Working Men's Colleges

The need for a liberal education for the mechanics who did not feel comfortable in the Institutes led to the emergence of Working Men’s Colleges. The most successful of these was the Working Men’s College in Camden, London, founded in 1854 by Christian socialists led by F.D. Maurice, and still in operation on Crowndale Road.46 A handbill exists from the previous year, advertising a series of pilot courses to be delivered in the Hall of Association off Oxford Street, including one currently ‘in development’ in Latin, to be taught byJ.F. MacLennan.47 In 1860-1861, 34 men enrolled for the Latin course; the year after there were 23, of whom 6 were manual labourers.48 In 1885 it was described as the parent of several other similar institutions in Greater London, including ‘the University Settlements which are now springing up in the East End’,49 such as Toynbee Hall in Tower Hamlets.’" Settlements were subsequently established in Liverpool, Gateshead, Bristol, Reading, Letchworth, South Wales, Plymouth, York, Harlech, Birmingham, Evesham and Surrey.51

The collegiate philosophy aimed to offer a sense of community as well as education, recreation, and ‘a social centre, to which men would be bound by strong and lasting associations, such as attach others to the old Universities of Oxford and Cambridge’.52 Most teachers were London University academics, who gave their services free of charge so that ‘charges must be fixed which the poorest can pay, and which the least educated will be ready to pay’.53 The curriculum was designed to offer something far more ambitious than vocational instruction. The 1885 prospectus defines the subjects taught as those ‘with which it most concerns English citizens to be acquainted’.54 As one lecturer defined it that year, the college taught many subjects with no vocational or business content, but which he saw as valuable solely ‘as elements of a liberal education’ which fitted men to be citizens.55

The Working Men’s College became nationally famous under its Principal between 1883 and 1899, Sir John Lubbock. He made a speech there in 1887, one of a series entitled ‘The Pleasures of Life’, which quote exhaustively from ancient philosophers (Epictetus, Epicurus, Plato, Plutarch, Marcus Aurelius, Herodotus, Aristotle, Aesop, Xenophon and Cicero).56 In ‘The Choice of Books’, he drew up a list of the 100 books it was most important for a working man to read.’7 It caused a stir, and was leapt upon by working-class readers all over the English-speaking world as a guide to a speedy self-education. Lubbock, who became the first Baron Avebury, came from a privileged banking family, and was educated at

Eton. He was a reform-minded Liberal MP for Maidstone and subsequently for London University. Although he had not attended university himself, he was a prodigious polymath, specialising in archaeology and biological sciences.58

In Lubbock’s List, the proportion of classical authors is remarkable: Homer, Hesiod, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Plutarch’s Lives, Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics, Augustine’s Confessions, Plato’s Apology, Crito and Phaedo, Demosthenes’ De Corona, Xenophon’s Memorabilia and Anabasis, Cicero’s De Officiis, De Amicitia, and De Senectute, Virgil, Aeschylus’ Prometheus and Oresteia, Sophocles’ Oedipus, Euripides’ Medea, Aristophanes’ Knights and Clouds, Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus’ Germania and Livy. In addition, two famous works on ancient history, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall and Grote’s History of Greece, make it onto the list as necessary reading for any educated person, along with the most popular novel then in existence set in antiquity, Bulwer-Lytton’s Last Days of Pompeii.59

More than a quarter of all the books are classical authors, and, with the addition of books entirely addressed to classical antiquity, the proportion is about one third. The classical riches on the working-class self-educator’s bookshelf after 1887 can in large measure be attributed to Lubbock’s ideal curriculum. Old translations of items on the list were reprinted and marketed as one of ‘Sir John Lubbock’s Hundred Books’, for example Lord Brougham’s rendering of Demosthenes’ On the Crown (1840), intended to convey ‘to persons unacquainted with the original some notion of its innumerable and transcendent beauties’.60 One son of a London policeman recalls his father reading his meticulous way through the entire list, which his son regarded as worthy and boring, not long after it was published.61

Thereafter, the Camden WMC’s impressive array of courses included Greek literature by Arthur Sidgwick (1840-1920). Sidgwick is best known now for his books on Greek prose (still in print) and verse composition.62 He was, however, a champion of university reform, campaigning for the admission of women to undergraduate degrees, and arguing that the university should cater for poor students and allow applications from students who knew neither ancient language.63 His brother was also a scholar, and they both resigned their fellowships at Trinity College, Cambridge, in protest against the Anglican religious tests imposed on academics. Sidgwick was the most popular tutor at Corpus Christi College, Oxford (where he taught between 1897 and 1902) and later University Reader in Greek; his pupils included the future Regius Professor of Greek, Gilbert Murray.64

In an article in the Oxford Magazine, dated March 5th, 1920 and obscurely signed ‘A.H.S’, Sidgwick described teaching a ‘little group of tired city clerks, telephone operators and mechanics in Camden Town’.6’ In his evening class at the WMC he taught Plato’s Republic and Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus in Gilbert Murray’s translation.66 Sidgwick reports a question asked of him ‘with a buoyant gesture’ by the Head Master of the public school, who was about to teach a class on Theocritus: ‘Can you conceive anything more delightful than a class in Theocritus, on such a day and in such a place?’ Sidgwick reflects that the remark left him ‘picturing the progress of the class and thinking of the way in which, for so many succeeding generations, the classics have been steeped with the peculiar atmosphere of the public schools’:

What proportion of Englishmen who have learnt Classics at school feel that Theocritus or Plato or Thucydides signify, above all, English playing-fields, English class-rooms, and the scent of English limes? Of course in such an atmosphere much evaporates—the restlessness of the Greek intellect and many other things. There is even absurdity in the way in which some story of perverted passion is pleasantly droned through a drowsy summer afternoon. But the whole complex, whatever differences it blurs, has its own unique character and value.67

But Sidgwick has another constituency in mind: could this experience ‘be reproduced for my little group of tired city clerks, telephone operators, and mechanics in Camden Town? Did one want to reproduce it?’68 He contrasts the keen curiosity and active engagement of the workers in his evening class with the slow passive ‘absorption’ of the domesticated classical education texts imbibed at public school:

Delightful as may be the process of gradually absorbing classical learning permeated with the most English of English atmospheres, there is something to be said for the value of the sharp contact of comparatively mature minds with an unknown literature and civilisation. The excitement and zest of discovery is something for which it would not always be easy to find a parallel in the classical education of the average publicschool boy.69

Sidgwick’s teaching in translation, which provides that ‘sharp contact with an unknown literature and civilisation’, was experimental. He described the exercises in close reading:

The reading of Professor Murray’s translation was the basis. But at intervals a few lines would be taken—say a strophe of a chorus—and we gave them what was a rather close examination. First there was the Greek to be read aloud, followed by a very literal translation. Then the class would be shown the actual order of the words in the Greek, and it would be pointed out how words calling up certain images were juxtaposed and so forth. The class obtained in this way some idea of the character of an inflectional language and the uses to which it could be put. Differences in the character of the language would be illustrated by comparison with Professor Murray’s translation.70

This innovative approach seems to have worked well, and Sidgwick hoped that others would follow his example: ‘I can at least reiterate the hope that before long the question of introducing the study of Greek translations in WEA classes may be taken up with the seriousness which it deserves’.71

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