Adult Education and the Public Library
in 19th Century Wolverhampton

The Wolverhampton Free Library Classes 1873 to 1902

The end of Library classes

Although there were some notable events at the Library classes during the final years of the nineteenth century, the institution's days were numbered. A series of "Gilchrist Lectures" were held at the Library in the winter of 1892 and, with an entrance fee of only one penny, these lectures on "scientific and other subjects attracted large numbers" [J.F.C.Harrison "Learning and Living" [1961] p.242]. The other major event of this period was the appointment of William Whitehouse as the first full-time Library class teacher in 1894 [F.Amery "The Book of the Century 1848 – 1948", p.43]. Despite these developments, the death-knell of the Library classes was sounded in 1896 with the publication of a report on education in Wolverhampton by S.T. Mander, a cousin of Charles Mander. The report [Mander op cit p.1] condemned the Library building and its classrooms. It stated that "the building, while never really suited for this purpose, had now become inadequate and unworthy" [ibid]. In commenting that "the classrooms, the apparatus and the general equipment fell lamentably behind even a modest concept of what they should be" [ibid], Mander's report heralded demands for the construction of a separate Technical School. In his inaugural address in September 1896, the new Mayor of Wolverhampton [a shoemaker by the name of Craddock] called for the building of a new Technical School which would be "a fitting tribute to honour the Queen's Diamond Jubilee" [ibid]. The fact that the proposed Technical School was the main theme of the Mayor's speech shows the importance attached to adult education by local politicians at the end of the nineteenth century, thanks largely to the efforts of the Free Library. The new school, it was hoped, would bring prestige to the town and it was for this reason that a site in Lichfield Street was earmarked for its erection. This street led from the railway station to the centre of the town and it was intended that the design of the School, together with the architecture of the recently-opened Post Office and Art Gallery, would impress any visitors to the town. There was an added advantage to building a Technical School in Lichfield Street as the students would bring trade to the town [Wolverhampton Chronicle 9th Sept 1896].

John Elliot fought this plan, since it would mean that the Library would be geographically remote from the Technical School and that the Garrick Street premises would be better converged to a technical school, rather than remain as a Library. In his opinion the building of a new Library, somewhere in the vicinity of Garrick Street, was the better option. Jones supported Elliot's stance on financial grounds, as in Garrick Street "a suitable piece of land, at a reasonable cost, was close at hand" [ibid]. The arguments put forward by Elliot and Jones that "a new Library should be built near the Technical School in Garrick Street, why separate the two ?" [ibid] won the day and the Council launched a competition for a library design and plans to convert the Garrick Street building into a Technical School were drawn up.

The final years of the Library classes were still successful, judging by the standards of the time. In 1897 an Electrical Laboratory was built and the practical subjects of Bootmaking and Carpentry were introduced on to the curriculum [FLC Minutes 9th May 1898]. Compared with similar institutions such as the Birmingham Technical School curriculum [FLC Minutes 6th Feb 1901] the examination pass-rate of Free Library students was very favourable.

The separation of the classes from the parent institution, the Library, finally took place in March 1902. One of Elliot's two chief assistants, Frederick Chell, assumed Elliot's role as educational administrator and adopted the title "Secretary to the Municipal Science and Technical School" [Committee of Science and Art Register [1892]. For some time prior to this, Chell had worked in tandem with Elliot on administrative affairs affecting the Library classes and so would have been well able to take Elliot's place. After the formal separation of the two bodies on 19 March 1902 [FLC Minutes 19th Mar. 1902], the function of the Wolverhampton Library became the same as other Public Libraries in Britain and the educational experiment of the evening classes was at an end.

The new library on Snow Hill.

John Elliot remained as the Chief Librarian at the new library on Snow Hill until his death at the age of eighty in 1911 [P. Alexander [ed] "The Librarian" [vol 1. 1911]. Jones stayed on as Chairman of the Library Committee until as late as 1919 [[H. Smith "The Origins and History of the Polytechnic, Wolverhampton""[1983]], whilst the Science and Technical classes remained at the Garrick Street premises until its demolition in the 1920s. 

The Science and Technical School transferred to a site in Wulfruna Street, behind the Collegiate Church of St. Peter, which developed into the "Wolverhampton and Staffordshire Technical College" in 1933 [ibid]. In 1969 the institution became the Polytechnic [ibid] when the Technical College was amalgamated with the town's Art School. [Subsequently this formed the basis of the present day University of Wolverhampton].

It is ironic that it took a century for this to come about, considering the origins of the two institutions, but it is only due to the Library having been separated from any direct involvement with educational matters in 1902. The Library has become a separate entity in the life of Wolverhampton, due to the philosophy of its founders, Alfred Pratt in particular.

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