as work-shy because of apparently unreasonable refusal of training”.

Almost simultaneously, very different conclusions emerged from the report of a Ministry of Labour committee chaired by the recently appointed parliamentary secretary to the ministry, a young right-wing Conservative MP, Alan Lennox-Boyd. The committee recommended that “if and when political circumstances are favourable” the board should be given power to require attendance at a training course as a condition for receiving an allowance, and that, meanwhile, if other measures failed to produce a change of attitude, the board should consider the use of section 40(2)(c) (attendance at a work centre) for those refusing training.

The board’s response was that any departure from the voluntary principle should be “openly declared by the government”; it was not prepared to introduce compulsion indirectly by the use of section 40(2) (c). Instead, it proposed that IC trainees should be divided into two classes: “A” men, young, single and “of good type”, who could be virtually guaranteed employment, and “B” men recruited on the basis that attendance at the centre would improve their “general morale and employability”. For both classes, to counter their unwillingness to leave home, the courses were to be reduced to eight weeks’ duration. When asked why, if jobs were available for the “A” class, they could not be offered without first requiring eight weeks’ attendance at an IC, Eady’s unconvincing reply was that the employment exchanges could not cope without some such “clearing device”. In effect, jobs were to be allocated on the basis of willingness to attend an IC. Plans for the new system went ahead but the relevant instructions were not issued until July 1939, less than two months before the outbreak of war led to the closure of the ICs.
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Whether, during the period of the board’s existence, the ICs had served any useful purpose remains unproven. The validity of the concept of reconditioning was never really tested, though it was to be revived after the war in the National Assistance Board’s re-establishment centres. There was no doubt as to the demoralising effects of prolonged unemployment, but the assumption that two or three months of heavy work and spartan living conditions on a Forestry Commission estate was a useful preparation for employment was not supported by evidence of any kind. Nor was there any evidence that IC training had a beneficial effect on the majority of trainees who returned home to face a further lengthy period of unemployment. For most of the period, the ICs, unlike


the vocationally oriented GTCs, suffered from the crucial disadvantage that they could not offer trainees a reasonable prospect of employment. By 1939, jobs were plentiful enough to enable a near-guarantee of employment to be given to men of “good type” who were prepared to move to areas where work was available; but there is no reason to suppose that such men needed reconditioning rather than the simple offer of a job. Grants in aid The board made relatively little use of its power to pay voluntary bodies for providing training. It helped to recruit trainees for bodies such as the Central Council for the Care of Cripples and the British Legion (Metropolitan Area) Taxi-cab Drivers’ Training School, but without making any direct financial contribution. Until 1939, when the board took over responsibility for government grants to the National Council of Social Service for work relating to the welfare of the unemployed, the only voluntary organisations to which it made grants were the Central Association for Young Wayfarers Hostels, the Wigan and District Subsistence Production Society, and the Land Settlement Association. The young wayfarers’ hostels provided accommodation and training for young men who had “taken to a life on the road but in whom the habits of vagrancy [were] not too deeply ingrained”. The board’s concern for them dated from April 1937, when it had taken over responsibility for such of them as could be regarded as “in scope”. The payments made to the association consisted of contributions towards administrative costs and per capita payments for applicants accommodated in the hostels: 518 between April and December 1937 and 623 in 1938.

The Wigan and District Subsistence Production Society originated from the “Upholland experiment” launched in 1934 and directed by an enterprising and idealistic quaker, Peter Scott. Its object was to provide land on which unemployed men aged 40 or over could work collectively, receiving a share of the produce proportional to their hours of work. The board’s annual report described the scheme as “an extension of the allotment idea”, but the range of goods produced was much wider, including “milk, eggs, bread, meat, jam, clothes, boots, coal, textiles, etc.”.

The board accepted that applicants involved in the scheme could continue to receive their normal allowances, since they were not working full-time and had not abandoned their normal occupation. The value of the produce was disregarded in the same way as food grown on an allotment. By 1936, about 200 applicants were members of the society, and the board agreed in 1937 to make a grant towards staff and administration costs. A similar scheme launched by Scott in Monmouthshire received substantial financial support (£82,500 up to the end of 1937) from the Commissioner for the Special Areas. The Wigan scheme, however, despite a donation of £30,000 from Lord Nuffield, failed to make ends meet and in 1938 Scott decided to abandon it. A new proposal put forward by him for “subsistence
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production communities” for older unemployed men was dismissed by one of the board’s officials as “an appallingly hopeless outlook for men of 45 who are apparently to be kept more or less apart from the ordinary economic activities of the world until they are ready for ‘the garden of rest, with flower-beds but no gravestones’ which is to be provided for each community”. Although Scott continued to negotiate with the board, the officials’ attitude became extremely negative once his idealism had failed the test of financial viability. Violet Markham complained to Jones in December 1938 of the “violent feeling” against Scott: Reid is most bitter and hostile: so too is Hallsworth. And the amiable Fieldhouse is reported as having said you can’t make a gentleman’s agreement with a man who is no gentleman. ... The view about P.S. is that he is not straight - which seems to me fantastic.

The Land Settlement Association was established in July 1934 with a government subsidy, to provide full-time small-holdings for the unemployed on an experimental basis - the latest of a long series of “back to the land” experiments. Almost immediately, the scope of its activities was greatly enlarged by the decision of the Commissioner for the Special Areas in England and Wales to use it as his principal agent for settling unemployed people on the land. The board agreed to support applicants (married men aged 35-50) for a training period of up to 12 months, paying them a “training allowance” of 4s. a week in addition to the 12s. charged by the association for their maintenance and an allowance for their dependants left at home. By the end of 1938, about 1500 families had been transferred, but about one in three had subsequently left, deciding that life on the land was not for them, or perhaps that the rewards were insufficient and the risks too great. The adjustment to rural life may have been particularly difficult for the settlers’ wives who, as the board’s former area officer for Ipswich later observed, “had been used to being able to pop round the corner for a loaf of bread or a pound of sugar or for fish and chips, and found themselves with the baker calling once a week and a three-mile walk to the nearest shop”. The board’s report for 1937 mentioned some of the difficulties experienced, including poultry disease and “the less satisfactory relation between feeding costs and the price of eggs”.
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The board’s direct financial support to the Land Settlement Association was for a different scheme: “group holdings” on which ten or more men would each have between a quarter and half an acre of land near their homes, to be used partly for growing vegetables and partly for poultry or pigs. Unlike the members of Peter Scott’s schemes, each man cultivated his own plot. By the end of 1938, the number of holdings had risen to well over 5,000. They were probably the most successful of the various schemes for encouraging unemployed people to engage in agriculture or horticulture. The board, having decided that “the training given was of value in maintaining and improving the physical condition

and morale of the men”, made a grant to cover the salaries of organisers outside the special areas and agreed that the value of the produce, whether consumed at home or not, would be ignored for the first year at least; after that it would be taken into account only if a substantial profit was being earned.

Reinventing the dole: a history of the Unemployment Assistance Board 1934-1940 by Tony Lynes is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 444 Castro Street, Suite 900, Mountain View, California, 94041, USA.


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