Workers' Educational Association: 1903-1927

In 1902 Albert Mansbridge published the article, Co-operation, Trade Unionism and University Extension. He argued that he was concerned about the "lack of thinking power in the rank and file" of the labour movement. Mansbridge went on to say that higher education for future working-class leaders would result in "right and sound action" in public affairs. (1)

At that time most trade unions were debarred by their own rules from spending money on education. Mansbridge therefore decided to take responsibility for this idea by forming the Association to Promote the Higher Education of Working Men. The group was joined by trade unionists and co-operators and Mansbridge held its inaugural conference in Oxford on 22nd August 1903. (2)

Robert Halstead, a fustian weaver from Hebden Bridge, was the keynote speaker at the conference suggested that "working-class organisations framed for other purposes are now so large, and their officials so pre-occupied, that the higher education of their members inevitably finds a secondary place in their attention... if the higher education of working men is to make desired progress, it will have to consolidate itself into a special movement... and appoint a properly equipped staff to carry out its purpose." (3)

However, it was Mansbridge's speech that had the most impact on the meeting. As his biographer, Bernard Jennings, has pointed out: "He demonstrated for the first time what became a remarkable ability to select the arguments best calculated to sway his readers or hearers. He coupled a warning about the social dangers of ignorance in trade unions and other workers' organizations with a declaration of the infallibility of the truly educated mind which university men found convincing. He showed also the quality which turns ideas into movements." (4)

Workers' Educational Association

Mansbridge was appointed as secretary of the organisation that after October 1905 was known as the Workers' Educational Association (WEA). The main reason for this because some women claimed that the original name of the organization was sexist. By June 1906 the WEA had 47 branches. The autonomy of these branches was reflected in the wide variety of activities which they promoted. This included lectures and classes in the arts and social sciences, reading groups and nature-study rambles. (5)

The Conservative Party government, under the leadership of Arthur Balfour, gave its full support to this new organisation. Winston Churchill was especially pleased with this new development. He wrote that he was "in full... agreement with the objects of the association" and "it ought to be perfectly possible in this country for a man of high, if not necessarily and extraordinary, intellectual capacity to obtain with industry and perseverance the best education in the world, irrespective of his standing in life." (6)

A conference organized by the WEA was held in Oxford on 10th August 1907. It soon became clear that the delegates had different opinions about the direction of the WEA. Robert Morant, permanent secretary to the Board of Education, argued that it would be possible to obtain financial support if the type of education provided was acceptable to the government: "In particular we believe that it is to small classes and solid earnest work that we can give increasingly of the golden stream." (7)

However, John Mactavish, a Portsmouth shipwright and a Labour Party activist, took a more militant view. He wanted a socialist rather than a liberal education. "I claim for my class all the best that Oxford has to give. I claim it as a right, wrongfully withheld". Mactavish believed that the WEA should train "missionaries... for the great task of lifting their class." For this purpose they needed new interpretations of history and economics. "You cannot expect the people to enthuse over a science which promises no more than a life of precarious toil." (8)

Philip Snowden agreed with Mactavish: "I would rather have better education given to the masses of the working classes than the best for a few. O God, make no more saints; elevate the race." (9) A WEA report published the following year made a similar point: "In obtaining a university education... it must not be necessary for working people to leave the class in which they were born... What they desire is not that men should escape from their class, but that they should remain in it and raise its whole level." (10)

Helped by Charles Gore, the bishop of Worcester, Albert Mansbridge formed an alliance with a group of young academics from the University of Oxford, including Richard H. Tawney, William Temple, and Alfred Eckhard Zimmern, who wanted to reform their university by making it more open to working-class men. In August 1907 a committee of fourteen men, half nominated by the university and half by the WEA, was appointed to devise a new strategy for workers' education. The report, published in November 1908 was ratified by the university and the WEA. It was decided that tutorial classes over a period of three years (seventy-two meetings), with not more than thirty students, were to be provided at a low fee. It was hoped that promising worker-students would proceed from the classes to full-time study at the university. (11)

Albert Mansbridge and Dennis Hird

The University of Oxford was also the home of Ruskin College, another experiment in working-class education. The college was established in 1899 by two Americans, Charles A. Beard and Walter Vrooman, Both men, who were Christian Socialists, "undeniably held unorthodox views on class and gender politics" and decided that they wanted to do something about improving working-class education. (12)

Dennis Hird was appointed as the the college's first principal. Hird was a member of the left-wing Social Democratic Federation and the former rector of St John the Baptist Church, in Eastnor, who had been sacked for a lecture he gave on the subject, Jesus the Socialist (it was later published as a pamphlet that sold 70,000 copies). (13)

In addition to Hird, three other lecturers were appointed by Vrooman. Hastings Lees-Smith, who also served as vice-principal, Bertram Wilson, who became general secretary of the college, and Alfred Hacking, a friend and supporter of Hird, who was placed in charge of the correspondence students. Almost all of the students arrived on trade union scholarships worth £52. (14)

Hastings Lees-Smith disagreed with the politics of Hird. He was educated for an army career, first at the Aldenham School and then at the Royal Military Academy, but as a result of "a weak constitution" he left to join Queen's College. In 1899 he graduated with second-class honours in history. A member of the Liberal Party he taught economics and as he was a supporter of the free-market he upset the socialist students at Ruskin. (15)

Hastings Lees-Smith complained about the teaching of sociology as it tended to radicalize the students. Dennis Hird replied with a quote the objectives of Walter Vrooman, the founder of Ruskin College: "We shall take men who have been merely condemning our social institutions, and will teach them instead how to transform those institutions, so that in place of talking against the world, they will begin methodically and scientifically to possess the world, to refashion it, and to cooperate with the power behind evolution in making it a joyous abode of, if not a perfected humanity, at least a humanity earnestly and rationally striving towards perfection". (16)

The students became increasingly disturbed by the economic teaching of Hastings Lees-Smith. At the time the Miners' Federation of Great Britain were attempting to negotiate with the Coal Owners Association a minimum wage for its members. Lees-Smith used his lectures to condemn this strategy on the grounds that it would cause unemployment and reduce investment. Sidney Webb, the Labour Party politician, who advocated the minimum wage, was accused of telling "a tissue of lies". (17)

In November 1908, the University of Oxford announced that it was going to take over Ruskin College. The chancellor of the university, George Curzon, was the former Conservative Party MP and 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. (18)

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." (19)

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. (20)

It is believed that 20 students were members of the Plebs League. Its leader, Noah Ablett organised a students' strike in support of Hird. (21) 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 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. (22)

Dennis Hird received very little support from other advocates of working-class education. Albert Mansbridge supported the more moderate policies of Hastfings Lees-Smith in the struggle at Ruskin College and he 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." (23)

In an attempt to control higher education for the working class, the leaders of the radical students, Noah Ablett, George Sims and William Craik, established the Central Labour College (CLC). Dennis Hird agreed to act as Principal and to lecture on sociology and other subjects, without any salary. 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). (24)

The WEA and the Labour Movement

The Workers' Educational Association (WEA) with the help of government grants, grew very fast over the next few years. Albert Mansbridge put in an enormous personal effort. He told his friend, Alfred Eckhard Zimmern: "Today I am on my way back from a periodical rush. I have visited Nelson, Colne, Burnley, Manchester, Liverpool, Bolton, Preston, Halifax, Sheffield, Accrington, given 4 lantern lectures, interviewed 2 universities, met 5 tutorial class teachers, seen one class, attended one social, one WEA council meeting, helped to start one branch... I really am most atrociously tired." (25)

W. H. Hosford worked closely with the general secretary of the WEA: "Mansbridge was then 33 years old and at the height of his powers, tall, good-looking, full of vitality. The West Country burr in his voice... was undoubtedly an asset. His personality was remarkable, it seemed to fill the office and his entry was like a battery being recharged. The effect he had on people was indeed striking; I have seen visitors leave his room with heads up, eyes shining, stepping as it they were walking on air... it was a phenomenon that had to be seen to be believed. His energy was amazing; he was constantly dashing about the country, starting new centres, converting the doubters, inspiring the faithful, stimulating the beginning-to-get-tireds into fresh activities. Mrs Mansbridge always kept his bag packed with duplicate night things, shaving kit and the like, so he had only to grab his case and rush off, knowing that everything needed would be there. All this expenditure of energy seemed to spring from an inner compulsion that would not let him rest." (26)

Bernard Jennings claims that Mansbridge continued to argue for radical educational policies: "He demanded secondary education for all, with maintenance allowances for needy families; a school-leaving age of sixteen; access to universities for all who could benefit; a national system of creches; and even paid holidays for all workers, so that they would be refreshed to enjoy opportunities for learning... To most of the people who met him, Mansbridge's educational radicalism and burning zeal gave the lie to the accusation that his purpose was to draw the teeth of the workers and preserve the existing structure of class privilege." (27)

Albert Mansbridge (right) making a speech in 1913
Albert Mansbridge (right) making a speech in 1913

Albert Mansbridge criticised the Church for their lack of interest in their welfare: "Many working men and women are bitter because the Church has acquiesced in the existing economic order, the materialisation of our mental condition which spoils their lives, damages their children, throws up slums, produces starvation at one end of the scale and gross luxury at the other, and hating, as they must hate, the existing state of affairs, they hate the Church and reject the gospel of our Lord." (28)

The WEA continued to grow at a fast pace. By 1914 there were 145 tutorial classes, with 3,234 students. It also had 179 branches, over 2,500 affiliated societies and nearly 11,500 individual members. Mansbridge was disappointed that the WEA was not always popular with the labour movement. The trade unions amounted for 953 affiliations in 1914, but that was only a small proportion of the possible number. The 388 Co-operative affiliations represented a much larger number of people. The third main element consisted of religious groups attached to churches and chapels. (29)

John Mactavish

In June 1914 Albert Mansbridge developed cerebrospinal meningitis. He came close to death and felt he had to reduce his work load. He resigned as general secretary of the WEA in September 1915 and replaced by John Mactavish. It was a controversial decision. W. H. Hosford pointed out that the WEA wanted to be regarded as the "educational wing of the labour movement". (30)

The main reason that Mactavish was chosen was his links with the trade unions. John Saville has argued that the Central Labour College provided the kind of socialist education that was not encouraged by the WEA and Ruskin College. "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." (31)

John Mactavish was fairly successful in dealing with this problem: "WEA leaders felt that in building bridges between the workers and the universities they had leaned too far toward the latter, and they hoped that Mactavish would use his personal contacts to strengthen their ties with organized labour. In fact he helped to create, in 1919, the Workers' Educational Trade Union Committee (WETUC), through which the WEA provided educational services to the labour movement, and he eventually secured the affiliation of several important unions." (32)

Albert Mansbridge
Albert Mansbridge

The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) attempted to gain control of the Central Labour College (CLC) as it believed that "working class education can only achieve its object under the leadership of the Party". However, William Craik, the principal of the college, 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". (33)

The conservative press became concerned about how the CLC taught economics. The Spectator complained that Working Men's Colleges 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." (34)

Mactavish, Socialism and the WEA

John Mactavish refused to accept this view and although he was never a follower of Karl Marx, he believed that Marxism, deserved a place (along with other perspectives) in WEA curricula where it could be openly criticised. As he put it, he wanted "to save the memory of Marx from those who make of him a God, and those who make of him a Devil or a trivial fellow, by giving him a niche in the gallery of great thinkers to which he is entitled". (35)

In 1918 he upset the government led by David Lloyd George when he opposed the Education Act introduced by Herbert Fisher. The act made attendance at school compulsory for children up to the age of 14. Other features of the legalization included the provision of ancillary services (medical inspection, nursery schools, centres for pupils with special needs, etc.). However, Mactavish believed the legislation should have gone much further. (36)

Several times Mactavish was "slapped on the wrists" for what was viewed by some within the WEA as "his too pro-Labour commitment". (37) W. H. Hosford remembers Mactavish ending meetings with the singing of the Red Flag. (38). His biographer, Jonathan Rose, has argued that "Mactavish had shortcomings that should have been foreseen at the time of his appointment". He began drinking too much, and in 1927 he was compelled to retire. (39)

Primary Sources

(1) Bernard Jennings, Albert Mansbridge: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

In 1903 Mansbridge turned again to the issue of workers' education, and in a series of three articles in the University Extension Journal, supported by one from Robert Halstead, a leading co-operative educationist, proposed the formation of an association to bring together working-class organizations with an educational role and create a new partnership with university extension. He demonstrated for the first time what became a remarkable ability to select the arguments best calculated to sway his readers or hearers. He coupled a warning about the social dangers of ignorance in trade unions and other workers' organizations with a declaration of the infallibility of the truly educated mind which university men found convincing. He showed also the quality which turns ideas into movements. Faced with estimates of substantial sums needed to launch the new body, he and his wife formed the Association to Promote the Higher Education of Working Men in their kitchen, financed by 2s. 6d. from Frances's purse. A ‘provisional committee’ (a stage army of Mansbridge's friends) planned the conference at Oxford, in August 1903, at which the association was formally constituted, with the blessing of leading co-operators, university extensionists, and churchmen. Mansbridge became honorary secretary.

(2) Jonathan Rose, John McKenzie Mactavish: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

On 10 August 1907 Mactavish attended an important conference of the Workers' Educational Association (WEA) at Oxford, where representatives of the university and the working classes met to forge a co-operative plan for continuing education. The two sides failed to come together until Mactavish delivered an electrifying speech: ‘I claim for my class all the best that Oxford has to give’ (Mooney, 14). According to Albert Mansbridge, first general secretary of the WEA, that declaration moved the conference to create a joint university–WEA committee that included Mactavish. The committee's report, Oxford and Working-Class Education (1908), proposed the creation of what became the WEA's distinctive pedagogical vehicle: tutorial classes where university-based tutors brought higher education to working-class communities.

(3) Bernard Jennings, A Ministry of Enthusiasm (2003)

In speeches and articles Mansbridge called for "one system of schools unified upon a great highway in which there were no class distinctions whatever'". He demanded secondary education for all, with maintenance allowances for needy families; a school-leaving age of sixteen; access to universities for all who could benefit; a national system of creches; and even paid holidays for all workers, so that they would be refreshed to enjoy opportunities for learning...

Mansbridge argued that his demands were not partisan, as no civilised person, of whatever political persuasion, could actually oppose the universal spread of the benefits of education. This was not, and is not, true, but radical educational policies offered a safety valve for pressures in the WEA to breach the "non-party" rule. To most of the people who met him, Mansbridge's educational radicalism and burning zeal gave the lie to the accusation that his purpose was to draw the teeth of the workers and preserve the existing structure of class privilege.

(4) Albert Mansbridge, The Education of the People (1912)

Many working men and women are bitter because the Church has acquiesced in the existing economic order, the materialisation of our mental condition which spoils their lives, damages their children, throws up slums, produces starvation at one end of the scale and gross luxury at the other, and hating, as they must hate, the existing state of affairs, they hate the Church and reject the gospel of our Lord.

(5) W. H. Hosford, quoted in A Ministry of Enthusiasm (2003)

Mansbridge was then 33 years old and at the height of his powers, tall, good-looking, full of vitality. The West Country burr in his voice... was undoubtedly an asset. His personality was remarkable, it seemed to fill the office and his entry was like a battery being recharged. The effect he had on people was indeed striking; I have seen visitors leave his room with heads up, eyes shining, stepping as it they were walking on air, absolutely exalted. I am sorry if this sounds like a rhetorical exaggeration, but "exalted" really is the word; it was a phenomenon that had to be seen to be believed. His energy was amazing; he was constantly dashing about the country, starting new centres, converting the doubters, inspiring the faithful, stimulating the beginning-to-get-tireds into fresh activities. Mrs Mansbridge always kept his bag packed with duplicate night things, shaving kit and the like, so he had only to grab his case and rush off, knowing that everything needed would be there. All this expenditure of energy seemed to spring from an inner compulsion that would not let him rest. One might sometimes wonder if all these journeys were really necessary, but Mansbridge relied to a great extent on his personality to achieve his results, and where personal contacts were possible he was nearly always successful. He was a very good speaker - considerable natural eloquence charged with passionate and obvious sincerity. Other qualities that impressed me were his kindliness, his cheerfulness and self-confidence. There must have been many times when the financial position of the Association gave rise to considerable anxiety, but his worries were never noticeable to the ordinary members of the staff, and I have never known anyone who had fewer hesitations or doubts about matters of policy - his policy was the right one, and it was achieving results.

 

Student Activities

The Coal Industry: 1600-1925 (Answer Commentary)

Women in the Coalmines (Answer Commentary)

Child Labour in the Collieries (Answer Commentary)

Child Labour Simulation (Teacher Notes)

1832 Reform Act and the House of Lords (Answer Commentary)

The Chartists (Answer Commentary)

Women and the Chartist Movement (Answer Commentary)

Benjamin Disraeli and the 1867 Reform Act (Answer Commentary)

William Gladstone and the 1884 Reform Act (Answer Commentary)

Richard Arkwright and the Factory System (Answer Commentary)

Robert Owen and New Lanark (Answer Commentary)

James Watt and Steam Power (Answer Commentary)

Road Transport and the Industrial Revolution (Answer Commentary)

Canal Mania (Answer Commentary)

Early Development of the Railways (Answer Commentary)

The Domestic System (Answer Commentary)

The Luddites: 1775-1825 (Answer Commentary)

The Plight of the Handloom Weavers (Answer Commentary)

Health Problems in Industrial Towns (Answer Commentary)

Public Health Reform in the 19th century (Answer Commentary)

Walter Tull: Britain's First Black Officer (Answer Commentary)

Football and the First World War (Answer Commentary)

Football on the Western Front (Answer Commentary)

Käthe Kollwitz: German Artist in the First World War (Answer Commentary)

American Artists and the First World War (Answer Commentary)

Sinking of the Lusitania (Answer Commentary)

References

(1) Albert Mansbridge, Co-operation, Trade Unionism and University Extension (January, 1903)

(2) Bernard Jennings, The Foundation and Founder , included in Stephen K. Roberts, (editor), A Ministry of Enthusiasm (2003) page 15

(3) Robert Halstead, speech (22nd August, 1903)

(4) Bernard Jennings, Albert Mansbridge: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(5) Bernard Jennings, The Foundation and Founder , included in Stephen K. Roberts, (editor), A Ministry of Enthusiasm (2003) page 16

(6) Winston Churchill, Co-operative News (15th October, 1904)

(7) Robert Morant, speech at WEA conference (10th August, 1907)

(8) J. M. Mactavish, speech at WEA conference (10th August, 1907)

(9) Philip Snowden, speech at WEA conference (10th August, 1907)

(10) Oxford and Working-Class Education: The Report of a Joint Committee of University and Working-Class Representatives on the Relation of the University in the Higher Education of Workpeople (1908) page 49

(11) Bernard Jennings, Albert Mansbridge: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(12) Geoff Andrews and Hilda Kean, Ruskin College: Contesting Knowledge, Dissenting Politics (1999) page 19

(13) Colin Waugh, The Lost Legacy of Independent Working-Class Education (January 2009)

(14) William Craik, Central Labour College (1964) page 37

(15) Andrew Thorpe, Hastings Lees-Smith : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(16) Colin Waugh, The Lost Legacy of Independent Working-Class Education (January 2009)

(17) William Craik, Central Labour College (1964) page 44

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

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

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

(21) Hywel Francis, Noah Ablett : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

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

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

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

(25) Albert Mansbridge, letter to Alfred Eckhard Zimmern (December, 1909)

(26) W. H. Hosford, quoted in A Ministry of Enthusiasm (2003) page 293

(27) Bernard Jennings, The Foundation and Founder, included in Stephen K. Roberts, (editor), A Ministry of Enthusiasm (2003) pages 20-21

(28) Albert Mansbridge, The Education of the People (1912)

(29) Bernard Jennings, The Foundation and Founder, included in Stephen K. Roberts, (editor), A Ministry of Enthusiasm (2003) pages 20-21

(30) W. H. Hosford, quoted in A Ministry of Enthusiasm (2003) page 293

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

(32) Jonathan Rose, John McKenzie Mactavish: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

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

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

(35) Ted Mooney, J. T. Mactavish (1979) page 1

(36) Jonathan Rose, John McKenzie Mactavish: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(37) Minutes of the Executive Committee of the Workers' Educational Association (28th April, 1922 and 27th May, 1922)

(38) W. H. Hosford, quoted in A Ministry of Enthusiasm (2003) page 293

(39) Jonathan Rose, John McKenzie Mactavish: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)