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Adult Schools and Mutual Improvement Societies

Around 1800, ‘Adult Schools’ began to be initiated, usually by Methodists or Quakers.6 Established explicitly to teach illiterate adults to read the Bible, Adult Schools quickly diversified, offering, for example, tuition in grammar, geography and arithmetic. They also encouraged reading groups, debating and mutual aid activities.7 They became important hubs not only for the promotion of literacy, but also for learning how the teachings of the Bible and Christian fellowship might help solve society’s problems without the need for theological theorising, or, in the words of the schools’ motto, ‘Love, not dogmas; life, not creeds’.8 The People’s College, founded at Sheffield in 1842 by a Nonconformist minister, lasted for 30 years, and seems to have functioned along lines identical to those of the Adult Schools. Students arrived to study in an unplastered garret at 6 o’clock in the morning, before their working day commenced, and there studied Latin, Greek, Logic and Civil Knowledge.9

The tradition of the Adult School persisted. Mostly Quaker-led, they were in the vanguard of adult education in Britain, but their emphasis was not usually, as it seems to have been in Sheffield, on ancient Greek and Rome. Elizabeth Blackburn (b.1902), the daughter of weavers in the Ribble and Hodder Valleys, Lancashire, recalled how she and her friend Polly laughed when they overheard her mother speaking about ‘adult school’, since their assumption was that children went to school while adults went to work.10 But her mother was ‘a great buyer of second-hand books’ and a daily reader of the newspaper.11 When the WEA started to run classes in her town, she signed up immediately. As Elizabeth recalls: ‘For a long time I imagined that there was magic in the letters WEA because in the words of my mother “they opened the door of a wider world’”.12 Blackburn’s mother’s attendance at both Quaker Adult School and WEA classes shows how confused attitudes to working-class educational establishments could be. While each different institution staked out a claim to a certain educational approach, denominational affiliation, or political allegiance, adult learners accepted whatever provision was on offer at a convenient time and place. This suggests their indifference to the factional allegiances that often colour historical studies of adult education.13

Informal reading and study groups with wider intellectual interests sprang up in workers’ homes, places of work, or public houses, as did more formal groups, which were frequently held in Nonconformist chapels or meeting houses. Mutual Improvement Societies, sometimes tiny and financially precarious, were usually founded by Owenites (followers of Robert Owen (1771-1858), founder of the early British Co-operative Movement14), Chartists and other politically radical groups. Handloom weavers, who organised early and embraced Co-operative ideals, dominate the early history of mutual instruction.15 Workers met to teach and learn from one another, but also to address the social problems affecting their community,16 to organise themselves unofficially, ‘to combat the evils of the Industrial Revolution’.17 In 1847, Samuel Smiles, the author of Self-Help (1859), claimed that there was scarcely a town or village in the West Riding of Yorkshire without one or more Mutual Improvement Societies.18 Material evidence is so scarce that we cannot easily discover what these numerous workers were teaching each other, but the centrality of Classics in Victorian education and culture suggests that translated Classics must have featured in the classes of Mutual Improvement groups.

In the early 1860s, Joseph Malaby Dent, the publisher of the influential Everyman’s Library discussed in Chapter 3, attended chapel meetings in his free time as a printer’s apprentice. He

became interested in what was then called a Mutual Improvement Society, where I found the members studied a book one week and in the alternate week listened to and criticised a paper prepared by one of them.19

Dent himself studied for an essay on Samuel Johnson. After finishing Boswell’s Life, he ‘got up from the book feeling there was nothing worth living for so much as literature’. ‘To write a book’, it seemed to him, was ‘the only way to gain Olympus, and I am very much of the same opinion to-day, but it must be literature’.2" Those early literary encounters formed the mind of the man who went on to publish classical authors accessibly alongside other more modern classics from other regions of the world:

I have ranged extensively over the field of English literature, and enjoyed many Russian novels in translation and read much of the Greek and Roman classics, also of course in translation; especially of late years have I read Plato, much to my profit, particularly the Socratian dialogues.21

As a boy, Philip Inman (1892-1979), who ran errands for a boot-seller and lived with his impoverished and widowed mother, could not afford the annual admission fee to the Technical College in his native town of Knaresborough, Yorkshire. His luck changed, however, when he became apprenticed to a chemist at Taylor’s Drug Store, where the owner took an interest in his studies, securing for him private tuition to help prepare him for exams. The tutor was one Professor Daniels, who taught him Latin, French and English. 'From then on every penny I could spare’, recalled Inman, ‘was spent on the cheap reprints of the classics then available’.22

The local Mutual Improvement Society ‘opened out new interests and wider horizons’ for Inman.23 It was partially financed by the local Nonconformist church, in this instance Methodist. Inman recalls that the group met ‘on Monday evening for lectures, debates and discussions on questions of a social or political, as well as of a religious character’.24 He saw the Mutual Improvement Society as ‘a great educator’, where ‘We learned to think on our feet, to express ourselves publicly and with tolerable coherence. We also learned that there is usually more than one side to every question’.25 One of the reprints of the Classics Inman read must have contained Plato’s Apology, because, at the brink of death from tuberculosis, he recalled the words of Plato’s Socrates: ‘To meet Orpheus and Homer, Musaeus and Hesiod’, said Socrates, ‘what would you give for that? I would give a hundred deaths if it is true’.26 Baron Inman recovered and went on to excel as manager of numerous charitable organisations, as MP in Clement Attlee’s government and as Chairman of the Board of Governors at the BBC, but never forgot that he was ‘still the same errand-boy who used to drag round a bag of cobbler’s repairs to the back doors of customers’ houses’.27

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