There are certain images from the mass media that, as a child of the 1980s growing up in America, are ubiquitous to summer for me. The 1961 Disney film, The Parent Trap, staring Hayley Mills is one of them. Mills, who plays the role of twin sisters separated by their divorced parents, meet up at Camp Inch, a summer camp for girls in the middle of the woods. Beyond the humorous antics and the rose-coloured family dynamics, to me the idea of summer camp was solidified by the wooden planked bunk houses, canoes across a dark mountain lake and innocent flirting with the boy’s camp ‘down the way’, even though I never attended one of these fabled camps.
Now, more years than I care to admit to later, I come across a different kind of summer camp. One that feels just as nostalgic, but that had very different consequences: the school harvest camps of the world wars. Let’s take a step back though and try to see the big picture. In 1914, the official school leaving age for children in England and Wales was 12-years-old. This meant at twelve students could ‘graduate’ from school and start working, which many of them did. In the agricultural areas, some went on to join the Young Farmer’s Clubs or even the Farm Institutes before potentially going off to an agricultural college or university. However, the idea of child labour became a sticking point in Parliament, where the official government decision was to give no decision.
Prime Minister Asquith (1915) stated that the question should be left up to the local education authorities to decide on their particular regions’ needs. MP T. Williams stated that same year that an estimated 45,000 boys and girls had participated in the various camps and that he anticipated at least the same amount would be needed the following year, which sounds less like ‘volunteering’ and more like being ‘voluntold’. Still, it took a combination of school children, women’s land army members, prisoners of war and soldiers to bring in the harvest due to the acute labour shortage over the next few years.
When World War Two came about, the situation wasn’t much better, but certain lessons had been learned. The Women’s Land Army was stronger than ever, POWs were used more extensively and civilians, both adults and children, were put to work on ‘holidays’ at farm harvest camps across the country and managed by the Ministry of Agriculture. In 1943, the Minister of Agriculture R.S. Hudson hinted that the extra 150-200,000 adults and over 300,000 school children needed to bring in the harvest could potential become conscripted should not enough volunteers be found. Yet the term volunteer is a slight misnomer, not for the conscripted part, ironically, but for the implied non-payment part. Those working the land for a week or two during the summer and harvest seasons were paid at set rates, though that amount was, in many instances, not enough to cover their room and board. For example, wages in 1939 were 6d-8d an hour while room and board was 11s. a week. This did rise slightly when in 1941, school holidays were timed to coincide with the harvests. Children aged 14 (now the school leaving age) were permitted a maximum of 22 half-days a year away from school as well as received the minimum wage for agricultural workers which was around £3/week. Though some school groups were paid by the product.
Peter Clarke (South Lincolnshire) was part of a gang of 12 and 13-year-old boys and girls (around 20) that were sent from farm to farm and allocated jobs such as driving the horse, picking potatoes, weeding and even ploughing.
“Although this was hard work and several children did not last the full time most of us found it great fun and had a sense of helping the War effort,” Peter said to the BBC in 2003. “[We received] about one shilling and sixpence (7.5p) per bag [of peas], which weighed 28lbs and took about 4 hours to fill. If it was underweight, it would be rejected. [While, f]or early potatoes the pay was three shillings (15p) a day. Working under the control of the school we received one shilling and ninepence (13p) per day”.
Daphne Jones (Warwickshire) was a 15-year-old student learning typing and shorthand when she was sent off to the first Farming Camp School in 1944. She remembers that they would study agricultural related matters in the morning and then help on the land in the afternoon weeding onions, digging potatoes and picking strawberries. Jean Ramsell (Yorkshire) was 17 when she volunteered for her first farm camp. “Much of the work involved potatoes in one form or another,” she remembers, “but another job was gathering flax that had been ‘laid’ i.e. flattened by the rain and couldn’t be harvested by machine. It all had to be pulled out by its roots and it could cut your hands”. As a female, certain issues arose that the boys didn’t seem to mind. “We had no access to the loos. Of course, the men could just disappear behind a hedge but it sometimes caused a problem. In one field there were some low triangular hen houses of a kind that I don’t think you see now and we often got the giggles crouching down in these. Fortunately, there were no hens at the time”.
While such work was often typical for rural children, the experiences were new and exciting for urban school children who were now being led by their teacher into the hedgerows and forested areas in the search for windfalls, medicinal plants such as foxglove, yarrow, rose-hips and other plants of medicinal value for the nation’s pharmacies. Some schools ‘adopted’ local farms and went to help with tasks such as rat-catching and poultry plucking, or students worked on their school farm and allotments raising pigs, bees and sheep.
Working during breaks was fine, but the fight came when the Ministry of Labour suggested making the children work during term time, as part of their compulsory education. Such an action was illegal as per the Education Act and the 1933 Children and Young Persons Act and met with fierce opposition from the various educational unions. “A Durham headmaster told the 1950 conference of the National Association of Headteachers that during the previous year he had been confronted by an irate farmer complaining that eight boys working on his farm had gone on strike – merely because they had been given no time to rest during the day! This lack of compassion and understanding did little to endear the generality of farmers to teachers and the Board of Education.”
Such concerns were brought up in Parliament, though little was done to mitigate them. The camps did in fact continue until 1951 when they were finally disbanded, however discussions remained in the House of Commons and the National Farmer’s Union and Ministry of Agriculture and in Lincolnshire alone eight camps occurred in 1950, seven in 1951 and six in 1952, a shrinking number, but one that persists until this day. Of course, there are no air raids, doodlebugs or POWs working beside them and the activities are much more relaxed, more in line with the glorified summer fun of Disney’s Camp Inch where we started than the dirty and potentially dangerous war work of just a few decades ago. Still interviews from the children that attended these harvest camps show a time of childhood innocence and excitement at getting out of school and doing their bit for Queen and Country.
Perhaps that’s the true lesson here. That feeling of nostalgia that suffuses the public imagination of a period which was not rosy and happy, but in many respects a time of hardship and sacrifice. However, the volunteers who took their two-week vacation from the factory and school yard and helped bring in the harvests came together in common cause. As Jean Ramsell explained, “You didn’t expect to make any money – that was not the object of it. In the spirit of the time, you all pulled together and were united by the fact that it was wartime and you all wanted to do your bit”.
Tamisan Latherow is a second year PhD Candidate in the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development at the University of Reading researching women’s participation in English agriculture (1920-1960) in conjunction with The Museum of English Rural Life and agroecological farming systems for Martian food production with the School of Biological Sciences.
 HC Deb 03 December 1945 vol 416 cc 1914-15 https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1945/dec/03/school-harvest-camps
 How labour shortages were met in the Humber’s rural areas, My Learning, https://www.mylearning.org/stories/agriculture-during-wartime-in-the-humber/800; Agricultural Camps in the 1940s (2021) Bolton School Former Pupils https://www.boltonschool.org/former-pupils/archives-and-memories/agricultural-camps-in-the-1940s/
 The People’s War, BBC https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/56/a2072756.shtml
 The People’s War, BBC https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/31/a8961131.shtml
 The People’s War, BBC https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/95/a2222795.shtml
 Moore-Colyer, R. (2004). Kids in the Corn: School Harvest Camps and Farm Labour Supply in England, 1940–1950. The Agricultural History Review, 52(2), 183-206. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40275928
 Farmers Weekly, 2 June 1950, in Moore-Colyer, R. (2004). Kids in the Corn: School Harvest Camps and Farm Labour Supply in England, 1940–1950. The Agricultural History Review, 52(2), 183-206. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40275928
 HC Deb 30 November 1950 vol 481 cc1292-3 https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1950/nov/30/school-harvest-camps
 HC Deb 11 June 1952 vol 516 c28W https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/written-answers/1953/jun/11/harvest-camps-lincolnshire