On 14th May it is the anniversary of the death of one of Birmingham’s prominent citizens, Joseph Sturge, who died in 1859. A successful Quaker businessman, a generous philanthropist and an active campaigner, he is perhaps best known for his work in the anti-slavery movement and the establishment of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (now known as Anti-slavery International). However, he was a man of many interests and it is his role in beginning the adult education movement in Birmingham which is the subject of this blog post.
On 12th August 1845, concerned by the behaviour of the men and teenage boys he saw in the city’s streets on Sundays, Sturge invited some of Birmingham’s younger Quakers to his house in Wheeley’s Road, Edgbaston to discuss whether they could establish an adult school for them. It was to be another 25 years before compulsory primary education would be introduced and many adults at this time had started work as young children so levels of literacy among the working classes remained low. Sturge had been impressed by a visit in 1842 to what is now seen as being the earliest of the adult schools, established in Nottingham in 1798, and he wanted to set up a similar school in Birmingham. The Nottingham school was run by a Methodist, William Singleton and subsequently taken over by a Quaker, Samuel Fox. Non-denominational classes took place on Sundays, teaching men and women reading and writing classes based on the Bible.
The group of Birmingham Quakers agreed that such a school should be established for,
‘…those who are not & have not been in the way of receiving any instruction in other schools.’
(Severn Street First Day School minute, 12th August 1845, SF (2016/043) 1524 part 1 of 2).