Detail from Accrington Library window, featuring the words Knowledge is Power with an owl in the middle and vines surrounding it.
A brief introduction to Architecture

Knowledge is Power: The Struggle for Education for All

The pioneers of universal education in the 18th century aspired to change an education system that provided for only a tiny section of society.

The pioneers of universal education in the 18th century aspired to change an education system that provided for only a tiny section of society.

Here are the people, institutions and buildings behind the struggle for education for all.

Sunday schools in the 18th century

Our journey starts with the earliest attempts to move education from the elite to the working class, provided by non-conformist organisations in the form of Sunday Schools.

The Sunday school at Cawsand Congregational Church, Cornwall. Located beneath the church auditorium, view of an alley and steps
The Sunday School at Cawsand Congregational Church in Cornwall was located beneath the church’s auditorium. © Mr John Midgley. Source: Historic England Archive. IOE01/15959/35.

The most famous one, Robert Raikes’ school for chimney sweeps, was established in 1780. Based on the appropriately named Sooty Alley, it was typical of the time. Set in a modest building near Gloucester prison, it did not advertise its presence. The Cawsand Sunday School hid its intentions due to widespread hostility amongst conformist churches and the ruling class.

The hostility experienced by many pioneers was neatly expressed by Jacob More, a noted headmaster in Bristol, who was concerned that ‘too much learning rots female brains’. His attitude suggests that he would not have approved of his daughter, Hannah. She was the founder of many Sunday Schools in the area and an enthusiastic supporter of education for all.

Thanks to Raikes, More and others, Sunday Schools became a regular feature of towns and villages throughout the country.

Sunday school at Instow. A two-story cottage in grey brick in front of a church.
This particularly vernacular example of a Sunday School building at Instow combines a first-floor school room with storage and stables below. Behind is the Parish Church of St John the Baptist. © Dr Ann Allen. Source: Historic England Archive. IOE01/11046/16.

Mechanics’ Institutes during the Industrial Revolution

Whilst Sunday Schools focused primarily on educating the young, the foundation of Mechanics’ Institutes during the industrial revolution moved education for all to adults, specifically working-class adults.

Black and white photo of the Mechanics' Institute, a mid-Victorian palazzo-style building in Burnley, Lancashire.
The Mechanics’ Institute in Burnley, Lancashire, was built between 1854 and 1855. Its palazzo-style design echoes the palaces built by wealthy families in 15th-century Italy. © Crown copyright. Source: Historic England Archive. BB81/05989.

The Quaker doctor and educator George Birkbeck’s first attempt at teaching adults about the machines they were working with proved wildly popular. Soon Mechanics’ Institutes sprouted up throughout the country, often housed in ostentatious buildings such as the Mechanics’ Institute in the heart of the mill town of Burnley.

The unusual nature of the buildings could be viewed as an attempt at gaining respectability. Despite this, some still had concerns that education might give people ideas ‘above their station’. This was not dampened by the expansion of the curriculum to embrace general education rather than just industrial training.

Black and white photo of reading room at the Mechanics' Institute in Swindon Railway Village, built 1853-5. A row of reading desks and chairs with a domed ceiling.
The well-lit Reading Room in the Mechanics’ Institute in the centre of Swindon’s Railway Village. Built between 1853 and 1855, it was funded by the town’s Great Western Railway workers. Source: Historic England Archive. BB94/04776.

Early education for women

Although promoted to provide education for all, Mechanics’ Institutes focused primarily on educating men.

Deep into the late 19th century, women’s education was still rare. With complete emancipation of women not achieved until 1928, it was left to organisations such as Bedford College and Somerville College to promote women’s education.

Bedford College's premises in Regent's Park, London. Black and white photo of a long, tall building.
Bedford College was founded in 1849 to provide higher education for women. It moved to these new premises in Regent’s Park, London, in 1913. Source: Historic England Archive. BL22200.

Their limited success is illustrated by the fact that it took until the turn of the 20th century for degrees to be awarded to women passing university courses. Before this, they were only allowed to be awarded a Certificate of Proficiency.

Black and white photo of a tea party at Somerville College, Oxford. Four women in Victorian/Edwardian dress. They sit in a garden, in chairs and on the floor.
Founded in 1879, Somerville College was one of two colleges established at Oxford following the formation of the Association for the Higher Education of Women. The tea party was an important part of college social life. Source: Historic England Archive. CC50/00694.

Libraries of the 20th century

By the start of the 20th century, the movement towards education had gathered pace, with libraries becoming a central feature of many towns. Often these buildings were visually arresting and designed to inspire those who entered them.

Black and white photo of the reading room and reference library at the Central Lending Library, Birmingham, demolished 1974. Large, grand, domed room with many rows of tables and chairs and arched bookshelves.
The Reading Room and Reference Library at the Central Lending Library, Birmingham. This grand building was demolished in 1974 to make way for the city’s next generation of library, which was itself replaced in 2013. Source: Historic England Archive. OP04600.

This inspiration extended to the wording placed on and in the libraries. Those funded by the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, such as the building at Accrington in Lancashire feature the phrase ‘Knowledge is Power’.

Stained glass window in Accrington Library, designed by Henry Gustave Hiller. Grene-hued glass depicting an owl with the words "Knowledge is Power". Photo  ©  Lancashire County Libraries
Stained glass window in Accrington Library, designed by Henry Gustave Hiller. © Lancashire County Libraries.

Universities and increased access to education

The call for ‘education for all’ in the Higher Education sector gathered momentum in the late 19th century with the foundation of Ruskin College.

Black and white photo of Ruskin College, Oxford, founded 1899.
Founded in 1899, Ruskin College in Oxford aimed to provide university standard education for working class people. Source: Historic England Archive. HT12612.

This was an institution explicitly dedicated to the education of working-class males. Its founders strived to ensure that the people they believed would one day rule the country were given the skills needed to do so.

Whilst the idea of equipping the working class with the ability to lead proved hugely controversial, the establishment of The Open University in 1969 was a far more sedate affair. The purpose of the new university was to widen access. A series of innovative approaches, such as the extensive use of radio and television as part of the pedagogy, opened the door to university to many previously excluded.

Campus of the Open University at Walton Hall, Buckinghamshire. Large cream building with columned entrance.
Initially based at Alexandra Palace in London, The Open University relocated to a campus at Walton Hall in Buckinghamshire. Its ambition was to provide the power of learning to anyone, anywhere. © Dr W. A. Cooper. Source: Historic England Archive. IOE01/01072/05.

In 1976, the Prime Minister, James Callaghan, proclaimed that the twin goals of education should be ‘to equip children to the best of their ability for a lively, constructive, place in society, and also to fit them to do a job of work.’

For some, these twin aims remain at the heart of discussion about the purpose of education. The latter suggests that everyone is being prepared for an assigned place in society, whilst the former harks back to the words of one of the founders of Ruskin College, Walter Vrooman, who stated that ‘knowledge must be used to emancipate humanity’ – a true expression of ‘education for all’.

Further reading

I am a Subject Leader at Liverpool Business School (part of Liverpool John Moores University). My research focuses on supporting education for all and ensuring that nobody is denied access to a good education.

2 comments on “Knowledge is Power: The Struggle for Education for All

  1. There are three Historic England Introduction to Heritage Asset publications that could be added to the ‘Further Reading’ list:
    The English Public Library 1850-1939
    The English Public Library 1945-85
    Mechanics Institutes

  2. Thanks Ian, very useful

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