A Matter of Class

Cherry Ann Knott B.Arch(Hons), PhD [1], was Head of Conservation and Regional Services at the Crafts Council (1975-79), and was the first director of Gulbenkian Foundation’s Craft Initiative. She has been a trustee of the Crafts Study Centre for 20 years and has written a report for the Crafts Council entitled ‘I Can’t Wait For Wednesday’ published in 1985. In this article she responds to Stephen Knott’s paper in The Journal of Modern Craft 7.1.

Stephen Knott’s paper ‘Working Class, Middle Class, Upper Class, Evening Class: Supplementary Education and Craft Instruction 1889-1939’ (in the March 2014 issue of this journal) highlights the dismissive way craft courses in adult education were viewed by those advocating studio-based learning. Undoubtedly the concept of ‘total immersion’ in the practice and philosophy of a craft has had an enduring impact on some of the most important areas of the crafts in Britain, most notably, as Knott vividly describes, through the influence in ceramics of Bernard Leach and in weaving of Ethel Mairet. But he makes it clear that this was only ever available as a form of education and training to a privileged minority, and rightly asserts the importance of evening classes in the crafts to a far greater population well into the first half of the 20th century. The endeavours initiated in the last decades of the 19th century to broaden the availability of education much more widely across adults in society, and in particular to include those with lower levels of opportunity, may have had their origins in the philanthropy of a small number of individuals, but they were swiftly and widely adopted with the establishment of formal institutions that continue to play a significant part in adult education to the present day.

Knott’s paper is geographically restricted to London and southern England, being the area where the divide between studio-based learning and the opportunities provided through evening classes was sharpest. The founding in 1896 of the Central School of Arts and Crafts is cited as of particular importance in relation the legacy of the Arts and Crafts Movement. However, art schools proliferated across Britain in the last years of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th and, as outlined below, other key organisations were instigated at much the same period.  It should also be noted that these developments occurred in the wake of the mechanics institutes that had been started in the 1820s to provide opportunities for working men specifically to acquire scientific and technical knowledge.[2]

Early in the 1900s, the creation of the Workers Educational Association (WEA) to promote the broader education of working people had a major and far-reaching impact. It remains the United Kingdom’s largest voluntary provider of adult education, last year running some 9,500 part-time courses that involved over 75,000 people.[3] Its extensive range of subjects currently include practical courses in, for example, calligraphy, metalwork, stained glass, jewellery-making, knitting, paper and willow crafts.

Where crafts education is concerned, the 1876 initiative of some City of London livery companies that lead to the establishment of the City and Guilds of London Institute was also of great significance.[4] The resulting City & Guilds vocational qualifications and curricula still feature prominently in a number of craft fields today, most notably in the wide range associated with textiles (eg, knitting, embroidery, patchwork and quilting, upholstery and soft furnishings), but also in jewellery and wood-working skills.

In London, Finsbury College (1893) was intended as a feeder college for the City and Guilds Central Institution. The City and Guilds of London School of Art (established in Kennington in 1879 as an extension of Lambeth School of Art), [5] also Sir John Cass Technical Institute (founded 1899),[6] created further part-time opportunities to acquire particular craft skills. Morley Memorial College for Working Men and Women was founded in 1889 following the success of scientific lectures that had developed into a programme of evening classes; Morley College remains a dedicated adult education centre, continuing to engage highly respected professionals to teach some of its craft courses, most notably in ceramics and jewellery.[7]

By the end of the 1930s, part-time day and evening courses had become established as a ubiquitous and popular means of acquiring craft skills. In the years immediately after the Second World War, the need to extend people’s skills and learning opportunities was again a concern. Locally based branches of the Women’s Institute (WI, founded in England and Wales in 1915), and the Women’s Rural Institute in Scotland (1917) were initially primarily intended to extend women’s domestic skills, with the emphasis on cookery, but soon expanded to include sewing and dress-making. However, by the time of the founding of the WI’s Denman College in 1948, to provide short residential courses, a much wider range of WI part-time day and evening courses were craft-related, as they continued to be through into the 1970s. In the immediate post-war years, many local education authorities similarly set up residential centres for short, part-time and vacation courses, the crafts frequently dominating their programmes.[7]

When the Crafts Council’s study of adult education in the crafts was commissioned in the early-1980s, the provision of such courses across England and Wales was extensive and wide-ranging. But it had also become, both geographically and in terms of choice of subjects available, very uneven. Many of the well-resourced evening classes in craft subjects that had been provided by local authority funded colleges had recently been discontinued or were under threat of closure. Nevertheless, there remained many popular courses, and examples of exceptional, inspirational tutors. The overwhelming finding of the associated survey of students was participants’ enthusiasm and the extent to which the great majority valued the courses as a serious learning opportunity. Details revealed in the analysis, included the fact that for 22.5% their craft course was their first experience of training or formal education since leaving school (at an average age of 15).[8]

Stephen Knott’s paper and the complementary information offered here, suggest that there is considerable scope now to extend the time-frame of enquiry into adult education in the crafts to the decades between 1940 and 1980. There could also be value in a serious review of the current place of craft courses in adult education provision, and also their role in the training of professional craft practitioners.


[1] The shared surname is coincidence – no known kinship with Stephen Knott.

[2] A useful summary is Martyn Walker, ‘The Origins and Development of the Mechanics Institute Movement 1824–1890 and the Beginnings of Further Education’, Teaching in Lifelong learning: a journal to inform and improve practice, 4(1), 2012, pp.32-39.

[3] Initiated 1903, named 1905: www.wea.org.uk: 2014-06-01.

[4] The City and Guilds of London Institute’s Central Technical College (renamed City and Guilds College 1907, incorporated into Imperial College 1910) occupied some of the land adjacent to Exhibition Road, South Kensington, purchased for the 1851 exhibition.

[5] The City and Guilds of London School of Art, still in Kennington, continues to be the UK’s leading centre for courses in historic carving and gilding.

[6] Became Sir John Cass College in 1950; its department of Fine and Applied Art merged with the Central School of Art’s departments of Silversmithing and Allied Crafts to form the Sir John Cass School of Art, then moving to Whitechapel; merged in 1970 with the City of London College to form City of London Polytechnic, now part of London Metropolitan University.

[7] Morley College moved to its present site in Westminster Bridge Road in the 1920s: www.morleycollege.ac.uk/about/history, 2014-06-01; Donald Hooson, ‘Full Circle’, Journal of Modern Craft Vol.7, I, 2014, pp.67-71. [8] Eg: Urchfont Manor, opened by Wiltshire County Council as an adult education centre 1947; only closed September 2012.

[8] Cherry Ann Knott, ‘I Can’t Wait for Wednesday’, Adult Education in the Crafts, 1985, pp.196-97;  abridged edition, Crafts Council, 1987, pp.41-44.


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