William Lovett and education. Sharing something of a similar political tradition to Robert Owen – but coming a different social position – William Lovett – has a significant place in the development of ideas around schooling and lifelong learning.
William Lovett (1800-1877) was the son of a fisherman (who drowned before William was born). His mother, a strong Methodist, gave birth on 8th May, 1800. William spent much of his early life in Newlyn and Penzance, Cornwall. At the age of thirteen he became an apprentice rope-maker, then after a couple of years decided to train him as carpenter – believing it would offer better prospects. Aged 21, Lovett sought work in London. He had difficulty in getting his training in Penzance recognized and it was not until 1826 that he was finally accepted as a member of Cabinet Makers Society. Also in that year he married a lady’s maid.
Politics and education
He began attending evening classes at the London’s Mechanics’ Institute. It was there he met Henry Hetherington and John Cleeve (who were radical publishers/printers). They introduced Lovett to the ideas of Robert Owen. Lovett and Hetherington went on to form the National Union of Working Classes in 1831. The aims of the movement, as Kelly (1970: 138) has commented were as much economic as political – but the latter came to dominate. The key objectives included five which were later included in the People’s Charter of 1838: universal suffrage, vote by ballot, equal representation, annual Parliaments and no property qualification for members. Members of the union were organized in ‘classes’ on the Methodist model (in London alone there were over 100 classes of 25 members each). We can see the educational orientation in what Lovett has to say about these.
The class meetings were generally held at the house of some member. The class leader was the chairman and some subject, either for conversation or discussion, was selected. Sometimes selections were made from books. The books of Paine, Godwin, Owen, Ensor and other Radical writers were preferred. The unstamped periodicals of the day were also subjects of conversation and discussion, and in this manner hundreds of persons were made acquainted with books and principles of which they were previously ignorant. (quoted by Kelly 1970: 139)
The Union was later to become the London Working Men’s Association in 1836 with Lovett as Secretary. ). The Association had a strongly educational flavour. The aims included the promotion of the education of the ‘rising generation’; meeting and communicating to digest information about the interests of the working class; and:
To form a library of reference and useful information; to maintain a place where they can associate for mental improvement, where their brethren from the country can meet with kindred minds ( Lovett 1920: 94-5)
Following the drawing up of the People’s Charter (which became the focus for political activity in 1839-42) and the failure of the ‘great petition’ in 1839, Lovett was to occupy a less central position in the campaign (in part due to his moderation and emphasis). Much of the initiative was now held by Feargus O’Connor and the organization he founded in 1840 – the National Charter Association. Lovett now began to explore in more detail the possible shape of working class education.
Schools for the people
Arrested after making a speech during protests in Birmingham while the Chartist convention was taking place there, Lovett was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment in Warwick jail. It was claimed that his description of the Metropolitan police as a “blood thirsty and unconstitutional force” was seditious libel. In prison he and John Collins were to wrote Chartism: A New Organization of the People.
Lovett and Collins called for the creation of ‘Public Halls or Schools for the People’. In the daytime these would be used for infant, primary and secondary education, and in the evenings by adults, ‘for public lectures on physical, moral and political science; for readings, discussions, musical entertainments, dancing’ and other forms of recreation (quoted in Kelly 1970: 141). Each hall was to include baths, a small museum, and a laboratory or workshop. The plan also involved the establishment of district circulating libraries of 100-200 volumes, ‘containing the most useful works on politics, morals, the sciences, history and such instructing and entertaining works as may be generally approved of’, to be sent in rotation to the various towns and villages (Kelly 1970: 141).
His time in jail severely affected his health, and on his release he had to spend some tie recuperating in Cornwall. When he returned to London, Lovett set up a bookshop in Tottenham Court Road, London (as had William Godwin before him). In 1841 he founded the National Association for Promoting the Political and Social Improvement of the People. His intention was to attract people of all classes, but it didn’t take off in quite the same way as the earlier Working Men’s Association. The Association was financed by workers’ subscriptions. It set up a number of circulating libraries and employed educational ‘missionaries’. The other main achievement was the establishment of the National Hall in Holborn, London. It was set up in 1842/3 in a disused Methodist chapel. It survived 15 years and included a Sunday School (from 1843 on); a day school for 300 pupils run under Lovett’s direction (from 1848); and a centre for public meetings, lectures, classes and concerts. It was eventually closed by the landlord who wanted to open a music hall.
Further reading and references
Kelly, T. (1970) A History of Adult Education in Great Britain, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.
Lovett, W. (1839) The eloquent and patriotic defence of William Lovett, S.G.C., as delivered by him during his trial at Warwick, on the 6th of August, 1839, for alleged libel and sedition : he was pronounced guilty, and sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment in Warwick gaol! Birmingham: Printed and published by J. Guest.
Lovett, W. (1920) Life and struggles of William Lovett : in his pursuit of bread, knowledge & freedom with some short account of the different associations he belonged to & of the opinions he entertained Volume 1 (preface by R. H. Tawney), London: McGibbon & Kee.
Lovett, W. and Collins, J. (1969) Chartism: a new organization of the people, with an introduction by Asa Briggs, [Facsimile reprint of the work published, London: J. Watson, H. Hetherington & J. Cleave, 1840], Leicester: Leicester University Press. Extracts can be found in the archives.
William Lovett – teaching history on-line
Chartism – A new organization of the people – the full text of the book can be found on Ian Petticrew’s wonderful site [http://gerald-massey.org.uk/] celebrating the life and work of the Chartist, poet, author, and free thinker, Gerald Massey (and other key writers and activists of his period).
Acknowledgements: The picture of William Lovet was sourced from Wikimedia Commons and said to be in the public domain.
© Mark K. Smith 1999, 2009.