Adult Education and the Public Library
in 19th Century Wolverhampton

The Wolverhampton Free Library Classes 1873 to 1902 (Part 2)

Running the Classes

The Council permitted the Garrick Street premises to be used for classes rent-free, and allowed the costs of firewood and gas lighting to be met out of the penny rate. There was a reluctance to meet all the proposed costs, however, despite Underhill's ruling. Any form of education fully-financed by the rates would have been too controversial at that time when there was still some ill-feeling and resentment remaining from the fierce debates on the control of education which had surrounded the passing of the 1870 Elementary Education Act. Therefore, by insisting that the "costs of teachers, secretary and individual expenses would have to be paid for by the classes" [ibid], the Council was not only deterring possible opposition to its involvement with the Library classes, but was also ensuring the classes did not become a financial drain on the penny rate.

The result of this was that initially funds were very limited for the setting-up of the classes, although the Library Committee was fortunate to be in receipt of a gift of one hundred pounds from the Mayor of the time, Isaac Jenks. Jenks' donation was used to convert some former police cells, in the north-east corner of the Garrick Street building, into a "commodious and elegant room for larger classes" [FLC Minutes 8th April 1873]. According to Jones [1897], Jenks' Classroom [as it became known] could seat sixty students [J.Jones op cit p.122]. At the official opening of the Classroom in April 1873, William H. Jones [the elder brother of Joseph Jones, who was to become the Free Library's second Chairman in 1883] [G.Jones "Borough Politics: A Study of the Wolverhampton Town Council 1888 – 1964] [1965] p.5], started a "Prize Fund" by donating a guinea which was to be awarded to the best artisan student from the classes.

Despite Jones' prize, which became an annual award, and the generosity of Alderman Jenks, there was little further voluntary aid from the people of the town. The Free Library Chairman, James Walker, appealed to the wealthy people of the area to follow Jones' example, with a view to raising one hundred pounds for prizes and the equipping of a science room.[Pratt [ed] op cit p.264]. The lack of response at that time to Walker's appeal must have resulted in some despondency amongst the Committee members. Pratt's disappointment can be seen in the following : "Some day it is to be hoped that the value of science will be as much appreciated by the upper classes ... as it is by the humbler classes who frequent the Free Library" [ibid].

The publicity drive to attract support to the Library classes did not end with Walker's circular to the local well-to-do. Another Free Library supporter, a factory inspector named William Staker Darkin, actually wrote to Queen Victoria about the Library classes and made public his letter. In his letter, Darkin not only praised Walker and Elliot for "striking instances of self-culture and elevation in the social scale" [Pratt [ed] vol 1, ibid p.72], but also cited a hitherto unheardreason for the establishment of the Free Library classes in Wolverhampton:- "Mr. Walker is about to form classes for technical education instruction, which your Majesty may not think altogether uncalled for .... there being reason to fear that the epidemic, typhoid fever, now prevalent amongst us has been aggravated by popular ignorance of cleanliness and other sanitary measures" [ibid]. Although there was a minor outbreak of the disease during the 1870s, which mainly affected the poorer eastern side of Wolverhampton, seemingly this is the only instance where the combating of disease was proffered as a justification for the setting up of the Library classes. It could be that it was hoped that the publicity value of the letter would create popular interest in the Library classes, as Victoria's popularity in Wolverhampton would have been high at that time. This was because in 1866, she had chosen Wolverhampton as the venue for her first public appearance after her long period of mourning following the death of the Prince Consort ["Millenium Wolverhampton 985 - 1985". [1985] p. 11].

Unfortunately, this too failed to bring an increase in patronage to the Library classes and the initial financial strictures they suffered are evident from the fact that "temporary desks found in the Town Hall," [FLC Minutes 28th Sept.1873] had to be used so that classes could commence in Jenks' Classroom in October 1873. In spite of the financial problems, in early September 1873 Elliot had been instructed by the Free Library Committee to insert an advertisement in the local press. Under the heading "Education for the People", this notified the public that instruction in 21 subjects would be available at the Library during the ensuing winter months [Midlands Counties Express 9t Sept. 1873]. The subjects on offer ranged from Hebrew to Astronomy, and although it was the Committee's intention to emphasise and develop scientific subjects, only four of the courses on offer in 1873 could be classified as such. These were Microscopic Science, Animal Physiology, Magnetism and Electricity, and Chemistry. This probably reflected a lack of science and technical teachers available to teach in the Library classes, in spite of the stated objectives of Pratt and his colleagues that the classes should be science based. However, these subjects proved very successful, and apart from Microscopic Science, they were never omitted from the curriculum during the whole of the three decades the Library classes were in existence.

Despite the financial difficulties the Library classes were facing, there was a determination that the quarterly fees should be kept low enough to solicit a response from interested members of the working class. At a time when local industrial wages ranged from sixteen shillings per week for a general labourer, up to three pounds and ten shillings for a "puddler" [i.e. a type of ironworker] [G.J.Barnsby "Social Conditions in the Black Country 1800 – 1900" [1980] pp.223 – 6], the maximum cost for a course of ten one-hour lectures was only five shillings. This figure relates to the cost of the six language courses on offer, whereas other courses cost as little as one shilling. Therefore it could be argued that the Committee had ensured that the course fees would not act an excluding device in attracting working-class students. Notable amongst the cheaper courses was "Elementary Instruction for Males", taken by Pratt himself, and a parallel course entitled "Elementary Instruction for Females" which was taught by "a Lady" [Midland Counties Express op cit] who turned out to be Pratt's daughter, Amelia.

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