HYDE, Robert Robertson
7th September 1878 to 31st August 1967
Hyde was an Anglican clergyman who played a major role in the promotion of industrial welfare. After working with the Ministry of Munitions during the First World War, he founded and served as director of the Industrial Welfare Society for more than three decades.
Hyde was born in London on 7 September 1878, the son of an engineer. He was educated at Westbourne Park School and then went to work at the age of fifteen. In 1901 he entered the faculty of theology at King’s College, London, and was ordained priest in 1904. His first post was as curate of St Saviour’s, Hoxton in the East End of London. In 1912 he obtained the living of the parish of St Mary in Hoxton. He married Eileen Parker, the daughter of a doctor, in 1917.
As a clergyman in a working-class district, Hyde quickly became involved in welfare work. He organised boys’ clubs, with the aim of helping to educate the young and encourage them towards useful work. In 1907 Hyde also became warden of the Maurice Hostel, founded in memory of the Christian socialist leader F.D. Maurice and still run very much along the principles of Christian socialism. This post brought Hyde into contact with many liberal and left-leaning thinkers, both within the clergy and in civil society. Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree was among those whom Hyde met during this period, and his work in educating young people, young men in particular, seems to have impressed Rowntree.
In 1916 Rowntree, by then working with the Ministry of Munitions, asked Hyde to take charge of the newly established boys’ welfare department, established to ensure good working conditions for boys working in the armaments industry. Hyde accepted without understanding the full magnitude of the job. He was used, he said later, to working with groups of a few hundred boys. He found there wer more than 350,000 boys working in the industry across the country.
However, Hyde proved to have an extraordinary gift for getting things done. The East End clergyman quickly won around many of the armaments manufacturers and persuaded them to adopt reforms such as the introduction of works medical officers, recreational facilities for young workers, canteens, changing rooms, lavatories and other facilities to make the harsh work in munitions factories and shipyards more bearable. Not only did the industrialists agree with Hyde’s views, but many became his firm friends and admirers.
In 1918 Hyde left the Ministry of Munitions, in part, as he says in his autobiography, because he had become tired of the stifling bureaucracy of the ministry. With the support of his industrialist friends, Hyde established the Boys Welfare Society, changing its name the following year to the Industrial Welfare Society (today the organisation is known as The Work Foundation). Its remit broadened over time from industrial welfare to labour management, industrial relations and education for workers, and it became one of the most important ‘think tanks’ of the mid-twentieth century.
Hyde served as director of the Society until he retired in 1950. The first chairman was Sir William Beardmore, head of one of the most important shipbuilding firms on the Clyde, and Prince Albert, the Duke of York, agreed to serve as president. Hyde and the duke, who later became King George VI, became lifelong friends, and the latter often sought Hyde’s advice on educational and social issues.
Hyde was awarded the MVO in 1932, and in 1949 was knighted KBE. He died at his home in Haslemere, Surrey, on 31 August 1967.
Hyde wrote two books, an autobiography published post-humously, and The Boy in Industry and Leisure, which sums up what he had learned about welfare work with the Ministry of Munitions and the the Industrial Welfare Society. This book, a few articles in the Journal of Industrial Welfare, published by the Society, and his Rowntree lectures are about all the surviving evidence that we have of Hyde’s ideas. These sources suggest that Hyde was not a theorist. He was, as Garnett (2004) comments, a thorough practical man who focused on getting things done; it was probably this side of his character that endeared him the magnates of the armaments industry.
Hyde was particularly passionate about fairness and social justice, and believed that everyone ought to have an equal chance in life, no matter what station they came from. Together, he and the Duke of York started the Duke of York’s camps, gatherings where boys from the East End and from public schools could meet and talk on an equal footing, sharing life experiences and learning about each other. Apart from this issue, to which he devotes much space in his book, Hyde’s focus was on purely practical things. He encouraged employers to provide medical facilities, canteens and recreational facilities for their workers, and to encourage and assist their development as people.
Ensuring the welfare of workers, in Hyde’s view, is a moral duty incumbent on all employers. ‘We want, if we can, to correct and temper business considerations with moral and ethical considerations’, he says in his Rowntree lectures. Ever the pragmatist, however, he was also keen to point out that investment in welfare had a payback to the firm:
There is a ship-builder on the Clyde who would not launch the [welfare] movement in its early days: and even when many firms around him established a Welfare Department, he continued sceptical. Finally, however, he said to a friend, ‘This Welfare Work is a matter for Employers’ Federations, not for individual employers!’ ‘But why?’ asked the friend. ‘Why? Simply because the firms that have started welfare work are getting the very pick of the men and boys!’ We could not have had a better testimonial to our activities. Naturally, factories that consider the human welfare of employees do attract the best type of workers.
In his lectures too, Hyde strongly promoted the idea of having dedicated welfare workers in each factory. The matter is too important and too time-consuming, he says, to be left to the directors or the foremen, who have their own jobs to do. Welfare workers can spot problems and come up with solutions. The result is a more peaceful, more harmonious and more efficient factory or yard.
But it is impossible to please some, who suspect any movement that alleviates, rather than promotes bitterness. One such told me that, of course, it was to the employer’s advantage to heal a man up quickly. He got back to work all the sooner, and then the process of getting profits out of him was continued. With that kind of criticism one cannot argue. But, of course, any pseudo welfare work that is only meant to whitewash over the fact of inadequate wages, or, as some speakers put it, ‘to gild the workers’ chains’ is not welfare work at all in any true or accepted sense. The fact is that good wages and reasonable working hours are fundamental conditions. Welfare work should be built upon them, just as Durham Cathedral is built on the solid rock.
‘Welfare work should aim at restoring the old human relationships, only enriched a hundred-fold’, Hyde says at the close of his lectures. ‘It should teach the meaning of service, and it should create an atmosphere in which men, both employer and worker, realise that the factory is a place in which they can serve their fellows, do some work that is of use to the whole world, and in some measure pay the debt they owe to humanity, which has given so much to them.’
The Boy in Industry and Leisure, 1921.
Industry Was My Parish, 1968.
Garnett, J., ‘Hyde, Sir Robert Robertson’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Kraus, R., The Men Around Churchill, London: Books for Libraries Press, 1941.
Obituary, The Times, 1 September, 1967.
Sydney, E., The Industrial Society, 1918-1968, London: The Industrial Society, 1968.
‘The welfare movement’, 21 March 1920, University College, Durham
‘The welfare movement’, 15 April 1920, Balliol College (the text of this lecture is identical to the earlier one given in Durham)