A History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46

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Home Intelligence
29th December 1941.

The following summary is based on a series of special reports from all Regions (except Northern Ireland). In most Regions our enquiries referred to at least six of the principal Exchanges, of which about eighty were visited throughout the whole country.

R.I.Os. were asked to report on the accommodation, accessibility, state of repair and convenience for purpose of the Exchanges, and especially on any where the conditions appeared to be particularly bad.


Now that a large section of the public has to register at Labour Exchanges for the first time, it seems desirable to dissociate these visits in the public's mind from earlier days when long queues waited at these Exchanges for the dole. In the case of Exchanges where there were sometimes lines of unemployed and “rough elements”, resentment has to be broken down particularly among “black coated workers” and “better class women” who are now obliged to line up at these same buildings.

In the Northern Region, this question of association is thought even more important than convenience or accessibility. In Newcastle, for instance, people prefer the Newbridge Street Exchange which is bright and cheerful, to that in Scotswood Road, which, though more convenient, is in a working-class district associated with much unemployment.

“There is a tendency” says the report from this Region “for the atmosphere of Exchanges to be adapted to the class with whom it deals”. Thus, in Middlesbrough, where employment for men has been largely in heavy industry, and for women in shops and offices, the men's Exchange is in a large, badly lit drill hall in a decayed street; the women's Exchange, on the other hand, is smaller, better lit, and near the main street.

Although some Exchanges are described as “cramped” or “depressing” the public does not appear to be much concerned about such matters; many of the more modern buildings are said to be regarded as very satisfactory. Even where the investigator has reported on the dilapidation, dirt or unsuitability of premises, it is usually admitted that the ordinary working-class population does not notice such things.

Our evidence suggests that at the present time the expenditure of money on new buildings, or on the extension of old ones, would be thought completely unjustifiable.

Among the chief causes of criticism are:-

1. Lack of privacy.

2. Separation of departments.

3. Overcrowding and queues.

4. Condition of premises

5. Appearances

6. Directions, equipment and heating.

7. Accessibility.

1. Lack of Privacy

This is especially emphasised in the Eastern, Southern, North Western and London Regions' reports; specific complaints are made of the following Exchanges:-

Brendon (men's)

Bury St. Edmunds.

Cambridge (women's)




High Wycombe







Stoke (sub-office for juveniles)

It is appreciated that in spite of official announcements suggesting that interviews are private, lack of accommodation often makes privacy impossible. Nevertheless, this is a cause of constant complaint among women of all classes who are now paying their first visit to the Exchanges. Even where some semblance of privacy has been achieved by curtaining or screening-off part of the room, it is said that everything can be overheard by those waiting.

(In Cambridge when the question: “Are you married?” is followed by: “Have you any children?” the overheard replies are in some cases said to have created scandal).

In High Wycombe it is said that not only is privacy impossible, but any interviews are very difficult on account of the telephoning and talk going on all round.

In the Exchange at Royton and Mildenhall men and women are apparently interviewed together; at Chichester it is said that ‘a man is almost always present at the (woman's) interview.’

There is strong criticism of the Juvenile Labour Exchanges at Swansea and Stoke. At both these the boys and girls report together, and at the latter are “interviewed en masse”; the juveniles are said to be nervous of speaking up in front of their companions.

A Model Exchange

Nottingham is cited as a good example of what can be done in the way of private interviewing. A big, light room has been divided into cubicles by means of wooden frames covered with white canvas which is semi-transparent and does not obscure the light. A small gap is left as an entrance, through which the interviewer can be partly seen; this is thought to be preferable even to a private room with its association of being “put on the carpet”. Interviewers are encouraged to make their own cubicles attractive with posters, flowers, etc.

2. Separation of departments

It is generally considered an advantage for the whole organisation of the Labour Exchange to be under one roof, but only when this is commodious enough to give ample accommodation to men and women in interviewing and waiting. Waste of time is caused to the public by the separation of different departments into sub-offices, often at some distance from the Exchange.

It is said that the first department to be evacuated to temporary premises is usually the women's, and in a number of cases where this has happened the women's offices are reported to be greatly inferior to the men's. Cases in point are:-









3. Overcrowding and queues

Rural areas are less troubled in this way than towns such as Reading and Slough, where there has been a great increase in industrial development. In many cases, Exchanges specially built for their purpose and quite adequate in normal times, are now unable to cope with the new demands made upon them; but this is apparently understood by the public and considerable tolerance is shown.

In many cases it has been necessary to take additional premises, the disadvantages of which are discussed below, but Exchanges in the Eastern Region are severely criticised for failing to provide extra space, and it is felt that the Ministry of Labour should have powers similar to those of the military or billeting authorities to commandeer empty houses. Complaints of overcrowding are made in the Southern and Eastern Regions, and also at:-



Oldham (women's)




Swansea (juvenile)


Queues have rarely been a source of trouble, except on registration days, and even then have been largely helped by good organisation and tactful handling.

In Clydebank queues are apt to form when work is slack, and at Weston (Somerset) queues were at one time a problem through inadequate accommodation. But in Weston, Taunton and Exeter the queue problem has now been largely solved.

Accommodation for queues in the London Region is said to be generally unsatisfactory, and when women bring their children with them there is nowhere for them to wait.

4. Condition of premises

Few complaints have been reported about any of the modern Exchanges specially built for their purpose; and even though other less suitable buildings have been criticised, the public in general appears ready to accept the inconvenience without serious complaint.

In the following towns, however, the Exchanges were criticised for their condition and state of repair:-

Ayr. Old and dilapidated. “The women's section is outhoused in a hall and situated against a brick wall so that electric light is used almost continuously”.
Cambridge. (women's) “Housed in an old institute in a slurry street”. Described as ‘smelling like an old debt court.’
Edinburgh. In a depressing, mean little street. The exterior is unattractive. Corridors dark. Artificial light needed considerably “within the grim interior”. “The impression you obtain is of an early Victorian charity organisation rather than an ‘up to the minute’ business premises.”
Heanor. “The grimness of an old church school, said to have been condemned over twenty years ago, is almost beyond description. The roof is full of holes and patches, it is draughty, dark, damp, and impossible to keep clean-looking.”
Kilmarnock. “The psychological effect of entering this Exchange is undoubtedly that of coming down in the world and of entering the atmosphere associated with the ‘burroo’ and the dole.”
London. Deptford, Hammersmith and Finchley are specifically mentioned as being ‘very bad’. The first two are described as wooden ‘hut’ buildings. That at Deptford was brought to the notice of the Ministry of Labour some time ago and has since been repainted, but this is considered quite inadequate. The building at Finchley is described as ‘dreadful’.
Oldham. “Badly in need of paint inside and out... cracked plaster... narrow... gives an impression of lack of planning. ‘The general impression is one of dirt and unfriendliness’.”
Pontyclun. “Accommodation insufficient and state of repair indifferent”.
St. Helens. Brickwork old, Paintwork poor. Condition of ceilings and walls in the women's part bad. Staircase steep and narrow. Courtroom dark and dirty. “It is certainly not in keeping with the standard one expects in an important Government office.”
Worthing (women's section) “Dark, dingy and uncomfortable... bare and uninviting.”

5. Appearances

a) Effect on the public

Criticism of the appearance and ‘atmosphere’ of the Exchanges has arisen since the registration of women and the more fastidious section of the community began on a large scale. The smell, gloom, poor lavatory accommodation, and ‘dismal and depressing atmosphere’ have been the chief causes of complaint.

The importance of dissociating the Labour Exchanges in the public mind from the old dole days is constantly commented on where premises are dingy, dark and generally unprepossessing, even though structurally sound. Among those cited in this category are: Chadderton, Redhill, Royton, Stanley, Stoke, Wingate, and Wolverhampton, while Exchanges such as Blaydon, Consett and West Hartlepool are said to be more like post offices and to make possible a changed attitude on the part of the visiting public.

In Royton and Stoke a “permanent blackout” is said to create a very depressing effect.

The Exchanges at Chichester, High Wycombe, Newbury (women's), Ogmore Vale, Prestwich, Royton and Worthing (women's), are all situated in old chapels or church halls, which are described as being as “unattractive in appearance as most church halls”.

There are indications that bright and clean decorations would be appreciated. At Salford, for example, the red-painted doors are said to make the place cheerful. In Oldham the women's side is said to be “badly in need of paint and cleaning”, whereas the tiled walls and linoleum covered floors of the men's part is described as “making for cleanliness and quiet”. In St. Helens it is commented that the women's interviewing room “would be reasonably attractive if decorated”.

b) Effect on the staff .

Where conditions are unsatisfactory the effect on the staff is said to be very bad. In the North Midlands “dislike and disgust of their premises was expressed by three out of six of the managers”. It is reported that at Hereford “the clerks have to work in rooms that are small, dark and entirely uncomfortable. Under the existing circumstances it must be impossible to maintain the highest efficiency.” In the North Western Region it is suggested that “working in conditions of dirt, cold and overcrowding may lead officials to be less courteous than they would normally be”.

6. Directions, equipment and heating .

(a) Directions .

Reports show that in many areas there is considerable difficulty in finding the Exchanges through lack of signs and directions.

Edinburgh: “There are few directions and you stumble upstairs and through dark corridors before reaching your objective.”
Hammersmith: This serves part of both Barnes and Kensington, and moreover the women's section has been transferred to another building. “People asking the way are usually directed to the original building, from which they have a quarter of an hour's walk to the women's section. The other part of Barnes is apparently served by the Kingston Exchange, which means half an hour's journey by bus, with corresponding fares, a considerable item for people drawing unemployment relief, and having to go three times a week”.
High Wycombe: “Strangers directed to the Labour Exchange find it inconvenient to have then to go some distance away to a second building since the building housing the Armed Forces Section is still called the Unemployment Exchange, as it houses the manager.”
Kilmarnock: “There seem to be no directions to it - you simply have to keep looking out for it and asking the way”. Inside, there are no directions either. “At the top of the stairs you are faced by two doors with no directions and risk choosing the right one for the Exchange.”
Lincoln: “The entrance was obscure and... badly indicated, a poor start for a potential recruit.”
Luton: “This is a private house shared with the Ministry of Health; there is nothing outside to indicate that the Ministry of Labour have offices there.”
Reading: “There is some complaint by women of waste of time in finding the building where their requirements are dealt with, after they have been directed to the regular Exchange (over half a mile away)”.

Redhill: “This Exchange has been moved on three times recently and as a result many people do not know where it is. Although [Text Missing] centrally situated, it is not easily recognised. The door is kept open and the only way of ascertaining what is upstairs is from a small name-board on the door itself”.

Royton: “The notice board is in the dark and these reading it must block the entrance to the Exchange.”

(b) Equipment .

The use of benches, counters and trestle tables is adversely commented on at Exchanges, including:-

Bury St. Edmunds







“Better class women” registering complain of “sitting on hard forms” or of “standing at a counter with other people”, and it appears to be generally felt “that counter accommodation is not suitable for industrial interviews and that desks and chairs should be provided. In Salford “properly fitted counters with a series of slide screens were a good feature.”

Shoreditch also complain of “no chairs”.

(c) Heating .

Warmth is a point for favourable comment in Bristol (Eastville), Clydebank, Guildford and Prestwich “where the central heating is much appreciated in winter”. Chadderton, on the other hand, complains of being “considerably overheated”.

7. Accessibility .

Although the public appears not to mind much about the appearance and condition of Exchanges, nor about overcrowding or queues, the working-class population is said to become “pretty vocal” at having to go two or three miles to get to the Exchange, especially when more than one visit is entailed with perhaps sixpence in fares. The necessity of ‘out-housing’ some departments has made it difficult to ensure that every sub-office, as well as the main Exchange, should be centrally located, and a good many grumbles are heard at the distance apart of some of those branches.

Where Exchanges serve a large area, such as in Hammersmith and Birmingham, involved bus journeys are sometimes inevitable. In Anglesey, though the four Exchanges would be accessible enough in normal times, bus services are now so curtailed that “it is a day's journey for some people to register” and the wish is expressed that country people could register at their local post offices.

At Prestatyn, where an official from Rhyl Exchange attends on two days a week, this arrangement is thought to be inadequate for dealing with the increased residential population, particularly in view of the wide functions of Labour Exchanges during wartime.

On the other hand, easy accessibility is the subject of praise in many reports and far outweighs any drawbacks, such as the street being decayed or the district sordid.

Conclusions .

1. That resistance to visiting Labour Exchanges is chiefly among the new categories now registering, notably “black coated workers” and “better class women”.

2. That resistance is less when men and girls go to register on the same day according to their age groups, all classes together.

3. That it is also less on subsequent visits.

4. That the general public is little effected by the condition or appearance of the Exchanges.

5. That accessibility is the most important qualification for an Exchange.

6. That even when conditions are bad, it is felt that to spend money on their improvement at the present time would be unwarranted.

The following Exchanges were among those visited in the course this enquiry:-

Northern Region Blaydon
West Hartlepool
N. Eastern Region Attercliffe
Hebden Bridge
N. Midland Region Derby
Eastern Region Brandon
Bury St. Edmunds
London Region Acton
Bethnal Green
Southern Region Bracknell (sub-office)
High Wycombe
S. Western Region Bristol
Welsh Region Anglesey
Ebbw Vale
Ogmore Vale
Midland Region Birmingham
N. Western Region Chadderton
St. Helens
Scotland Region Aberdeen
S. Eastern Region Chichester

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