A DERELICT cornmill will one day be the home of a “good life” workers co-operative. But until then, members of the Burnley group People In Common, are having to endure the hard life converting it into living accommodation. Helping them with the mammoth task are a group from the International Voluntary Service. Students from Belgium, Nepal, and Algeria work alongside a lorry driver and a trainee planning officer with little more in common than the desire to build Altham Cornmill into a working concern…Burnley express C1981/2
I was going to say that we started holding International Voluntary Service (IVS) work camps as part of a plan we hatched to do up The Mill after we had been turned down for grants by the council – but having just gone through my old file on IVS and had my memory jogged. I now think it was Steve Davies who was working for IVS as a Volunteer co-ordinator and who lived at the Old Hall community in Suffolk who got in touch with us well before we got planning permission and suggested we could hold a workcamp. IVS were looking for more practical camps and working with us fitted with their ethos.
IVS had been set up in the interwar years. Growing originally out of work carried out by a group of French and German volunteers repairing a French village that had been destroyed during the First World War – Service Civil International was set up by Pierre Ceresole, a Swiss national “To foster peace and understanding between people and nations through voluntary work.” In 1931 the first international project was carried out in Great Britain, building an outdoor swimming pool for the colliery town of Bryn Mawr in Wales, and the International Voluntary Service was born.
Each workcamp is different, but what they have in common is that volunteers live and work together in an international group, learning about others lifestyle and culture. This experience can have a great impact on people and influence the rest of their lives. The work varies enormously and can include any of the following; campaigning on issues related to third world, racism and peace education, working with people with disabilities, children or elderly people in their homes, at day centres or on holiday, ecological and environmental work, women only camps, artistic and cultural camps.Description of IVS camps From : Worldwide Volunteering 2004
Our first workcamp was in 1979 and the last was in 1992. In between we held a camp pretty much on an annual basis The camps gave us a real boost each year. For two or three weeks we would tackle ‘big’ projects at the Mill; laying water mains, demolishing pig pens, laying concrete, building a hydraulic ram, landscaping…. We had volunteers from al-sorts of places as well as the UK; including France, Germany, Scandinavia, Eastern Bloc countries – Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia and from further a field – India, Nigeria, Nepal.
During the first couple of camps we were finding, by trial and error, how best to utilise volunteers and the conditions for the volunteers were pretty basic in those early camps. After a few camps we established a pattern. The volunteers would arrive over the first weekend. We would then launch into work tasks Monday through to Wednesday. With Thursday being a ‘rest day’. Volunteers nearly always questioned why we were breaking so early in the week. Until that is they arrived at Thursday exhausted from 3 days physical labour that most of them were unused to doing. One of us would cook with a couple of them while two or three of us would lead small work teams. Later in the camp we would organise a trip out to some place of interest; one year it was the Rochdale Pioneers museum, another year we went to York for the day and called in at Harry Ramsden’s Chippy in Batley on the way home for a dose of Northern Cuisine.
For me, as someone active at the time in the peace movement, running the workcamps was a real part of building bridges across cultures at what still felt like the height of the Cold War with Cruise missiles being deployed at Greenham Common and Trident being commissioned. It is linked in my mind in to the END European Nuclear Disarmament Campaigns call for ordinary citizens to reach out across state boundaries and form alliances to bring about peace.
Without the help of all the volunteers from IVS I’m not sure we would have managed to crack the work at The Mill. So once again a big THANK YOU to everyone who gave up a couple of weeks of their lives to give us a hand.