Guest blogger, author and historian Jerry White has kindly written about his research into the Workers Educational Association archives, part of the TUC Library.
THE WEA ARCHIVE AT THE TUC LIBRARY
For the last five or six years I’ve been working on a history of London in the Second World War, published in November 2021 as The Battle of London 1939-45. Endurance, Heroism and Frailty under Fire. In the book I’ve tried to give an overview of all aspects of life in the capital and, in a final chapter, attempted to spell out the consequences of war for London and the Londoner. Many of these were disastrous, not least the impact of war on the education of schoolchildren, whose learning was not just interrupted but in many cases obstructed altogether.
But I didn’t have much space to write about adult education during the war, and here the story was very different. Adult education flourished and would never look back, at least for a generation and more to come. So the opportunity to give a public lecture in February 2022 at Birkbeck College – soon to celebrate its bicentenary – on adult education in London during the war sent me back to the archive. And the most useful archive for my purposes has proved to be the WEA archive at the TUC library.
The WEA was formed in 1903. It was firmly rooted in the trade union movement, providing evening classes for workers of all kinds. From the outset it capitalised on workers’ aspirations to understand better the world around them. Some of its courses were tutorial classes of university standard and delivered by lecturers of considerable renown – RH Tawney, the distinguished economic historian and Labour Party activist, was the WEA’s president for many years. It was organised on a local basis, often with branches related to individual boroughs or groups of boroughs. It was strong especially in the north of England but it had branches and voluntary organisers (some fulltime and salaried) everywhere in Great Britain.
I was interested mainly in the work of the WEA London District, though I gleaned useful context from the archive’s full run of WEA annual reports for Britain as a whole, and for London the archive is especially rich in material: the minute books, correspondence files, collections of ephemera and the London District’s printed annual reports for the war years were all of great interest.
The story they tell is of an organisation that was never dislocated by the declaration of war or by the Blitz or V-Weapons. Unlike London’s university colleges, which (apart from Birkbeck) were evacuated from London for the whole of the war, and unlike London’s schools (which operated only a sparse education for those children – a majority – who were not evacuated), the WEA continued to operate throughout the six years of war. At first, classes were reduced in number as lecturers were syphoned off into the services or other war work, and as the blackout discouraged many from attending evening classes; and the night-bombing from September 1940 to May 1941 drove many classes to open during the day and weekends. But from the summer of 1941 a rapid growth in demand for adult education across London fuelled the creation of new branches (especially in the London suburbs) and ever more classes. By 1942 the WEA in London was teaching more students in more localities than ever before in its history. In part this was due to what we might call ‘the democratic turn’ of 1941-2, in which sympathy for Soviet Russia, the feeling of community generated by local civil defence forces, the interest aroused by the Beveridge Report and the London Plans with their focus on what sort of London would emerge from the war, and educational reform nationwide, all played their part. We can see in this ever-growing interest in the WEA, and just where its local branches were formed, the key part that the London suburbs would play in voting to power a Labour government in 1945.
In sum, the WEA archive can tell us a great deal about aspects of working-class life and aspirations that are otherwise hidden from view. It is a treasure-trove for historians of the British working class in the twentieth century.
Emeritus Professor of London History, Birkbeck College