Alfred Hacking

Alfred J. Hacking attended Exeter College. While he was at university he came under the influence of the ideas of William Morris. After graduated from Oxford University in 1881 he became involved in teaching. He was an excellent linguist with a knowledge of Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French and German. (1)

In February, 1899 Charles A. Beard and Walter Vrooman established Ruskin Hall (later known as Ruskin College), a free university offering evening and correspondence courses for working class people. The two men received most of the funds for the project from Amne Vrooman. (2)

Dennis Hird was appointed as the the college's first principal. Hird was a member of the Social Democratic Federation and the former rector of St John the Baptist Church, in Eastnor. Hacking, was placed in charge of the correspondence students and was also editor of Young Oxford. The other two members of staff were Hastings Lees-Smith, who also served as vice-principal and Bertram Wilson, who became general secretary of the college. (3)

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. (4)

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." (5)

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." (6)

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).
Photograph of the first students at Ruskin College (1899)

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. (7) Ablett was described as "a remarkable young man, a rebel of cosmopolitan, perhaps cosmic, importance" and "as an educator and ideologue, he was unique". (8)

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." (9)

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)

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. (17)

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." (18) 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." (19)

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

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). (20)

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. He was also in charge of the courses in the Correspondence Department. (21)

Alfred Hacking retired in 1921 and died the following year.

Primary Sources

(1) William Craik, Central Labour College (1964)

Among the earlier members of the staff still active during the first few of the post-war years was Alfred J. Hacking. A graduate of Exeter College, Oxford, in 1881, the college at which William Morris had graduated earlier, Alfred Hacking came under the influence of Morris's ideas and became a staunch socialist. When Ruskin College was founded he had on the recommendation of Dennis Hird been appointed on its staff. He was editor of Young Oxford from its appearance in 1899 until its early demise a few years later, due to causes already discussed on earlier pages of this book, and which ultimately were to bring aboutt his own disappearance from the Ruskin staff. When he retired from the staff of the Labour College in 1921, and died a year later, he left behind him a record of single-hearted loyalty and devotion to the causes in which he believed. A master of English and a linguist of no mean repute, knowing Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French and German, he served the students at the College as their teacher in English and its literature, and was held in high respect by them. He continued also to take charge of the courses in the Correspondence Department.

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)


(1) William Craik, Central Labour College (1964) page 119

(2) Howard Kennedy Beale, Charles A. Beard: An Appraisal (1954) page 214

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(21) William Craik, Central Labour College (1964) page 119