The Midland Adult School Movement

I stumbled across the Iron Room Blog after a photograph of a worker at the Bournville Cadbury factory fluttered out of my late Granddads bird watching note books. I searched for the name but instead found the January 12th blog post; Cadbury Trusts’ catalogue now available.

I delved deeper and discovered that in 1859, under the auspices of William White, twenty year old George Cadbury began his life long connection with The Adult School Movement. My own family also have a strong association with Cadburys and the Adult School (AS) so my curiosity was ignited.

It was under the influence of Methodism that the first AS was opened in 1798 by William Singleton in Nottingham. William was subsequently joined by Samuel Fox, a Quaker and grocer who invited his staff, mainly women, to teach at the school.

In Birmingham Joseph Sturge also a Quaker, social reformer and philanthropist established the Severn Street First Day School on October 12th 1845. Joseph recognised the need for an organisation which young men could attend to learn to read (the Bible) and write. More than a hundred attended the first meeting and the numbers grew despite a draughty and uncomfortable environment.  The school members drew working men away from the public houses to improve their ‘lot in life’.

In Birmingham Archives and Collections I come across the original sepia photograph of The ‘Beehive’ AS which opened in a disused public house in 1902. This school was first established in 1901 in a grocers store room in Bishopsgate Street. This was a run down part of Ladywood, Birmingham where it was ‘scarcely deemed safe for one policeman to patrol alone’.

At first glance this photograph, of a crowd of men with pocket watches hanging by chains from their waist coats, appeared to be of The Clark Street School which opened in 1875. However a hand written letter from E.J. Fullwood (former secretary of the National AS Council) confirms that it is the Beehive School:

In a most unexpected place I have at last found the missing Beehive AS original photograph. The seated figures and those standing immediately behind them are the original members of the school. Most of the others are members of the Clark St School…

(MS 703 (2015/082) 15/56)

MS 703 (2015/082) 15/56

The Beehive Adult School, branch school of Clark St. Adult School, photograph taken by F. Nightingale, after Opening Service, September 1902 [Ref MS 703 (2015/082) 15/56]

Closer scrutiny of the photograph reveals that the building on the left hand side is indeed The Beehive Inn! I am delighted to find another letter from my Great Grandad Tom Hill to Lawrence Burton, the secretary of the Midland Adult School at that time. Grandad Tom wrote,

…of all the men present we know nothing; we have no record of all of the good they did, or endeavoured to do, only this photo…

(MS 703 (2015/082) 15/56)

I find further reference to the photograph and a book written by Edward Smith (previous President of the Midland Adult School) Glowing Facts and personalities. The book includes stories of Sam Allen, a working man, Clark Street class member, and highly regarded leader of the Beehive (described as being in the front row with a straw hat between his knees).

Sam says to the first gathering of men at the Beehive:

I was born in a public house in yon street, but I have learnt something in the adult school which I want all ye fellows to get.  The good I’ve got I want you to have a share in…

The last time some of them had seen him was when they had laid a wager on a race, as Sam was at one time a ‘private sporting bookie’. But even then, as he afterward confessed, his conscience seemed to condemn him as he took their money which the majority of them were bound to lose. Here’s another fool bringing the price of a child’s’ needed shoes or of a jacket or frock… he would say to himself

At its height the National Adult School Union (changed to Organisation in 1979) had over 100,000 members. However the reason I had been asked to research the stories and history of The Midland Adult School Union is because only fourteen or so members remain.

Last year the organisation had to vacate their final office premises at short notice. They approached Archives and Collections at the Library of Birmingham and breathed a sigh of relief when the boxes of dusty files, photographs, and memorabilia were gladly accepted. Now their history will be protected and be available for future generations once it has been catalogued by the experts in the department.

So with permission granted for me to access the un-catalogued material I visited Archives and Collections. Eleanor Woodward, the archivist for the Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers Project, guided me through the process of viewing the archives.

For the time being the silver haired, mainly octogenarians competently run the National Adult School Organisation Executive meeting as well as the Midland Adult School Union. They also meet as the Rubery Group which was established in 1961 in my Mom and Dad’s house two years before I was born. No new members have joined for some considerable time.

I am also interviewing the members and as I listen and record their histories the links between the archives and their experiences start to unravel.  After all I don’t want my Great Granddad Tom’s words to be true for this photograph too…

The 50th Anniversary of the Rubery Adult School (2011), photograph courtesy of one of the Midland Adult School members interviewed by Dawn Hamill (nee Hill)

The 50th Anniversary of the Rubery Adult School (2011), photograph courtesy of one of the Midland Adult School members interviewed by Dawn Hamill (nee Hill)

Dawn Hamill (nee Hill)

If you would like to contact Dawn, please do so via the box at the bottom of the page.


Edward Smith (1916). Glowing Facts and Personalities.  The Religious Tract Society: London.


3 responses to “The Midland Adult School Movement

  1. Sounds a very interesting and important piece of work. You may be interested to know (should you require any comparison material) that York library/archives also has a good deal of material on the adult school movement up there.

  2. Pingback: ‘A Union of Adult Schools in the Midland Counties’ | The Iron Room

Leave a comment here or send enquiries to

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s