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A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE EARLY YEARS OF THE WEA
THE PARTNERSHIP BETWEEN LABOUR AND LEARNING
The founder of the WEA was a man who had left school at the age of fourteen and started life as
an office boy. Albert Mansbridge, while still in his fourteenth year, enrolled in a University
Extension Course on "The Chemistry of Everyday Life" and won a certificate with distinction at
the end of it. As a young man he continued to make considerable use of University Extension
lectures and became very involved in the educational work of the Co-operative movement. His
interest in these two spheres involved a realization that the University Extension movement was
failing to attract working people despite their need for higher education and he felt that, though
the Co-operative Movement was doing much good educational work and had itself made
considerable use of Extension education, providing ready-made audiences for university
lecturers, it was not enough to confine the initiative on the workers' side to the Co-operative
Movement.
He began to talk of an alliance between labour and learning, in which University authorities
could be brought in touch with the workers through their various organisations. He believed that
such an association would help to show that working people had the determination and ability to
undertake serious, systematic study of a university standard and would represent their
educational needs on a national scale. The "partnership between labour and learning" was not to
be merely a convenient administrative arrangement; it would be a true partnership in which the
workers would be helped in an objective search, in all branches of learning, to acquire
knowledge which would enable them to decide for themselves what to think about the society in
which they lived and worked.
Being a man of some action as well as of some dreams, Mansbridge took the first step towards
founding such an association: though it was Mrs Mansbridge who provided the apple so that the
fruits of the Tree of Knowledge might be savoured - she handed him 2s. 6d. from her
housekeeping money as the first member's fee and together they elected themselves honorary
secretary and founder member of the "Association to Promote the Higher Education of Working
Men". The new Association was formally created at a conference in 1903 of representatives of
the trade unions, the Co-operative movement and University Extension authorities. The sex
discrimination expressed in its title was corrected two years later when the name Workers'
Educational Association was adopted.
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