John McKenzie Mactavish

John McKenzie Mactavish, the son of Alexander Mactavish, a carpenter, and his wife, Euphemia McKenzie Mactavish, was born in the Scottish fishing village of Tarbert, on 18th July 1871. He received very little formal schooling and was largely self-educated and was described as an "articulate atheist". Having finished his apprenticeship as a shipwright in 1892, he worked on the Clyde, the Tyne and the Mersey. After his marriage to Emma Cartwright in Liverpool in 1906 he moved to Portsmouth, where he worked in the dockyards. (1)

Mactavish was a active member of the Independent Labour Party and the trade union, the Shipwrights' Association. He took a keen interest in working-class education and became a member of the Workers' Educational Association (WEA), established by Albert Mansbridge. 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. (2)

John Mactavish and the WEA

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." (3)

John Mactavish took a more militant view than Morant. He wanted a socialist rather than a liberal education for the working-class and made a "electrifying speech" (4). "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." (5)

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." (6) 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." (7)

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. (8)

John McKenzie Mactavish was also involved in politics and was an active member of the Labour Party. In 1908 he became the first Labour member of Portsmouth City Council. As a councillor he spoke out on unemployment, municipal housing, council workers' wages, sewers, and public works - but, surprisingly he said little about education during this period. (9) However, at a speech he made at Balliol College on 26th January, 1908, he argued: "What the working classes need, is that raising not of individuals, but of the average level; and they look to Oxford, first, to make the highway and get it used; then to train the sons of the people, aye, and their daughters too." (10)

WEA class in Rochdale in 1909. Richard H. Tawney is seated, centre, front.
WEA class in Rochdale in 1909. Richard H. Tawney is seated, centre, front.

The WEA, with the help of government grants, grew very fast over the next few years. 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. (11)

General Secretary of the WEA

Mactavish was strongly opposed to British involvement in the First World War. This made him unpopular with the people of Portsmouth and he lost his seat on the council. However, Albert Mansbridge, the general secretary of the Workers' Educational Association developed cerebrospinal meningitis and in September 1915 he resigned and and was replaced by Mactavish. (12) 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". (13)

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." (14)

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." (15)

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". (16)

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." (17)

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". (18)

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. (19)

Several times Mactavish was "slapped on the wrists" for what was viewed by some within the WEA as "his too pro-Labour commitment". (20) W. H. Hosford remembers Mactavish ending meetings with the singing of the Red Flag. (21). 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. (22)

John McKenzie Mactavish died of a stroke on 11th July 1938.

Primary Sources

(1) 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.

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

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

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

(4) Ted Mooney, J. T. Mactavish (1979) page 14

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

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

(7) 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

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

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

(10) J. M. Mactavish, speech at Balliol College (26th January, 1908)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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