Adult Education and the Public Library
in 19th Century Wolverhampton

The Wolverhampton Free Library Classes 1873 to 1902 (Part 3)

An assessment of the classes

Although one can sympathise with Pratt's desire to encourage the illiterate "to whom the A.B.C. of their mother tongue is still a mystery" [Letter from A.C.Pratt to the Editor Midland Counties Express 11th Sept 1873] to learn to read and write, the choice of Saturday night for instruction and the rather curious strategy of appealing directly to them via the letters column of a newspaper [ibid] makes understandable the discontinuation of the classes before the session's end, due to low numbers and irregular attendance [The Free Library Committee’s Report to the Town Council [1874]]. If, as is likely, these classes were established to offer the working class an alternative to a Saturday night's drinking, then they failed socially as well as educationally. During the history of the Free Library classes the experiment of offering a programme of remedial education to educationally deprived adults was never repeated by the Library Committee.

The failure of the "Elementary Instruction" reflects some of the shortcomings of the Library classes in other ways. Possibly due to the shortage of funds, the early Library classes had to rely on the amateur, albeit enthusiastic, services of instructors such as Pratt and his daughter. This, together with the wide range of courses initially on offer, did not lay the best of foundations for the fledgling institution. Within a year not only were the "Elementary Instruction" classes discontinued but another four subjects as well, amongst which were the classical languages of Greek and Latin. It seems a little odd that they that they were offered initially, anyway, by an institution claiming to provide education for the working classes, as they represented the tried and tested "proper education for a gentleman" [G.W.Roderick & M.D.Stephens "Education and Industry in the Nineteenth Century" [1978] p.viii]. However, the reason for their inclusion in the curriculum of the early Free Library classes is quite simple. The inclusion of such subjects provided the Library classes with an air of respectability and this image is reinforced when one considers that the Library's teacher of the "classics" was a clergyman, the Reverend Edward Heastle. Irrespective of this, they were poorly supported and, although dropped from the curriculum in 1874, Latin was re-introduced in the late 1880s, though even then it failed to attract large numbers of students.

There is evidence to suggest that the Committee was aware that the academic nature of the Library Classes was deterring many potential students. It is true that by 1876 the number of students who were registering for courses had declined significantly and moves were made to widen the popular appeal of the Library Classes. Pratt introduced poetry and prose readings which, although held under the auspices of the Library classes, were open to the general public. Entitled "Literary Entertainments" these readings met with considerable success, with over 500 attending one such "Entertainment" at a local church hall [W.J.Gordon "Midland Sketches" [1898] p.160].

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