Adult Education and the Public Library
in 19th Century Wolverhampton

The Wolverhampton Free Library Classes 1873 to 1902 (Part 4)

The development of classes

John Elliot directed his attentions to establishing a "Naturalist and Archaeological Department" in 1876. Elliot described the function of this department as "affording instruction combined with recreation" [J.Elliot [ed] "Papers read at excursions" [1877]. Under Elliot's leadership the Department organised monthly excursions to places of interest in the locality of Wolverhampton. On average forty townsfolk took part in these outings [W.O.Henderson "The Origins of Technical Education in Wolverhampton" College Studies in Local History [1948] p.4] and the local newspaper commented upon their success, saying "it is gratifying to see how much enjoyment is cheaply afforded to the lovers of nature pent up throughout the week in factories and workshops" [Wolverhampton Chronicle 20th June 1878].

There can be little doubt that the Department was set up to supplement the work of the classes, as Elliot himself describes how the excursions fitted into the instruction available at the Library. He said that the excursions would "supplement the reading of books with the hearing of lectures, by the study of nature" [J.Elliot [ed] op cit]. The Naturalist and Archaeological Department flourished and even established a small museum in Jenks' Classroom [J.Jones op cit p.122]. By the turn of the century the Department had become an independent Society in its own right. By that time it boasted sixty members, although Elliot, who would have been over seventy years of age, is not listed amongst the officials of the Society [Wolverhampton Red Book [1902]]. Thanks to these activities by Pratt and Elliot the decline in student numbers was halted and a slow but sure increase in the number of people registering for classes can be seen from 1876 onwards.

Despite Pratt and Elliot's innovatory extra-curricular activities, within the classes themselves there was a movement away from imaginative and educationally liberal ideas. Like their forebears on the Management Committee of the Athenaeum, Pratt and his colleagues on the Free Library Committee were aware that the classes must be seen as having nothing to do with controversial matters, such as contemporary religious or political issues. Indeed, there had been long debates in Library Committee meetings on how controversial religious and political literature would be dealt with in the Lending Department of the Library; and so the Committee were keen to protect the classes from accusations of being sectarian. A case in point is that of the "Literary and Discussion Class", which ceased to function in 1879. Pratt stated that this class had failed due to the poor intellectual quality of its members. He said that "since the class was one of mutual instruction ... [it relied] .... on the powers of public speaking of its members, and the time they could spend in preparation of themes" [Pratt[ed] op cit pp.262 – 3]. Pratt went on to state that there were not enough people with these qualities "in so unliterary a town as Wolverhampton". [ibid]

The true reason why this class collapsed can be seen in the letter of resignation of the Discussion Class President, Mr. Narsaith, to the Library Committee on 4 September 1879. In this correspondence Narsaith complained: "We have been so much restricted by the Committee, in the choice of, and especially debarred from writing on or discussing, anything political, that it is impossible to find subjects that the members are able to take up" [FLC Minutes 9th Sept 1879]. This desire to make the Library classes uncontroversial only increased the attractions of the more objective scientific and technical subjects, although there are other reasons why the Library should want to emphasise and develop this type of education in Wolverhampton.

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