Founders of the Workers' Educational Association in Bradford

Hilda M. Snowden

(First published in 1987 in volume 3, pp. 21-26, of the third series of The Bradford Antiquary, the journal of the Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society.)

The founding meeting of the Bradford Branch of the Workers' Educational Association (WEA) was held in 1909 at the Church Institute. The Yorkshire Observer of 20 July 1909 reported:

"Mr Isaac Holmes presided and amongst those present were Mr L.V. Gill of Rochdale, Mr J. Heighton and Mrs Arthur Priestman. The association, which has for its object the furthering of opportunities to the workers for higher education, has nearly 60 branches throughout the country and its constitution is entirely democratic … (It) came into being because of a feeling of a number of cooperators and Trade Unionists that the best way to promote higher education amongst the workers was for the workers themselves to combine … with Educationalists and already (it) is working harmoniously with Education Authorities in all parts of the country."1

J.H. Heighton was Joint Secretary of the Bradford Philosophical Society and President of the Mechanics' Institute. Mrs Arthur Priestman was a member of the Executive of the Independent Labour Party and wife of an alderman. Isaac Holmes became the first Secretary of the Bradford Branch of the WEA (1909-13) and Chairman of the Bradford Co-operative Society's Education Committee (1913-14). A pamphlet by him, From Hand Industry to Factory System, written for the Oxford University Delegacy Examination 1913, is held by Bradford Central Library. With this he won the Michael Sadler Scholarship in Economics and so was able to attend the Extension Summer Meeting in Oxford during August.2 The preface, which gives an account of the WEA's early years in Bradford is both interesting and valuable, as the Minute Books of the Bradford Branch for 1909-29 have disappeared. The outsider amongst this group, Mr L.V. Gill, was Joint Secretary of the Rochdale Branch, which, as it had been founded in 1905, formed an important link with the WEA's beginnings.

The Bradford Branch developed a series of classes; in 1909-10 Industrial History, 1910-11 Economics, and 1911-12 History of Political Institutions, all with W.H. Pringle, MA, as tutor. In 1912-13 Arthur Greenwood, a very influential figure in West Yorkshire Adult Education, taught a class in Social History.3

The WEA was the creation of Albert Mansbridge, who worked for the Co-operative Wholesale Society in addition to teaching at evening schools. As a result of reading papers to Co-operators and writing a series of articles in the University Extension Journal on 'Co-operation, Trade Unionism and University Extension', he had managed by 1903 to form a provisional committee, which organized a conference in Oxford. The next step was to arouse local interest, and Rochdale, home of the Co-operative Movement, was the first to respond. Mansbridge told them that if they would pledge themselves to systematic study he would find them 'the best tutor in England'. Almost immediately Longton in the Potteries made a similar demand, and under the sponsorship of Oxford, Mansbridge produced R.H. Tawney.

Each Friday morning during the winter of 1907 Tawney travelled from Glasgow, where he was on the staff of the University, to Longton, for his evening class. Next day he left for Rochdale, where forty members of the WEA gave up their Saturday afternoons to study - the only period not threatened by overtime. In the following year Tawney and Alfred Zimmern compiled a report, 'Oxford and the Working Class Movement', published by Oxford University, which recorded the occupations of the students. Here we find representatives of the more predictable groups, such as teachers, clerks and librarians, rubbing shoulders with an odd assortment of artisans and tradesmen, which included a gardener, a plumber, a potter's thrower, a basket maker, a miner, a mechanic, a baker, a grocer and a clothier, with an average age of 30.4

These first tutorial classes have become a legend in the history of education, although Tawney used to say that too much fuss had been made of them, and that no one could have failed with the kind of students who crowded into them. He acknowledged his debt to those students in the preface to The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century, when he wrote, 'The friendly smitings of weavers, potters, miners and engineers have taught me much about the problems of political and economic science, which cannot easily be read from books'. Mary Stocks, in her story of the WEA, wrote:
"The questions workers asked were vastly different from those asked by middle class students and then there were precious few answers. During the decades that followed, the work was done by Tawney, by G.D.H. Cole, by the Hammonds and others."

In 1959, in the Mechanics' Institute, Bradford, the local Branch celebrated its Golden Jubilee. The Bradford President, Mr Frank Hakney, welcomed the National President, Professor Asa Briggs, who was the main speaker, and then read messages of goodwill from the Lord Mayor, the Bishop of Bradford, Sir Charles and Lady Morris and the Reverend Dudley Richards.

After Professor Briggs's address the meeting was thrown open and members were not slow to recall their own special memories of the WEA. But it was Miss Nellie Scruton who delighted everyone and astonished many by revealing that she had actually been present at the inaugural meeting in 1909. Afterwards it was a great pleasure to see Asa Briggs jump down from the platform to shake hands and have a few words with Miss Scruton, obviously delighted to be meeting one of the pioneers of the movement. As I had done some research into the origins of the Bradford Branch for publicity purposes, I seized the opportunity to interview some of the old members.

Although I had been acquainted with Nellie Scruton for many years, and took over the position of treasurer from her soon after I joined the branch, I really knew little about her. However, I found that she was born in 1880 - one of the two daughters (the other being Mary) of John Scruton, whose brother, William the well known local historian, was a founder member of the Bradford Historical & Antiquarian Society. Her uncle's books, suitably inscribed, took pride of place in Nellie's well-stocked bookcase.

As the following extract from the 1851 Census shows, the Scrutons lived in Little Horton Green.

60 Little Horton Lane
Richard Scruton Head M Age 54 born Alne, Yorks, Master cordwainer employing two men.
Adah Wife   46 born Bowling
George Son Unm 21 born Horton Cordwainer
Ann Dau. Unm 17 born Horton Powerloom weaver
John Son Unm 15 born Horton Cordwainer
James Son Unm 14 born Horton
William Son Unm 10 born Horton

Nellie supplied some details of the brothers' early education, which indicated that if the boys crept unwillingly to school they did not have far to go at first, for they were placed in the care of the lady next door, at the end of the terrace, where classes were held in the washhouse. Like many children from working-class homes they continued their studies at the Mechanics' Institute. John Scruton was very musical. He played the organ at the Moravian Chapel in Little Horton, to which the family went, and spent his pocket money - sixpence a week - on candles, so that he could practise at night. Nellie said that her Uncle William worked 'in law' and became fairly prosperous in later life, when he moved to Baildon. Both John and William belonged to intellectual circles, and Hartley, of Yorkshire Dialect fame, was a great friend of theirs.

There is one delightful story which Nellie told about her parents. For the first breakfast after their marriage her mother, who had been a servant, laid the table as beautifully as she had been taught. Husband John came into the room, sat down at the table, and immediately started to read his newspaper. The new Mrs Scruton, very much aggrieved, said, 'I think you should talk to me, not read the newspaper'. He replied, 'I must read my paper'. 'But', said the good wife, 'I can't read.' 'Well', said the husband, 'you must learn, for I can't stop'. So she learned to read!

A description of the first meeting of the future WEA in Bradford was given by Miss Scruton, who said, 'It was presided over by a man who had his business over the Midland Bank, and was keenly interested in education for working people. He got down from the platform and came to ask if I would join a tutorial class'. (The man whose name Nellie could not remember was J.H. Heighton - active in all cultural activities at that time). She replied that she would love to join 'if she would be acceptable'. To her this was an idea 'dropped from heaven', so she joined the first tutorial class, under Arthur Greenwood, which turned out to be the beginning of a life-long membership. Afterwards she spent a few days in London, staying with the Greenwoods, and it was Arthur who became chairman of the Yorkshire District.

Later Nellie Scruton paid a visit to France to meet a friend she had acquired through a conversation class held in the autumn of 1920, with Miss Backhouse as tutor. Mr Heighton gave her advice about the trip, which was obviously a great adventure for her. The French friend returned the visit and was introduced at the Scruton household to 'Feesh and Cheeps', a dish which she declared to be delicious.

In the autumn of 1908 Nellie Scruton attended a course of six University Extension Lectures on 'Shakespeare's Tragedies', given in the Mechanics' Institute by Mr J.C. Powys, MA. An account in the local press tells of 'crowded audiences, the Bradford centre being one of the best attended in the country', and in the concluding examination Miss Scruton gained first place in the city, a success which qualified her for entrance to the scholarship scheme under the Oxford Delegacy. As a result of an essay on a special subject chosen by the Delegacy - 'Wycliffe, Thinker and Reformer' - Nellie Scruton gained a first class scholarship entitling her to a month's residence at Oxford, with the privilege of attending the Summer Meeting lectures on 'The Italian Renaissance'. The inaugural ceremonies were to be presided over by Lloyd George, who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the lectures were to be given by some of the most eminent Oxford professors.

A newspaper accounts adds:
"Only some half-dozen such awards are allotted for the whole country, so that this achievement is all the more distinguished, especially when it is added that Miss Scruton is self-taught. .. she is a voracious reader, a diligent student, and is possessed of a brilliant intellect combined with a remarkably retentive memory."

Hardly less remarkable is the fact that Henry Heaton & Co., the firm which employed Miss Scruton, were sufficiently enlightened to grant her a holiday so that she might attend the course.

Nellie Scruton was present at the first meeting of the Yorkshire District of the WEA in 1914 and served as clerk assistant to George Thompson, District Secretary, until 1921, when, in her words, 'more expert assistance was required.' She organized Summer Schools, first at Ingleton, where the women were accommodated in the village and the men slept in the dining-room of the village hall, and then at Saltburn, the District Office being transferred there for six weeks every year. This was a time when students were 'hungry for learning'. One class, taken by Mr David Stewart, a minister of religion, was for miners, who attended in the evenings and then stayed overnight for another class in the morning.

Nellie Scruton was a mainstay of the Bradford Branch, where she held every office, serving as Secretary, Treasurer and President many times over. In 1930-31 she tutored a class in 'Self Expression in Speech and Writing', and the Annual Report showed that 36 members attended the course, which consisted of 24 meetings, with three extra in the summer. She died in 1968, at the age of 88, just one year before the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. All those who knew Nellie Scruton remembered her with affection, especially on account of her gentleness and brimming enthusiasm.

Another early member of the WEA who calls for special attention is Miss Alice Wells. She became the only woman Sanitary Inspector in Bradford and one of only seven in the whole country. It was difficult in those days for anyone without a smattering of higher education to be accepted for any kind of vocational training, but after a number of routine jobs as gas meter reader, shop assistant and burler and mender, at Dr Margaret Sharp's suggestion Alice Wells trained as a nurse at St Luke's Hospital. By 1917 many Local Authority Departments were short staffed, so Dr Buchan, Medical Officer of Health, gave Alice Wells facilities to train as a Sanitary Inspector by home study, while still working as a nurse, it being financially impossible for working people to take time off to study. After qualifying in this way she held a post with the Local Authority for 30 years.

Alice Wells's association with the WEA began when she was sixteen, after which she became a member of Norman Walker's Biology Class, attending many summer schools at Ingleton. She also went to Summer Schools in Liege, Lyons, Vienna and Elsinore, and when German students came to London, she acted as their guide. One of Miss Wells's most enduring memories was the Bradford Pageant of 1931, when she performed, along with seventy other members of the WEA, in the episode, 'Bradford of the Industrial Revolution'.

Another visit to London left an abiding impression. This was when she went with two other WEA students, Miss Bromley and Miss Tordoff, to stay with the Bromleys. John Bromley was General Secretary of the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, and his union had bought Sir Thomas Beecham's house, which stood next to Pavlova's 'Ivy House' in Hampstead. There the great ballerina could be seen dancing in the garden, although by that time she had retired from the stage. There were 97 rooms in Beecham's house, now used mostly for union purposes. The Bromleys occupied a flat, and the conductor's library, which was just as he had left it, served as an office. To girls from northern workingclass homes any kind of bathroom was something of a luxury, but among the many opulent suites they saw there, the one with a sunken bath in gold and mauve was a source of great ple,asure and admiration.

The loss of Bradford's early records deprives us of information about other women who were founder members of the WEA, but there must have been several more. The Oxford Report of 1908 does not specifically mention women, but another report by Tawney in his 'Experiment in Democratic Education' (1913-14) identifies 134 women working at home (not 'housewives' as they would be called now) and there were presumably many women among the 80 tailors and dressmakers, 191 textile workers, 278 teachers and 113 shop assistants.5 There were then 13 Universities in England and Wales providing 142 classes for between 3,500 to 4,000 students, but many applications were turned away through lack of funds.

Bradford had long been a male-dominated town, where women were not very well provided for, but the Mechanics' Institute, which was founded in 1825 for working men, started classes for women in 1850. On the other hand the Friends' Adult School Movement, founded in 1875, did not admit women until 1886, and then only after considerable controversy. In 1857 some Bradford women established their own Education Institute in Little Horton Lane, but unfortunately soon lost control to the men, who by 1860 provided all five officers. The syllabus of the Bradford Ladies' Educational Institute of that year declared its object to be 'Mental Improvement by means of Classes, a Library, Addresses, suitable for imparting sound moral and secular instruction'. For twopence a week young women and mothers could study sewing, cookery and general subjects on four evenings a week, but this enterprise declined in the 1870s.6 In 1867 the North of England Council for promoting the Higher Education of women was formed by a group of middleclass ladies, who by 1873 were agitating for Oxford and Cambridge University Extension Courses. These started the next year in Bradford and it was here, as we have seen, that Nellie Scruton, by no means a middle-class lady, began to taste the joys of higher education.

In recent times the majority of students in WEA classes have been women, but to the best of my knowledge it was not so when I joined in the 1930s. I can certainly remember being one of only two women in an Economics Class. Registers would, of course, provide statistics, and there is scope for research into the achievements of that small band of people who, after a hard day's work at home, or in office, mill or shop, followed their academic bents in the evening, at WEA classes, for example. There must be other students like Nellie Scruton and Alice Wells, who, without making names for themselves, rose above their circumstances to perform with credit, and even distinction, in higher grades of education. Perhaps, as a result of this article, memories will be stirred and readers will come forward with stories of other pioneers so far unrecorded in the history of adult education.


1. Constitution and Rules (1909). Copy in Bradford District Archives. (back)

2. Isaac Holmes, From Hand Industry to factory System: The effects of the transition upon the working class of Bradford, Bradford & District WEA, 1914. (back)

3. For a fuller account of the early history of Bradford WEA, see H.M. Snowden, The Story of the Workers' Educational Association in Bradford, in History of Education in Bradford, 1870-1970, Bulletin No 2, April 1968. (back)

4. R.H. Tawney - A Portrait by Several Hands - Essays in honour of his 80th birthday. Shenval Press, 1960, p.5. (back)

5. An Experiment in Democratic Education, Political Quarterly, May 1914 (back)

6. Education in Bradford since 1870. 1970, p.202. (back)

© 1987, Hilda M. Snowden and The Bradford Antiquary