Adult Education and the Public Library
in 19th Century Wolverhampton

Adult Education in Wolverhampton before 1869 (Part 2)

The Athenaeum and Mechanics' Library

By late 1845 the Institute had virtually ceased to function. Only the librarian remained on the premises, letting out the rooms to anyone who would hire them. In the autumn of 1846 there was a move to revitalise the Institute which was organised by a group of local shopkeepers and clerks. At a meeting held at the Star and Garter Hotel on 22 January 1847 it was decided to form a "Society for the diffusion of useful knowledge amongst the members by the delivery of lectures, circulation of books, public discussions, etc." [Wolverhampton Chronicle 24th January 1897]. Adopting the title, "The Wolverhampton Athenaeum and Mechanics' Library", this new body utilised the Queen Street premises of the failed Tradesmen's and Mechanics' Institute. The Athenaeum, like its forerunner, enjoyed initial popular success. In winter months the Athenaeum put on a series of lectures, in which emphasis was laid on scientific subjects.

The Tradesmen's and Mechanic's Institute, Queen Street, later known as the Athenaeum and Mechanics' Library. In the course of time the Athenaeum, like the Mechanics' Institute before it, started to lose its popular appeal. From 1856 a decline in student numbers and sponsorship becomes discernible from the Athenaeum's records.

The same reasons were given for the decline of the Athenaeum as had been proffered for the failure of the Mechanics' Institute, including a student body too ignorant to appreciate the lectures that had been put on. Fogarty [1979] agrees with this reason, but also notes that the Athenaeum lacked a major private sponsor, whilst a fall in the relative cost of newspapers during the 1850s had meant that the Athenaeum and its newsroom had become less of an attraction to the townspeople than they had originally been. [Fogerty op cit p.34].

It is also important to note that, during this period, rival organisations concerned with adult education were established in Wolverhampton. These included the Working Men's College in 1857 and the School of Art in 1851.

There are other reasons why the Athenaeum failed, which can only be identified with the benefit of hindsight, as it is unlikely that those involved at the time would have admitted to them. For example, Fogarty [1979] suggests that some of the instruction offered by the Athenaeum was "lofty in content, with a high element of moral idealism". [ibid] This did not endear the institution to the working class of the town. Such paternalism is evident from the fact that fifty per cent of the Athenaeum's lecturers were clergymen, and that moral censorship was applied to the selection and purchase of books for the library. Volumes would only be acquired if the Management Committee felt that they would give "stimulus to rich thought and action" [ibid]. This led to a slow "turnover" in the circulation of library books and reduced popular interest in the library.

Generally, it seems that there was little to stimulate the keen adult learner in the Athenaeum's classes. Fogarty [1979] says that, apart from the above, the subject matter of the lectures had to be uncontroversial by order of the Management Committee, and this tended to make the content of the lectures rather bland and boring. Alfred Pratt, one of the founders of the Wolverhampton Free Library, commented that the classes at the Athenaeum had no recreational appeal for the working class of the town, and consequently the institution became very straight-laced and staid. In its lectures, Pratt said, the Athenaeum had "nothing that satisfied the longing of social feeling" [A.C.Pratt cited in Fogerty op cit p36] for its members.

All these factors led to an increasing remoteness between the Management Committee of the Athenaeum and its students, which was the main causal factor of its failure. Fogarty sums this up by stating that there was a "lack of class, and therefore cultural, communication" [ibid p37].

Return to the
previous page
  Return to the
  Proceed to the
next page