Tom Bryan: association, education and the making of Fircroft College

Tom Bryan pioneered the adaptation of Folk High Schools to English adult education at Fircroft College and argued that solidarity and the facility for association lay at the heart of educational endeavour.

contents: introduction · early career · woodbrooke and fircroft · conclusion · bibliography · how to cite this article

Picture of Tom Bryan believed to be in the public domain.Tom Bryan (1865-1917) was the first warden of Fircroft College, Birmingham and a significant contributor to the development of adult education practice in Britain. His particular achievement was to take elements of the experience of British adult schools and to combine them with elements of Danish High Schools. [This piece draws largely from material in H. G. Wood and A. E. Ball 1922 Tom Bryan. First warden of Fircroft].

Early career

Born in Leicester, Tom Bryan’s father was a warder at the prison and later a school board attendance officer. His father was also heavily involved in a local gospel hall in a variety of evangelistic activities. Tom was also drawn to such activity – especially teaching. However, after his father died (in 1882) he went to work as a counterman in a hosiery warehouse. But through his continuing involvement with missions and the Congregational Church (especially via the influence of a local minister F. Herbert Stead and his friend Sandys Stanyon) Bryan decided to train for the ministry. He also met his wife (Fanny Simpson) through such work. Bryan joined the United Theological College, Bradford in 1888 having attended university in Glasgow (working in various trades in the breaks to have money to live) (he gained an MA from Glasgow in 1892). In Bradford Tom Bryan became a member of the Independent Labour Party (attending the conference that led to its formation).

In 1895 he responded to an invitation by F. Herbert Stead to join him in Walworth, London. Stead had become warden of a new settlement established by the Congregational Church. Browning Hall and Settlement was in an area of considerable poverty and disadvantage. Wood and Ball (1922: 27) comment that Browning Hall was ‘a Social Settlement rather than a University Settlement’. They continued:

Its ideals are more civic than academic. Its aim is to cultivate the friendship of the people of Walworth, to bring sweetness to their lives, and to help them by any and every means that come to hand.

Tom Bryan developed various clubs, outdoor meetings and groups. One of his first actions was to establish an adult school which involved short courses and reading circles. Other activities established at Browning Hall included a savings bank, legal aid, summer camps, a ‘Cripples’ Palour (of which Fanny Bryan was the head) and a Boys Brigade. He became a tireless campaigner around local public health issues (and in recognition of this was elected Mayor of the Borough of Southwark in 1902).

Woodbrooke and Fircroft

In 1903 Tom Bryan was invited by the Friend’s settlement at Woodbrooke, Birmingham to join them. The settlement was new and had its origins in the Summer School movement in the Society of Friends. The interest lay in enabling the ‘younger generation of Friends both to understand the modern world and to rediscover the Bible and the Quaker message’ (Wood and Ball 1922: 36). Both Tom and Fanny Bryan had been increasingly drawn to Quakerism and became members of the new Bournville meeting when it opened in 1906. At Woodbrooke he developed further as a teacher and deepened his appreciation of a historical perspective; and began to be drawn strongly to the ways of approaching education that had been pioneered by Grundvig in Danish High Schools (ibid.: 38). He was a strong advocate of Woodbrooke’s concern ‘to offer education for its own sake’ to ‘all who are keen and sincere’ (op. cit.). Tom Bryan was also heavily involved in the broader adult school movement. He also became deeply committed to the cause of small holdings (he was a keen gardener and allotment worker). Out of this, and a collaboration with George Cadbury Jnr came a book: The Land and the Landless.

Within the adult school movement, there was a growing feeling that there was a need for ‘house of study’ where teachers and others could go for a week, month or year to study seriously – especially to sustain their ability to relate the Bible to the concerns that scholars brought to the schools. Bryan was again approached to develop a college – and in 1909 Fircroft was established – initially with 12 residents – in a large house close to Woodbrooke (and next to the cottage in which the Bryan family were living). In Fircroft Tom Bryan brought together elements of adult schooling and of the Danish High Schools.

From the Adult School side he took the assumption that the teacher and scholar should meet on a footing of equality, as comrades in the quest after truth. A good teacher must have the faculty of friendship…. The main feature which Fircroft has in common with the Danish High School is the insistence on the value of residence… He coveted the experience of college life for the common people of England. He was setting out to teach men the art of living together… Cooperation depend on education – not on technical education, but on general education, and not on any sort of study of the humanities, residence in a college, involving the actual experience of working together in the things of the mind and in things practical. (Wood and Ball 1922: pages 53 and 57)

The result was a powerful mix which valued companionship and the ‘teacher as comrade’, prized open conversation and exploration and which looked to the concrete experience of shared and simple living.


Tom Bryan had been deeply influenced by his reading of Plato, Ruskin, Morris and others, but it was Mazzini’s emphasis upon association as the guarantee of liberty and as the means of generating progress that particularly fired him. He drew on the idealist school of T. H. Green and was committed to working so that people could be open ‘to the revelation of God in the reasonable world’ (Wood and Ball 1922: 65). Bryan’s vision for education involved the development of the faculties through knowledge; attention to the needs of the ‘whole man’; and a concern for solidarity and association:

The end of education is the development of the sense of solidarity, of the faculty for association, and this is the basis of all noble citizenship. Mazzini has told us that the law of life is progress, and the method of progress is association. (Bryan 1912 – the full text of this paper is in the archives)

Sadly, Tom Bryan’s time at Fircroft was short. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1915/16 and died in August 1917.


Bryan, T. (1912) ‘Education and civic life’ Paper read at the Education Conference of the Cooperative Union in Birmingham, July 20. Reproduced in H. G. Wood and A. J. Ball (1922) Tom Bryan. First warden of Fircroft, London: George Allen and Unwin. Available in the informal education archives:

Cadbury, G. and Bryan, T. (1908) The Land and the Landless, London: Headley.

Wood, H. G. and Ball, A. J. (1922) Tom Bryan. First warden of Fircroft, London: George Allen and Unwin. The full text is available in the Internet Library.

Photograph: Fircroft College, Birmingham by Alan Burnett – flickr | ccbysa2. The picture of Tom Bryan can be found in Wood and Ball (1922) and is believed to be in the public domain.

How to cite this article: Smith, M. K. (2004). Tom Bryan: association, education and the making of Fircroft College’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ Retrieved: insert date]

© Mark K. Smith 2004 Updated June 2019.