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Opening New Worlds for Workers

A century ago, trade unionists founded the Workers Travel Association, which organised cheap, luxurious holidays in the belief that discovery and adventure should be for the masses – not just the wealthy.

The Workers' Travel Association (WTA) Holiday Camp at Rustington, Sussex, circa 1950. Credit: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

During this year’s election to determine Len McCluskey’s successor as Unite the union’s next general secretary, right-wing candidate Gerard Coyne took aim at his union’s infrastructural projects. ‘Luxury hotel, a TV station, what next?’ he asked. ‘A travel agency? Nightclub?’

It’s hard to know whether Coyne’s stance was performatively ignorant or more deeply reflective of the disconnect between Labour’s contemporary right-wingers and the labour movement’s founding principles. In reality, the initiatives he held up as jokes were considered normal, necessary institutional objectives when we had a labour movement serious about building its strength and social influence.

Of the broad array of institutions which once fulfilled these tasks, Labour Clubs are the most everyday example of the movement physically establishing a presence in working-class areas. But an ambitious labour movement press operation once gave workers a powerful voice – in fact, the Trades Union Congress once owned the best-selling daily newspaper in the world, The Daily Herald. And on the ground, a world of workers’ social clubs, cinemas, educational bodies, and sports facilities flourished wherever socialists organised.

Of these institutions, one of the most interesting was the Workers Travel Association (WTA). Though many working-class organisations have been lost to time, the WTA seems most peculiarly forgotten – especially given that it was still organising over 250 different holiday plans for over 100,000 workers as late as the sixties, and has been long credited by historians as having invented the ‘all-in’ inclusive holiday. Its origins can be found in its inaugural meeting in November 1921 at Toynbee Hall, London. In that damp room were several trade unionists and socialists, all stirred by several interlocking ideals.

A wheelbarrow race on Sports Day at the Workers’ Travel Association (WTA) Holiday Camp at Rustington, Sussex, circa 1950. Credit: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Their first motivation was to make international travel a far easier prospect for working- class people. The utility of the WTA, its founders believed, was in encouraging those who may otherwise feel intimidated by the prospect of going abroad to achieve this through a labour movement institution. This might allow the widespread faith in the organised movement to help its members fully enjoy the thrill and demystification which comes from a trip abroad.

But another driving principle behind the WTA was reflective of the post-war moment it was created in. After the slaughter of the previous decade, thousands of people committed to the struggle for peace knew treaties and agreements weren’t enough. A real peace was more than the mere absence of hostilities – it meant a shared existence for the world’s citizens, and many socialists hoped foreign travel could open this existence for a new generation.

This was expressed most clearly by the socialist journalist H. N. Brailsford in The Travel Log, the WTA journal, when he wrote:

The tragic passionate mingling of the battlefield is ended: the happy intimidate mingling of the new time must now be organised. This is the aim of the Workers Travel Association.

A Beam in Darkness

In the mind of the WTA’s founders, those who had been shut out of going beyond British shores—cotton workers, miners, railway workers, posties, and so on—had to make up the backbone of the organisation. Remembering the WTA with pride, the postal workers leader William Bowen wrote of their vision of a ‘robust, self-governing, cooperative movement of the workers themselves.’

Soon enough, the WTA was sending workers to places such as Austria, France, and Switzerland on early expeditions that were enjoyable but somewhat haphazard. Unexpected organisational problems dogged the holidays, with venue bookings sometimes being cancelled at the last minute and WTA guides failing to arrive at agreed destinations. It was decided then that the operation must dramatically improve itself, and several trade unionists who supported the organisation began steering the WTA towards more professional lines.

By 1923 onwards, an organisation with national and continental full-timers was beginning to send hundreds of British workers across Europe, attempting to navigate the various conflicts unravelling across the continent as they aided working people in discovering new societies for the first time. Prices were kept strikingly low, which attracted both politically active and inactive workers to many destinations.

Word began spreading of the Association; a journalist for The Star evening paper wrote of the ‘undreamed of possibilities’ developed by the WTA, considering it ‘a beam in darkness’. Far more condescending was The Graphic—a middle-class weekly—which warned that ‘if your plumber ignores all your frantic appeals’, the WTA, ‘you may be sure’ is to blame. It went on to condemn Ernest Wimble—a blacklisted trade unionist and sometime Workers Educational Association teacher—for putting the idea into ‘the simple breast of the working man’ that ‘foreign travel need not be a monopoly of the idle rich.’

Throughout the twenties and thirties, the WTA went from strength to strength, vastly expanding its international destinations and securing a great many workers’ holiday homes in Britain. Despite the period being defined by historic economic turmoil, the WTA soldiered on, often in impressive and era-defying ways.

Still from the Workers Travel Association’s promotional film ‘Introducing – Rogerson Hall’ (1938).

During the early days of the Great Depression, they organised an ambitious barge trip to Germany; on this journey, hundreds of British workers sailed through the Rhine, meeting scores of German workers in numerous towns and cities along the way, who laid on meals, tours, and parties for them. Upon their arrival at Karlsruhe, the final destination, holidaymakers were taken to a restaurant owned by the local trade union movement, after having been greeted by a rally of thousands of Karlsruhe workers and treated to a concert by a local workers’ choir.

Despite the chaos raging in Germany, The Travel Log still labelled the journey a ‘success’ – and a ‘fresh step towards international understanding’ between German workers and hundreds of their British fellow workers.

Red Sunshine

During these years, the dockers leader Ernest Bevin began aiding the WTA’s operations more closely. As a consistent supporter from its early days, Bevin encouraged his union, the Transport and General Workers’ Union (a predecessor of Unite), to fund the WTA from the outset, often floating it when needed.

He also consistently leveraged his influence as a senior trade unionist to encourage railway and steamship companies to work with the organisation on mass discount bookings for its holiday goers. Bevin believed that the WTA was a powerful and unique way of demonstrating to working people that the opening up of their horizons was bound to the strength of their labour movement.

On being convinced of the potential of the idea, Bevin successfully encouraged the WTA to organise its first ‘sunshine cruise’, which it did in 1932. After agreeing a loan with the Co-operative Wholesale Bank, they booked the Esperance Bay, a cruise liner with two swimming pools, open deck space, luxurious lounges, and a cinema. On board, no class distinctions, reserved areas, or privileges for the more moneyed were to be found, and each cruise was among equals.

With everyone paying single class, hundreds of workers frolicked on a 3,000-mile voyage from Southampton to Vigo, Gibraltar, before heading to Algiers, Tangier, the Canary Islands, and back to Southampton via Lisbon, stopping at each port to dance, swim, party, and sightsee, at- tending lectures about the social history of the places they were experiencing for the first time. This became one of their most popular offers and would run with great success for many years to come.

Still from the Workers Travel Association’s promotional film ‘Introducing – Rogerson Hall’ (1938).

On international issues, the WTA was somewhat irregular, evidently torn between its politics and what was stable business. It strongly condemned the suppression of its Austrian comrades after the country’s brief civil war in 1934, and even stopped trips to Italy in solidarity with the Ethiopian people facing down Fascist forces. But while previous WTA customers were being bombed by Nazi planes for defending the Spanish Republic, The Travel Log would still publish poetry extolling the virtues of the Rhineland – the organisation’s biographer, Francis Williams, chalks this opportunism down to the huge popularity and relative cheapness of organising German holidays.

Despite this, it still took remarkable risks: in late 1938, the organisation responded to the plea of comrades in Czechoslovakia by charter- ing transport to smuggle out huge numbers of socialists, trade unionists, and radicals who were well-known to the Gestapo. Their efforts included ordering what is thought to have been the largest chartered flight in history up to that point, and housing those refugees in WTA holiday residences across Britain.

Filling in the Holes

While the WTA was taking tens of thousands of people abroad annually by 1939, its operations were effectively halted with the outbreak of the Second World War, and the organisation had to wait until Nazism’s end to resume. After the Labour government was elected in 1945, the WTA’s leaders recognised that new and improved social conditions would open up the possibilities of life for workers like never before – and that the WTA would need to step it up a notch.

An appeal for donations was met generously by their rationed, wage-frozen working-class base, with thousands of pounds raised to buy all sorts of property, from stately holiday homes to modernist lidos. Even as late as the early 1960s, when working people were starting to drive their families to France, Spain, and Portugal, over 100,000 people were still turning to the trusted WTA to help make the most of their leisure time every year.

By the end of the sixties, however, the WTA was gone. The circumstances behind its conversion into a mainstream travel company is unclear, but one can assume it was one of the many victims of a well-meaning conviction in the labour movement at the time that Labour’s post-war social democratic agenda would transform society beyond recognition. It was this idea—that pre-war battles for social assertion no longer needed fighting—which led to plenty of the movement’s infrastructure to be deemed unnecessary.

Still from the Workers Travel Association’s promotional film ‘Introducing – Rogerson Hall’ (1938).

In this period, many Labour Clubs became greatly depoliticised, labour sports and cultural institutions shrivelled, and the Trades Union Congress infamously sold its 49 per cent stake in the left-wing, union-backing Daily Herald to create a new paper whose new owners insisted would be as radical as its predecessor. We now know that paper as The Sun.

Surveying the state of today’s labour movement—hollowed out by decades of Thatcherism, subject to draconian laws, and unlikely to hold national power anytime soon—we could do worse than revisit the sentiments which built the Workers Travel Association all of those years ago. With so much cheap travel easily available today, rebuilding the WTA may not be an altogether sound use of time and energy. But the meaning of organisations like the WTA should be important to us – that our movement grew in strength when it believed in its abilities to fill the holes in people’s lives.

It was fervently for all life, which included leisure: trade unionists and socialists who fought for improved conditions on the shopfloor, in the wage packet, or out on housing estates also believed in the necessity of opening up the doors to culture, exploration, and greater excitement in life, because they knew the capitalist class would never favour this. Those pioneers of the WTA were figures who knew that the discovery of the world and the sharing of laughter could snap guns and give workers a confidence that the rich sought to withhold from them.

In our movement’s current malaise, these plans feel ambitious – but they were built up by people who were born into a situation in which the labour movement was infinitely weaker than our own. And living in a country where close to 800 libraries have closed after a decade of austerity; where the past year has seen thirty pubs close down daily; where one in five swimming pools look set to close in the near future; where more and more people are priced out of higher education, at least nine million adults are functionally illiterate, and 2,500,000 people use food banks, there must be avenues for our movement to build the kind of institutions which can solder and sustain the emotional loyalty of millions of working-class people, and become a significant presence in the hearts of those communities once again.