Dawn of the 20th century

'... the emergence, among the rank and file of the working-class world, of the conviction that education may be used as an instrument of social emancipation...' R.H. Tawney, 1924

A new century

The beginning of the 20th century marks a time in which the political and social advancement of ordinary working people was on the rise. The formation of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900, and the subsequent election of twenty-nine Labour MPs in '06, were just two indications that a new era had come.

As a central figure in early 20th century adult education (and later leader of the Labour Party) Arthur Greenwood observed: 'The time was ripe for a development of adult education. A generation of compulsory education had begun to bear fruit, and working-class organisations, no longer struggling for mere existence, had become an integral part of the background of working class life.' (1)

Oxford and the WEA

The Workers' Educational Association (WEA) began to take shape in the first years of the new century, and its founder, Albert Mansbridge, pictured right, was 'an almost archetypal lower-middle-class scholar...intelligent, but educationally frustrated, and locked into low-grade, white-collar employment.' (2) Mansbridge had been forced to leave school at fourteen; he worked as a clerk and a cashier, and he was an enthusiastic frequenter of university extension lectures.

The WEA was founded in 1903 at a conference held in Oxford, and from the start had the strong support of the University, particularly at Balliol, St John's and New Colleges, many dons of which had been stalwarts of the 19th century University Extension movement.

Though the WEA quickly grew into a federation of entities for the furtherance of adult education - trade unions, adult schools, several University Extension authorities, co-operative societies, literary societies - the support from Oxford was crucial to its early and rapid success.

'The WEA may have begun in Mansbridge's kitchen in Ilford, but in a very real sense its early home was Oxford, and the credibility it won with Oxford dons was crucial to its strategy of winning public acceptance and state funding for its initiatives.' (3)

Next: read how Vera Brittain's first experience of Oxford was via the Extension Lecture programme.


  1. Arthur Greenwood, 'Labour and Adult Education', in St John Parry's Cambridge Essays on Adult Education, 1920
  2. Lawrence Goldman, Dons and Workers, 1995, p 105
  3. Ibid., p 109


The text in these 'History of the Department' pages is to be found in the book 'Dons and Workers: Oxford and Adult Education Since 1850', by Dr Lawrence Goldman, Fellow and Tutor in Modern History at St Peter's College, Oxford, and a former member of the Department for Continuing Education.