Central Labour College

In November 1908, Oxford University announced that it was going to take over Ruskin College. The chancellor of the university, George Curzon, was the former Conservative Party MP and the Viceroy of India. His reactionary views were well-known and was the leader of the campaign to prevent women having the vote. Curzon visited the college where he made a speech to the students explaining the decision. (1)

Dennis Hird replied to Curzon: "My Lord, when you speak of Ruskin College you are not referring merely to this institution here in Oxford, for this is only a branch of a great democratic movement that has its roots all over the country. To ask Ruskin College to come into closer contact with the University is to ask the great democracy whose foundation is the Labour Movement, a democracy that in the near future will come into its own, and, when it does, will bring great changes in its wake".

The author of The Burning Question of Education (1909) reported: "As he concluded, the burst of applause that emanated from the students seemed to herald the dawn of the day Dennis Hird had predicted. Without another word, Lord Curzon turned on his heel and walked out, followed by the remainder of the lecture staff, who looked far from pleased. When the report of the meeting was published in the press, the students noted that significantly enough Dennis Hird's reply was suppressed, and a few colourless remarks substituted." (2)

Ruskin College and Oxford University

William Craik, a member of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (later the National Union of Railwaymen) pointed out that his fellow students were "very perturbed at the direction in which the teaching and control of the College was moving, and by the failure of the trade union leaders to make any effort to change that direction. We new arrivals had little or no knowledge of what had been taking place at Ruskin before we got there. Most of us were socialists of one party shade or other." (3)

Noah Ablett emerged as the leader of the resistance to the plans of Hastings Lees-Smith. A coalminer from South Wales, he was one of the Ruskin students who was greatly influenced by the teachings of Dennis Hird. He set up Marxist tutorial classes in the central valleys of the Welsh coalfield. In January 1909, Ablett and some of his followers established the Plebs League, an organisation committed to the idea of promoting left-wing education amongst workers. Over the next few weeks branches were established in five towns in the coalfield. Arthur J. Cook and William H. Mainwaring were two early recruits to these classes. (4) Ablett was described as "a remarkable young man, a rebel of cosmopolitan, perhaps cosmic, importance" and "as an educator and ideologue, he was unique". (5)

Hastings Lees-Smith
The Central Labour College in Oxford (c. 1909)

Students of Ruskin College were forbidden to speak in public without the permission of the executive committee. In an effort to marginalise Dennis Hird, new rules such as the requirement for regular essays and quarterly revision papers were introduced. "This met with strong resistance from the majority of the students, who looked upon it as one more way of making the connection with the University still closer... Most of the students had come to Ruskin College on the understanding that there would be no tests other than monthly essays set and examined by their respective tutors, and afterwards discussed in personal interviews with them." (6)

In August 1908, Charles Stanley Buxton, the vice-principal of Ruskin College, published an article in the Cornhill Magazine. He wrote that "the necessary common bond is education in citizenship, and it is this which Ruskin College tries to give - conscious that it is only a new patch on an old garment." (7) It has been argued that "it read as if it had been written by someone who looked upon the workers as a kind of new barbarians whom he and his like had been called upon to tame and civilise". (8) The students were not convinced by this approach as Dennis Hird had told them about the quotation of Karl Marx: "The more the ruling class succeeds in assimilating members of the ruled class the more formidable and dangerous is its rule." (9)

Photograph of the first students at Ruskin College. Edward Traynor (top, first left), Robert Carruthers (top, third left), Bertram Wilson (top, eighth left), Dennis Hird (middle, fourth left), Frank Merry (middle, sixth left) and Joseph Heywood (middle, seventh left).
Dennis Hird

Lord George Curzon published Principles and Methods of University Reform in 1909. In the book he pointed out that it was vitally important to control the education of future leaders of the labour movement. He urged universities to promote the growth of an elite leadership and rejected the 19th century educational reformers call for reform on utilitarian lines to encourage "upward movement" of the capitalist middle class: "We must strive to attract the best, for they will be the leaders of the upward movement... and it is of great importance that their early training should be conducted on liberal rather than on utilitarian lines." (10)

In February, 1909, Dennis Hird was investigated in order to discover if he had "deliberately identified the college with socialism". The sub-committee reported back that Hird was not guilty of this offence but did criticise Henry Sanderson Furniss for "bias and ignorance" and recommended the appointment of another lecturer in economics, more familiar with working class views. Hastings Lees-Smith and the executive committee rejected this suggestion and in March decided to dismiss Hird for "failing to maintain discipline". He was given six months' salary (£180) in lieu of notice, plus a pension of £150 a year for life. (11)

It is believed that 20 students were members of the Plebs League. Its leader, Noah Ablett organised a students' strike in support of Hird. Another important figure was George Sims, a carpenter, who had been sponsored by Albert Salter, a doctor working in Bermondsey who was also a member of the Independent Labour Party. He was the man chosen to deal with the press. (12)

The Daily News reported: "It is one of the quaintest of strikes, this revolt of the 54 students of Ruskin College against what they consider the intolerable action of the authorities with regard to Mr. Dennis Hird, the Principal." In an interview with one of the strikers, George Sims claimed that the students had been told by the authorities that Hird had been sacked because he had been "unable to maintain discipline". The real reason was the way that Hird had been teaching sociology. (13)

On 2nd April the newspaper carried an interview with Dennis Hird: "I have received hundreds of letters of sympathy from past students....There can be no foundation of any sort, technical or otherwise, for the statement that I have failed to maintain discipline. The fact that I have the love of hundreds of students, past and present, and that they would do anything for me, is surely the answer to that." The journalist added "the workingmen students of Ruskin College were as determined as ever that under no circumstances would they consent to Mr. Hird's going.... As matters stand at present it is clear that only the reinstatement of Mr. Hird can save serious trouble." (14)

The following day the newspaper carried an editorial on the dispute: "We are far from wishing to take any side in the controversy, but the unanimity of the students in their support of Mr. Hird, the dismissed Principal, is a fact which cannot be ignored. It may be that the students are mistaken as to the reason for his dismissal, but there is no doubt of the genuine affection they have for their Principal and the reality of their conviction that his dismissal is associated with an organic change in regard to the College.... Ruskin College is an effort to permeate the working classes with ideals and culture, which, while elevating and benefiting the students, will not divorce them from their own atmosphere but will serve to make that atmosphere purer and better." (15)

The Ruskin authorities decided to close the college for a fortnight and then re-admit only students who would sign an undertaking to observe the rules. Of the 54 students at Ruskin College at that time, 44 of them agreed to sign the document. However, the students decided that they would use the Plebs League and its journal, the Plebs' Magazine, to campaign for the setting up of a new and real Labour College. (16)

The Central Labour College

Dennis Hird received very little support from other advocates of working-class education. Albert Mansbridge, the
founder of the Workers' Educational Association (WEA) in 1903, blamed Hird's preaching of socialism for his dismissal. In a letter to a French friend, he wrote "the low-down practice of Dennis Hird in playing upon the class consciousness of swollen-headed students embittered by the gorgeous panorama ever before them of an Oxford in which they have no part." (17)

Noah Ablett took the lead in establishing an alternative to Ruskin College. He saw the need for a residential college as a cadre training school for the labour movement that was based on socialist values. George Sims, who had been expelled after his involvement in the Ruskin strike, played an important role in raising the funds for the project. On 2nd August, 1909, Ablett and Sims organised a conference that was attended by 200 trade union representatives. Dennis Hird, Walter Vrooman and Frank Lester Ward were all at the conference. (18)

Sims explained that the "last link which bound Ruskin College to the Labour Movement had been broken, the majority of the students had taken the bold step of trying to found a new college owned and controlled by the organised Labour Movement." (19) Ablett moved the resolution: "That this Conference of workers declares that the time has now arrived when the working class should enter the educational world to work out its own problems for itself." (20)

The conference agreed to establish the Central Labour College (CLC). The students rented two houses in Bradmore Road in Oxford. It was decided that "two-thirds of representation on Board of Management shall be Labour organisations on the same lines as the Labour Party constitution, namely, Trade Unions, Socialist societies and Co-operative societies." Most of the original funding came from the South Wales Miners' Federation (SWMF) and the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR). (21)

Dennis Hird agreed to act as Principal and to lecture on sociology and other subjects, without any salary. George Sims worked as its secretary and Alfred Hacking was employed as tutor in English grammar and literature. Fred Charles accepted a post as tutor in industrial and political history. The teaching staff was supplemented by regular visiting lecturers, such as Frank Horrabin, Winifred Batho, Rebecca West, Emily Wilding Davison, H. N. Brailsford, Arthur Horner and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence. In 1910 William Craik was appointed as Vice-Principal.

The Plebs Magazine pointed out the main objectives of the Central Labour College: "The education given at the Central Labour College to the selected working men of the Labour Movement is to serve essentially as a means for the education of the workers throughout the country. Arrangements are being made in this direction, and we hope to be able to announce at no distant date the inauguration of a systematic provincial scheme of working-class education. The training of men for the purpose of going out into the industrial world to train their fellow-workers concerning those questions which so vitally affect their everyday life, is a work, we feel certain, that will in a short time give to the Labour Movement the intelligent discipline and solidarity it so much needs. (22)

In 1910 William Craik was appointed as Vice-Principal. The following year the college moved to London. "Very soon after the College arrived in Kensington it began to conduct evening classes, both within and without, for the working men and women in the district, and to extend their range. Not many years were to pass before there was hardly a suburb in Greater London without one or more Labour College classes at work in it. Nothing like this, needless to say, would have been possible had the College remained in Oxford." (23)

John Saville has argued that the Central Labour College provided the kind of socialist education that was not provided by Ruskin College and the Workers' Educational Association. "What we have in these years is both the attempt to channel working-class education into the safe and liberal outlets of the Workers' Educational Association and Ruskin College, and the development of working-class initiatives from below; and it is the latter only which made its contribution to the socialist movement - and a considerable contribution it was." (24)

Bernard Jennings agrees with Saville on this point and points out that Richard Tawney, A. D. Lindsay and Archbishop William Temple were all supporters of Ruskin College and the WEA over the Central Labour College: "There is no doubt that the establishment preferred the WEA and Ruskin to the Labour college movement, a fact exploited quite brazenly by the WEA in the 1920s. Temple, Tawney and A. D. Lindsay all warned the Board of Education and the LEAs that unless they supported the WEA and respected its academic freedom, workers' education would fall to the CLC." (25)

The Central Labour College was always short of money. The Plebs Magazine was used to raise funds. "Your cash will be used to good purpose - make no doubt of that. The CLC flag has been kept flying up to now by the pluck, devotion and enthusiasm of the garrison. Only those, perhaps, who - like the present writer - have had an occasional glimpse behind the scenes, know the extent of the devotion and that enthusiasm. What are you going to do about it?" (26)

Dennis Hird suffered for many years with thrombosis. He became very ill in 1913 and was confined to his bed for over a year. He returned to work in 1914 but in May 1915 he was forced back to his bed. William Craik and George Sims took over most of his details. However, Craik and Sims were conscripted into the British Army in 1917 and it was forced to close until the end of the First World War. (27)

William Craik visited Hird in 1919 and "despite the tediousness of his prolonged confinement in bed, he was cheerful and quite hopeful of being able to return to his post." Unfortunately he did not recover and died on 13th July 1920. Craik now replaced him as Principal of the Central Labour College. (28)

According to Stuart MaCintyre: "In their first year students studied economics, industrial history, the history of socialism, sociology, English and logic or the Science of Understanding. In the second year economics and philosophy were studied at a more advanced level, along with extra classes chosen from such subjects (offered by guest lecturers) as imperialism, economic geography, trade union law, literature, psychology, languages, etc." (29)

The Central Labour College educated several future trade union leaders and Labour Party MPs. This included Arthur J. Cook, Frank Hodges, William H. Mainwaring, Ellen Wilkinson, Lewis Jones, Ness Edwards, Idris Cox, Hubert Beaumont, William Coldrick, Jim Griffiths, Harold Heslop, Morgan Phillips, Joseph Sparks, Ivor Thomas, Edward Williams, Arthur Jenkins, Will Owen, William Paling, George Dagger and James Harrison.

Aneurin Bevan went to the CLC in 1919. Bevan spent two years studying economics, politics and history at the college. It was during this period that Bevan read the Communist Manifesto and was converted to the ideas of Karl Marx and Frederich Engels. (30) Bevan did not enjoy his time at college as he "was very much a loner, preferring to study on his own rather than attend classes he found dull". (31)

William Craik, the Principal of the Central Labour College, commented: "Aneurin Bevan... found it difficult to conform with some of the College rules, like the time to get out of bed in the morning and down to breakfast; but then he was always late in getting to bed! He took a delight in debating with other students, when he could, into the small hours of the morning, the merits of direct action and the demerits of parliamentary action... Unlike most of the other students he rarely wrote for Plebs... It was the spoken word, not the written word, for which he had an outstanding flair." (32)

In 1919 William H. Mainwaring became vice-principal of the Central Labour College. He also taught courses on advanced economics and imperialism. However, according to Mainwaring's biographer, Chris Williams, "he was not universally popular as a lecturer, being one target of the student strike of 1922–3". The following year he left the CLC and went to work for the Miners' Federation of Great Britain. (33)

National Council of Labour Colleges

Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) attempted to gain control of the Plebs League and the Central Labour College as it believed that "working class education can only achieve its object under the leadership of the Party", however, Craik insisted that "such education can best be provided by a specifically educational organisation, supported by all workers' industrial and political organisations and uncommitted to any sectional policy". (34)

The conservative press became concerned about how the Central Labour College taught economics. The Spectator complained that Working Men's Colleges such as the CLC were dangerous places: "The Colleges are not institutions for learning and research as such; they exist rather for the propagation of particular views. They teach Collectivism, and they turn out their pupils fully equipped apostles of that doctrine. They are seminaries rather than colleges.... The obvious source of instruction for the manual worker to turn to is the economic teaching approved of by the Trade Unions. Practically all this teaching comes from Socialists; ranging from State Socialists through Guild Socialists and Syndicalists to Marxians." (35)

The Central Labour College in London (1924)
The Central Labour College in London (1924)

In 1921 the Trade Union Congress established the National Council of Labour Colleges (NCLC) as a co-ordinating body for the movement of labour colleges. George Sims, who had been the main fund raiser for the Central Labour College, welcomed the move. He was unhappy that the National Union of Railwaymen and the National Union of Mineworkers had taken over the complete control of the CLC and feared that they might undermine academic freedom of the organisation. Sims therefore accepted the post of secretary of the NCLC. (36)

By 1929 the mining industry was in severe decline due to the Great Depression. In April a conference of the South Wales Miners' Federation voted to discontinue funding of the college. (37) Jimmy Thomas, the General Secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen, also withdrew his support of the CLC. By July it was clear that the college could not continue to operate, and it closed at the end of the month. (38)

The Trade Union Congress decided to concentrate its funding of the National Council of Labour Colleges. The education it provided through its evening classes and week-end summer schools was "cheaper and gets to a far larger number". It continued to send trade union activists to Ruskin College, but it was not dependent on TUC scholarships. (39)

Primary Sources

(1) W. H. Steed, The Burning Question of Education (1909)

The students were all standing and had formed a ring, in the centre of which Lord Curzon spoke. Mr. Hird also advanced to the centre and stood facing Lord Curzon while he replied. The contrast between the two men was very striking. The circumstances in which they met invested the event with a distinctly dramatic colour. Lord Curzon wearing his Doctor of Laws gown - not the glittering robes of the Chancellor's office, but robes of dark coloured cloth devoid of ornamentation, as if they represented the University in mourning for the condescension implied in his visit. Not so Lord Curzon himself, however. He stood in a position of ease, supporting himself by a stick, which he held behind him as a prop to the dignity of the upper part of his body. A trifling superiority in height, increased by the use of the stick, allowed him to look down somewhat on Mr. Hird. It was easy to see that this man had been a Viceroy of India. Autocratic disdain, and the suggestion of a power almost feudal in its character, seemed stamped on his countenance.

As the purport of Mr. Hird's reply reached his comprehension, Lord Curzon seemed to freeze into a statuesque embodiment of wounded dignity. For Mr. Hird was not uttering the usual compliments, but was actually rebuking the University for having neglected Ruskin College until the day of its assured prosperity. As he spoke, the students moved instinctively towards him as if mutely offering him support. Mr. Hird, who had begun with flushed cheeks and a slight tremor in his voice, now seemed inspired with an enthusiasm and dignity that only comes to a man who voices the highest aspirations of a great Movement.

In substance, he said: "My Lord, when you speak of Ruskin College you are not referring merely to this institution here in Oxford, for this is only a branch of a great democratic movement that has its roots all over the country. To ask Ruskin College to come into closer contact with the University is to ask the great democracy whose foundation is the Labour Movement, a democracy that in the near future will come into its own, and, when it does, will bring great changes in its wake".

As he concluded, the burst of applause that emanated from the students seemed to herald the dawn of the day Dennis Hird had predicted.

Without another word, Lord Curzon turned on his heel and walked out, followed by the remainder of the lecture staff, who looked far from pleased. When the report of the meeting was published in the press, the students noted that significantly enough Dennis Hird's reply was suppressed, and a few colourless remarks substituted. Very soon afterwards the Principal was made to feel that he had committed the unforgivable sin.

(2) The Daily News (3rd April, 1909)

We are far from wishing to take any side in the controversy, but the unanimity of the students in their support of Mr. Hird, the dismissed Principal, is a fact which cannot be ignored. It may be that the students are mistaken as to the reason for his dismissal, but there is no doubt of the genuine affection they have for their Principal and the reality of their conviction that his dismissal is associated with an organic change in regard to the College.... Ruskin College is an effort to permeate the working classes with ideals and culture, which, while elevating and benefiting the students, will not divorce them from their own atmosphere but will serve to make that atmosphere purer and better.

(3) The Spectator (22nd October, 1922)

The Working Men's Colleges, the winter classes and the summer schools, it is true, go in hot and strong for teaching. economics. But what do they teach? The Colleges are not institutions for learning and research as such; they exist rather for the propagation of particular views. They teach Collectivism, and they turn out their pupils fully equipped apostles of that doctrine. They are seminaries rather than colleges.

For our part, we think it absurd to blame the manual worker too much. He has never been given a chance. It is the exceptional man who goes to one of the Working Men's Colleges. In quiet and prosperous times the study of economies seemed to be useless. Things happened sufficiently well without the interference of the amateur inquirer. The ordinary man no more wanted to be an economist than he wanted to be an astronomer. He left it all to the professors. The trouble is now that we live in very disquieting and ruinous times and that every man is forced by his sufferings and anxieties to make inquiries as to why these things should be so. The obvious source of instruction for the manual worker to turn to is the economic teaching approved of by the Trade Unions. Practically all this teaching comes from Socialists; ranging from State Socialists through Guild Socialists and Syndicalists to Marxians.

The Marxian, with his denunciations of the "unholy trinity - rent, interest and profit," and his dream of the rule of the Proletariat," is proclaiming his apocalypse in ears made attentive by real hardships. The easy going rank-and-ffie of British Labour has so often acquiesced in the recital of the revolutionary Credo in its name that it is beginning to accept it as a commonplace, although it remains sceptical and apathetic as to the building of the New Jerusalem. "British workmen are not Socialists " is a familiar phrase. But those whom the workers pay to do their thinking for them in most cases are. Trade Unionists of the type of Thomas Burt no longer lead; Mr. Bowerman is to be placed on the shelf on the ground of age; Mr. Thomas, Mr. Clynes, Mr. Hodges - all those who count in the Labour. Movement of today, and who will he the Labour Ministers of tomorrow should Labour win a majority at the polls have pledged themselves to the principles of Collectivism. Discontent, ignorance, thoughtlessness, class consciousness may prevail, and the vote, given for the men rather than for the measures they advocate; place Socialism, passing under the colourless name of Labour, in power. If the defence is allowed to go by default, it is bound to be so, sooner or later.

We doubt whether the public at large in the least understands the pertinacity of the attack. which is being made on its existing order. Revolution to the .man in the street connotes hombs and bullets, and he sees little cause to fear an, outbreak. He is no doubt right. But there are other and surer means of bringing about revolution. To teach the citizens, present-and-future, to demand the overthrow of the Capitalist system is the avowed aim. There are agencies, such as the World Association for Adult Education and the Workers' Educational Association, which stand honourably aloof from these attempts, to poison the wells and devote themselves to the real work of assisting men and women to self-culture. But much remains to be done, especially in the direct teaching of economics.

The damage done to the country by industrial disputes, by slow and inefficient work grudgingly done, by unnecessary absenteeism, even by the psychological effects of discontent, could be enormously reduced if the employers on the one hand and the workers on the other could enter into each other's minds, realize exactly where the shoe pinches and sympathize with each other's difficulties and aspirations. Two things seem to be required: first; day-to-day information, accurate and unbiased, as to the conditions governing the state of trade and industry; and secondly - but ultimately the more important of the two - systematic instruction in the principles underlying all trade and industry, especially international trade.

References

(1) Bernard Jennings, Friends and Enemies of the WEA, included in Stephen K. Roberts, (editor), A Ministry of Enthusiasm (2003) page 102

(2) W. H. Steed (editor), The Burning Question of Education (1909) page 11

(3) William Craik, Central Labour College (1964) page 52

(4) Paul Davies, A. J. Cook (1987) page 11

(5) Kenneth O. Morgan, Labour People: Leaders and Lieutenants (1987) page 72

(6) William Craik, Central Labour College (1964) page 54

(7) Charles Stanley Buxton, Cornhill Magazine (August 1908)

(8) William Craik, Central Labour College (1964) page 57

(9) Karl Marx, Pre-Capitalist Relationships (1894)

(10) George Curzon, Principles and Methods of University Reform (1909) page 67

(11) Bernard Jennings, Friends and Enemies of the WEA, included in Stephen K. Roberts, (editor), A Ministry of Enthusiasm (2003) page 103

(12) William Craik, Central Labour College (1964) page 79

(13) The Daily News (31st March, 1909)

(14) The Daily News (2nd April, 1909)

(15) The Daily News (3rd April, 1909)

(16) Brian Simon, Education and the Labour Movement (1974) page 325

(17) Albert Mansbridge, letter to G. Riboud (April, 1909)

(18) William Craik, Central Labour College (1964) page 82

(19) George Sims, speech (2nd August, 1909)

(20) Noah Ablett, speech (2nd August, 1909)

(21) Kenneth O. Morgan, Labour People: Leaders and Lieutenants (1987) page 72

(22) The Plebs Magazine (January, 1910)

(23) William Craik, Central Labour College (1964) page 101

(24) John Saville, The Labour Movement in Britain (1988) page 32

(25) Bernard Jennings, Friends and Enemies of the WEA, included in Stephen K. Roberts, (editor), A Ministry of Enthusiasm (2003) page 105

(26) Frank Horrabin, The Plebs Magazine (February, 1915)

(27) Stuart MaCintyre, A Proletarian Science: Marxism in Britain 1917-1933 (1980) page 74

(28) William Craik, Central Labour College (1964) page 113

(29) Stuart MaCintyre, A Proletarian Science: Marxism in Britain 1917-1933 (1980) page 83

(30) Francis Beckett, Bevan (2004) page 5

(31) Jennie Lee, My Life with Nye (1980) page 111

(32) William Craik, Central Labour College (1964) page 124

(33) Chris Williams, William H. Mainwaring : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(34) Stuart MaCintyre, A Proletarian Science: Marxism in Britain 1917-1933 (1980) page 82

(35) The Spectator (22nd October, 1922)

(36) William Craik, Central Labour College (1964) page 133

(37) The Times (16th April, 1929)

(38) The Times (27th July, 1929)

(39) William Craik, Central Labour College (1964) page 153