Basil Yeaxlee, lifelong learning and informal education

YMCA Hut - Christmas 1917. Image Processed by Distribued Proofreaders as part of the e-book creation process for Project Gutenberg title I was there. Author: Baldridge, Cryus Leroy (1889-1977). Sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

A key, but overlooked, figure in the development of adult education, Basil Yeaxlee wrote the first book on lifelong education. He also made a significant contribution to our appreciation of the process of religious education.

contents: introduction and life · the YMCA and the huts · the 1919 report · Basil Yeaxlee and lifelong education · Basil Yeaxlee and religious education · conclusion · further reading and references · how to cite this piece

This article is currently being updated and extended

Basil Alfred Yeaxlee (1883–1967) was born on December 2, 1883 at 29 Oxford Street, Southampton. He was the eldest son of Alfred Yeaxlee, a pastry cook and confectioner, and his wife, Lila Lavinia Read (Marriot 2004). Alfred Yeaxlee was, locally, well-known as a nonconformist preacher. The family – which now also included a sister (Lavinia) and a brother (Clarence) was later to move to St James Road, Portsea (1891 Census). The street was close to Portsmouth’s Royal Dockyard and the barracks linked to it. The area included a large amount of slum housing (which started to be cleared at the turn of the century). As might be expected, the local population included a significant number of skilled working-class families with members working in the dockyards but also many poorer individuals and families. 

St James Road was on the borders of Southsea – a more affluent area – and Basil was sent to a small private school there – Mr John Smyth’s School (later known as Chivers in 1904 and then Esplanade House). The school appears to have specialised in training students to enter the civil service (which given the naval presence, was a significant local employer) (see, for example, the Portsmouth Evening News June 25, 1886) and preparation for apprenticeships and matriculation exams (see Cooper undated). Chiver’s School had, apparently, the worrying motto Quae nocent docent (What pains us, trains us). Little else is known until 1905 when Basil joined Oxford University as a non-collegiate he was attached to Mansfield College – the first nonconformist college at the university). At this time they only took male students (females began to be admitted for external degrees from 1913).

Basil Yeaxlee went on to New College, London, to prepare for the Congregational ministry (The Times, 24 Aug 1967) and then to serve in Bootle as an assistant Congregational minister. He appears to have been based at Bootle Emmanuel Congregational Church on Balloil Road and lodged for a time with a family just a street away (1911 Census). While the town had initially developed from a hamlet into a bathing resort, it had become the home of major docks and their associated industries. Non-conformist chapels had developed alongside an influx of workers from Wales. Basil Yeaxlee lived in what was ‘Bootle Village’ – an area of larger houses. A couple of blocks away were the cramped streets next to the docks where many of the causal dockworkers lived. A situation similar to what Yeaxlee would have experienced in Portsmouth.

In 1912, Yeaxlee moved to London and became an educational assistant to the London Missionary Society. He was also the editor to the United Council for Missionary Education. A year later – just before Christmas, Basil married Annie Julie Mary Leadbeater at St George’s in Hanover Square. Although Annie was born in Stepney, she had been brought up in Portsmouth and Southsea. Her father had been a doctor (described as a physician surgeon in the 1901 census) in London and Portsmouth, but it appears that he was separated from his wife Agnes – and Annie lived with her (1901 census) and then locally with an aunt (1911 census). Presumably, Basil and Agnes met in Portsmouth. By the time their daughters were born – Joan Margaret (1914-1976) and Romala Hope (1916-1993) – they were living in Caterham Road, Lewisham.

The YMCA and the huts

Late in 1915, Basil Yeaxlee joined the staff of the YMCA. The National Council of YMCAs had established a committee to organize educational facilities for the wartime army. As secretary to the committee, Yeaxlee’s job was to recruit civilian lecturers (often people associated with the universities), to give talks, and lead classes in military locations at home and abroad. Often these classes and groups were held in the massive network of huts run by the YMCA. The huts were places where soldiers could get a hot drink and food – and where they could find ‘a touch of home’. [The significance of the huts to soldiers is revealed in the various moving contributions to Young Men’s Christian Association (1916) (see, also, Yapp 1927)]. This concern with home and hearth is reflected in the title that was given to the 1500 huts built in France by the American YMCAs for the French armies – Foyers du Soldat. They provided a ‘center of warmth and refuge’, a place that soldiers could name as their own. ‘To read, to write, to smoke, to talk, away from the insistent reminders of conflict – that was the real thing’ (Harris et al 1922: 349).

Much of the success of the huts lay in the fact that things were not organized around the men – considerable efforts were made to create an atmosphere where people could simply be. This was greatly helped by the commitment and skills of the workers – who were mostly women. By the end of the war, some 40,000 women had undertaken war work in the huts. Basil Yeaxlee has described the atmosphere in one hut:

Soon the long room was crowded with men, the bar was besieged by buyers of “Woodbines” and consumers of coffee. The air grew mellow with smoke; but the most striking part of the scene was the sudden fever of letter-writing that took universal possession of the battalion. Some – but they were few – scribbled a gay sentence on a picture post cased. Others found a sheet too little for the sudden flow of ideas, and reached out for a second, and yet a third. Dozens of men made a start, stopped, wrote a line or two more, reflected and tore up the paper, and tried again. (Basil Yeaxlee in YMCA 1916: 214-5)

British Army World War I medal roll index card

Into this situation, talks and discussions could be introduced for those that wanted them – and a substantial number did. Subsequently, Marriott (2004) reports H. A. L. Fisher, president of the Board of Education, as saying that this network had ‘the credit of introducing and developing the largest scheme of adult education which has ever at any time been launched from the country’.

The 1919 Report and beyond

Basil Yeaxlee’s achievements and reputation were such that in 1917 he was appointed to the membership of the national inquiry into adult education, sponsored by the Ministry of Reconstruction. Other members include Albert Mansbridge and R. H. Tawney. The Committee produced the famous 1919 Report – and was ‘the first and is still the most comprehensive survey of the history and organization of adult education in this country’ (Kelly 1970: 267). It made the case for substantial development in adult education and the devotion of public funds to it. The YMCA Education Committee became the YMCA Universities Committee in 1918 as the involvement in army education began to decline.

In 1919/1920 Basil Yeaxlee moved on to be the joint secretary to the newly formed Educational Settlements Association (ESA – see educational settlements). This is Yeaxlee talking about ‘the modern adult education movement’ in 1928:

Educational Settlements arose during and after the War and have established a new type of non-residential, self-governing, comprehensive centre of adult education where all kinds of work are carried on by the various adult educational organizations and a corporate life among students and tutors becomes possible. The Churches have begun to make important and successful experiments in adult education and the political parties are setting out on a similar course. Residential Colleges for working men and women, of which the first was Ruskin (founded in 1909), are growing in number. (Common Cause, April 13, 1928)

The Association had free-church connections (Marriott 2004) as well as links into the Quakers. As joint secretary of the ESA, Yeaxlee was recruited to the Board of Education’s new advisory committee on adult education in 1921.

Yeaxlee’s time as secretary to the ESA was not marked by substantial developments with regard to the organization. This may have been a reflection of the educational settlements movement at that point, it may have derived in part from what has been seen as Yeaxlee’s apparent emphasis upon adult education and individual development rather than social activism (Thomas and Elsey 1984: 664). Basil Yeaxlee was, at the time, undertaking a significant amount of research for his PhD, and had refocused his areas of interest. His doctoral thesis, published as Spiritual Values in Adult Education, 1925) examined the place of religion in adult education. It involved a significant historical survey, a survey of current provision and thinking; and some key areas for further exploration and action including increased cooperation, developments in training, and changes in policy and programmes.

Basil Yeaxlee’s work in adult education, his concern with spiritual development and his work as a Congregational minister meant that he was much in demand as a speaker. It also helped that he had a reputation as an engaging speaker. The result was that he regularly travelled widely across England talking to church-linked groups in particular. A search of the British Newspaper Archives returned over 250 reports by local papers of talks he had given around the UK. This, for example, is a report of him talking at the Bristol Folk House in 1925:

All the pioneers had something to give, but no one movement in the education of adults would meet the whole needs of the whole man, or of the whole community. That was why the Guild, Folk House, or Educational Movement sprang up so that people of all conditions and points of view might meet to share wisdom, knowledge, and a sense of comradeship in the service of the community. They were not out to make education serve the end of any particular enterprise, whether economic, political, or religious. Education was a larger thing than that. Its business was to make man at home in his world, sympathetic with his fellows and creature in service. That meant the cultivation not only of the intellect, but of the imagination, and therefore the developed drama, music, the study of nature, as well as the study of history, literature, economics, and philosophy. As Lord Eustace Percy said: “Education is the disciple of common life, teaching men how to live together.” The common room of the Folk House was the place where that could be done. (Western Daily Press 24 October 1925)

click to see the work of Bristol Folk House today

Lifelong Education

Basil Yeaxlee’s place in the canon of adult education was achieved, however, through the publication in 1929 of Lifelong Education. This book, according to Angela Cross-Durrant (1987: 39), ‘represents the first formal attempt this century to combine the whole of the educational enterprise under a set of guiding principles with each phase of agency (formal, informal and non-formal) enjoying equal esteem’.

By the time that the book was published, Basil, Annie and the girls were living at Laneside (close by Letchworth Hall) in Letchworth Garden City, Hertfordshire.

Religious education

In 1930 Basil Yeaxlee became principal of Westhill College, Birmingham and the family moved a couple of minutes walk away to a house next to Fircroft College (an adult college with connections to Congregationalism) (1020 Bristol Road, Selly Oak). Westhill College had been founded some 23 years before by George Cadbury and the American George Hamilton Archibald. Their aim was, initially, to train Sunday School leaders; to ensure that ‘ordinary people could receive Christian education (Priestley 2007). The College developed during the 1920s and 1930s with courses in youth service and later teaching, community work and social work. Whilst at Westhill Yeaxlee developed an interest in psychology and its relationship to religious development in young people. This resulted in The Approach to Religious Education (published in 1931) and later Religion and the Growing Mind (1939).

Basil Yeaxlee’s work in this area brought an appointment in the department of education at Oxford University (1935–49), and a fellowship of the British Psychological Society (Marriott 2004). Basil, Annie and Joan moved into a house opposite what is now St Anthony’s College on Woodstock Road – just a 10-minute walk from the Department of Education and 15 minutes from Mansfield College. Whilst at Oxford (and during the Second World War) Basil Yeaxlee joined the central advisory council for adult education as secretary.


Yeaxlee retired in 1949 – but he remained involved with Mansfield College, and other bodies such as the British Council of Churches and the Institute of Christian Education. They had moved a short distance to Chalfont Road, Oxford. Annie Yeaxlee died in 1955. Three years later he married Margaret Tatham. He died at home (Church Cottage, Islip, Oxfordshire) on 23 August 1967 (Marriott 2004).

Further reading and references

Yeaxlee, Basil A. (1925) Spiritual Values in Adult Education. A study of a neglected aspect. Volumes 1 and 2, London: Oxford University Press. Vol 1.: 320 + xiv pages; Vol 2: 455 + xii pages. Volume 1 contains a review of the history of adult education. Opening chapters look at education as a spiritual activity; the relationship of adult education to religion etc. Part two examines the nineteenth-century background; the main movements of the nineteenth century and commentary on theory and practice. Volume 2: looks at the ‘current situation (1900 – 1924); adult education in the churches; adult education in movements akin to the churches; the possibilities of co-operation; the provision and training of leaders and teachers; policy and programme; and finishes with a detailed survey of adult education activities in churches and kindred organisations.

Yeaxlee, Basil A. (1929) Lifelong Education, London: Cassell. 166 pages. The first full statement of lifelong education including a concern for everyday and informal education and learning. Chapters look to growing up; the permanent need for education; student; the process of learning from life; nineteenth-century prophets and pioneers; the adult education movement in the twentieth century; possible developments; emerging problems; and wisdom and understanding. The final chapter ‘Wanting is – what?’ is of particular interest with its exploration of informal education and association. Download the book from The Internet Archive.

Yeaxlee, Basil A. (1939) Religion and the Growing Mind, London: Nisbett and Co. (Republished 1952). Download the book from The Internet Archive.

Other books by Basil Yeaxlee:

Yeaxlee, B. A. (1920) An Educated Nation, with a preface by A.L. Smith, London: Oxford University Press. 80 pages. Download the book from The Internet Archive.

Yeaxlee, Basil A. (1921). Working out the Fisher Act, the human aspect of the continuation schools. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Download the book from The Internet Archive.

Yeaxlee, B. A. (1926) Towards a Full Grown Man, The John Clifford Lecture, London: The Brotherhood Movement.

Yeaxlee, B. A. (1928) The Handbook and Directory of Adult Education 1928-1929, London: British Institute of Adult Education/Deane and Son.

Yeaxlee, B. A. (1931) The approach to religious education in Sunday school and day school, London, Student Christian Movement Press. 143 pages. A short course of lectures delivered in the University of Birmingham during winter 1930-31.

Yeaxlee, B. A. (1933, 1939) Handbook of Christian teaching for use with agreed syllabuses /forewords by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Rev. J. Scott Lidgett, London : Sheldon Press. 533 + xxvii pages.


British Ministry of Reconstruction, Adult Education Committee (1919). Final Report (Chaired by Arthur L. Smith and commonly known as ‘The 1919 Report’) Cmnd 321 (1919), London: HMSO.

Cooper, M. (undated). Chivers, also known as Esplanade House School [ Retrieved: September 25, 2020] 

Cross-Durrant, A. (1987). ‘Basil Yeaxlee and the origins of lifelong education’, in P. Jarvis in P. Jarvis (ed.) Twentieth-century thinkers in adult education. Beckenham: Croom Helm.

Field, J. (2007). Fellowship, truth and religion in Basil Yeaxlee’s writings on spiritual values in adult education, in R. Koerrenz, E. Meilhammer and K. Schneider (eds.) Wegwiesende Werke zur Erwachsenenbildung, Jena: Edition
Paideia. pp. 287-99.

Harris, F., Kent, F. Houston, and Newlin, W. J. (1922). Service with Fighting Men. An account of the American Young Men’s Christian Associations in the World War (2 volumes), New York: Association Press.

Hull, J. M. (1991). ‘Religion, education and madness. An Inaugural Lecture delivered in the School of Education, University of Birmingham on 26th February 1991’ Educational Review vol. 43, no. 3, pp. 347-361. [Also available at, Education and Madness.html. Accessed July 2, 2007]

Marriott, S. (2004). ‘‘Yeaxlee, Basil Alfred (1883–1967)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [, accessed 2 July 2007]

Priestley, J. (2007). ‘The Lumber Merchant and the Chocolate King: The Contributions of George Hamilton Archibald and George Cadbury to the Sunday School Movement in England and Wales’ in S. Orchard and J.H.Y. Briggs (eds.) The Sunday Movement: Studies in the Growth and Decline of Sunday Schools. Milton Keynes: Paternoster. [ Accessed July 2, 2007]

Thomas, J. E. and Elsey, B. (eds.) (1985). International biography of adult education. Nottingham: University of Nottingham.

White, K. (2020). Finding ‘The Dairy’: Locating the YMCA’s Huts in the Ypres Salient, Katherine’s History Blog [ Retrieved September 24, 2020].

Yapp, A. (1927). In the Service of Youth. London: Nisbet and Co.

Young Men’s Christian Association (1916). Told in the Huts. The YMCA Gift Book. Contributed by soldiers and war workers. London: Jarrold and Sons.

Acknowledgement: The picture of a concert party at a YMCA Hut – Christmas 1917: image processed by Distributed Proofreaders as part of the e-book creation process for Project Gutenberg title I was there. Author: Baldridge, Cryus Leroy (1889-1977). Sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How to cite this piece: Smith, M. K. (2007). Basil Yeaxlee, lifelong learning and informal education, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ Retrieved: insert date].

© Mark K. Smith 1999, 2007.

Last Updated on September 25, 2020 by