Noah Ablett, a member of the South Wales Miners' Federation, began a course at Ruskin College in 1907. He was completely self-educated and after reading the works of Karl Marx, Daniel De Leon and Tom Mann, he was a committed socialist. According to his biographer, Hywel Francis, "he quickly made his mark on educational thinking at Ruskin, and organized classes in Marxian economics and history as an alternative to the traditional liberal curriculum". (1)
Bernard Jennings argues that Ablett had a considerable influence over the students at Ruskin: "Tensions began to build as increasing numbers of students became ardent socialists. They enjoyed Hird's lectures on sociology, a major element of which was the study of evolution, on which he had written a popular book. They disliked Lees Smith's lectures on economics, although acknowledging his ability as a teacher, because his adherence to current free-market theories was just as dogmatic as that of the left-wing students to Marxism." (2)
Dennis Hird, the principal, was a Christian Socialist, and was well-liked by left-wing students such as Ablett. However, Hastings Lees-Smith taught economics and as he was a supporter of the free-market he upset the socialist students. After being appointed chairman of the executive committee, Lees-Smith attempted to remove sociology and evolution from the curriculum. However, Hird, had enough support to block the move. (3)
Noah Ablett rebelled against these developments and 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)
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. (6)
It is believed that 20 students were members of the Plebs League. Its leader, Noah Ablett organised a students' strike in support of Hird. (7) 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. (8)
Noah Ablett now advocated the establishment of 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. The Central Labour College (CLC) was established later that year, with Hird as its unpaid principal. It was financially supported by the South Wales Miners' Federation (SWMF) and the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR). (9)
The Plebs League continued as an independent organisation for the next twenty years. It also published the Plebs' Magazine. The editor, George Sims, a carpenter from Bermondsey, argued: "If the education of the workers is to square with the ultimate object of the workers - social emancipation, then it is necessary that the control of such an educational institution must be in the hands of the workers". (10) The journal helped the organisation to "spread its radical interpretation of economics and sociology among local communities" and "to engage the excluded in politics through education and organisation". (11)
As chairman of the south Wales branch of the Plebs' League, established in January 1909, Ablett was influential (along with another ex-student, Ted Gill) in promoting the idea within the SWMF of an alternative to Ruskin. He saw the need for a residential college as a cadre training school for the labour movement. The Central Labour College (CLC) was established later that year, following the principles of IWCE and on a Marxian basis. Ablett was a member of its provisional committee representing the Plebs' League from 1909 to 1911, and the college's early survival was probably due in large part to his dedication. He served on the board of management representing the Rhondda no. 1 district from 1911 to 1915, subsequently representing the SWMF, which with the National Union of Railwaymen took over responsibility for the college. He was chair of the board of governors and was its strongest advocate. His book An Easy Outline of Economics, published by the Plebs' League, became a basic text for understanding Marxist economics, and was very popular in the labour movement.
Noah Ablett now set up Marxist tutorial classes in the central valleys of the Welsh coalfield, the Rhondda and Cynon Valley in particular, using the chapel Sunday schools he had known in his childhood as something of a model. His Plebs League, founded in January 1909, led to the eventual creation of the Central Labour College, a militant and class-conscious organization which led to a fierce revolt amongst working-class students in Oxford against the quietism of Ruskin College.
There's nothing wrong with being called a pleb unless it's a patrician from the other side of the classical class barrier doing the calling. A century ago, the word was eagerly adopted by trade union rebels at Ruskin College, keen to learn Marxism rather than what they dismissed as the bourgeois economics of gradualism. The Plebs League grew out of the demand for an independent working class education that was taken from Ruskin first to the Rhondda coalfield by Noah Ablett, which might be why current local MP Owen Smith, the shadow Welsh secretary, suggested at the Labour conference that it was time it should be revived. Smart idea. From Rhondda, the Plebs League spread its radical interpretation of economics and sociology among local communities, and with its Labour colleges offered the kind of campaigning and organisational expertise that was needed to make change happen. Labour colleges, absorbed by the party after the 1926 general strike, became the kindergarten for several of Attlee's cabinet ministers and much of the party bureaucracy. The teachings might be out of date but the way of working isn't. The original league wanted to engage the excluded in politics through education and organisation. A hundred years on, as turnout at elections falls, and falls fastest among the working class, while disenchantment with politicians reaches new heights, that sounds like a worthy ambition.