Albert Mansbridge

Championing education for working people

An introduction to Albert Mansbridge, who championed education for working people.

He was committed to self-improvement

Born in 1876, Albert was the son of a carpenter. He had to leave school at 14 as his family needed him to earn money. He continued to learn though, attending classes at King’s College, London, although without taking a degree. He went on to teach evening classes in economics, industrial history and typing, all while holding down his day job as an office clerk.

He was passionate about working class people getting an education

In 1902, aged 26, he published the article, Co-operation, Trade Unionism and University Extension where he expressed concern about the “lack of thinking power in the rank and file” of the labour movement. He argued that higher education for future working-class leaders would result in “right and sound action” in how society was run.

His work complemented what trade unions did

Albert formed the Association to Promote the Higher Education of Working Men at his home in Clapham in January 1903. In the group’s first meeting – between him and his wife Frances – she contributed 2s 6d from her housekeeping money as a working fund and voted Albert honorary secretary. The group held its first conference in Oxford on 22nd August 1903. The conference was attended and supported by trade unions.

He was a feminist

Although the new organisation was aimed at men, Albert was influenced by his mother who was a member of the Women’s Co-Operative Guild and the other women who pointed out to him that the organisation was sexist. In 1905 it became the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA). He went on to become an early advocate of a nationwide system of crêches so women could take up opportunities for learning.

He was not afraid of the establishment

Albert formed an alliance with a group of young academics from Oxford University who wanted to reform their university by making it more open to working men. In August 1907 a committee of fourteen, half nominated by the university and half by the WEA, was appointed to devise a new strategy for workers’ education – and soon working people were able to study there.

He was a passionate marketer

He travelled the length and breadth of the country, tirelessly promoting the WEA, converting doubters and opening new centres. Apparently he always kept a bag packed with duplicate night things so he had only to grab his case and rush off. By 1914 the Workers’ Educational Association had 179 branches, over 2,500 affiliated societies (of which 953 were trade unions) and 11,500 individual members. Branches delivered a diverse programme that ranged from lectures in the arts and social sciences to nature-study rambles.

He almost died young

In June 1914 Albert developed cerebrospinal meningitis and came close to death. After this he felt he had to reduce his work load and resigned as general secretary of the WEA. However, he remained committed to education and in 1921 co-founded the British Institute of Adult Education as a combined learned society and pressure group. Despite his near fatal illness at the age of 38 he lived until the age of 76.