William Craik, the son of a railway guard, was born in Montrose in 1881. He went to school in Dundee before moving to Barry in South Wales, where he found work in the railway industry. In 1904 he joined the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (later the National Union of Railwaymen).
In February, 1899, Charles A. Beard and Walter Vrooman established Ruskin Hall (later known as Ruskin College), a free university offering evening and correspondence courses for working class people. The two men received most of the funds for the project from Amne Vrooman. (1)
Dennis Hird was appointed as the the college's first principal. Hird was a member of the Social Democratic Federation and the former rector of St John the Baptist Church, in Eastnor, who had been sacked for a lecture he gave on the subject, Jesus the Socialist (it was later published as a pamphlet that sold 70,000 copies). (2)
The students, almost all of them were sent on trade union scholarships worth £52. Craik arrived in 1907. So also did Noah Ablett, a member of the South Wales Miners' Federation. He was completely self-educated and after reading the works of Karl Marx, Daniel De Leon and Tom Mann, he became a committed socialist. According to his biographer, Hywel Francis, "he quickly made his mark on educational thinking at Ruskin, and organized classes in Marxian economics and history as an alternative to the traditional liberal curriculum". (3)
Bernard Jennings argues that Ablett had a considerable influence over the students at Ruskin: "Tensions began to build as increasing numbers of students became ardent socialists. They enjoyed Hird's lectures on sociology, a major element of which was the study of evolution, on which he had written a popular book. They disliked Lees Smith's lectures on economics, although acknowledging his ability as a teacher, because his adherence to current free-market theories was just as dogmatic as that of the left-wing students to Marxism." (4)
In November 1908, Oxford University announced that it was going to take over Ruskin College. The chancellor of the university, George Curzon, was the former Conservative Party MP and the Viceroy of India. His reactionary views were well-known and was the leader of the campaign to prevent women having the vote. Curzon visited the college where he made a speech to the students explaining the decision.
Dennis Hird replied to Curzon: "My Lord, when you speak of Ruskin College you are not referring merely to this institution here in Oxford, for this is only a branch of a great democratic movement that has its roots all over the country. To ask Ruskin College to come into closer contact with the University is to ask the great democracy whose foundation is the Labour Movement, a democracy that in the near future will come into its own, and, when it does, will bring great changes in its wake".
The author of The Burning Question of Education (1909) reported: "As he concluded, the burst of applause that emanated from the students seemed to herald the dawn of the day Dennis Hird had predicted. Without another word, Lord Curzon turned on his heel and walked out, followed by the remainder of the lecture staff, who looked far from pleased. When the report of the meeting was published in the press, the students noted that significantly enough Dennis Hird's reply was suppressed, and a few colourless remarks substituted." (5)
William Craik later pointed out that his fellow students were "very perturbed at the direction in which the teaching and control of the College was moving, and by the failure of the trade union leaders to make any effort to change that direction. We new arrivals had little or no knowledge of what had been taking place at Ruskin before we got there. Most of us were socialists of one party shade or other." (6)
Students of Ruskin College were forbidden to speak in public without the permission of the executive committee. In an effort to marginalise Dennis Hird, new rules such as the requirement for regular essays and quarterly revision papers were introduced. Craik argued: "This met with strong resistance from the majority of the students, who looked upon it as one more way of making the connection with the University still closer... Most of the students had come to Ruskin College on the understanding that there would be no tests other than monthly essays set and examined by their respective tutors, and afterwards discussed in personal interviews with them." (7)
In 1909 Lord George Curzon published Principles and Methods of University Reform. In the book he pointed out that it was vitally important to control the education of future leaders of the labour movement. He urged universities to promote the growth of an elite leadership and rejected the 19th century educational reformers call for reform on utilitarian lines to encourage "upward movement" of the capitalist middle class: "We must strive to attract the best, for they will be the leaders of the upward movement... and it is of great importance that their early training should be conducted on liberal rather than on utilitarian lines." (8)
In February, 1909, Dennis Hird was investigated in order to discover if he had "deliberately identified the college with socialism". The sub-committee reported back that Hird was not guilty of this offence but did criticise Henry Sanderson Furniss for "bias and ignorance" and recommended the appointment of another lecturer in economics, more familiar with working class views. Hastings Lees-Smith and the executive committee rejected this suggestion and in March decided to dismiss Hird for "failing to maintain discipline". He was given six months' salary (£180) in lieu of notice, plus a pension of £150 a year for life. (9)
It is believed that 20 students were members of the Plebs League. William Craik helped to organise a students' strike in support of Hird. (10) The Ruskin authorities decided to close the college for a fortnight and then re-admit only students who would sign an undertaking to observe the rules. Of the 54 students at Ruskin at that time, 44 of them agreed to sign the document. However, the students decided that they would use the Plebs League and its journal, the Plebs' Magazine, to campaign for the setting up of a new and real Labour College. (11)
Dennis Hird received very little support from other advocates of working-class education. Albert Mansbridge, the
founder of the Workers' Educational Association (WEA) in 1903, blamed Hird's preaching of socialism for his dismissal. In a letter to a French friend, he wrote "the low-down practice of Dennis Hird in playing upon the class consciousness of swollen-headed students embittered by the gorgeous panorama ever before them of an Oxford in which they have no part." (12)
Noah Ablett took the lead in establishing an alternative to Ruskin College. He saw the need for a residential college as a cadre training school for the labour movement that was based on socialist values. George Sims, who had been expelled after his involvement in the Ruskin strike, played an important role in raising the funds for the project. On 2nd August, 1909, Ablett and Sims organised a conference that was attended by 200 trade union representatives. Dennis Hird, Walter Vrooman and Frank Lester Ward were all at the conference. (13)
Sims explained that the "last link which bound Ruskin College to the Labour Movement had been broken, the majority of the students had taken the bold step of trying to found a new college owned and controlled by the organised Labour Movement." (14) Ablett moved the resolution: "That this Conference of workers declares that the time has now arrived when the working class should enter the educational world to work out its own problems for itself." (15)
The conference agreed to establish the Central Labour College (CLC). The students rented two houses in Bradmore Road in Oxford. It was decided that "two-thirds of representation on Board of Management shall be Labour organisations on the same lines as the Labour Party constitution, namely, Trade Unions, Socialist societies and Co-operative societies." Most of the original funding came from the South Wales Miners' Federation (SWMF) and the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR). (16)
Dennis Hird agreed to act as Principal and to lecture on sociology and other subjects, without any salary. George Sims worked as its secretary and Alfred Hacking was employed as tutor in English grammar and literature. Fred Charles accepted a post as tutor in industrial and political history. The teaching staff was supplemented by regular visiting lecturers, such as Frank Horrabin, Winifred Batho, Rebecca West, Emily Wilding Davison, H. N. Brailsford, Arthur Horner and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence.
The Plebs Magazine pointed out the main objectives of the Central Labour College: "The education given at the Central Labour College to the selected working men of the Labour Movement is to serve essentially as a means for the education of the workers throughout the country. Arrangements are being made in this direction, and we hope to be able to announce at no distant date the inauguration of a systematic provincial scheme of working-class education. The training of men for the purpose of going out into the industrial world to train their fellow-workers concerning those questions which so vitally affect their everyday life, is a work, we feel certain, that will in a short time give to the Labour Movement the intelligent discipline and solidarity it so much needs. (17)
William Craik originally was a student at the college. However, in 1910, Hird appointed him as Vice-Principal. In 1911 the college moved to London. "Very soon after the College arrived in Kensington it began to conduct evening classes, both within and without, for the working men and women in the district, and to extend their range. Not many years were to pass before there was hardly a suburb in Greater London without one or more Labour College classes at work in it. Nothing like this, needless to say, would have been possible had the College remained in Oxford." (18)
John Saville has argued that the Central Labour College provided the kind of socialist education that was not provided by Ruskin College and the Workers' Educational Association. "What we have in these years is both the attempt to channel working-class education into the safe and liberal outlets of the Workers' Educational Association and Ruskin College, and the development of working-class initiatives from below; and it is the latter only which made its contribution to the socialist movement - and a considerable contribution it was." (19)
Bernard Jennings agrees with Saville on this point and points out that Richard Tawney, A. D. Lindsay and Archbishop William Temple were all supporters of Ruskin College and the WEA over the Central Labour College: "There is no doubt that the establishment preferred the WEA and Ruskin to the Labour college movement, a fact exploited quite brazenly by the WEA in the 1920s. Temple, Tawney and A. D. Lindsay all warned the Board of Education and the LEAs that unless they supported the WEA and respected its academic freedom, workers' education would fall to the CLC." (20)
The Central Labour College was always short of money. The Plebs Magazine was used to raise funds. "Your cash will be used to good purpose - make no doubt of that. The CLC flag has been kept flying up to now by the pluck, devotion and enthusiasm of the garrison. Only those, perhaps, who - like the present writer - have had an occasional glimpse behind the scenes, know the extent of the devotion and that enthusiasm. What are you going to do about it?" (21)
Dennis Hird suffered for many years with thrombosis. He became very ill in 1913 and was confined to his bed for over a year. He returned to work in 1914 but in May 1915 he was forced back to his bed. William Craik and George Sims took over most of his details. However, Craik and Sims were conscripted into the British Army in 1917 and it was forced to close until the end of the First World War. (22)
William Craik visited Hird in 1919 and "despite the tediousness of his prolonged confinement in bed, he was cheerful and quite hopeful of being able to return to his post." Unfortunately he did not recover and died on 13th July 1920. Craik now replaced him as Principal of the Central Labour College. (23)
Craik lectured on history and logic. According to Stuart MaCintyre: "In their first year students studied economics, industrial history, the history of socialism, sociology, English and logic or the Science of Understanding. In the second year economics and philosophy were studied at a more advanced level, along with extra classes chosen from such subjects (offered by guest lecturers) as imperialism, economic geography, trade union law, literature, psychology, languages, etc." (24)
The Central Labour College educated several future trade union leaders and Labour Party MPs. This included Arthur J. Cook, Frank Hodges, William H. Mainwaring, Ellen Wilkinson, Lewis Jones, Ness Edwards, Idris Cox, Hubert Beaumont, William Coldrick, Jim Griffiths, Harold Heslop, Morgan Phillips, Joseph Sparks, Ivor Thomas, Edward Williams, Arthur Jenkins, Will Owen, William Paling, George Dagger and James Harrison.
Aneurin Bevan went to the CLC in 1919. Bevan spent two years studying economics, politics and history at the college. It was during this period that Bevan read the Communist Manifesto and was converted to the ideas of Karl Marx and Frederich Engels. (25) Bevan did not enjoy his time at college as he "was very much a loner, preferring to study on his own rather than attend classes he found dull". (26)
William Craik commented: "Aneurin Bevan... found it difficult to conform with some of the College rules, like the time to get out of bed in the morning and down to breakfast; but then he was always late in getting to bed! He took a delight in debating with other students, when he could, into the small hours of the morning, the merits of direct action and the demerits of parliamentary action... Unlike most of the other students he rarely wrote for Plebs... It was the spoken word, not the written word, for which he had an outstanding flair." (27)
Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) attempted to gain control of the Plebs League and the Central Labour College as it believed that "working class education can only achieve its object under the leadership of the Party", however, Craik insisted that "such education can best be provided by a specifically educational organisation, supported by all workers' industrial and political organisations and uncommitted to any sectional policy". (28)
The conservative press became concerned about how the Central Labour College taught economics. The Spectator complained that Working Men's Colleges such as the CLC were dangerous places: "The Colleges are not institutions for learning and research as such; they exist rather for the propagation of particular views. They teach Collectivism, and they turn out their pupils fully equipped apostles of that doctrine. They are seminaries rather than colleges.... The obvious source of instruction for the manual worker to turn to is the economic teaching approved of by the Trade Unions. Practically all this teaching comes from Socialists; ranging from State Socialists through Guild Socialists and Syndicalists to Marxians." (29)
By 1929 the mining industry was in severe decline due to the Great Depression. In April a conference of the South Wales Miners' Federation voted to discontinue funding of the college. (30) Jimmy Thomas, the General Secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen, also withdrew his support of the CLC. By July it was clear that the college could not continue to operate, and it closed at the end of the month. (31)
The Trade Union Congress decided to concentrate its funding of the National Council of Labour Colleges. The education it provided through its evening classes and week-end summer schools was "cheaper and gets to a far larger number". It continued to send trade union activists to Ruskin College, but it was not dependent on TUC scholarships. (32)
Tremendous as were the odds against which we had to contend, we were gratified and sustained by the successes which our efforts had begun to achieve for the Central Labour College. Very much of the credit for the progress that had been made was undoubtedly due to the branches of the Plebs League, founded and promoted by Ruskin College ex-students. Noah Ablett, Noah Rees and Edward Gill, in the South Wales coalfield, Ebby Edwards, in the Northumberland, Charles Watkins, among the railwaymen, to name only a few, put an immense amount of time and effort into the campaign, now in full swing. Not only in their union meetings and in the open air but also in the local press, they won ever widening support for the new college. Most of them were already conducting classes in their localities, and through their teaching they were able to do really positive work in demonstrating the need for, and the value of the new Labour education.
Our purpose is not completed with the education of the few. The education given at the Central Labour College to the selected working men of the Labour Movement is to serve essentially as a means for the education of the workers throughout the country. Arrangements are being made in this direction, and we hope to be able to announce at no distant date the inauguration of a systematic provincial scheme of working-class education. The training of men for the purpose of going out into the industrial world to train their fellow-workers concerning those questions which so vitally affect their everyday life, is a work, we feel certain, that will in a short time give to the Labour Movement the intelligent discipline and solidarity it so much needs.
The Working Men's Colleges, the winter classes and the summer schools, it is true, go in hot and strong for teaching. economics. But what do they teach? The Colleges are not institutions for learning and research as such; they exist rather for the propagation of particular views. They teach Collectivism, and they turn out their pupils fully equipped apostles of that doctrine. They are seminaries rather than colleges.
For our part, we think it absurd to blame the manual worker too much. He has never been given a chance. It is the exceptional man who goes to one of the Working Men's Colleges. In quiet and prosperous times the study of economies seemed to be useless. Things happened sufficiently well without the interference of the amateur inquirer. The ordinary man no more wanted to be an economist than he wanted to be an astronomer. He left it all to the professors. The trouble is now that we live in very disquieting and ruinous times and that every man is forced by his sufferings and anxieties to make inquiries as to why these things should be so. The obvious source of instruction for the manual worker to turn to is the economic teaching approved of by the Trade Unions. Practically all this teaching comes from Socialists; ranging from State Socialists through Guild Socialists and Syndicalists to Marxians.
The Marxian, with his denunciations of the "unholy trinity - rent, interest and profit," and his dream of the rule of the Proletariat," is proclaiming his apocalypse in ears made attentive by real hardships. The easy going rank-and-ffie of British Labour has so often acquiesced in the recital of the revolutionary Credo in its name that it is beginning to accept it as a commonplace, although it remains sceptical and apathetic as to the building of the New Jerusalem. "British workmen are not Socialists " is a familiar phrase. But those whom the workers pay to do their thinking for them in most cases are. Trade Unionists of the type of Thomas Burt no longer lead; Mr. Bowerman is to be placed on the shelf on the ground of age; Mr. Thomas, Mr. Clynes, Mr. Hodges - all those who count in the Labour. Movement of today, and who will he the Labour Ministers of tomorrow should Labour win a majority at the polls have pledged themselves to the principles of Collectivism. Discontent, ignorance, thoughtlessness, class consciousness may prevail, and the vote, given for the men rather than for the measures they advocate; place Socialism, passing under the colourless name of Labour, in power. If the defence is allowed to go by default, it is bound to be so, sooner or later.
We doubt whether the public at large in the least understands the pertinacity of the attack. which is being made on its existing order. Revolution to the .man in the street connotes hombs and bullets, and he sees little cause to fear an, outbreak. He is no doubt right. But there are other and surer means of bringing about revolution. To teach the citizens, present-and-future, to demand the overthrow of the Capitalist system is the avowed aim. There are agencies, such as the World Association for Adult Education and the Workers' Educational Association, which stand honourably aloof from these attempts, to poison the wells and devote themselves to the real work of assisting men and women to self-culture. But much remains to be done, especially in the direct teaching of economics.
The damage done to the country by industrial disputes, by slow and inefficient work grudgingly done, by unnecessary absenteeism, even by the psychological effects of discontent, could be enormously reduced if the employers on the one hand and the workers on the other could enter into each other's minds, realize exactly where the shoe pinches and sympathize with each other's difficulties and aspirations. Two things seem to be required: first; day-to-day information, accurate and unbiased, as to the conditions governing the state of trade and industry; and secondly - but ultimately the more important of the two - systematic instruction in the principles underlying all trade and industry, especially international trade.