10th January 1876 to 22nd August 1952
Mansbridge was a co-founder of the Workers’ Educational Association, and maintained a lifelong interest in adult education.
Mansbridge was born in Gloucester on 10 January 1876, the son of a carpenter. The family moved to London in 1880, and Mansbridge was educated Sir Walter St John’s Middle School in Battersea and then Battersea Grammar School before leaving school at age fourteen to become an office boy. He continued his education through university extension courses from King’s College, London. In 1894 he was licensed as a lay reader in the Church of England. He became involved with the co-operative movement, and took a job with the Co-operative Permanent Building Society. In 1900 he married Frances Pringle, a Sunday school teacher, who became Mansbridge’s partner in much of his subsequent work.
The Mansbridges were unhappy with the quality of many university extension courses, which they felt were aimed at people from middle and upper-class backgrounds. There was, they felt, a lack of provision for the working classes. Resolving to do something about this, in 1903 they founded the Association to Promote the Higher Education of Working Men, famously with a budget of two shillings and sixpence taken from Frances’s housekeeping money. The first conference of the new association took place in Oxford in August of that year. The initiative received strong support from the church, the co-operative movement and also from others involved in university extension. By the end of 1905 eight branches had been established and the name was changed to its modern form, the Workers’ Educational Association.
Support was particularly strong at Oxford University, which produced a seminal report in 1907, Oxford and Working-Class Education. Following this the university committed itself to backing the WEA. By 1909 the movement had expanded to Scotland, and in 1913 Mansbridge travelled to Australia to set up the first branch there. Establishments in Canada and New Zealand soon followed.
Mansbridge devoted much of the rest of his life to the WEA. Mansbridge served as secretary of the WEA until 1924. He served on a number of government committees on education, including the Consultative Committee of the Board of Education and the Prime Minister’s Committee on the Teaching of Modern Languages. He was also a member of the royal commission on the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge from 1919-22. In 1931 he was appointed a Companion of Honour, on the same day as Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree. Mansbridge retired in 1945 to live in Devon, and died in a nursing home in Torquay on 22 August 1952.
Jennings (2002, 2004) makes the point that Mansbridge was not an original thinker; rather, he was a gifted organiser and administrator with the added facility of being able to persuade people to see the world as he saw it. Most of his writing consisted of descriptions of the WEA and appeals for further support to grow and spread the movement. He also wrote a biography of trades union leader Margaret McMillan, whom he much admired. The Trodden Road is his autobiography.
In his Rowntree lecture of 1926, ‘The place of the factory in the city of God on earth’, Mansbridge blends his own orthodox but deeply held religious beliefs and his passion for education. He begins by insisting that the ‘Factory’, by which he means all places of work, is part of the community. Industry does not exist in isolation, it is part of society. And, he says, no matter what tensions or difficulties there may be, in the workplace or in society as a whole, those problems can be solved if we possess the will to solve them. ‘The future is in our own hands, our own power’, he says.
Part of the purpose of education, in Mansbridge’s view, is to uplift people, workers and employers alike, and help them to understand that all share a common goal. ‘I dream of a day when factory workers shall be inspired by a sense of the magnificence of their task’, he says. ‘They will all realise the significant, indispensable part they play in the life of the city and of the nation.’ And he goes on: ‘The factory must serve human personality.’
Following on from this, Mansbridge reminds employers of their duty. They are not just the owners of businesses, he says, they are also commanding officers and have a responsibility to those beneath them. ‘[An employer] must live and think and plan on broad human lines in the interests of those he employs as well as his own interests. There is a great need for Adult Education among employers. We all talk about it for the workers, but higher education for those who are not workers is equally important. They all need it, if only to restore the balance of their lives.’ The purpose of all this effort, of course, is not just to create prosperity but to serve God. In Mansbridge’s idea, running a business well in the interests of the community it serves is in itself a form of praise.
Adventure in Working Class Education (1920).
The Making of an Educationist (1929).
Margaret McMillan: Prophet and Pioneer (1932).
The Trodden Road (1940).
Jennings, B., Albert Mansbridge: The Life and Work of the Founder of the WEA, Leeds: University of Leeds, 2002.
Jennings, B., ‘Mansbridge, Albert’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Price, T.W., The Story of the Workers’ Educational Association, 1903-1924, London: The Labour Publication Co., 1924.
‘The place of the factory in the city of God on earth’, 3 October 1926, Balliol College