Adult Education and the Public Library
in 19th Century Wolverhampton

Adult Education in Wolverhampton before 1869 (Part 4)

The Art School

The final major attempt at establishing an adult educational institution, before the advent of the Free Library classes, originated in 1851. It was in that year that the Great Exhibition took place. It was the Exhibition, which "came as a revelation, and produced a profound sensation in Wolverhampton" [J. Jones op cit p73], that inspired some of the leading citizens of the town to endow a small art school in the town's Castle Street. Under the secretaryship of Charles Mander [a leading Conservative and member of the famous varnish and paint manufacturing family], a full-time art master named Thomas Chittenden was appointed by the end of 1851.

C. B. Mander.

The history of the Art School followed the same pattern established by the Mechanics' Institute, for initial interest was such that in August 1854 a purpose-built School of Art "in the Greek style" [ibid p75] had been opened in Waterloo Road, on the western side of Wolverhampton. This building was partly financed by public subscription, but some £1,600 of the total cost of £4,000 had to be raised through a mortgage [ibid p147].

At the opening ceremony of the Art School was George Wallis, a native and former resident of Wolverhampton. Wallis had gained prominence in contemporary art circles in his role as "Keeper of Art Treasures" at the South Kensington Museum in London, and had gained a wider national fame as Deputy Commissioner of the Great Exhibition. Much interest in the establishment of an Art School in Wolverhampton was in deference to Wallis and his reputation. 

The initial enthusiasm for the school, partly engendered by Wallis' slight involvement in the project, lulled Mander and his associates into a financial over commitment. By May 1855 the Art School was in financial difficulty due to mortgage repayments and Chittenden's wages [Minutes of the School of Art 22nd May 1855].

Part of the premises was leased to the Methodists for use as a meeting place, and the school yard was sub-let to a builder. This subletting brought in an income of £34-17-0d per month [ibid] but this only went part of the way to meeting the School's monthly debts. The biggest item of expenditure was Chittenden's wage of £200 per annum [letter from C.B.Mander to W.J.Hinkley 24th May 1855] which was surprisingly high for the time. The Free Librarian was only earning £180 per annum some half a century later and, even allowing for the low inflation rate of Victorian times, Chittenden must be seen as having been well paid. 

The Art School in Waterloo Road.

Chittenden does not seem to have been an artist of any great repute as he is not listed in any of the biographies of Victorian artists, so the reason for his employment at such a high remuneration is unclear.

Chittenden does not seem to have warranted such generous remuneration however, as at one time the Department of Science and Art threatened to withdraw all support from the School of Art because of Chittenden’s failure to "instruct the children of the poor as part of his teaching duties" [Letter from Science and Art Department to C.B.Mander 17th Sept. 1857]. Indeed, under Chittenden's instruction results were poor, as is indicated in the Report of the Examiner of Works [Science and Art Department] for 1857. This showed that Wolverhampton's Art School had only 7 passes in the annual examinations, whereas Worcester had gained 28, Birmingham 27 and Coventry 21 [The Report of the Examiner of Works 1857. In his defence Chittenden blamed the theoretical nature of the Art classes for their lack of popular appeal [Letter from T.Chittenden to the Governors of the Wolverhampton School of Art 1st May 1858]. However, by this time Mander was emphasising the practical application of Art and proficiency in drawing to the working class and their role in the "various manufactures of the town and neighbourhood" [Letter from C.B.Mander to W.J.Hinkley op cit.]. Chittenden took responsibility for the School's failing and "was retired" in the summer of 1858.

Taking a wider view, there were numerous reasons why the Art School was failing by the end of the 1850s. Primarily the School's financial crisis threatened not only its future development but indeed its very existence. In order to alleviate this Mander increasingly involved members of the nobility in the School, in the hope of attracting more donations and patronage. For example, by 1858 the list of "Honorary Governors" of the [renamed] School of Practical Art included two Dukes, one Earl, two Lords and the son of the late Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel [Report of the School of Practical Art 1858]. This failed to bring in sufficient funds and had the effect of increasing the alienation between an upper-class orientated managing body and the working-class people of Wolverhampton, who played no part whatsoever in the organisation and administration of the School of Art.

Whatever the reason for its decline, be it poor teachers, high debts or alienation between administrators and potential students, what is clear is that by 1859 Charles Mander saw that the only hope of redeeming the Art School lay in Wolverhampton adopting the 1855 Public Library Act. The penny rate that the adoption of the Act would raise could be used by the Council to purchase the Art School which would then house a Public Library. Mander had some justification for hoping that the ratepayers would accept his scheme, as the School of Practical Art already housed the town's collection of patents and designs [Wolverhampton Chronicle 5th April 1859] and thus to an extent acted as an unofficial reference facility for Wolverhampton.

In May 1859, in his capacity as a Town Councillor, Mander called upon the Mayor to convene a meeting of ratepayers with a view to adopting the Public Libraries Act of 1855 in Wolverhampton. In the Council Chamber Mander made little secret of the fact that he saw the adoption of the Act as a means of saving the Art School. The penny rate would raise £500 per annum and he was willing to sell the School to the Council for use as a Public Library for £2,500, which was the amount of money then owed by the School to its creditors [J.Jones op cit p80]. The chief opposition to this scheme came from James Walker, [the future first Chairman of the Free Library] and the Liberal Party. Walker objected to what he saw as a misuse of the spirit of the Library Act in the purchase and maintenance of an Art School.

At the ratepayers' meeting, which was held on 26 June 1859 at St. George's Hall, public opinion reflected Walker's view, and the vocal opposition to Mander's scheme caused this meeting to be described as "one of the most boisterous ever to be held in Wolverhampton" [Wolverhampton Chronicle 27th June 1859]. Despite Mander's marshalling of his supporters, "the greatest disorder prevailed" when a resolution was put to the meeting that "a Free Library in connection with the School of Art would add greatly to the prosperity of the town" [ibid]. This was greeted by cries of "We don't want it! We won't have it!" [J.Jones op cit p82]. A more direct proposal:- "Would they have a Free Library or would they not?" was answered with shouts of "No! No!" [ibid]. Thus the first attempt at having Ewart's Acts adopted in Wolverhampton ended in acrimony.

It has been argued that there was a fear of the financial burden of the penny rate and this was the main reason for opposition to Mander's proposal [A.J.Rowberry, "A History of the Wolverhampton Public Library 1868–1900" [1967] p3.]. It is also likely that Mander's political opponents had mustered support against what they saw as a backhanded way of keeping the Art School going and getting Mander out of a financial mess. The sadness is that the concept of a Free Library became tainted with this association with a failing adult educational institution and a character adept at political dealings. The Free Library movement which emerged a decade later had this negative image of a Public Library to counter, as well as facing all the problems their counterparts in other towns had come across in getting the Library Act adopted.

In many ways the Art School suffered from the same malaise as the Mechanics' Institute, the Athenaeum and the Working Men's College. However, of all the respective administrators, Charles Mander alone had the political awareness to realise that funding from the rates was essential if adult education in Wolverhampton was to survive and prosper. The Library Act offered the opportunity to bring this about. Whether his campaign failed because of political opposition, or a realisation that public funds would be used to support a private "white elephant", or even a general reluctance to increase the rate burden, is open to conjecture. However, in the final analysis, Mander can be credited with pointing the way forward to those pioneers of adult education in Wolverhampton who were to take up the Free Library cause a decade later.

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