Manchester Working Men's College Archive

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The Manchester Working Men's College archive is very fragmentary. The major lacuna is the absence of any minutes of the Council and there is only limited administrative correspondence (MWC/3). In addition, there are College syllabi (MCW/1), draft reports produced by J H Nodal, which provide some statistical information as well as some interesting comments on the College's progress (MCW/2). There is also a small file of examination-related material, but no surviving set of exam papers or results (MCW/4).

Administrative / Biographical History

The Working Men's Colleges were an educational experiment of the 1850s, inspired by the ideals of both Christian Socialism and of the co-operative movement. The original Working Men's College was set up in London in 1854 and its founders included F D Maurice, J M Ludlow and the novelist Thomas Hughes. It aimed to provide more regular courses of study for workingmen, and to inculcate a greater sense of shared purpose in pursuing education (the use of the term 'college' was a deliberate attempt to inspire a feeling of corporate loyalty).

Manchester followed London's example by establishing its own college in 1858, mainly due to the efforts of Owens College, but supported by the Manchester Mechanics' Institution. Motivations at Manchester seem to have been more pragmatic than in London; on the one hand, Owens College wanted to appeal, indirectly, to a wider social constituency, and Manchester Mechanics' Institution for its part wished to revitalise its declining appeal to working class students. Owens, which had been established in 1851, was struggling to establish itself, and wished to appear relevant to the wider population of Manchester. The Mechanics' Institution, established in 1824, to support working class education, was by the 1850s drawing the vast majority of its students from non-manual occupational groups (primarily, clerks, warehousemen, and salesmen). It was felt that the new College would be able to provide practical and moral benefits to workingmen by offering regular and systematic education through class teaching and examination. As the original prospectus for the College stated "...a necessity still exists for institutions which shall aim at performing for the working classes what our higher schools, our colleges, and our universities perform for the middle and upper classes". The curriculum was geared to teaching a 'liberal education', with arts subjects considered at least as important as the sciences. The sponsors of the College hoped it would gain credibility by having several teachers from Owens to take courses.

The College was based at the Manchester Mechanics' Institution. It was governed by a Council, whose members included Owens staff, local clergy, and business and professional leaders, including as chairman Oliver Heywood, a banker and long-standing supporter of educational reform in Manchester. The honorary secretaries were J G Greenwood (later to be Principal of Owens) and the physician Arthur Ransome. John Howard Nodal (1831-1909), was appointed secretary, and was responsible for day-to-day administration; he was later a leading Manchester journalist.

The College opened in January 1858 and offered courses in mathematics, English, Latin, Greek, logic and political philosophy, law, human physiology, history and geography; it eschewed the more applied subjects traditionally taught by mechanics' institutes. Several College teachers were Owens academics including A J Scott, J G Greenwood, Henry Roscoe, and Archibald Sandeman. Other teachers included Rev. William Gaskell, the husband of the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, and Richard Pankhurst, future husband of Emmeline and father of Adela, Sylvia and Christabel. Students paid termly fees, with reductions for existing members of the Mechanics' Institution; they had to be at least sixteen years of age. From 1859, examinations were set and certificates of honour issued to successful candidates. A students' essay and discussion class was set up, and it appears that geological field trips were occasionally organised. In 1859, a students committee was established to represent their views to the Council. Other working men's colleges were established at Salford (which evolved into the Royal Technical Institute), and Ancoats (this was probably a small-scale affair).

The records of the College suggest that despite some initial success, the College could not attract and retain students. As with the Mechanics' Institution, the majority of students were clerks and salesmen rather than the operatives it had hoped to attract. Inculcating a sense of common purpose also proved difficult: "...the students have not as yet attained to any true conception of the object and scope of collegiate instruction; ...they do not yet comprehend "the privileges and obligations of a college"...few are bent upon that general training which it was the more particular object of the College to afford" (Report, 1 November 1858).

The College was dissolved in 1861, and its interests taken over by Owens College. The Mechanics' Institution continued to provide courses of instruction, and in the 1880s overhauled its curriculum to provide a more relevant technical education. Owens for its part expanded provision of its evening classes, and appears to have enjoyed some success in appealing in this way to students from more modest social backgrounds. Evening classes continued until the 1890s; thereafter the University's programme of extra-mural education, undertaken with the Workers' Educational Association, was used to reach mature and part-time students.

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open to any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

Transferred to the University Archives via the School of Education, Environment and Development in February 2016. The documents had formerly been stored with the Registrar's Office, presumably since the demise of the College.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies of material in the archive can be supplied for private study purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents.

A number of items within the archive remain within copyright under the terms of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988; it is the responsibility of users to obtain the copyright holder's permission for reproduction of copyright material for purposes other than research or private study.

Prior written permission must be obtained from the Library for publication or reproduction of any material within the archive. Please contact the Head of Special Collections, John Rylands Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 3EH.


None expected.

Related Material

The London Working Men's College retains its own archive. Sheffield Working Men's College was another important institution and its records are in the custody of Sheffield City Archives (ref. MD2039) .

The records of the Owens College (OCA) and the Manchester Mechanics' Institution (MMI) should provide further information on relations with the College.

The Library also has custody of J H Nodal papers (JHN), but these do not include anything specifically relating to the College.


The working men's college movement is covered in J F C Harrison, A History of the Working Men's College: 1854-1954. Colin Lees "The development of adult education in Manchester from c1830s to 1914" (Ph.D., Manchester 1994) is an account of various adult education initiatives in 19th century Manchester.

Geographical Names