Adult Education and the Public Library
in 19th Century Wolverhampton

Adult Education in Wolverhampton before 1869 (part 1)


Prior to the advent of the Free Library classes the history of adult education in Wolverhampton is a chronicle of good intent and subsequent failure. A number of

educational bodies rose to prominence for a decade or so, only to flounder for a variety of reasons. However, adult education was considered important enough in nineteenth century Wolverhampton to warrant repeated efforts to bring about a stable and well organised institute of adult education. Despite all previous attempts, this longed-for ideal did not materialise until the Library started to provide adult evening classes in the autumn of 1873.

The Tradesmen's and Mechanics' Institute

The origins of adult education in the town can be traced back to the Wolverhampton Tradesmen's and Mechanics' Institute founded in 1827 [J. Jones "Historical Sketch of the Art and Literary Institutions of Wolverhampton, 1794-1897" pub 1897 p.35]. Based on George Birkbeck's Mechanics' Institute, which had been established in Glasgow in 1823 "to give working men cheap courses of lectures an science" [The Concise Dictionary of National Biography 1882 [1953 edit.] p.105T] the Wolverhampton "Institute" was first based in a private house in the town's King Street. Supported by local entrepreneurs and bankers [described by Fogarty as "thorough going Liberals"] , (N. Fogerty "An Analysis of the Reasons behind the Decline and Ultimate Collapse of the Wolverhampton Athenaeum and Mechanics’ Library ", West Midland Studies, IV, 1979, p. 35] the Institute had a strong Nonconformist element in its creation and organisation. This Liberal-Nonconformist involvement in adult education in Wolverhampton was the start of something of a tradition, for it was just such a group which struggled for, and finally established, the Free Library and its evening classes over four decades later.

John Roaf.

The chapel interest on the Management Committee of the Tradesmen's and Mechanics' Institute took the form of two Nonconformist ministers, Stephenson Hunter and John Roaf. The latter acted as the Institute's secretary and under his leadership and direction the organisation was well supported and prosperous enough by 1836 to purchase land and build premises in the central thoroughfare known as Queen's Street.

The building was financed by subscriptions amounting to £1,082, of which £760 was donated by the local gentry and capitalists [J. Jones op cit p.33]. The remaining £322 was acquired through the issue of one pound shares to the less affluent. By doing this the Institute could claim to have the support of a variety of social classes. A series of winter lectures was organised by Roaf's Committees and a small library, as well as a newspaper and periodicals reading room were opened at the new premises.

In spite of what appears to have been a very promising start, it is strange to relate that there was an almost immediate decline in interest in the Institute after the Queen Street building was opened. Jones [1897] states that the young male members of the Institute failed to attend any lectures after the first twelve months of their membership had elapsed. "The shopkeepers who had frequented the library had ceased to come" [Jones ibid p44, Fogarty (1979) notes that the reasons given at the time for the decline of the Institute include the belief that the science lectures were too academic for a poorly educated working-class clientele. Also, despite some financial backing from the less wealthy, the organisation failed because it lacked the widespread and vital support of the "trading and other classes of the town on which the success of an institution of that kind so largely depended" [Fogerty op cit p. 33].

Return to the
  Proceed to the
next page