Thursday evening I went along to Blackfriars Priory, where the latest exhibition of the South West WEA Heritage Project was being launched as part of the Gloucester History Festival. What a lovely event.
The priory is a beautiful building, and the weather was perfect. Sunlight slanted across the ancient stonework, and those heavy walls kept the air comfortably cool.
The Heritage project has raised some fascinating stories. Essays, minutes of meetings, branch brochures and newspaper accounts and photographs have been tracked down in attics, cupboards and archives; memories have been jogged and research skills honed and practiced. A map of the way the WEA has developed, expanded and adapted to suit the changes of the last one-hundred and thirteen years is building.
The stories have circulated. Last week, for instance, I was told about classes being held in a railway carriage, during the home-going journeys of commuters. Imagine that…
During the 1930s, the Gloucester WEA Branch had a separate Dramatic Section. The one surviving Programme I’ve seen, for Four One-Act Plays to be performed on two nights in February 1937 had a cast of 26, 14 front-of-house and back-stage staff, plus an orchestra, under the direction of Arthur S. Morrell. The background notes about the WEA Players says that in seven years they staged ’60 plays of varied types.’ That’s quite an achievement for a small city.
Those were different days. To get back to that kind of commitment we don’t just need to remember times when there was no social media, we have to think about no tvs, and the majority of us relying on public transport, bikes and shanks pony.
A Minute book that survives for this group makes interesting reading, not just for the level of commitment the Players had, but also for the incidental references to events in the local area and occasionally, the wider world.
At the end of a meeting on March 8th 1939, Mrs Sparrow read a letter from Mrs Edwards, thanking the Players for their efforts on behalf of the food ship for Spain.
The thing I like about research is the way it invariably widens my horizons. I’ve had to revise my cosy assumptions about The WEA Players, and think about what their engagement with world events suggests about the learning that was taking place. In the programme notes for the Four One Act Plays the Players say:
To promote and develop a love for the Drama seems to be, in these days, not only worth-while, but very necessary.
The Study and performance of these plays also gives much satisfaction to the players, who are glad to think that they afford their friends an evening of pleasure and entertainment.
We would also bring to the notice of our audience the opportunities existing in the Worker’s Educational Association for the study of a wide range of subjects. If you are interested…please leave your name and address with one of the stewards.
I think The Players would have ticked the six points of WEAs ‘mission’ today:
- Raising educational aspirations
- Bringing great teaching and learning to local communities
- Ensuring there is always an opportunity for adults to return to learning
- Developing educational opportunities for the most disadvantaged
- Involving students and supporters as members to build an education movement for social purpose
- Inspiring students, teachers and members to become active citizens