Adult Education and the Public Library
in 19th Century Wolverhampton

The Wolverhampton Free Library Classes 1873 to 1902 (Part 1)


In 1850 William Ewart, a Liverpool liberal M.P. and the second son of Gladstone’s godfather, sponsored a Bill through Parliament by which town Councils could raise a penny rate for the establishment of a "Free Library". This miserly rate has been considered as the first funding for adult education in Britain and met with considerable opposition at the time. For example one of Ewart’s opponents, the Tory M.P. Colonel Sibthorpe, could see little point in enabling the working classes to read as he "did not like reading at all and hated it whilst he was at Oxford". There was a genuine fear that educating the working classes above their station would lead to social unrest, but despite deep rooted class based objections to Ewart’s Bill, his Act was the basis of a growth in self help and education in many industrial areas.

The way the Act was implemented and used in Wolverhampton led to the consolidation and development of adult education in the town. It also led to the origin of scientific and technical education institutions which were the forebears of Higher Educational bodies which flourish in Wolverhampton today.

The battle to start classes

In 1873 the Free Library moved premises to the former Municipal Buildings in Garrick Street, which had been left vacant by the opening of a new Town Hall. There was an almost immediate move to establish adult evening classes on the new premises. Pratt stated that "this new idea ..., for some time contemplated" [A.C.Pratt [ed] "Wolverhampton Free Library Manuscript Magazine" vol 2. P.252] would provide classes in Language, Mathematics and Popular Science. Not only would the educational tradition of the Athenaeum and Working Men's College be revived, but an educational centre would be established which would rival C. B. Mander's Art School.

The Free Library in Garrick Street.

Pratt and Mander were undoubtedly rivals and had little in common. Alfred Pratt was a nonconformist Radical, whereas Charles Mander was a High Church Tory.

Like Walker, Pratt resented Mander's attempt at using the Public Library Act to salvage his debt-ridden Art School in 1859, and some indication of the animosity that existed between them can be seen in Pratt's letter to the Editor of the Wolverhampton Chronicle of 4 October 1869.

Pratt said that "C. B. Mander did not in the slightest degree actively countenance, support or aid the movement which has eventuated in the opening of a Free Library in Wolverhampton" and later in the letter even went as far as accusing Mander of being a coward, since he had "lacked the amount of moral courage" which the struggle for establishing the Library had entailed [Wolverhampton Chronicle 4th Oct. 1869].

The effect of this animosity was critical to the development of adult education in Wolverhampton. Because of the differences between Pratt and Mander, the institutions over which they had influence would have nothing to do with each other. The overall result was a polarisation of adult education based on the Free Library and the Art School. In response to the Art School courses, the Library classes tended to emphasise scientific and later technical and commercial education. In the course of the remainder of the century the schism between the two institutions never fully healed, even when Pratt and Mander's influence had waned. It is for this reason that two of the descendent institutions [i.e. the present Library and Art Gallery] are geographically remote from each other in Wolverhampton, whereas in many towns, including Birmingham, these institutions are close together. If, as Jones [1897] states, the establishment of the library evening classes "was a departure not contemplated by the Free Libraries Act" [J.Jones "Historical Sketch of the Art and Literary Institutions of Wolverhampton 1794 – 1897"[1897] p. 121], the legality of using ratepayers' money to support classes must seem suspect. Pratt and the Committee sought a ruling as to the legality of the proposed classes from the town clerk, Mr. Underhill. They asked him to clarify the position regarding their powers "to employ lecturers and promote education .... other than through the medium of the Library and Newsroom" [Free Library Committee Minutes [FLC Minutes] 11th Mar. 1872]. They were fortunate that Underhill was sympathetic in his view of their plight, and made reference to Section 21 of the 1855 Act. This section, headed "General Management", permitted Library Committees to provide "fuel, lighting, books, newspapers, maps and specimens for the use of the library .... and appoint salaried officers and servants .... for the safety and use of the library" [T. Greenwood "Public Libraries" 1874 p.570]. Underhill applied the very widest of interpretations to this section of the Act and replied that: "Although there are no express words in the Statutes authorising the employment of lecturers, I think the employment of lecturers, or carrying out any design which has for its object the spread of education amongst the masses, and which might be fairly deemed to form an ingredient of the management of a public library, would come within the powers of the Free Library Committee" [FLC Minutes 13th May 1873].

By interpreting the spirit rather than the letter of the law, Underhill gave the Committee the green light for the establishment of classes and so for the first time it was possible for an educational facility to be set up in Wolverhampton by an officially approved body [i.e. the Library Committee], backed by secure, if somewhat limited, funding from the rates.

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