1873 Birth of the U3A? / by John Batt

This is a short piece of research on the topic of 1873.

The formal work of University Extension in its modern sense began under the auspices of the University of Cambridge in 1873. (Kelly, 1962.)

1873 was the year the foundations of the French model of U3A‘s were laid.  The idea that Universities had a wider role to provide learning for disadvantaged groups came about, as always, from far thinking individuals like Adam Sedgwick, Henry Roscoe, T. H. Huxley, Mrs Josephine Butler, and James Stuart.

The mid-nineteenth century saw a huge demand for learning and education by adults, and these pioneers reached out with their open lectures to large audiences, sometimes up to 600.

Until the 17th century, education outside the institutions of learning had been about ‘Salvation’ and was the prerogative of the Church.  The 18th century saw the growth of the Coffee Houses (where discussion and debate was rife), Clubs, and Societies.  Notable societies, some still in existence today, were in Art, Music, Debating, Literacy.  There were Circulating Libraries and book clubs emerging to provide wider access to resources for the middle classes.  Membership was open to all, in theory, though there was a membership fee.  One debating society had a fee of 6d with a glass of lemonade or porter.  Book clubs were not quite as we know them today, but were groups of people clubbing together to buy, and then share, books.  They were more to acquire knowledge, rather than a vehicle for debate and discussion as our Book Clubs are today, but demonstrate how society was moving towards a knowledge based ethos.  

So although by the late eighteenth century opportunities to access learning were developing, these activities were still, in general, the preserve of the middle classes.  The majority of the population was still poor and illiterate.  Even enlightened educators, like the sisters Hannah and Martha Moore of Cheddar, whose work is considered the foundation of informal education, held the following views.

My plan for instructing the poor is very limited and strict.  I allow no writing.  My object has not been to teach dogmas and opinions, but to form the lower classes to habits of industry and virtue.; and: so little sensibility that we  are obliged to beat into their heads continually the good we are doing them.   (Martha Moore)

Hannah Moore, who wrote a regular series know as Cheap Repository Tracts, explained ‘as an appetite for reading had been increasing among the inferior ranks of the country, it was judged expedient to supply such wholesome aliment as might give a new direction to their taste.’

Over 100 of these tracts were produced from 1795 to 1798 (fifty of them written by Hannah), and the sales ran into millions.

The advent of the 19th century and industrialisation saw the growth of public interest in science and public lectures.  The urge to study science found its chief outlet in adult education because the provision for science in public education was so completely inadequate.  So began the birth of the Mechanics Institutes and the Working Men’s Associations.  Night schools for Adults were also prevalent by the mid 19th century.  The 1851 census in England and Wales recorded 1,545 evening schools with 39,783 students.  These were attended by Artisans (14,405), agricultural labourers (6,709), domestic servants (1,317), and, with a smattering of clerks and shopkeepers, the rest were manual workers.  There were 27,829 men and 11,954 women.  

By the middle of the nineteenth century the two ancient Universities had become a social and intellectual backwater in the life of the nation. (Kelly,*)

New Universities were starting in London (1826) and Durham (1832), and colleges with University character began in Manchester, (Owens College, 1851), Aberystwyth (1872), Leeds (1874), Bristol (1874), Birmingham (1880).

In 1855, Lord Hervey of Cambridge (later Bishop of Bath and Wells) proposed 4 rural, or circuit, professors; whilst in Manchester, evening classes were part of Owens College from the beginning, being linked to the Working Men’s college.  Henry Roscoe, appointed as Professor of Chemistry at Owens College, began extension courses on his own volition giving lectures to unemployed cotton workers, and later organising a series of Penny Science lectures for working men.

In 1867, the North of England Council for promoting Higher Education of Women was formed; its President was Mrs Josephine Butler.  She brought together groups of ladies from northern towns and, at their invitation, James Stuart, a young Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, delivered 4 lecture-courses in Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield, and Manchester.  Each week over 300 women – over half those attending – gave in written answers to the questions set.

The characteristics of the lectures for men were: a printed syllabus, written work, and the discussion period.  At the end of his first lecture Stuart distributed written notes of the syllabus ‘to assist women students in making notes.‘  Stuart found it more useful to distribute these note in advance ‘to aid better understanding the lecture’.  Written questions were circulated in advance and written answers were required as it was ‘considered improper for a young man such as Stuart to exchange oral questions and answers with an audience of young ladies.’

In 1871, Stuart appealed to the University of Cambridge to ‘take in hand the work done so successfully by voluntary effort’ and create a ‘peripatetic university of professors which would circulate among the big towns.’

In 1873, Cambridge University formally adopted University Extension.  It had arisen because of two demands: a university education for working men, and university help in the higher education of women.  The latter was very significant, as at the time it echoed the reforms in public education and the reconstruction of secondary education for girls (1865).

In the autumn of 1873, Cambridge University organised a series of local lectures for a trial period in Nottingham, Leicester, and Derby.  In the light of their success, a further series was arranged in other centres in the spring of 1874.  Attendances at these lectures were in excess of 100.

The University Extension’s aim, of reaching out from Cambridge to the general population and providing a universal learning experience, is exactly what the French University in Toulouse set out to do with their Universités du Troisième Âge exactly 100 years later in 1973. 

Further reading

Draper, William H   University extension: a survey of fifty years, 1873-1923.   Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1923

Marriott, Stuart  University extension lecturers: the organisation of extramural employment in England, 1873-1914.   Leeds: Museum of the History of Education University of Leeds, 1985

Sollas, William Johnson   Cambridge University Extension. Syllabus of a Course of Lectures (I.-XXVI.) on Geology: 1873 to 1877.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1879   PDF download