Adult Education and the Public Library
in 19th Century Wolverhampton

The Adoption of the Public Library Act 1855 (Part 1)

The Free Library Adoption Committee

After the failure of the 1859 attempt to persuade Wolverhampton ratepayers to adopt the Public Library Act, there was little further interest in the topic for almost a decade. This was due in part to the Act itself which forbade further adoption meetings for at least a year after a failure [1855 Public Libraries Act, Section 23] but more specifically there was a general decline in interest in any form of adult educational provision in Wolverhampton in the 1860s. Both the Athenaeum and the Working Men's College were in decline and Mander's Art School continued to struggle in a financial morass.

This state of affairs continued until August 1868, when the Annual General Meeting of the Athenaeum's Management Committee was attended by "a few of the old friends and supporters of adult education" [J.Jones "Historical Sketch of the Art And Literary Institutions Of Wolverhampton 1794-1897" [1897] p.85]. One of those present was a London born journalist named Alfred Camden Pratt. Pratt described this meeting in dramatic terms, whilst at the same time commenting on the sorry state of adult education in the town. He said that "hope even had died there, in that melancholy chamber, to which the coming night lent a funereal aspect" [A.C.Pratt [ed] "Wolverhampton Free Library Manuscript Magazine" vol 1 c.1874 p.4]. Jones [1897] continued this theme in his account of the meeting, saying "the very place in which they met seemed like a veritable tomb .... whilst the very name of it - 'The Wolverhampton Athenaeum and Mechanics' Institute' - read like an epitaph" [J.Jones op.cit p 85].

The result of this meeting was that the Athenaeum members present agreed to support the formation of a Free Library Adoption Committee. According to a contemporary commentator they had accepted that the Athenaeum could no longer be seen as a viable educational concern as "the disease from which the institution was suffering was of too fatal a character, and had reached too acute a stage for any chance of recovery" [ibid]. The Adoption Committee consisted of thirteen members, with Pratt being elected as Honorary Secretary.

A. C. Pratt.

Alfred Pratt was to become the leading figure in the Free Library Movement in Wolverhampton. He had lived in various parts of the country prior to his family settling in Wolverhampton sometime in the 1850s [General Census Returns St.John’s Ward 1851 –1871]. Pratt was a committed Methodist and a supporter of the Temperance Movement, and it is quite possible that he came to know the other key figures in the Library Movement due to his involvement in this organisation. For example, James Walker, who was to be the first Free Library Committee Chairman; Isaac Jenks, who paid for the first Library classroom; and John Elliot, the librarian and administrative Secretary of the Library Classes, all served alongside Pratt on the Temperance Society's Committee during the 1860s [Report of the Wolverhampton Temperance Society [1862].
Pratt, and to a large extent Elliot, viewed the successful establishment of a Free Library as only part of a broader based educational institution. They saw education in terms of the nonconformist Radical tradition, being a means by which the working classes could improve themselves. This was in accord with Ewart's views on education. Pratt defined the function of a library in terms of a wider educational perspective, saying "it is not enough that man should read. Assembled in classes under competent teachers they must be trained to study what is to be found in books, to particularise, not only add fact to fact, principle to principle in the memory, but connect them, link them, cement them and incorporate them with intellect and judgement" [Pratt [ed] op cit p.5]. It was Pratt's intention that a library would act as a nucleus for an institution where "training to study" could take place. 

John Elliott, FRHS.

It had been the failure to adopt such a rational and organised approach to the problem of adult education by the Athenaeum and Working Men's College that prompted Pratt to write "classes have always been a failure in Wolverhampton and everywhere else in the Black Country." [ibid]

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