One of the great curses of unemployment is the feeling of isolation which grows upon the victim. He feels that no one cares about him, and for the want of something to occupy his mind, he broods and imagines the whole world against him.
(MS 396/2 National Council of Social Service, Midlands Office press cuttings, The Value of Occupational Centres Evening Standard 22/11/1936)
So wrote an anonymous contributor in a letter to the Evening Standard on 22 November 1936, in which he expressed his gratitude to the Bank Officers Guild, the Society of Friends and other organisations involved in running a number of non-denominational, non-political occupational centres which had been established in Birmingham during the 1930s to help the unemployed. The grateful contributor, having been unemployed for five years, after a period of twenty years in employment, found his attendance at the Lench Street Occupational Centre removed his sense of isolation and enabled him to learn new skills, such as furniture making and boot mending.
During the inter-war years, unemployment in Birmingham, while not as high as in other parts of the country, had risen from 51, 361 in 1921 to 62, 000 in 1931 (Upton, C. 1993 A History of Birmingham, p.197). In 1932, the Unemployment Committee of Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends was becoming increasingly concerned, describing the situation as ‘very critical’ and ‘quite unprecedented in its extent and gravity’. Friends were particularly aware of the need to prevent the spread of a ‘growing sense of isolation and bitterness’ (SF/2/1/1/1/2/10 Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting Reports, Unemployment Committee report, March 1932). Having visited a number of allotment clubs, the Moor Green Lane Unemployment Allotment Scheme, and an Occupational Centre in Deritend, they were impressed by the positive effects such schemes had for the participants’ levels of morale and sense of hope.
By July 1932, Friends’ premises at Moseley Road, Northfield and Coventry Meetings were already being used as occupational centres and there were plans for additional centres to be set up elsewhere. One of these was to be on the new housing estate at Perry Common. In September 1932, the Unemployment Committee reported that sections of the building were being constructed by members of the Moseley Road Institute Occupational Centre and then transported to Perry Common and assembled on the site by unemployed men from the area (SF/2/1/1/1/2/10 Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting reports, Unemployment Committee report, 21 September 1932).
In November, the Kingstanding and Perry Common Occupational Hut Committee was appointed by the Unemployment Committee to manage the centre, with initial members including Florence Barrow, Roger Darby, Basil Priestman, Harold Watts, Evelyn Sturge, C. Holme Barnett and Reginald Thacker. Additional members later appointed to the committee included Christopher Tangye, John P. Glaisyer, Paul S. Cadbury, Frederick Wagstaff, Richard Cottam, Wilson Sturge and W. A. Albright. The day-to-day running of the centre was undertaken by Edward Bruten, a graduate from Swansea, new to Birmingham and full of energy and enthusiasm, while members of Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting provided financial help and donated equipment and other resources.
The centre provided its members with the opportunity to take part in carpentry, boot mending, weaving, and metal-work activities, as well as poultry-keeping and tending a communal allotment. The items made could be taken home, or were donated to hospitals and charities, but could not be sold. To build the confidence of the men, an exhibition of their work was held. Educational talks, a small library, social evenings, an annual holiday away, and the opportunity to take part in sports matches were also provided. In the first month of opening, there were 43 members but a year later following an extension to the building, membership had reached 88, with 35-40 men attending on a daily basis (SF/2/1/1/3/11 Minutes of the Occupational Centre and Land Scheme Committee, January 29 1934).
Following on from the success of the occupational centre, Edward Bruten felt that a land scheme would enable the men to provide an improved standard of living to their families by allowing them to grow vegetables and tend livestock which they could exchange with members. They could obtain goods partially in proportion to the number of hours worked on the scheme and partially by cash payment (SF/2/1/1/1/1/32 Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting minute book, 1932-1935, minute 649, March 9 1935). W.A. Cadbury was an early supporter of the idea and in January 1935 he offered 23 acres of land near the Perry Common Occupational Centre via the Bournville Village Trust to be used for such a scheme. This provided one field which was used for growing crops, one for hay and the two remaining fields were rented out to a farmer. Several students, teachers and public school boys helped the men prepare the land and plant crops and a tractor was purchased.
By August of that year, crops of peas, turnips, beans, potatoes were being harvested by the men. Manor Green Farm provided 45 hens and Joe and Christopher Tangye gave hen coops. A cow was bought and four young pigs were purchased for fattening up. The eggs, milk and pork were all sold to the men. In the year 1935-6 the scheme helped 51 men and their families.
In 1933, there had been 2000 unemployed registered at the Kingstanding and Perry Common Labour Exchange. By 1936, this figure was under 300 and it was apparent the need for the occupational centre and land scheme was diminishing. In autumn 1936, the Friends transferred Perry Common Occupational Centre to the Community Association who widened its use into a community centre for men and women, unemployed and employed. In September 1937, due to insufficient membership, the Friends decided to close the land scheme and return the land to the Bournville Village Trust.
Eleanor (Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers Project Archivist)
Archival sources used
Acc. 2014/213 Land Scheme for Unemployed Men and Friends’ Occupational Centre Report 1935-1936
MS 396/2 National Council of Social Service, Midlands Office press cuttings:
‘Obituary: Edward Bruten’, Birmingham Post, 31/08/1935
‘Good work by Occupational Centres’ Birmingham Gazette, 18/01/1936
‘The Value of Occupational Centres’, Evening Standard, 22/11/1936
MS 3927 St Mary’s and Duddeston Occupational Centre Committee Minutes
SF/2/1/1/1/1/32 Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting minute book, 1932-1935
SF/2/1/1/1/2/10 Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting reports relating to minutes, 1932-1935
SF/2/1/1/3/11 Minutes of the Occupational Centre and Land Scheme Committee, previously Kingstanding and Perry Common Occupational Hut Committee, 1932 – 1935