Andy Holroyde, University of Huddersfield
On 29th April 1946, the doors of the Remploy Factory in Bridgend, Wales opened to admit the company’s very first group of disabled workers. Conceived towards the end of the Second World War, Remploy was established by the British Government to provide sheltered employment – a term used to denote workplaces dedicated to employing disabled people in an environment ‘sheltered’ from the competitive pressures of the open employment market – on a hitherto unheard-of scale. Prior to the War, such provision had been operated primarily by charitable groups, operating individual or small-scale networks of workshops. Remploy was created alongside other elements of the Welfare State such as the NHS as a pioneering attempt to provide a national scheme of sheltered employment, financial backed by the Treasury, and thereby positioned to provide meaningful and productive work for all those who wanted to work but were considered too ‘severely disabled’ to be able to gain and keep employment.
With nothing like this having been attempted before, and with no clear plan in place to follow, it was up to the company itself to decide how best to provide useful employment for disabled people. It was decided that they should begin to open these factories in areas where there was known to be large numbers of potential employees. The first Factory in Bridgend was swiftly followed by one in Salford and a further one in Birmingham. Remploy ended 1946 with four factories in operation, employing 160 men and 4 women.
Further factories quickly followed as the company came under increasing pressure to open them across the country from Members of Parliament and the Press. By 1952 Remploy had more than 90 factories operating across the country. Rapid expansion was not an easy task however as there was often a shortage of work to be done. In the aftermath of the Second World War, materials, equipment, and large-scale production orders were in short supply. In order to reduce the amount of time employees spent waiting for something to do, factory managers would do their best to find work. This could be making furniture, clothes, boxes, wheelchairs, artificial limbs, souvenirs and toys. When orders were available the main production areas were wood-working, light engineering, bookbinding, cardboard box making, knitwear, surgical footwear and appliances, brush and broom making, leatherwork, and printing.
The Bridgend Factory became well known for making violins. Employees were taught how to make them by Mr Schlieps, an Estonian prisoner of war who had been brought to Britain from a refugee camp in Germany. The violins were made from pine wood taken from equipment used in the D-Day landings in Normandy. Lots of these violins were sold to school orchestras up and down the country.
With Britain still recovering from the Second World War, materials for building new factories were also scarce. As a result of this, and the pressure to quickly open factories, the majority of the early factories were set up in existing premises, many of which were less than ideal. Some of the premises suggested as places for Remploy to operate included skating rinks, empty cinemas, chapels and derelict buildings. The Bridgend factory itself was a former Royal Ordnance Factory which had been used for shell filling. The premises the Remploy Board wanted were purpose built to their own specification by the Ministry of Works. These were all on a single floor, were well heated, and included canteens and kitchens.
As well as providing work, many factories had a lively social scene with clubs, dances, parties, and organised trips to the seaside. Sports and games were also an important feature, with a wide variety of sporting clubs established. The Sheffield factory, for example, had a thriving archery club whose members were referred to as the ‘Remploy Robin Hoods’. Such clubs also helped create links between neighbouring factories. The Newcastle, Jarrow and Sunderland factories, for example, set-up an inter-factory darts and dominos league. Through such efforts, it is clear that the factories developed important social and recreational opportunities for their employees.
Although Remploy would not meet its original lofty goal of providing sheltered employment for all who required it, as successive governments responded to economic and welfare priorities by limiting the reach of the company, it nevertheless became the chief provider of sheltered employment in the post-war period, offering work to thousands of disabled people. Remploy continued to grow and reached its height in the late 1980s with over 9,000 disabled people employed across 94 factories. The focus on sheltered employment in factories was starting to change however. From the very beginning of Remploy, a steady number of employees had continued to move from the factories into open employment. This now became a key aim for Remploy with the launch of Interwork in 1988, a scheme which involved supporting Remploy employees, both old and new, enter into open employment.
With the inclusion of disabled people in open employment becoming a greater priority, Remploy changed to reflect this new aim. Remploy factories began to be closed down and replaced by Remploy branches on the high street. The company focused on providing employment services to support those with disabilities or health conditions seeking mainstream employment, and supporting employers to recruit more disabled employees. The last Remploy Factory was closed on 31 October 2013. A further change occurred when, in April 2015, Remploy left government ownership to begin a new journey under the ownership of MAXIMUS and Remploy employees themselves.
Remploy was a truly pioneering attempt to provide a national scheme of sheltered employment and continued to shape the approach to disability employment provision in Britain. And it all began 75 years ago, with a handful of disabled workers entering a small factory in Bridgend.
About the author: Andy Holroyde recently completed a PhD in History at the University of Huddersfield. Funded by the AHRC through the Heritage Consortium, his thesis examines sheltered employment and disability in the British Welfare State. Andy’s research continues to focus on sheltered employment and the formation of ‘inclusive economies’, alongside broader interests in the development of ‘pseudo-histories’, and the teaching of History pre-university.