Albert Mansbridge was born the son of a carpenter and had his first taste of education at St James’ School, Tredworth until he was fourteen. He went on to become an important figure in the development of adult education in Britain.
He was effectively a self-educated man who, despite both his family’s financial problems and leaving school aged fourteen, completed a university extension course from King College, London. The course was on “The Chemistry of Everyday Life” and Albert won a certificate with distinction at the end of it. He took up clerical work to earn his keep while, at the same time, also teaching economics, industrial history and typing.
Albert was concerned about the lack of availability for further education for working men. So Albert conceived the “Association to Promote the Higher Education of Working Men”. In 1903 he founded this organization under the name of the “Workers’ Education Association” (WEA). The Association was was instituted at a conference of Trade Unions, the Co-operative Movement and members of the University Extension authorities. His wife paid 2s 6d (12.5p) to become the first member.
Albert was determined that this would not be merely an administrative organisation but one dedicated to demonstrate that a “partnership between labour and learning” would prove that, given the chance, working people could study systematically to a high level and “show profit for all.”
The foundation was quickly recognised by universities and, in 1905, Albert stopped working as a clerk and became its first full-time secretary-general. International branches in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand were also formed in the following decades.
Despite a bout of spinal meningitis, Albert was able to form other groups, including the “World Association for Adult Education” (1918), the “Seafarers’ Educational Service” (1919), and the “British Institute for Adult Education” (1921). In addition, he also established the National Central Library to provide tutorial systems and a scholarly library for working people who could not join an academic institution.
Albert was asked to deliver lectures on adult education in Boston and California and was a member of numerous government committees on education, including the Consultative Committee for the Board of Education from 1906-12 and 1924-39. He was an advisor to the Prime Minister and served on the Royal Commission on the Universities that determined the fate of Oxford and Cambridge. He also served on numerous church committees, including the Selbourne Committee on Church and State, 1914-16.
From humble beginnings at St James’ School in Tredworth, Albert Mansbridge went on to revolutionise the education of working people beyond secondary level. Nowadays it is easier for people to have a university education, but perhaps this would not be the case had Albert and his contemporaries not demonstrated that education and educational resources should be for everyone.
The WEA still exists.