The "Plebs" go on strike

Submitted by Matthew on 23 September, 2010 - 5:15 Author: Colin Waugh

As Ruskin students and their contacts amongst former students became aware of the drive by people in the Workers’ Educational Association and University Extension movement to take control of Ruskin, they began to organise themselves against it.

During the “strike” that followed the enforced resignation of their principal Dennis Hird, a qualitative change occurred in their strategy, as a result of which 29 of the current students, again supported by former students, threw their energies into creating a new institution, the Central Labour College.

From the early days of Ruskin Hall onwards, its working-class students had been forced from time to time to defend themselves against “the university” — that is, gangs of upper class students — and to fight in the most literal fashion for the working class’s right to freedom of speech and assembly.

For example, Ruskin students had held street meetings propagandising for socialism at the Martyrs’ Memorial in Oxford. These meetings could involve physical conflict with university students. On one occasion at least this led, in the words of the miner Jack Lawson, to a “free fight, flying Ruskin men and the windows of the College being smashed with bricks”.

Conflict like this also broke out when Ruskin students arranged for people like James Keir Hardie, Arthur Henderson and James Connolly to speak in Oxford. Or again, in 1907 there was a fist fight in the town hall when stewards tried to stop Ruskin students putting questions to the visiting speaker, Lord Carson.

In the more complex struggle against the WEA/extension bloc, the students took their first major step in October 1908, by setting up The League of the “Plebs”.

This title tells us several things about their approach. It was their way of saying that they too knew about things like Roman history, and that workers were not dependent on people like (new vice-principal) Charles Sydney Buxton for such knowledge. It also reflects the influence of Daniel De Leon’s ideas, and specifically the fact that the students set a priority on workers developing their capacity to think for themselves. Lastly, it suggests that they were prepared, if they judged it necessary, to “secede” from Ruskin College, as in 494 BC the plebs had walked out of Rome.

Secondly, they published later that autumn the first edition of The Burning Question of Education. That was their answer to Oxford and Working-Class Education. (The title echoed De Leon’s The Burning Question of Trade Unionism.)

Thirdly, in February 1909 they launched The Plebs Magazine as a monthly journal. (This was printed at the start by T J Fox, a former Ruskin student who was now a partner in a local printing business.)

Fourthly, they organised the “strike” itself. Although Hird actually resigned on 12 March, he did not tell the students that he had done this until the morning of the 26th. In a meeting later that day, 46 of the 54 students agreed to take action, starting at once, to get him reinstated. This action, in which all 54 eventually took part, continued until 6 April. It consisted of a boycott of official lectures and their replacement by classes run by the students themselves.

The 26 March meeting passed this resolution:

“1. That all lectures in the Institution be boycotted, with the exception of Mr Hird’s.

“2. That all house duties be carried on as usual.

“3. That the Committee be instructed to form classes among the students in accordance with the present curriculum.

“4. That should any student, or number of students, be victimised by any Member of the Faculty, or by the Executive Council, all the students, now in residence at Ruskin College, will leave in a body.

“5. That Mr. Dennis Hird’s resignation be withdrawn, and the resignations of Messrs. Buxton and Wilson be tendered instead.

“6. That no student shall allow himself to be interviewed by any Member of the Faculty or the Executive Council. All matters between the students and the staff [to] be carried on by correspondence.

“7. That the Working Committee be instructed to draw up a circular re present situation, and send copies to Trade unions, Labour and Socialist organisations, the Press and past students.' (The students signed this as a round robin.)”

A special supplement on Hird’s resignation was added to the third (April 1909) issue of Plebs Magazine, which had been due to go to press on 23 March. The anonymous author of this supplement commented that: “As a matter of fact the Principal of Ruskin College is the only individual in the institution capable of maintaining order. Only he does not carry about with him a pocket edition of the Czar of Russia. He realises that he has to deal with men, and not undergraduates or schoolboys, and therefore he acts accordingly. It is the people with schoolboy minds that want schoolboy order… He is as far removed from the other members of the lecturing staff as a mountain is from a mole hill…” A little further on, the writer adds in italics: “And the only man who can secure order is he who has been compelled to resign, because he is said to have failed to maintain order.”

Moving on to speak of the students’ response to Hird’s sacking, the supplement’s author wrote: “The students stand united to a man, and they look for the same united support from the Labour Movement… The clock has struck for finality of action, and every man is at his post filled with a chronic enthusiasm which goes up as a sheet of flame. Fellow-workers, we are looking to you! Do not fail us! The next few days will be of moment and of memory. Let it be a memory of triumph.”

Finally, the students moved from resistance to the setting up of an independent working-class adult education system. This had two aspects: the formation of local classes and the foundation of the Central Labour College. Although they had taken some steps towards the first of these aspects in January 1909, they took the final decision about the second during the strike itself.

The strike was given national press coverage from 31 March, some of it fairly sympathetic. However, almost immediately after this, the secretary of the college council (i.e. the governors), the Rev. A J Carlyle, called the students together and told them that the council had confirmed the executive’s decision to demand Hird’s resignation. The “strike” continued till 6pm on 6 April. The students called it off after the executive, having decided to close the college for two weeks, agreed to pay boarding expenses and/or fares back to their home areas.

During the two weeks when the college was closed, the students who returned to their local areas used the time to build support for classes there, both by strengthening study circles which already existed and by organising new ones. The classes in each area were known collectively as its “labour college”. The editorial in The Plebs Magazine issue 3 explained the thinking behind this drive as follows: “The establishment of working-class Colleges throughout the country, owned and controlled by the workers themselves, will do more to hasten the hour of economic deliverance than anything else we know of.”

At the start the main centre of such classes was south Wales, followed by the north east. However, classes quickly took root in many other areas. For example, one of the Ruskin strikers organised so effectively in the WEA stronghold of Rochdale that, between October 1910 and April 1911, IWCE classes were being held there seven times a week, and 150 people were taking part in them.

This was not something temporary. By the end of 1917, for example, about 50 trade union branches were affiliated to the Plebs League’s northeast region, where 16 classes were running, while a newly established Plebs League branch in the Glasgow area already had 20 classes. By 1926-27, across England, Wales and Scotland, 1,201 classes were in operation (now under the title of the National Council of Labour Colleges), with 31,635 students. Even in 1936-37 there were 764 classes with 15,018 students.

Writing in 1967 the historian Michael Woodhouse concluded: “…there is little doubt, from an examination of the reports in Plebs Magazine over the period 1910-1920, that the [IWCE] movement established itself firmly in a number of important industrial areas, London, Lancashire, North-East England and West of Scotland included, and exercised considerable influence in forming the outlook of some thousands of militants. The widespread influence of the Labour College movement is worth emphasising, for it meant that…it acted as the main institution for the propagation of Marxism among advanced workers.”

The decision to set up the Central Labour College was taken in a “referendum” held amongst Plebs League members at Ruskin in the period between Carlyle’s announcement and the calling-off of the strike. In this referendum, a majority decided to put their energies into preparing the ground for a separate Central Labour College (CLC).

We can work out what arguments were put for this during the strike from what Sims and Ablett had already said, and also from what was written in The Plebs Magazine after the decision had been taken.

In the beginning the League’s main emphasis had been on bringing about “a more satisfactory relationship between Ruskin College and the Labour Movement”. In practice this would have meant building rank and file pressure on union leaders to fund Ruskin. However, the editorial in the May 1909 Plebs Magazine, which must have been written towards the end of April, announces that: “Ruskin College has ceased to fulfil whatever useful function it did perform for the Labour Movement. Henceforth the object of the ‘Plebs’ must be to assist in the establishing of a new educational structure definitely controlled by organised Labour”.

The author then combined this with the argument against bogus “impartiality”, arguing that: “the worker is either robbed or not robbed; Labour is either paid or unpaid. To ask the workers to be neutral is both insulting, and absurd. The ‘impartial education’ idea has its source in a very ‘partial’ quarter, and so long as the control of education comes from that quarter the working-class movement will be poisoned and drained. In this light, Ruskin College stands condemned.”

Except for a short verse quotation, this editorial eventually concludes: “Working class education is the powerful stimulating force that alone can build up efficient working-class organisation, and to this end we must press forward.” The fact that classes were starting in local areas must also have strengthened the case for a Central College to train teachers.

Ten students left Ruskin after the “strike” and the governors excluded some others shortly afterwards. Some of those who went back accepted what the college management had done. However, a good many actively supported the Central Labour College project. During the strike, the governors had written to Dr Salter and persuaded him to withdraw George Sims’s scholarship. Sims remained in Oxford and led the activity that made the CLC possible.

By the time the editorial for the June issue of the magazine was being written, a timetable had been laid down for setting up the CLC. Referring to the date fixed for the first annual “meet” of the League, and responding to “those who would swing the reactionary rod over the mental life of the working class”, the editorial says: “The second day of August will witness the Declaration of Working Class Independence in Education, a declaration which will express the fact that the workers prefer to think for themselves… free from the spell of a servile tradition and a slave philosophy, and to look at the facts as they see them from their standpoint.”

By this stage, each issue of the magazine was carrying an advert for the League. This advert defined the League’s “object” as: “To further the interests of the Central Labour College, for working men and women, at Oxford, and to assist in the formation of similar institutions elsewhere, all of the institutions to be controlled by the organised Labour bodies.”

On 2 August, two hundred prominent socialist and labour movement backers came to the first annual “meet” of the Plebs League in Oxford. They ratified the decision to establish the CLC, and approved the arrangements which Sims had put in place.

On 8 September the CLC opened in premises hired by Sims, with Hird as warden. There were 20 residential students, some of them former Ruskin strikers and some sent by unions which transferred their scholarships to the new institution. The CLC had 15 students in 1910-11, 22 in 1911-12, 17 in 1912-13, and 9 in 1914-15. Nearly all these students were sponsored by the South Wales Miners’ Federation (SWMF).


The Ruskin students saw the need for the working-class movement to produce for itself its own thinkers and organisers.

University extension was a movement conducted by Christian socialists which, under the guise of reforming the universities and reaching out to the poor, in fact aimed at creating a layer of compliant spokespersons amongst the working class. By 1899 this was clearly failing, because workers were rejecting it.

Ruskin College when founded was a mixture of socialist education centre and utopian colony. Once the founders left, it was faced with becoming either part of the extension movement or a labour college backed by the unions. The students wanted it to be a labour college, but under the control of rank and file union members rather than bureaucrats. Either way, it was attracting and retaining working class students.

Albert Mansbridge was a working-class product of the Christian socialist and extension movement. He saw that extension was failing to hold working class people because it was not providing dialogue between them and university tutors.

The class character of the dominant English universities meant that, unlike on the continent, there was not a layer of people with higher education who would throw in their lot with the working-class. This forced activists to do their own theorising.

Mansbridge now argued for tutorial classes. A group of young Christian socialist tutors at Oxford aligned themselves with him. In 1907 part of the establishment threw their weight behind this. Oxford and Working-Class Education was produced.

The Ruskin students had developed their own conception of education.

Once some tutorial classes were running, the WEA/extension alliance began to take control of Ruskin. The students understood what was going on . They organised against it and for their own project.

By 1910 both sides in the Ruskin struggle probably thought they had won. The WEA/extension alliance had taken control of Ruskin and absorbed it within their project. They had also succeeded in setting up tutorial classes in many areas and these were, for the moment, attracting high levels of working class participation. The Plebs League had set up a big network of local classes and the Central Labour College.

Further historical research can and should throw light on which side, if either, was right. But the essential struggle between them is still going on, and in the end only we, by our actions, can settle it.

Select bibliography:

The best single account of the 1909 Ruskin College “strike” and its background in terms of University Extension etc, is in: Brian Simon, Education and the Labour Movement 1870-1920 (Lawrence and Wishart, 1974), especially pp 86-91 and 296-330. This account is written from a Communist Party standpoint.

Probably the best source for a sense of the broad movement of working-class collective self education is Stuart MacIntyre, A Proletarian Science: Marxism in Britain 1917-1933 (Lawrence and Wishart, 1986). Another book covering some of the same area is Jonathan Ree, Proletarian Philosophers. Problems in Socialist culture in Britain, 1900-1940 (Clarendon Press, Oxford 1984).

Books written about the IWCE movement by people who were important within it include: J P M Millar, The Labour College Movement (N.C.L.C,.Publishing Society Ltd, 1979) and William W. Craik, The Central Labour College 1909-1929. A Chapter in the History of Adult Working-Class Education (Lawrence and Wishart, 1964).

There is a much fuller list of sources in the pamphlet.

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